Bugs are way cool!
Sex. Murder. Intrigue. It’s all happening in your backyard right now.
BY HAYLEY THOMAS
You can’t talk about beneficial insects without taking a moment to revel in the weirdness that is the praying mantis. That’s exactly what The Educated Gardner’s Simone Smith and I did the other day. We had to stop the interview to geek out extensively on these eccentric green helpers.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- TAME THE DRAGON: Keep a pond of cool water in your garden to attract beneficial (and beautiful) bugs like dragonflies, which love to feast on smaller insects and mosquitos.
I even squealed like a schoolgirl upon seeing Smith’s coveted mantis egg case, located under an unassuming branch in her nursery. The hard, oval substance looked a lot like Styrofoam and appeared to be just as sturdy. When the self-described “nature freak” finds a surplus of egg cases in her backyard, she loves to give them away.
“If you ever find an egg case like this, you’re in luck,” Smith said.
After an afternoon with Smith, I now know all sorts of obscure things about a too often invisible world—a world that buzzes all around us and beneath our feet, whether we know it or not.
Like these fun facts: Praying mantises can turn their heads a full 180 degrees. Lady mantises sometimes eat their mates, even beheading their lovers before they’ve consummated the relationship (as it turns out male mantises are better lovers when their brain is detached from his abdominal ganglion). They have binocular vision but only one ear.
But what’s really cool? Mantises, like so many other beneficial bugs, love to feast on all kinds of pesky critters that can lay waste to your garden. This article is a love letter to our beneficial insect friends; to all the forgotten heroes of our raised beds and veggie patches.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- BIOMIMIC: This is not a bee. Look again and you’ll notice that this creature, a helpful hoverfly, has two wings and no stinger.
When you think spring, do you think ladybugs? Well, you should. Next spring, be sure to pick up a batch from your local nursey (call first to see if they’re in stock). Smith warns that it’s always a good idea to release the tiny red bugs into your garden in the morning.
“First, give them a bit of water because they get really thirsty,” Smith said. “You want to release them at the base of the plant, where a lot of aphid infestation exists. Ladybugs will immediately try to find food and eat.”
“Food,” in this case, can be interchanged with “aphids.”
Worried that your ladybugs have flown away after a huge free meal? Think again. Smith knows that the creatures eat, mate, and leave their eggs behind on the undersides of leaves. Remember: The aphids may return before the new round of ladybugs hatch, but that’s OK. Once they do, the juvenile “ladybug lions” (black with orange spots) are even more voracious than their parents.
Now onto an insect that’s less cute and cuddly but just as helpful. Chances are you haven’t heard much about the hoverfly—which is a shame, because you’ve probably mistaken them for a bee a zillion times. Thanks to an evolutionary perk, the flies are almost indistinguishable from bees at first glance (they have yellow and black striped bodies but only two wings instead of four and no stinger). A friend growing up used to call the creatures “tickle bees” because they looked so similar, but couldn’t harm—well—a fly.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- WEB OF LIFE: Self-described “nature freak” and owner of The Educated Gardener, Simone Smith, believes you should think before you spray.
“They also eat aphids as well as mites and small pesky insects,” Smith said. “They, along with a lot of other beneficial insects, like plants in the aster family, composite flowers like sunflowers and daisies.”
Note: These plants are really “flowers within flowers.” Look closely next time you come across a dandelion and chrysanthemum and you’ll see what I mean. Depending on where hoverflies are in their life cycle, they could be feasting on pollen or eating nasty pests—both a boon to your garden.
Now, onto parasitic wasps, which sound absolutely frightening (and they are if you’re the size of a pencil eraser). As you may have already guessed, these little rock stars lay their eggs inside their hosts, usually aphids and caterpillars. Lucky for you, they’re also attracted to the same flowers that bees and other pollinators like, so take note if you see a funny looking aphid crawling up the side of a leaf.
“If you see an aphid that looks blown up, fat and round like a balloon, with a round patch on its back, you know you have the wasps,” Smith said. “New wasps will emerge from the aphid over time.”
Note: Aphids can come in all kinds of colors: black, red, yellow, and other colors. Oh, and if you see them in conjunction with a large ant infestation, they may actually be in cahoots.
Truly! It’s a war out there, people.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- THE EXTERMINATOR: A praying mantis egg case is worth its weight in gold if you’re looking to cut down on garden pests.
“Aphids secrete a fluid that the ants eat, so ant colonies will actually protect them from predators,” Smith said. “Sometimes you can help control the aphid population by controlling the ant population. Really, there’s all kinds of stuff going on that people don’t notice.”
Could there be more of an understatement?
Of course, we all know about the very visible bee, which adores purple flowers like rosemary and lavender (really, they just want an assortment to choose from, so go wild in terms of diversity).
On the flipside, way underground, happy worms love to aerate your soil and leave nutrient-rich worm castings (good for plants).
Want to cultivate a better relationship the wrigglers in your world? Give them lots of plant matter to eat like leaves, mulch, and compost. (And don’t forget a little moisture. Worms hate dry soil.)
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- A FREE LUNCH : Flowers in the aster family, like this daisy, are incredible for coaxing in beneficial pollinators.
Whatever you do, avoid spraying toxic pesticides in your garden, and instead try to understand the web of life and where the imbalance may exist. This sounds like a no-brainer, but Smith finds herself repeating herself quite a bit. “Think before you spray” might be her unofficial mantra.
“If you spray and kill everything, you won’t have any beneficial insects; you won’t have anything at all,” Smith said.
Another word of advice for folks looking to bolster their growing grounds? Get off your screen and get into the green. It’s amazing how much you can learn from simple observation. In fact, that’s exactly how Smith became the proud bug geek she is today. Next time you have a free evening, put down your Instagram feed and go outside. Find a pitch-black area and look down at the ground. Who knows—maybe you’ll see the tiny neon pulse of a glow worm, one of Smith’s favorite insect friends.
Smith proves that you’re never too old to commune with bugs. It’s never too late to learn the language and jump into the conversation.
“I grew up exploring outside and looking at all the little details of our natural world. That’s something lost on the younger generation,” Smith said. “When you get too sucked into technology, you become oblivious to the world around you. I want to cultivate a sense of exploration for everyone, at every age.”
Hayley Thomas thinks praying mantises are nothing short of badass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every last drop
You can still grow tasty veggies, even during the state’s drought
BY CHRIS MCGUINNESS
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as growing your own food. Just ask any of the thousands of green-thumbed gardeners residing in California, and they are likely to tell you same.
But throughout the state, including here on the Central Coast, the dreaded drought continues. The massive boost of rainfall that we were supposed to get from El Niño passed us by, and residents have become used to news that their cities and towns are asking them to cut back and conserve water. The sight of the Central Coast’s once-green rolling hills now yellowed with thirst might be enough to make anyone hoping to plant their own vegetable garden have second thoughts.
- PHOTO BY CHRIS MCGUINNESS
- FIGHTING DROUGHT: You don’t have to choose between having a garden full of delicious vegetables and doing you part to conserve water.
“We had a really bad hot spell in June, and it hit when the days were the longest,” said Marsha Guelff, owner and operator of Bay Laurel Garden Center in Atascadero. “Some people have definitely downsized their gardens.”
Ellen Perryess, a local master gardener, echoed a similar sentiment, noting that many people she knew had cut back on water in other areas to make sure they could keep their vegetable gardens and fruit trees healthy.
“It’s such a pleasure to grow your own fruits and veggies,” she said. “A lot of people are willing to take less showers to get a nice tomato or two.”
But new and experienced gardeners may not need to resort to forego bathing in order to grow their own patches of tasty veggies and do their part to combat the drought. With a combination of smart planting, irrigation, mulching, and choosing so-called “drought friendly” fruits and vegetables, keeping a garden green and growing good food is doable, even in California’s parched condition.
No matter how water conscious you are, any fruit or vegetable needs water to grow. However, being efficient with the water you have can cut down on waste and make your garden more drought friendly. One of the best ways to do this is nixing sprinklers and watering your gardens using a simple drip irrigation system. According to data from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, a well placed drip system can cut down water usage by as much as 50 percent.
“Drip irrigation is critical,” said Dave Whitinger, executive director for the National Gardening Association.
Whitinger would know. He lives in Texas, a state that was hit by a near-crippling historic drought from 2011 to 2015. During that time Whitinger and other Texans were forced to stretch their water as far as they could if they wanted to keep their gardens growing food.
Irrigation isn’t the only wise strategy when it comes to making the most out of the water you have. Christine Story, owner and operator of Growing Grounds Downtown in SLO, suggested looking into recycling water or harvesting it with a rooftop rain collection system.
“There’s a lot of water that can be collected and reused,” Story said.
Even when you’ve got the water to make your vegetable garden thrive, you’ll need to make sure it sticks around as long as possible in dry, hot, drought conditions. That’s where mulching comes in. Covering soil with a thick layer of shredded bark, fallen leaves, hay, pine needles, or even newspaper will help keep the moisture from evaporating, and less evaporation means less of a need to water.
- PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
- DRY TIMES: Selecting vegetables like squash means you can keep your garden even in drought conditions. Lettuce, however, is a “cool season” veggie and needs more water.
“The deeper the layer of mulch, the better,” Story said. “It really holds in the moisture.”
For Whitinger, mulching is also a no-brainer.
“Anyone who is not mulching is out of their minds,” he said. “During [the Texas] drought, we watered about once a week thanks to mulch.”
He also suggested composting, because soil rich with organic material would help retain water.
If you’re in SLO County and looking for mulch, be prepared to be a little competitive. Perryess said that thanks to California’s drought, woodchips for mulch are harder to come by, and they’re slightly more expensive from the tree-cutting companies that sell them.
“They’re at a premium right now,” she said.
When it comes to making your vegetable garden more drought tolerant, the type of food you plant can also play a role.
Whitinger advised to stay away from “cool season” varieties like lettuce or broccoli, which need water and don’t fare well in hot, dry drought conditions.
Instead he suggested planting vegetables like okra, perennial vegetables like Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, and varieties of squash, which fare better. He also suggested more off-the-beaten-path choices like rhubarb and sorghum, a cereal grain that is popular in the American South and has a variety of uses, according to Whitinger.
“That will basically grow in any conditions you give it,” he said. “You can grind it up and make cornbread out of it, or even feed it to chickens if you have them.”
On its website, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources also recommended other vegetables that do well in drought conditions and aren’t “water hogs.” Those included asparagus, eggplant, peppers, and roma tomatoes.
“If you are smart about it, you don’t have to give up your vegetable garden at all,” Whitinger said. “Even during a drought.”
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.
Rooms to spare
More locals are opening their homes to visitors for money—but the laws for it are still catching up
BY PETER JOHNSON
Elegance. Luxury. Uniqueness. Privacy.
San Luis Obispo resident Barrie duBois listed off those qualities as her guiding vision for a deluxe bedroom suite she and her husband constructed as part of a remodel of their house last summer.
“We had a three-bedroom house, but two of the bedrooms were really quite small,” duBois told New Times. “So we decided to consolidate to two master suites.”
The new suite was definitely great for hosting friends and family, but duBois also had another use for it in mind: She wanted to rent it on airbnb.com.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF BARRIE DUBOIS
- ELEGANCE: San Luis Obispo resident Barrie duBois designed her guest bedroom suite specifically for the purpose of renting it on Airbnb.com. DuBois put Los Osos designer Bobbi Tone in charge of the look.
What’s Airbnb, you ask? Airbnb is a website that enables homeowners to advertise and rent out rooms on a short-term basis. On Airbnb, visitors can connect with residents of a local community and find (usually) more affordable nightly rates than a hotel. It’s part hotel room, part vacation rental, and part homestay.
The website handles all the transactions; it screens prospective renters, and it enables both hosts and guests to rate one another afterward for accountability.
Airbnb and sites like it (such as vrbo.com: Vacation Rentals By Owner) are changing the landscape of the hospitality industry—and SLO County is no exception. A quick search of “San Luis Obispo” on airbnb.com returns more than 300 results, from San Miguel to Nipomo, and everywhere in between.
“More and more tourists are coming into this area for wine tasting and stuff and using Airbnb. It’s a really cool thing,” duBois said.
The inspiration behind duBois’ guest suite was in providing an option to travelers that she wished she had during her career.
“I did a lot of business travel for most of my career and stayed at billions of hotels,” said duBois, who’s retired now. “If you’ve traveled a lot, you know that hotels can get really boring.”
Committed to her vision for the suite, duBois hired Bobbi Tone, a home designer based in Los Osos, to beautify the room. Tone constructed the idyllic homestay room, which includes a private entrance from a courtyard with a fountain, modern furniture, Italian linens, and even spa amenities.
Her suite opened for business in November, and she said it was immediately a hit.
“I’m so busy it’s crazy,” she said. “I’ve booked every single weekend through August. I’ve already booked Cal Poly graduation for next year.”
And duBois isn’t alone. Vacation rental hosts who spoke with New Times all reported high demands for their rentals. One host who advertises on VRBO said their guesthouse was booked 90 percent of the year.
Locals are jumping on the vacation rental train for a variety of reasons. The extra income is a big one. The average price per night for an Airbnb rental in the SLO area is $210. Airbnb only takes 3 percent of that as a service fee, so if your house is popular, the numbers can really add up.
“We’ve done very well [from a financial standpoint],” said an Airbnb host who rents out multiple rooms in his SLO home. “In my opinion, it’s a really excellent company. They’re fun to work with.”
But it’s not all about the money. Many hosts talked about the fulfillment of meeting new people, sharing their homes, and providing hospitality and local knowledge to visitors.
“I really enjoy being an ambassador for SLO,” duBois said. “I like making restaurant recommendations and having people enjoy my community. There are fun people that do this. We just had a couple from Switzerland, and we had happy hour with them. We really enjoyed it.”
Working with—or around—the law
Sold on vacation rentals? If you’re interested, just submit an application to your city or county government for a short-term rental license. Here’s a disclaimer: It’s not always that simple.
- SLO HOSPITALITY: Morro Bay and SLO city have prohibitions on secondary dwelling units and guesthouses as vacation rentals in an effort to preserve long-term housing. SLO County, on the other hand, allows it. Pictured here is a guesthouse licensed with SLO County as a vacation rental.
As short-term rentals take off in SLO County, cities are still figuring out how to regulate them. Different cities in SLO have different rules when it comes to vacation rentals and Airbnbs.
One of the challenges for communities is determining what types of rentals are out there and how they impact the city, notably in terms of neighborhood character. Does the homeowner live there and host the renter, which is the case for most Airbnbs? Or are we talking about traditional vacation rentals, where the renters occupy an empty house?
SLO city decided to introduce what it calls a “homestay program” in 2015. The city prohibits vacation rentals where the owner is absent, but allows licensed short-term rentals of up to 30 days where the homeowner is a short drive away from their house at all times.
The program doesn’t allow guesthouses—or any unit that’s physically detached from the main house—to get licensed. The city’s concern is that Airbnb rooms will supplant the more-affordable fringes of the housing market.
Although, people like duBois feel that’s a flawed way to approach the issue.
“The fact of the matter is, most people would never rent [their guesthouses] out on a long-term basis, for the same reason that I don’t: They use it for family and friends visiting,” duBois said. “So [the rule] is pretty silly.”
One Airbnb host said he does both short-term and long-term rentals for the balance of it. He’ll rent a room to a Cal Poly student during the winter—when the out-of-town demand is low—and then in the spring and summer, open it back up to tourists.
“Rooms are much more valuable as Airbnbs than they are as [month-to-month] rentals, but it’s sure impacted the housing situation in San Luis,” he said. “We try to find a happy medium.”
If you live in unincorporated territories, guesthouses and secondary dwelling units are allowed as short-term or vacation rentals. Morro Bay and Paso Robles are in a gray area at the moment. Though Morro Bay just passed a prohibition of secondary dwelling units as short-term rentals and a vacation rental moratorium, both cities are working right now on creating new rental policies.
In the meantime, many homeowners are simply doing it without licenses. SLO city claims it has 25 licensed homeowners in their homestay program, but there are clearly many more operating than that.
“It seems like anything fun or out of the ordinary is illegal,” said a resident who operates an unlicensed Airbnb in SLO city. “It’s not about the money; it really is about sharing. It’s added a lot of fun to our lives.”
Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vermicompost transforms drab soil into something teeming with life
BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
It’s the broccoli that did it: One of those homegrown varieties—the kind that changes lives—with a tender stalk, sweet leaves, and a succulent crown that never made it to the salad bowl.
- PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- BREAK IT DOWN: Black Diamond Vermicompost owner Cristy Christie explains the process she uses to create the worm castings her company sells as compost. It all starts outside with hot composting, to kill pathogens and help bacteria procreate. Red worms and other little critters will further break down the material at a later stage.
About six years ago, Jac Reid was getting out of the shower after a long day at work when he heard his wife Cristy Christie yelling from the other room: “Jac, you’ve got to try this!”
She was holding the fateful and freshly plucked broccoli in her hand.
“We ate the leaves. We ate the stalks,” Reid says. They ate all of it. They had never tasted anything like it before. Every part of it was absolutely delicious.
He tells me this story as the Baywood Farmers’ Market is wrapping up on a recent Tuesday afternoon. He’s standing in the shade of his white tent, a sign with prices for the couple’s Black Diamond Vermicompost and other products at his back. “This was our first broccoli,” he says emphatically, while pointing at a photo of it.
The compost the couple sells through their farmers’ market storefront is a rich, dark color, the kind you want your vegetable garden to sink its roots into and thrive from. “Vermi” is Latin for worm, Christie informed me earlier that day. She actually told me the very same broccoli story as we stood in front of her East Paso Robles home looking out at the result of that first delicious veggie the pair grew using worm castings.
Uncovered plastic containers full of dairy cow manure lead to a long corrugated metal roof with black netting hanging down from it. Beneath the metal, two long bins full of even more manure rest, relaxing in the cool breeze of the shade.
- PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- CREEPY CRAWLIES : These red worms are the beasts that help gardens grow, according to Cristy Christie. They do their best work under shade and protected from red robins, which love wormy snacks.
What’s outside is being hot composted: breaking down and killing pathogens at temperatures of up to 130 degrees or more simply by basking in the Paso sun. What’s inside is half-composted, brought into the shade after about two weeks in the elements. It doesn’t look like much until Christie plunges her hand into it, turning over the material to reveal a world I couldn’t see before. Red worms writhe and wriggle alongside tiny white springtails—“We call them shredders,” she informs me.
“And through their process, they transform what they eat into something very different and poop out food for soil,” she says about the worms.
These are the nearly invisible little worker bees that make this hilltop worm farm possible. The little guys break down dairy cow manure into the worm poop that Christie and Reid bag up and take to farmers’ markets, or gurgle into something called compost tea (“liquid biology,” as Reid calls it), which can be injected into the ground. They stick 1,200 pounds of compostable material into each worm bin and 800 pounds of castings come out.
Worm poop is so much more than a castaway. It’s full of life—nitrogen-rich microbes, protozoa, nematodes, and little fungi that the couple says help make soil healthy. Plus, dozens of other as yet un-named invisible friends.
“It’s a huge field that’s got lots and lots of work to do because there’s tons of bacteria we haven’t even identified yet,” Christie said. “I think we know more about the other side of the moon than we do about the soil under our feet.”
This little world, which science is starting to earnestly dig beneath the surface for, is what fed the broccoli that transformed their life.
- PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- STOREFRONT: Jac Reid, co-owner of Black Diamond Vermicompost, talks with customer
But before that broccoli, there was a desire to make a change.
“Jac and I wanted to do something together,” Christie says. She was a real estate broker; he was a contractor. Both had their fill of those respective careers. And along came something else:
“My favorite book, Teaming with Microbes,” she says. In it Jeff Lowenfels talks about the science behind healthy soil and the power of worms, among other things.
She says he tells a story about how he didn’t know anything about soil at first, which is similar to her story.
“I thought you dug a hole, put the plant in, and then it grew,” she says. “Boy was I wrong.”
The couple totes around their dog-eared copy to the various SLO County farmers’ markets. You see, they don’t just sell compost. They also post up placards with definitions of microbes, carry around soil biology informational packets, and chitchat with customers about what could improve their gardens. It’s all about education. Because what they learned changed their life, and they believe that knowledge should be shared.
“I’ve been farming for the better part of 40 years, and it wasn’t until I read this book that I understood,” Reid says. “We’re just trying to give our customers anything we can to have a nice healthy garden.”
The goal is ultimately to keep things as natural and organic as possible—no spraying for pests. Let the soil take care of things. The proof the couple has about their compost products is from the people they sell to. One loyal customer, who’s also a photographer and an avid flower gardener, gave them images of her garden. They’re full of pristine purple and yellow irises and peach-colored roses.
“Look at the leaves; there are no blemishes, and the blooms are just … ,” Reid says with a laugh. “It blew me away.”
Christie points to the oaks growing in their yard. In 2012, the couple injected compost tea into the ground around the roots and then applied straw mulch to the top of the soil. They repeated the process in 2013.
“These trees are fairly stressed because of the drought,” she says. But those three oaks look like they’re doing way better than the grove just down the hill, which hasn’t received any treatment. The bark isn’t cracked, the canopies are full and green, and the Spanish moss hanging from the branches is pretty much nonexistent. It’s like viewing two different worlds.
“There is such a need for understanding what healthy soil is all about. I think every community should have a small worm farm,” Christie says. “Healthy soil is directly linked to healthy people.”
Editor Camillia Lanham already touched the worm poop at email@example.com.