Posted in Life

Sunday Project: compost

Sunday Project: June 28, 2015

It started back in October last year when I bought a compost bin from the City of Pasadena ($56).  I dutifully filled it with the appropriate layers and then waited for compost.

In May I opened it up and found that it looked exactly the same as when I loaded it up.  So, after advice from a friend on how to actually do it, I decided to start again.

First, I procured the right tools: one visit to later and I had some compost starter and a device for mixing the bin (an aerator).  Then I allocated half a day, grabbed a facemask and got to work.

I started by emptying all the material out of the current bin.  It looked largely identical to what I put in, just a little greyer. I found a nest of ants feeding off something, and a tiny patch of compost towards the middle back of the bin. I think that is the coolest spot and probably was dampest for longest.  I found one worm. I think it was dead.

The back of the box of compost starter, and other places on the internet, say to start the bottom layer with more woody materials to provide aeration. Luckily we are not short of twigs in the garden so I managed 6 inches of this quite easily.  I repacked some of the old compost, and added some drier leaves I raked off the lawn the previous day.

Then I had to find some green material.  Because the garden is so sparse I really had to look hard for places to prune.  The first set was the gunnera leaves which were yellowing rapidly. The stalks were very ‘wet’ so they all went in too. Then I added a good handful of the compost starter. This variety is supposed to contain microbes or something.

Then it was a case of adding more brown (easy) and more green (harder). After each brown layer I added some water – not sure why, it just seemed like the thing to do.

To obtain more green, I pruned around the bottom of the termite-eaten tree by the side of the house, and I pruned the privet bushes by the fence and I pruned the Chinese Elm growing along the side of the house.  By the time I’d layered brown, green, and starter and used everything in the yard the bin was pretty respectably full. I finished with a layer of brown, and gave it a water…

…then put the lid on.

Sit back and wait for the compost!
Sit back and wait for the compost!

I spent the rest of the day with my eyes streaming and nose running… luckily there doesn’t appear to have been any long term side-effects for me…

My goal is to add food scraps daily, covering them with handfuls of the old compost as I do, and to water when I remember. In a week or two I’ll stick the aerator thing in and see what’s going on.

Stay tuned for news of lovely brown compost!


Question: have you ever successfully made compost? Tell me how!


Posted in Los Angeles

Garden update: SoCal winter edition

Winter has kind of arrived in Pasadena.  Not that it’s exactly that cold: it was 25C (77F) yesterday. There have been some changes in our garden since my last garden post in September, and this long weekend seems like the perfect time for an update.

Garden beds

Thanks to Dad, we now have beds in our yard!  After much head-scratching and grovelling around in the dirt with the tape measure we decided on two octogons, 4ft on each side.  We had to plan around the sprinkler system and the lemon tree which I planted a few months before. We got pressure treated planks from from Ganahl Lumber.

Dad pick-axed out the necessary 64 ft of rock-hard dirt to bed the planks in about 5 inches (of 10 in total).  We nailed them together (I may or may not have also hammered my finger) the watered the dirt to help it set.

Here’s the ‘before’:

Back yard - lots of space

And here’s the after:

Beds are in!

Dad went back to the UK, needing another vacation.

I then did a calculation and ordered 2.5 cubic yards of soil (not topsoil, but planting mix) from the Lincoln Avenue Nursery which duly arrived on the back of a tipper truck and was dumped in our driveway.  I had to then move this 2.5 tonnes (?) of soil the 10-20 ft to the beds. One. Shovel. At. A. Time. (And yes, I should’ve just bought a wheelbarrow, but where’s the fun in that?)


Some considerable number of days later, this was the result:

The final result.

But, then we went to Australia, then I got a job as a driver helper, then it was Christmas and I couldn’t really walk because of the aforementioned job, then I started another new job, and now somehow it’s mid-January and not much planting has occurred.  Weak, I know.

New Things

Meanwhile, here are some other things going on in the garden at the moment:

(1) Flowers on the Jade plant. I never even knew these flowered!

(2) The plant I thought was a wisteria turns out to be a powderpuff and has also flowered. These were my second favorite flowers as a kid in Australia (after the Frangipani, which I think is called something else in the US).


(3) Several of these massive green things have appeared and are getting bigger by the day. Scary.


(4) We got a bird bath thanks to my grandmother. I’ve even seen birds in it!  The other day I found the top on the ground – I think a cat or something tried to get in it.


(5) We acquired a couple of lovely big pots which I’ve put filled with some easy-do flowers and herbs and a gardenia.


(6) From the same source we also acquired a very spiky plant which came complete with corks covering the spikes.  It’s awesome but I’m not entirely sure what do with it, so I’m leaving it in it’s crumbly pot at the moment…

(7) I got a compost bin from the city.  It’s full but I haven’t dared check if we actually have compost yet.

Notice how one of the other big green plants is trying to take over the Bottlebrush?

(8) Ok, this isn’t new, but the lemon tree is still hanging in there.



We’ve had a lot of rain (relatively speaking) in the past month or so and the garden has transformed because of it.  I saw a couple of worms (I know, this shouldn’t be news but I was very excited) and we got a lot of weeds and seeds poking up.  Also, thanks to the Chinese Elms and the Oak, the garden is coated in leaves.


So the plan is to get the garden beds planted as soon as possible: pretty soon I’m going to plant some vegetable seeds in one of the beds and in the other I’m going to try to recreate some ideas my father-in-law’s Australian garden. Wish me luck!


Question: any tips for planting in a garden that doesn’t really get a winter?




Posted in Los Angeles

2015 Rose Parade

This morning, New Year’s Day 2015, we got up bright and early and walked to Colorado Blvd to see the 2015 Rose Parade.  Thanks to an invitation from a friend (thanks Bob!) we had a prime spot – with luxuries such as coffee and chairs.

As the amazing floats and oh-so-coordinated marching bands rolled past I took approximately a million photos and many many minutes of video. I have attempted to distil these down to a more manageable amount, and since I’m trying to be timely, let’s begin!

[Please note: I own all the images and video in this post.]

As we walked to Colorado at 8am the 210 freeway was the emptiest we have ever seen it.


There were many places offering paid parking. Prices varied.

Lots people had camped out overnight and things had gotten a little messy.

The parade theme was ‘Inspiring stories’.


There were many excellent floats, all decorated in natural materials only.

There were also many excellent marching bands.

And quite a few groups on horseback (but I only have one photo somehow) … which meant plenty of work for the white-suited girls and boys with the shovels.



Once the parade was over, traffic in the surrounding streets was at a standstill.

And the 210 was jammed as everyone in the world headed to the Rose Bowl for The Game.


And here’s the video:


Question: Inspired?  Want to go with me next year? 🙂


Posted in Life, Los Angeles

Six Months in Pasadena: checklist check

It’s been just over six months since we landed in LA, bleary eyed, trying not to get annoyed at our immigration officer.  I’ve had an absolute ball over the last half a year.  I love the weather, I love Pasadena, I love our house, and I’ve even made a friend or two.

Pasadena City Hall
Pasadena City Hall

We had a big ‘to do’ list when we arrived and now it’s time to see how we got on:

1. pack up our apartment & 2. say goodbye to everyone – done

Post: California Adventure Begins

In the cactus garden at the Huntington Gardens.
In the cactus garden at the Huntington Gardens.

3. apply for new visas & 4. fly to London to have an interview for said visas – done

Post: Getting an E-3 Visa

London: gotta go see where Sherlock’s filmed!

5. get at least one car – done

Post: Driving in LA


6. find somewhere to live (preferably to buy – so add to the list ‘buy a house’) – so done

Post: Buying a house in Pasadena

Post: Buying a house in Pasadena – part 2

Post: new house interesting mail


7. I have to get a job – not done

So far I’ve put in 14 applications, investigated 3 promising leads, and had one interview.


Aside from the above, in the past six months we’ve also done the following:


  • lived in a hotel for two months [Post: Living at the Residence Inn],
  • moved into our new house, and
  • taken delivery of our storage locker from Australia,
  • and had four separate sets of friends and family to stay at our house.
  • Plus our house was filmed for a TV program! (Battle Creek)
  • We’ve also installed an over-the-range microwave oven [Post: First DIY] and,
  • we (including Dad – thanks Dad!) have made some progress in the garden, [Post: Getting dirty in the garden].

Being tourists:

  • We’ve been to see Griffith Observatory [Post: Griffith Observatory],
  • the Space Shuttle Endeavour (me – four times!),
  • and Mt Wilson Observatory for a viewing night. [Post: Observing Night at Mt Wilson]
  • I also went on a tour of JPL.
  • We’ve been on a road trip to San Francisco [Posts: Pasadena-Berkeley Roadtrip, Sequoia National Park in a Day],
  • and I’ve been on a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas [Posts: Roadtrip Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]
  • We’ve been to Huntington Gardens (several times) and the LA Arboretum, and
  • to Beverley Hills and Santa Monica.
  • With Dad, I’ve been to the Hollywood walk of fame (yuck!),
  • to Santa Anita Races,
  • walked along Broadway in Downtown,
  • and taken city skyline photos (with my phone) from various places.

Becoming locals:

For the next six months my plan is:

1. Get a job, or,

2. have a brilliant idea to make a million bucks.

That is all.


Question: What else should we do in LA?


Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

Observing night at Mt Wilson

Last week we were treated to a fabulous evening at Mt Wilson Observatory.  Michael Long invited us to join a group of JPL interns and LACC students on an observing session on the famous 60-inch telescope.


We left Pasadena at 5.35pm and we met Mike and the others at the gate in plenty of time before the 6.30pm kick-off.


Once everyone had arrived we drove in convoy through the gates.  It was only a short drive along narrow one-way roads before we arrived outside the domes.

The evening formally began with a tour of the ‘most famous telescope in history’ – the 100-inch.  This frankly massive telescope was used by Hubble to discover that the universe is expanding, and that there are many different types and shapes of galaxies outside of our own.  Let’s not forget these discoveries were made in an era where it was commonly believed the Milky Way was the entire universe.

We all spent far too long on the catwalk taking photos and admiring the sunset and soon it was time to head over to the 60-inch.


Mike warned us as we were walking not to wander off too far in the dark.  Hazards include mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bears, as well as steep drop-offs.


The program observer for the night was Nick, a very knowledgeable man who told us he’d been doing these tours for over a decade.  When we arrived on the observing platform he already had Mars lined up.  We were given another safety briefing, warning us about the 150V DC lines running around the edge of the dome (protected of course) and the truck wheels that move the dome.  Interacting with either of these would not be a good plan.  We were advised to stay in front of the semicircle of chairs and all would be well.  Keeping out of the way of the telescope when it was being slewed was also a requirement, since ‘the telescope won’t even care as it knocks you over’.

Nick showed us how to look through the telescope. The eyepiece was on the Cassegrain focus, and we would often need to use a big stepladder to get to it.  We were free to step on any blue-colored part of the telescope, and to focus the eyepiece to suit ourselves.  We were asked not to press any of the inviting red backlit buttons near the eyepiece though.

So, to Mars! We lined up and took turns to climb the ladder to the eyepiece.  Mars was a smallish fuzzy red blob and I imagined I could see a faintly darker section of the disk.  I also imagined that it wasn’t a completely round.  Checking this website later and it looks like I was right – it did have a slight phase on it!


Then, as Mars began to set, Nick quickly shifted the telescope to Saturn. This was easily the most spectacular object of the whole night (when isn’t it?). Everyone uttered ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as they saw it.  It was yellow and featureless, and we could see the amazing rings.  Viewing with slightly averted vision revealed the Cassini division in the rings.   I could also clearly see four of the moons. I tried to take a photo with my phone but it was quite hard to line up the camera with the pupil!


At this point the temperature in the dome started to drop noticeably and complimentary hot chocolate was very tempting. The skies darkened as people went back for a second look at Saturn.  This was nearly the last picture of the night for me as my camera battery died and my phone wasn’t up to the job.

The next object we saw was M13, a globular cluster.  It seemed small compared to the more familiar-to-me southern hemisphere Omega Cen, but individual stars were clearly visible.  Then, the Cat’s Eye nebula was lined up by Nick.  This is a planetary nebula – a dying star surrounded by shells of it’s own blown-off gas.  Spectacular.

We saw Epsilon Lyrae next, known as the ‘double double’.  Four stars in total, two sets of two.  It seemed that the two stars that made up each binary were equally separated. Very nice indeed.

As Nick moved the telescope in an orderly way across the sky our next object was M57 – the Ring Nebula.  This is a similar object to the Cats Eye nebula but much fuzzier. There was no obvious central star.

Alberio, another double star swiftly followed. This pair of stars is a wider binary than each of those of the double-double.  One was clearly white, and the other clearly yellow.

The last object for us of the night was Campbell’s hydrogen star – a Wolf Rayet star.  This was another fuzzy one, but very small, even with the magnification boosted from 300x to 500x.  We could just make out a faint red tinge to the glow.

And then it was time for us to leave – it was only 11pm but one of us had work the next day!  The JPLers and LACCers had the telescope until 1am and I’m sure they saw many more fabulous objects.

I would highly recommend an observing night at Mt Wilson.  While the price may seem steep, once it’s divided by 10-15 people, it’s excellent value for money.  Not only do you get to look through a telescope that was once the largest in the world, and was used to make unprecedented discoveries about the universe, you get a spectacular view of Los Angeles on the drive back down the mountain!


For more information, here’s the Mt Wilson Observatory website: