Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Garden Bloggers' Flood Day?

Happy December Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day! And what does December mean for my garden? The same thing it always means for my garden, but earlier than ever this year: My garden is underwater. So underwater that by the time December even began, the non-draining drainage ditch had already overflowed into other low-lying parts of the yard, and it was clear that the standing water will not be going away until March. In past years, the ditch has always remained continuously full from the end of December until the beginning of March, but it has usually spent the early part of December alternately filling up and running dry. No such luck this year.

You can hardly see it in the picture above, but the whole area from the left fenceline to about five feet out from it is mostly underwater (and has been for most of December). Here's a closeup of that area, taken on one of the less flooded days.

I suppose the good news is that plants do grow in these conditions. Even some of the ones you'd least expect can hold on for surprisingly long. I had some California golden poppies that had self-seeded in the drainage ditch while it was dry over the summer, and they hung on for more than a week while 100% completely underwater. They're dead now, though. Oh well. But the plants you'd expect to like water are still doing okay. Some are even blooming, such as the rosilla (Helenium puberulum), waving its little yellow spheres in the December wind. And the blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), with a cluster of cream-colored flowers dangling just above the dark, broken cement stepping-stone. And the California aster (Symphyotrichum chilense), with its pale lavender flowers just peeking in at the lower left corner of the photo, though looking washed out due to the glinting of sunlight on the camera. And there's also a hairy gumplant (Grindelia hirsutula) poking up a single yellow, daisy-style flower, similarly washed out by by sunlight, at the bottom edge of the photo, just slightly left of center.

How about that - four different plant species blooming in one photo in December! Yet you'd never mistake this for a May Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. This particular camera angle might actually show exactly the same number of plants blooming in May - the only plant visible here that is likely to bloom in spring that isn't blooming now is the seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) - that's the clump of prostrate leaves to the lower right of the egg-shaped rock in the left foreground. But the rest of the yard will have a lot more flowers in May than it does now.

See the pale stepping-stone at the right edge of the picture above? On the more flooded days, that stepping-stone is underwater.

There are three other flowers in the yard that I'm not going to bother showing you, because they're the same ones that have been blooming for months, and I've already shown them to you enough: the foothill beardtongue (Penstemon heterophyllus 'Blue Springs') in the back yard, though the one in the drier front yard is not blooming; woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca 'Improved Rugen') in the back yard, though the non-cultivar right next to it is not blooming; and scarlet mallow (Sphaeralcea philippiana) in the front yard, all blooming in a row.

I have only one new type of flower this month, and but it's one I'm particularly excited about: meadowfoam. I bought two kinds of meadowfoam this fall; it was the first time I'd ever been able to find any for sale. I bought the standard white-and-yellow kind, and also the rare all-yellow subspecies, which only grows wild in the Point Reyes area. The Point Reyes kind is the only kind blooming so far, but that's more than I had expected - I hadn't expected them to bloom until spring!

I was excited to find meadowfoam for sale because meadowfoam is native to vernal pools, and our yard - being continuously underwater every winter but dry as a bone all summer - is basically a vernal pool. I think it's an artificially created vernal pool, due to poor grading when the houses were built, but I might be wrong. There is a rice field about 50 yards from here, which implies that poor drainage in the area is fairly widespread - farmers only plant rice in soils that will hold water pretty well. My understanding is that historically, before European settlement, most of our town was a seasonal wetland spillway between the Yuba and Feather Rivers, which would be sort of like a vernal pool but with a current flowing through it. However, our yard would have been at the drier edge of town, so I'm not sure how wet it would have been in the winter. The only native that has volunteered in my garden that could possibly be seen as a marker of vernal pools is chaffweed (Anagallis minima) - if this area was historically covered with vernal pools, it's tragic that no other vernal pool endemics have survived.

Anyway, the only plants said to normally grow in vernal pools in the wild are annuals, because apparently no plant in the whole world is tough enough to adapt to surviving the whole year round in conditions that change so sharply from aquatic to bone-dry. (I'm not sure I agree with this. Shrubs and trees are sometimes found in vernal pool areas too - and in my garden, the golden currant (Ribes aureum) and blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), as well as the frequent volunteer cottonwood (Populus fremontii) seedlings, are growing right in the middle of the vernal pool with no apparent difficulty. It seems to me that these plants could be appropriately classified as vernal pool plants as well.)

To follow a strict native gardening philosophy by planting only the types of plants said to be native to vernal pools, I would therefore have to refrain from growing anything that lives for more than a year. I could not grow a single shrub or tree or any plant that wouldn't spend a good portion of every year dead. That would be irritating enough by itself, but to make matters far worse, there are basically no vernal pool plants available for sale anywhere at all. I couldn't follow a strict native gardening philosophy even if I wanted to! I actually would like to follow it to a greater extent than I currently can. I'd love to grow classic vernal pool annuals like calicoflowers (Downingia spp.), pincushion plants (Navarretia spp.), and popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys spp.). I'd love to grow vernal pool monkeyflowers (Mimulus tricolor), vernal pool cluster-lilies (Brodiaea nana), and vernal pool checkermallow (Sidalcea calycosa). But no nursery seems to sell them! And wild populations are by no means easy to find or gather seeds from, either. Of the species and genera I just listed, the only one I've ever seen in the wild is popcorn flowers. I saw them blooming in the vernal pools on Table Mountain, but I have never seen them with seeds, and I wouldn't necessarily recognize them when the flowers were gone.

But yes, I found meadowfoam! Not the right local subspecies for my area - the meadowfoam native around here has solid white or pale pink flowers - but close enough to be worth trying. I planted it right in the low-lying area where absolutely nothing survived last winter. So far, it has entirely lived up to its vernal pool heritage, seeming perfectly happy to grow either mostly submerged . . .

. . . or on top of relatively dry (muddy) land.

And yes, I took the relatively dry picture after the mostly submerged one. How did that come about? Does my non-draining drainage ditch actually drain after all? No, not without my help. But I helped it along. First I helped it along in the same way I have done in past winters, by using a bucket to manually bail the water from the blocked-off section of the ditch into the slightly less blocked-off section. The section of the ditch that most of the back yard drains into is blocked off from the section in the side yard by a buried plastic tube. I'm not sure of the purpose of this tube, but it's probably doing something important, so I leave it undisturbed. Besides, its presence is really just as well, since without the blockage, the water from the side yard would tend to drain into the back yard more often than vice versa. (The downspout from the roof drains into the side yard section, so the side yard section tends to fill up fastest.) When the section of the ditch in the back yard overflows, it overflows into the far end of the back yard - the portion shown in the second photo from the top of this page. When the section of the ditch in the side yard overflows, it wreaks less havoc; tiny portions of it sometimes even actually flow all the way out to the street. So I bail water from the back yard section into the side yard section.

But that leaves a ton of water sitting in the side yard, unwilling to drain. So this year I tried something new: I bought a sump pump and a 100-foot-long garden hose to attach to it. This miraculous device was to be my garden's savior - the magic of electrical power would force the stupid water to drain out to the street, no matter how much the slope of the ground might refuse to help the water along! We locked the dogs up indoors - because they could electrocute themselves by touching the water while the pump was in it - and ran the hose out to the street. The sump pump needs to be submerged in at least an inch of water when first started, and it needs to be submerged in at least half an inch of water at all times when it's turned on. It's not supposed to be placed directly on mud, so I dropped a stepping stone into a deep section of the ditch and propped up the sump pump on that. I plugged the sump pump into an outdoor outlet. Nothing happened.

Much flailing of hands ensued, until we determined that our outdoor electrical outlets don't work. So we ran an extension cord through the pet door and into the house. This was a direct defiance of the "WARNING" notice on the sump pump cord, which clearly stated that this sump pump should never be used with an extension cord. But, well, the outside of the box that the sump pump came in actually specifies that you should use it with an extension cord. When the directions visible to me before purchase directly contradict the directions that become visible to me only after purchase, I feel free to disregard the less convenient version of the directions. So I plugged it into the extension cord.

Something happened! The pump began emitting a soft whirring noise. Water swirled around it. And out in the front yard, where Susan was watching the other end of the hose for me, muddy water started flowing into the gutters of our street. Hooray!

After about half an hour of this, the water levels got low enough that it did not seem safe to keep running the sump pump, so I turned it off. Our lake was mostly gone! You can see the results below. (You can also see that I emptied the compost bin into the edge of the ditch to help concentrate the remaining water in a smaller area. The compost was no more than half ready - the white bits you can see are eggshells, and much of what looks like good compost is just Susan's coffee grounds, which visually resemble compost without having actually decomposed much - but I'm not picky about the quality of my compost. I also spread mud on top of the compost to create level ground; there's actually a lot more compost under the mud than you'd think from looking at it.)

Pretty good results, yes? That was two days ago. The only problem is that last night a new rainstorm arrived, and it's continued raining ever since, and it's still raining now. So now the whole thing is right back to looking the way it did in the very first picture at the top of this page. And although the sump pump itself only needs to pump for about half an hour to drain it, I have to work for more like an hour each time - locking up the dogs, running the hose out to the street and the extension cord cord indoors, putting a stepping-stone in the drainage ditch, and then putting all this stuff back in its place when I'm done - and perhaps most importantly, washing all the mud off this stuff when I'm done. And yes, getting the mud all over myself in the process. (I might also mention that every single square inch of mud in the yard contains has generous portions of dog poop invisibly mixed into it, but I suppose you get the idea: NOT FUN. NOT FAIR TO HAVE TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN WHEN I JUST DID IT TWO DAYS AGO.)

I do have a few more pictures for you, though not of flowers. I have fall color pictures instead. I came down with a bad cold immediately after Thanksgiving (which I promptly gave to Susan) and was too sick to even look at the garden for about four days. When I did finally venture out again, I was amazed by the sight of the red-twig dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), which had all at once outfitted itself in bright fall colors just in the few days since I had last seen it. I had just enough time to take a few pictures of it; a day or so later, all its leaves fell off, leaving nothing but the red twigs for which it's named.

(And yes, the little white spot on the strawberry plant at the foot of the dogwood is a flower, though you can hardly see it. Also, that's 'Roger's Red' grape against the fence in the background, distinctly not living up to its promised red fall color. Do I have the only 'Roger's Red' grape in the world that just turns ugly greyish brown in the fall?)

My various deciduous shrubs are in an interesting state of disagreement right now as to what season it is. The dogwood, the redbud (Cercis occidentalis), the buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), the skunkbush (Rhus trilobata), and the osoberry Oemleria cerasiformis) are all convinced it's winter, and have dropped virtually all of their leaves. The blue elderberry is still convinced it's midsummer, and is blooming away happily. Both golden currants (Ribes aureum) are convinced it's late fall; they've dropped about half their leaves but are still waving around the remaining ones, sporting pretty yellow colors - though I won't be at all surprised if they also start blooming before New Year's, just a little, because they tend to do that. And the ocean spray Holodiscus discolor) shown below is convinced that it's mid-fall; it hasn't dropped a single leaf, but it's just beginning to show its fall colors.

Meanwhile, we've also decided to start gardening indoors. Here is Susan posing with the dogs in front of her new plant. She handles the indoor gardening (of which this tree is our only specimen); I handle the outdoor gardening.

Stardust handles eating the indoor gardening efforts. She is a distinctly herbivorous cat, and eats every single item of plant material she can get her little furry paws onto. She shows very little interest in proper cat food and no interest at all in other meat products, but the moment I walk through a door with a plant in my hands, she begs me to give it to her. She is the reason we have no houseplants other than the tree. It's lucky for me that she's terrified of outdoors; otherwise she'd have eaten every plant in the yard. It seems very likely that she's not a cat at all, but perhaps a mutant rabbit with a very long tail and very short ears. Susan brings her handfuls of grass from the yard every few days; these are instantly devoured. But now Stardust has an entire tree to eat! She shows no interest in playing with the ornaments, but she wasted no time in chowing down on the crunchy green needles. We are taking bets on how long it will be until the branches on the bottom fourth of the tree are picked totally bare.

Tags: native plants, photographs
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