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Thursday, July 25, 2013

California Gourmet: Cooking with Elderflowers

Flowers: Blue (Mexican) Elderberry
Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea

Many gardeners know that Elderberries make delicious jellies, syrups and baked goods (see August 2012 postings for more on picking, cleaning and using Elderberries). But you may not know that the flowers of the Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) can be used to produce some special summer treats. In our climate, Elderberries bloom off and on throughout the summer. If you already have enough berries, this might be the perfect time to create a little Elderflower magic.

Elderflowers are small, creamy white and grow in flusters on drooping branches (see photo above). You can tell that Elderflowers are ready by smelling them. Ripe Elderflowers have a unique, sweet fragrance reminiscent of honey spiced with a little clove and ginger. It’s no wonder that bees – and humans – find them irresistible.

Flowering cluster: Blue (Mexican) elderberry

Pick flowers on a warm, sunny morning. Choose only flowers that are fully open – they should smell like spiced honey. We find it’s easiest to pick flowers by cutting off entire bunches of flowers into a bowl. You can then remove the stems and any leaves in the kitchen. It’s best to prepare the flowers as soon as possible after picking. Older flowers lose their unique flavor.

Flowers will fall off the stem easily – just grasp the stem in one hand and gently rake the flowers with the fingers of your other hand. Discard the stems; they are inedible and mildly toxic if eaten. Remove any insects and gently wash the flowers with cool water. They now are ready to use.

One of the easiest ways to prepare Elderflowers is as an herbal tea (infusion/tissane). You can use the flowers fresh, or dry them for later use. For drying, pick and prepare Elderflowers as above. Lay them out on a clean paper on a cookie sheet in a warm dry place. They will dry in a day or so. Store in a tightly sealed jar – we like old-fashioned glass ones. Use within a year (like all herbal teas, they lose their flavor with time).
Elderflower Tea

1-2 Tbsp prepared fresh flowers (1-2 medium-size flower heads (umbels) or
1 heaping tsp dried elderflowers
6 oz boiling water

Pour water over prepared flowers in a non-metal cup, pot or bowl. Cover. Let steep 2-3 minutes. Strain out flowers. Sweeten if desired. Enjoy!
Elderflower Sun Tea

3-4 Tbsp. fresh flowers per 8 oz of water (1 cup flowers/quart or liter of water)
Tap or bottled water

Place prepared flowers and water in a large glass jar. Place jar in a hot, sunny place. Let tea steep for 2-4 hours, stirring occasionally; tea will be a bright yellow color when done. Strain to remove flowers. Let cool and then refrigerate. Sweeten if desired. Makes a lovely, light sweet iced tea that refreshes on a hot summer day.

Another refreshing use for Elderflowers is to prepare a syrup that can be used in iced beverages or as a syrup on pancakes and desserts. Many good recipes for English-style ‘Elderflower Cordial’ are available; below are two of our favorites.

Elderflower ‘cordial’ is traditionally dissolved in cold sparkling water, tap water or even mild-flavored sparkling beverages like 7-up. Just add cordial to taste – usually about ½ to 1 oz cordial per 8 oz beverage. You can also use the ‘cordial’ as a syrup on pancakes, waffles or drizzled over a dessert. Any way you use it, Elderflower ‘cordial’ makes a unique summer treat. For fun, have your guests try to guess the secret ingredient.
English-style Elderflower Cordial: 1
(non-alcoholic; used for beverages)

2 cups (moderately packed) washed fresh elderflowers
2 1/2 cups boiling water
2 cups sugar
Prepare an Elderflower infusion by pouring boiling water over washed Elderflowers in a glass or pyrex bowl. Let flowers infuse for at least 30 minutes – we prefer to let it cool to at least lukewarm and you can leave it overnight. Strain out the flowers.
Place 2 cups of the infusion in a heavy saucepan. Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Heat on medium heat to a boil, then decrease heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Ladle into hot, sterile jars and can using a boiling water bath (see below, jelly recipes). Or cool and store in a jar in the refrigerator for 1-2 months.
English-style Elderflower Cordial: 2 (non-alcoholic; used for beverages)

1 ½ cup sugar
1 lemon (sliced thinly)

1 orange or lime (sliced thinly)
1 ½ cup water
6-8 cups elderflowers


Dissolve sugar in water. Bring to a boil and boil for 10 minutes, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Place cleaned Elderflowers and citrus slices in a non-metalic bowl. Pour the hot syrup over the flowers/citrus; stir. Cover with a clean cloth and leave overnight, then strain out flowers/citrus.
Place liquid in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat immediately and bottle in hot sterilized jars. Store for up to 3 months in the fridge, or freeze. For longer-term storage (up to a year), process using a boiling water bath (see below, jelly recipes).

Elderflower Jelly

Elderflowers can also be used to make a light, sweet jelly. We usually use added pectin to ensure that the jelly sets properly. If you prefer a recipe without pectin, there are good recipes available on-line.

Elderflower Jelly
(using dry powdered pectin)

5 cups elderflower ‘infusion’ (see below for preparation)
1 package Sure-Gel dry pectin
2 Tbsp lemon juice (strained)
1 Tbsp butter or margarine (if desired to decreasing foaming)
6 cups sugar

Prepare an elderflower infusion by pouring 8 cups (4 quarts) of boiling water over 6-8 cups washed elderflowers. Let flowers infuse for at least 30 minutes – we prefer to let it cool to lukewarm. Strain out the flowers.

Place infusion, dry pectin, lemon juice and butter/margarine (optional) in a large, heavy pot. Bring to a full rolling boil (one that cannot be stirred down), stirring frequently. Add the sugar all at once. Bring again to a full rolling boil, stirring often to prevent burning. Let mixture boil for 1 minute after it reaches the full rolling boil.

Turn off the heat. Skim off foam with a spoon. Ladle jelly into hot, sterilized canning jars; seal with 2-part canning lids. Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes (up to 2000 ft elevation); for higher elevations add minutes to the processing time as outlined in http://www.freshpreserving.com/tools/reference/adjust.aspx


Elderflower Jelly (using Certo liquid pectin)
2 cups flower infusion (steep 2+ cups moderately packed flowers in 2 cups boiling water at least 30 minutes; strain out the flowers)
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 cups sugar
3 oz of liquid pectin (this will be 1/2 box of liquid Certo)

Bring first 3 ingredients to a boil you can't stir down. Add pectin and boil 2 minutes. Ladle into hot sterile jars. Process as above.

Do you have a favorite Elderflower recipe?  Share it as a comment, below

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Designing Your ‘New California Garden’: 2. Developing a Base Map (Base Plan)


Background: A base map or base plan shows the layout of the property and accurately locates the permanent site elements on a residential lot. In urban areas and developments, lots have typically been surveyed.  You may already have a copy of your deed map or property survey (or can obtain one from your local municipality).   If you live in Los Angeles County, you can view the official deed map for your property on-line at the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office site : http://maps.assessor.lacounty.gov/mapping/viewer.asp  Just type in your street address and city to view the appropriate deed map. 
If a property survey has been done, it should show all property edges, setbacks and right of ways, building and pavement locations, and other permanent site elements.   If no property survey exists, you may want to have a survey conducted by a reputable surveyor.   This will help you correctly locate permanent structures on your property as well as adjacent property lines, fences, pavement, etc.   Having a recent survey map will save you time and effort constructing your base map.
We suggest that you construct two base maps: one that just includes the physical features (Base Map 1) and a second that also includes any existing plants you will retain in your new landscape (Base Map 2).  You can use a copy of Base Map 1 to draw Base Map 2.  And you will use copies of Base Map 2 to construct the maps you’ll need for your for site assessments, functional analysis and drawing the landscape plan.

Constructing Base Map 1:  
To construct Base Map 1, start by redrawing the property survey to scale at a larger size.   For properties under an acre in size, a scale of 1"=10' is an appropriate scale. For smaller urban properties your scale may be even larger.   You want a scale that is large enough to show details, but small enough to be photocopied.
You may find it easiest to use simple ruled (quadrille) paper to help you draw your base map.  If you want to draw it freehand, we suggest using an architectural ruler or an engineer's scale (these supplies are available at most drafting or art shops).   We recommend drawing your plan first in pencil; then ink in the lines for the final base map.

Example: Base Map 1 for typical local home
Lot size is 60 ft. by 80 ft.

The base map should show the following information:

  • all property lines.
  • bodies of water (streams, lakes, ponds, low areas with seasonal flooding)
  • buildings, including basic floor plan with doors and windows noted
  • downspouts
  • outside water spigots
  • outside electrical outlets
  • decks and overhangs
  • air conditioner units
  • all walls, fences, utility boxes and poles, fire hydrants, etc.
  • roads, drives, parking areas, walks and paths, patios, swimming pools
  • on and off site utilities including electric, telephone, gas, water, sewer, septic tanks and field drains.
  • off site elements including adjoining roads and drives, bodies of water, and structures that may influence your design.
  • compass directions showing north, east, south and west.
  • the scale size of the base plan.

We strongly suggest you read the helpful article ‘Drawing a Landscape Plan: The Base Map’ before drawing your base map (http://www.caes.uga.edu/Publications/pubDetail.cfm?pk_id=7444).  

Once your Base Map 1 is completed, make 3 or more photocopies of it.   Store the original in a safe place. 


Base Map 2 for our Example Home

Constructing Base Map 2:  
Using a copy of Base Map 1, draw an outline of any pre-existing plants you wish to retain in your new landscape.   Be sure to draw the plants to scale and locate the accurately.  For example, the outline of a tree should show the extent of it’s spread (as if you were looking down on it from above).  Do not fill in the outline, since you may want to plant other plants under the tree.   Once your Base Map 2 is completed, make 7 or more photocopies of it.   Store the original in a safe place.   You will use the copies to map the physical characteristics of your site, the irrigation system, etc.  You will also use copies to develop your landscape plan.  


Other helpful resources on drawing a landscape base map



Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Designing Your ‘New California Garden’: 1. Why Plan?

Introduction: The ‘New California Garden’      As the climate changes, so must our gardens.  Of necessity, gardens must now become sustainable; they must be tailored to local conditions - and that’s exciting!   We literally have the opportunity to create a whole new type of California garden right in our own yards.  That’s a fun challenge, and we’re going to help you with our new series ‘Designing Your New California Garden’.

Californians have a long history of ‘borrowing’ plants from other parts of the world.  In the past, we chose plants we liked, then modified soils and irrigation practices to accommodate their needs. While this strategy worked for a while, many of the ‘borrowed’ plants required more water and nutrients than we actually had.   As the climate changes – and materials become more limited - this strategy is becoming obsolete. That’s why we call it the ‘Old California Garden’ paradigm.

What we need now is a whole new paradigm - one that is sustainable.  We call this the ‘New California Garden’.  New California Gardens are appropriate for our mediterranean climate.  They are water-wise and life-friendly, providing habitat for people, plants and creatures.   They reflect the history and natural history of our area.  They are beautiful and comfortable, suiting our tastes, values, lifestyle and even cultural heritage.  That’s what the New California Garden is all about.

The New California Garden is not about giving things up; rather it’s about making conscious choices.  You’ll need to think carefully about how you want your New California Garden to look.  What activities will you want to do in the garden?  Do you need a place to cook and eat?  A small meditation area?  A vegetable garden?  Where’s the best place to store trash cans or locate a compost barrel or dog run?   What colors and shapes do you like?  Will you use only drought tolerant plants, or will some parts of the garden require regular water?   All of these choices and more should influence your garden design.

The New California Garden involves choosing plants that will thrive under existing conditions, rather than modifying the site to fit the plants.   So you’ll need to conduct a site inventory and analysis to determine your site’s physical ‘assets’.  Next you’ll map these assets: the soil type, light & shade patterns, topography & drainage, pre-existing plants and other physical characteristics.   You’ll also need to inventory the views: the good, the bad and the ugly.  Your plant choices will be based on both the site characteristics and your personal needs and desires.  That’s what makes designing a New California Garden so personal, creative and satisfying.

Some gardeners will want to hire a landscape architect or other landscape professional to help design their New California Garden.  Qualified garden designers have years of training/experience in laying out attractive, functional gardens.   They can help arrange a garden that has good traffic flow and maximizes views.  But you’ll need to be an active partner with your designer to ensure that the final design reflects your priorities, values and tastes.

If you work with a designer, you’ll want to do some background work ahead of time.  This will make the designer’s job easier; but it will also allow you to think about your priorities and choices ahead of time.  With this knowledge you’ll be able to articulate your desires – and stand up for your choices if necessary.    In this series we’ll provide some interesting exercises and questionnaires to help you do your background work.

Most designers don’t have time to conduct a thorough site analysis. They don’t live at the site as your family does.  And they don’t know your family’s tastes, desires and other personal factors important for a well-designed home landscape.    Whether you hire a landscape professional or design the landscape yourself, the background work must be done for your landscape to be successful.

Like the climate, the landscape design industry is changing to meet the future.  Unfortunately, some landscape designers are still stuck in ‘Old California Garden’ mode.  You’ll likely have to search for a designer who understands the New California Garden way of thinking.   A qualified designer understands that your landscape should be water-wise and life-friendly.  They will ask questions about soil, drainage, temperature and shade patterns in addition to assessing your family’s design preferences.  They will want to work with you to design an appropriate landscape.  And they will have knowledge of native plants and their use in local gardens.

The best way to find a New California Garden designer is to choose a garden you like and find out who designed it.  Don’t be afraid to ask a local homeowner; they will usually be happy to recommend their designer – or give you tips if they designed the garden themselves.    Local nature centers, arboretums, colleges and botanic gardens may have lists of recommended garden designers.   Your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (or other native plant society) or Audubon Society may also have suggestions.

Base map of Mother Nature's Backyard

Why Plan?     A well designed landscape begins with a plan.  That sounds a little scary, but the planning process actually proceeds through a series of well-defined steps.  We’re going to help you through the steps in this series.  We think you’ll find the process fun, interesting and informative.  You’ll be learning about your garden’s physical characteristics, history and potential.    At the end, you’ll have a garden plan that you – or a landscape professional – can install.  That’s pretty neat; and trust us, the alternative to planning is not pretty!

A New California Garden is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. It’s actually a small functioning ecosystem that includes your family.  Many gardeners understand the aesthetic part.   But thinking about how you want your garden to function is an equally important.  Selecting plants is actually the last step of the design process. Fully understanding the property's drainage, soils and ecology; locating existing site elements; developing a 'wish list' of use areas and locating them properly; and resolving all these elements into a successful design should be accomplished first.

If designing your own garden, you’ll need to learn some design tricks used by the professionals.  There are a few basic principles that can help give your garden a pleasing appearance.  They will help you create a garden that is interesting, balanced and ‘tied together’ into a pleasing whole.   We’ll talk a little about garden design later in this series.

The eight steps of developing a landscape plan are summarized as follows:

  1. Develop a base map (base plan).  (July 2013)

      2.  Conduct a site inventory and analysis.  (August 2013)

      1. Assess your family's needs (functional analysis).  (September 2013)

      1. Locate the use areas. (October 2013)

      1. Determine your likes, dislikes, etc.  (November 2014 – January 2014)

      1. Develop the hardscape plan (February – May 2014)
      Managing water (2)

      Other Hardscape

      1. Develop the design plan  (June - August 2014)

      1. Install the garden (October 2014)

      The first step is to draw an accurate base map.  We’ll be helping you do this later this month.  You will actually develop two base maps: one with only your home and other structures and a second that includes pre-existing plants you plan to retain.     Your site inventory (August) will cover current physical features of your garden site, but also an exploration of its history.   These activities will help you determine your site’s assets - the base on which your landscape plan will grow. 

      Your functional analysis will include an assessment of your needs, values and aspirations as they relate to the landscape.   You will prioritize your needs, then locate the desired features in the most appropriate landscape areas.  You will develop the use areas by choosing hardscape features (walks; walls; irrigation system) and plants appropriate to your plan and site.   Finally, you will develop a planting plan which includes a plant list, landscape map and installation schedule.

      Designing a New California Garden is an exciting process.  You’ll learn a lot about your garden, your local area and yourself.   So follow along as we guide you through the process over the next eight months.


      We value your comments (below).    You can also contact us directly at mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com.



      Friday, July 5, 2013

      Plant of the Month (July) – Narrowleaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

      Monarch Butterfly on Narrowleaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

      Many gardeners appreciate the special relationship between Monarch Butterflies and Milkweeds.  Far fewer know the Milkweed species that are actually native to Los Angeles County.  We’ve chosen the native Narrowleaf Milkweed as our Plant of the Month in honor of our annual Butterfly Month (July).

      With increasing interest in Monarchs, Southern California gardeners have flocked to the brightly colored ‘Mexican Butterfly Milkweed’, Asclepias curassavica, a yellow-orange-red flowered species from Central America.  This Milkweed does indeed provide food for Monarchs.  But it’s not native and it spreads like the dickens!   Better to plant a local Milkweed to attract this favorite garden visitor.

      Local native Milkweeds add a touch of sophistication – and good butterfly habitat – to many local gardens. One of the more widely used is the Narrowleaf Milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis.  This pretty, drought-tolerant native is blooming right now in Mother Nature’s Backyard.

      Milkweeds are grouped in the genus Asclepias, whose name honors the Greek god of healing.  Many Milkweeds are used traditionally as topical medicines for sores and skin infections, even though they are considered poisonous plants (see below for more).   Our local native species include the Narrowleaf Milkweed, Indian Milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa) and Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).  We currently have all three planted in Mother Nature’s Backyard.

      Narrowleaf Milkweed grows in summer-dry places below about 7000 ft. elevation in the western United States from Washington and Idaho south to Baja California, Mexico.  Voucher specimens exist for the Dominguez Slough (now the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve and the location of Mother Nature’s Backyard) and other local areas.   It grows in many California plant communities, mostly away from the immediate coast.   Common to all are soils that are well-watered in winter-spring and dry with summer.

      Clump of Narrowleaf Milkweed

      Narrowleaf Milkweed is an herbaceous perennial that dies back to the root each fall-winter.  Plants have a deep, sturdy taproot that allows them to grow and flower during the warmer months.   In our area, new foliage typically doesn’t appear until the weather begins to warm up in late April or May. 
      Asclepias fascicularis - note narrow, folded
       leaves arranged in whorls

      The leaves of Narrowleaf Milkweed are long (up to 5 inches) and narrow, making this species more delicate appearing than other Milkweeds. The leaves are usually folded slightly along the midrib (the major vein in the center of the leaf) and arranged in whorls (spiral-shaped groupings) along the upright stems.  The stems themselves are one to three feet tall and slender; a single plant will produce more stems each season.   The overall impression of this plant is of a delicate, open tracery that complements many other types of garden foliage (see picture, above).

      The flowers of Narrowleaf Milkweed are a pale, creamy pink – a boon to gardeners who love pinks and reds.   Like most Milkweeds, the flowers are grouped in ball-like clusters, which may contain more than 50 flowers.  The individual flowers are small (1/4 inch; 1 cm.) and have a shape typical for Asclepias. Their unusual shape is due to fusion and modification of the usual flower parts.  The five waxy pink petals (seen at the base of the flowers, below) are reflexed down when the flower is fully open. 

      Cluster of flowers - Asclepias fascicularis

      The corona (crown-shaped structure above the petals) is composed of five ‘hoods’ and ‘horns’ which are modifications of the male sex organs.  In the very center is a complex structure (the gynostegium) composed of fused parts of both male and female organs.  The hoods and horns are appropriately named; as seen above, they indeed look like hoods and horns.  They point towards the anthers (the pollen producing structures), which are fused to the female stigma (the pollen-receiving structure) to form the gynostegium.  For excellent labeled drawings of these structures see: http://waynesword.palomar.edu/termfl1.htm
      The pollen is stored as pollen masses (pollinium) rather than separate pollen grains.  When a pollinator insect visits the flower, its legs slip into the slits between anthers on the gynostegium.  If you look closely, you can see these slits in the picture above; there are 5, radiating out from the very center of the flower.   When the leg is removed, it takes with it a pollinium, which is deposited into the stigmatic slit of the next flower.  From then on, it’s fertilization as usual.   For more on pollination see our ‘Planning for Pollinators’ post (June 2013).

      Given the unusual flower structure, you might expect pollination to occur only rarely.  Quite the contrary: the highly modified structures, and the lure of sweet nectar, insure that Milkweed pollination is highly efficient.   Numerous seeds develop within the narrow, sharply-pointed seed pods.  At maturity, the pods split open, releasing the brown seeds with their fluffy ‘parachutes’.  Wind deposits the seeds around the garden; so you may find new patches growing in favorable locations.
      Narrowleaf Milkweed with Large Milkweed Bug
       (black and orange) and yellow Oleander Aphids

      Narrowleaf Milkweed is an excellent insect habitat plant.   Its nectar provides food for butterflies, bees and wasps.  In our area, the seed pods are eaten by the Large/Common Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus).  The foliage is eaten by a range of interesting insects including true bugs, beetles and larva of the Monarch and Striated Queen butterflies.  The yellow ‘Milkweed Aphids’ (Oleander Aphids; Aphis nerii) that suck the sap of Milkweeds are not native; they can also decimate a Milkweed plant.  The best advice is to blast them off the plants with a stream of water when you first see them.  For more discussion on dealing with these aphid pests see: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/09/news/la-lh-milkweed-aphids-monarch-butterfly-eggs-20121104

      Monarch and Queen caterpillars are hardy eaters, especially during their later stages.  Milkweed plants can look a little ‘eaten’ by the end of the summer, but that’s a normal consequence of a healthy ecosystem.  The caterpillars, which are well camouflaged, are also protected by chemicals produced by Milkweed plants.  These chemicals, the cardiac glycosides, protect the plant from being eaten; they are toxic to many insects and larger animals, including humans. The caterpillars, which are immune to their effects, use these chemicals to deter their predators.

      Native Californians used the Narrowleaf Milkweed in several ways.  Parts of the plant were used to prepare topical (external use) medicines.  Some plant parts – carefully and properly prepared – were even eaten.  But caution is advised with any Milkweed; they do produce toxic chemicals.  To be safe, no part of the Milkweed plant should be eaten or made into tea or medicine.   Gardeners with pets or children with a propensity for eating garden plants should take this into account when considering Milkweeds.

      Narrowleaf Milkweed was also an important source of fibers for Native Californians. The dried stems were split and rolled on the thigh to release the tough fibers.  These were then used to make string for nets, rope and other cordage uses (decoration on clothing, etc.).  It takes a lot of Milkweed to make a net (hundreds to thousands of stalks)!

      Narrowleaf Milkweed is quite easy to grow.  It does well in full sun to part-shade in most local soils, from sandy to clay.  The plants like plenty of winter/spring moisture and can even tolerate winter flooding.  But once established, they are remarkably drought tolerant.   In our garden we treat them as Water Zone 2 plants, watering them occasionally in summer (see ‘Water Zone Gardening’ – posted April 2012).   Overwatering Milkweeds can cause them to become invasive.

      As for many local native plants, we taper off watering in the fall (late August to October). This allows the plants to enter dormancy.   Milkweeds should be cut down to 1-2 inches in fall.  They will re-spout strong and healthy in spring.  And that’s about all there is to growing Narrowleaf Milkweed.
      Narrowleaf Milkweed in Mother Nature's Backyard

      Milkweeds make a delightful addition to the home garden.  Their foliage and pastel flowers provide a delicate old-fashioned note to the flower garden.  They are a must for anyone wanting to provide Monarch and Striated Queen habitat.  So consider adding some native Milkweeds to your garden.

      For a gardening information sheet and more pictures of this plant see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants.html
      please feel free to add your comments below.  We welcome your Milkweed questions at: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com