December 2008

Yuki and Federico gazing languidly at each other while testing out the new table at the bulbout

Yuki and Federico gazing languidly at each other while testing out the new table at the bulbout

Regular LAEV garden blog readers (both of you) may be getting bored with the saga of the bulbout… but there are still many chapters to come. Today’s chapter is on our new table for four. If you want bulbous background, see prior entries on what a bulbout is and how one materialized on our block and the arrival of the stumps.

Today, we had a great group bike ride (organized by Aurisha Smolarski) to a going-away lunch for Thiago Winterstein… ay… who we’re all going to miss. About a dozen of us rode up to Square One on Fountain Avenue near Vermont. Good food and a good discussion about insulation, music, information overload, blogging, writing, power tools, young tools, and the meanings of life… but I digress. On the ride back, Federico was asking me about how it was to use the chainsaw to saw a chair out of (or perhaps into?) the stump. I was telling him that it’s a pretty blunt, loud instrument. It was rather difficult to get cuts that were straight and/or parallel… but I did manage to get one chair cut (see the middle of the above photo or the left of the photo below for two not-particularly-descriptive photos.)  The chair is sit-in-able, but I still want to use a sander to round its sharper corners.

When we arrived back at eco-village, Federico, Yuki and I lamented that the stumps in the bulbout looked pretty much like they were, well, just unloaded there… which is pretty much the case. Yuki, who is significantly shorter than I, also mentioned that most of the stumps were too tall for her to sit on comfortably. I sort of knew this – though most of them fit me fine, we deliberately got them a bit big, knowing that we can trim, but we can’t add length.

We discussed the possibility of getting out the chainsaw, but, decided instead on an easier and more collaborative task – to arrange the stumps in a more orderly way – in hopes of encouraging more use. We got shovels and a level, and got to work. Most of the stumps aren’t quite even – which is to say that the cut on the top isn’t quite parallel to the cut on the bottom – so, when their bottoms are placed on a level surface, their tops aren’t level. To remedy this, and to take a little excess height away, we dug into the mulch and soil, creating holes that we plugged with the stumps. We placed four seating stumps around a larger central table stump.

It didn’t take too long, but it made the space a bit more inviting and more inhabitable. I really like this approach – small (easy-to-finish – this took the three of us about an hour) interventions that improve the space… while leaving plenty more to do when the energy and initiative strike us. I like these sorts of tasks better than embarking on far-reaching master-plans that take lots of time to complete.  I think that this is an especially apt way to work in the garden – multiple small achievable tasks tend to add up nicely into a beautiful and productive garden; big heroic plans for the garden tend to languish unfinished.

More bulbout chapters soon…

Another view of the table for four

Another view of the table for four

Yarrow Flowers

Yarrow Flowers

Folks at LA Eco-Village tease me for my infatuation with yarrow… a wonderful plant that I will expostulate upon here.

Yarrow’s fancy official name is Achillea millefolium. Achillea refers to Achilles – the Greek warrior and later Greek myth – who was a soldier who took yarrow into battle, as was the custom in those days, to be used as a coagulant for applying to cuts and other wounds. Millefolium means “thousand leaves,” referring to yarrow’s multi-part leaves. Yarrow is found in many places around the globe, but the yarrow that I plant, grow, and propagate is California native yarrow, originally from the nursery at the Theodore Payne Foundation.

It’s a low-profile perennial. The leafy plant gets to about ~6-10-inches tall, and will send up a ~2-foot-tall flower stalk with dozens of small white flowers. Some other yarrows I’ve seen have had yellow or pink flowers. The small flowers attract beneficial insects, such as bees, ladybugs, and wasps.

Though I grow it mostly for its looks (it’s always green and needs very little water,) yarrow has all kinds of medicinal qualities. As I mentioned before, it’s a coagulant, plus it’s medicinal – used, often in combination with other medicinals, to treat colds and flus. I remember reading somewhere that it’s good for rejuvenating one’s skin, if one adds it to one’s bath. I tried this once, and didn’t notice much. The flower-stalks are very straight and were used by Chinese to practice I Ching. The yarrows stalks were tossed onto a diagram to generate divinations of the future.

According to the book Companion Plants and How to Use Them by Helen Philbrick and Richard Gregg (printed by the Devin-Adair Company originally in 1966):

“Yarrow increases the aromatic quality of all herbs. In small proportion, as in a border, Yarrow helps most vegetables. Yarrow will grow in a narrow bed as it does not mind being trampled.”

“Yarrow is in general a good companion for medical herbs.”

I first learned about yarrow as a suggested drought-tolerant alternative to a grassy lawn. I think that was around the early 1990’s. I remember someone describing a yarrow lawn, with its small white flowers as looking like the stars in the night sky. Here are links to photos of a successful yarrow lawn and a blog about another “almost like a turf lawn, if viewed from a distance”. About 8-9 years ago, I tried doing a small area as a yarrow lawn. The area I chose was a small parkway (between the street and the sidewalk) on Bimini, near the fire hydrant and telephone pole more-or-less at the property line between the two buildings that eco-village owns. The area is subject to quite a bit of foot traffic, hence held very compacted soils which grew lots of weeds. The yarrow didn’t do too well underfoot, but did just fine right around the hydrant and pole, presumably because it wasn’t stepped on as much there. It grew there for a few years fairly happily, though it did need quite a bit of weeding, lest devil grass and other weeds reclaim the spot. I let it go when I severely neglected my garden while writing my LA River book in 2005, and that small area was actually paved as part of the Shared Streets project earlier this year.

Even when most of my garden looked awful from neglect (in the aforementioned 2005), I grew a few things (nothing better than home grown tomatoes), and suprisingly, my neglected yarrow survived in few spots in my garden. It’s a plant that can take a lot of abuse and come back. In some spots, it appears to have died off on the surface, then it grows back up from the roots after fall rains.

Yarrow Edge (in foreground of picture - note that it's very happy though most of the rest of the garden is pretty sparse)

Yarrow Edge (in foreground of picture - note that it's very happy though most of the rest of the garden is pretty sparse)

It is very easy to propagate – just dig it up from the roots, then stick it back in wherever you want it. Most of the time even very small pieces will root and survive. It likes being crowded in next to solid things like rocks, pavers, sidewalks, etc. You can see it growing through the interstices of the broken concrete trincheras. It’s ok in full sun and tolerates quite a bit of shade. I tend to grow it around the edges of my garden and don’t really water it, but it gets some (usually too much) when I am watering the veggies around it. In areas where I have it growing and established by itself, I tend to water it less than once a week and it does fine. In fact, it gets so much water when it’s in the edge of the vegetable beds that it spreads out… at some points becoming a nuisance (dare I say… a weed?) In those cases, I just pull most of it out and plant it elsewhere.

A few years ago, when Bip and Raul were visiting from Mexico City, we did a silkscreen workshop. At the time, I did a t-shirt design that some folks have been calling the eco-village logo (it’s really another story, but I am not that comfortable with calling something I’ve designed a logo – logos tend are about paring down and simplification of identity into a highly readable brand, and I am more interested in expressing complexity, diversity, and funkiness.) Anyhow, for the silkscreen design, I hand-lettered the words Los Angeles Eco-Village and then I took a flowering stalk of yarrow and put it onto a photocopy machine. I thought that the design turned out well. Federico later adapted it to a design that graces our wiki, skillfully building the word “wiki” out of pieces of other letters.

One of the things I like to do when I am not sure what to do in my garden – often when I am contemplating a big project, but am procrastinating on starting it – I will pull some yarrow and start it in pots, so that I will have plenty to plant in the future. When I get around to that big project, yarrow is usually one of the first things I will plant there. So… I usually have quite a bit of it rooting and ready to give away whenever anyone expresses interest. Feel free to drop by and I can give you a complimentary starter.

Last Sunday, George Patton and I decided to take on the task of weeding out the devil grass that’s growing below the peach tree in front of las trincheras. This is a tree that’s planted in a parkway hole carved into the sidewalk.  The tree has been pretty much neglected, as well as being abused by cars colliding with branches, as well as occasional abuse from pedestrians passing by and breaking branches. The devil grass below it is pretty rampant, which I think drains water and energy from the tree. It has hardly fruited at all for years… so we figured it was time to give it some care, in hopes of a fruitful spring.

Here’s a before picture, including myself sitting around hard at work:

Joe and the Neglected Peach

Joe and the Neglected Peach (photo: Maeve Johnston)

I sat down and began to pull weeds. There were quite a few sucker (leggy green) branches that were shooting up from the base of the tree, some of these were poking right into my face as I weeded. It’s generally a good idea to cut off these suckers, especially when they’re often growing out of the rootstock of a grafted tree. The rootstock is usually something fairly fast-growing, and it’s grafted onto the bottom of a slower-growing good-fruiting variety tree. Suckers grow off of the good fruiting varieties, too, and should be cut there, too – as they generally are less strong than other branches and I think that they generally fruit less.

I got our my loppers and started cutting away some of the suckers. To see into the interior of the tree, I pulled off some of the leaves… and I got to thinking… it’s the middle of December and this peach tree still has its leaves. Usually these leaves are falling in November or so, and we pull of the last of the leaves as we prune in December. It’s good to denude the tree of leaves when pruning for a few reasons: it signals the tree to go dormant for a bit, and it takes away old dead leaves that can pass diseases on to the new leaves.

We’ve had such a warm fall that our leaves haven’t really fallen much (as seen in the photo above.) I think it’s a sign of global warming… which is disorienting some of our plants. We had serious record-breaking heat waves in September and even into late October, and a lot of the fall vegetables are behaving a bit erratically – growing crooked and drunken-looking. This is mostly the cabbage family – a lot of the broccoli and cauliflower seems more stunted stunted and twisty than usual… Onions, too. To me it seems as if they’re disoriented by the summer weather, but it could be just soil or neglect or natural variation.

So back to the tree. The leaves were very easy to pull off; the tree had begun to let go of them. The way tasks happen in the garden, I cleared of some of the leaves and some more and some more… and then I was far enough along that I just finished it off. I had started some pruning, then decided to just complete the job.

As I mentioned, this tree is growing in the parkway, with the sidewalk to one side and the street to the other. For these trees, I prune them in a somewhat espalier-style, so that growth is focused parallel to the curb and not a lot of the tree sticks out into the sidewalk or street. Here’s an after shot – yes, it’s bare, but this is what a peach tree is supposed to look like in Southern California in December!

Peach Tree All Pruned (Perhaps this looks kind of dead compared to the other picture, but, trust me, this is how a happy and healthy peach tree looks in the Southern California winter)

Peach Tree All Pruned (Perhaps this looks kind of dead compared to the other picture, but, trust me, this is how a happy and healthy peach tree looks in the Southern California winter)

After pruning, George and I weeded away the devil grass and moved on to other garden tasks. Like most garden work, it’s not quite done – I plan to build up a small lip around the base of the tree, in order to harvest rainwater. I did this at the base of the adjacent apple tree and it seems to work ok, and I have an idea for improving on the design slightly. Once I complete it around the base of the peach, I’ll let all you LAEV Garden Blog readers know.

Tree Stumps in our Bulbout

Oak Tree Stumps in our Bulbout

Thanks to Irma and KYCC and Griffith Park folks, we now have some big stumps (actually a stump is in the ground, so I guess these might be called mature tree sections? or something like that) in our bulbout. The idea is that these would seats/tables for the outdoor living room that we’re creating there. These may or may not be permanent. Outdoors they’ll break down over time. The plan is to coat the top with boiled linseed oil and that will prevent some cracking.

Some of them are irregularly shaped, so we’ll probably be carving into the tops (probably with a chainsaw) to make the tops more seat-shaped. Ones that are too tall can be partially buried.

For lots more background on the bulbout, read this earlier post.

Los Angeles Eco-Village worked with the city of Los Angeles to create a “shared street” project on Bimini Place.  The intent was to make our neighborhood greener and a more pedestrian friendly.  Through this project (which I am not going to go into too much detail on here) we were able to take away some parking and dedicate that former car-space to space for people and vegetation.

It would be an understatement to say that there were differences in what the city had proposed and what eco-village residents wanted to see in our street.  Also, there were (and still are) definitely differences in what different eco-villagers want to see.  The city plans were pretty institutional, so for the bulbout directly in front of the buildings that LAEV owns, we suggested that the city plant a couple trees and leave the rest to us.  Even the trees were contentious, with eco-villagers wanting fruiting trees and the city skeptical about this.  We did get these macadamia nut trees, and a pretty much bare bulbout (which the city used a big machine to compact the soil on, then added a thin layer of mulch.)

Below is what it looked like when the project had its grand opening in March 2008.  The project includes the permeable pavement sidewalks on the left side of the photo, which I am not going to focus on here.

Bare Bulbout in front of Bimini Apartments - Spring 2008

Bare Bulbout in front of Bimini Apartments - Spring 2008 (photo: Lois Arkin)

Before I go any further: what is a bulbout??  Bulbouts (sometimes spelled as “bulb-out,” or “bulb out”, or called a sidewalk extension) are traffic calming devices – but what’s traffic calming??  One example of a traffic calming device that people are familiar with is a speed bump.  It serves to slow down neighborhood traffic, making streets safer and calmer and more comfortable for walking, bicycling, talking, breathing, living, chilling, and all the good things you can use a street for when it’s not entirely dedicated to cars.  Bulbouts flare the curb out into the street, so, from above, it looks kind of like a bulb.  They’re mostly located near intersections where pedestrians will cross the street.  They have a few effects.  By extending the sidewalk into the street, they narrow the distance a pedestrian needs to cross – making walking easier and safer.  By narrowing the street, they give drivers a psychological cue to slow down.  When a street is wide, drivers get the cue to speed up because there are no obstacles, like on a freeway.  When a street is narrower, drivers slow down because they feel like they’re in a more intimate setting, like in a room.

Well, we added lots more mulch to our bulbout, kept our trees watered, and grew some morning glories up the signs there… but we didn’t too much and it remained pretty much empty… until the past weekend.  We held a couple of informal meetings to plan out what the space will look like.  Here’s a shot from the session we had in the street, where we used rope, seating, and cones to block out various configurations:

Bulbout Planning Party in November 2008

Bulbout Planning Party in November 2008 (photo: Kathy Hill)

We haven’t actually planned it all out, but we agreed to start with a path and some beds built out of urbanite (broken concrete) at each end.  The bed walls will serve as benches – a lot like las trincheras, which I blogged about earlier.  I really like the look of broken concrete – it’s nearly indestructible, it diverts and reuses materials from the urban waste stream, and I like the way it break up garden space.  Overall we want the space to be a kind of “outdoor living room” where folks can hang out in the street.

Last Saturday, we had a work party to begin work on the bulbout.  The first project was to set a brick path that will allow people to walk from the gate at 117 Bimini into the intersection.  We used used bricks that we’ve had around, most of which had been collected from damage in the neighborhood during the 1994 earthquake.  The work was much like playing tetris – fitting various complete and partial bricks into the slightly irregular space.  Thanks to Ann Finkelstein, her mom, Melba Thorn, and Wilma Raabe (a student from Germany who was visiting for a tour and jumped right in to help) for getting the path done.

November 2008 Work Party to set Brick Path

November 2008 Work Party to set Brick Path (photo: Lois Arkin)

There’s still a lot to be done on the bulbout… to be continued.