Summer Nights in the Garden at L.A.’s Natural History Museum

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Wisps of Dalea greggii with opuntia and ‘Sharkskin’ agave atop the Living Wall.

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Sunset and St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum

Finally, an opportunity to grab some “magic hour” photos of Mia Lehrer’s entrance garden (former parking lot) at the Natural History Museum. Theoretically anyway. Their Summer Nights in the Garden extends hours from 5-9 p.m. on a few select Friday nights in July and August. Except leaving Long Beach last Friday around 5:30 p.m. landed us in a tar pit of nasty commuter traffic, and in exasperation we ultimately elected to jump off the gridlocked freeway, head for the nearest Metro station, park, grab a train, change trains to the Expo line at Pico, all of which had us arriving too late for photos.

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But you should really go. And start off with the train. The Expo line drops you right at the gate. And light or no light, it was pure summer magic.

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Awaken your senses at the Summer Nights in the Garden at the new NHM with great music, garden-inspired cocktails, hands-on garden and science projects, food trucks and more.”

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The vibrant colors in the habitat-rich “Living Wall” of Pritchard flagstone were muted, but the palo verde trees glowed in the last sliver of light of the day.

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And it’s completely free.

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When we arrived after 7 p.m., the DJ’d party was in full swing.

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The next Summer Night in the Garden will be July 28, and then finally August 11 and 25. Take the Metro to arrive in time for photos of that gorgeous Montana flagstone. And if you don’t have kids, borrow some, because there’s lots for them to do. Or just come and have a drink, grab something from the food trucks or your own picnic basket, chill, listen to the music under the stars. Summer in the city doesn’t get any finer.

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Posted in agaves, woody lilies, design, garden visit | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

a restored Lautner house

It’s summer, so I’ve become fixated again on windows, views through windows, breezes through windows. In my inbox recently from Dwell, this house in Desert Hot Springs caught my eye, built by architect John Lautner, a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright (some biographical info on Lautner in this NYT article here). Current co-owners, Los Angeles interior designer Tracy Beckmann and her partner, furniture designer Ryan Trowbridge, describe their eight-year renovation of the property as culminating in a “micro-resort—a hybrid between luxury rental and boutique hotel.” The original house has become part of a larger facility called The Lautner Compound.

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And you know why this particular property caught my eye, right? Every window methodically frames the surrounding desert garden or a spectacular succulent specimen.

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Digging deeper into the links produced a full view of the garden.

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And since I can’t find any other name associated with the landscape design, I assume Beckmann and Trowbridge handled that as well. Nicely done!

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One of America’s most important modernist masters, the late John Lautner is also one of Hollywood’s most beloved architects. Designing homes with powerful geometry and a strong sense of drama, Lautner produced houses that were used in numerous films, including Diamonds Are Forever, Pulp Fiction, Twilight, Iron Man, The Big Lebowski, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and A Single Man.”

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Susanna Dadd in Pacific Horticulture

This summer issue of Pacific Horticulture is so much fun, filled as it is with lots of familiar faces and voices. All kinds of echoes and ripples from the virtual garden community spill over into this issue. Not only does beloved Portland blogger and PacHort board member Loree Bohl (Danger Garden) take us on a tour of a garden I actually visited when attending the Portland Garden Blogger’s Fling in 2014, but revered local artist, garden designer, and personal hero Susanna Dadd, is profiled as well by garden writer Sandy Masuo in the article “Susanna’s Folly.”

And we don’t even have to end the conversation just yet, not when there’s more of Mitch’s photos of Sue’s work to share, some of it quite new and not fully “grown in,” the perfect opportunity to discern Sue’s unique design process.

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Ms. Masuo writes about how, to fully appreciate Sue’s formidable earth-shaping skills, one must comprehend the challenges presented by the home and garden she shares with artist James Griffith in the foothills community of Altadena. On one side, steep ground falling away from the hilltop home was engineered by the couple into a magical canyon entered by the stairway on the right. Descend the stairs, and at ground level one feels lost in the wilds of the Yucatan, when in sober reality the surge and sprawl of Los Angeles laps up against the foothills just a few hundred feet down that path.

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Elsewhere the steep lot has also been engineered into their justly famous, hand-built amphitheater they’ve dubbed the “Folly Bowl,” which is now hosting its traditional summer concert series.

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In the PacHort article, Sue recounts to Ms. Masuo in detail the evolution of the unorthodox idea of building the amphitheater in the rugged front yard of their foothills’ home.

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Because of its proximity to JPL, Caltech, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Altadena is filled with creative and “brainy” residents — Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman lived here until his death in 1988 — and Sue has therefore been able to build an equally “brainy” landscape design practice in a community ready-made to be receptive to it. With complex design principles drawing on her fine arts background, an in-depth knowledge of native plants and wildlife habitat, and a firm commitment to using or repurposing as many pre-existing materials on site as possible, Sue never lacks for local, eager, and informed clients. From “Susanna’s Folly,” by Sandy Masuo:

Here in Altadena I have fabulous clients — a lot of artists and scientists, and they want the kind of garden I want to build. I’m not going to do a Zen garden or an ego garden or anything like that. It’s going to be a natural garden filled with birds and creatures.”

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The PacHort article profiles a nearby client’s garden where, among other exceptional features, an undesired swimming pool was converted into a sunken patio with firepit and built-in benches.

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Sue is a fervent proponent of including native plants in her designs (“I like to use at least 50 percent native plants mixed with desert shrubs such as purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)…“). I think we’ve all seen well-meaning but incoherent native plant gardens, so Sue’s sophisticated hardscape and modernist concrete handling prove good intentions don’t preclude strong design, making landscaping with natives and using environmentally sound principles incredibly sexy.

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A vivid example of Sue’s philosophy of repurposing: on-site eucalyptus trees were milled and reused for bespoke fencing.

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Planting that hasn’t yet filled in throws into sculptural relief the stairway constructed of floating concrete pads.

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‘Cecil Brunner’ roses will eventually engulf the pergola and provide shade.

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Another current project exemplifies Sue’s principles, including her emphasis on generous gathering spaces.

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This Spanish-style home presented less complex design challenges, which surprisingly isn’t necessarily preferred by the designer. Sue tells Ms Masuo that “The hardest gardens for me are the ones on a street in a row of houses with little lawns in front.”

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To read more of “Susanna’s Folly,” you can become a member of Pacific Horticulture here.

all photos by MB Maher.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, artists, blog, design, garden visit, MB Maher | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Bloom Day July 2017

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Don’t laugh, but I really did worry this spring that there might be some gaps and (gasp!) bare soil this summer. I thought I was being much too generous with spacing as I split up grasses over the winter and prepared what’s mostly a succulent and shrub garden for summer. Even while the spring poppies were filling in, the garden just seemed roomier this year. Yet a friend recently joked that what the garden needs now is a lifeguard tower. Quite a few plants have become submerged under summer exuberance, the umbellifer Crithmum maritimum for one, and assorted others like buckwheat Eriogonum crocatum, Salvia argentea, Achillea ‘Terracotta,’ etc., etc.

That’s winter-blooming Aloe cameronii foreground right with Verbena bonariensis, which has seeded throughout.

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The small patch of white blooms are from new-to-me Euphorbia ‘Starblast White, a double form of ‘Diamond Frost,’ which is perennial here.

Hard to tell from this jam-packed view, but there actually is a gap this summer, and a rather large one, evidenced by the bare stubby branches to the left of the echium. That’s what’s left of Eucalyptus ‘Moon Lagoon,’ planted from a gallon in 2014. It’s regrowing from the base (lignotuber), but the origin of the dieback of this mallee shrub is an unsolved mystery, so its overall health and viability is still a big question mark. I waited until all growth in the 6X6′ canopy seemed well and truly dead before cutting it down, thinking the branches might host new growth. Some new growth had fitfully occurred since the dieback started in spring but always withered away, which unfortunately sounds like a soil/disease/wilt problem.

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Several aloes are in bloom, like ‘Kujo,’ seen to the right of the large pot in the previous photo. Planting aloes deeper in the garden, not right up against the hardscape, which creates perfect Argentine ant farm conditions, seems to be lessening the attacks by ants and aphis.

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Euphorbia ‘Starblast White’

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Grasses, grasses, grasses. I could sit up in a lifeguard tower surveying a sea of grasses for hours. There’s seslerias, Aristida purpurea, Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails,’ ruby grass Melinus nerviglumis blooming. Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ pictured above might be a bit too disorganized for a return next year. Lovely blooms but haphazard growth habits.

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Whereas Miscanthus ‘Little Kitten’ seems very promising. The grassy clump stays low and full, with the blooms swaying tall overhead, the ideal performance for a small garden. With bocconia, buttery Anthemis ‘Susanna Mitchell’ in the distance, Leucadendron ‘Winter Red’ foreground right.

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Melianthus and kangaroo paws

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Agastache ‘Blue Blazes’

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Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ has justifiably earned its reputation for reliability, returning each summer here in zone 10.

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Cotyledon orbiculata, one of my favorite succulents for summer bloom because of those long stems and dangling flower clusters the color of summer peaches, with silvery, dudleya-like leaves.

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I’m completely infatuated with the giant Eryngium pandanifolium, first planted in 2013, despite the long, whippy leaves and their sharp hooks. Now growing a few feet from the south wall, we’ve found a spot we’re both comfortable with, which is great because it deeply resents disturbance.

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I’m hoping for more seedlings from this summer’s blooms for some insurance.

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Amicia zygomeris is a strong grower, pushing through the Salvia uliginosa and kangaroo paws.

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There’s probably six calamints in the garden, and I can never get a decent photo of any of them, but I’m finding them indispensable for summer. The bees think so too.

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I need to either scale back summer garden ambitions or build me one of these.

Carol at May Dreams Gardens hosts the monthly Bloom Day reports on the 15th of each month, and is nice enough not to mind if you’re a day or two late.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, Bloom Day, succulents | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

discovering The Potting Shed on a Lark at Sourced Collective

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There’s retail that does vintage and architectural finds well, and there’s retail that does plants well. Haven’t you wished somebody with a passion for both would combine them under one roof? I know I have. Consider it handled by The Potting Shed in Orange, California.

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Lark photos by MB Maher.

Let me unwind that title for you. A chance encounter at a pop-up dinner at Sourced Collective in Laguna Beach, hosted by Lark Artisan Market, is how I first heard of this almost 4-year-old endeavor in Old Towne Orange, The Potting Shed, that makes plant shopping that much more interesting by mixing it up with really cool stuff.

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It all started at this friendly beach house in Laguna.

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Sourced Collective, a mixed-used work and event space blocks from the ocean in Laguna Beach, waits poised and serene and ready for a Lark, a kind of roving communal salon.

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And then the larkers arrive, the wine flows, and serene doesn’t begin to describe the festivities.

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Michelle Merccado is the dynamo behind Sourced Collective. Like a human Tesla coil, the air around her vibrates with possibilities.

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The Lark dinners are a nonstop gabfest, with amazingly tasty food by Chef Kyle from Fork in the Road Catering.

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(Twig & Willow will be hosting a Lark with a vegan chef July 14th at their Bixby Knolls store in Long Beach, 4130 Atlantic Ave., so go see for yourself.)

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In the center are Lark founder Lisa Gutierrez-Martinez and Chef Kyle Powers. (I’ve forgotten the names of the charming sommelier on the left and pretty lady on the right!)

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The incredible flowers are by Yoshi of Floral Fete.

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Gardenesque mash-ups of scabiosa, geum, protea, aloe, pomegranate, oregano, undergirded by solid florist chops.

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My seat mates included Luis Sardinas (on my right) and Jack Carlisle (on Luis’ right, almost out of frame). The Potting Shed is Jack’s baby. Partner Luis pitches in on weekends and rides shotgun on their frequent cross-country shopping trips/scavenger hunts. They’re on one now, “Picking East to West,” and should be bringing their treasures home sometime this week, if I’ve got the timeline right.

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Chef Kyle prepares us through word and gesture for the feast to come.

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A couple weeks after the dinner, I paid the shop a visit.

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And felt like I’d plunged into the stalls of the Cligancourt flea markets of Paris.

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Not bound by arbitrary categories, it’s a big tent; vintage, hand crafts, local artists, all are welcome here.

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The infectious enthusiasm runs in countless directions, and the large space effortlessly soaks up every eminently browsable bit of it.

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What a dream setup. I asked Jack what it’s like to curate a shop by casting such a large net. As an example, he replied that the vintage picnic baskets didn’t go over as he had hoped, but then he’s always surprised by what does sell, and it becomes an ongoing, enriching dialogue with his customers that never gets old and always balances out. Business has been very good.

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You might think you’re only shopping for potting soil, but could very well end up leaving with a “Honey I’m Home” doormat tucked in the trunk. And that kind of irresistible persuasion is still something only brick-and-mortar shops can do.

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Jack Carlisle, proprietor, holds a degree in Horticulture from the University of North Carolina. His career in the landscaping and retail garden business spans several decades. At the Potting Shed, he has merged his love of plants with his passion for all things vintage.”

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In addition to selling lots of pots and intriguingly repurposed containers for plants, the Potting Shed encourages us to bring our own pots for planting up at the nursery (BYOP).

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There’s my little box of pitcher plants I picked up at the full-service nursery. The shop and nursery cover a huge space, 5,000 sq. feet. At the nursery in the back, a succulent workshop was just finishing up, and since I hadn’t called ahead about my visit, I didn’t want to be too intrusive with the camera. Jack has worked for years as a nursery manager, and it shows through the strong selection of natives and dry garden plants, with an eye for the unusual to tempt jaded plant shoppers like myself. I was thrilled to unexpectedly find some sarracenia/pitcher plants for a little bog garden I’ve had in mind.

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And that is the circuitous tale of how I went on a lark and found a great nursery and vintage browse in Orange, California.

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The Potting Shed
Sourced Collective
Floral Fete
Lark Artisan Market
Fork in the Road Catering
MB Maher photography for Lark

Posted in artists, commerce, cut flowers, design, edibles, garden ornament, MB Maher, photography, plant nurseries, shop talk | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

growing up with palms

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After checking out the CSSA sale at the Huntington recently, per usual, I roamed around the botanical gardens for a while, clutching my little box with the newly acquired Euphorbia clavigera. I must have juggled that euphorbia and my camera for a good, sweaty couple hours at least. And this time I forced myself to head into a section I rarely visit.

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Right up there with oleanders and bougainvillea, palms are a group of mostly non-native plants I’ve managed to take for granted all my life. I’ve been constantly surrounded by all three since birth, so they are about as exotic to me as mown grass. If only I’d explored it sooner, because the Huntington’s collection is a surefire remedy to lifelong palm fatigue.

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As a kid I walked to school among the shadeless trunks of palm trees like an ant threading through the legs of a herd of elephants, never grasping the totality of the soaring creatures overhead. All these years later, and now that they’re aging out of their lives as street trees, I’m starting to look at them with new eyes. I suppose the timing might have something to do with how I’m less conflicted about living in Los Angeles, shedding my youthful “It’s Chinatown, Jake,” noirish pessimism. I get it now, that these are living post cards from the land on permanent holiday, swaying ambassadors to a life less ordinary. Los Angeles would seemingly be unthinkable without them, but maybe Los Angeles is finally aging out of the old myths and railroad company-driven propaganda too.

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Divesting palms of all that la-la-land business, I’ve come to appreciate how remarkable these Los Angeles landmarks truly are. File this turnabout on my part under “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone“: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced in 2006 that they will not be replanting the palms as they come to the end of their approximately 80-year lives (source), or are taken earlier by the dreaded red palm weevil. So now I can look forward to being one of the old geezers who bores kids with stories of when palms lined the streets of Los Angeles.

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There’s over 2500 species of palms, and the Huntington seemingly has the ambition to have one of each. With the possible exception of the one palm I grow, Dypsis decaryi, the Triangle Palm from Madagascar, you really can’t overwater most palms, though they can and do endure periods of drought. But the one native species’ (Washingtonia filifera) true habitat is riparian, not desert.

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Native Washingtonia filifera palms growing in an oasis near Palm Springs, circa 1900. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Southern California’s native palms grow far away from Los Angeles, in spring-fed Colorado Desert oases tucked deep inside steep mountain ravines. Centuries before palms were cultivated for their horticultural value, the Cahuilla Indians used these Washingtonia filifera as a natural resource, eating the fruit and weaving the fronds into baskets and roofing.” — KCET “Lost LA”

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Palms on my street are fruiting now. Every summer I need to become re-accustomed to the loud thonk as the fruit slams onto parked cars. (Did you hear that? Oh, yeah, right, the palms.) And the flies. My god, the flies swarming over the fallen fruit. With the coming of the swarms of flies, neighbors ponder again the unjust allotment of tree trimmers to fancier neighborhoods to cut down the fruiting trusses before they fall. Living underneath palms is not an exercise in nostalgia but pure exasperation. And raking. Lots of raking. Because of the mess and lack of shade, palms offer little else of utility than that iconic profile. But we could argue selection of the perfect street tree all day, right?

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When our neighborhood received a grant to plant street trees some years back, the tree gifted to us was the Australian Brisbane Box, Lophostemon confertus. But there are still a handful of palms interspersed among the newcomers. If I were to add another palm to my garden, it would be the steely blue Bismarckia nobilis or Brahea armata. It kills me that a nearby commercial property for sale has a gorgeous stand of Brahea armata within their chain-linked premises that have gone unwatered for months now, maybe as long as a year, and they are showing the neglect. Some guerrilla palm rescue intervention is needed there.

You can read more about “Palms in Twilight,” the effects of fusarium wilt and Las Vegas driving up prices, by the incomparable Emily Green here.

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Of course, even at the Huntington they’re not just confined to the palm garden. Look up and out, and you’ll see a palm somewhere in Los Angeles. For now.

Posted in Plant Portraits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Cheryl Molnar’s Unnatural Settings

I’ve been thinking about collages lately and have tentatively started to collect bits and pieces to get started, all referring to landscapes of course. And then I find this riveting image that I keep going back to by self-described “collage painter” Cheryl Molnar, found on Browsings, the Harper’s blog, that completely upends my idea of what a collage can be. Its complexity and depth really took me aback:

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Rollercoaster, a collage created using oil-painted paper and vintage magazine clippings by Cheryl Molnar, whose work is on view this week at Wave Hill House, in the Bronx, New York. Courtesy the artist and Wave Hill” — Browsings, the Harper’s blog

And from collage and multimedia artist Cheryl Molnar’s website, more Unnatural Settings:

The collage paintings are created through collaging strips of oil-stained paper onto natural birch panels. Architectural elements are carved directly into the wood and then stained with oil, creating permanent incisions into the wood itself, symbolizing the permanence of the altered landscape.”

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Weeping Willow, oil-painted paper and vintage magazine on wood panel, 2015

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Dining Room, oil-painted paper and vintage magazine on wood panel, 2015

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The Hamlet, oil, paper on wood panel 2011

Since my childhood in suburban Long Island, I have been attuned to the tension between human progress and nature. My work finds similar development patterns in the mixed-use neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I have lived and worked for the past ten years. During this time, real estate development, along with a fresh wave of gentrification, have significantly altered both the social fabric and the landscape of this formerly working-class enclave.” — from Smack Mellon

The Unnatural Settings exhibit will be held at a public garden I have yet to visit, Wave Hill, Bronx, New York. Ms. Molnar’s residency there inspired this work. (Here’s a partial itinerary for an imaginary summer trip to NYC: Wave Hill, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the High Line, etc., etc.)

Brooklyn-based artist Cheryl Molnar’s collage paintings are representations of fantastical, natural spaces in relationship to urban architectural forms. Molnar’s process involves lathering wood panels in oil, then etching and collaging them with manipulated and superimposed images. The technique involves layering painted paper and photographs of natural landscapes and jutting urban monumental fixtures. The scenery is cut-up and altered using long slivers of mixed papers that reference humanity’s inflicted alterations of nature. In a mosaic-like configuration they reveal vibrantly chopped asymmetrical forms simulating a surreal, transcendental world. There is a sense of depth, multi-dimensionality and rigidity in the composition that highlights the human/non-human divisions in nature. Superimposed skyscrapers and steel structures evoke hyperbolic fantasies of reimagined spaces, illuminating the charm of a utopic, idealized, urban wilderness. A 2014 Winter Workspace artist, Molnar drew inspiration from the Hudson River, Wave Hill’s greenhouses, national parks, suburban settings and lush, green spaces throughout the United States. The Headquarters and Rollercoaster images are indicative of the ominous but seductive pull of the looming burden of urban development. Inspired by Wave Hill’s Conservatory, Green House offers an optimistic possibility for greenhouse architecture. Weeping Willow references an overlook above Wave Hill’s Conifer Slope.” Wave Hill

Cheryl Molnar: Unnatural Settings
Tearoom, Wave Hill House | March 7- August 27, 2017

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in memory of a stout-hearted and true friend, December 2002-June 2017

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summer read: The Bold Dry Garden

Yes, this book on the making of The Ruth Bancroft Garden came out and was purchased by me last fall, but I’ve only recently sat down to read it cover to cover.

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The Bold Dry Garden; Lessons from The Ruth Bancroft Garden

I admit to falling into the trap of judging a book by its cover, and what a gorgeous cover this is. With photos by the pre-eminent landscape photographer of our time, Marion Brenner, for months I perused the book for its inspirational photography, skimming (or skipping) the narrative, because I assumed I knew the general outline of Ruth’s storied garden and life. What a mistake. The book seamlessly combines two favorite genres, biography and obsession, which have found the subject of a lifetime in the person of Ruth Bancroft. Building the story of Ruth’s life and the making of her garden with carefully researched detail, through interviews with the centenarian herself as well as children and co-workers, Johanna Silver creates a razor-sharp portrait of Ruth and her spiky garden, a complex portrait that I frankly didn’t expect to find amidst the glorious photography in this book. And what a story it is. Ruth’s garden may be absolutely on-trend now, with the surging popularity of cactus and succulents, the growing awareness of climate change and its attendant focus on resources conservation, but if anyone deserves the moniker “pioneer,” it’s Ruth.

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photo by Marion Brenner

Whatever the precise wording of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that there are no second acts in American lives, the course of Ruth’s life in her sixtieth decade, when she started her now world-famous garden, is a hardy rebuke to such pessimism. Time is an unavoidable leitmotif in any life, a bully in fact, but Ruth bends time to her will as much as she does the climate and geology of her garden. She will, after all, be 109 this fall. Building a dry garden mostly independent of supplemental irrigation, (before even Beth Chatto’s dry garden, which was started in 1991), with untested, hard-to-source plants, whose hardiness was in no way assured in her 3-acre Walnut Creek garden, was a joyous leap into the unknown by a woman with an indomitable sense of adventure and curiosity. It’s a summer read I highly recommend.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, books, photography, succulents | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

“Night Sky, Palm” by Eric Beltz

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Eric Beltz, “Night Sky, Palm” (Eric Beltz and CB1 Gallery)

I’m guessing it’s an affinity for the intricate, geometric beauty of plants that draws me to the mesmerizing graphite drawings of artist Eric Beltz. You can read more in The Los Angeles Times: “A million points of dark: The thrilling pencil drawings of Eric Beltz.”

Currently showing at CB1 Gallery, 1923 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles. Through July 15; closed Sundays and Mondays. (213) 806-7889,

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