Some minor drama and quandaries in the garden recently.
The very large but unidentified tillandsia brought home from a sale at the private garden of the late Bill Baker (of Aloe ‘Hercules’ fame), organized by his wife Donna Baker and So Cal Hort Society, is throwing a bloom. The stalk is over 3 feet and still growing. It just might be the Giant Terrestrial Tillandsia, T. secunda. Seeing this tillandsia at the Sherman Library & Garden in full flowering regalia prompted a mad search for its identity — you can read about it here. Suffice to say that my little garden is somewhat overexcited at the prospect of seeing this tilly in bloom here. I do have a very small Tillandsia secunda I bought after seeing the Sherman’s, but it has years of growing to do before it even thinks about blooming.
I’m not sure anything tops that news, but this newly repotted Euphorbia canariensis comes close.
The urn had considerably crumbled and flaked in the four years since this photo, and making a decision on the best course of action had reached a state of paralysis. I could save the urn or the plant, but not both, and the plant was beginning to show signs of stress as the container increasingly shed water rather than absorb it. At this size, it should be flowering, but it hasn’t. I sat on this dilemma for too long and began to view what was once so beautiful to me as a troublingly unsolvable problem. This week the hammer finally came out. I opted to save the plant and smash the urn. The mental logjam was smashed to smithereens too — no regrets. Just please don’t tell me it’s ancient Minoan pottery worth millions….
And that’s not the only mental logjam I cleared this week. This unobstructed view of that strapping young agave was made possible by the very hard pruning of a Phylica pubescens, a South African Featherbush (photo in this post). This luminous golden shrub has not been easy to please, so when it decided to live and thrive and grow tall, I wasn’t about to grumble that it was blocking my view of the agave behind it. The young agave had lots of growing to do, and if it accomplished that mostly out of my sight, fine. But after some years, the Featherbush has grown leggy, and that finally prompted me to cut it back to a foot or so. I doubt it survives, so I’ll start over with a new one at some point. But not where it blocks the view of this maturing agave. And I don’t even want to think about the Solomonic decisions to be made when the agave’s wing span approaches the predicted 6 feet. I’ll file that under “future garden dilemmas” next to rebuilding the termite-ridden fence, calling an arborist to consult on the soaring lemon cypresses, redoing the front garden, etc., etc.
That’s gotta be a record for the fastest repurposing of a bird bath from water to plants, considering the bird bath just arrived in May. Filling it with plants is not a total admission of failure, just temporary frustration with the constant debris and prime mosquito-hatching condtions. This big clump of spiny dyckia (or hechtia — won’t know until it blooms, white for hechtia, orange for dyckia) was covered in tree debris and expanding onto a front-garden walkway, but after cleaning it up to save an offset, it seemed a shame to trash such an impressive clump. I haven’t given up on providing my bird friends water, and there’s another satellite bird bath in use now, but this one needs rethinking and possibly relocating. And I’m still limited to lifting no more than 10 pounds for another month. I could ask Marty, but I know I’ll want it moved here then there then back here and a little over to the left, maybe to the right, etc., etc. I really hate to be too much of a pest…
The red, faded kangaroo paws were cut down, which freshened up this area considerably — there’s a lot of summer left to let things go shabby. For summer I love the idea of a busy, orchestral garden, with soloists taking their turn then sitting back down as others rise up to play. Deep behind the aloe blooms are three blooms budding up from Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’ planted last year from gallons. It would be incredibly cool if ‘Storm Cloud’ opened before the aloe blooms go off. The agapanthus is semi-sandwiched between a miscanthus and a Lindheimer’s muhly but still with enough growing room — for now.
The annual Coreopsis tinctoria has been joined by a self-sown Verbena bonariensis and Cosmos ‘Xanthos,’ and this little area off the porch continues to make me smile. So far, these thread-leaved annuals like coreopsis and cosmos have worked out well for this small garden. Long blooming, no mildew or insect problems with the leaves so far, knock wood, and because they don’t become shabby I can grow them right under my nose and among other plants, rather than reserve them for a cutting garden (which I don’t have).
Take care out there! I’m keeping a mask handy in several places throughout the house so I don’t forget to grab one, as well as in the car, hanging on the stick shift for errands around town. As the 4th of July approaches, we’re hoping that afterwards the cherry bombs and M-whatevers will cease to erupt after nightfall, setting off car alarms and nervous dogs up and down the street. This has got to be the loudest, most explosive pre-4th of July we’ve ever experienced…
Hope you find lots of interesting and diverting things to do this week. I’m tending new seedlings and waiting for another seed order to arrive — there’s got to be more empty pots around here somewhere…
Walking, driving, biking all over town, I probably study plants more than people. And it’s not always pretty. In fact, it rarely is. Plants are treated as the green wallpaper background to a city, awkwardly squeezed into the leftover urban spaces after capitalism gets the first pass at choice real estate. It can be dismaying to witness their rough, thoughtless treatment, but there’s some small satisfaction in knowing that gardens are where the payback happens, where plants’ central importance is acknowledged. Gardens are where plants get lifted out of the background and placed center stage, where they’re amassed in new ways to make us gasp, as if to show what just a little clever, sympathetic cooperation between people and the natural world can do.
And apart from their mission of collecting and preserving plants, isn’t a botanical garden’s unspoken message that if we pay a little attention to plants and the life they support, watch how they grow, bloom, and die, extraordinary things can happen? For a lot of us rabid plant fiends, that is enough. Public gardens, however, dealing with a more generalized customer, often add art into the mix to keep things interesting for visitors. Paradoxically, inserting art into public gardens often has the unintended consequence (for me) of relegating plants into the background again, as mere pleasant backdrop for the art work. I found the Sculptura Botanica exhibit currently at the Sherman Library and Gardens the rare exception.
The strength of the exhibit derives from the knowing dialogue between Dustin’s ceramics, which are inspired by a deep understanding of the structure and wonder of plants, his keen spatial sense as a garden designer, and the horticultural expertise of the staff at the Sherman. I thought it was a stunning example of how to integrate art into a public garden without giving the sense that the garden has been temporarily taken over as a display case. The ceramics and the plantings seamlessly work as a hand-in-glove collaboration.
Note: Everyone has to do their own risk analysis about visiting public places during these challenging times, and I can only offer my own risk calculations in that 1) I’m in the target age group for most adverse effects 2) recently post-surgery 3) and carrying the blood type that seems to have more adverse consequences too (negative). Everything I’ve read points to outdoor spaces as holding the least risk, and that has been guiding my behavior these past few months. (“We have very little evidence of outdoor transmission. It’s not zero — there are definitely cases reported — but it’s much, much lower than inside,” says Gretchen Snoeyenbos Newman, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Washington.” WaPo 6/20/20.) I visited on a Tuesday morning, and keeping a healthy distance from other visitors was no problem at all.
And with the increasing realization that, like it or not, all the world is now a garden in a “post-wild” sense, with our species’ influence felt around the globe, horticulturalists and botanists are the heroes we need. Referring to the map above, much applause is given to the following horticultural talent:
Carol Younger, Senior Horticulturist: Tea Garden, Sun Garden, Central Garden
Joel Friesen, Horticulturist: Tropical Conservatory, Specimen Shade House
Dawn Mones, Horticulturist: Tea Garden, Sun Garden, Central Garden
Tim Chadd, Horticulturist: Formal Garden, Sensory Garden
Typical of my small zone 10 Southern California garden, the month of June is as much subtractive as additive. Gone are the winter-growing annuals like poppies, nicotiana, and umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora, and as the hot dry summer bears down, the outlines of succulents like agaves and aloes once again come to the fore. The kangaroo paws are still prominent verticals, though the reds can start looking a little burnt out and scruffy. Annual coreopsis and cosmos, in pots and the garden, can handle the heat to come, and they’re just about the size of summer daisy a small overplanted garden can handle (no to dahlias, rudbeckias, etc). A 20-degree jump from a short, intense heatwave seared stripes into the cuticle on a couple established agaves, but we’re back into the very tolerable high 70s/low 80s again, at least for this week.
The Helenium puberulum has been lightly blooming since planting last fall, but those stunning leaves are of course from eucomis and are a total cheat — one of two gallons of ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ I dropped into the garden in full sun just before the heat wave. So far I haven’t had success with eucomis in the ground, and I’ve probably grown them in too much shade and/or kept them too dry. These gallons were in a nursery’s remaindered aisle, literally bursting through the pots with multiple bulbs, and since one bulb can go for $20 it was an incredible deal. I think I’ll keep them in pots, maybe divide the two gallons into four gallons in fall.
lunch and lecture: June 26, 2020, 11:30 a.m. and tour of the exhibit by Dustin Gimbel
other venues: Dustin will be exhibiting his work in a group show at the Ruth Bancroft Garden Friday in Walnut Creek, California, July 17, 2020
It seems like a ridiculously short time ago that Dustin Gimbel was asking me, Hey, do you want to take a ceramics class? Was that three years ago? Four years? As a garden designer his schedule is somewhat flexible, but I was still working full time and couldn’t fit it in. From that point on, he’s been experiencing the creative equivalent of brain fever as he’s explored at a breakneck pace the possibilities of ceramics using the visual language of botanicals and in the context of garden design. He’d already done lots of work with concrete molds and other formulations to make bespoke containers and totems, so studying ceramics seemed like a great fit. But the speed at which he’s mastered the craft has been astonishing to witness, and I happily have various iterations of his increasing levels of mastery all around my garden.
In short order his ceramics became available online and at local design shops, and he secured his first show at the Sherman Library & Gardens this May — and then the COVID-19 virus hit and seemingly upended everything. Yet in the uncertainty over how and when to open the show safely, the work behind the scenes went on, planting, trimming and polishing until everything gleams.
The extra amount of time and focus the staff had in fine-tuning the installation and plantings may have been an unintended consequence of the pandemic, but the results all that work produced are ravishing.
The Sherman has done a thorough job of ensuring health and safety of attendees. Order the tickets online, follow distancing recommendations and one-way traffic flow patterns, and you’ll have a fabulous time taking in the collaboration between Dustin and the horticultural staff at the Sherman Gardens that is Sculptura Botanica. For me, the sensory deprivation imposed by COVID-19 and being homebound for months made the experience of walking through the entrance gate similar to the moment when the Wizard of Oz movie shifts from black and white to color. The scale of the Sherman is perfect for the installation, with excitement built and sustained around each new turn in the path. The horticultural talent on view at the Sherman always rewards a visit, but they really rose to this occasion with dense, detailed plantings specifically for this exhibit.
The interplay between the expert plantings and Dustin’s musings on botanical anatomy in clay make for a thoroughly engrossing visit. From every vantage point, the views are enthralling.
I’ll order the photos as closely as possible to the prescribed traffic flow through the garden, starting with the entrance into the central garden with the Pollen Grain Towers. There is a prodigious amount of ceramic work in the show, and this is by no means representative of all of it.
Leaving the main entrance area and Pollen Grain Towers and following the recommended path, you can either enter the tropical conservatory and count the turtles and koi or stay on the path and head into the bromeliad garden.
The next big set piece is the Equisetium Towers centering a veg-planted parterre edged in santolina and possibly a vibrant chartreuse berberis (or a gold-leaved Lonicera nitida).
And I’ll leave you here and finish up the rest of the visit to Sculptura Botanica next week. Have a fine weekend!
This post is not about plants, though there are some nice palm trees in the photos by MB Maher. I can tend to overshare sometimes (I got my surgical staples out today!), and this is such a time, so feel free to pass. And I feel like I’ve told this story here before too, and if so, pardon the repetition.
“What if it were your kid?” Through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, one day it was my French-Irish kid’s turn to be terrified by police. Just one afternoon, and yet the toll a police officer’s gun to the head took on the emotional sturdiness of a happy-go-lucky adolescent boy was a long time in unwinding. In our very mixed neighborhood, a white kid coming home from school and climbing over our locked fence struck an out-of-state visitor across the street as suspicious. When the police responded to the call, it struck them as suspicious too. Surely he didn’t belong in this neighborhood and was up to no good. When he answered their door knocks, they hauled him out of his home and pulled a weapon on him on the back porch. He protested that he hadn’t broken in, that he lived here. They brought him back into the house to prove it with a photograph. Finally a photo was found in a bedroom, and the siege ended. Fortunately, that was our one-off encounter with the wrong side of the LBPD, but for us it blew wide open a window onto how dangerous assumptions can be about who belongs where and who doesn’t and how quickly things escalate. (Remember Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest for “breaking into” his own home?) That African-American parents have to have the “talk” with their kids because over the course of their lives this will routinely happen to them, the institutionalized assumption that they’re up to no good — whether bird-watching, jogging, coming home with candy from the corner store — it’s unimaginably heartbreaking. To be told at a young age that being in the public square means different levels of risk for different skin colors can only be life-altering, confidence-destroying.
Mitch took these photos on June 2, 2020, in Hollywood, California.
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!