Thursday, July 31, 2008

Oak Moths Are Making A Mess Of Things

I’ve been getting a lot of calls from people about “those obnoxious moths killing my oak tree.” One person was near-apoplectic with the thought of all the oaks in Santa Barbara dying. It does look pretty bleak in some parts of town. Case in point, the southbound 101 going through Montecito has a butt-load of totally brown trees – not a green leaf anywhere to be found. Virginia Hayes wrote a good piece in the Independent in June, and the Santa Barbara News-Supressed did a brief feature last week, but I think we can expand the discussion a bit.

Here’s what I have to say. This is no time to panic!!!!!! No, it’s time to grab the bull by the horns and sit idly by doing nothing. Really. As much as folks are looking for “the fix” there really ain’t one. Well, actually there is one, but it’s not worth the trouble and takes both luck and skill to pull off the cure. Cryptic enough for ya?

If the trees could speak (and were fans of Monty Python’s Holy Grail) we’d hear them shouting “But I’m not dead yet!” That’s mostly true, but a few trees that were already on their last legs just might just be pushed over the edge. Being one to see the glass as half full, my imagination sees those oaks cut into manageable pieces and glowing under a few pounds of tri-tip, spending their last moments in the service of a fine meal. Oak trees have been known for their self-sacrificing nature.

California oak moths (Namus scientificensis) have been around and evolved along with many species of California’s oak trees for a few millennia. A quick “birds and the bees” lesson: Mommy and daddy moth go out for a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio, candles are lit, doors are closed, the girls throw mom a baby shower, and the next thing you know, a hairless little caterpillar emerges. While mom is rubbing copious amounts of vitamin-E cream into her stretch marks, the little dickens is starting to munch on the leaves of the host oak tree. No Gerber’s formula for these kids – it’s oak leaves that fill their little bellies.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen in isolation and in some cases thousands of babies from their play group join in the feeding frenzy on the same tree. Next thing ya know, the tree is partially or completely denuded. Add in the nuisance of caterpillar poop, called frass (keep that in mind next time you play Scrabble) collecting on nearby surfaces and I can see why folks are calling me in a panic.
Good news!

There is a biological fix in the form of a soil-dwelling bacteria (Bacillis thuringiensis) that is used to control a host of garden caterpillar pests. The most effective form these days is called Dipel and it comes in a spray or dust, available at most garden shops. Follow the directions and it’s quite safe.

Bad news – how the hell do you, the typical homeowner, effectively apply it to a mature oak tree? Hang glider? Trampoline?

More bad news – It has no effect on the mature moth. They don’t eat – too busy breeding. Now THAT’S the sign of a dedicated parent. I can see the bumper sticker on mom’s mini-van “Proud, Starving, Libido-driven Parent of an Oak-defoliating Honor Student.” So, even if you could figure out a way to spray or dust your oak, you’d have to build a tree house, sleep in the branches, arise at dawn, monitor the hatching of the pupae, and then unleash your attack.

So get over it, because (a) most healthy oaks can tolerate two or three defoliations in one growing season, (b) the moths are thought to peak in 7 to 10 year cycles (so next year shouldn’t be as bad) and (c) the tree will most likely look fine when it starts its growing cycle again after the next rains.

If your gardener says he has a spray to fix the problem, be suspicious; very suspicious. Indiscriminate spraying of toxic pesticides is a multi-edged sword that will come back and bite you, the beneficial helpers, your garden, wildlife in general, and your family.

There are beneficial insects (lady bugs, lacewings and others) and birds that are probably helping out somewhat by feeding on the caterpillars, but they’re not around in quantities that will substantially eradicate the problem.

One person told me that they go out every evening and blast the tree with a hard jet of water from their hose. They have no idea if it’s doing any good (and they’re using another precious resource as their weapon) but they sure feel great about annoying the hell out of the moths. I hope they’re ready for a visit from People for the Ethical Treatment of California Oak Moths.

Monday, July 28, 2008

AllTop - The One-Stop Blog Shop

I'm not sure how my blog was found, but I was thrilled to get an e-mail from none other than Guy Kawasaki last week (that link to the left takes you to some fun facts at Wiki). If you're an Apple user and have followed the world of Mac computers from the early days, you'll know that Guy was "the guy" charged with developing and marketing these amazing, transformational machines. He's known as the Mac Evangelist for good reason and has a fascinating life story.

Guy was writing to announce that this blog (along with a whole bunch of others) was going to be displayed at a new website called (short for All Topics). I clicked over to the site and realized I had to spread the word to any and all on-line readers and my fellow bloggers.

As their Purpose Statement says...

"We help you explore your passions by collecting stories from “all the top” sites on the web. We’ve grouped these collections — “aggregations” — into individual Alltop sites based on topics such as environment, photography, science, Muslim, celebrity gossip, military, fashion, gaming, sports, politics, automobiles, and Macintosh. At each Alltop site, we display the headlines of the latest stories from dozens of sites and blogs."

The site is broken into a mind-boggling cornucopia of topics (including gardens) which then link to a directory of all the blogs on that topic. It took me about an hour to find my way out, as one rabbit hole seems to seamlessly connect to the next.

I have three connections to Guy, and each speaks volumes about a truly amazing man: (1) He's a close friend of a dear friend who used to baby-sit his kids. Her stories about her early days with Guy are always shared with a blend of excitement about the heady days of Silicon Valley and the reverence for a kind and wise soul; (2) He wrote a fabulous book called "The Art of the Start" that I read to bolster my knowledge about starting a new business and exploring the world of venture capital. Even if you have no interest in starting a business or non-profit, Guy's approach to how to deal with and respect people is worth the read (and it's drop-dead funny, too). (3) I'm a fully-immersed Mac user and can't imagine a life that tethered me to a Gates-World PC.

So please click over for a visit.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Gardening Under the Influence

Here's a link my bi-weekly article at Though slightly Santa Barbara-centric, it might give you some ideas on how to expand your summer adult-beverage chops while getting your garden tuned up.

Enjoy, and remember - you can be cited for gardening with a blood-alcohol level that exceeds 0.8.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

From California to Chicago and Back

A few months ago I received a call from Elyse Umlauf, a writer and editor working from Chicago. In addition to her freelance work, she's written a book about the design and improvement of commercial spaces.

It took a moment for all my synapses to connect around the reason for her call. Follow me - this Chicago writer found me through my blog in Santa Barbara, because she needed to interview me for a story regarding sustainable landscaping in California for a Los Angeles realtor - whew!

Thanks to the magic of electronic communications, the information traveled about 6000 miles from Chi-town to the left coast, back to the Great Lakes, and on to LA, all without leaving a discernable carbon foot print (Elyse gained a few brownie points from Al Gore in the process). How green is that? I was glad to oblige and pontificated in my usual style. I even received a link from her article to my TV show and this blog.

Thought you might want to check it out. I think it's mighty cool.

Monday, July 7, 2008

10 Reasons Why I'm Not Going to Do a Top 10 List

Now that I'm writing regularly for three media outlets (, Coastal Woman, and Santa Barbara Homeowner), I have to come up with a lot of ideas for stories. Each has a very different readership and I need to use, as they say in the writing world, a different "voice" for each. So it would be easy to fall back on the tried and true top 10 lists: Billy's Favorite Plants; My 10 Favorite Garden Tools; 10 Ways to Get a Rabid Badger Out of Your Britches, etc. But here are 10 reasons I refuse to take that course...

  1. If I tried to list 10 favorite plants, my brain would explode. There are too many and it would give the plants I left off a case of low self-esteem (yes, I'm anthropomorphizing).
  2. I'm not fond of the number ten. I've always thought that if humans had four fingers on one hand and three on the other, we wouldn't be celebrating 100 year anniversaries, septi-sesqui-octo-centennials or any of that other base-10 crap. It's just a fluke of the universe that 10 is so damn important to us. I refuse to bestow any great significance on the number 10!
  3. TEN are the initials of The Erotic Network, and this is a family show.
  4. "Ten is the second discrete biprime (2.5) and the second member of the (2.q) discrete biprime family." Someone actually wrote this at Wikipedia. That's strange enough, but the amazing thing is it also means something to someone else. I wouldn't know where to begin deciphering that sentence. I still count on my fingers. I'm so embarrassed, I want nothing to do with that 'T' number. I'm not worthy.
  5. I went to Home Depot yesterday trying to stimulate my story-writing lobe and could not find 10 plants I would willing use in a landscape design. I'm fed up with same frigging impatiens, petunias and lollipopped Marguerites I sold when I worked in nurseries in the 70s.
  6. That's all I can think of...see, I told you I couldn't do it.