the kids are all right

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Climate Strike NYC 9/20/19, photo found here

The kids know what’s at risk. Only the essentials — water, soil, the atmosphere, sea levels and acidification, desertification, mass extinctions, food supply chains. Perhaps widening income inequality is making kids immune to the economic scaremongering arguments of their elders (what have they got to lose?) and more attentive to the facts: “The accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases…is now trapping as much extra energy daily as 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs would release every 24 hours.” Now 415 ppm worth. Professional merchants of doubt are still hard at work derailing timely action while profiting off the status quo. Have you heard these hoary gems? That climate change activism is a Trojan horse filled with communists/socialists/globalists bent on world domination, or it’s already too late, or it’s about “greedy” scientists fighting for grant money, or the evidence is just not conclusive yet or ______________________________________________________.

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“Invisible Barn” at Sagehen Creek Field Station, by Tech design firm
projection by Ethan Turpin and Jonathan Smith
photo by MB Maher

No more excuses, no more alternate sets of facts. The information is out there and has been for decades, and the science is being borne out in real time, including every successive summer producing the hottest months on record. There’s no time left to convince the willfully ignorant or elect more environmental terrorists. It’s time to take to the streets and the voting booths and stand with the kids.

(have a great weekend!)

Posted in climate, science | 5 Comments

a thing for us; Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

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all photos by MB Maher

On a recent, intense, two-day trip to Park City, Utah, Mitch and I made an impromptu decision to include a visit to Robert Smithson’s work of land art known as the Spiral Jetty. Possibly not the methodical planning necessary to visit such a remote spot, but we made it there and back again without incident — just barely. I would advise bringing copious amounts of water, phone chargers of course, snacks, and maybe a shade umbrella if you visit in summer, or at the very least a broad-brimmed hat.

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and possibly consider renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle and not this “peashooter,” as Mitch called it, cursing its inadequate shocks and suspension
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Even with all these preparations, I cannot guarantee that you won’t feel a heightened vulnerability in such an extreme landscape, which in our case shifted into a wildly giddy euphoria about the time the tires were triumphantly kicking up the ancient lake dust as we headed back to Salt Lake City, about a two-hour drive away. Yes, it’s a bit of an ordeal, but there’s no other place on earth quite like it.

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early September at Red Butte Garden

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located in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, Salt Lake City, Utah
all photos by MB Maher

A short, unplanned, very hot visit to Salt Lake City’s Red Butte Garden last week brought an unexpected amount of pleasure and inspiration. Due to a flight delay back to Long Beach, we had a few extra hours to kill in SLC and chose the Natural History Museum and the botanical garden as brief layover destinations. Did I know the two institutions were next-door neighbors, a few hundred feet away? Not at all, just a lucky break. Dinosaur bones, rocks, gems and minerals, Yellowstone migration patterns, formation of the otherworldly Great Salt Lake, and then a two-minute walk to a 20-acre botanical garden that segues into 5 miles of trails into the surrounding hills — not a bad way to spend an afternoon. And it’s only an hour-and-a-half flight out of Long Beach, so I’m already planning a return visit for spring, when maybe it will be cool enough to hike the canyon.

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paved paths blend in with the local red sandstone used in retaining walls throughout the garden.
rusty spent flowers I believe belong to Eriogonum jamesii

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chilopsis, a desert willow, leans in on the left with Agastache cana ‘Sinning’ and possibly spikes of nolina/beargrass

Part of the University of Utah, it’s one of those botanical gardens like Phoenix that has an incredible outdoor setting.

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Posted in climate, garden travel, MB Maher, Plant Portraits | Tagged , | 8 Comments

escape from the heat

Ecstatic, delighted, defeated, miserable? I probably cycle through all of those emotions in a single September day. I think a hot day’s super power is in how all-encompassing and omnipresent it can feel, blotting out memory and awareness of anything but the sweaty skin you currently inhabit. We must have stayed outside talking and playing gin rummy until 8 o’clock last night, until it was cool enough to think about eating — mosquitos aren’t too bad if you keep incense lit, and those last hours as the heat drains out of the garden are now the best part of the day.

So playing cards all evening in the garden is great, but maybe there’s other things to do when the day cools down?

  • This Saturday, September 7, you can hang out in the Getty’s Central Garden until 9 p.m. as part of Mother Earth’s Plantasia; free, no reservations required.
  • Also on Saturday, September 7, 7:30 p.m., LACMA is holding its annual late-night party Muse ’til Midnight; ticket details here.
  • Sponsored by KCRW, Descanso Gardens is holding “Three Saturdays of Experimental Music Under the Oaks” collectively titled “Silence at Descanso,” September 7, 21, and 28; ticket information here

So hang on, the heat will break soon. In the meantime, I know I’m ready for a few postcards from spring, from fog, from lush places, and I found a few after rummaging through photos from Mitch’s recent travels, mostly in California and a few in England. Because I find what a long, hot day really lacks is some cool contrast.

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walk through a foggy forest in Idyllwild, California
May 2019 photos by MB Maher
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stop to carefully examine the stubble of lichen on branches
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manzanita norcal dana's birthday may 2019 photo i-dvQDbzx-X2.jpg
marvel at the delicacy of manzanita in bloom
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just a reminder that it is a lush, wet world out there somewhere
Sagehen Creek Field Station, California, August 2019
photos by MB Maher
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a reminder that it’s a fecund world — Hampstead Heath, England, spring 2019
photos by MB Maher
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Posted in clippings, garden visit, inspire me, MB Maher, Occasional Daily Photo, photography | 3 Comments

plants and rocks; the basics

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plants naturalized in cliff face in the Peloponnese
photo by MB Maher

If your idea of a good life means being surrounded by plants, chances are you love having a few rocks around too, even if only in a haphazard, barely intentional way. Perhaps small rock mementos from travels naturally seem to congregate indoors in bowls on shelves or outdoors in pots in the garden. Boulders, pebbles, crushed rock, gravel, we all have some form in our gardens, whether native rock (lucky you!) or imported, which apart from sheer usefulness and relative affordability also taps into an intuitive kind of garden sense, for rocks are the literal building blocks of soil. (And yes, there is an acronym for soil formation, CLORPT; Climate, Organisms, Relief (topography), Parent Material (rocks & sediment) and Time.) And when you bring a rock home or dig one up in your garden, there it will remain until you either move it again or someone else moves it after you’re gone. That paradoxical combination of permanence and transience continually inspires garden makers and artists like Andy Goldsworthy (see Walking Wall).

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Ever notice how plants want to grow in the crevices and seams created by driveways and walkways (where we call them weeds)? A sunny exposure with a cool, moist root run and perfect drainage is what they’re after, rock gardening 101 exemplified by a stone stairway in the Peloponnese, photo by MB Maher

We’ve been relying on the ubiquity and indestructibility of rocks as a building material since forever. In gardens rocks are a malleable material, forming walls, walkways, modeling space, used as mulch and to create drainage in gardens where none existed, and building habitats for plants and creatures. But there’s a whole other level of wonder when plants grow among rocks, spreading and clinging and making it their home like undersea creatures colonizing a reef. Recreating such habitat is what consumes rock gardeners, and I saw some wonderful examples recently in Denver.

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rock garden at the Gardens at Spring Creek, Fort Collins, Colorado.

The North American Rock Garden Society has an invaluable archive of articles and an amazing seed list to begin or further your obsession with this kind of garden. (See also recently published “Rock Gardening; Reimagining a Classic Style” by Joseph Tychonievich.)

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Fort Collins, Colorado, Gardens at Spring Creek botanical garden
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Carol and Randall Shinn garden, Fort Collins, Colorado
a looser composition of rocks and plants, which love to seed into gravel.
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acantholimons in the rock garden of Jan Devore, Fort Collins, Colorado
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Crevice garden at Denver Botanic Garden May 2017. The DBG has one of the largest collections of alpine plants in the country.
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Kaufmann house, Palm Springs, Calif. showing the many faces of rockwork with a privacy screen, boulders lining a path of stepping stones on a base of decomposed granite. Landscape design recently updated by Marmol Radziner.

Growing high altitude alpine plants in Los Angeles’ zone 9-10, with their imperative needs for snow cover and/or winter dormancy, is not where we should direct our energies (and plant lust). Succulents, of course, are wonderful among rocks, and we can grow many small native iris and eriogonum, dianthus, erodium, flowering oreganos, sedges, nepeta — there’s lots of scope for experimenting.

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Heroic use of boulders at the Kaufmann house, designed by Richard Neutra, plantings recently updated by Marmol Radziner. Not a hand-built landscape but one requiring the use of heavy machinery

Rocks are a classically integral component of dry gardens, and locally they seem to get the most sensitive and respectful treatment in desert gardens.

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building mass and scale with rocks at the Kaufmann house, Palm Springs, Calif.
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Gravel as mulch with larger rocks outlining plantings in Raymond Valentine’s Los Angeles garden
photo by MB Maher
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Agave ovatifolia in California Central Coast garden designed by Jarrod Baumann
photo by MB Maher
Agaves nestled into rock at the Sherman Library and Gardens
Corona Del Mar, California
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rocks massed in wire cages for a low gabion wall, Hessing garden, Altadena, California
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Sometimes a rock is also a planter if you’re handy with a drill as in the former garden of Reuben Munoz. Concrete pavers set in gravel provide smooth contrast to the planters (and sure footing)
Rock and mosaic work of artist Jeffrey Bale
photo by MB Maher

In the work of some artists, rockwork upstages plantings.

Rock and mosaic work of artist Jeffrey Bale
photo by MB Maher
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garden designed by Shirley Watts, flagstone with metal letter inserts
photo by MB Maher
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garden designed by Shirley Watts
photo by MB Maher
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Greece, photo by MB Maher

Next time you’re hiking in the Southern California foothills or Greece or the Sierras or the Rocky Mountains, see for yourself what plants and rocks are up to, because gardens can get really interesting when we understand how well they play together.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, climate, creatures, design, essay, MB Maher, succulents | 5 Comments


Formed in 2001, HPEC has grown into a multifaceted organization that works to create sustainable landscapes, restore native plant communities and provide habitats for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife amid development.”

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Back in June a bunch of garden bloggers visited a place in Loveland, Colorado that embodies so many principles commonly held to be diametrically opposed that I’m still trying to understand how it all fits together. Profit/nonprofit, housing/open space, development/habitat restoration, private/community — The High Plains Environmental Center chooses to ignore these binary boundaries and looks for on-the-ground solutions so that human pursuits (housing, businesses, schools) and wildlife habitat can gently occupy the same land. It is an intriguing idea that has been put into practice in the 3,000-acre Lakes at Centerra mixed-use community. It’s an ambitious, master-planned community on former farmland that integrates housing among the habitats of countless plant and wildlife species (suburbitat!)

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Community Gone Wild — The Lakes is home to a non-profit organization — the High Plains Environmental Center — dedicated to the idea that backyards, schoolyards, office environments, community gardens, parkland and other community spaces can become habitat for native wildlife. And since almost 150 different species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish have been observed at The Lakes, it seems the experiment is working. In fact, The Lakes is the only place in Colorado designated by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Community Wildlife Habitat.” (HPEC takes up roughly 76 acres on the site, not including 3 miles of trails and the man-made lakes.)

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We met at the HPEC Visitor Center, near the native plant nursery, orchard, and community garden, but after a long bus ride I felt like a walk so struck off for the nearby neighborhood nestled into short-grass prairie and wetlands. (While checking out the display gardens at the Visitor Center, I saw my first kestrel — North America’s smallest raptor. The bird life here is phenomenal.)

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This is a challenging climate for native plant restoration work, averaging 16 inches of rain per year. (Snowfall averages about 46 inches a year.) Technically, habitat and ecosystem engineering seems more apt than “restoration,” because what was here when the project started back in 2004 was weedy agricultural land. While developing the site, non-native plants slipped in here and there, but in 2008 all the non-native plants were removed. Some of the newly chosen western native plants may have never grown in this particular stretch of Colorado but are  “locally collected ecotypes that are particularly valuable for restoration projects.” What HPEC feels it is building here is a “botanic garden of the wild.”

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The existing manmade lakes and former agricultural canals are critical components of new wetland strategies, along with planned stormwater ponds — “a large-scale constructed wetland habitat”
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fees from Centerra building permits help fund HPEC’s activities
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It was incredibly quiet walking the paths, and I couldn’t help wondering how quiet it would be in winter, covered in snow, and how the birdcalls would sound against that hushed background
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Centerra is an experiment in what I’d call a mixed-habitat community, homes for people and wildlife
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The land is managed by HPEC for the benefit of the residents and wildlife

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“This symbiotic relationship between economic and environmental interests provides a hopeful vision for conservation in the 21st century focused not on conserving wild places that already exist but on restoring habitat for wildlife within the neighborhoods that we design and build.” — Jim Tolstrup
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“nature in your backyard” — what would a suburbitat look like in Los Angeles or maybe your town?

I had a million questions after exploring, which a young docent pursuing environmental studies helped to answer. And back at the Visitor Center, the site of so many school field trips, Jim Tolstrup, executive director of HPEC, presented the full High Plains Environmental Center Story, which you can read here. It is a fascinating story of the work being done at this habitat laboratory, a “botanic garden of the wild” that aims big, partnering with businesses by incorporating horticulture, land management, urban studies, conservation, nature-based learning to address habitat loss…seed by seed, problem-solving a way forward in confronting some of the biggest issues of our time. Because HPEC knows avoidance just isn’t a strategy.

Posted in climate, creatures, design, garden travel, plant nurseries, science | Tagged | 9 Comments

friday clippings 8/16/19

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Mangave ‘Tooth Fairy’ from the August Inter-City sale.

The LA Times wrote a glowing review of the recent Inter-City Cactus & Succulent Show & Sale, and it was my impression as well that this event was an enormous success over past years. I was told by a cashier that three people on Friday earned a free T-shirt — free if you buy over $1,000 of plants. And on Sunday, attending a talk by Woody Minnich at South Coast Botanic Garden, he also expressed elation over the show’s success this year. The demographics at these shows seem to be undergoing rapid change, most likely driven by the exposure succulents are getting on social media, which the LA Times’ article alludes to as well. So there’s one good thing social media has done! I’m sure there are others…

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I missed a Bloom Day report on the 15th, so here’s some quick August garden updates. I’ve cut away most of the sprawling branches of horned poppy, and now Agave celsii var. albicans gleams again like an albino artichoke. I’m always surprised it handles full sun so well.

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August is when the slipper plant’s leafy growth erupts, the flowers open, and the hummingbirds stake their feisty claims. I love this late-summer lushness. All those leaves will drop over the winter, and its presence will become almost reed-like. Pedilanthus bracteatus is becoming one of my favorite plants in the garden, a slim, tall, “see-through” succulent.

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Pelargonium ‘Queen of Hearts’ has been in bloom since purchasing it in May
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Dianthus ‘Single Black’ is reblooming in August
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A couple Origanum laevigatum ‘Gentle Breeze’ were planted a few weeks ago and have a wonderfully uniform and upright habit of growth. And the bees are crazy for it. Which causes me to wonder why I stopped growing the ornamental oreganos, which are so good in late summer. Were they awful sprawlers? Here’s a partial answer I found from July 2016 regarding Origanum ‘Rosenkuppel’: “The oregano is a demure evergreen mat all winter but leaps into alarmingly expansive growth in summer. It suffocated a grevillea and threatened to do the same to other neighbors. Like first world problems, similarly, these issues get filed under small garden problems.” Sounds like I ripped it out in exasperation. Of course this new one’s compactness and uniform habit of growth is quite possibly due to its small size and the commercial grower’s skill, so it will take at least another year to see how it reacts to conditions in my garden. I’m hoping growing it drier among succulents makes a difference.

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Sesleria ‘Campo Azul’ is the perfect scale for growing among succulents (and flowering oreganos)
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Miscanthus ‘Silver Sceptre’ slowly gaining size, unusual for miscanthus in my garden
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An asteroid belt of Eryngium pandanifolium’s tiny blooms
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Grevillea ‘King’s Fire’ has looked like this for months
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Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ — unseen in the photo is how Passiflora ‘Flying V’ has threaded itself through the shrub, an effect I love while warily anticipating the other shoe to drop. Vines inevitably drop the other shoe.
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Berkheya purpurea peeks out over an agave

It’s been cooler, and Sunday is predicted to be cool enough to contemplate a visit to the Long Beach Flea Market. (Because of the huge asphalt surface, it always feels at least 20 degrees hotter there, so I rarely go in August.) There’s a plant vendor who comes up from Oceanside for the flea with an amazing selection of bromeliads for full sun, and I’ve been trying to inveigle an invite to his growing grounds down south — hope he’s there Sunday.

I told Marty I was booking a flight for Windcliff’s open garden days today and tomorrow, just to get a reaction, but not much surprises him anymore…

Have a great weekend!

Posted in clippings | 6 Comments

Scott Deemer’s dreamscape of rocks, fire, water

Scott Deemer keeps it elemental with the landscape design at his home in Niwot, Colorado not far from Denver, especially in the back garden. The front garden is more manicured, but in the back garden there’s a strong fantasy at play of wandering through a meadow and discovering a rocky pool — which for me evoked summer vacations in Three Rivers, Calif., near Yosemite, where that was the day’s sole agenda, just meandering through meadows alongside the river and periodically plunging into rocky pools to cool off.

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And you’ll just have to join in my fantasy, too, of slow meadow walks, lazing on warm stone, the shock of cool water on sun-warmed skin, and an outdoor fire at the end of the day. Because I pretty much ignored everything else about the house and garden.

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The incredibly engineered rockwork that is the stock in trade of Scott’s company Outdoor Craftsmen hews to the back of the house like a bulwark, smoothly handling the many changes in elevations, carving out terraces and an epic fireplace fabricated in situ that is contiguous with the biofiltration pool.

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Stone and steel, Rosa glauca, ceanothus on the right, irises on the far left
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Sitting at the fire, there’s a powerful alchemy of warmth, shelter and an open prospect.

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Steps lead into the meadow on the left, the pool extending off to the right.

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The planting around the pool is stylized, almost Japanese in feel, but not overwhelmingly so, with appreciable restraint in maintaining a balance between enclosure and sky-filled reflections and open views.

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Weeping Purple Beech, with dark-leaved sambucus in foreground

The multi-level house sits on the land like a lodge built into a rocky outcropping, overlooking the pool just feet away from the back door.

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The view, and I suppose the fantasy too, changes depending on the vantage point (and the viewer).

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A fantastical turquoise siren leads one down intricate rockwork of steps planted with grasses and small treasures like sea thrift to the lowest level of the house.

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A landscape both hyper-natural and elemental that for me unlocks memories, daydreams, reveries of wild places I’ve known.   Thanks to Scott and Paula Deemer for welcoming garden bloggers this past June to their dreamscape.

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views of August

Continuing with the year-to-year comparison…

back garden in 2010, (technically September), when a dwarf purpleleaf grapevine and fatshedera still climbed up the pergola, before it had a corrugated roof, right about where a passiflora with grape-like leaves was planted last week. Young tetrapanax, now tree-like, can barely be seen deep middle, just above the variegated agave. That was a killer Agave bovicornuta that I adored on the left. Then as now, also growing was manihot, tropical salvias, cordylines, etc. Upright branches belong to Cotinus ‘Grace’ whose hybrid vigor proved too much for a small garden so it was removed.

I love plant-intensive gardens, planning them, planting them. I’ve learned a lot about spacing and air flow over the years, so the garden isn’t as dense as in previous Augusts, but I’m still just as plant crazy after all these years.

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the tetrapanax in 2019 tops the pergola. Evergreen fernleaf acacia replaced Cotinus ‘Grace.’
August 2012
looking east under the pergola, valerian, fabulous Senecio anteuphorbium and kangaroo paws in the foreground
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2019, kangaroo paws replaced with the slipper plant, Pedilanthus bracteatus, with most of the planting reworked. (Wire baskets are used to protect young plants, in this case a small Aloe tomentosa.)

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I’m not exactly practicing minimalism in 2019 either
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New addition to the pergola, Passiflora vitifolila ‘Scarlet Flame,’ a hybrid by the mysterious Patrick Worley, who’s responsible for another passiflora in the garden, the late-summer blooming ‘Witchcraft’

I still have the tendency to up-end things and throw a wrench in the garden, like a passion flower reputed to grow to 20-30′ — I’m hoping to train it up and then across the horizontal beams of the pergola, so the flowers dangle at eye level. But I’ve also developed more of a feel for a zone 10 garden that doesn’t slight the remaining months of the year in favor of one season over another.

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August 2013, perennial knotweed Persicaria amplexicaulis in the garden, that rare perennial that thrives in zone 10. Native to the Himalayas…

I was crazy about knotweeds for quite a few years. Still am, actually, but I no longer grow them or many other perennials in the garden.

variegated Polygonum orientale from 2010
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August 2013, a Southern Californian take on the plant-intensive “new naturalism”
Helicotrichon, anthemis, agastaches, persicaria, yarrow, crithmum. Along with other big grasses, that’s a Giant Reed, Arundo donax ‘Golden Chain,’ in the left background that we removed in the nick of time. So beautiful, so treacherously invasive.

Occasionally, like in 2013, the garden was very summer-forward. Working out the longest perennial show possible in zone 10 was incredibly absorbing but still left seven or eight months of nice weather with lots of bare ground.

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August 2019, annual knotweed Polygonum orientale (in a container)
Thank you for growing this rarely seen annual, M&M Nursery in Orange, Calif.

I still like to try out summer stuff in containers though.

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dark-flowered Thunbergia alata getting trained up fishing wire.
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Senecio confusus requires a little more intervention to train up fishing wire but I’ve got high hopes
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Then as now, manihots make lush growth for the dry garden

Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ in 2010 when I plunged the pot into the garden
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‘Lime Zinger’ 2019. In August the leaves develop more substance and become extra-velvety
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Thinking small helps — a single pot of coreopsis can stand in as a microcosm for summer daisies

Apart from garden styles and trends (“the new naturalism”), in a little home garden, balcony, sunny window, there is a wonderful freedom to simply celebrate that emotional connection to the plants themselves.

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Calif. native Eriogonum giganteum var. compactum
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Another agapanthus planted in July (the hottest month on record), ‘Purple Delight’

Living surrounded by these once-in-a-universe masterpieces is a privilege that just never gets old. Hope you’re getting lots of garden time this August.

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revisiting the class of July 2014; (where are they now?)

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July 29, 2019

I love massing one kind of echeveria in pots and letting them multiply like crazy. Echeveria lilacina has completely filled in at the base of the shaving brush tree, Pseudobombax ellipticum. One E. liliacina in bloom is a novelty; over a dozen in bloom is an event.

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Pseudobombax ellipticum in July 2014

I instagrammed the blooming echeveria and was asked about the tree. Which got me wondering about the age of the shaving brush tree, which led me to this post “Back on the Home Front” in July 2014. (The tree bloomed this year, an event also noted on Instagram.) I’m still unsure about the exact age of the tree, now with an over 8-foot trunk, but the earliest entry I could find was 2014. Looking at the rest of the post, July 2014 struck me as a fairly ambitious month in the garden, a time when I was working on more color for summer, whereas the 2019 garden has grown shrubbier, with more aloes and agaves grown among sesleria and horned poppies/glaucium. And since I often feel that followup on all the plants I talk about over the years can be somewhat inconsistent, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit some of the plants grown in July 2014. Where are they now?

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July 2014
“Really brightens things up. Corokia virgata ‘Sunsplash'”
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Posted in agaves, woody lilies, journal, pots and containers, succulents | 5 Comments