Darwin isn’t the only giant in our garden!

Despite the drought, or maybe it’s because of the drought, I’m spending even more time this summer in our garden than last. Most summers I’ve had an abundant vegetable garden requiring a lot of time and attention, but with severe water rationing I knew that to grow a few tomatoes and some squash would redirect water needed to save other garden areas from becoming severely parched.

It’s been challenging, but I’m not ready to concede my love of gardening to this drought. Not yet. I’m very happy when my hands are in the dirt. This fall we will have lived in our home for 42 years and I feel very personally attached to every living thing, and some have stories that make them even more special to me.

Pony tail palm

It feels like just yesterday I planted this ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) in the earth. It had lived a few years quite nicely in a plastic nursery pot, but when it started to strain against the sides it was time to let it spread its cramped roots.

I have three of these unusual beauties, and they are all going to get much larger. A ponytail palm can grow into very old specimens with over 20 feet of trunk, and trunks can branch multiple times with multiple heads of leaves.

It’s possible that at some point we may need to have them professionally relocated or even donate them to a botanical garden. Fortunately they are very slow-growing and require 50-100 years to achieve this height. I don’t think I need to worry about them right now.


My grandmother gave me a small Sago Palm “pup” at least thirty years ago. It has a very prominent presence in a far corner of our garden, and I don’t inspect it very often. But look what I found earlier this month.

Male sago palm


Sago palms are either male or female, with distinctly different reproductive organs. It takes 15 to 20 years for these characteristics to become prominent and then they don’t “flower” more than every few years. This male specimen still produces little “pups” at its base, and I plan to see if I can remove them successfully for propagation.

Sago and ponytail palms are not palms. Sago palms are cycads, primitive plants dating back 200 million years, and the ponytail palm is a native of Mexico classified in the Asparagaceae family.


This once small Golden Barrel cactus came home with me years and years ago, a simple garden center purchase. He’s been residing with other cactus and succulents very near the backyard railroad and needed to have more breathing space.

Golden Barrel Cactus

We moved him from the backyard to the front, giving him a lot of space to grow. I didn’t measure his circumference, but let’s just say he’s bigger than a basketball!

If I had more room I’d love to mass Golden Barrel cactus. But I go to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens and walk through the cactus and succulent gardens very often, imagining what it would be like to have all of this space–and the professional landscapers to help me take care of it.


Another once quite small agave moved from plastic pot to the earth a few years ago and is now a show-stopper.

Agave durangensis

Agave durangensis forms large rosettes of up to 6 feet across. My guy is well on its way, and is probably three feet across. How do you like the jagged, sharp edges and those thorns?

Agave thorns

Agave specimens are plentiful in the garden centers right now and featured in some spectacular drought-tolerant landscaping. I love the variety, but you would need a home with lots of space.

We seem to have a habit of bringing things home that will outgrow (and possibly outlast) our ability to care for them properly.

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Our African Sulcata is almost 8 years old now and weighs somewhere around 60 pounds.  I’m guessing at his weight, but I can still lift him…awkwardly!  In captivity tortoises may not live as long as in the wild, 80 to 100 years, and even size may be affected, but they can grow up to two and half feet long and weigh 80-110 pounds or more.

Darwin joins the family
Be careful what you bring home from the pet store (2008)

We’ll be home this weekend taking care of our jumbo responsibilities. There’s a slight chance of rain and thunderstorms…wouldn’t that be delicious! I’ll also plan to exhale a little bit…I need to take care of myself so that I’m able to continue taking care of all these giants!

Enjoy your weekend, too, my friends.


A visit to the “Old West” with my favorite six and seven-year old

Summer is the perfect time to indulge in little adventures and among my favorite are times shared with granddaughters Sophia and Karina. Even though I now work with young adults, I will always think like an early elementary teacher, and summer creates the perfect space to augment or strengthen the girls’ contextual learning in advance of their late August leap into the first and third grades.


Great excuse to visit the Autry National Center of the American West, also called “The Autry Museum,” but I wondered if it would offer anything of interest to them.

When I was their age my school years and formal education were filled with the language of Manifest Destiny and Conquest, rather skewed history fueled more by images from popular culture and television westerns than actual timelines and events.


Our trusted friend Wikipedia reminds, “A western television show is a television series which takes place in the Old West and involves cowboys, cattle ranchers, miners, farmers, Native Americans, Spaniards, swords, guns and horses. It was the most popular genre of TV show in the 1950s and 1960s, when several hundred were aired.” I watched more than a few. I doubt Sophia and Karina have seen even one.


The Autry opened in 1988, the vision and direction coming from Gene Autry, ‘America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy,’ and Monte Hale, American B-Western film star and country musician. With the focus on western heritage, the museum’s holdings fulfill Autry’s mission of showing how the West “influenced America and the world.”

We enjoyed a lively conversation as the girls wondered what it would be like to leave the comfort and familiarity of home to travel by covered wagon across the country to an unknown territory. We looked at saddle bags from the Pony Express era and asked the question,  “Do you think when the first Pony Express riders left Missouri for California they could imagine that 155 years later people would be sending messages and letters without paper?”

The girls indulged my questions and attempts to stimulate thinking, but in the end, they are two little city girls. A life-sized replica of a horse still puts a smile on their face. I’m so glad they aren’t too sophisticated for that!

I treaded lightly, but couldn’t completely side-step the questions about “robbers” and the general lawlessness of the new frontier!

They can read, so it didn’t take them long to figure out that the “wild, wild west” had its violence and I learned they didn’t know the word “outlaw,” but did relate to the word “criminal. ”

We shared a lively discussion about Billy the Kid and Black Bart, but without sharing the more sensational  details there wasn’t much interest, I don’t think, and I was also relieved they were more fascinated with standing behind bars than looking right behind them. They didn’t seem to notice the enlarged archival photo of the entire Dalton Gang dead and laid out in a row following a failed bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas, 1892.

The Autry has a very extensive firearms collection highlighting the history of pistols, shotguns and rifles, and although undoubtedly there is a lot we could learn about weaponry, my learning curve is too steep to even think about trying…


…and the girls have no firsthand exposure to firearms of any kind. I looked for anything we might talk about.

One of my laugh-outloud moments came while showing them the intricate tooling on leather holsters. They could see where the pistol would fit in the holster, but what were those loops along the belt?

There weren’t any bullets in the display cases but I coaxed them towards thinking “ammunition.”  After some thinking, Karina suggested the holster loops were for “lasers,” and Sophia guessed “bombs.” There are so many things to learn in life.

Since visiting the Autry, Sophia has developed quite an appetite for reading from a great series of books that teach children about what it would have been like to live in different historical periods. If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon” is just one title in a great series of books, providing excellent learning context.

And speaking of context, I was interested in this particular display.

We quickly passed by costumes worn by John Wayne, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, and then I stopped, interested in items of modern western wear once worn by Michael Jackson.

As I paused, behind me came the question, “Who’s Michael Jackson?”




A visit with the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

We just returned from a brief trip up the beautiful California Central Coast for our yearly family reunion. I would have told you about it in advance, but it’s generally not a good idea to publicly announce that somewhere around fifty of my family members have all vacated their homes for a long weekend.


I’ve shared this beautiful rock before. We gather in the city of Morro Bay, a beautiful seaside village with the central feature being this marvelous 576 foot high volcanic plug.

I had only one other “must see” for the weekend.  It was important to me to go just a few miles north of Morro Bay and to stop along Highway 1 at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.  More than 17,000 elephant seals call the rookery home. When we caught up with them last September during their mating season, they were gathering by the thousands.


We had hoped to make another trip in late January to see the pups, but it just didn’t happen. Maybe next year. The elephant seals migrate thousands of miles to this secluded sandy beach twice a year for breeding, birthing and molting.

We found the population quite a bit smaller this visit, but we could witness some of the molt.


Elephant Seals shed their skin as they grow, much like a snake, molting after the breeding season. During this time they cannot enter the ocean as  they are missing necessary insulation.

Judging by the small beached population, we were definitely late to witness the molting season.


Do you see the kelp beds out beyond the rocks? According to one of the volunteers,  the kelp beds help protect these majestic mammals from their enemy, the Great White shark. The elephant seal can dive to 5,000 feet and stay as long as an hour, providing a good defense, but the kelp helps provide a natural barrier.


Sophia and Karina were genuinely interested in these noisy and oddly moving creatures, and I hope we can make a return trip later this fall to visit with them when once again they number in the thousands.

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Care to take a look at them through an EsealCam? The non-profit organization, Friends of the Elephant Seal, provides the live camera and depending on the time of year, you could get quite a show.

Click HERE if you’re interested in seeing what they’re up to–just remember to coordinate your visit with California’s Pacific Standard Time! I just checked on them and presumably they were sleeping. I’ll see them again in the morning.

Nature has provided us with some amusing–really quite funny looking creatures, don’t you agree?