I knew I was going to have emergency abdominal surgery for a very large but benign cyst just a few days before it was scheduled, so of course I spent those few days in a frenzy of moving pots and heavy objects, getting this personal distantia (latin for “world apart”) ready for post-op recovery. I’ve always loved shoving stuff around and would have made a great stage hand. I can think of nothing more satisfying than whirling enormous pots filled with towering, columnar euphorbias on their bases, spinning them away from the east gate to ready the space for the metal workers who were going to get busy any day on constructing the new metal gate/fence I’ve been so excited about. (I needn’t have bothered — after several prompts and reminders, the fabricator never called back with the quote. We’ll be doing it ourselves with probably corrugated panels. And just when I was ready to throw money at a project too and bring in the pros! Nice dream. Back to DIY.) It will be a long while before I’m able to muscle large pots like that around again.
After surgery I was ordered to lift nothing heavier than 10 pounds — what a privation for someone who lives by spatial balance! (At least my own quirky sense of spatial balance and symmetry — a few inches to the left, half an inch to the right — ah, perfect! Order in my universe restored!) But the 10-pound limit allows for lots of little fiddly pots of mostly agave pups to be cleaned of debris and cleared away to the narrow, 3-foot deep potting area behind the garage/office that was also cleaned out presurgery — and where the addition of a new hose bib has been life altering. There’d be no way I could drag hoses around this summer. And to water the potting area previously, I’d have to fill a can of water and carry it back. By mid summer, any good intentions to do so daily, sometimes twice daily in heat waves, have long shriveled up along with any cuttings and seedlings.
A plant order did arrive after surgery, and I briefly waffled over what to do. In the end, I carefully, so very carefully planted the order myself. The ground was soft and I knew exactly where everything would go, so it was quick work. In early May Plant Delights’ catalogue unexpectedly listed the coyote gourd I was so impressed with at Red Butte last September, Cucurbita foetidissima, so I threw in a few more plants to justify the shipping fees: The moon carrot Seseli gummiferum, a spectacular umbellifer Peucedanum verticillare, and Sinningia ‘Cherries Jubilee.’ These gesneriads are surprisingly tough and work well with succulent plantings.
And when the world shrinks down to the size of the back garden, no detail is too small, no incident too trivial. This afternoon we sprayed the hose on a squirrel attempting to raid a nest of fledglings — not on our watch! And it looks like we’re going to be on watch in the back garden for the foreseeable future…onward to June!
In a view from the garden office, lying on the pink divan found at the Long Beach flea market (remember those?), which we keep covered in a painter’s tarp, this clear blustery day is orchestrating a magnificent performance out of the garden. The cypresses contribute deep, side-to-side, majestic swaying movements, while the acacia’s small leaves ripple like water until a really big gust hits, then a branch jumps out of the chorus and begins an electrifying improv solo. The tetrapanax’s leaves manically fan up and down in an obsequious bit of comedy, and the whole garden surges and shudders and shimmies, and sometimes even in unison. I don’t usually catch this wind-driven ballet because I’m rarely lying on the divan in the office mid-day. That I’m doing so today is completely due to an emergency abdominal surgery over the weekend. During several movements of the tree ballet I wanted to jump up and grab a camera, take a video, but jumping up to do anything is out of the question for now. So I’ll be lying even lower — however impossible that sounds! — for a few weeks. Take care out there!
Yesterday’s nursery jaunt included Roger’s Garden in Newport Beach, where I found the New Zealander of the title, Cassinia fulvida, and Village Nursery in Huntington Beach. Driving empty freeways sounds like a great time, but it eerily underscores how aberrant this moment is in the life of a formerly bustling metropolis.
Roger’s seems to have methodically removed most of their heroic succulent display plantings filled with statement agaves and aloes in favor of blowsier, bloomier plantings with admonitions on signage to plant pollinator gardens. I get the outreach effort for pollinators but still miss the agaves…why can’t we have both sculptural and pollinator-friendly plantings? I suppose it’s difficult for staff to change up the plantings working around spiky plants, not to mention the water needs being asymmetrical as far as keeping the blooming stuff going…
At Village Nursery I found some fun things to add to the shady stock tank in front of the lemon cypresses. I’ve been using this end of the stock tank to throw in bromeliad pups, so removed a bunch and planted Astilbe ‘White Gloria’ and a Blue Bear’s Paw fern Polypodium (Phlebodium) aureum. As I mentioned last week, a container here with Hoja Santa (Piper auritum) and the False Aralia was moved out, with the Hoja Santa planted under the Chinese Fringe Tree and the False Aralia planted in the ground just about where it lived in the container, so its light exposure conditions didn’t change.
I’m sure there’s other New Zealanders I’ve left out. But meanwhile, elsewhere in the garden…
The dwarf breadseed poppies (Papaver setigerum) are just about over, but there’s still lots to keep this guy busy. Hope you’re having a good week! Take care.
So you’re planting and planting your little garden and having the best time, but because your undisciplined and eclectic taste runs to every kind and type of green life, from ground hugging to tree size, inevitably you wake up one morning and wonder:
Where did the sunlight go?
Full sun, half sun, part sun, morning sun, mid-day sun, afternoon sun, bright sun, reflected sun, harsh sun, cool sun — the latter is probably what best describes dappled light. Like the number of words Eskimos have for snow, zone 10 gardens care deeply about degrees of sunlight.
About that loss of full-day sun. There’s no need to panic, especially in Southern California, where at our latitude summer sun can be especially punishing. And I still have plenty of full sun for the plants that can handle it. But for a good quarter of the garden at least, it’s a dappled life now.
And it turns out this gentler version of Southern Californian sunlight suits a lot of plants just fine. It’s not exactly shade gardening though, because full sun does break in throughout the day.
In my back garden, the biggest reduction in sunlight starts at the east fence, where the lemon cypresses (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’) now soar over 25 feet and Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ holds the corner. Morning light does filter through in varying intensities. Aloes still bloom here if planted where the morning sun is strongest and where the afternoon sun can slide in too. Amicia zygomeris loves it here, as does Plectranthus argentatus, bromeliads, sesleria. The new ‘Indian Summer’ alstroemeria have been tucked in here, so we’ll see if they get enough sun to bloom well. It’s dawned on me rather late in life that herbaceous stuff, grassy stuff, not sculptural evergreen succulents, are preferable for conditions under trees that rain down a steady stream of debris. And whether the tree is evergreen or deciduous, they all drop something.
I think I mentioned recently how I would never never underplant the Chinese fringe tree again. It’s a debris monster, so I’ve opted to sweep its flowers, berries, leaves and twiggy bits back under its canopy, letting it sheet compost in place, with nothing planted to obstruct the relentless cleanup. But then this potted Hoya Santa (Piper auritum) was wilting dreadfully in the afternoon sun hitting the base of the lemon cypresses, and I couldn’t face another summer keeping it hydrated. I wasn’t ready to part with it, because I love the big coarse leaves that resemble a brunnera on steroids. Studying my options, it dawned on me that big-leaved plants with leafy skirts that could be swept under wouldn’t have the same issues as small, low-growing plants constantly getting their crowns smothered in debris. Once the realization hit, I planted the Hoya Santa pronto into this gentler light and loved the results so much that I also released a Fatsia japonica ‘Camouflage’ from its container to grow here as well.
So many plants I love and grow, like the sow thistles from the Canary Islands and melianthus to name a couple that quickly come to mind, dislike full afternoon sun and complain by wilting when they get it.
Mediating sunlight opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities and allows for growing a really wide range of plants.
And the shrubs and trees that tame the sun also bring one of the most amazing garden features of all — birds. It is astonishing to see what wings in throughout the day. Just like us, birds crave both an open prospect and refuge, with some cover nearby if a hawk should scan the garden, and placing a bird bath in proximity to both shelter and a view is key to success. I’ve been beating myself up for dawdling in choosing a birdbath, but I don’t want to bring in a clunky, oversized monolithic white elephant I’ll regret in a couple months then not be able to move and keep clean (then in despair plant up in a dog’s breakfast assortment of succulents, etc etc.) I saw this sleek bird bath by CB2, and nearly pulled the trigger, but ultimately opted to use the little side table for now.
Playing with the light is one of the most absorbing aspects of making a garden. And this little garden, now over 30 years old, really keeps planting interesting as it evolves, bringing increasing complexities of light to exploit.
With demoralizing chaos at the federal level continuing unabated, it’s incredibly reassuring to experience the pragmatic approaches deployed locally. Let’s just take for an example, oh, I dunno — shopping for plants, for instance.
I’ve been shopping every couple weeks at International Garden & Floral Design Center near LAX and finding some nice things there — more verbascums, the real-deal, non-impostor Penstemon ‘Sour Grapes,’ Leucospermum ‘Brandi.’ Yesterday I checked out H&H on Lakewood Blvd. near the 91, and found the Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ that I was this close to mail-ordering. Like with the penstemons, I bought two one-gallons already in bloom. A couple of indirect influences the coronavirus has had on the garden: more than the usual impatience for results coupled with the knowledge that I’ll be home this summer to water in spring plantings. As a general rule, fall is always touted as the best time to plant for Southern California, but then there will always be exceptions, and this is most definitely such a time.
International Nursery is enormous, so social distancing is easy. They’ve rerouted access to the cash register, but that’s about the only change I could see, other than the decals on the ground to indicate safe distance when waiting in line. H&H is another large, power line-easement operation, and they had an employee at the gate who lets a certain number of cars in; beyond that number, it’s a no-go and the gate is shut. I parked up the street and walked in. When ready to leave, I asked if I could take the cart filled with plants down the street, load the car, and then return it; if I left my driver’s license, not a problem. Safe, efficient, sensible solutions, and very much appreciated.
Walking over acres while looking at plants is a huge stress reliever. I’ve shopped at the enormous grounds at Village Nursery in Huntington Beach too. And now that Annie’s Annuals has temporarily shut down mail order due to an overwhelming response, International is a nice local option for her plant offerings, especially summer annuals.
The challenge in planting and shuffling things in late April is avoiding damage to the rest of the burgeoning garden. I’ve knocked a few buds off, but no real catastrophes. This morning I pulled out a rangy Euphorbia mauritanica that never grew into the tight bun I’d been hoping for. An Aloe ‘Moonglow’ in too much shade got that full sun spot. I chose this euphorbia for a stock tank in Mitch’s parkway, where in much harsher circumstances it’s achieved impressively tight cushions that are now beginning to throw acid-yellow flowers, so at least I can admire it at its best there. (A stock tank on gravel for the parkway turned out to be the right idea now that a neighbor with very poor dog etiquette lets his Great Dane wander over for bathroom breaks. Plants in the ground would never survive the onslaught.)
The creeping fig, Ficus pumila, on the back wall has been cut back, the bocconia thinned of old, woody growth, the Mexican root beer plant, Piper auritum, moved out of afternoon sun — all big projects I doubt I’d undertake unless housebound. I’ve wall-papered a wooden screen with this and started inquiries to have the east gate fabricated — not bad for a notorious procrastinator.
I hope you’re likewise finding some room to maneuver in the margins of your local guidelines, catching up on projects, and supporting businesses as they find a way forward. Who knows, maybe we’ll really live large and order some takeout this week….stay safe!
I knew for the past year or so that the Los Angeles Times would eventually publish an article on the Glatstein family’s Long Beach garden designed by ceramicist Dustin Gimbel a few years back. Even so, the March 31, 2020 appearance of “In turbulent times, a magical art-filled garden offers solace,” by Lisa Boone, managed to catch me off guard. I’d seen these photos by Mitch not long after it was finished, so I knew the layout and incredible detail work by Dustin, but the story of the making of a garden told in hindsight, at a time when we’re in the teeth of a pandemic, can’t help but feel epic and visionary. Boone’s choice to frame the garden against this backdrop was the perfect mechanism for exploring what this garden means to the Glatsteins and why someone would pour their creative energy into designing such a place. In the context of these first months of 2020, a garden naturally assumes the level of importance and can be discussed with the same design enthusiasm as any domestic space, albeit one where kids and ducks roam freely, animated by a revolving cast of wildlife. It’s a long, lush piece with lots of detail and depth, one I know you’ll enjoy. Much has grown in since these pictures, new projects have been undertaken, sheltering in place has been decreed, and the garden absorbs all of it with utter grace. It’s a wonderful piece of writing about a project that gives new life to the words “dream team”; the clients and designer sharing the same dream of what a garden can be and mean for a family in a busy neighborhood, in both happy and anxious times — playful, sculptural, serene, stimulating, filled with interest for the plantsman (Jeremy), and brimming with daily wonders for the kids. Have a look at these old photos by Mitch to find your way around, but be sure to read the article which includes lots of recent photos as well as some “before” photos too.
I’ve decided I’ve got to cut back on baking — that’s just not sustainable for this unforeseeable, housebound future. So today I hope to tackle the creeping fig on the back wall, which has footage of overgrowth and is also being colonized by the dreaded asparagus fern. It’s nowhere near as satisfying a task as filling the house with warmth and delicious aromas, but much more necessary. Personally, what’s essential and nonessential gets a little blurry. More cake? Nonessential. More plants? Obviously essential. Like everyone else with a garden or a house with windows (or a bunker with grow lights), I’m on a ferocious mail-order tear, and have scoured U.S. nurseries for a source of Eryngium guatamalense to no avail — if you know of one, drop me a line! From photos I’ve seen, that eryngium looks pretty essential to me. And what about those dreams? Daytime has its own hushed, dream-like quality, while nighttime dreams have suddenly become novelistic in detail. I’m also getting back to long walks, suitably masked of course, and finding some lovely garden scenes all over town. (I can’t carry the big camera so it’s all for Instagram.) Here’s some of the blooms that are washing over the back garden at the moment.
The creeping fig wall, Ficus pumila, is just behind the bocconia and nearly overwhelming the narrow access path. It has everything — nasty sap, dust enough to provoke coughing jags that will worry the neighbors, huge amounts of green debris to deal with later. Before I hunt for the clippers, I’ll leave you with four choice words: One-Bowl Pound Cake.
A quick tour around the back garden this early April morning.
A tidal surge of spring growth is washing up on the gravel under the pergola. It’s a small-garden microcosm and abridged version of a long, undulating path with plants billowing and spilling onto gravel, one of my favorite spring sights. Good thing the plants and I have no need to practice social distancing. Salvia microphylla ‘Big Pink,’ just lightly starting to bloom, is the big plant sprawling almost to the bricks, approximately 3X3′ at the moment, which very soon will be enveloping the legs of the chair — no big deal. There’s plenty of other places to sit.
Brave responses, in a defying-the-blitz kind of spirit.
Big plan for the day is to drag the sewing machine down from the attic, see if it still works, and hunt around for suitable fabric for face masks. Then I’ll probably grab The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux to read in the lookout over the laundry shed. Enjoy your day and indulge your every whim — within social distancing limits. Forward!
As of today, March 30, 2020, in Southern California we can still walk our neighborhoods, if not the parks, trails, and beaches, and that is no small comfort. Mitch’s base during this “safer at home” period has been Hollywood, and he took some photos of a garden that he visits regularly on daily walks, one the locals know as the Blue Garden. Poppies, native and somniferum varieties, irises, scarlet flax, larkspur, phlomis, brugmansia, and dozens and dozens of blue bottles can easily turn a short walk into the highlight of the day, even if done solo or keeping a distance of 6 feet apart. Can gardens be heroes too? I think so.
Mitch sent along this note: There are “secret” public steps that run along the vertical length of this garden, so everyone in the neighborhood has a relationship with it. The garden is experienced on those steps, in the rhythm and timing that it takes a human to climb stairs, and at that speed the frequency and composition of blue glass is a knockout.
Everyone knows the place as the Blue Garden. But the speed & isolating frames of photography run opposite to the human experience in this case — in my images, it looks like there are a few blue items sprinkled across terraces lackadaisically, when in reality as you experience the installation on foot, the piercing blue is overwhelming.
There’s a couple of Ty Nant imported mineral waters, more than a few Sky Vodka liters, swanky olive oil, Absolut Vodka for sure, but no Sapphire gin — it’s the wrong hue.
There’s a resolute carpet of dymondia, poppies reseeding through railroad ties, rebar arbors, a few pendulous daturas — it’s a rich detonation of spring.
Someone has been generous with color and seed catalog purchases for years.
We photographed with Velvia 50 because that’s what’s necessary under quarantine. Bombastic saturation, irresponsible color fidelity, wild drunken cangiantismo. We need this.
The delight of walking through a landscape with a camera at magic hour after so many days indoors simmering beans cannot be overstated.
Since I greedily planted the long, narrow front garden smack up against the fence that separates us from legions of parked cars and noisy, fast-moving traffic, it’s difficult to maneuver around for photos (and maintenance). Also, a lot of toothy customers are packed in these close quarters, like the fearsome ‘Jaws,’ and Furcraea macdougalii. I constantly vacillate between privacy and a more streamlined garden that’s visually open to my neighbors. The west end closer to the driveway is unhedged, but this eastern end is like a little green cloister.
The cotyledon I wrote about earlier in the week is in the front garden, and a young tree aloe ‘Hercules,’ and a manzanita ‘Louis Edmonds,’ and a Nolina nelsonii, various agaves, Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ — it’s a mishmash of a garden. The main criteria for a plant’s inclusion is, once established, the ability to go completely summer dry.
And towering 20 feet over it all, fairly close to the house, is the triangle palm, Dypsis decaryi. I’ve noticed that when there isn’t a clear viewpoint or sightline into a space, planting is less about design than a collector’s free-for-all.
In March reseeding Erodium pelargoniflorum carpets the ground around the succulents — you can see the little white flowers cozying up to ‘Jaws’ in the first photo. This annual erodium completely dies out when the soil dries out in summer.
The 3-foot wooden fence is backed on the sidewalk side by a 7-foot high box hedge — a dodge to get around fence height ordinances. I’ve always hated this fence/hedge arrangement, and as of a month ago I desperately wanted it gone — but a month of sheltering in place has changed my mind again. For one thing, so many birds and small mammals love these hedges — to nest in, to duck into when danger threatens. And both the boxwood and olives are fantastic for what turns into a very dry summer garden — the olives being far more attractive than the box, which gets patchy and thin but usually recovers with winter rain. And then there’s that investment in time to grow the hedges and their abilities as sound buffers, carbon sinks, and particulate sponges to consider. And lately I can re-appreciate the psychological distance they provide too. For now, I think the hedges are winning this very old argument.
But planting and experimenting with even an awkward bit of ground is enormous fun — a leucospermum and Acanthus spinosus were planted just yesterday.
For more garden tours, both front and back, although the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour had to be canceled this weekend, they had the genius idea to share it online — and you can check it out here.