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The Backyard Gardener Blog

This a round-up of our most recent blog posts.

You can find all of our blog posts at this site: The Backyard Gardener.

Recent Posts

    Feb 26, 2021

    The original vision for the garden was summarized in an essay entitled “Native Garden Rejuvenation at the Interagency Visitor Center,” (authored by anonymous), as follows: 

    • To help visitors discover the unique flora and different plant communities that call the Eastern Sierra home. A sampling of what they might see as they travel through the region.
    • To enable visitors to connect physically and emotionally with the gardens using their senses. A space to relax in for a short time before resuming the journey.     
    • To create a simple understanding of the ecology of the garden; the relationships that exist between these plants and other living organisms.
    • To educate visitors to the benefits derived from incorporating native plantings into their ornamental landscape in respect to water and resource conservation, also luring birds, insects, and wildlife into the garden.
    • To grow links between the garden and the community of Lone Pine. The garden becomes a source of pride, education, and inspiration for the community.

    Although it has been several years since this vision was articulated, the vision remains a vibrant and appropriate one. The garden was planted in three distinct zones, representing the areas attracting visitors to the ESVC: (1) the Mojave Desert, (2) the Owens Valley, and (3) the Sierra Foothills.

    The garden contains benches, inviting visitors to spend time in the garden, and learn about its ecology and benefits of a water-conserving landscape.

    As the involvement of the Master Gardeners grows and becomes systematic, we hope to provide some of the education and inspiration envisioned for the local community.


    Feb 23, 2021

    The native plant demonstration garden was developed as part of a USDA Forest Service Project.  In FY 2006, Congress set aside funding for use by the National Forest System and its partners to fund cost-share projects.  The Inyo National Forest submitted a project description for the Interagency Visitor Center Restoration and Native Plant Demonstration Project.  It described the Project and its benefits as follows:

    A newly upgraded Interagency Visitor Center (IAVC) has recently been completed to better serve an increasing number of diverse visitors.  The IAVC serves an international audience, with many visitors from Europe, Asia and across the United States, who are drawn to the area by globally significant scenic and recreation opportunities, including Mt. Whitney, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, and Death Valley National Park.  The previous IAVC, a much smaller facility, has been serving approximately 250,000 visitors annually.  This number is expected to rise significantly with the improved facilities.

    While the new IAVC was constructed on the site of the existing smaller facility, much of the area needed to be graded in order to facilitate construction.  Restoration of the native alkali meadow, in conjunction with the creation of native plant demonstration garden for other local ecosystems, e.g., northern Mojave Desert, eastern Sierra foothill communities, etc., will provide a unique educational opportunity.  Visitors may learn about the native vegetation in the local environment, as well as have the opportunity to witness a water-wise fire safe, native plant landscape.

    Approximately 1.5 acres of native plant landscaping will be developed on the grounds of the IAVC.  A diverse mix of visitors, ranging from Los Angeles school groups traveling through to international visitors to the Lone Pine area, will gain an increased appreciation of local ecosystems, as well as an introduction to native plants and xeriscaping.

     Long before actual work could begin, the Forest conducted preliminary soil/water site investigations. In addition, a botanical consultant prepared reports on potential botanical and wetland resources, as well as a noxious weed risk assessment. Copies of these reports, written in 2000/2001, are maintained at the Inyo NF Supervisors Office.1

    Over the years, the garden was maintained by IAVC staff and occasional volunteer work parties.  Everyone recognized the need to find a community group to adopt the garden and help with its restoration and maintenance. In late 2019, the Inyo-Mono County Master Gardeners partnered with the Inyo National Forest to research, restore, and maintain the native plant demonstration garden.
    Since that time, a dedicated crew of volunteers has been working through the challenges including the closing of the IAVC and other COVID-related restrictions on work parties. The native plants in the garden grew, uninhibited, and many volunteer plants began to crowd out some of the original plantings.  The automatic watering system failed. Some plants died due to lack of water, while other plants died due to over-watering.  Nevertheless, much of the original skeleton of the garden design has been revived and we hope to continue maintenance of the garden on a regular schedule.   

    In the interim, we have been trying to unlock the history of the native garden and preserve it for future visitors.  This post is the first in a series that will share some of the history of the garden at the IAVC.

    Other thoughts regarding possible future changes to the garden included:

    * Making the picnic bench area adjacent to the garden and the Visitor Center entrance more amenable to visitors by creating shade.
    * Removing the chain link fence and replacing it with a split rail or more natural fence that blends with the garden. Consider placing a wooden gate that would provide access to the Visitors Center entrance.
    * Placing benches on the north side of the Visitor Center, facing out to the garden, to give visitors an opportunity to view the garden.
    * Adding rock plantings to the garden to create additional interest.
    * Moving the coke machines to provide room for the potential mural.

    1 A subsequent blog entry will discuss the original planting plans and plant list for the native plant garden.

  • Some tips on Growing Rhubarb.

    Feb 18, 2021

    The herbal qualities of rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) have been treasured in China for thousands of years, its export to the outside world often being forbidden. The type which we now eat originated in Russia, and reached America by way of Europe in the 1770s. It is grown primarily for its succulent stems which can be made into various desserts and preserves. (What we usually call stems on rhubarb are actually petioles – a “leaf's stem”). The leaves, however, contain high quantities of oxalic acid and are very toxic. Stems can be harvested as early as April in the Owens Valley, long before any fruits are ready, and in many countries plants are “forced” to obtain an even earlier crop. Large terracotta forcing pots were part of my childhood scene in England, although one seldom sees them now. I have not found anyone who has tried forcing in our area.

    As with so many plants from temperate climates, rhubarb is on the edge of its range in the high desert but with afternoon shade and sufficient water it can do well. Responses from Master Gardeners in the area show that either they cannot get it going or else they cannot get rid of it! Unfortunately the names of the varieties that various people have tried have been lost in the mists of time, but the three Master Gardeners who failed were trying to grow red stemmed varieties which are considered less heat tolerant.

    I grow a very robust green, slightly red-tinged variety, which I believe to be 'Victoria', given to me (and many others) by a gardener in Bishop. The mother plant has been producing and spreading for many years, and mine has shown no signs of weakening after three years, although plants on a south-facing wall under dappled shade grow flatter and are much less productive than one planted against an east-facing fence. Another recipient of the same stock planted hers on a shaded west-facing fence about 8 feet away from a stream with no additional irrigation and has an enormous plant. One person has it planted on the north side of her house and finds that it grows well there.

    Master Gardener Bobbie Stryeffeler has a prolific red-stemmed variety the leaves of which have red veins. Red varieties commonly found in nurseries include 'MacDonald' and 'Crimson Cherry' which is grown in other areas of California, and is one of the best since the red coloring goes right through the stem and does not cook out. Although there is supposedly no difference in sweetness between the red and green stemmed varieties, the red stemmed ones definitely make more attractive-looking jams and pies.

    The large, bold plants can be quite handsome and many gardeners consider them ideal for incorporating into an edible landscape. Allow about one square yard per plant. Rhubarb takes a couple of years to become established, but then needs dividing only every 5 – 10 years, so it is necessary to prepare the soil very well - digging deeply, removing all perennial weeds, and adding a generous amount of rotted manure or compost. Plenty of moisture – preferably by drip irrigation - and protection from the sun during the hottest part of the day are requirements, and although quite hardy they benefit from a covering of mulch during the winter. They have a long, thick, woody rootstock at the top of which are “eyes” or buds which give rise to many petioles, each topped with a large leaf blade. Plant in early spring placing the eyes so that they are covered with about 2'' of soil. A winter chill below 40°F is required to induce rapid growth in the spring and early summer which continues until the temperatures reach above 75°F at which point the plants become dormant until cut down by the first severe frost.  Plants should be mulched annually with well-rotted compost or manure, or else fertilized with a 10-10-10 formula.


    Do not harvest any stems the first year, and in the second year harvest only lightly. After that full harvesting can begin, but never pull more that 30%-50% of the stems to ensure you leave enough leaves to feed the plant. The younger stems are most flavorful and tender. Pull the stems from the base of the plant with a slight sideways motion – do not cut them as this leaves a stub that may rot. Many experts recommend removing the leaves immediately. The harvested petioles can be used fresh, or frozen, or preserved for future use.

    The leaves may be safely composted. Flower spikes appear as a large sheath-covered bud at the base of the plant and should be removed as soon as they become apparent since they deplete the plant's reserves, although in some countries the flowers are said to be dipped in batter and fried. The green-stemmed varieties tend to bolt more than those with red-stems.


    Generally rhubarb has very few pest and disease problems, although one Master Gardener lost her plant when a gopher ate the roots. They are subject to earwig infestations in the Owens Valley so be on the lookout for them or you might find the leaves eaten. Root rot can affect plants grown in too-wet conditions.

    A word of warning: The leaves contain very high, toxic levels of oxalates and anthraquinone glycosides. However, the stems also contain lesser amounts and excess oxalic acid is excreted by the kidneys. It can combine with calcium to form calcium oxalate. Excess crystals of this compound lead to the formation of bladder or kidney stones, so people suffering from these conditions, as well as those with kidney disease or gout should avoid eating rhubarb.

    Just thinking of rhubarb takes me back to my childhood. Candy was rationed, so a special treat was to be given a little cone of paper containing sugar, and a tender rhubarb stem for dipping. There are whole cook-books devoted entirely to rhubarb recipes so if you are successful in growing this plant it should be easy to find something to do with it!

  • Video: Growing Figs in the Owens Valley

    Feb 4, 2021

    Although our climate leans strongly toward the harsh end of the spectrum, we can still grow a wide array of fruits in the Eastern Sierra. Figs are one those crops we can grow.

    We will never be known as the Fig Capital of the World, but they can be successfully grown in the Owens Valley.

    In this video, Alison Collin goes over a few basics on raising figs in our area.

     Growing Figs in the Owens Valley

    TIP: Remember that figs vary in their hardiness. 'Mission' figs, common though most of California, are not reliably hardy here. 'Brown Turkey', 'Celeste'/'Malta', 'Kadota', and 'Hardy Chicago' are known to survive on the valley floor.  Others work too. Figs that require pollination by a fig wasp will not work at all. 

    By Dustin Blakey
    Author - County Director / Farm Advisor
  • Virginia Creeper: A Plant I've Grown to Hate

    Usually I write up little articles on plants I like, but this post is about a plant I've learned to detest since moving to Owens Valley: Virginia creeper.
    Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is related to grapes. Except for the obviously different foliage it has a similar growth pattern. It is a vigorous growing vine that has a real will to live. Maybe too much.
    It's a native to central and eastern North America, but is common in landscapes across the continent. Sometimes I would find it in forests in Arkansas, but it was usually in someone's yard.
    Somehow Virginia creeper found its way to our area. Judging from the yards I see it in, it must have been popular about 50 years ago. Today it can be found in yards up and down Owens Valley. I have it in my own yard.
    A plant I never gave much thought about, Virginia creeper usually serving a role in landscapes as a generic, boring vine. If you needed green stuff on a fence or wall with a little fall color, it's a plant that worked well for that purpose even if it was mostly ignored. It is hard to kill and spreads quickly, good characteristics for generic, green vines.
    I have decided that I do not like Virginia creeper. Not one bit. 
    In my yard there are 3 patches of the stuff. Every year I have to spend an entire day untangling and removing hundreds of feet of vines from fences, flower beds, walls, and paths. It even grows inside the walls of my house under the siding all the way up to the eaves — and beyond! It has become a real nuisance. 
    This past year I grew a garden in a new spot. There was a small patch of unirrigated Virginia creeper on the adjacent fence. Each year it would grow some, eventually get wiped out by leafhoppers, and I'd pull it down in winter. With the irrigation provided to the garden, it took over everything. Some vines grew more than 25 feet this season!
    Throughout the season I removed excess growth that I noticed, but it turned out to have grown below the tomatoes and tomatillos, out of sight. The vines bound up the trellises and made fall clean up a challenge. Raking was not possible until I removed every single vine.
    In our area, Virginia creeper should be considered an undesirable species in landscapes. If you are offered it as a pass-along plant, decline as graciously as you can. Be firm, however. You don't want this plant. In a dry location it's not too bad of a plant if you don't mind the huge leafhopper infestation that arrives in summer. With water it becomes a real beast with few redeeming qualities.
    Good news! It is possible to eliminate Virginia creeper. Continual pulling and digging often is successful. If you don't have any barriers like roots, paths or fenceposts, digging is usually the fastest way to make a dent. Chances are it will takes several tries to remove it. When it gets under paths, inside walls, or other hard-to-reach places, digging alone is unlikely to work.  It will respond to systemic herbicides applied at the tail end of summer, along with cut stump treatments. (See this link for information on weed management in landscapes.)
    If you need advice for eliminating your Virginia creeper patch, contact our helpline at immg@ucanr.edu

    By Dustin Blakey
    Author - County Director / Farm Advisor