Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Finding Inspiration at the Southern California Spring Garden Show

Display by Don Davidson and Fiesta Parade Floats
Last weekend I dashed off to the Southern California Spring Garden Show at the South Coast Plaza with friends. There is something inspiring about the colors and shapes of plants and flowers even when they are showcased indoors.

The colors and textures were dazzling.

notice how the blocks of color are a blend of flowers

The Epiphyllum Society of America illustrated how variation in one plant can make for splendor.

The display gardens were filled with wondrous ideas. "Paint by the Numbers" presented by Living Landscapes (www.LivingLandscapes.us) demonstrated the power of color. (Even though I was looking for some native plants that would also provide habitat.)

"The Art of Exterior" presented by The Garden Gallery highlighted the art of humans and nature. (www.theggallery.com)

While the display garden by the Orange Coast College Horticultural Club & Architecture Technology (www.occhorticultureclub.wordpress.com) integrated natural forms with a complex structure that complimented the organic elements and created airy height.

I've never seen so many different kinds and colors of orchids anywhere in one location. Everywhere you looked there were inspirational shapes, colors, textures, combinations and the simple reminder that nature is rejuvenating.

Visit a local garden show, go for a walk in a local park or nature center. Take in the tonic of spring.

For more inspiration visit my friend Douglas Welch's blog A Gardner's Notebook for video and photos of the Southern California Spring Garden Show. Toward the end of the video, I promise there is a purple orchid like nothing you have ever seen.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Worm? Lizard or Snake?

How many times have you found a dried-up worm on the sidewalk? That was my first guess when I saw this desiccated, long-bodied shape on the steps in the backyard. But the body seemed too thick for the worms we typically find in our ground.

My heart sunk. Had someone stepped on one of our slender salamanders? But there were no little legs. Slender salamanders have tiny, but always visible legs.

When I picked it up I knew I was definitely looking at not a worm and not a salamander. This is a reptile. Now the question was lizard or snake?

This is a reptile because small scales are visually apparent. Worms and amphibians are creatures with soft permeable skin, no scales.

The specimen is not a full body. There is no head and no real torso. Some natural predator ate the front portion of this reptile. There are no legs, but I didn’t have much of the body and some lizards are legless. Turning it over instantly told me this was the back section of a snake, specifically a ringneck snake.

 How did I know that? If you look at the belly or dorsal side you can see elongated scales that go across the width of the belly. These are the scute scales that enable the snake to make its way across the ground without having legs. The scute scales end at the cloaca, the opening that serves both reproductive and elimination systems. So we are looking at the last 4-5 inches of a small snake.

The clue that this is a ringneck snake is the vivid orange color on the belly with numerous black spots or flecks. The ringneck snake is the only local California species with this coloration and this is most likely a San Bernardino ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus modestus) the subspecies typical to our area.

I saw a live adult ringneck snake in the yard almost exactly a year ago. They never get too large, just 10-30 inches. The individual snake I saw was larger than this. Perhaps they are breeding in our oasis of native habitat. There are plenty of salamanders or western fence lizards and their eggs for these small snakes to eat.

I’m sad to see this beneficial and non-threatening snake dead. I’m not sure who ate it. Possibly either the raccoon, skunk or opossum that circle through our yard on a regular basis. I’m hoping that there are more of them hiding in the undergrowth–a healthy habitat needs small predators like snakes.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"The Next Big Thing"

I was tagged! 

My friend and poetry teacher Julie Williams tagged me to participate in "The Next Big Thing" or Blog-o-sphere Project. "It is a fun way for writers all over the world to connect and share information about their current writing project or upcoming book."

Julie is a published poet and the author of a young adult novel-in-poems called ESCAPING TORNADO SEASON (HarperCollins). Her new YA novel, ALL THE WORLD'S A JUMBLE will be out next year (Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan). You can read more about her projects and see her multi-media art at http://juliewilliamsimagesandwords.blogspot.com/

Read Julie's "Next Big Thing" interview at Diane Kendig's blog
So now that I’m tagged here’s my secret - I have a book waiting in the wings.

What is the working title of your book?

Animal Tales; How Animals Taught Me to Laugh

Where did the idea come from for the book?

When my extended family gets together there is a tendency to tell stories. Typically, these tales involve animals in some way and the storyteller isn’t really doing their job if the yarn doesn’t end with everyone teary-eyed from laughing. It struck me that these stories were too good to let them disappear in the verbal ether. I started to write them down.

What genre does your book fall under?

Family humor with a bit of non-fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I can see Steve Martin as my dentist uncle faced with the conundrum of disposing of a dead goat in the middle of the city and Jack Black as my dad bottle-feeding a baby rabbit and training it to sit on his shoulder like a parrot.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Growing up surrounded by animals can profoundly influence how you find humor in the unexpected.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I think I’m going to publish this as an e-book.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It started out as a few short stories, but gradually over several years it became a collection of tales.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think it is a cross between James Harriot’s “Dog Stories” and “Cat Stories” and James Thurber’s “My Life and Hard Times.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My Uncle, who is a wonderful storyteller, and my parents who brought a menagerie of animals into our home and taught me that all of these creatures were part of our family.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Animals, animals, animals.

Stay tuned for the writers I'm tagging.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pocket Gopher - Villain or Hero?

Ahh! They are back. A pocket gopher has tunneled its way to the lower area of my front yard and undermined one of my native Douglas iris. In the past this area has been beyond their reach, but not any more.
Of course, the destructive gopher hones in on what it prefers, my native plants. 

The Douglas iris in the upper left is the current gopher target.
Previous gophers have eaten the roots and rhizomes right off of my native iris in the backyard. I’ve put metal screen boxes underground around plants. I’ve planted narcissus bulbs as alleged gopher deterrents. I’ve even joined my dog in digging them out. I curse the gophers, but they do have a purpose.

Our southern-California soil has a lot of clay. 

The gopher is kicking hard-packed clay up from under the sidewalk
This element of our soil was vital to the adobe bricks that built our missions and the clay tiles of Malibu and Catalina Tile Companies. The industrious, and hungry, pocket gopher tunnels through the hard soil searching out the roots of plants. 

As it builds its underground highway it aerates the soil and mixes the sediments. It creates underground pathways for water to flow and roots to follow. The gopher’s earthen works even provide a protected highway for other animals such as worms, arthropods and especially amphibians.

The underground tunnels of pocket gophers enable salamanders and frogs to travel in a moisture controlled environment without the threat of dehydration. Remember in southern California we have six or more months without rainfall. Gopher tunnels enabled California slender salamanders to travel from my backyard down into the lower areas of the front yard.

Even sections of collapsed tunnel create homes for western fence lizards and alligator lizards.

If only the pocket gopher would eat plants I don’t want. Well, here’s the rub, it is. The root and bulb of this noxious oxalis (an African invasive) has been sheared off by the gnawing teeth of the pocket gopher.  

underside of oxalis with root sheared right off
Living underground, pocket gophers were one of the few animals that survived the volcanic eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. Tunneling activity brought nutrient rich soil up through the volcanic ash layer creating opportunity for plants to reestablish. Just as in my yard, amphibians traveled back into oases of habitat through the gopher tunnels. When large animals, like elk came into the blast area from its edges, their feet broke through the gopher tunnels mixing soil with elk droppings thereby adding seeds and nutrients to the soil.

At Mt. Saint Helens, the pocket gopher is a hero. It would be a hero in my yard if...and here is the big if... if there were a medium-sized predator to control their overpopulating and devouring my entire garden. The coyote, red-tailed hawk and great horned owl seem to be focusing their efforts else where. That leaves me the task of being the predator controlling the gopher population. If the native iris are to survive–out comes the gopher trap.