Rodent Pests in the Chaparral Garden

Garden garlic

Garlic is one of the few plants the rodents don’t like.

Living in the open chaparral has its high and low points. There is something timeless yet awe-inspiring to see how life adapts to this rather extreme environment. It’s a dry, stoic life in the scrub community, but there are also points of intricate delicacy and amazing moments of blazing beauty.

In all parts of the world it is important for human development to work in tandem with nature. Whenever we get too arrogant with our demands, nature seems to set us back into humility with earthquakes, floods, storms, disease or some other form of rebalancing. Personally, I think this is exactly how it should be as the human ego tends to become way too selfish if not kept in bounds. I don’t think people are the only valuable beings on this planet. All life and non-life are inextricably interconnected.

On the other hand, sometimes living with nature’s other denizens can be severely trying to a person. Rodent pests in the chaparral garden is one case in point.

Perhaps it’s because of the increase in human population or maybe it’s a result of the long term drought but the life that seems to be thriving best in my part of the chaparral are the rodents. These creatures have adapted well to human civilization becoming well fed and comfortably housed. Many of their predators, on the other hand, are being reduced in number by human expansion.

Have you ever tried keeping mice, rats and ground squirrels out of the vegetable garden? With their flexible skull structures, these critters can fit through anything their heads can penetrate and often that means the tiniest of holes.

There are a number of poisons on the market that will help control rodents, but they are very toxic to pets and other wildlife as well as humans. There was a product called ‘Rode-Trol’ out a few years ago that was safe and actually worked well, but for some reason — I was told the EPA wouldn’t approve it — the company was denied production. Banning easy, safe products really worries me if that’s what happened. But for the most part it seems to me the only way left, especially to use around edibles, is a physical barrier. And creating an open-air space with something like small gauge chicken wire or hardware cloth that will be impenetrable by these wily rodents is a very tall order.

I’d be willing to share, but most rodents will collect anything — plant, fruit or seed — that they don’t eat on the spot. Worse, I haven’t gotten a single thank you note after my garden has been raided and stripped bare.

I will continue the war with my local chaparral rodent pests. I will carefully ration out the last of my Rode-Trol, build enclosures and do my best to control these critters. And I’ve found if I start the most pest-attracting seeds indoors and allow the plants to reach a reasonable size before introducing them to my vegetable garden, at least some of them withstand the ravenous onslaught.

I’d love to let my accomplished hunter-cat, Nori, out to patrol the garden, but nighttime is when the rodents are most active and the little feline would be more likely to become prey to coyotes or owls rather than predator. So he’ll keep his job guarding the garage instead. Has anyone had any success with a pet bobcat? Maybe that’s what I should try next.

Snow in the chaparral

Snow in Santa Clarita

My neighbor Karen enjoying the snowfall

The New Year has brought snow here to the chaparral here in inland Southern California. Although we did have a few hours of snow a couple of years ago, snow that stays on the ground for any period of time is highly unusual. It was fun to watch the big fat flakes plow into each other as they floated through the sky and covered everything with a pristine white blanket. But as I enjoyed the snow, I felt bad for those people returning from their holiday vacations only to be stranded on iced freeways.

My winter wonderland lasted for a day and a half. But even today there remains a pile of white stuff stacked up at the base of my greenhouse where it slid off the roof. Here in the chaparral snow and freezing rain is not likely to be as destructive to my garden plants as cold nights when temperatures drop into the low 20’s F or less. The trick is that snow and ice only chill to 32’F whereas dry cold is likely to freeze the cells of the plants and do far more damage.

I’m watching the snow melt and slowly sink into our already moist earth. Nature will allow a thaw that will be most gentle to chaparral plants so I’m not touching my garden plants.

So far it has been a very interesting year for weather. If the moisture continues through the rest of the winter we should see a gorgeous display of wildflowers come spring. Higher rainfall will give us some relief from the drought conditions, but there are many years of rain shortage behind us that will take more than one rainy winter to neutralize. Plus, with the huge growth of the human population our demand for water will still outstrip our single season of rain. Water shortages mixed with building, air pollution, destruction of open land and other impacts mean we need to start living wiser if we want to save the magic of the chaparral.

So I will continue to grow my native plants and try to emulate my ecology rather than turn it into a grassy meadow or a tropical paradise. When I see the chaparral in bloom, it’s beauty can take my breath away. And even when it shrivels under the hot summer sun, the plants that grow here elicit respect and awe at their strength, power and adaptability. And I will delight in the rare snowfall and thank God for the remarkable plants of the chaparral. Snow in the chaparral may not be a common event, but in the inland areas and higher elevations it isn’t as rare as some people think.

Prepare chaparral gardens for windy weather

Fallen branches

Winds can break tree branches Photo by Jane Gates

Autumn and spring are seasons that may bring the nicest temperatures to Southern California and some other chaparral canyon areas, but they can also bring howling winds that are forced through the canyon-surfaced crust of the earth, compressing and raising temperatures. Since you never know how dry the windy season is going to be outdoors, it’s best to plan for the worst so you don’t get caught unprepared for wind damage and maybe even for the threat of wind-driven wildfires. Here are some tips to make your home and garden a little safer at this time of year.

  • Close up umbrellas and store light furniture that can become wind-borne.
  • Use only heavy concrete pots near swimming pools, hot tubs or other areas where blown over pots could create havoc.
  • Keep gutters and drains cleared of leaves and pine needles that are perfect for igniting in wildfires and can cause flooding and other water damage in rains.
  • Stake young trees for one to two years until roots can anchor the tree sufficiently.
  • Don’t leave tree supports in for more than two or three years to encourage strong root growth for future windy seasons.
  • Trim backlong tree branches, dead branches and branches close to the house.
  • Don’t allow any branches to rub against your roof.
  • Keep large trees thinned and deeply watered to avoid toppling in high winds.
  • Check roofing tiles regularly to keep them from lifting and blowing off.
  • Secure or put away loose items on the patio or back yard.
  • Keep an eye on forecasts and avoid parking under trees when winds are forecast to be very gusty.
  • Don’t leave sharp objects where they can be blown into the air. And weight or secure light structures or coverings so they don’t get caught by winds.
  • Bring pets indoors or provide solid wind shelters in heavy winds.
  • Cover ponds or other open features with netting to protect from blowing weeds, leaves and trash.
  • Make sure you have a secure grill cover over your chimney to trap rising hot ashes or embers if you plan to use your fireplace to burn wood.
  • Clear away piles of wood, leaves or any other potentially flammable material from near structures.
  • Use fitted covers over your pool and/or hot tub.

The windy season in the chaparral will strip autumn leaves quickly from trees and blow them into places you don’t want them. If you buy or build a compost heap you can turn those pesky leaves into an asset. Leaves and small branches and twigs will break down even faster if you use a chipper shredder. But by composting these materials you will not only save yourself the effort of bagging and canning them and dragging them down to the street to be collected, but will have a rich, dark compost by the end of spring to dig into your soil. For plants that have not evolved in chaparral conditions – most of the plants sold in garden centers – the worst thing is the lack of organics in the soil. So recycling these materials into compost will save you having to by bags of the stuff while turning those wind-driven materials into an asset for your garden.

Always keep safety in mind first. Think in terms of who uses your garden, children, pets or adults. And look at your space from their vantage point to help identify objects and areas where howling winds can create dangers. Sometimes building a wind break will make a whole portion of your property both safer and more useable during windy weather. The time it takes to check out your property and make necessary changes will be only a fraction of what clean-up will otherwise demand. With a little common sense and preparation, you can make this next windy season safe and easy for you, your home and your family.

Outdoor lighting fixtures

Outdoor lighting brings the garden to life at night

Outdoor lighting brings the garden to life at night

Lighting can transform your garden into a magical wonderland after dark. It not only keeps the area safe and well lit but you can create all kinds of effects. Lighting can pick out shapes and focal points that might look totally different during the day. You can create glows, spot-lit areas, spill light over a flat area or define steps or edges. Shadows can be manipulated to create patterns or designs, while individual lights can define a theme, outline a special area or produce mood lighting.

Not only are there better forms of light distribution for artistic effects, but there are more choices in ecologically friendly and money saving lighting than ever before. You can go solar, low voltage or use LED lighting. All these technologies are developing new possibilities, applications and effects each year. And check out the wealth of lighting fixtures that can become sculptures or part of the design of your garden itself. Lighting can provide artful illusions in the garden, creating a whole new wonderland — very different from the landscape you are used to seeing in daylight. Or the outdoor lighting fixtures themselves can become an artistic focal point.

I recently stopped by the booth at Light Club USA where I was able to chat with Bruce Dennis about some of the exciting fixtures he had on display in the Los Angeles Landscape Industry Show. I’d already marveled at the realistic candle lights when I worked with the designer, Nick Williams, on one of his awesome landscape designs in Ojai. You can see the candles he designed in the video below at the Light Club USA booth.  And there were other fascinating designs for light fixtures, too. Check out the little informal video I shot at the show and you can get some idea of how much fun you can have designing lighting in your garden.

Winter watering in the SCV

Winter lawn

Winter gardens need less water

It’s winter in the Santa Clarita Valley and our gardens are not growing the same as in the warmer months. That means winter watering in the SCV needs to be adjusted. Automatic watering systems cut down on work and things to remember, but they may not be your friend if you just set them once without regular adjustments throughout seasonal changes. In the winter the air is more moist, temperatures lower and most plants are dormant or at least semi-dormant so they don’t use the water they need when in active growth. That means if you leave your watering system the same as it is in the spring and autumn – or worse, the summer – you are wasting lots of water, encouraging weeds and fungus infections and paying much more than you need to for your water bills.

During December, January, February and March, even if we have winds or a heat wave, water evaporation is much slower than in other months. If there is a decent rain shower that delivers at least a tenth of an inch you can plan on a minimum of five days before lawns or garden will need extra watering in most SCV areas. A good rain storm that drops an inch or more can keep some soils moist for the next seven to ten days. Just because the soil looks dry on the surface does not mean there isn’t ample moisture under the surface. Before you let your sprinkler system spatter away precious water, dig down an inch or two to see if you really need to have your irrigation on.

One other way to make watering easier and more efficient is to get a smart irrigation controller. These are more expensive than regular water system timers but will pay for themselves over time by saving water and keeping plants healthy. Smart irrigation controllers automatically adjust with the weather to deliver the amount of water your garden really needs. There have been classes offered by the water companies in the SCV during spring and summer each year that will give you instructions on how to install and use one of these timers. And you’ll receive a FREE controller. Call your water company to see if these classes are still being scheduled and sign up.

Of course, if you don’t want to fuss with mowing and irrigating your lawn, you can consider lawn substitutes. These are ways to cover your soil with something other than grass. Consider non-living materials like gravel, useful areas like play areas or productive gardens like vegetable gardens that may not lower your water bill, but will give you something back for your effort and money.

The Santa Clarita area is prone to droughts and rainfall seems to be less generous as the years go on. Even if we do have one rainy winter, it’s likely the next will be dry. Irrigating properly without wasting water is always a good idea. It not only saves resources for the future, but it will cost you less when it comes time to pay the water bill!

Walkway Pavers and Walkway Lighting

LED Walkway Lights

A string of LED lights lights this walkway

Walkways are places where people expect to be able to pass safely. They can offer utilitarian passage or they can take part of the landscape design offering space definition or a linear element. If you put a little thought into building your walkway right with decorative pavers and lighting so it is designed to be both useful and aesthetic, you can have the best of both worlds.

There are many different shapes and designs to pavers you can use in an outdoor passageway. Pavers can be set together to form all kinds of designs and even pictures. Using assembled cast block, natural stone or brick allows space for rain or irrigation water to filter between the pavers creating permeable paving. Permeable paving allows water to seep into the ground naturally rather than washing off and causing erosion. Placing pavers close together can form a surface safe even for high heeled shoes.

The space between the stone, block or brick can be filled with cement, sand, decomposed granite, gravel, low ground-cover plants or even non-tradtonal materials like ceramic beads, tumbled glass or any non-toxic fill that can withstand outdoor weather.

Then you can add lighting that not only allows for safe footing in the dark but can make your passageway into a piece of art. Lights can be embedded between or along the edges of the pavering material. You can have your lights hardwired or use low voltage, solar lights or even LEDs. Simple do-it-yourself lights can be bought and placed along the walkway. You can line a path or embed a strip of LED light-rope or set up interesting fixtures all along your walk.

There is no limit to the inventive effects you can use when desgning your walkway with pavers and lighting. Put your imagination to work. Then create a passageway that adds both beauty and practicality to your landscape.