Aside

My husband and I bought a vacation home in Baja California Sur several years ago in a sleepy seaside hamlet about 2-3 hours north of Los Cabos.

With sweeping views of the sea and sand, Casa Bella is our little slice of paradise, and escape from Southern California, where we work and live. (Our plan is to spend four months a year in Mexico once we retire).

Here are some reasons why I/we love southern Baja California (minus Los Cabos) so much:

  1. No traffic! Coming from Southern California, it is hard to overstate the amazement and gratitude we have for this seemingly small fact.
  2. No parking problems! Ditto. I have never seen a parking meter in Baja either.
  3. No people! OK, that is a bit of an exaggeration but compared with the crush of humanity in Southern California, Baja feels wonderfully, mercifully unpopulated.
  4. The quiet. I can hear the ground squirrels crack open the sunflower seeds I put out for the birds. Occasionally, a truck will roll by. But most of the time its us, the birds and the wind.
  5. The wilderness and endless hiking out our door. Baja is known for its seascapes but the tropical East Cape desert lowlands are gorgeous and home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including kit foxes (a personal favorite).
  6. Warm coastal waters and tropical fish
  7. Lower cost of living
  8. Friendly people. The Mexican culture is warm and welcoming.
  9. The distance from American politics. Frankly, it is nice being in a country that did not elect Donald Trump for president.

That’s my list, what is yours?

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Agaves of Baja California Sur

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EL SARGENTO, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR — Giganta Fiber Agave (Agave aurea) is one of 19 species in the genus Agave endemic to Baja California and Baja California Sur. Indigenous people used these plants for food, drink and cordage. The species pictured above is growing in our sandy soiled yard in El Sargento and it likely benefits from the nearby micro drip irrigation system. The species is endemic to our area, the tropical East Cape lowlands along the coast of the Sea of Cortez. These Baja badlands receive about 200 mm of rainfall annually.  Unlike the arid Mediterranean climate in Southern California and northwestern Baja, the tropical parts of southern Baja have a late summer and early fall wet season, associated with hurricanes and tropical low-pressure storms. Most agaves are pollinated by bats. Preserving and protecting bats is thus an integral part of preserving and protecting the native ecosystem.

Speaking of protection, notice the long spine at the end of each leave and the barbs around the leaf edges. These plants are doing all they can to deter herbivory.  #plants #desertlife #desert #desert🌵 #nature#nativeplants #cacti #succulents #agave #bajacalifornia #mescal

Living the Dream in Southern Baja California: 8 Things You Will/May Miss about The States

It’s heaven here in coastal Baja California Sur, and my husband and I have no regrets making Mexico our second home. The culture is warm, friendly and welcoming. The climate is perfect half the year, and we have a beach home we could never afford in San Diego, our home-home. However, I do miss some things about the U.S., such as:

  1. Fast internet — Remember DSL? I do. It’s what we got, and it is irritatingly s-l-o-w  …..
  2. Amazon — There is no Amazon Prime in southern Baja California, Mexico because we have no address. Yes, you got that right. No street address. No zip code. No mail. No Amazon.
  3. Leafy greens — Baja California Sur is a bit of a food desert. There is some locally grown produce but most food is shipped from the mainland of Mexico, which makes perishable fragile produce hard to come by. Chard, kale and spinach require a drive to La Paz.
  4. Thai restaurants and other ethnic cuisines.
  5. Craft beers. Corona is amazingly over-rated, IMHO.
  6. Drinkable wine. It’s just a theory, inspired by the taste: The decent wines from Mexico and South America are left in the heat and ruined in transit.
  7. Free/low-cost spay-neuter programs for dogs and cats. It’s become a passion and hobby of mine to help unwanted stray dogs while we are down here. Animal rescue will take a more prominent role in my post-retirement life. It is heart breaking to see starving and mistreated animals.
  8. Municipal waste disposal and recycling programs. Baja is a rugged gorgeous place with gin-clear waters and wide sandy beaches, and they are littered with all sorts of human refuse. The litter issue is partially cultural but it is also a result of their not being year round trash pick up and recycling.

That’s my list folks. With age, things like medical care may weigh more heavily on my mind. But for now, what I miss about the U.S. is largely piddly stuff, with some real issues thrown in too.

I am off now to pick up laundry. As part of our efforts to be good citizens and visitors in this wonderful country, we try hard to support as many local jobs as possible, including a local fluff-and-fold owned by the nicest woman.

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Plumeria at Casa Bella, Baja California Sur

The plumeria in southern Baja California are in bloom and extraordinarily fragrant at night to attract night-time pollinators.
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Much To Report …

All the big stuff has changed:

  • Fell in love and got married
  • New job
  • New homeIMG_2363

Pictured above is the 1/3-acre backyard of a Mission Hills craftsman in south Mission Hills, San Diego, where we now live. We are descending into a finger canyon. There are avocado, persimmon, apricot and quince trees, and also roses, wisteria, and raised garden beds.

For fun, I used a soil survey tool to generate a soil report for the yard —  to plot out next steps to improve soil quality and plant performance with less water.

The tool: https://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/WebSoilSurvey.aspx

Gaviota

The undeveloped parts of the yard are Gaviota, a fine sandy loam associated with canyons and hillsides. These are well-drained soils with low amounts of organic material.

The parent material for Gaviota is weathered calcareous sandstone, which implies a marine origin. Old beach and seafloor. Shells.

Sand-Silt-Clay Percentages

  •   Sand 66 percent
  •   Silt 20 percent
  •   Clay 14 percent

Soil Family: Lithic Xerorthents

The soil order is entisol, characterized by poorly defined soil horizons. The soil material is largely the same as parent bedrock. Not enough weathering and biology to form a thick top soil layer. These soils have at most 16 inches of top soil.

The soil family is Lithic Xerothents.

Bottom line

The soil is sandy, loamy, skeletal. The cation exchange capacity of this soil is low. The pH is non-acidic due to the calcium. Drainage is high because of the sand. This soil has a low water-holding capacity. This is not a fertile soil and is rates “poor” for agriculture. It is suited for rangeland.

Native Plants

California sage brush community would be natural to this area.

Insights

The native soil needs a lot of added organic material and fertilizers to support fruit trees. It is also a thirsty soil with high sand content and poor water holding capacity.

I need to focus on adding compost to build the soil structure. Mulch will help reduce water use. Ultimately, we need to transition to native plants or at least drought tolerant ones. This will be the easiest most beneficial choice for wildlife and us, too.

Kelp on the beach

Pieces of giant kelp wash ashore after a swell, and a shorebird wades in the swash.

Piles of seaweed on the beach  create habitat for beach roly polies and other small animals upon which birds feed, which is to say that wrack is good for the birds.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Johnson

Worm “gardening” in my backyard

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Some people have rose gardens. I inherited a worm “garden” from a friend of a friend and have stuck with it out of curiosity.

The basic premise of worm gardening is simple: Worms are fed compostable kitchen and yard waste (and in my case, lots of coffee grinds) and their castings, excrement basically, are used as a rich (and in my case, highly caffeinated) soil amendment.

The castings are so “nutritious” for plants that people make worm tea out of them. WikiHow says “worm tea lets you fertilize without adding bulk to your soil.”

The downside of worm gardening is only the gross factor. My mom won’t touch the worms, though she did take the photos in the slideshow above.

The worms don’t bother me. In fact, my beef with this “hobby” is the technical difficulty in actually collecting the castings without also inadvertently gathering worms.

My other challenge is figuring out what to do with my growing population of wigglers. I’ve read that they can double their numbers every 90 days, and it seems like they are.

If anyone wants to try worm gardening, all you need is a giant, lidded tub with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. Collect your veggie and fruit scraps, dead leaves and coffee grinds (everything but citrus rinds); dump them in the tub and add worms. I can give you some!

Like composting in general, I’ve been told that the worms need a source of carbon and that adding shredded paper or dead leaves will do the trick.

The rest should be pretty intuitive. You want to make sure liquid can drain out the bottom. Otherwise, you will nourish a low-oxygen muck that smells like rotten eggs. You’ll find out fast the worms migrate to the top of the bin and that their castings are in the bottom of the tub.

Worms love water, so make sure the lid stays on and the bin is sprayed with water regularly to keep them from drying out. They also love watermelon rinds cut up in little pieces. I think they have a sweet tooth, which is a metaphor because worms don’t have teeth. I’ve been told they gum their way through our refuse and appreciate a sprinkling of dirt on their meal to help them grind up their food.

But, that is getting way too technical for a fun, personal blog post.

A day at Torrey Pines State Beach

My mother loves Torrey Pines. We go every time she is in town. It’s been a while, though, since we both walked the whole length of the beach, from the lagoon mouth down past the glider port to Blacks Beach.

We made the trek Saturday at a perfect outgoing low tide, ending with a psychedelic sunset. Not to gloat, but it’s late November and we are wearing sunblock and sunglasses and also, admittedly, pants and long-sleeved shirts. But still, I will take it! It beats snow!

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Gooseneck barnacles grow all bunched up on an intertidal rock at Blacks Beach. Credit: S. Johnson

Jim joined us and being a marine ecologist, he was able to point out invertebrate critters that I and probably most of us never notice. The day’s favorite was a white-plated barnacle, known as the gooseneck or goose barnacle.

Check out the photo (right) and you can see how the intertidal crustacean got it nickname. See the one barnacle (lower left-hand corner) with its long stalk extended? Kinda goose-like, although, to me, they look more like a crowd of Stormtroopers.

In any case, once I started searching for these ancient lifeforms, they could be found “everywhere” along one stretch of beach on rocks in the wet sand.

sunset at torrey pines

The sky on fire at sunset at Torrey Pines. Credit: S. Johnson

Interestingly, there was never a single gooseneck barnacle growing alone. The resident expert explained that the species finds “strength in numbers” and that  young barnacles swim, jump and crawl to hunt for adults of their kind before settling down and gluing themselves head-down on hard substrate.

I am guessing they find each other through chemical sensing, but that is just a guess. Mostly, I think it’s all just amazing. Ditto for the fiery sunset (above).

Porpoises and dolphins in San Francisco Bay, oh my!

A happy story of an urban estuary that got a bit cleaned up and found itself home to porpoises once again. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying and dolphins and whales are moving in. Families are being raised in the bay’s sheltered waters. Scientists are having a field day!

Our Ocean

To the delight of animal lovers and cetacean researchers, harbor porpoises and bottlenose dolphins have found new habitats in San Francisco Bay and are now regularly seen foraging for fish and body-surfing in boat wakes under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Harbor porpoises, among the smallest of the world’s six porpoise species, first re-appeared in 2008, after a more than 60-year absence. The appearance of the bottlenose dolphins in 2010, in contrast, is believed to be associated with a range expansion of the species. Prior to the 1982-83 El Niño, the dolphins were rarely found north of Point Conception, according to scientists.

“I am not talking about seeing one or two animals,” William Keener with Golden Gate Cetacean Research said at the recent State of the Estuary Conference in Oakland. “I am talking about people watching a hundred (porpoises) go by in two hours.”

In the last few years, he and colleagues…

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3 ways to lower the price of organic food

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Organic bell peppers are pricey but their conventionally grown counterparts are also on the Dirty Dozen list.
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Organic food has become elitist.

At my local organic food coop, bell peppers are $7 a pound and that’s just the beginning. Loose green teas, $40 a pound. Chocolate chips, $15 a pound. It’s crazy.

I am rebelling.

For the last few months, my goal has been to lower my food bill, without compromising a mostly organic, plant-based diet.

It’s an act of defiance.

Healthy, good food doesn’t have to break the bank. Organic food can exist as part of a sustainable food movement, not as merely an addendum to gourmet living.

Here are 3 ways I have lowered my food bill, substantially (by about 20 percent).

1) Beans rule. Organic dried beans are cost-effective, high in fiber, totally healthy and deliciously satisfying. You can eat them hot or cold, and it’s easy to make a huge pot early in the week for fast dinners through the week. Bonus: By cooking dried beans, you don’t expose yourself to the bisphenol A (an endocrine disruptor) in the liners of most canned foods.

2) Frozen organic veggies. Stock up when they are on sale and you will never run out of spinach, broccoli and all the other wonderful veggies we should all be eating daily. Bonus: A full freezer helps reduce your energy bill.

3) Know the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15. The Environmental Working Group ranks produce with the highest and lowest pesticide residues. You can use this guide to selectively buy organic and conventional produce. For easy reference, download a copy of the wallet guide!

For all the chocolate lovers out there, a birdie told me that Trader Joe’s sells a mean, dairy-free, super dark chocolate bar that is only $2 for 3.5 ounces.