Sunday, August 06, 2017

Dyeing Continues

I've continued volunteering with the Friends of Sausal Creek, a habitat conservation group that works in my urban watershed.  Once again, I pulled weeds for hours in the blazing sun. Once again, I came home with a car full of potential dye plants.  And once again, it's a total miracle that I didn't get a horrible case of poison oak.

This time I brought home young eucalyptus sprouts (which nobody could remember the Latin name of).  A large part of this project is removing the invasive eucalyptus.  Even after the trees have been cut down, and their stumps covered in a plastic tarp, the plant sends out fresh growth.  It's strange to see such lush, soft leaves from eucalyptus trees. Typically, I think of these leaves as very woody.

I simmered these leaves and shoots for several hours, and they produced a lovely orange-brown color. It's odd, because the last time I dyed with eucalyptus, I got a more terra-cotta flowerpot orange color.  I wonder why this batch was browner?

These cakes of yarn are infuriatingly difficult to photograph. The stack on the left should look a lot yellower than what I'm seeing on my screen.  You can see better photos on a previous blog post.

I still have to process the Scotch Broom that I brought home last month. It has been sitting in my studio, and I keep forgetting to bring it home.  I've been working on yet another show that has Broadway aspirations, and that has been sucking up most of my mental energies. We've done two of these shows in rapids succession this year, which has been exhausting.  Unfortunately, both projects are under photographic embargo at the moment, so I can't share pictures.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Swarm to Pollinate


I can't explain why, but I really love working with swarms of bees.  When my friend Yolanda contacted me about a swarm she was going to collect, I asked if I could tag along.  It's always nice to have help with bees.

These particular bees were in a bed of ground-covering juniper, up by the Oakland Zoo.  Yolanda had borrowed a bee vacuum, and was going to try to suck up the bees.  I'm such a tender-hearted weirdo that I can't bear to think of subjecting bees to this kind of treatment, so I asked if I could try picking the bees up with my hands.

The objective in catching a swarm is to catch the queen.  If she is put in the beekeeper's box, and she decides to stay, the other bees will follow her in.

Yolanda had a beautiful collection box, filled with inviting frames of wax comb.  I gently scooped up handfuls of bees and dropped them into the box.  Since the bees were all tangled up in the undergrowth, this took some doing.  I'd pick up a handful of bees, shake them off into the box, and then Yolanda and I would step back until the bees settled down.

Eventually, the bees started walking into the box on their own.  Yolanda had to leave to open her store (Pollinate Farm & Garden Supply) and I needed to finish an outfit for a costume party.  Yolanda would pick the bees up after dusk, when they'd all gone to bed.  These particular bees would go to the store, where they'd pollinate the fruit trees out back.

It was a lovely way to start the morning.

Dye, Weeds, Dye!

I've been really distressed by the state of American politics.  It seems to me that the current administration is intent on destroying everything, either out of greed or spite.  I'm particularly appalled by the idea that they're about to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and get rid of the Endangered Species Act.  Once they've ruined our wild places and the things that live there, those things will be gone forever.

But since nothing changes if we sit on the couch and fret, I decided to go do some hard work for the environment.  There's a group in my neighborhood, the Friends of Sausal Creek, who work to restore the wild lands in the Sausal Creek watershed.  I wrote to them last week, and got myself on a work crew, restoring the land around one of the East Bay's rarest plants, the Pallid Manzanita.

The Pallid Manzanita is incredibly rare.  It occurs only in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in Northern California.

This plant is being crowded out by other plants, mostly non-natives such as eucalyptus and French broom.

I've been thinking a lot about invasive species and native plants, and how they are a metaphor for the current issues surrounding refugees and immigrants here and around the world.  

I've been wanting to do a textile project with non-native plants, so when I offered to help remove weeds, I asked if I could take away some of the plants we'd cleared from the site.   I was pleasantly surprised when the folks on the project met my query with enthusiasm.  I wielded a wicked-looking weed extractor for several hours, and left with a car full of French broom.

I harvested the leaves and tender shoots, taking care not to spread any seeds in my back yard. (To be honest, there were very few seeds.  The team was pulling out these plants before most of them had set seed.)

I harvested two pounds of plant matter, and put it into a dye-pot.  I'd previously mordanted my yarn with alum and cream of tartar.  After I'd simmered the French broom for several hours (on the hottest weekend of the entire summer), I strained out most of the plants and added the yarn.  I then let the yarn simmer in dye for about an hour.

The French broom dyed my yarn a pale, slightly greenish yellow.  Very nice.

This weekend, I divided the yarn into thirds,  and enhanced the color with some simple after-baths.  The skein on the left was "saddened" in a bath of water that had a splash of rusty-nail-water added.  The skein in the middle was dipped in water that had a few glugs of ammonia.  The skein on the right was not altered after its initial dyeing.

I find it truly remarkable how much color variations can be obtained from one plant.  Especially a plant that is considered a real pest to the environment.

If you're interested in reading what other folks are doing in their gardens, check out the weekly blog-fest at Our Happy Acres.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Stroll Around the Garden

While Robb was busily ripping apart our front steps this weekend, I had a whack at my garden.  And I must say, it needed a good whack.  

The tiny strip of earth between our house and the neighbors' driveway is the site of my fig grove.  It's also the home to about ten million weeds, which I valiantly battled this weekend.  

I find it amazingly difficult to photograph this part of the garden.  The figs always look so stunted, when they're actually significantly taller than I am.  I grew all these plants from tiny babies, and I'm hoping that we'll get fruit from at least four of the five plants this summer.

My dirt-colored kitty Smog is almost invisible on his garden catwalk.

The beans I planted a few weeks ago are doing well.  It's a good thing that I have plenty of extra baby bean plants, because this bed is a magnet for all our animals.  The chickens keep escaping from their part of the garden, and tearing things up.  And the cats seem determined to nap on top of anything I plant. 

I had also planted collard greens in this bed, but I think the snails and slugs destroyed them.  They simply de-materialized.  Strange, really, because collards are such tough plants.  

For the second spring in a row, our lovely plum tree barely flowered at all, and thus has almost no fruit developing.  I don't know if this is a result of our multi-year drought, or due to a lack of chill hours.  I'm hoping that this lack of flowers and fruit isn't a permanent change.  I worry that the climate is changing, or that the tree is unwell.  But I'm such a novice fruit grower that I really cannot diagnose the problem.

The abundance of pluots more than makes up for the sparseness of our plums.

I watch a lot of British gardening shows, and they always advocate thinning the developing fruits.  I just can't bring myself to do this, because it seems so wasteful.  And also, if I'm being totally honest, I think that certain British garden show hosts tortures his fruit trees.  I don't see the point in growing a tree in unnatural forms, unless there's a really compelling reason to do so. I tend to let the trees grow the way they seem to want to.  I know this will sound like heresy, but cordons and espaliers seem like the fruit-growers' version of foot-binding.

I'm sure that I'll come to regret my lack of rigor, when my fruit trees take over every inch of my garden.

It seems that one of the pomegranates is starting to mature.  Last year it set three blossoms, which all fell off the plant without setting fruit.  I'm not sure how this plant's slender branches will support the weight of a pomegranate.

Pomegranate flowers are otherworldly.  Their casings look like they're made of wax.  I need to pay attention, to see if the bees are visiting the flowers or not.

Our red currants are beautiful, but haven't fully ripened.  I didn't photograph our cherry.  It's a baby, and if we get a dozen fruits this year, I'll be thrilled.

Since the Alicia hive swarmed on Saturday, I thought I'd better have a look at the Lori bees.  The hive was jam-packed with honey, so I harvested four frames.  I interspersed empty frames between the honeycomb I'd left behind, hoping that this would deter the bees from building terribly irregular comb.  It's not that I'm obsessed with neatness, it's just that irregular comb gets damaged during hive inspections.  And I don't want to harm my bees.

Since Robb and I live in a tiny house with limited storage, we do not own a centrifugal honey extractor.  We harvest our honey by cutting the honeycomb out of the wooden frames, cutting the comb apart, and letting it strain through a multi-tiered sieve.  I rather like the simplicity of it all.

Once most of the honey has strained out of the comb, we'll rinse the comb with water, and use the honey-water to make mead.  And once the wax is cleaned, I'll melt it so that it takes up less space. Beeswax has all sorts of uses, so we store it until we need it.

Last year we hardly harvested any honey at all.  I imagine that the bees struggled to collected sufficient nectar during our drought.  I'm glad that the bees seem to be having an easier time this year.

I hope you enjoyed ambling around my little garden.  If you're interested in reading what other gardeners are up to, stroll over to the weekly garden party, hosted by Our Happy Acres.

Thanks for visiting!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men." -- Richard Nickel

Our 1925 cottage may not be "great architecture" but it certainly has an adorable front porch.  Here it is a few years ago, at Halloween.  (Details on painting the hellmouth can be found here.)

We've known this porch needed love, for some time now.

The whole thing is catty-whompus:  crooked in every direction imaginable.  

The problem wasn't just that the structure was a bit off-kilter.  It turns out that the porch suffered from both of the enemies of architecture:  water, and stupid choices.  The problems were a multiplication of both those factors.  

Luckily, Robb is both fearless and skilled in house-building.  The whole project makes me a bit queazy, but he's undaunted.

I'm sure our neighbors are suitably horrified.

Saturday, May 27, 2017


This afternoon, while Robb and I were working in our back garden, one of our hives of honeybees swarmed.  Being in the middle of a swarm is an intense experience.

The bees, annoyingly, flew into the middle of our next door neighbor's impenetrable bottle brush tree, and stayed there for several hours.

One of the crazy things about a swarm is how quickly it happens. Having rested in the neighbors' tree for most of the afternoon, the bees decided to relocate around 4:30, and within twenty minutes they had flown into a different neighbors' low-hanging bougainvillea.  While they were flying, I climbed up on the roof of yet another neighbors' garage, and sat inside of the swarm.

It was magical, although I suspect some folks might describe this experience as "horrifying."

I called Jamaica who lives a few blocks away, and who is always up for a Bee Adventure.  She and I shook the bees into a specialized cardboard beehive, while the neighbors looked on.

I try not to damage the plants the bees land on.  I did not chop off any large branches.  I was using those loppers because they have nice long handles.

Once the bees settle down for the night, they'll go to Jamaica's house.  I've got plenty of bees, even counting the ones I lost due to this swarm.  And she wanted another colony.  So it's a win-win situation.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Of Orchids And Other Treasures

Every Mothers Day weekend, a local orchid grower has an open house.  Attending this event is like being let in on a wonderful secret.  Fiori D'Amore Orchids is located in a neighborhood just up the hill from where I live.  From the street, you'd never suspect that the house with the beautiful garden is home to a massive growing operation.

The family who run this business have such a passion for their plants, which are simply mind-blowing.  Take a look at those clusters of white-and yellow flowers in the top photo.  Each flower cluster is the size of my thigh.

The size of this operation is hard to convey.  There rows and rows and rows and rows of thriving plants.

The full sized plants often come with full-sized prices, but for more modest buyers like myself, there are a dazzling array of well-labeled divisions.

Somehow I got chatting with the owners.  The discussion meandered from the multi-year drought we have just emerged from, to beekeeping, and somehow we ended up talking about the surprising variety of tropical fruit trees that can be grown in Oakland, California.  The next thing I knew, the proprietors were inviting me into the private areas of their garden, and showing me their personal treasures:  papayas, coffee and chocolate plants, cherimoya and dragon fruit.

I certainly wasn't planning on it, but I came home with two baby cherimoyas (lovingly grown from seed) and a cutting of a dragon fruit.  And we won't discuss the number of orchids that I bought.  (We certainly won't discuss the fact that I went to another orchid sale the next day, and came home covered in tiny biting insects.  Nope, we won't discuss any of that...)

If you're curious what other gardeners are discussing head over to Our Happy Acres, where the Monday Harvest blog party is hosted.


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