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Friday, September 15, 2017

California Gourmet: Homemade Applesauce – Yum!

Apples from an 'Anna' apple tree: home garden, Redondo Beach CA

If you follow our blog, you know that our garden specializes in native plants suitable for S. California gardens. So this topic may surprise you, particularly if you haven’t actually visited Mother Nature’s Backyard garden.  The one non-native plant we grow is an ‘Anna’ apple (Malus domestica), trained as an espalier along our cinderblock wall.  The apple tree demonstrates how native and non-native woody plants can be grown in very narrow spaces.   Since ‘Anna’ is a low-chill apple, it grows well – and produces apples – even in S. California.

'Anna' apple (Malus domestica): Mother Nature's Backyard

Our ‘Anna’ is relative young (6th year) and most of our apples thus far have been picked by others (human or animal).  Fortunately, one of our members has a mature ‘Anna’ in her backyard – and a bumper crop of apples this year.  So this is a good time to talk about making homemade applesauce.  It’s easy, fun and we think the product is superior to the store-bought version, both in taste and nutrition.

Making applesauce is really simple.  Back in the day (1950’s and 60’s), girls learned to make applesauce in home economics class (too bad for the guys – they had to take wood shop!).  I suspect that many older readers learned to make this treat in school.  And if 7th grade girls in the Pomona Unified School District managed to make applesauce, then you can too!  It’s a great way to use a bumper crop (or less-than-perfect) apples.  And applesauce that’s been properly preserved can be safely stored at room temperature for 1-2 years – another benefit.

Applesauce can be made from any type of apple.  You can purchase your favorite type – or use whatever apples you have available (you can even mix varieties).   You can also make your applesauce as sweet as you like, by adding the appropriate amount of sugar or other sweetener.  You can also add spices (cinnamon; ginger; etc.) or other fruits, if desired.  In short, you can tailor your applesauce to the needs and tastes of the applesauce eaters.  

Homemade applesauce is delish!
Here’s our homemade applesauce recipe, with some notes and tips below.


Apples (any amount, but at least 6-8 apples)

Water (to cover apples in pot)

Sugar or other sweetener (to taste)

Spices or other fruits (berries) – optional, to taste


1.   Thoroughly wash apples.  Cut out any damaged areas.   Quarter and remove stem and seeds (we leave the skins on for better flavor).  Slice the quarters into ¼ inch slices; place slices in heavy pot or saucepan (large enough to fit all the apple slices with about 2 inches to spare)*.

2.   Fill pot with water to barely cover the apple slices.

3.   Heat pot on medium-high heat on stove until water starts to boil.  Stir occasionally.  Turn down the heat and simmer until the apples are cooked (mushy texture)*.   Stir as needed to keep mixture from burning on the bottom.

4.   Remove from heat.  Mash the hot apple mixture through a sieve (use a spoon and be careful – it’s hot!).   An easier way is to process the apple mixture using a food mill.*    The texture will now be smooth and ‘applesauce-like’ (but a bit runny).

5.   Return the apple mixture to the pot.  Add sweetener and spices (and/or berries) to taste.  

6.   Heat over low heat, stirring regularly, until mixture is the consistency you like. Be sure that the mixture comes to a boil (to kill any microbes).

7.   If preserving, ladle hot mixture into sterilized jars, cap with two-part canning lids and process in boiling water bath (10 minutes for elevations below 1000 ft.; add 1 additional minute for each 1000 ft. above 1000 ft.)*.   Store preserved applesauce in a cool, dark place (room temperature) for up to 2 years.

8.   If not preserving, cool the applesauce, then store in a closed container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks (if not gobbled up long before).  



1.   Here’s what the sliced apples should look like.  They cook quickly if sliced.

3.   Here’s what the cooked apple ‘mush’ looks like at this point

Cooked apples ready to puree
4.   The food mill is a great piece of equipment if you do a lot of puree work. It’s a simple, old-fashioned tool and uses no electricity.  Food mills are made by a number of manufacturers and available in stores and online.  We use the Foley mill; it’s sturdy and lasts a lifetime.  Here’s what ours looks like.

A food mill makes quick work of the puree step



We encourage you to send us your questions, comments and recipes (either comment below or e-mail to us at : mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (September) : California Mountain (Sierra) Mint – Pycnanthemum californicum

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum): Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Perennial mints are choice summer plants.  In addition to attracting pollinators, native mints provide wonderful flavors for herbal teas, beverages and desserts.  Blooming in a shady spot in the Garden of Health is one of our favorites, the Mountain mint or Pycnanthemum californicum.   The scientific name is pronounced pick-NAN-the-mum  kal-ee-FOR-nee-kum.

California mountain mint is the only Pycnanthemum native to California. While limited to N. America, most Pycnanthemums grow in places with more summer precipitation than S. California (we’re lucky to have even one species).  The genus is classed in the mint family (Lamiaceae), which includes the California native Lepechinias, Menthas, Monardellas and Salvias.  Like many mints, Mountain mint has pleasantly-scented foliage, traditionally used as both a flavoring and medicinal agent.

Pycnanthemum californicum is commonly known as Mountain mint, Sierra mint, California mint or California mountain mint.  Several other native mints are known as ‘Mountain mint’, so be sure to use the scientific name when purchasing this species.  California mountain mint is endemic to the mountains and foothills of California, including the central and northern Sierras, the Klamath, Modoc and Coastal Ranges of northern California, and southern California’s Transverse and Peninsular Ranges.

In Los Angeles County, it grows in the San Gabriel Mountains and foothills, and is common in the San Antonio Canyon above Claremont and in Lytle Creek Canyon (San Bernardino County).   It always grows in relatively moist sites, in chaparral, oak woodland or pine forest communities, between 1500 and 5500 ft. (500-1500 m.) elevation.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 emerging stems in spring
California mountain mint is a true perennial.  In our garden it dies back to the ground in fall, emerging again in late winter or early spring.   The emerging stems have the typical appearance of winter-dormant perennial mints (small, compressed leaves on multiple, emerging stems – see above photo).

In many ways, Pycnanthemum californicum is a fairly typical mint. It has square stems, opposite leaves, and flowers in ball-shaped clusters.  The stems are slender and may be upright or draping/sprawling.  Plants add more stems each year and mature plants may become almost shrub-like in appearance.  The stalks can be up to 3 ft. (1 m.) tall, but are rarely more than 12-18 inches in our garden.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
young foliage (note fine hairs).
The leaves are simple, lance-shaped to oval, and up to 1 ½ inches (2-3 cm.) long (or perhaps a little larger in shady conditions). Young leaves are a pale mint green, with mature leaves becoming medium green.  Some leaves – including those with more sun exposure and the younger leaves – are covered with clear, velvet-like hairs.  In the Garden of Health, leaves are slightly shiny and almost hairless at maturity (see below).

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 mature foliage
Unlike the herbaceous Mentha species, the stems of Pycnanthemum californicum are partly woody and wand-like.  The stems are a pale red-brown.  The overall appearance, at least in part-shade, is that of a low perennial groundcover.   The foliage is aromatic, with a unique minty aroma.  The scent is released by touch – a good plant for along walkways, under garden benches or in shadier areas of an herb garden.   It even takes some foot traffic.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
Like all mints, the flowers grow in ball-like clusters around the stems. In California mountain mint, the floral masses grow immediately above clusters of small leaves (see above).  The word Pycnanthemum means ‘densely flowered’, a good description for the flowering habit of this genus.  Each flower cluster has 40-50 or more small flowers.  The overall impression is ‘white’, but the flowers merit closer inspection. 

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
close-up of flowers
The individual flowers are small (less than 5 mm across), with the characteristic modified flowers of the Mint Family.  The top two petals form a top ‘lip’, which is white and extends forward in this species.  The bottom three petals are fused to form the bottom lip, which may have small purple dots or blotches (see above).  The bottom lobes are fairly elongated in Pycnanthemum californicum and they curve backward at their tips. 

Several pairs of anthers (male sexual organs) extend beyond the lips (also typical for the Mints).  The result is a charming little flower that’s perfectly suited for butterflies, hummingbirds and other native pollinators (including pollinator flies and moths).  Like other Mints, the Pycnanthemums are often planted as shade-tolerant pollinator plants.   They are a good choice, providing nectar in late summer/early fall, when other resources may be limited.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
works well with native ferns and California bee plant.
Pycnanthemum californicum likes some shade, at least in our hot S. California gardens.  We grow ours on the north side of a tall wall, but any place with afternoon shade, bright shade or dappled sun will do.  It can be grown in most soils; it certainly is happy in the clay-loam in our garden.  The only conditions that might not be suited are salty or alkali (pH greater than 8.0) soils.  Mints often do well in somewhat compacted soils, making them useful agents to loosen urban soils.

The California mountain mint does need more water than many local native species.  It can take regular water and will probably be lusher with moister soils.  We give ours a deep soak every other week in hot weather, so the ground dries out between waterings.   It seems to do fine with this regimen, in a clay soil with afternoon shade.  We grow ours with water-loving native ferns, California bee plant (Scrophularia californica), the Heucheras and other perennials with similar shade and water requirements (see above).

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 shady groundcover with Hoita orbiculata
Pycnanthemum californicum is the perfect choice for naturally moist areas of the garden: under splashing fountains, around ponds, near an avian water dripper or mister, etc. It even tolerates seasonal flooding – so an irrigated rain garden or swale is another easy spot.  It would be right at home along the edges of a watered lawn or in a flower bed that gets regular irrigation. 

Mints also do well in containers and Pycnanthemum californicum would be charming in a shady porch pot.  We like it as a filler in a narrow, partly-shady bed between a wall and walkway.  Or grow it as a seasonal ground cover in the shade of a Blue elderberry or other tree.  You might even consider creating some ‘mint beds’ in your herb or vegetable garden.   True foodies can’t have too much mint in a garden!

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 makes a pleasant tea
Which brings us to the useful nature of this charming little mint.  Its unique and lovely flavor has traditionally been used for tea and to flavor beverages, desserts – even meats. The leaves and flowers can be used fresh or dried.  For more on using mints for tea see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/06/making-tea-from-california-native-mint.html.     If you like the flavor, you might want to preserve some for use all year long.  Here are some tips: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html.   

The scent of dried leaves is a lovely addition to potpourri sachets.  The dried leaves even help to deter moths!   To learn about making potpourri from native plants see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/11/garden-crafts-making-potpourri-from.html.  To sooth dry skin, use fresh or dried leaves and flowers as a bath sachet (place in cloth bag; let steep in warm bath water).  You can also use a sachet of dried leaves to freshen laundry (use a sachet bag in the dryer) or to deter moths in closets or linen drawers.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 potpourri from dried leaves can be used in many ways.
But California mountain mint is more than just a flavoring/aromatic agent. Like most mints, it has a long history of use as a medicinal plant.  The plant makes an astonishing number of plant chemicals, some with known antimicrobial, antifungal and other medicinal properties.  So it’s not surprising to learn that medicinal teas (decoctions) made from Pycnanthemum californicum are used in a number of ways. Because of the many chemicals, mints should not be used by women who are pregnant.

Pycnanthemum tea is a good ‘pick-me-upper’ – a tonic for when you’re feeling a little tired or run down.  The tea is also used for coughs, colds, fever and indigestion.  The combination of antimicrobial, analgesic (pain relieving) and other chemicals probably explain its affects.  A strong decoction was traditionally used as an antiseptic wash for skin wounds, mouth sores and gum disease.  Crushed flowers were placed on a tooth to relieve toothache.   For more on the medicinal uses of this plant see references 1-2, below.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum): much to recommend it!
In summary, California mountain mint is a summer-fall blooming plant with many useful properties.  It provides nectar and seeds at a time when many natives have gone dormant.  It can be used in places that are shady and which get a little extra water, and can be combined with plants with similar needs (native or not).  And it provides scents, flavors and helpful chemicals – what a bargain in a single plant!  It’s not a showy plant, but it’s a garden star none-the-less.

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/pycnanthemum-californicum

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html





We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Habitat Gardening: Dreams and Realistic Expectations

Habitat gardens provide for butterflies and other creatures

Habitat gardening is becoming popular in the United States and elsewhere.  There’s something satisfying about planting a garden that attracts a wide range of birds and other creatures.  Many gardeners dream of a garden filled with butterflies and birds.  But how realistic is that dream?  And how long will it take for a new garden to meet those expectations?

One thing gardening teaches us is patience.  The best garden features – shade trees, large flowering shrubs, nesting birds – take time.  But you’ll probably see some changes right away, when you begin to garden for habitat.  For example, a water source and fast-growing flowering plants begin attracting insects and birds the first year. 

Native plant gardens change dramatically in the first decade. Here’s what you’ll likely experience, when you convert your S. California garden from conventional garden plants to California native habitat species:

The first year: plants are low and small
Year 1

  • Birds and insects will start coming to a water source almost right away.  Water is scarce, and creatures are skilled at finding it.  Install several water sources to supply this critical resource.
  • Any native that flowers will start attracting some pollinators.  There may not be very many pollinators the first year, but annual wildflowers, perennials and flowering shrubs will see some activity the first year.
  • Any plant that produces seeds will attract some seed-eating birds (like gold finches and white-crowned sparrows) particularly in late summer and fall.  The more annual wildflowers, the more seed eaters you’ll see the first year.

Years 2 and 3: sub-shrubs are larger; annuals still play key role.
Year 2 & 3

  • Flowering perennials, shrubs and sub-shrubs become larger, producing more blooms.  These attract noticeably more insect pollinators and hummingbirds.  We suggest planting annual wildflowers, in open spaces around shrubs, to create still more spring-summer pollinator food. If desired, begin to photograph and document the insect and bird species visiting your garden.
  • As shrubs and trees grow, more use of them as perches and cover by birds and small creatures (lizards).  So you’ll see more of the common birds.
  • More summer-fall, seed-eating migratory birds will pass through, as food sources increase.  They will likely come as small flocks, and won’t stay long.
  • Omnivorous and insect-eating birds occasionally visit; same with dragonflies

Years 4 and 5: even larger shrubs are maturing.
Year 4 & 5

  • As perennials and shrubs mature, noticeably greater numbers and more species of insect pollinators.  May start seeing some rarer native bees, flower flies.  Photograph and document these – you may be surprised!
  • Insects, including butterflies and other pollinators, begin reproducing in the garden, if larval food sources are available.
  • More pollinator moth species (if dusk- and night-bloom plants present)
  • Dragonflies and damselflies start to reproduce in earnest in dragonfly ponds.  You’ll see more adults even without a pond, due to increased insects.
  • Increased numbers of insect-eating insects (Robberflies; predatory wasps).
  • Insect-eating birds increase noticeably.  Watch for Phoebes, Kingbirds, Swifts, Swallows, Flycatchers, Mockingbirds, Bushtits.
  • Established plants provide wild greens and leaves for tea or medicinal use (depending on what species you’ve planted).
  • If you have hummingbird plants, regular visits from Anna’s & Allen’s hummingbirds. 
  • Hummingbirds may begin to nest in larger, dense shrubs & small trees
  • If trees are large and dense, some common birds begin to nest: Northern Mockingbird, House sparrows, House finch.
  • Regular visits from seed-eating finches, other migratory seed-eating birds. White-crowned sparrows and Lesser goldfinch may become regulars.
  • As leaf mulch and seeds build up, visits from ground feeding birds: California towhee, White-crowned sparrow, Doves.
  • Occasional visits from hawks, seeking prey
  • Increased numbers of lizards due to increased insects, cover (unless there are cats, which preclude lizards)
  • As fruiting shrubs and trees begin to produce, begin to see fruit-eating birds: Northern Mockingbirds, Orioles, song birds in winter

Years 6 through 10: As garden matures, more creatures nest in the garden.

Year 6-10

  • Greater diversity of insect pollinators as flowering plants mature.  Most gardens at this stage supply food for literally thousands of individual pollinators. Consider adding plants that attract specialist pollinators: mallows, Annual sunflower, Malacothrix species, Oenothera species.   
  • Greater number of bird species, including those that specialize in insects or fruits.  You may even see flocks of Cedar waxwings, Bushtits, songbirds in fall or winter.
  • Plenty of edible fruits for your family as well (if you’ve planted currants & gooseberries, elderberries, strawberries, wild rose).
  • More birds nest in large shrubs, woody vines and trees; greater diversity of nesting birds, including Bushtits, Northern mockingbirds, Orioles and others (depending on the trees).
  • Consider adding seating in areas with good views of birds, butterflies.  You can do some serious nature observation from this point forward.
  • Regular visits from dragonflies and swallows, phoebes, flycatchers.  The increased numbers of insects are a magnet.
  • Regular nesting of hummingbirds.  Visits from migratory Rufus hummingbird are possible (they are the really feisty, copper-bronze colored guys).
  • More insects, including butterflies and native bees, complete life cycle in the garden (depending on availability of larval food and nest sites).  Consider providing nest sites for ground- and wood-nesting bee species.

Mature garden is a functioning ecosystem.
Year 11 and beyond

  • The garden should be a functioning ecosystem, both above- and below-ground.
  • Many species of pollinators visit and complete their lives in the garden.  Add seasonal flowering plants – or those that attract specialist pollinators – as needed.   Don’t forget the shady areas of the garden.  Some of the shade-loving perennials are great habitat plants.
  • Replace dead plants with new ones that flower and produce fruits or seeds. Choose species you like, including some unusual ones.  Expect some turnover in garden plants – that’s natural.  Fill in open spaces with annual wildflowers until new plants get bigger.
  • There should be birds in the garden most of the time. Birds can be observed conducting all of their usual activities.  The water sources are great places to bird-watch, utilized by both the ‘regulars’ and exotic migrants.
  • Natural leaf mulch/duff supports wide range of creatures, from insects to salamanders, lizards and others.  Take an opportunity to observe this interesting community occasionally.  The duff teams with life!
  • Congratulations!   You continue to create wonderful habitat for creatures who need it.  As green space shrinks – and climate changes stresses wild areas – garden habitat becomes ever more important.  Keep up the good work!

Want to learn more about habitat gardening?   See:

We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about habitat gardening or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (August) : Dunn’s lobelia – Lobelia dunnii

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - Mother Nature's Backyard 

By August, the only perennials blooming in Mother Nature’s Backyard (other than the buckwheats) are those in moist, shady places.  One pretty little perennial, blooming for the first time this year, is the Dunn’s lobelia.   The scientific name is pronounced low-BEE-lee-uh  DUN-ee-eye  sir-RAY-tuh.

Dunn’s lobelia (sometimes also called Blue lobelia and Rothrock’s lobelia) is a California member of the Campanulaceae, the Bellflower family.  This family has 80+ genera and about 2400 species worldwide, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere [1].  Included are garden favorites like the Campanulas and the Lobelias.  As suggested by the common name, the flowers of the Campanulaceae are bell-shaped and often blue or violet colored.

The genus Lobelia is well-known to gardeners. Ornamental cultivars spread their old-fashioned charm under trees and along shady pathways. They take a little extra water, and so are useful for naturally moist areas.  While some are annuals (or treated that way), perennial species have the added advantage of coming back, year after year, in a welcome splash of green and blue.  No wonder gardeners like the Lobelias.

Only two Lobelia species are California natives.  Both Lobelia cardinalis and Lobelia dunnii are native to the mountains of Central (Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties) and Southern California. They also grow along the Monterrey County coast.  Where ever they are found, they favor shady, moist areas: canyons, seeps, rocky stream banks, the edges of waterfalls – you get the picture. 

There is current debate about the proper taxonomic status of Lobelia dunnii.  Some have proposed reverting to an older taxon, Palmerella debilis, first proposed by the eminent 19th century taxonomist Asa Gray [2]. The California Lobelias do have a distinctive appearance, and may well deserve a genus of their own.  But since most native plant and garden folks know Dunn’s lobelia as Lobelia dunii, we’ll stick with that name for now.

Lobelia dunnii var. serrata, the variety we’ve got in the garden, can still be found in the canyons of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Ranges, as well as on Santa Catalina Island and in northern Baja California, Mexico.  It was first collected in the 1800’s and grows in moist places in Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral below about 4500 ft. (1400 m.).    If you hike the moist canyons below San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) and Ontario Peaks in the San Gabriels, you may have seen it along the streams.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - in Spring
Like most local perennials, Dunn’s lobelia dies back to the ground in fall, to emerge again with the winter-spring rains. If you continue to water it, the plant will remain green into early fall – then let it dry out and rest.   Most S. California perennials really do need a period of rest in the fall.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrate): young leaves
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may miss the emerging stems (see above).  The emerging leaves look quite different from the leaves of the mature, summer plant.  If a plant is happy, it will send up more sprouts each year, and spreading to a 2-3 ft. patch.   Plants also re-seed in local gardens.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrate) - foliage
Dunn’s lobelia is an herbaceous perennial, growing at most 12-18 inches (30-45 cm.) tall.   It is sometimes erect, but as likely to be somewhat sprawling (decumbent) of habit.  The leaves are a fresh spring green, elongated and becoming slightly smaller up the stems. The foliage is quite open; not shrubby, but rather a delicate, lacy groundcover, somewhat mint-like in appearance.   

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - flowering stem
The flowers are cottage garden pretty – small and pale lavender or blue. The flowers may be up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) long.  They are clustered at the tops of the stalks. As flowers open over time, the total bloom season may be a month or more.

The petals are fused into a long tube, with 5 lips.  The lower three lips are elongated and extend down.  The upper two lobes are curled tightly back – a unique appearance (see below).  The flowers are loved by long-tongued butterflies; this plant is often planted specifically to attract them.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - close-up of flowers
Dunn’s lobelia will grow in most local soils (except salty or alkali), though it prefers a rich loam.  It does fine in our local clays.  We’ve been most successful growing this plant on the north side of a tall wall.  It would also do well in dappled sun under trees.  We’d only try it in fall sun at the edges of a pond.

Dunn's lobelia (Lobelia dunnii var. serrata) - delicate perennial
This is a species that likes moist soils - it can even take winter flooding.  Regular water through the bloom season is probably best.  We give ours (in clay) a deep soaking every 3 weeks in summer, then taper off in early September.    That’s really about it.

Lobelia dunnii is a perennial to tuck into shady, moist places.  It does well with native grasses, sedges, juncus, Solanum, Nicotiana and others that like a little extra water.  We’d love to try it in a moist pot on a shady porch. It’s not a garden diva.  But it’s charming as a violet is – simple, sweet and unassuming.  And then there are the butterflies!

In summary, Dunn’s lobelia is a wonderful little perennial.  If you have a moist shady spot – or can create one – this might be a butterfly plant to try.

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/lobelia-dunnii

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campanulaceae
  2. https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=845391#null

We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com