Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Drought Comes Home

We continue our exploration of the effect of the California drought for Earth Week. See our first, second, and third parts at the links.

As we've wound our way from the macro issues of California's drought, through the biggest uses, and tips to meet the mandated cuts in use, it's time to get to the nitty does this impact our little garden out back?

My frequent readers should already know this is not my first trip to the drought rodeo. We've had several droughts since I remember my first severe drought around 1970.  I've always sought to get as much as I can with as little water as possible.

If a plant can't hack it with the little water I supply, it won't be invited back to be a member of the Cheapskate's garden. This has been my policy for many years so what is growing here, my little family of over 100 plants, have proven their non-thirsty ways.

Roses do very well here. Suprisingly (to me anyway), the very tropical plumeria plant is a true water miser and grows spectacularly here with just a glassful a day. Grapes are well known drought tolerators, especially red varieties, and orchids...with their water storing psuedobulbs..only need a good watering once or twice a week.

As I've outlined in our Poor Man's Sprinkler System post, I've installed a drip irrigation (and microsprinkler) system for our non-lawn plants. With the help of a two-station timer, I've honed the watering schedule to just the bare minimum these plants need to thrive.

From 5 minutes every three days in the dead of winter for our shady zone to 15 minutes a day for the hot, sunny zone in the summer, trial and error has given us the data we need to keep our water usage low while keeping the flowers, vegetables, and fruit production as high as we can get.

It's also good to have a bellwhether plant. For us, it's our guava tree.  When it starts to shrivel, I know I need to add water.  While still a pretty drought tolerant plant that provides pounds of edible fruit, it's also the thirstiest tree we have. Being the first to show signs of stress, it's a great indicator as to whether the rest of the garden is getting enough water or not.

Another non-expected aspect of the drought is all the wild animals coming down from the mountains behind our house. Last year, they devistated our crop-producing plants, highly effecting our harvests.

This year, we're doing our best to discourage those unwanted diners by caging our plants, hanging them up, or netting the fruit.  While those results are still pending, I'm confident this year will bring more of a harvest than the last.

The rain will come again but in the meantime, we've learned to live quite well with it and reducing our usage to the bare minimum while we do.

There's one big area left for us to take a close look at. Next time, we'll examine the lawn and what we can do about that big water sponge out front.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Some days, I have more ideas in my head than I have time to write. Today is not one of those days. Writer's block is no fun when you've dedicated to writing a new story or two each week. 

So what do I write about? How about not being able to?

It's Wednesday, so I'd usually have one of our in-between tips, adventures close to home, or other non-travelogue features that fit in the middle of a travel story.

Maybe I can do an a accessible attractions story but by now I don't have time to go through my notes, pictures, and research to come up with one (yes, it takes me more than a few minutes to whip one of those up). Same with a transit report.

Travel tip? Don't become a travel blogger.'s great, when you can think of something to write.

So this will be my adventure, close to home, of not being able to come up with anything new today.

What could I talk about? We have a ho-hum day trip up the coast the other day. Maybe I'll write about that but it wasn't the most dynamic day out we've had at The World on Wheels. It'll take a lot more digging to get some nuggets out of that one.  Maybe in the near future.

How our favorite baseball team is imploding and not making us want to go to a game? Maybe on Tim's Sports Blog...not here, not today.

I go for a walk every day.  Maybe I can get something out of that.  There, here's a picture from a recent walk in downtown Los Angeles but I'll have to spend more time to get a whole story out of that.

Nope, I just don't have a story in me'll just have to do with this.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Our Long Drought: Making Every Drop Count

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Andrew Vargas under CC BY 2.0 license

In parts one and two, we looked at facts vs. myths in the big picture of the drought and analyzed where savings could be found. This time, we'll look at the ways urban (residential and industrial users) users can achieve that magical 25% cut in their water.

First, though, we must look at the fairness of this.

Not everyone in California has been letting the water run like there's no tomorrow. We've had droughts before and many, many long time residents have taken that to heart and cut their water use a long time ago. When we first moved into our house, we showed the sewer district that our water was at least 20% less than the average for our area and got a discount on our fees. We've lessened our water use by 30-50% depending on the time of the years for the last five years.

Now, us, and people like us are being asked to cut another 25%...same as the big water wasters. There's some big debates going on about the fairness of Governor Brown's mandatory cuts.

In the meantime, here are some things people can do to cut their water use...

Install a shut-off valve in the shower - Get wet, turn off the water, soap up, turn it back on to rinse to save a few gallons each time you wash.

Install a low flow toilet - The overwhelming majority of Californians already have one. You can also put a few bricks in the water tank for displacement so that not as much water is needed to shut off the valve.

Install drip irrigation and timers - This is easy to do and inexpensive. It also has the added benefit of freeing up some time when you no longer have to water the plants manually. See our "Poor Man's Sprinkler System' for more details.

Sweep - Don't hose down pavement.

Cut back on car washes - It's not a good thing to never wash your car but lessen the frequency and use a car wash that recycles water or use a hose with a trigger sprayer that you can turn off between soaping up and rinsing in your driveway.

Cut water runoff - adjust your sprinkler spray patterns so that you're only watering the plants...not the sidewalk and street.

Let it mellow - An old saying from our 70's drought, "if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down." Don't flush the toilet so much.

Turn it off - turn off the water while brushing teeth and shaving until you need to rinse.

Look for drought tolerant and low-water plants - your nursery can help you get plants that don't need too much water, like my roses that hardly take any at all or a grapevine (we'll delve into this in more detail in a future post).

Those are a few, got any more you'd like to add? Leave them in the comments below or at our Facebook page - The Cheapskate Urban Gardener. We'll add the best ones here.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 27, 2015

CLASSIC TRIP: Anza Borrego/Julian, California - 2009

UpTake Travel Gem

Borregos Against the Setting Sun

While Tim and I are writing, editing, and polishing up our newest report, let's revisit the beautiful and remote Anza Borrego State Park with side trips to Julian and the Salton Sea...

Two to three hours outside of Los Angeles, depending on your route, is the desert of Anza Borrego. We opt for the northern route of driving by Palm Springs, turning south at the Salton Sea, and then back west into Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the town of Borrego Springs.

Watch the Video (Part 1)!

We drive over to the unique underground visitor’s center, but find that it is closed. We arrive on a Wednesday but it’s only open Thursday through Sunday. I suppose the state’s massive budget cuts might have something to do with that. The accessible restrooms are open, though, and are welcome after the long drive.

We shoot a little video around the re-created oasis in front of the center with its pond full of endangered desert pupfish, which look like overweight minnows. I’d like to take Tim to one of the many natural oases in the park, but none are accessible by road unless you have a high-clearance four wheel drive vehicle and those that are hikable do not have wheelchair accessible trails. The man-made one will have to do.

It’s lunch time so we have some pizza at Calico Pizza, located in the small shopping mall in the heart of Borrego Springs before heading over to our room at Borrego Springs Resort.

Watch the Video (part 2)!

About six years ago, we had stayed here before and ended up on the resort’s mailing list. I decided to take advantage of one of those many deals sent over and ended up with a sunrise view two-room suite. Minimally accessible, it is step-free and has a tub that can be managed with a bath chair. The resort also has roll-in showers and ADA compliant rooms, but no suites. We were offered a switch to a more accessible room, but we wanted a suite and it worked for us.

The suite consists of a large living room, with a queen size sofa bed; a patio with a table and two chairs; a small efficiency with a sink, microwave, coffee maker, and refrigerator (the suites also used to have a two-burner stove but those have been removed although the vent hood is still in place); a good size bathroom; and a bedroom with king-size bed, his and her closets, and bathrobes. There are also two large LCD TVs, one in each room. Tim has especially good things to say about the large channel selection, including many HD channels.

The rate was $90 per night (rack rate is $230) plus tax, for a total of $300 and change.

After unpacking, it’s dinner time. The sun has gone down, and the area is pretty much pitch-black. It’s because of this lack of light that the area is an astronomer’s delight. Just off of the towns one concession to traffic management…a traffic circle name Christmas Circle…stands the little French Corner bistro and antique shop.

The owner, Yves, welcomes us and seats us at a nice table inside. Yves is from Nimes, one of my favorite towns in France, and we chat about the area’s Roman ruins. The house wine is a pinot noir from that region, and is only $10 for a half-liter, so we get that and start with a delicious broccoli and bleu cheese soup. Dinner would be steak frittes for Time, flammande carbonade (a Flemish beef stew) for me, and a seafood crepe dish for my wife. The food was good, but not exceptional like you would expect from a French restaurant. If I were to recommend someone to go here, I’d say get the wine, the soup de jour, and a sweet crepe for dessert. If you want more, maybe their quiche of the day, which looked quite good.

After bedding down for the night, we discover one slightly bizarre aspect of our room. The comforter on our bed…down-filled…is a good 6 inches thick and around 40 pounds! It’s like sleeping under a weight. I kick it off and use a sheet, I don’t know why such a thick blanket needs to be used in the desert. Alaska maybe; Borrego Springs, no.

In the morning, it’s a 28 mile drive up the mountains to Julian, a former mining and current apple farming town. We head to the Julian CafĂ©, which comes highly recommended, only to find out it is not wheelchair accessible. In fact, along Julian’s Main Street, most of the buildings on the north side of the street lack basic accessibility (the buildings date back over 100 years), but on the south side, it is much more accommodating.

Instead, we eat at the Julian Coffee House across the street and down the block. Breakfast is good. I share a bagel, egg and sausage sandwich with Tim and an order of pancakes with my wife. Afterward, we head to the Birdwatcher, Julian’s rather large birder supply store because my wife is a big bird watcher. While she browses inside, Tim and I sit on the bench outside and watch all the birds come to the store’s feeders. We see an Anna’s hummingbird, Mountain bluebirds, Lesser goldfinches, and many ravens and sparrows.

Next, it is over to the Julian Cider Mill across the way to watch fresh apples ground into cider and have a few samples. Then shopping at the various knick knack stores and, when we reach the end of the street, see the hundreds of cats rounded up for a spay and neuter clinic taking place at the town hall that day.

Before leaving, we head to Mom’s pie shop…one of Julian’s many pie bakeries…to have a slice of pumpkin and another of bumbleberry pie.

Back in Borrego, we do some shopping before spending a couple of hours relaxing at the hotel. Dinner is at a local institution, Carlee’s, more a bar than restaurant. It’s a friendly little watering hole with some very good food. Tim and I love the burgers at Carlee’s, so we get two Borrego Burgers (bacon cheeseburgers) accompanied by their outstanding beer-battered fries while my wife gets an equally good pasta primavera. Here is where you find the friendly locals, waiting for Karaoke to begin while dining and drinking. Even though it’s mostly a bar, kids are welcome at Carlee’s.

That night, we drive to a secluded spot by the hotel to stargaze. When we turn off the headlights, it is completely dark. Kind of unsettling, being out in the middle of nowhere, unable to see the hand in front of your face; but the stars in the sky are brilliant here. With no moon in the sky, the view is unfettered. Jupiter is bright; satellites and meteors streak across the heavens.

In the morning we lounge around the room before heading into town. There’s a farmers market going on in Christmas Circle…which doubles as the town plaza and park…where we pick up some fruit and a euphorbia bush to take home. Dinner was so good at Carlee’s that we decide to have lunch there today, opting for French dips with their homemade potato chips.

At the Salton Sea

After lunch we head to the Salton Sea and the Salton Sea Beach Marina. This area is depressing, fascinating, exhilarating, and…at times…beautiful. It’s obvious that this one-time resort area has seen much better days. Ruins of dream homes dot the shore, the marina businesses are barely hanging on, and the earth is sun-scorched here. At the same time, new construction of homes in the area suggest the dream hasn’t completely died and the sea…a man-made mistake of epic proportions…attracts millions of migratory birds.

We drive right to the edge of the water and spot egrets, great blue herons, stilts, gulls, and a lone osprey watching it all while contemplating his next meal.

Leaving town, we stop at the Torres Martinez travel center on highway 86 on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation. Along with cheap gas, a small casino invites us in to play penny slots. Tim plays for an hour on the two dollars he put in his machine. His mom and I are not far behind as we imbibe on the two dollar margaritas and pina coladas brought out by the servers.

That night, we enjoy some drinks at the hotel’s bar before eating an outstanding prime rib dinner in the Arches restaurant, located on-site. Being Friday, it’s the day’s special at only $10.95 for the dinner.

After checking out, we are heading home but want to stop in Coachella for a taco place that we’d been to years ago and enjoyed quite a bit. The Jalisco taqueria is not at all as good as I remember, but around the corner we stumble upon the Coachella Valley Fiesta de Chilies. Yes, I know the spelling is not correct, but that’s the way it was.

A nice little community festival was set up in the park behind city hall, with food booths (I wish I’d know about this before the tacos), beer garden, rides for the kids, and live entertainment on the stage. The star attraction was the chili cookoff. Eight booths we setup by local restaurants, police & fire departments, and individual cooks. Five dollars got you a bowl, a spoon, napkins, and 10 tickets. Each ticket was good for a sample at one of the booths. With eight, the remaining two were for your favorites. Whoever collected the most tickets wins the people’s choice award. There was also a panel of judges tasting for their own reward.

The Police Department's Chili Booth

While almost all of the chilis were good (the one sponsored by a local Indian casino was mediocre), the three of us thought that the police department’s chili was best, followed by a mild turkey base chili, and a pork based chili prepared by a local barbecue joint.

And with that, the trip ended as we drove the rest of the way home.

Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Drop Here

We continue our exploration of the California drought for Earth Week. See our first post here.

Just about a mile from the casinos of South Lake Tahoe, there's a Forest Service park where you can hike and get wonderous views of the lake, the forest, and Taylor Creek. It's a wonderful trail, beautiful really, where you can get lost from the nearby city.  Along the trail is a short detour. Follow it, and you'll end up in an underground chamber.

This is the Stream Profile Chamber, a pool where a portion of Taylor Creek has been diverted and a large, glass window allows visitors to watch the life underwater here. Trout, crawfish, perch, and more illustrate the absolute need for fresh water to flow in an ecosystem.

It also shows how much a change in water can alter this. Dam up a creek or river and what happens to all that life underwater? What about the animals that feed on these creatures? What does it take to replace it?

Hence the dilemma facing our state. Cut back on agricultural water and what happens to the crops that depend on it? How do you replace that food source? What happens to the oxygen producing, waste water filtering abilities of our lawns if we let them fallow? What about the employees of businesses that rely on a source of water?

More than half of the nation's fruits, vegetables, and nuts come from California. The top three crops are almonds, dairy, and dairy products. Grapes are also huge here. The state exports over $20 billion dollars worth of agricultural products and the total production approaches $50 billion per year.

Since 1980, California agriculture has lessened its water use by about 5% while increasing crop yields at the same time. Farmers have utilize methods such as drip irrigation, tailwater return systems, irrigation scheduling, canal lining, water banking, and remote monitoring to increase water efficiencly.

Still, there are calls for agriculture to share in the current pain of the state's new 25% mandatory reduction.  Of course, that means less and more expensive food for the entire country not to mention killing jobs in an already high-unemployment area of the state.

Some restaurants in particularly hard-hit areas say they have to switch to disposable plates and utensils because they don't have enough water to wash dishes. Of course, that impacts landfills.

Hydroelectric dams need water to generate electricity, when they go offline, fossil fueled generators have to take their place.  River guides join the unemployment lines, as do car wash employees, gardeners, and more.

This is to show that knee-jerk reactions to just cut everybody's water have real-world consequences. It's all part of a big ecological puzzle and has to be carefully considered and implemented.

All that being said, the state does not have enough water to satisfy the long term demand if rain relief does not come soon.  Now the question is how to cut and who do we cut from.

It's hard to say which industries are water hogs. We have pretty good agriculture data and the recent fracking controversy shows that industry using 0.00062% of the state's water each year. Car washes mostly use recycled water. Other than that, it's hard to pinpoint various industries use of water (which is included in the residential alotment).

The other very large alotment of California water is for environmental uses. These are determined by court orders, legislation, and other factors and are generally non-negotiable without much litigation and legislation. Water savings here are generally considered 'off the table' and leaves us with the residential customer taking the hit.

We'll look at ways to whittle that 12% down to 9%, which is what the state is telling us we must do, on the next post.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Sources: Bay Area Science Forum
California Department of Water Resources
Metropolitan Water District
Bakersfield Californian

Los Angeles Times
Washington Post

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Saving the Planet, One Drop at a Time

It's Earth Week and we here at the Cheapskate Urban Gardener are in full agreement that we need to pull together to save our home.  Since we're in California and in a severe drought, we're going to focus on that, try to sort the myth from fact, and try to determine how we can be effective and responsible gardeners in these dry times.

We're going to start off with the big picture and work our way down to the effects on our local garden.

The headlines are scary...California has less than a year left of water; almonds are sucking the state dry; environmentalists won't let us use water because of the damage to insignificant species; farmers take 80% of the water and won't do anything to help.

But those are just scare headlines written to sell papers.  I've been going through weather statistics, state water board sites, and other sources to try to separate fact from scary headlines.

Let's make one thing clear at the start, however. Yes. This is a serious drought. No. It's not the first time this has happened to us. Yes. It's because it hasn't rained. No. It's not some politician's organized campaign to regulate our water and get more money (although there are those who 'never let a crisis go to waste' as the mayor of Chicago is famous for saying.

California actually has about two years worth of water in storage. With the state's increasingly stingy water use due to water restrictions, that time estimate can also grow.  In a real emergency, there are also decades of water storage in the ground but over pumping also causes other problems. Right now, reservoir levels are at about 40% when on a normal year in April, they'd be at around 65%.

Rain has actually increased just a bit over last year.  Fresno is an inch above last year, L.A. an inch and a half, San Francisco has doubled last year's total of 8 inches, and deserty El Centro has barely added half an inch. Since the rain year runs through June, and rain is forecast for this week, those totals will surely rise but odds are against them getting up to average, which is 11.5" for Fresno; 14.93" for L.A., and 3.44 for El Centro. San Francisco has a fighting chance to reach it's average of 20.78" though.

Not all of California's water comes from California. For very large parts of the southern end of the state, water is supplied by the Colorado River, running down from the Rockies. It's watershed snowpack is about 62% of normal right now.

Farmers currently use about 40% of the state's water, about half of the 80% many stories put out. Residential users are a little more than 10%. Most of the rest is for environmental uses, such as keeping wild and scenic rivers flowing, wetlands preservation, and habitat for various species.

One more myth...Los Angeles is a desert. No, Palm Springs, Mojave, Blythe, the Salton Sea, and Needles are the desert. Most of the Los Angeles area is naturally oak-studded grassland and is naturally green about half the year. Turning our lawns to gravel, like they do in Arizona, is not an answer but we could let them fallow for awhile in dry years.

Rain is pretty much a sure bet to return to the state, the big question is when and what do we do until then. Water is still necessary for a number of uses in this large, heavily populated state that supplies a huge chunk of food for the country and the world.

Next time, we'll explore some of those uses.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Sources: Bay Area Science Forum
California Department of Water Resources
Metropolitan Water District

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Caging You Up for Your Own Good

Last year, the garden was devastated by animals coming down from the dry mountains to eat the succulent, tender shoots of my vegetables coming out of the ground. This year, I'm determined not to let that happen again, so the main theme of this weekend's gardening is animal repellent.

No, I'm not using any chemical or traps. I'm not interested in harming least proactively. My goal is, however, to make my plants look uninviting and a bit hazardous for critters to get to so maybe they'll find greener pastures to feed in.

This year, I've got new onion, tomato, zucchini, and corn seedlings.  There's already evidence that something has been chewing on the onion seedlings, which I left in the open after transplanting. No one seems interested in the corn, so I'll just leave that one alone.

So here's my plan...

I'm wrapping tomato cages in chicken wire.

It's a bit tricky when the wire comes on a roll to flatten it out so I can cut it. I hold it down with my foot and snip away.

After wrapping the cage, I make cuts in the edge at the top to form little spikes in case any animal gets adventurous and climbs up. The poke should make 'em think twice about going over the top.

All done.

I'm using the temporary wire cover I used for the tomato seedlings to cover the onion plants to give them a chance to survive the season.  Let's see how all this caging works out as the season goes.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved