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Goats on Mt. Tamalpais

Goats on Mt. Tamalpais

As a direct response to the drought, the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) is dramatically increasing its efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the communities adjacent to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed by adding extra crews of people and, this year, goats. A 12-person crew began the first week of September and will continue working into October grooming the existing fuelbreaks bordering the communities of Fairfax, San Anselmo, Ross, Kentfield, and Mill Valley. The work is funded by an $80,000 drought relief grant from PG&E, with administrative support from FIRESafe MARIN.

Later in the fall, MMWD will also receive an additional $75,000 in fuel-load reduction work, courtesy of the Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB). Funding for this work is part of a $678.4 million drought relief package approved by the state legislature. The CCNB crew will concentrate their work in the hills above Bon Tempe Reservoir where sudden oak death has negatively impacted forest health and increased the risk of wildfire.

In partnership with Marin County Parks, MMWD is conducting a six-week trial using a herd of 30 goats to reduce fire fuel loads in the hills above Deer Park in Fairfax. The trial period began the first week of September. The goats will be grazing native fuels and invasive weeds on both MMWD and Marin County Parks land. Staff will be monitoring the goats’ productivity rate, long-term ecological effects, and cost. The goal is to evaluate the role of goats in MMWD’s integrated pest management program.

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by Charlene Burgi

Bald Mountain Fire

Bald Mountain Fire

The dense smoke finally lifted from the valley floor where we live here in Lassen. The hundreds of firefighters, trucks, and fire equipment have done their job well. The lightning fires are finally extinguished in this neck of California. While friends were evacuated from their homes—some moving their horses at two o’clock in the morning—firefighters worked diligently around the clock and saved homes from the wildland fires.

A recent ride to the tiny town of Day, where one of the many fires started, spoke to me of fire danger. While homes showed good fire clearance, the open unattended properties told a different story. “Ladder” fuel was thick: Dry grass and shrubs choked the pine forest floor along the one-and-only 10-mile road into town. Fortunately for those living there, the lightning struck on the hilltops and the wind carried the fire north, away from the town and homes nestled below.

Seeing the area brought me back several years to before my employment with MMWD. A portion of my work at that time was to educate homeowners about the danger of wildland fires in Marin, Sonoma, and Napa Counties and what people could do to mitigate that threat. The road into Day made me think of the one-way roads in Fairfax, Corte Madera, and Mill Valley where fire engines require special clearances just to get around the tight switchback roads leading to the top of many tree-studded hills. Creating clearances often required removing privacy trees and shrubs, as well as plants known to contain oils that feed fire. Some homeowners embraced that education while others resisted, thinking a fire could never happen where they live.

Horse grazing

Mission accomplished: Cash at work clearing weeds

Fire safety becomes critical in your thinking process when you live in “brush country” as the insurance companies label this area, otherwise known as SRA (State Responsibility Area). Our home and surrounding land is inspected annually by CalFire to make certain the ground is clear and trees are limbed up to at least 10 feet. It is an inspection that I welcome and appreciate. I can honestly thank the donkeys and horses for their work clearing the ground and Jack’s manpower and chainsaws for limbing up the trees. We designed the landscaped areas with trees and shrubs chosen for their low water use and high tolerance to fire. Plant choices are good, but maintenance—including removing dry vegetation—is imperative. Additional insurance is keeping the landscaping well-irrigated, which is a challenge during the drought we are experiencing.

What can you do to protect your home from fire? First, remove all dead and dying debris from your property. Remove tree limbs that are less than 10 feet from the ground or that overhang your home. Keep wood piles away from your home. Add a stone retaining wall if your home was built within a natural “chimney” such as a canyon or ravine. Create a large “green” zone around your home to make it difficult for ground fire to encroach. This area can include patios, stone walls, low-growing groundcovers as suggested by CalFire, swimming pools, and the like. For the next zone further away from the house, choose fire-resistant species and leave space between plants to prevent the spread of fire.

Lastly, have a list handy of all your important paperwork, pictures, and valuables. Friends here scanned pictures and paperwork and saved them to a cloud file before they were asked to evacuate.

Are you fire safe? This is a good weekend to investigate how you can protect your property better.

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Having lived through three Marin County droughts, MMWD customer Anne Layzer has become an expert at saving water—even while maintaining a 2,000-square-foot vegetable garden and several smaller flower beds. Her favorite advice for conserving water in the garden? Compost.

Many people think of composting as a way to nourish plants and reduce waste by recycling plant and vegetable trimmings back into the garden. But adding compost to your garden also saves water by building healthier, more sponge-like soil that better absorbs and holds onto moisture. Plants growing in amended soil fare better in drought conditions. And of course by composting kitchen scraps rather than sending them down the garbage disposal, you’ll also save the water and energy needed to operate the disposal unit.

Compost piles

Anne’s backyard composting operation

You can start composting on a small scale and work your way up to an elaborate composting operation like Anne’s, which she describes as a central feature of her garden and household recycling program. Her backyard piles have a diverse diet that includes food scraps, leaves, shredded paper, and grape skins from a wine-making neighbor. Even weeds aren’t unwelcome in her garden—they’re more fodder for the pile.

Anne jokes that she doesn’t know whether she has a compost pile because she has a garden or a garden because she has a compost pile. As her daughter says, “Neither: They are one.”

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by Andrea Williams

This is installment six of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

Even though I’m a cat person, every February I love to watch the two-day spectacle of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. I’m just a taxonomist at heart, and I enjoy spotting the subtle differences between the American foxhound, Harrier, and English foxhound; or how the different groups came to be and why the Non-Sporting group is such a mish-mosh of breeds. But there are also the subtle cautions offered by announcer David Freese that make me think of gardening: Know your breed and pick the one that’s right for you, and don’t buy into the “fad” or “popular” breeds (e.g., dalmations after “101 Dalmations” came out, or whatever breed wins the WKC). And that brings me to pampas grass (Cortaderia sp.).

Jubata patch in slide area off Hoo-Koo-E-Koo on Mt. Tamalpais

Jubata patch in slide area off Hoo-Koo-E-Koo on Mt. Tamalpais

California’s pampas grasses are two very similar-looking but reproductively different species, and just like irresponsible breeders can churn out sick dogs to capitalize on a fad, irresponsible or ignorant plant breeders can inadvertently introduce pest plants or diseases in trying to create or capitalize on a fad. According to this excellent article in the 2004 Cal-IPC news, pampas grass (C. selloana) was originally brought up from the South American pampas for its striking inflorescences. The white, fluffy plumes are only produced by the female plant; the male plant’s plumes are darker and thinner. So for a while, only female plants were planted and exported, and no spreading could happen without the males. But fads catch on, and inevitably the male plants made their way into the world, as did the similar-looking purple pampas grass (or as I prefer to call it, jubata grass, C. jubata). Jubata grass, nearly opposite the outcross-dependent pampas grass, is apomictic—seeds form from the female ovules without fertilization. This allows it, like the also-apomictic and wind-dispersed dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), to establish new colonies over long distances and take advantage of disturbances.

Most of what we have in Marin is jubata grass; proper pampas grass is mostly strictly coastal, and found in San Mateo and Southern California (although the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge corridor is an excellent spot to see both species side-by-side). Because of its need to outcross, pampas grass can be slower to establish since the winds of chance need to blow both male and female plants within pollination distance. But that also means it may be able to adapt to changes and eventually invade more areas. The hare to pampas’ tortoise, jubata grass quickly covers disturbed and difficult-to-reach sites such as roadcuts and landslides. We try to keep on top of our populations on Tam, and have managed to mostly keep it contained in a few sites and prevent seeding. The good news is, although the seeds are numerous and far-slung—over 1,000,000 per plant traveling many miles on the breeze—they are short-lived, usually only a year. So once the adults are treated and re-invasion of bare ground is minimized, the follow-up is minimal. Better, though, if we’d had an ounce of forethought and prevention a century ago, and not introduced such an aggressive breed.

Don’t plant a pest: Ornamental grasses of the Bay Area region (California Invasive Plant Council)

An aside/post-script: Speaking of capitalizing on fads, a recently invading ornamental (Erigeron karvinskianus) that used to be called “Mexican fleabane” is now being called “Santa Barbara daisy” and people are buying and planting thinking it’s a California native … which it’s not!

 

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by Andrea Williams

This is installment three of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

Last month I talked about California’s state grass, purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra, formerly Nassella pulchra). This month, California’s state rock, serpentinite (although we usually just call it serpentine since it’s made up of serpentine minerals), takes center stage. California was actually the first state to designate an official rock, but serpentine is special and, like our Mediterranean climate, helped give rise to plants found nowhere else in the world.

barbed goat grass

The spikelets of barbed goatgrass look a little like goat heads, although that’s not where the name comes from.

Because of the makeup of serpentine rock, and its slow weathering, serpentine soils are thin, poor, and high in heavy metals. The mineral balance is quite different from what most plants can tolerate, so many plants found on serpentine are endemics: they’re only found on this soil type. Others can grow on serpentine and non-serpentine soils, but may be stunted or appear different when living in the strange soil.

Many weeds take advantage of disturbance and can quickly use resources, outcompeting other plants. But serpentine’s qualities make it naturally resistant to invasion, with a few notable exceptions. That brings us to this month’s grass: barbed goatgrass (Aegilops triuncialis). Originally from serpentine soils in the Mediterranean region and Eastern Europe/Western Asia, barbed goatgrass can thrive in our soils and climate. Not only does it do well on serpentine, the high silica content of the litter it produces is difficult to break down, further altering the soil and making it even harder for other plants to grow! Goatgrass also has a built-in seed stashing strategy: Each spikelet generally has two seeds—one germinates the first year, and the other lays dormant for a year—so even if you get all the plants in a year, the seedbank of this annual has a surprise waiting for you the next.

habitat restoration site

On May 17, help pull invasive barbed goatgrass in this beautiful spot.

Nearly half of our rare plants are found on serpentine soils, which makes these areas so important to protect. You have an opportunity on May 17 to help remove invasive barbed goatgrass from serpentine soils on Mt. Tamalpais, in the Azalea Hill/Pine Mountain area. We’ve been pulling goatgrass from this site for many years, and stemming the tide of invasion. Nine different rare plants call this spot home, and jackrabbits and kites are often seen as well—not to mention our state flower, state bird, and state rock!

 

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by Andrea Williams

This is installment two of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

California state flag

California state flag

You all know the grizzly bear is a main feature of the California flag, but did you ever give a thought to the turf below its paws? While I can’t be certain, I and others like to think they are tussocks of our state grass, purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra, formerly Nassella pulchra). Did you not know California had a state grass? Purple needlegrass was designated our state grass in 2004, so while it’s only been official for 10 years, this pulchritudinous pastoral plant has been an important and widespread part of our state since well before there was a California. In fact, since individual purple needlegrass clumps can live more than 150 years, there may be plants alive today that have been around since before there was a California!

purple needlegrass

Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) Photo credit: Stephanie Bishop

Purple needlegrass is not only widespread and long-lived, but also quite distinctive in its look. Its inflorescence of delicate purple pennons wave above a mound of fine emerald blades. This fine look has it also available at many native plant nurseries. Some may mistake ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus) for purple needlegrass, but the former—a non-native annual weed—holds a fistful of red bristles on single stalks, with no basal clump of leaves. And while ripgut brome is a danger to grazing animals, purple needlegrass remains an excellent forage species—for cattle, elk, deer, or bears!

 

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by Charlene Burgi

Those are fighting words in some circles, but this kind of thievery, while dealt with using an iron hand, was for the good of the garden. I walked into the greenhouse this afternoon to check on the condition of the newly sprouted seedlings of beets, chard, peas, cauliflower, and lettuce after yesterday’s snowfall and last night’s temperatures dropping into the low 20s. Everyone looked snug and secure while basking in the reflected heat pouring in through the triple wall polycarbonate windows.

It was then that I also noticed the water thieves. No, it wasn’t that someone hooked up their garden hose to our faucet. Nor was someone taking water illegally from the stream allocated for our designated water rights. It was weeds cropping up in the little garden bed with my seedlings inside the greenhouse.

Weed seedling roots

Oh, those roots

Weeds are water robbers! The water you supply to your plants is easily consumed by those pesky unwanted intruders. Their roots are right down there with your seedlings’ sucking up just as much water as, if not more than, your prize tomato or basil babies.

I believe that part of successful weed eradication is to catch the culprits while they are young. The dilemma is how to extract them without disturbing the little treasures growing in the same space. I found this task to be a challenge as gently pulling on the weed often lifted the seedling as well since their root systems are often intertwined.

What to do? I sprinkled water on the loamy bed, and then with one hand tenderly placed my fingertips on the soil around the base of the seedling, while gently tugging the unwanted weed with my other hand. Tedious—yes, rewarding—absolutely.

Parsley and beet seedlings

Parsley volunteers in the beets

This brings up another issue. In the past, I have been asked to define a “weed.” I also remember being shocked years ago to hear that any plant growing in an unwanted space in the garden is classified as a weed! Those words tug at the part of me that doesn’t like to waste anything. After all, there are volunteer parsley seeds that germinated in the same bed where the beets are now growing. Poppies are emerging through the heavily mulched flower garden and lining the path. They are weeds perhaps by others’ standards, but welcomed to grace the walkways here as I know these poppies survive and bloom without additional water.

Do you have water thieves lurking about your garden? The rains finally came, followed by the sun, and that is the perfect formula for seeds to germinate whether you want the seedlings or not! Catch the unwanted water-consumers while they are little. Your plants will thank you later!

Earth Day Marin Festival April 6

Join us for a fun, free, family-friendly community celebration at Redwood High School on Sunday, April 6, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., to discover ways to save water and other earth-friendly habits. Enjoy music, hands-on activities, inspiring speakers, storytellers, puppet shows, authors, organic food, and much more! For more information visit earthdaymarin.org.

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