Monday, September 15, 2014


This week we’re talking Monarchs, as in the butterfly. These lovely butterflies are easily the most widely recognizable, as well as the most popular of their kind. What you may not know is that their numbers have taken a frightening downward spiral in the last two decades. Experts have stated that the number of these pollinators has decreased more than 90% due to environmental factors and lack of food source.

Monarchs need milkweed to reproduce and feed their caterpillars. Planting multiple native varieties is a good way to invite Monarchs and other butterflies to your yard. So what can you do to help the disappearing Monarchs? Plant milkweed or if you have farmland do not spray milkweed with herbicides. You can also look at planting a butterfly garden in your yard. Plant milkweed with the kids and study the life cycle of the Monarch. It will be an activity they will never forget.

Milkweeds seeds can sometimes be hard to find; you’re looking for milkweed that grows in our area (native milkweed). There are now websites that specialize in trading seeds or sending you seeds for free. 

You can also find seed bombs and plugs on sites like Amazon, but it’s important to plant milkweed native to this area. I’ve taken the following explanation from, “The alkaloids associated with [Monarch] milkweed and other milkweeds give the monarch and other butterflies that feed on it protection from predators. Alkaloids from the wrong milkweed (South American, Mexican, etc.) can expose the butterflies to predation. If the monarch or other butterfly has not evolved with the milkweed they may have limited tolerance for the particular alkaloid or latex of the plant species.”

HERE is a list of California milkweeds, but here are some of the varieties that work well for our area: Purple milkweed, Heartleaved milkweed, Desert milkweed, Monarch Milkweed and Wooly Milkweed.

If you’d like to learn more, you can attend a free, public program entitled “Monarchs and Milkweed” this Thursday, Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Three Rivers Library.  The program will be presented by Marcia Goldstein, Master Gardener, and Carole Clum, nature advocate, who will discuss how the milkweed plant can help the fragile butterflies survive and thrive in local gardens. For more information call (559) 561-4564.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

Living History: Part III....

As I look out at the large patch of dead lawn in front of our house I can’t help but feel discouraged. We wanted to do our part during this drought so we decided to forego watering our Bermuda lawn this summer. It looks awful, but it’s difficult for me to justify pouring gallons of water on our lawn when I hear daily about communities and farmers struggling. To quote the sign that sits on our former lawn, “brown is the new green.”

But in the midst of the drought I am hopeful that many will begin to change to way we do things, whether it ‘s curbing our water usage at home or looking at our local living history to help repair the land. One of the easiest ways to curb your water usage is to remove a portion or all of your lawn.

If you have sod, this usually just requires a sod cutter or smothering the grass with layers of cardboard and mulch; if you have deep rooted Bermuda this will most likely require chemicals and digging. Consider hardscaping if you’d like an area to sit and relax or a play area for the kids to fill with mulch or sand.  The next step is mulching to help keep weeds down. Natural wood mulch is great if you plan on planting natives, but of course there are many choices for mulch so feel free to find one that suits your style.  

Local nurseries are stocking more drought tolerant plants that ever so don’t feel that succulents and cactus are your only drought tolerant choices. There are plenty of beautiful “cottage garden” types of plants that do well without a lot of water. And of course there are native plants that will turn your yard into a paradise for beneficial insects, birds, etc. While not all California natives are drought tolerant, those native to our area (Central Oak Woodland, Shadscale Scrub) will do just fine. HERE is some more information on native plants in the San Joaquin Valley. 

It can be hard to say goodbye to our lush, green lawns, but there are plenty of wonderful alternatives.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Living History: Part II....

Central oak woodland located along Hwy 198 via my iPhone

I had to laugh as I read last week’s column earlier today. I kept using the word “sampling” when I meant “sapling.” Please forgive the error.  I could blame auto-correct, but anyone who knows me, knows better. Anyway, this week we’re taking a closer look at our local plant community: central oak woodland or central Valley Oak woodland.

Now according to a rather exhaustive zip code search of native plant communities on (Las Pilitas is made up of two California plant nurseries that also serve as amazing sources of information on native plants), most of this area was central oak woodland. Exeter in particular was considered part Shadscale scrub (Shadscale bushes/wildflowers) and part central oak woodland; Farmersville the same.  Lindsay is listed as solely central oak woodland.  Three Rivers was listed as both central oak woodland and chaparral. Woodlake for whatever reason was not listed. Most of these areas, if not in use as farmland or urban development are now annual grasslands (basically fields of weeds).

Often when we read the words "central oak woodland" we picture Kaweah Oaks preserve, but the definition is actually much broader. I’ll again refer to Las Pilitas since the explanation on their website sums it up perfectly, “Under the term oak woodland are three variations that we have observed: Oak Woodlands, where the oaks and pines were fairly close together mixed in with tall and short shrubs, and openings of wildflowers, forbs and few grasses; Oak Savanna, where the trees were a good distance apart, mostly few to no shrubs, and between was mostly forbs with little grass. (the woods were thickets in some places), and Oak Forest where the oaks and pines were touching and there were several layers of understory, from tall shrubs to short shrubs to perennial and annual forbs, with a very small amount of grass.” 

Then there is the Kaweah Oaks Preserve area which is actually riparian oak woodland, which means it is located along or close to water (rivers, streams, lakes, etc.) or areas that flood. Oak trees and Valley Oaks in particular know how to dig deep to locate water even in times of drought; though the recent lack of flooding and wildfire suppression have limited local oak regeneration and health. While many of the Central Valley oaks are on private land or are protected, there are still plenty of areas that are vulnerable.

According to the California Oaks Foundation more than 300 species of amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds depend on oaks for food and shelter. That number does not include the large amount of insects and vegetation that also rely on the oaks. And no surprise, as oak woodlands disappear, area climates change. We are very fortunate to live in an area where oak preservation has occurred, at least on some level. These trees are as I said last week, our living history. As they tower over us as we drive Hwy 198 or grow below us in our own backyards, they link us to our local past and offer us solutions for the future.

More in a couple weeks; until then. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Living History: Part I....

The back road up to Springville a couple years back

It all started a couple years back in the spring when I noticed a small sapling growing on the west side of our backyard. I identified it as a Valley Oak sapling of all things and didn't think much of it at first until I noticed more. I then counted nine saplings, all oak varieties, sporadically growing in the neglected leaf mulch on that side of the backyard. Soon I had more questions than answers not only about the very land on which our house sits, but how California looked many years ago. It was time to do some digging (mostly in books) about our past and examine our “living” history.

It’s difficult to imagine what our valley, and of course California looked like before housing tracks, farming and industry took over. The Kaweah Oaks preserve provides us with a glimpse into what the local land looked like before it was settled and I’m reminded that we’re pretty lucky to have it every time I drive on 198. 

The state itself is made up of an amazing range of plant communities from deserts to lush woodlands and prior to European influence California’s wildlife and vegetation was as diverse as it gets. The Native American populations lived in harmony with their surroundings and had little impact on the native species. When settlers arrived they brought with them their familiar food, animals and agricultural practices. They also introduced certain invasive weed seeds that took hold of the land and still fill our fields and front yards today.

The landscape of California began to change and as more and more settlers arrived, the land itself began to look completely different. Lakes and marshes were drained for irrigation, woodlands were cleared for grazing and farming, and fields of wildflowers became cities and towns. 

Fast forward to post World War II when housing tracks encouraged homeowners to plant exotic plants and lush lawns. And here we are today in the middle of a frightening drought carrying on those traditions because we don’t know what else to do.

But despite the drought and without the help of gardening tools or amendments, native species still grow and thrive. They are our living history. They serve as both a reminder of a past and as a source of hope for the future.  As we look at ways to navigate the challenges provided to us by the drought, I hope more people will take a look back and consider using species that have called California their home for longer than we can imagine. They've weathered historic droughts before and could show us a thing or two on how to do the same.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at the Central Oak Woodland community which spanned the Valley and then some, many years ago. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


I had the pleasure of attending the Sequoia Riverlands Trust’s “Bat Talk” with Fresno Chaffee Zoo wildlife biologist Burleigh Lockwood (a.k.a. the Bat Lady) on July 19 at Kaweah Oaks Preserve. It was utterly entertaining, informative and enlightening; as most Sequoia Riverlands Trust events are. If you have a chance to ever attend one of their educational events, you won’t regret it.

Bats get a bad rap. Maybe it’s their rodent-like looks (they are actually mammals) or the folklore that surrounds them, but many people associate bats with negative things. The ironic thing is that bats are an essential asset to our environment.

Here are some quick facts that stuck out from the talk:
  •   One little bat can easily eat their weight in insects in one night; sometimes 1000 bugs an hour
  •   California is home to more than 25 types of bats
  •  Bats use echolocation to sense prey, and the sound is so high we cannot hear it with human ears
  •  If you find a bat in your yard call the “Bat Lady” at the Chaffee Zoo or a wildlife rescue organization
  • Bats do not attempt to get in our hair or scare us at close range on purpose, their internal navigation system is simply short range and they travel at high speeds
  • “Vampire Bats” live only in South America and they do not suck blood like in movies; they lap a small amount with itty bitty tongues. Also they usually only do this from livestock or poultry who have no idea what’s happening.
  • Bat poop or guano is an amazing (and expensive) garden fertilizer
  • Bats eat the worst of the worst bugs like cutworms, mosquitoes and more

Lockwood also addressed the rabies issue saying that we have a 1/10 of 1 percent chance of getting rabies from a bat and that you are more likely to get rabies from a cow. She also said that you should use caution with any wild animal you encounter and never pick up any animal with your bare hands.

The most frightening piece of information that Lockwood gave had to do with something called White-nose Syndrome, which has killed more than 5.7 million bats in Eastern North America. It’s a fungus spread from contact with caves overseas. It’s spreading across the United States at an alarming rate and takes out entire bat populations as it goes. The Organization for Bat Conservation had some sound advice, “cavers are asked to continue to observe all cave closures and advisories, and to avoid caves or passages of caves containing large hibernating populations of any bat species. Everyone should follow proper decontamination protocols when visiting caves, mines, or coming in contact with bats.”

It all comes down to education and conservation Consider putting up a bat house using information from and gardening with wildlife in mind. Learn and educate others about these amazing creatures and put those vampire myths to rest. The only ones who should be scared are bugs.

For more information about Sequoia Riverlands Trust visit

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Heat....

Lovely summer sunset on our block.
This summer heat is the pits, but there are some things it’s actually good for. Here are some homestead related tasks that get help from the heat.

Sun drying foods
You may have thought “it’s like an oven out here” sometime this summer. So why not use this outside oven to do a little “baking?” From tomatoes to raisins, sun dying is relatively easy, especially on triple-digit days. You can buy a sun drying food rack/dehydrator or make your own (most likely the cheaper option). We made a very simple one a few years back using a standard baking pan and a picnic food netting mini-umbrella (keeps the bugs out) and were able to make great sun-dried tomatoes out of our Romas. Bring the pan or dryer in at night to lessen the risk of spoilage. You can also dry indoors via a sunny window or in a warm, dry room. This is a good option for herbs.

Weed killing
Conventional weed killers work better when it’s hot, as do natural killers. Here’s a recipe we've used on extra hot days using a standard weed spraying container you’d use for the conventional stuff (don’t reuse one that conventional herbicides were in): 

Homemade Weed Spray
1 gallon white vinegar
3 TBSPs of liquid castile soap (try Dr. Bonners) or liquid Dawn 
1/2 cup salt (we used kosher salt). 
Shake and then squirt.

Leave out the salt if you plan to plant anything there for awhile. Spray the roots and leaves of the weed(s). While your yard might smell of pickles for a little bit (the vinegar is to blame), it works well and you don’t have to worry about using it around kids or pets. It will kill most weeds, but some like crabgrass may need more than one application. Again triple-digit days are best for this. Spray in the morning and then get out of the heat.

Solar cooking
You can buy a fancy solar cooker for around $250. Some people make their own, which is a great cost effective option since there are loads of how-to online tutorials and videos out there.  Solar cookers sit outside utilizing sunlight to slow cook food and some can get above 300º F. They will also not heat up the inside of your house. Research solar cookers and you’ll be amazed what these little babies can cook up.

Everyone knows that before dryers, the sun did all the work of drying clothes. If you’re looking to lower a portion of your gas or electric bill sun drying is a great idea especially for bulky cottons and whites. You can wash and dry a giant load of towels easily this way. If they are a bit stiff throw them in the dryer for about 10 minutes and they’ll find their fluffiness. For whites, sun-drying is perfect because the sun does its own bleaching action as whites hang on the line.

So there you have it; time to utilize that summer heat!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


My Great-Grandma Pauline was known for many things, including her yummy pies and homemade cobblers.  Sorting through my Grandma June’s recipe book I found a handwritten copy of Grandma Pauline’s famous peach cobbler and I’d thought I’d share. It’s perfect for summer gatherings and as a late night sweet treat. Enjoy!

Pauline’s Peach Cobbler
1 dozen fresh, small peaches (pealed and cut into small pieces)
1 tablespoon butter
One prepared crust to place on top* (recipe below)
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water

Put cut peaches in a saucepan. Add sugar and water and cook over medium heat until syrupy and sweet, stirring constantly. Add butter and mix. Put mixture in casserole or baking pan. Place crust over top making ridge around edge. Make slits in crust. Sprinkle sugar and dot butter on crust. Bake at 425 -450 degrees for 30 minutes.

1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup shortening
¼ cup ice-water

Sift together salt and flour. Cut in shortening. Add water. Mix and then chill dough for one hour (chilling will make the dough easier to handle). Flour surface and roll to fit baking pan.   

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Fly the Flag....

Flag and in the background are "Veterans' Honor" roses.

There's something so lovely about looking down Pine Street in downtown Exeter and seeing all the American Flags waving in the summer breeze. Drive around town and you might see patriotic buntings and more flags. It's a wonderful thing. Our family likes to put a flag out front at the beginning of summer, but I'll be honest, I didn't always think about flying the flag like I do now. While I always considered myself a proud American it wasn't until I interviewed Leonard Hansen from Woodlake back when I was a reporter that I started to really think about the flag in a new way. For Hansen, a World War II veteran and POW, the flag was truly a symbol of hope in the midst of chaos.

Hansen was a Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps when the B-17 he was co-piloting was hit during its third mission. Two of their engines were smoking badly and one propeller was without power. The plane would have to land. Once on the ground the plane's crew encountered German fire. The five crew members exited the plane, which had become engulfed in flames, but were surrounded by German soldiers. They were given medical treatment and told that the Red Cross would notify their families that they were alive. Hansen was transferred to Dulag Luft near Frankfurt where he was placed in solitary confinement with a straw mattress and lots of lice in the room.

After two days he was taken out and met his first large group of POWs. They were all transferred to Permanent Luftwaffe Camp No. 1 also known as Stalag Luft I. This was the first POW camp the Germans opened since the initial war with England was an air war. Most of the inmates were pilots, navigators or bombardiers. The soldiers received American Red Cross parcels during that time. One was a “capture Parcel” and a food parcel that provided a basic ration for one person for one week.

At Christmas the soldiers were given a special Christmas Red Cross Parcel, which was the last big meal the soldiers would have for three months. Rations got slim and finally fell to one small slice of bread a day, along with some frozen cabbage or potatoes.

But with the help of the dye from the Red Cross parcel packages and the handkerchiefs that came in them, Hansen and his fellow soldiers made American flags in anticipation of rescue from the Russians. They would soak the red and blue printing until it made a dye and paint on the white, rectangle handkerchiefs. The flags were a symbol of hope in those uncertain times. On May 1, 1945 the advance units of the Russian Army rolled into the camp. The 8th Air Force flew in 12 days later and took the soldiers to France.

I'll never forget what Hansen then said to me during the interview.

“The first real American Flag I saw was flying in France,” said Hansen. “When we arrived there was a giant flood light on it. We looked up at the flag and cried-it was the most beautiful sight in the whole world.”

Hansen still had the flag he made in the camp as a POW when I interviewed him in 2008. As I looked at the faded flag hanging on the wall something clicked. There are so many people who have fought and died for what our flag symbolizes. While I knew that in my head, hearing Hansen's story stuck in my heart. 

Now when I see the flag I think about Hansen and those like him. I think about the freedoms that come from others' sacrifices and work. And now I fly the flag as my way of saying thank you. So as you celebrate July 4th this week please fly the flag. May we never forget what it means. 

The late Leonard Hansen and the flag he made while a POW at Stalag Luft I

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Summer Kitchen....

Wisconsin Historical Society

In the days before air conditioning there were summer kitchens.

When temperatures soared and hot cast iron stoves tended to heat up the house along with meals, families moved their kitchens to shelters outside. Summer kitchens were remotely small, outdoor spaces perfect for canning and cooking. They were usually covered and would also be used for other chores like washing laundry, making soap, butchering or churning butter. Some were open, similar to lean-to shelters, while others were enclosed, but still provided optimal ventilation.

Summer kitchens were often custom creations that were tailored to fit the needs of the homestead. Many included one central oven/cook stove or an attached smoke house. Counters or tables were used for cooling canning jars or fresh pies. Fresh picked summer crops were brought straight from the nearby garden into the summer kitchen for preservation. Most everyday household chores moved out into the summer kitchen during the warm months. In the evenings families would retreat into their cool houses. Modern advances led to the disappearance of most summer kitchens, especially after World War II.

It’s hard to imagine canning or doing any activity outdoors in 105 degree weather, even in a shaded outdoor kitchen, but proper planning made them practical alternatives to the large farm house.

You see similar concepts today with modern outdoor kitchens, but most are reserved for barbecuing and outdoor entertaining. Once and a while you will see an amazing example of a traditional summer kitchen; famed homesteaders, the West ladies from Homestead Blessings definitely have one. Their summer kitchen includes a propane powered oven, a sink, and a host of lovely kitchen utensils. Check out their video on canning for a closer look.

But just like in days gone by, our modern outdoor kitchens will sometimes take on a life of their own. Now you can find ones with full sinks, refrigerators, wood burning pizza ovens, solar cooking elements and more. It’s exciting to see people using those areas for more than summer barbecues.  

For pictures of some lovely summer kitchens visit my Summer Kitchen board on Pinterest. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Green: (Terrariums)....

This week we’re looking at greening up the indoors using terrariums. If you’re wondering, a terrarium is simply a tiny garden kept in a container. Most are low maintenance and boast great aesthetic value. They work in everything from bathrooms to bedrooms, offices to waiting rooms, as long as there is some form of light.

Creating terrariums is easy and fun. They don’t have to be expensive. You can save money by using containers, plants or decorative elements you already have. And you can easily customize your terrarium to suit your taste, style and budget.

Start with a clear, washed container, preferably glass. This can be as simple as a large mason jar or as fancy as a boutique style, glass/metal geo tabletop terrarium. Containers can be open at the top for light loving plants like succulents or cacti. They can also be closed for plants that love moisture and high humidity like ferns, moss, ivy or tropical plants. Insect eating plants work well in terrariums too (Lowes carries these). You can use an open terrarium for moisture loving plants as well, just keep it watered.

Creating a terrarium involves simply layering appropriate materials. For most terrariums, start with a layer of small rocks or gravel (at least an inch high, depending on the size of your container). Then add a layer of activated charcoal (not the kind you use for barbecuing, those usually have chemicals and additives). Activated charcoal can be found at pet stores and some garden centers. It helps to keep the environment fresh. Follow that with a larger layer of soil, then your plant(s). Add some more soil and maybe some moss or lichen. Add a few rocks or other decorative elements. You’re done!

For dry, open terrariums layer sand and rock. You can also use a soil mix for cacti/succulents on top of the layer of rock/sand. Just add your succulents or cacti and décor.

Terrariums should not be placed near heaters or AC units or in direct sunlight. Indirect light is best. Most closed terrariums will only need water once in a long while. The soil should be moist, not wet. If the container looks cloudy give it some air for a day or two and reduce watering. Open (non-dry) terrariums should be watered every one to two weeks; open, dry terrariums about once or twice a month.

Terrariums make great gifts. Fill a terrarium with rocks, red clay dirt and a small R2-D2 toy or with ferns, moss and a Ewok toy for cool Star Wars themed terrariums. Live moss and an orchid look lovely in an apothecary jar or add small decorative elements to create a miniature fairy garden. Just look online for a wealth of ideas and get creative.

I hope you've enjoyed this series on greening the indoors!