Aug 21, 2009

Futzing With The Recipe

Image courtesy GroovyVegetarian.comI've been watching more Food Network lately than usual, which can only mean that autumn is around the corner.

What I like about Food Network is that it makes food — or, more precisely, an elevated dining experience — approachable. I'm no gourmet chef, but I can still up my cooking game thanks to Bobby, Rachel, Giada, Alton et al.

However, such egalitarianism carries a risk: once I feel empowered to cook North African Meatballs, I also feel empowered to change the recipe. Perhaps I leave out the cilantro, or add a bit of nutmeg. Perhaps, when I'm making Ina's French toast, I use nonfat milk rather than half & half. Or maybe I only have medium eggs on hand, not extra-large.

Whatever, right? After all, some of the joy of cooking is experimenting, putting your own stamp on things. Except, too often I take that first bite and think, "Hm. This looked a lot better on TV." I then shelve the recipe and forget about it — never really getting that it's my fault the French toast fell flat. Somewhere along the way, I forgot: I'm no gourmet chef.

Gardening isn't terribly different from cooking. How often do we drool over the plants we see at the nursery or in the magazines, and decide to experiment with them in our own yard? Never mind that our site has deeper shade, or gophers, or a careless gardener. Never mind that winter brings temps in the 20s and that plant isn't hardy below 35°F.

Sometimes the experiment turns out great. Experienced gardeners are like experienced chefs: they know their ingredients. They know their site, the way a chef knows her oven. And they know the rules (even if that means knowing which rules to break).

But for less experienced gardeners, the experiment might not be quite as rewarding. Plants bought impulsively die; favorite trees sulk wedged into too-small spaces; and those combinations that "should" have worked, well, they looked a lot better on TV. Discouraged, we vow to never again spend our weekend in the garden.

I'm not at all suggesting we shouldn't experiment with our gardens. It's not only likely we'll make mistakes, I believe it's vital. But if you're going to take risks, take responsibility too. Know that the plant combination featured in this issue of Fine Gardening isn't well-suited to your clay soil. Know that there's a difference between a Spiraea and a Nandina, and therefore probably a good reason your landscape designer specified one rather than the other. Know that "regular irrigation" isn't synonymous with "drought tolerant."

If you're not interested in such minutiae, your best bet probably is to hire a pro to design for you. Think of it as going out to a really nice restaurant: sure, you'll pay more, but the experience will be wonderful, and you won't dirty a dish.

On the other hand, if you really yearn to be out in the garden, why not hire a landscape designer, fine gardener or garden coach to help you learn? You can be the sous chef, or at least the apprentice. You may still lose a few plants and blow through some money along the way. But when you do come up with your own amazing creation, you'll be able to take all the credit.

Aug 12, 2009

Meteor Dribble

In case you haven't heard, these are the prime viewing nights for the Perseid meteor showers. And this year's show is supposed to be especially good. Except, when I stand in my backyard, all I see is a fireball.

Yes, our neighbor has taken to leaving her back patio light on at night. All night.

Apparently she's oblivious to the fact that the fixture is of a design that emits light up and out as well as down, or that the wattage of the bulb is enough to brown a turkey at a distance of 300 feet.

This could bode well for our Thanksgiving. But any other day, this is the definition of "light trespass": the intrusion of light across geographic or property boundaries. And it's a classic case of light pollution, a growing problem which is devaluing our quality of life, harming wildlife, and destroying our environment.

I bring this up because, if you haven't noticed, the nights have been lengthening for a month or so, and will continue until we reach the winter solstice on December 21 (at 9:47 am local time, FYI). As a result, we humans are using artificial illumination more; which I believe means we have a responsibility to use it more wisely.

The most common reason to use outdoor lighting is, in a word, safety. We want to see where we're going, make it easier to ourselves to navigate around and into our home, and make it harder for unwelcome guests to do the same. But when we commit the error of my neighbor, we actually decrease our safety. Think about it: do you enjoy staring straight into the halo of a 75-watt bulb? Of course not, so you look away. Which means you don't see the fellow in the black ski mask jimmying the lock on the door next to that light.

Even if you thought you saw something, it would be impossible to see much past the glare of that lamp. Is it your neighbor, or not? Hard to tell, and given that you want to keep your neighborly relations, well, neighborly, you probably won't call 911 on him. Once again, the design of the fixture has compromised its effectiveness.

Furthermore, because misdirected light is wasted light, and wasted light is wasted power, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and others calculate that poor lighting may the US $2 billion or more annually. Nor is the cost just economic: the US alone may consume at least six million tons of coal annually to produce excess light — creating long-term environmental consequences such as air and water pollution, carbon dioxide accumulation, and acid rain that affect every species of life on Earth.

Whether you're planning your outdoor lighting from scratch, or retrofitting an existing system, there's a lot you can do to reduce these costs to yourself and your planet. I've written a white paper on dark-sky issues and effective lighting solutions, so please let me know if I can answer any of your lighting questions.

In the meantime, please turn down the lights. Your neighbors will see stars… and thank you for it.

Aug 6, 2009

Learning from the Big Guys, Pt. 3

In the previous installment of this series, I wrote about spacing plants appropriately (or not). Courtesy of my commercial neighbors in Palo Alto, here's an example with a smaller species, where tight spacing feels entirely appropriate. River birch in the landscapeBetula nigra, or river birch, is one of my favorite trees — its exfoliating cinnamon bark is visually arresting, and its canopy provides delightful dappled shade. In this cluster, the trees within each trio are planted about 14 feet on center, and the trios are about 19 feet apart. This grove would be a wonderful spot for a bench, fountain, or other lingering point. The biggest downside would be the tree roots: birches are notorious for surface rooting, which can heave a flagstone patio or invade a lawn. Placing a feature inside this grove would be a short-term proposition; and planting these trees close to a hard edge could compromise the hardscaping.

This brings me to another point: when reference books talk about surface rooting — or any characteristic, for that matter — they're not just using up ink. No matter how good your intentions, you will not be the exception to the printed rule. Fraxinus roots invade lawnFor instance, if a tree is reported susceptible to verticillium wilt, and your soil has verticillium fungus, that's not a good tree for you. If a tree is said to grow 40 feet wide, you'll have a hard time keeping it at 20. And if a tree is said to root close to the surface, that's not a good choice next to a lawn, or next to hardscaping. Here's a Fraxinus (ash) that quite owns the lawn around it. It's a big tree, not a bad choice for screening the parking lot from the building, but definitely incompatible with turf. Can you imagine trying to mow around this without scalping the roots? If you were the maintenance crew, wouldn't you stop trying?

So, given that Fraxinus roots do this, would you use the same species as a street tree in a 4' wide planting strip? Fraxinus as a street tree Perhaps it'll be fine, since the roots surface in an effort to find water and the sidewalk offers none. Me, I wouldn't take the chance. And given that this is in Palo Alto, whose choice of Liquidambar as street trees I curse every autumn (usually after twisting an ankle on one of the ubiquitous seedpods), I don't have high expectations.

But I'll keep watch… and learn from the big guys.