Tag Archives: Gardening


I know I know. Big-girl gardeners don’t say “ew.” But no matter how hard I try to appreciate and understand it in spite of its appearance, the earwig simply elicits an “ew” response from me.

Earwig. Photo courtesy Andrew Dennes.

Up until recently I considered these to be a mostly benign insect, not particularly liking them but not feeling any particular malevolence for them. I can recognize also that they’re part of the delicate food web, playing roles as decomposers, detritovores, fungivores, etc. Earwigs are also a food source for birds, insectivorous mammals, amphibians, spiders, yellow-jacket wasps and even bats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earwig). That I find the insect particularly unattractive should not lead to its demise.

Until I planted some mustard greens and noticed holes accumulating in the leaves daily. Initially, I wasn’t able to determine the culprit- no caterpillars or other little bugs and the holes just didn’t jive with my experience with slugs and snails which tend to munch much more wholeheartedly from the outside in. A bit of research and a little garden digging et voila – earwigs! In retrospect, I’ve deduced that this past year of attempting to plant seeds and see them sprout and then perish may be at least in part due to the work of earwigs (and their nymphs) in the garden. Earwigs also have been known to feed on clover, lettuce, cauliflower, strawberry, seedling beans and beets, grass shoots and roots, as wells as a variety of tree fruits. Scavengers indeed!

The reason for their inconspicuousness is that they hide during the day, feeding on plants only in the wee hours of the evening. As with all things, earwigs are not all bad. I found through my research that they prey on aphids and other insect eggs and can provide a fair amount of biological control. So it seems the ideal approach is to seek a middle ground- to find a way to reduce populations enough so that tender little plants can grow enough to be able to not be completely demolished by the little bugs but not make excessive attempts to rid the garden of earwigs entirely (an impossible feat anyway, especially for a chemical-free garden).

The solution I found (through UC Davis IPM website) is to sink a can or low-sided container into the ground filled with vegetable oil. They also suggest adding a drop of fish oil, but I don’t have any and yes indeed, it seems to be working pretty well without!  Though now our concern is that the little vats of oil filled with juicy bugs may be a veritable buffet for other little critters that may visit our garden. We’ve often joked about setting up an infra-red camera to witness the nocturnal life of our garden – or perhaps it is best just not to know.

Recovering mustard greens by can of vegetable oil.

In the above image, notice the old, damaged mustard greens among the healthier new growth. Perhaps soon we’ll be able to harvest the lovely greens…and I suppose figure out a way to prepare them – Any suggestions?




Man [what a] root!

Marah fabaceus, commonly referred to as the California Manroot, Old man root, or the Wild cucumber, is an almost shockingly vigorous vine native to the San Francisco Bay area. There are in fact five manroots native to California, with Marah fabaceus being the locally prominent species. Since moving in to our lovely home, each spring incites the battle of the manroot vine, as our neighbor’s lushly growing vine makes every attempt to find its way into our serene little oasis. The rampant growth is triggered by the winter and spring rain, and as soon as we enter our prolonged dry season the foliage backs off, the life of the plant retreating to an oasis under the soil- its oft proclaimed giant root that can be (seriously) the size of a human.

I must admit I haven’t actually seen the root, just the above-ground plant and that combined with the legend of the root is enough to make me nervous. Our neighbor’s yard is succumbing to this vigorous plant:

California Manroot Vine – taking over neighbor’s yard

As it reaches over and through the fence, I must act quickly lest the fruit mature and eject (yes, eject!) seed into our yard. I’m a tad surprised this thing hasn’t consumed San Francisco. Apparently summer watering regimes can keep the plant in an active growing state as mentioned by local expert Jake Sigg in his description of this plant on California’s Native Plant Society’s (CNPS) website:


As a volunteer at the San Francisco Botanic Garden, I recently spent an afternoon scrambling through trees and shrubs trying to remove the vine from the Australian section of the garden. I had hopes of finding the source of the plant’s innumerable stems and perhaps even digging to reveal this legendary root. It was not to be revealed that day though, leaving that discovery for anther day.

Marah fabaceus, the California Manroot Vine at the San Francisco Botanical Garden (in the South African section)
Marah fabaceus fruit


Some of you may recognize the name Marah, as it is taken from the Bible,

“So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea…and when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; and therefore the name of it was called Marah.”-Exodus 15:22

As the name and reference suggest, the plant is extremely bitter. Mr. Sigg in his CNPS entry notes that if you “touch your tongue to a cut root…your jaw will lock.” Though commonly referred to as the Wild cucumber no parts of this plant are edible, but does have some medicinal use mostly as a purgative, though some Native American tribes used it to sooth aches and pains (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marah_(plant)).  They also used a mash of the root to stun fish for ease of fishing. 

An interesting plant indeed (and native to boot) though I’m thankful its not in my backyard.


the Zen of disorder.


Pile of rubbish you might say? Well yes, that is indeed one way of looking at it. And in my tiny urban backyard, allowing piles of such rubbish to exist seems a foolish waste of space- why leave such an unsightly pile when I could remove it and plant something lovely? It is my inclination to dispose of this pile (especially with San Francisco’s municipal composting, since it isn’t going into a landfill, why not just put it in the green bin?).

But recent readings remind me of the benefits such piles of rubbish, and other dead and decaying matter, can offer to my little garden, and I’m now thinking perhaps I should provide a space for the unsightly as well as for the overtly aesthetically pleasing.

One of the books I’ve mentioned previously, the Xerces Society’s Guide to “Attracting Native Pollinators,” discusses the importance of resources such as this brush pile for a variety of pollinating insect species. Perhaps beetles or mason bees will find these abandoned branches an alluring place to lay eggs. Other critters may find this brush pile appealing as well, such as spiders or any number of decomposing insects, which while slowly decomposing this organic matter will contribute to the soil and improve conditions for plants (well, perhaps, but more thoughts on this another time). The insects and spiders will provide many species of birds, even the seed-eaters, with much-needed protein.

Gene Lodgson (the “Contrary Farmer” found at http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/), wrote a book many years ago called, “Wildlife in the Garden,” and I have found it to be a refreshing and informative re-imagining of backyard gardens and landscapes.  He makes clear that the health and vitality of even the smallest garden is driven not by fertilizers, pesticides, weeding, and the kind of control (which to many a gardener, myself included, often feels like care) but by the connection to the cycle of life that can be cultivated by letting nature be. The Xerces Guide refers to this as “benign neglect.”

Other such examples from my garden are the stumps of trees and shrubs:

lilac stump

various seed heads on flowers and shrubs:

yarrow seed head

I also discovered recently that many species of hummingbirds use lichens to make their nests. I had previously viewed the lichens covering our old azaleas as a sign of their decline, thinking that perhaps if i removed the most affected branches that I could perhaps improve their health and vitality. But understanding this connection with hummingbirds helped me to become settled with (Zen-like, you might say) about such a decline, and see it as the continuation of the cycle of life. Perhaps the azaleas are dying, and these things happen. But in their process of dying, they will help support the life and growth of other parts of my garden.

lichens on old azalea

Perhaps of the most important tools in our gardening repertoire is the power of observation. Slowly looking and seeing, often before taking action I think can often alert us to some of these amazing connections happening right in our own back yard. Nature is indeed everywhere!


Charmed, I’m sure.

Magnolia laevifolia 'Strybing Compact' flower
Magnolia laevifolia ‘Strybing Compact’

I love meeting new plants, and on a recent visit to the San Francisco Botanic Garden I came across a plant that really caught my eye- Magnolia laevifolia ‘Strybing Compact’. It is definitely a compact Magnolia both in stature and flower. According to the SF Botanic Garden website the plant has been there for 15 years and has reached 5-6 feet in height and slightly less in width.

The flowers are rather dainty as well, only about 2-3 inches wide when fully open, the flowers having been preceded by beautiful brown, velvety buds.

the brown, velvety bud of Magnolia leavigata 'Strybing Compact'

The magnolia genus is pretty interesting, as they’re one of the oldest flowering plants on the planet, one of the first to diverge from the gymnosperms (conifers, cycads, Ginkgos, and Gnetales). They evolved in a time when there were relatively few pollinators available (bees and butterflies did not even exist yet!) and are typically pollinated by beetles (though I believe they can be pollinated by bees as well). Their fruits are generally large and are a bit reminiscent of cones, but at maturity obviously quite different with red seeds being exposed that are quite popular with birds.

No this plant is not native to San Francisco – indeed no Magnolias are native to any of the western states, primarily being found east of the Mississippi (and Texas) in the United States and many species also originating from China, Central America, the West Indies, and South America. Still, a beautiful and stalwart garden addition. Unfortunately not readily available in cultivation, but if you live in the SF Bay Area you may be able to track a specimen down at their upcoming annual plant sale, May 3, 2014: http://www.sfbotanicalgarden.org/plant-sales/annual-plant-sale.html.

The Big Bee.

In our little San Francisco backyard we have had a regular bee visitor – and it is big. So big that if I’m inside (as much 30-40 feet away from it) I can see it flying around, a big black dot roaming through the air. On many occasions I’ve grabbed my camera and ran outside in an attempt to take a photo of the bee for identification and documentation but unfortunately it will never light long enough for me to be able to take its photo. And it has made me very curious.

I’ve done some research on the web and purchased The Xerces Society’s book, “Attracting Native Pollinators” in an effort to learn more and hopefully ID this bee while it is hanging around. Some good bee ID resources I’ve found are:




As I haven’t been able to get a good photo of the bee, my research seems to lead toward identification as a Bombus sp. (a Bumble Bee), possibly Bombus Vosnesenskii:

The yellow-faced bumble bee at rest on a leaf

Additional information:

– Solitary Queen typically overwinters in ground in small cavity (hibernaculum)
– In spring, Queen emerges and begins flying around looking for a nest site, while stopping to feed on nectar producing flowers
– Once deciding on and settling into her nest site, she remains in the nest (by and large),  lays eggs and about a month later eggs start hatching – these are all females and work as foragers, maintain nest, and care for the brood
– THEN, in the fall males are produced and shortly after a number of new queen bees, who all leave the nest mate (then the males die) and the new queens go and find overwintering sites. The reigning queen dies.
So my conclusion is that:
What is flying around now is possibly a recently emerged queen looking for a nest site. We may not see her again if she’s found a nesting site. I guess I’ll be okay with not getting a photo of her if that is the case, and will hope to see other Queens around fall as they’re searching for overwintering sites. I’ll also be on the lookout for the worker bees this summer!