All posts by Annaka

I am a software engineer, YA fantasy writer, and gardener.

Joshua Tree

We just got back from a lovely little trip to Joshua Tree and San Diego.

Joshua Tree is named for the Yucca brevifolia plants that are common in the northern plains of the park, but rare in general. They are amazing tree-form yuccas that can live for decades or centuries!

A Joshua Tree against an eroded granite island at a picnic area in Joshua Tree National Park

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the park, other than an interesting desert environment. I didn’t expect all the beautiful eroded granite outcroppings! The are often so pillowy that I mistook them for sandstone, until I got a closer look.

Eroded granite formations on the Split Rock trail

The two key features of the northern part of the park — Joshua trees and granite formations — are nearly mutually exclusive. Although the occasional Joshua Tree grows near the rocks, as in the first picture, the Joshua Trees prefer the wide prairie areas. In the rocky areas, they are mostly replaced by regular yucca, bear grass, pinyon pines, juniper, and little scrub oaks.

A massive granite boulder, the size of a house, is graded by the neighboring rocks that made up part of the same crag before erosion broke them up. The yucca, creosote bushes, and juniper in the foreground are common in the shallow soils surrounding the crags.

We happened to do two of the most dramatic hikes right off the bat.

Hidden Valley is a short but splendid introduction to the granite formations. Apparently it gets very busy; we were lucky enough to go first thing, so there were very few people. The trail twists and winds among a series of granite crags and valleys, so it does a good job of keeping hikers separated out. And it’s gorgeous!

This eroded granite crag with bear grass and a twisty dead tree is midway through the Hidden Valley hike. The eroded crag in the background gives a sense of the layers of rock that are a feature throughout the hike.

The Split Rock trail is a longer hike. It has lots of amazing views, they just aren’t quite as concentrated as on the Hidden Valley hike — but it also isn’t as busy. A lot of people come and take a picture of Split Rock, which is right by the parking lot, and then leave without doing the hike.

Split rock. This cracked boulder is the size of a small house!

In addition to the longer hikes, there are some short walks that are spectacular introductions to the rock formations. We visited Hall of Horrors on the second day. It isn’t listed as a hike at all, because it is primarily a climbing area (Joshua Tree is a world-class climbing destination).

Because it’s a climbing area, you can really explore the rocky crags.

One of the rocky crags at Hall of Horrors, from the back. Note presence of Rob for scale.

On the second day, we made a point to get a better look at the Joshua Tree prairie area. There are several opportunities for this; we walked the first mile or two of Big Tree trail from Ryan Campground.

Gestural Joshua Tree with Joshua Tree plains in the background

It’s hard to date Joshua Trees, because they’re succulents, but the big ones like these are probably well over 100 years old. However, you won’t see many bigger than these — they seem to max out at around 20 feet, before gravity starts breaking them to pieces.

On our last day, we drove south through the park, taking the scenic route back towards San Diego. The road drops rather precipitously from the Mojave Desert area into the Colorado Desert area.

The Cholla Garden gave a neat glimpse into one aspect of Colorado Desert flora. It would be a real treat to see it in bloom!

These cholla cacti varied from knee high to head high. The little yellow clusters looked like flowers. I’m not sure whether they are young fruit, or early-stage buds.

I’ll close out with this sunrise shot. It was actually taken in Joshua Tree town, a few miles from the Joshua Tree NP gate. The town is full of the unique yuccas; it’s fun to see them integrated into people’s yards and gardens.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree town

I would highly recommend Joshua Tree to anyone who likes dramatic scenery and/or interesting plants. It was very pleasant visiting mid-winter, but it would be amazing seeing the desert in bloom!

Early Frost Flowers

We got our first frost flowers (hair ice) of the year on Friday. It is rare for us to get them before December: it requires a very specific combination of sodden sticks and cold.

These frost formations grow from alder sticks. The fine strands extrude from the stick as the surface freezes, so they truly do grow in a very similar way to hair.

I waffle between “frost flower” and “hair ice”; my current understanding is that the terms are semi interchangeable, and are more based on the type of formation than the actual process.

I admit I find “frost flower” a very appealing term, but this photo is definitely more on the “hair ice” part of the formation spectrum!

I periodically do posts of frost flowers/hair ice, since we’re fortunate enough to get them a few times each winter. Check for tags “hair ice” or “frost flowers” to find them!

Planting Notes: Giant Red Indian Paintbrush from Seed

I tried growing a bunch of PNW native seeds in 2022-23. I got the seeds from Inside Passage.

I had good success with Castilleja miniata (giant red Indian paintbrush).

My basic protocol was to fill a sterilized 4″ pot with a soil-free mixture of 2 parts coir, 1 part perlite, 1 part vermiculite. I then planted the seeds and put the pots outside under a hardware cloth cover to get scarification over the winter.

Based on the UW native plant protocols (available to the public here: ), I planted the seeds on the surface and sprinkled a light layer of perlite on top.

Note that you should be able to do scarification in the refrigerator; I’ll be experimenting more with that in the 2023-24 season. For my first attempt, I wanted to keep everything as “natural” as possible.

When I checked my native seed pots in mid February, I had some sprouts starting! At around this time, I brought the pots in and put them under grow lights in the garage (about 50F).

By 3/7 they had 2-4 true leaves, and I split them into multiple 2 and 4″ pots (scooping out small clumps of seedlings with a fork and transferring them as intact as possible), and added native yarrow seeds.

Most paintbrush species are hemiparasitic: they can do their own photosynthesis, but they get a boost from their neighbors. I had encountered a reference indicating that they could be grown with native yarrow, which is convenient because yarrow is an extremely fast sprouter.

The yarrow sprouted in less than a week, and they really started to take off.

2″ pots of Paintbrush seedlings surrounded by host yarrow, 1 month after yarrow seeds were added.

I up-potted into 4″ and gallon pots over the next two months. I moved them back outside sometime in April, probably late April.

I got my first bloom at the beginning of June!

This was a lovely surprise, because I had thought that I would have to wait until the next year to get any blooms.

As it turned out, most of the Paintbrush plants wound up blooming, probably because of the boost they got from their time under grow lights through early spring.

Another unexpected and pleasant surprise was how long the flowers lasted. That initial flower was still going strong 3 weeks later. I think it lasted a good month.

The other paintbrush plants started blooming in late July.

Some paintbrush plants are biennial, some are perennial. I think these are perennial, so I will plant them out in a meadow area this autumn, and hope they come back next year.

One more planting note: these are listed as full sun, but we really don’t have full sun available; the best I could do was 6 hours of direct sun, with shade the rest of the day.

That probably wasn’t optimal, but it was enough to get blooming plants!

Let me know if you have questions! If you decide to give them a try, good luck!


Our lot is bordered by a creek on one side.

It’s a good creek, year-round, but at this time of year it is made up of pools connected by a trickle of water. It’s a good time to put out the game cam, and see who’s around.

We knew we would see raccoons and coyotes; what we did not expect to see was a beaver!


We knew that the creek had beavers — an old map of the creek marks a beaver dam farther upstream, and a couple years ago a beaver came up a seasonal offshoot in March and took out a few aspen seedlings and a bunch of ferns.

That was a thrill (once we got over the aspens), but the creek was running high, and beavers can come quite a ways when there is water.

There is not currently much water… the photo above is taken from the middle of the creek bed.

We’re not sure where the beavers are living, but it can’t be very far. We adjusted the position of the game cam the next night, and got a number of good shots of the beaver hauling salmonberries home for the winter.


Yesterday, we discovered that the beaver had moved on to larger prey.

It took out not one, but two, 10-20 year old Big Leaf Maples.

They were nice trees, but in a somewhat awkward place, so we weren’t broken-hearted, but we’ll be doing a review of other trees close to the creek.

I might also don waders and go down the creek a bit, see whether I can find the den. Given how hard it’s foraging in our backyard, it can’t be coming that far!

Stay tuned!

Garden Update

We’re about halfway through the summer, so I can see what’s working well and what… not so much.

I think my attempt to keep the jungle of Ozette potatoes more balanced has been successful. I really like the signet marigolds tucked around the edge, along with feverfew and breadseed poppies.

I also planted cosmos in the middle. Those are just starting to bloom, and may not be tall enough — even though I’m trimming the potatoes this year!

Left to their own devices, Ozettes grow 6′ tall and tip over (at least for me).

So far, pruning the vines has been pretty effective, but I need to keep on it.

Rob’s garden is looking nice: borage and hollyhocks, with Larkspur just starting.

Next year, I may try some hollyhocks at the backs of my potato beds. They’re so colorful!

Normally, the deer eat them, but Rob got some blood-based spray that has been doing wonders at keeping the deer away.

Finally, my pots! Some of these are native trees and shrubs that we’re growing out for another year; others are flowers and herbs, some of which I may tuck around the garden.

I’ll be experimenting more with potted plants in the garden. It seems like a good way of keeping the color and balance through the season (quite a challenge, if you rely on in-ground plants!).

Bees in Summer

The bumblebees are enjoying the mid-summer garden, and I’m enjoying the bees! Here’s a lovely bumblebee on a hollyhock.

And here’s a bumblebee on toadflax.

And here’s a bumblebee on oregano. Can you see the flecks of pollen?

But the borage is king! It’s very peaceful sitting by the borage and watching the girls forage.

Borage can get looking a little odd later in the summer, but I always keep it going as long as possible. The bees love it so, and the little birds eat the seeds.

Start of Summer

The garden is burgeoning with the start of summer.

I spent a couple hours yesterday adding a bunch of stakes to the garden, so that things don’t all flop over in the next few weeks. For a little while it will look a little goofy, until the garden grows into it.

This year I’m going to try keeping the potatoes trimmed a bit shorter, to try to keep them more compatible with the flowers. We grow Makah Ozette potatoes, which are yummy and grow into a glorious jungle… but left to their own devices, that glorious jungle grows 4′ tall and tips over.

Potatoes with feverfew and signet marigolds

The late-spring flowers are still going. Some of the foxgloves are getting rather gawky, but this little cluster is still lovely.

Pink foxgloves above feverfew, with a backdrop of hardy fuchsias.
The other pink spikes are toadflax.

The valerian has been blooming for a couple weeks now. This one is taller than I am, and smells very sweet. The pollinators love it!

I was trying to catch this Tiger Swallowtail, and only noticed the solitary bee after the fact.

Tiger Swallowtail and solitary bee on Valerian

The first breadseed poppy opened yesterday. I’m looking forward to the flush of early-summer color!

Spring Flowers

We’re easing from early spring into mid spring here.

The first Pacific Trilliums opened about a week ago. Over the next month or two they’ll go from pristine white to a gentle, dusky pink, as the blossoms age.

Pacific Trillium in the woods. The pristine white shows that it opened recently.

If you ever see a trillium of any sort in the woods, please do not pick it. It’s a bulb, and those three pretty leaves providing a backdrop for the flower are the only leaves it will ever get.

If you pick it, it will either die, or — best case! — grow a tiny little set of leaves next year. There won’t be a flower for several years. Common wisdom says seven years, but I’m not going to do a test on this one.

Our earliest rhodie just opened. The next two months will be a glorious march of rhododendrons here. We have a native rhodie, and it has been hybridized with a number of Asian varieties to give a glorious range of rhodies that thrive in our climate.

We got a delivery of soil (manure and sand), and have been topping off the garden beds. I’ll be direct-seeding poppies and some other things in the next few days.

I also have way too many seedlings under grow lights right now. Figuring out when to plant them out is always a challenge!

I love this time of spring: more and more flowers blooming; more and more birds singing. The spring chorus has definitely started here, with the Pacific Wren the most melodious virtuoso. There are still a few types of birds we’re waiting on.

I try to get out for a morning walk with Merlin to see who’s in town.

The wood ducks arrived a couple weeks ago. They’re definitely our showiest migrant.

Blurry iPhone picture of two male and two female wood ducks

Based on last year’s bird list, we’re still expecting Pacific Slope Flycatchers, warblers of many types, and Western Tanagers.

Because I’m very reliant on song for the flycatchers and warblers, it’s possible that they’re already here, and just haven’t started singing yet. The Pacific Wrens live here year-round, but they barely sing in the winter.

Either way, I’m looking forward to the burgeoning chorus!


Spring is springing here in the Pacific Northwest.

The first queen bumblebee showed up a couple weeks ago, and now they are regular visitors on the Pieris.

Queen bumblebee sipping on a cluster of Pieris flowers that we brought her

The Osoberries (the earliest native shrub) are blooming, and the red flowering currants are opening.

But the clear indicator that spring has really, truly arrived is that the wood ducks are here. They arrived a couple days ago, and may have been here since March 28th or so.

Here, four males and two females are on their way to get the corn the neighbor sets out.

Cell phone photo of wood ducks

Wood ducks are beautiful, but frustratingly shy. I’ll have to pull out our good camera to get a good picture.

Right now there are eight males and two females. Most of the males will probably migrate on within a few days, but the two pairs and a couple spares will likely stay until June.

I have a bunch of seedlings going in the garage and mudroom. Hopefully I’ll be able to plant most of them out before a business trip in early May.

We’re getting some more soil delivered next week. The joy and labor of spring!

First Case of COVID

Having been both careful and lucky for nearly three years of pandemic, my care and luck ran out at the beginning of the month.

I had a work trip in Louisiana, my third work trip in six months. I had skated through the first two, masking at the airport and on the airplane but taking some risks once there.

I did the same in this case… but this time, one of the other attendees brought the plague, and half of the attendees were sick the following week. Including me.

I got home Friday evening, and felt the first bit off Saturday evening. Sunday morning, 2/5, it was clear that I had something.

I thought it was either a head cold or RSV. Rob suspected otherwise, as witnessed by the label he added to this photo of me napping Sunday afternoon. I had a minor fever (99.7) when I went to bed Sunday night.

I tested positive first thing Monday, although it still mostly felt like a head cold. Still a bit of a fever (99.8, with a high of 100.5). I napped a lot, but didn’t feel too bad.

By Tuesday, I was able to work a part day, but still napped in the afternoon.

Wednesday, I was able to work a part day, and failed to nap in the afternoon — clear sign that I was on the mend. I felt about 80% in terms of brain and energy.

Thursday, I worked a full day, felt about 90%.

Friday, I tested negative, and nudged above 90%.

By the following Monday, I was aaalmost back to normal. Since then (almost another week now), I have battled the notorious lingering cough.

I’ve been taking dextromethorphan to try to prevent my lungs from becoming irritated by gratuitous coughing. I have also been masking a lot — that little pocket of humidity helps a lot. And hydrating, of course.

My chest still feels a bit tight, and I’m not sure what lung imaging would show. I’m definitely being careful not to push myself physically; my big fear is getting Long COVID.

At present, I feel like myself plus a cough. Is my energy a tad low? I think so. Is my brain a little creaky? Possibly.

Overall, I think I’ve fared fairly well, but it isn’t an experiment that I’m keen to repeat. The actual acute phase wasn’t bad for me (fully vaxxed and boosted!), but this lingering impact is worrisome.

Hopefully in a couple more weeks I’ll truly be back to normal. We’re getting on to spring and gardening season, and I want to be feeling my best!

Update: the lingering cough lingered until around March 6th, so a full month from first symptoms. That said, I’m prone to lingering coughs, and it felt like the same general type of lingering coughs that I get from colds.

My sense of smell was impacted for a week, maybe two. It never went away completely, thank goodness.

I’ll try not to do this experiment again for a goodly while.