The Whole Dang Year

A closed down bench at South Coast Botanic Garden

This year has been one that’s easy to lose track of.

Lockdown after lockdown, curfews and fires and a pending change in government.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

I think, between you and me, this year has been the greatest eye-opener our species has ever had a chance at. We’ve gotten to see, en masse, how people respond to a singular issue. And we’ve gotten to see that time and again.

The virus has taken center stage on more than one occasion, most heavily at the beginning of the year. There we learned that some of us are capable of making plans and sticking to them, and that others of us have jobs that are more tenuous than had previously been hoped. We’ve learned that people and and will help each other, though sometimes that help takes a while in coming.

Then, we pressed on into the heat of summer and the fight for action. The fight for change. The fight that seemed like it was going to be the last big fight of the year, a real drag-out effort from both sides, change happening in real time; with the virus dying down and the election coming up, it seemed sure to cap off the double-feature of the year with two key issues to debate.

I’m writing this after the storming of the capitol. After more waves of virus, extra lockdowns, changes in status and classification. Vaccines and already the misuse and mis-storage of them. An election (mostly, seems to be done at the moment), which may lead to a second impeachment. Goodness, it’s been busy.

If I come back to this post in ten years – first off, congrats, you survived. And second, perhaps more importantly, how did everything shake out?

Let’s not forget that the downtime in the global economy and workforce (workhorse) dropped emissions to the lowest level in years. Nature has gotten a shine like it hasn’t had in years. People are looking out when they’re stuck staying in.

Since we’re mostly meant to be at home these days (if not in nature, a health order both sides can get behind), I think I’d like to start there. Refresh my own memory on what’s been going on – at home first and then farther afield.

There’s been plenty of changes – mostly in the form of additions. As the first lockdown(s) pressed on, I was forced to adapt by adding more and more greenery…

The Garden

Some undersized habanero peppers
Some undersized habanero peppers
A trough of very dry dirt
A trough of very dry dirt
The Peppers

The garden has seen some serious changes. At first blush – all the peppers are gone, plant and all. I packed them in too tightly together (6 in a planter that could maybe hold 3), and never watered them properly for the first year. I had a habit of putting a dash of water on each day, rather than really flushing the pot between brief drying periods. Learned my lesson there. They got sick with some sort of disease, the leaves turning into patches of dark circles. I’ve since dried out the dirt thoroughly and cleaned it up. I’ll try starting some new herbs from seed and treat them well.

Habanero, sweet yellow Hungarian, Serrano, Jalapeno, and those other two… I’ll miss them.

(note to self – check to see if I really cleared the soil of any potential disease, and how to make sure of that in a safe way)

The Ginkgo

The Ginkgo has gone through its first winter, happy and growing. Each of the branches added nearly 6 inches. It seems happy with the pot it was transplanted into.

This was, is, and likely always will be my favorite plant. It’s a living treasure, a fossil from a bygone era that can thrive on pollution. The leaves are what really draw me in, and seeing them sprout up close only deepened my enjoyment.

When the leaves first sprout, they’re tough and thick and smooth. And, strangely, they’re hydrophobic. Water bounces off instantly, and they never appear wet. I had to learn to water around the base of the tree, otherwise the water would splash around the pot.

As time went on, the leaves changed texture. Over the course of months, more and more spots would let water droplets stick. The new green shoots started to thicken and turn brown with bark. Eventually, the bud at the end of each branch coated up completely in a hard shell.

New leaves stopped forming before summer started, and they all stayed green throughout. I was so proud of my little tree (and also of me, for not killing this Ginkgo). Eventually the leaves started to spot, then yellow. Autumn drew close, and a few leaves fell. I’ll leave it to you to make a fall pun.

Winter started to roll up in the subtle SoCal way. Rain happened occasionally in big storms, and cold snaps fought with heat waves. Eventually, by late December, all the leaves fell off.

Now I wait impatiently. I’ve only mostly gotten over my fears when it enters hibernation. What if I overwater it or miss-water in some terrible way, dooming it to root rot like those poor peppers. What if it doesn’t wake up, or gets tricked by some sudden shift in season for a brief time. So I cross my fingers and contemplate a scratch test.

Thyme

Thyme grows nonstop. I can’t cut and dry it fast enough. I’ve given bags out to friends. It never stops. Some people say mint is a weed… but they have not grown whatever breed of thyme this is. It was once included as part of a gift given to me by an instagram gardener. It’s the gift that will not stop giving!
Thyme crusted chicken is amazing, by the way.

This has been my most productive plant, by far. I haven’t had much success with almost any of my other plants, for one reason or another. The olive tree is too young, so I have no olives. The strawberry was stuck growing in a terribly twisted way, and I only recently freed it up. On and on. This thyme reaffirms my belief that it’s possible to has a small, no well-sunny balcony garden that grows edible things.

Mint

The apple mint has been replaced with spearmint, which isn’t growing as quickly as I thought it would. I may dedicate a portion of the newly cleared planter to growing mint alone. I eat oodles of the stuff, and love it as a tea. Maybe I’ll make some concentrate and flavored ice cubes.

Mint had always been a weed – at least the apple mint was. It never had a strong flavor, just a wonderful scent. I was hoping for a mint that would be good as a tea or a seasoning, and this mint never really lived up to it. It also served as a breeding grown for spider mites, and I had to cut the stalks back regularly to try to keep them in check. Because of how hairy the mint was, no amount of washing ever really got the mites off, and most of the leaves ended up useless once infested.

The new spearmint doesn’t have that problem… but it also doesn’t have any leaves bigger than 1/4″, and hasn’t for months.

Billy Balls

My previous attempts at out-of-season billy balls didn’t pan out, so I’ve started a new batch at the proper time. I’m hoping for some little balls of sunshine!

The seeds are so amazingly tiny – like sesame seeds, but a little smaller. It’s hard to believe that any plant that sprouts from this will be hardy enough to survive the experiences I’ll put it through. I can never seem to get the water right until the plant is big enough for me to use it like a water meter.

These are my most desired project at the moment, aside from finally acquiring a Dead Stick Plant (Euphorbia platyclada). I want to grow oodles of these sunny yellow balls, then preserve them. They’ll make wonderful surprise gifts to cheer up people’s day! And I wouldn’t mind wearing one as a pin.

Cacti

Cacti. So many cacti and succulents! Words can’t describe how much fun making cuttings is, was, and will be!
If you haven’t started a cactus from a cutting, I recommend it wholeheartedly. You’ll look at it one day and realize it’s grown without you noticing it.

I started maybe thirty or forty cactus and succulent cuttings last winter, in a bit of a rush. I wanted to see if some of the pieces – gifts from neighbors and family – would take root immediately. Others, I hadn’t quite trusted not to dry out. I only hardened maybe a third of the cuttings (something I’m much more comfortable doing now).

Happily, most took root. A few, which I pulled out often to check for growing roots, never developed. The ones that I left well enough alone grew quite happily. Lesson learned.

After a month or so of settling in, I transferred all the cuttings to a big round pot. There they grew for most of the year, except when certain species (stonefruit, I’m looking at you…) started crowding the others out. As December rolled around, I started noticing that my water probe couldn’t penetrate through all the many roots that had tangled up in the 2″ of dirt. They had width, but not depth, and their taproots were letting me know.

It took the better part of a few hours, but I separated all the growing succulents and moved them into more spacious accommodation. I’ve been saving a big, multi-mouthed pot for just this occasion. I’m hoping it’ll be a big ball of spikes and green happiness by this time next year!

A cactus grows a leaf in an odd display
A cactus grows a leaf in an odd display

Office Plants

I’ve added heavily to my work plants. Two philodendrons, which are growing incredibly slowly. The tillandsia has had a kid, which I separated with a shaving razor only a few days ago. It now lives as a necklace pet plant, in memory of my first pet plant necklace – a kalanchoe named Tom Hunt, who died from an airport screening.

The dracaena got a new home and responded wonderfully. I wondered if it might have been getting root rot from being in a constantly damp, non-draining bowl, which occasionally went unwatered for weeks. Somehow, it survived, and is now happy in its amphora.

I’ve been realizing that I’m not lighting my plants well enough at work. Currently, they live under fluorescents for as long as they’re on during the day (before I arrive and after I leave). Once I arrive, I flip on another daylight-balanced bulb that I have clipped on overhead. It’s a wonderful LED bulb, but I fear it isn’t enough. During the Christmas break, I took my plants home to get some sun and extra TLC. They responded quite wonderfully to the partial window light, which I thought would have been roughly equal to what they were getting at work. Apparently I’m missing out of some crucial ingredient, or the lights haven’t been as bright as I was expecting.

In the course of writing this, I’ve promised myself that I’ll add more lighting tomorrow.

Out in the world at large…

Midmorning fog off the ocean making trees into silhouettes
Midmorning fog off the ocean

The parks were shut down from time to time. It was pretty saddening, but it gave me a chance to get to know the streets, and finally take that walk way down the hill that I’ve been putting off for far too long. I guess like many people, I was forced to interact with the nature near my home only after everything else was closed off.

I’ve also gotten back into kayaking, now that the oceans are open. I used to go as a kid, renting the kayaks out behind some hotel on the water. It was only a few bucks, and we would spend hours paddling down the coast to go see the cliffs from a different perspective. We brought music and food, and sometimes a float to serve as a table. It was always a party.

Now I’m enjoying hearing the roar of waves from out in the water. The seals dipping into the waves when I get close, or the birds that float and squawk angrily when the seals get riled up. The look of spray when the sun hits it just right. It’s the same water, but it highlights to myself that I’m not who I was when I was a kid.

I’ve built a much deeper respect for the life at Joshua Tree. First off, the big zinger – Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) are actually succulents. They branch when they flower (so a straight, tall joshua tree has never had a good rainy season and been able to reproduce). I’ve definitely also come to respect the sharpness of cactus spines, in all their different incarnations. I can’t decide if the large, mean pokers of the Cylindropuntia californica are worse than the fine, downy hairs of other Cholla.

There’s quite a few lichens, grasses, and typically-dry shrubs that I’d like to identify at some point. Eventually, it’d be nice to be able to identify every plant at Joshua Tree on sight. Goals!

This place has served as a haven when the city has grown too close. The drive is a bit of a ritual – the standard stop at Hadley’s for a date shake marking the final leg. The stop at the visitor’s entrance to stretch my legs and say hello. Then on to the gate – it’s about time to renew my America the Beautiful pass, which I’ve used more than enough to make it worthwhile.

I’ve mostly stuck to shorter paths branching off the road. Since I tend to go alone, it’s safer to stay reasonably close to the road. I’ve been learning each of the stops a little more as I visit, extending my walk into a little more unknown territory each time. Recently, I revisited the same places for a night hike and got to experience the wonderful stillness of a winter night in the desert. I’m only sad that I’ve never done it before.

Vasquez rocks park has many of the same species, or similar species in the same genus. Cholla (cylindropuntia) cacti exist at both places, as do some forms of Juniper. Offhand, I seem to recall Vasquez rocks not having as high of a maximum elevation, which may be a good reason for some of the differences.

I’ve visited a few other parks, though the other main place of nature has been South Coast Botanic Garden. If you live in the area, don’t hesitate to stop on by. It was once a landfill, and has since been a demonstration of the fact that humans can use plants to reclaim otherwise dismal conditions.

Plus, their GLOW show was absolutely amazing. I’ve never been to a garden lights show before.

I normally come here about once a week – the times that they’re open are typically during work hours, so I’m typically only able to come on holidays or weekends. For a brief time, they were open in the evening and earlier in the morning, but that seems to have been cut off as days got shorter. Hopefully they’ll start it up again… Walking once around the perimeter takes about 20 minutes, so it’s the perfect short walk length.

The little desert patch off to the right of the entrance is also a great place to eat up 20 minutes. There’s so many species in such a small space that it’s easy to lose track of which one’s where. I doubt I’ll ever learn all the plants in this place!

This year has seen emissions drop to low enough levels that, looking across Los Angeles, I can sometimes see across the city and out to the mountains… where there’s more snow than usual! The smog is starting to come back in a sticky tan layer, huddling around the skyscrapers. I miss being able to look up at the sky and see stars over the city. I miss breathing air so crisp it hurts my nose and makes my chest feel cool. If nothing else, this year has taught me that the city is great for convenience, but not for clean living. I remember flying back into the city in late 2019, before the air had a chance to breathe, and smelling the mildew-on-carpet scent of the city.

Once you’re in a place long enough, you get used to a scent. That particular return, for whatever reason, highlighted this scent that I’d gotten used to over the course of years. I’d like nothing more than to stuff the city with so much nature that the air is forced to no longer carry all those noxious toxins – the sulfur and carbon and other mix we have going here.

With everything closed down for long stretches, we’ve been stuck at home. Many people still have a desire to leave home to do something, whether it’s just to get out of the house or whether it’s to have a little visual variety and a view of the horizon. Since most stores and restaurants (and pretty much all clubs and bars) were shut down, the only place outside the home to go has been outside. I feel like it’s not often in recent history that we’ve had such a large, ominous (as in ‘omen-ous’) call to say hello to nature, without homes being on fire.

Of course, here in Southern California there have been plenty of fires too, so maybe nature is keeping us on our toes.

A fire seen in the hills
A fire seen looking north on the 2 FWY, South of the 134.

Big Changes

The website and blog has changed pretty heavily. I’ve gone through waves of re-creation, drafting new designs until finally I’ve settled on something I think will be useful. I started this site as a place for me to gather my notes and keep relevant information handy – I’ll pull up the Joshua Tree page on my phone before heading to Joshua Tree Park, for example. I still intend it to have this use, but I’ve been realizing my formatting was not very user- or device-friendly, and trying to structure this blog for more public use has taught me that. I’ve also realized how much fun writing on natural topics can be. Plants are friends.

I’ve started to work on quora a bit, and have found answering questions and interacting with spaces there to be a wonderful community. It’s like humans behind google answering questions… and is absolutely as peculiar as that sounds.

Here’s to hoping that 2021 isn’t just 2020 +1 more issue!


Thanks for stopping by! I hope you had a pleasant time checking out the plants. If you’re in the mood for more nature, take a gander at my other spots for media:

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