Saturday, May 30, 2009

Family Nature Walk

Explore LA's Franklin Canyon Park

Franklin Canyon is a great spot for a family outing. Our visit here began a stop at the nature center to pick up a park map. Then we strolled around "Heavenly Pond." It's brimming with turtles! Most of them aren't native. (I'm not sure any are, but a docent here has recorded a sighting of one Western Pond Turtle.) All the more reason not to worry that my son got this close to the turtles. (I'd never let him approach Western Pond Turtles as I'm especially concerned not to disturb native species.) Even so, your child should not touch any turtles. For one, we want to respect all wildlife. Two, turtles carry salmonella.  

The pond was also full of ducks: mallards, wood ducks and mandrins. This very short trail is paved and accessible to people with disabilities (also good for strollers). For best wildlife viewing, arrive early before the weekend crowds. Also, check out the native plants along the trail, including this monkey flower.

Franklin Canyon is home to smorgasbord of local and exotic plants from oaks to palms and redwoods (which don't occur naturally in So Cal). Next, we meandered the trails that rim the upper reservoir. We listened to the bird chatter coming from the cattails rimming the lake, and watched a red tailed hawk circling overhead. 

Finally, we returned to the Sooky Goldman Nature Center. Never pass up a nature center.  At this one, our son enjoyed an exhibit where he pressed a button to make a stuffed mountain lion roar. I peeked at the log where docents and visitors record the critters they've seen. Quite a few folks had seen bobcats. I surprised to find "mountain lion" on the list. I scoffed at the idea to a park ranger, only to find out he was the one who saw it. (Mountain lions are extremely rare in the Santa Monica Mountains.)

The Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority offers a variety of nature walks and activities for kids at Franklin Canyon Park.  

Other notable trails:  The short Discovery Trail and 2.3 mile Hastain trail. You can also hike (or drive) from this park--crossing Coldwater Canyon Blvd--to Coldwater Canyon Park and the Tree People Center for Community Forestry.

2600 Franklin Canyon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA  90210
You can also enter the park near intersection of Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland Drive, i.e. from the San Fernando Valley.

From Studio City, drive up Coldwater Canyon to its intersection with Mulholland. You'll see Coldwater Canyon Park on your left; that's not what you want. Instead make a gentle right onto Franklin Canyon Drive (the sign is hard to see). A sharp right would shunt you onto Mulholland. Drive down the road and turn left into the parking lot by the nature center. "Heavenly Pond" and Upper Franklin Reservoir are a short walk down the road you drove in on.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tour de Arroyo

This weekend:

Join us Saturday for the Tour de Arroyo, a ride along the Arroyo Seco sponsored by the Arroyo Seco Foundation. The ride runs ten miles from Memorial Park in Pasadena to Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown. I'm tempted to let you think I'm a stud, but I'll confess it's all downhill. Serious cyclists will ride back up. We will return on the Goldline. It's a great outing for kids who love bikes and trains. However, some of this ride will be on city streets, so it'd probably not suited to little kids, unless they're on your bike. I've been wanting to bike this route for awhile, but I'm cautious about riding streets with toddler on board. The Tour is a good opportunity to try it in the safety of the herd.

One of the great things about this trip is there are parks along the route, including Debs Park. No doubt we'll stop at some for a snack and a chance to let our toddler run around. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Planning Your California Native Garden


(Sidebar from my story "Going Native" in the May Issue of Arroyo Monthly Magazine. This version has been expanded for the blog. These photos are from my garden. )

First, I've got to brag: Look at these gorgeous mariposa lilies I grew this year! I picked them up last fall at the Theodore Payne Foundation, and planted them in spots where they won't get any summer water. Two other clusters didn't go, for reasons that elude me, but these did and I'm so, so happy. Okay, now your tips:
  1. Study up over the summer. This is not the time to start natives. But May is a great month to visit Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont to see the plants in a garden setting. Also, study your yard, especially for hot spots. “You really need to know the exposures of your garden,” says Louise Gonzalez, nursery manager at the Payne Foundation. “And your soil type. Do you have well-draining sandy-loam? Or clay soil that drains slowly?
  2. Read California Native Plants for the Garden by Bart O’Brien, Carol Bornstein, and David Fross. For plants from the other regions, try Garden Plants for Mediterranean Climates by Graham Payne.
  3. Take a class at the Theodore Payne Foundation. In fall, buy your native plants at the Payne Foundation, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden or Tree of Life Nursery (in Orange County). Most conventional nurseries don’t do a good job of stocking, caring for, or even correctly identifying natives. (One exception: Burkard’s in Pasadena.) For a cohesive look, landscape architect Guillaume LeMoine advises resist the temptation to buy one of each. “You can do a very good garden with five to seven plants. Frankly, my yard is a riot of many plants, but several do reoccur strategically.
  4. Start your plants in late fall. Generally, don’t amend your soil unless it is contaminated, and forget the fertilizer. You shouldn’t need pesticides, but will want a lot of mulch.
  5. Many of the plants are drought-tolerant, but need extra water in first few years to get established. “In general,” says Bart O’Brien of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, “winter is when they want water and can use it. Not in summer.” Some will stay greener with a deep soak once a month, but others don’t want any summer water once they’re established.
  6. Toss in some wildflowers. California poppy is one of the easiest to grow, and looks gorgeous scattered with blue lupines. I also love the bold pinks of elegant clarkia, the soft, large blooms of farewell to spring (clarkia amoena) and dainty baby blue-eyes (nemophila meniesii).

  7. Experiment with different irrigation systems. Louise Gonzalez says sprinklers or drip work equally well. Some gardeners recommend smaller micro-sprinklers. Bart O’Brien waters by hand. In my experience, you get more weeds with sprinklers.
  8. Let some plants go to seed before you prune them. Birds will flock to your yard. Many annuals will reseed, even some of your shrubs.
  9. Get your garden certified as wildlife habitat from the National Wildlife Federation. They'll send you a sign that lets passersby know about the food, water and shelter your yard provides.

Monday, May 25, 2009

California Native Plants

Grow Local Flora with Plants from Other Mediterranean Climates
for a Fragrant Garden that Blooms Throughout the Year

From the May Issue of Arroyo Monthly

When Elisa and Eric Callow purchased Gainsburgh House in La CaƱada Flintridge eight years ago, the garden wasn’t part of the allure. The house — designed by Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright — wowed them, but the yard was an unappealing mix of ivy and diseased shrubs. So Eric Callow, a financial advisor and outdoorsman, decided to try his hand at redesigning the grounds. He wanted to use plants indigenous to California “because they represent, literally, a landscape that is beautiful, under attack and which I know from my childhood.” The new garden is dominated by clusters of leafy shrubs, pockets of perennial herbaceous flowers and a meadow of wildflowers. Native gardens are commonly assumed to be brown and full of succulents, but desert-friendly plants are actually uncommon in local ecosystems. After all, most of California is not a desert; it has a Mediterranean climate — hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Most native plants are less thirsty than common garden plants, but they still create verdant, colorful gardens — even more so when they mingle with others from a similar climate.

For the past five years, the Callows’ yard has been a popular stop on the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour. The Sun Valley–based Theodore Payne Foundation has been dedicated to the understanding and preservation of California flora since 1960, but its nursery has only recently begun attracting significant numbers of homeowners and landscapers who snatch up its plants as fast as the foundation can grow them.
“People are starting to appreciate gardens for more than beauty,” says horticulturist Lili Singer, who organizes the annual Native Garden Tour. “Gardens are also about the environment and ecology. And the misconceptions about native gardens are falling away. You can do any style of garden, even formal if you don’t want a wild look.” In the Callows’ garden, Elisa points out a few of her favorites: native irises (Iris douglasiana) and coral bells (Heuchera), a delicate plant with bell-shaped flowers that dangle from long, thin stalks. “For something that’s so constructed and organized, it still has a feeling of naturalness, which I like,” she says. She’s also pleased with the many birds and bees the plants attract.
Most of the Callows’ plants are indigenous to Southern California’s two dominant hillside habitats: chaparral and coastal sage scrub. Chaparral plants are usually large evergreens and include such crowd-pleasers as ceonothus — which sports clusters of blue or white blossoms reminiscent of lilacs — and manzanita, prized for its red bark, tiny, urn-shaped flowers and berries that resemble little apples. Aromatic sages, dominant in a sage-scrub habitat, unfurl tiered whorls of petite flowers that hummingbirds adore. In the wild, most of this plant community has been lost to bulldozers.
At first, some of the Callows’ friends were unimpressed with their garden. “They’d say, ‘Why do you have all these weeds in your backyard?’” recalls Elisa, founding director of the Armory Center for the Arts. Now, many of the plants have matured, and they’re gaining more fans. “People love sitting outside when we entertain,” she says. “Our garden has a lot of variety. A more traditional garden is flat lawn and a bed around the perimeter; there’s nowhere for your eye to go. This has a feeling of depth.” And the garden itself is now much healthier.

Only five regions on earth have a Mediterranean climate — most of California, the Mediterranean itself, South Africa’s Cape area, parts of southern Australia and a slice of central Chile — and all produce plants with similar characteristics, including small, thick, leathery leaves with a waxy or hairy coat, which help them retain moisture. Because these plants need similar conditions, they make good companions in the garden.
Some well-known Mediterranean examples are lavender, rosemary, creeping thyme and rockrose. Glendale landscape architect Guillaume Lemoine of Picture This Land also recommends these plants: olive tree, tree mallow (Lavatera arborea), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) and Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa). “One of my favorites is Santolina,” he says. “It has little red balls at the end of long stems. I like to cut and dry them.”
Dappling your native garden with Mediterranean-climate plants from various regions can extend bloom time and boost the number of larger flowers. Plants from the Southern Hemisphere can retain their blooming cycle when moved north, according to horticulturist Singer. “They think it’s summer when it’s really winter,” she says, “so it broadens our palette; we can get 12 months of color.”
South African and Mediterranean bulbs such as daffodils, freesias, gladiolus and Amaryllis belladonna are also good choices. They naturalize well in Southern California gardens, because they can tolerate our dry spells. Singer also recommends South African harlequin flower (Sparaxis), crocus and species tulips (the wild ones from the Mediterranean, not the more common Dutch varieties that struggle here).
Bart O’Brien, co-author of “California Native Plants for the Garden” (Cachuma Press; Dec. 2005), combines flora from several Mediterranean climates in his Upland garden.
But he cautions that plants from elsewhere don’t tolerate drought as well as natives. “California’s climate is the most extreme,” he says. “We have the longest dry periods.” For late summer/early fall blooms, O’Brien, of Claremont’s Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, recommends California fuchsias.
But don’t expect most of these plants to be at their best at the end of summer. They’re accustomed to slowing growth or becoming dormant when it’s so hot and dry. Still, native/Mediterranean gardens aren’t just about flowers. Varied shades — especially grey-greens — and textures of foliage are part of their appeal. “On the East Coast, when it stops raining, they let their lawns go brown,” says Elisa. “They don’t water. We have to get used to that — that things do have a splendid season. You can’t control what happens in nature, and you live with it.”
Besides, many people retreat indoors in August. “In the heat of the summer, it’s not nice to be in my front yard,” O’Brien says. “Right now is more when I want to be in the yard doing things. And now is when there’s a lot of color.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Family Camping


I adore the Angeles Forest high country. The fact that it's only an hour's drive from my house only increases my admiration. The glorious conifers--Jeffrey, Coulter and Sugar Pines, Incense Cedars and Bigcone Doulas Firs--the exposed granite, the shushing of winds sliding up and down the canyons, the possibility of water and a wildlife encounter.

I've day hiked this forest a lot. But these days--with a little kid in tow--the best way to get at it is to camp. We recently invited our friends from Ramshackle Solid to join us at the Chilao Campgound, about 27 miles up the Angeles Crest Highway from La Canada. 

Chilao is a good choice if you're camping with young children. There are several flat campsites, piped water, and an easy trail nearby. We staked our tents at sites 3 & 4 in the Little Pines section of Chilao. (Like all campground in this forest, the only toilets are pit toilets, so don't look down! ) We arrived Thursday afternoon to enjoy a quieter campground. (It can be somewhat crowded here on summer weekends.)

Before leaving I called the district ranger's office to check conditions, verify water availability and campfire regulations, and get recommendations. The Forest Service also posts campground info on its website. In this forest "Be Aware of Bear Activity" means put all your food and smelly stuff (including toiletries) in your car. Try that in Sequoia National Park you'll be ticketed and perhaps have your car trashed by bears.

The ranger recommended the Little Pines Loop. It's not signed, but I guessed that it's this one: From Little Pines Campground head back to the main Chilao road. (This road loops from the campground to the picnic area and defunct visitor center.) Look for the trail that's behind the sign pointing to the campgrounds. We picked up the stretch of the trail that parallels the road. Much of it is flat, and fairly shady. 

It's a lovely trail, but I have to admit to some disappointment. Drought has really dried up the Chilao area. What I remembered as a lovely meadow with a tinkling creek was bone dry in early May. And it was hotter than I'd expected. I'm also wistful about the days when there was a sweet visitor center here. Sadly, the Forest Service has closed it indefinitely because of lack of money to repair, maintain and staff it. 

If you have older kids--or a baby that won't be hoofing it himself--I recommend the Buckhorn Campground, six miles up the road from Chilao

Once again, the highlight of the trip for our two-year-old was the campfire. This time he got to roast marshmallows--and make banana boats! Our friends showed us how to insert our marshmallows and chocolate into a banana, wrap it in foil and roast it.  

Another favorite campsite activity: swinging--and wrestling--in a pair of hammocks. I enjoyed a glimpse of some western bluebirds. Our friends spied on some grey squirrels. Scarlet bugler (Penstemon centrathifolius) and ceanothus were blooming around the campground.

We also sampled the silver moccasin trail, which runs through the area. You can pick it up next to Little Pines campsite #36 (or was it 38?).  Please bring a trail map/trail book with you. I use John Robinson's Trails of the Angeles (the 8th edition). But his map only includes the trails he describes, so I recommend picking up a topo map.  

Saturday we hiked a fire road from Cloudburst Summit into Cooper Canyon. The trail ultimately leads you into a gorgeous (steep) canyon and drops you at Buckhorn Campground, but we didn't get that far. (It's hike #61 in Trails of the Angeles.) The boys ran downhill exuberantly; then petered out and demanded to be carried back (uphill, of course). I enjoyed seeing the blooming lupine; we even got a look at a snow plant. This all red plant doesn't contain chlorophyll. It feeds off the roots of nearby pines and the humus that accumulates under them. 
Other good hikes for kids in the area
  • Charlton Flat to Vetter Mountain Lookout. It's two miles roundtrip, much of it on paved road. (#55 in Trails of the Angeles)
  • Chilao to Horse Flats. This trail is steeper. It's been a while since I hiked it, so it might not be ideal for little ones (#58 in book)
More on this trip from Ramshackle Solid.

Here's my camping checklist. And an Amazon link to the Robinson book. (Yes, I get %10 if you buy it from this link.) The campground fee is $12 a night.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Picnic in the Park

Gather with Friends at Debs Park

One of our favorite spots for a leisurely Saturday or Sunday afternoon is Ernest E. Debs Regional Park. It's one of LA County's best kept secrets. Okay, I'll tell you: Debs is located in the Monterrey Hills (Highland Park/Montecito Heights). We like to meet friends here for a stroll and picnic. We did so recently with our friends Dan and Leslie and their two-year-old son.

We strolled the boys up the closed road to the right of the parking lot.  It takes you uphill to good views of the city, nearby hillsides and the San Gabriel Mountains. Lesley spotted the Southwest Museum.  

The boys enjoyed watching older kids fishing in a pond. I pointed out some turtles lounging on a log. 

Then it was back to the picnic area for some food, (toy) truck driving, and a swing in the hammock.

The park has a couple of large grassy areas, picnic tables (many in the shade), barbeque pits, and is frequented by an ice cream truck. It's also a great place to spot birds such as western bluebird, western tanager, yellow rumped warbler, and red tailed hawk. (Ornithologist Dan Cooper has surveyed birds here.)

Our basic picnic supplies are
  • Picnic "basket": ours is a backpack already stuffed with reusable plates, forks, glasses, napkins, table cloth, bottle opener, etc. You can buy one or make one.
  • Picnic blanket: we like the kind that are backed with water-resistant material, fold up into a square with handle to sling over your shoulder. We currently keep a Woolrich travel blanket in my car--ready for a picnic or just a snack at the park.
  • Diaper bag with bib and toddler utensils
  • Bag with ball and other toys
  • Lightweight hammock
  • Stroller 
Debs Park is easily accessible from downtown Los Angeles, the eastern San Fernando and western San Gabriel Valleys, as well as the 110 and 5 freeways. More from me on Debs Park.

Do you have a favorite picnic spot? Please let us know.

At the Zoo, Too

Much to Do at the Los Angeles Zoo

My son and I so enjoyed our last helping of the Zoo's Toddler Totes program that we recently went back for another helping. We were delighted to have Megan as our teacher again. 

The theme this time was Tons of Teeth. The kids learned how animals use their teeth, and and took a peek at fossil--and real--jaws.

On our stroll with Megan, we got another good look at Reggie the alligator and the silverback (Gorilla).

We've signed up for next month's class on "animal costumes." More on Toddler Totes.

On your next trip to the Zoo, check out the native plants  around the perimeter of the parking lot.  I enjoyed seeing matilija poppy and sages blossoming underneath the oak and sycamore trees.

If you have extra time, sample some of these Griffith Park attractions: the Merry-Go-Round and the nearby Shane's Inspiration Universal Access Playground. My son also loves the pony rides and the adjacent Griffith Park and Southern Railroad. Cluster these activities for a fun afternoon with friends and/or family. Click here for a Griffith Park hike.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gardening with Kids

Beep! Beep! Machines at Work

I'm ambivalent about cars. I appreciate the mobility, but don't like all the pavement and pollution. Trucks, construction equipment and other diesel-powered machines are especially dirty. But these days, drive around with me and you're likely to hear, "There's a Backhoe!" and "look at that excavator. Wow! That's a big one." Yes, I have a son. 

He likes the garden. But nothing compares to his passion for trucks. So I've combined our interests with these dump truck activities:
  • Transporting potting soil/compost around the garden. In the picture above, he's spreading a thin layer of dirt on top of some lettuce seeds, dropped around a newly transplanted tomato seedling.
  • Mommy pulls weeds. He drives them to the compost bin. "The bugs eat them and make soil for our garden," he reminds me. 
  • Moving rocks and pebbles. Okay, this doesn't need to be done, but it keeps him busy while I work.
My son's little watering can is perfect for wetting seedlings. I also use his tiny trowels for transplanting. You can get kiddie gardening kits at toy stores and garden shops. I like our Pottery Barn set because the trowels and rake are more sturdy--they're metal and wood instead of plastic. The kit also included a spray bottle, which is a big hit.

Other garden activities for little kids
  • Plant seeds. Pumpkins and melons are fun and easy
  • Patrol garden, watch things growing
  • Pick fruits and vegetables
  • Pull weeds---maybe (If you think your kid can limit her grip to weeds and not pull plants you want to keep.) 
  • Observe butterflies, bees, and other bugs 
  • To support wildlife, garden with native plants
  • Pick flowers (Be sure to plant some things you won't mind losing to your critter. I point my son at wildflowers that reseed vigorously, such as California poppy.)
  • Buy and release store-bought lady bugs
  • Grow and release painted lady butterflies
  • Hang a bird feeder
  • Maintain a bird bath
  • Compost with worms. Your kid won't need a dog or a bunny; he'll have hundreds of pets. Stay tuned for a post on our Can 'O Worms.
Do you have a favorite gardening project for kids? Please share it.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Urban Homestead

City Slickers Revive The Family Farm

By Ilsa Setziol 

From the May Issue of Arroyo Monthly 

You know you’re middle-aged when you get nostalgic for things you hated — or whose charms eluded you — as a child. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, in the 1970s, I longed for Oreo cookies and Lucky Charms — anything with a brand name. Instead, I settled for mom’s zucchini bread baked with homegrown squash. My parents also grew carrots, artichokes, lettuce and rhubarb. Like many in town, they were a bit anti-establishment, but mostly, they gardened to save money.  

As I ripened, my taste improved, and homegrown and homemade food became more important, especially after the birth of my son. Now that my husband and I are underemployed, with more time on (and less money in) our hands, we’ve expanded our repertoire beyond a few tomatoes and too many zucchinis. 
And we’re not alone. In Southern California, and across the nation, there’s a mushrooming movement of people who grow their own food. “There’s a lot more interest in landscapes that do something — provide food or attract pollinators,” says Los Angeles horticulturist Lora Hall of Full Circle Gardening. “People want more than just a lawn.”The National Gardening Association says 43 million American households plan to plant edible gardens this year, a 19 percent increase over last year. And Frank Burkard of Pasadena’s Burkard Nurseries says sales of vegetable plants are up 30 percent.
Even the ultimate American household is in on the trend. In March, First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of schoolchildren planted the first White House kitchen garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II victory garden. “I want to make sure that our family, as well as the staff and all the people who come to the White House and eat our food, get access to really fresh vegetables and fruit,” Obama said. 

Some industrious folks are going even further. They’re turning their urban and suburban homes into something akin to an old-fashioned family farm. Many of these people also preserve some of their harvest, maybe brew their own beer and tinker with various DIY projects around the house. The gardens are organic; composting is de rigueur. When I met this new breed of urban homesteader, my ambitions — and notions of what’s possible — grew a lot bigger. 
In Eagle Rock, assistant set designer Peggy Casey created a sunny, intimate garden that proves edible plants can be aesthetically appealing and don’t need to be confined to homogeneous rows. In her west yard, lacy spring-green cilantro is flanked by jungle-green, broad-leafed bok choy; orange and yellow carrot tops peek out of rich brown soil.
Next to this raised bed, at ground level, vegetables mingle with ornamentals: Spinach neighbors deep-pink carnations, purple sage and blue-blossomed rosemary.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than growing your own food,” Casey says. “I base my meals on whatever is happening in my vegetable beds.” She cans extra heirloom tomatoes or chops them into a pesto that she freezes in cubes. She makes jelly and a sweet barbeque sauce from the fruit of her pink guava tree. Her husband, Erik Hillard, brews beer in their basement and hopes to dabble in wine one day.

Casey and I share an enthusiasm for fish emulsion fertilizer, I discover, but for the most part, she’s out of my league. She’s been gardening since she was a kid, having learned from her parents (she paid attention) and others at a communal plot in Santa Barbara during the 1970s. This spring, she is also growing brussels sprouts, snap peas, beets, broccoli, chard, onions and a variety of lettuces. “I try to seed everything myself,” she says. “so I save my seed.” 

I have abandoned several books about organic gardening, all written by people on the East Coast. Many advise starting vegetables and herbs such as peas and cilantro in late spring or summer. My cilantro bolted before I could harvest any. To solve the problem and grow more myself, I hired master gardener Marta Teegan of Homegrown Los Angeles last year to design a kitchen garden customized for our climate. 
Casey sympathizes and recommends two books (although she doesn’t use any of the pesticides or synthetic fertilizers they discuss in her organic garden): “Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening” (Chronicle Books; Dec. 1999) and “52 Weeks in A California Garden” by Robert 
Smaus (L.A. Times Syndicate Books; July 1996). Casey also likes a book that has fast become one of my favorites: “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City” by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Process; June 2008). What this couple is doing is so cool, I had to meet them. 
When I arrive at their house in Edendale, between Echo Park and Silverlake, I notice there isn’t a lawn. The front and back yards are a tangle of edible and medicinal plants. In raised beds covering the street strip — that normally barren patch between the sidewalk and the street — sweet peas climb an obelisk-shaped trellis, and cabbages as big as basketballs unfurl veiny leaves. 
As we climb up their steep front yard, Knutzen points out several vegetables I recognize — asparagus, garlic, sorrel, fava beans and Swiss chard — as well as some I don’t, such as Jew’s mallow (a green popular in the Middle East) and cardoon (an aster with an artichoke-like flavor, common in colonial American gardens). Coyne and Knutzen also grow tree collards, artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes. “We really like perennial vegetables,” Knutzen explains, “because I’m lazy and don’t like to replant stuff constantly.” 
Elsewhere in the yard, a drip irrigation system waters plants most gardeners don’t nurture: dandelion, chickweed, purselain and stinging nettle. Coyne dries the nettles, then brews them into tea, and tosses chickweed into her stir-fries and salads. Europeans brought many of the plants we consider weeds to the Americas as potherbs — wild greens to toss in the stew pot. 
 The couple’s yard and their yellow 1920s bungalow are filled with DIY projects: a compost bin made from tires picked off the street, a solar oven cobbl
ed from cardboard and tinfoil, a homemade solar dehydrator, a gray-water system that pipes used laundry water to the garden and self-watering pots fashioned from plastic storage bins. 
I’m curious how this all came about. Coyne is a former administrative director of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, dedicated to obscure fields of knowledge, and Knutzen is a program coordinator for the neighboring Center for Land Use Interpretation. When they bought their home a decade ago, the couple couldn’t muster enough interest to start a lawn and didn’t want to futz with flowers. “Why grow a lawn when we could grow something useful?” Knutzen says. “I suspect our carbon footprint is quite low,” adds Coyne, “but that was never our intention. It just so happens that a commonsensical style of living is, by default, green living.” 
In Pasadena, the Dervaes family — Jules and his three adult children — grow about 6,000 pounds of produce a year on a fifth of an acre north of the Foothill Freeway. They supply local restaurants and document their lifestyle on the website They also brew their own biodiesel, power their house with solar panels and bake in a cob oven — a stove fueled by scraps of wood and twigs from their property.
The family declined to be interviewed for this story. Spokeswoman Janice Bakke said, “They are the original urban homesteaders” and didn’t want to participate in a story that included the authors of “The Urban Homestead,” with whom they have a dispute. She said the Dervaeses claim ownership of the term “urban homestead” and believe Coyne and Knutzen have infringed upon it. Knutzen and Coyne say neither the family nor its representatives have been in contact with them. 
The Dervaeses are also involved in another organic gardening trend: keeping livestock in the city. They tend chickens, ducks and a couple of goats. Livestock are useful for organic gardeners, who don’t apply synthetic chemicals and rely on manures and compost to supply nitrogen to their plants. 

After years of pleading, Casey has convinced her spouse to help her build a henhouse and chicken run. Soon, three hens — no roosters — will move in. In addition to better compost, Casey is looking forward to fresher eggs with less cholesterol. 
Coyne and Knutzen own four hens and give tips on raising ducks, pigeons, quail and rabbits in the city. “No! We’re not getting rabbits!” That’s my husband yelling into his cell phone when I inform him that rabbit poop is especially high in nitrogen, and, by the way, our son loves bunnies. My son will have to settle for pet worms. (Worm castings are another popular organic fertilizer.)
Back at the Coyne-Knutzen homestead, the couple ushers me into their kitchen, where the cupboards brim with mason jars. Coyne pulls a few off the shelves — homemade marmalade made with a neighbor’s grapefruits, lacto-
fermented (brined) pickles, apple cider vinegar, pickled okra and hot peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and honey from their beekeeping club.
As I wrap up my visit, I wonder aloud if my husband and I could keep on top of so many projects. “We don’t suggest people try to do all these things,” Knutzen says. “We’d just be happy if someone did one or two to start out.” Coyne hopes people will feel more empowered, one project at a time. “Once you’ve mastered one thing and it’s integrated into your routine, then you add something else, so your skill set builds,” she says. “And slowly your house is transformed.”
I take these words to heart. Within a few weeks, I’ve cracked some new garden books and sprouted some basil, tomato and pumpkin seeds. And I’m still surveying my yard for any promising patch of open ground. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Butterflies Are Back

Pavilion of Wings at the LA County Natural History Museum

The butterflies have returned to the Natural History Museum. You'll find them in the Pavilion of Wings exhibit outside the museum. 

In this outdoor exhibit, monarchs, painted ladies, swallow tails, buckeyes and other butterflies flit around you. Common buckeye (Junonia coenia) and painted lady (Vanessa cardui) are two of species you're most likely to see around Southern California.

After watching butterflies sip from flowers, don't be surprised if your toddler wants to taste the flora around your home. (I've had to brush up on which of my plants are poisonous and which not.)  If you're interested in raising butterflies at home, you can purchase a kit in the pavilion gift shop. (See my post for details on this fun project.) The butterfly exhibit is open through early September.

On our recent visit, my son and I--along with our friends from Ramshackle Solid--also went back for another helping of the exciting Dinosaur Encounters. We were rewarded with a look at the triceratops puppet. This life-sized replica of a juvenile is manned by two puppeteers. The kids learned that triceratops is an herbivore. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

It's All Happening at the LA Zoo

Play and Learn at the Los Angeles Zoo

Before I forget: there's a new baby at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. A month-old giraffe. Mind you, we didn't see it because my squirmy toddler was intent on seeing the excavators working on the new elephant enclosure. But we've enjoyed the giraffes in past visits, including the youngster pictured above.

A recent visit included our first experience of the zoo's Toddler Totes program. These are short, themed classes for little kids. Last month it was "The Nose Knows." Toddlers and parents gathered in a classroom. The kids played with animal toys, listened to a (short) book about how animals use their noses, and were given orange-smelling canisters to sniff. Then we darted through the zoo to visit three animals--including this tapir--and observe how they use their noses. The teacher lent the kids small backpacks with animal cards and props, such as wooden eggs similar to those swans push around with their noses (beaks).

At the end, the teacher gave out booklets about animal noses. I thought it was well worth the $10 fee ($13 for non-members). The only trick with these classes is you have to register in advance, and the Zoo staff doesn't make it particularly easy. You have to fax or mail in a registration form that is found in the zoo newsletter. If you're not a member, you need to call to have it faxed or mailed to you. The topics and times are available on the Zoo's website.

I wouldn't drive across town just for the class: after all, it's intended for wee attention spans. But it's a great addition to a zoo visit. For three- and four-year-olds, check out Critter 'N Kids classes. The Zoo also offers programs for older kids. For the little ones, be sure to bring a stroller as you'll cover a fair amount of ground. 

On our last two visits we've been delighted to see Reggie. He's the 120 pound alligator that some fool released into Lake Machado in Harbor City (when he grew too big to keep as a pet). For two years, city workers and outside contractors tried and failed to capture Reggie. In 2007, a zoo reptile expert and others finally snagged and relocated him to the Zoo. Not long after, he scaled the chain-link fence, breaking free of his enclosure.  (He was put back and the area refortified.)

Look for Reggie near the entrance--to the right, at the top of the stairs. Just before the flamingos, keep an eye out for the meerkats. Kids can get a close-up view of these cuties, who don't seem to mind so many squirming, squealing human critters nearby. 

There are a lot of must-see animals at the Los Angeles Zoo: the hippo, tiger, lions, chimpanzees, kangaroos, koalas, billy the elephant, etc. Don't miss the gorillas. They are especially thrilling to observe. And, for little kids, the petting zoo is big fun.

The Los Angeles Zoo has generous membership terms and benefits. For example, you can include a nanny AND her kids on your membership. Members receive a newsletter and the Zoo magazine, which keep you apprised of critter happenings and special events. 

5333 Zoo Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90027