I’m always a miser when cutting flowers from my small garden and prefer to enjoy the much longer performance flowers give when they remain in the garden instead of severed for a vase. But this Thanksgiving seems special, doesn’t it? I’m betting it’s not just my family that feels profound gratitude for having made it to November 2020. So I foraged for a small vase of flowers for tomorrow because garden flowers seem especially suitable for outside dining. Grevillea ‘Moonlight,’ Celosia ‘Cramer’s Amazon,’ silver contributions from Acacia podalyrifolia and Glaucium flavum, which also brings its horned seedheads, tropical chartreuse leaves are Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger,’ begonia leaves, and a couple tulbaghia blooms.
For the post-feast torpor, I’d recommend snuggling into the wonderful documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect.” Released in 2012, somehow I missed this lovely paean to birds and the people who see them as astonishing, magical creatures. Which of course they are, and if you feel the same, this is your tribe. My already acute envy of Central Park was even more inflamed by this four-season look at Olmstead’s urban masterpiece and how much joy it gives the people of New York.
Have a wonderful feast, whether alone nibbling a PBJ sandwich or with your carefully selected “bubble,” because gratitude is truly what’s on the menu this year. Much love, AGO.
Mina lobata is late too. The Spanish Flag vine was sown at least by June — okay, I just checked the seed packet and it was sown 6/25/20. So what’s up with waiting to bloom until November? The questions never go away, do they? Why are you behaving like this? Why couldn’t you think about blooming in September so we could have a few autumnal months together? You don’t look particularly happy about choosing to bloom in November, so who wins? Questions, questions. And yet, on the other hand, I’m thrilled that there will always be mysteries to keep me in the game…and blooms in November.
My biggest clump of Lady’s Slipper (Pedilanthus bracteatus) did a face plant due to high winds last weekend. Completely fell over and splayed onto the bricks. But what a rubbery, resilient beast. Marty and I wrestled it upright again, minding the sap (euphorbia family!), propping it up with a wrought iron bird bath stand that is never used for bird baths but is excellent for staking plants. We nervously hovered, expecting it to stubbornly pitch forward again, as most plants do once they’ve lost the habit of verticality. But it has remained upright, although some of its branches now lean into the walkway and graze my hair as I pass by. I should cut the offenders off at the base and probably will after it’s done blooming.
Veering slightly away from bloom day reports to other news…
Recently Marty and I were discussing eastern screening options again, and he said Why don’t you bring in a smoke tree…? I don’t think I let him finish the sentence before objecting I was done with smoke trees forever. The species aren’t happy at all in zone 10, whereas the hybrid vigor of ‘Grace’ was terrifying. No, no, he protested, that one we used to grow by the office. Oh, Euphorbia cotinifolia, the Caribbean Copper Tree!? Interesting suggestion. But it’s very short-lived and brittle, I reminded him. Remember how its trunk snapped in high winds? As I elucidated its shortcomings, I realized these were actually strengths that argued in its favor. Nobody would inherit a problematic house-eater, and we’d get a temporary screen of 12-15 feet. Sold!
I cleaned out the mess of squid agave, Agave bracteosa, remnants of the succulent garden next to the driveway that was thriving before I planted a Pearl Acacia smack in the middle. Predictably, the debris and shade from the tree proceeded to smother out the succulents, yet the squid agave never gave up, the tips of its flailing arms increasingly less and less visible under the onslaught of tree debris. A drowning squid agave. After removal and cleaned of debris, I had to admire the undulating carcasses but wondered if there was a way to grow a squid agave that really showcased its peculiar, writhing ways, because in the ground that form is lost. I bet it’s a cliff-dweller. (Yes! San Marcos Growers: “Comes from the Coahuilan Desert where it grows on limestone cliffs between 3,000 and 5,500 feet.”) There’s usually a spare clay pipe around here somewhere for just such an experiment, and so it was found and planted. Although not as optimal as cliff dwelling, a little height was gained for dramatic spillage. And now it can writhe and twist and furiously pup to its heart’s content in the pipe, because plants exploding out of a pipe is always a good look, imho.
Hope your week is calm and holiday plans coming together, in whatever size, shape or form.
(Bloom Day is hosted by May Dreams Gardens on the 15th of every month.)
And so the lemon cypresses (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’ or Golden Monterey Cypress) came down last Sunday, November 1st. I couldn’t bear to watch the removal of the last two and hid out in the office. They were excellent privacy screens but ultimately too much of a good thing for this small garden and closely neighboring properties. Before they were deemed a nuisance, I treasured their scent and how they gleamed and majestically swayed in the wind, and how the birds found refuge in their boughs and a lookout from their topmost branches.
The east fence construction had been halted for a week while we waited for the dreaded appointment on Sunday, then the fence was completed Monday, November 2nd.
After the fence was finished Monday afternoon, I removed the small square of bricks, leaving the three-inch bed of sand on which the bricks were dry laid. As the light faded, I played around with raking and grading the area, which has slowly been transformed over years into something of a berm that slopes toward the house, built up from having the compost pile in the southeast corner and then all the shredded hedge clippings left to sheet compost in this far corner as well. Not to mention the accumulated tree litter, both from when the trees shed their leaves and the residue of their remains when they were gone. Two eucalyptus trees we inherited with the house, planted to screen this southeast corner, each blew down at various times. The smoke tree ‘Grace’ grew as large as a magnolia, exuberantly flinging her branches across the three neighboring back gardens, and was ultimately removed around the time I started the blog (2010ish). You could say this southeast corner has been vexatious as far as screening out the three properties that meet up with ours here. The properties are small and the screening strategies always prove problematic in one way or another, for one neighbor or another.
Sounds like a sad story so far, right? Not exactly. Along with the neighbors’ rooflines and satellite dishes, sun and sky have also poured in again. All that recovered sky is especially a revelation when filled with brilliant stars, as it was 5 a.m. this morning.
Monday night, Nov. 2nd, with the fence up, the area raked, and twilight approaching, I decided to address the berm somewhat with a spine of rocks. Not a path exactly, though it can be walked on, and not a rock garden exactly, though it has been planted. A spur? We’re calling it a cobb (after the famous one we visited in Lyme Regis, England) or a jetty, because it’s been built from rocks quarried on Catalina Island to build the Los Angeles Harbor breakwater. Piles of the rocks were always staged at the LA Pilot Station in case repairs were needed to the breakwater, and when he worked there Marty couldn’t resist bringing a few home from time to time. We call it Catalina ironstone, but I have no idea as far as its true geologic composition (what the heck is schist?). Like an Easter egg hunt, we prowled the front and back garden in the dimming light to collect the rocks, and I laid them until twilight faded and it was too dark to see. I expected to hate the rock experiment Tuesday morning, but didn’t. All day Tuesday, Election Day, I planted and found homes for all the displaced plants, many of which were bromeliads that had been massed near the base of the cypresses and in a stock tank.
The enormous astelia in the stock tank was moved under Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ near the office, in the spot recently vacated by Salvia mexicana. A variegated fatshedera was also moved out of the stock tank and planted at the base of the grevillea, along with a blue bear’s paw fern that surprised me by flourishing and sending out enormous fronds.
Tuesday night we watched season 4 of the sci-fi epic The Expanse. After the last four years, I was saving myself the needless trauma of a political horse race. You can’t choose the time you’re born in — some get the Enlightenment, some get the Visigoths storming the gates. At least we will always have heroes like RBG, who died as we all will, not knowing how the fight ends, to show us how to make the most of our time and wring as much truth and justice out of it while we’re here, whatever the outcome.
On Wednesday, November 4th, I brought in and spread 10 bags of crushed granite (3/8″) for mulch. More sci-fi viewing at night and remainder of the weeknights.
Today, November 7, it’s raining in Los Angeles. How perfect is that? And the election has finally been called today, November 7. What a week!
There’s been a couple of standout plants new to my garden this year, and this vibrant celosia is emphatically one of them. From Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, it was planted from 4-inch pots in August and grew steadily, like it meant business. Finding anything brave enough to settle in and thrive through August and September is a miracle. And it may be that the late summer heat and now cooler temperatures in October are precisely what this celosia desires. I know I will be trying to replicate these conditions and timing next year, with either the hoped-for self-sown seedlings or by bringing in new plants. Please let this not be a one-off performance!
Planted in full sun, it wilted slightly when temps reached high 90s but always recovered by the evening. I’ve been attentive to its water needs, which are heavier than the succulents surrounding it but not excessive. I may have pinched it back once or twice.
This tropical annual satisfies a craving for the similar effects of tall spires and brushes of bloom obtained by such perennials as veronicastrum, sanguisorba — not an easy craving to satisfy in droughty zone 10.
I especially love that intense crimson with the creamy pale chartreuse columns of Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata.’ And with the Kalanchoe bracteata ‘Silver Teaspoons’ and silvery sideritis. And with the flame orange Cosmos sulphureus when it was still in bloom. It pulsates next to the tricolored leaves of Leucadendron ‘Jester’ too, which read from a distance as soft yellow. Other than a pure red, I can’t think of a color this celosia would find offensive.
My hummingbird friends approve too, which takes the heat off my decision to remove the enormous Salvia mexicana that was rushed out of bloom by the serial heat waves. Typical with the big salvias here, its base quickly thickened with enormous woody branches and it will need to be started again with fresh cuttings. If it hadn’t grown so woody, I would have trimmed off the dead flowers to ready it for another cycle of bloom.
The Salvia mexicana was in the midde between the grevillea and bocconia, as tall as the grevillea but beamier. It blooms strong in spring/early summer and again in fall, but the late heat waves knocked it out of bloom early.
And to lessen the sting of removing the big salvia, I did bring in a couple Salvia ‘Waverly’ too.
So the hummingbirds get the salvias, and I get a Mangave ‘Silver Fox.’ Seems fair to me.
There may be other gaps coming too — big ones. Both my neighbor and Marty are concerned about the size and stability of the lemon cypresses at the east border, already approaching their supposed mature size of 30 feet. One cypress that developed brown patches has already been removed, and the remaining two, though healthy, may be on the chopping block as well. The increasing heat we’re seeing may be too much for this variant of the Monterey Cypress, even here at the coast in Southern Calif. One option was to top and hedge the remaining two, not an appealing idea to me. I’ll always prefer them shaped like the flowers of this celosia. The front garden’s Pearl Acacia has been generous with seedlings, and I may replace the cypresses with Acacia podalyrifolia grown as a large shrub. And it will grow relatively fast to 8-10 feet and take on the privacy duties the cypresses performed so well. I’m also leaning toward Eucalyptus macrocarpa, a silvery mallee gum, also 8-10 feet, if I can find one.
The only constant in a garden is change, always a useful reminder! Have a great weekend.
This is my favorite mural in my hometown of Long Beach, Calif. To me, it’s a bird perched on an agave bloom (obviously!), painted in a very graphic style reminiscent of a woodcut. I often suspect many people of being plant blind, oblivious to the plant world around them, but I’ve got plenty of blindnesses of my own — for instance, to murals. This mural appeared, I have no idea why or when, and whenever I see it, I feel soothed. End of story of the extent of my appreciation. Except a few weeks ago, as I walked by I photographed the artist’s signature: “Gail Werner.” And then forgot about doing so for another couple weeks. A few days ago I found the image on my phone and looked into the artist and discovered that the mural was painted in 2016 in a city-wide mural painting project that was part of a larger global effort known as Pow! Wow!:
“My work reflects the landscape and cultural imagery related to my Native American background. I am part Cupeño, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay (three tribes located in San Diego County). Native American stories and songs, especially the Cupeño creation stories and traditional “bird songs,” play an important role in how I see the natural world. These stories and songs, in which plants and animals are the characters, tell about how the world came to be and how the people came to be where they are. The “bird songs” tell about the journey of the people, which is said to parallel the migration of the birds. The songs tell about what the birds/people see on their journey: the mountains, deserts, night sky, and other landmarks. For me, they reflect a dreamlike, evolving world, a world I hope to create in my paintings.
‘I often incorporate abstract pictograph (Native American rock art) designs found throughout the region: dot patterns, chevrons, diamond patterns, spirals, and helixes. Designs from Southern California Indian basketry and clay vessels used for food and water storage often make their way into my work. Southern California Indians are known for their beautiful, intricately woven baskets, which often use flower, snake, and geometric shapes. My great-grandmother, Salvadora Valenzuela, was a noted basket maker.
‘I work in oil on wood panel, sometimes incorporating pencil and Prismacolor. I also work with the painterly printmaking process called monotype, as well as the pigmented wax process, encaustic. I usually begin by laying down thin layers of color, and the work evolves from there. Images emerge, some more loosely painted or outlined and some more fully rendered. Landscape, color, light and imagery, abstract designs, stories and songs—all of these elements merge together for me to evoke a sense of journey and place.”
I haven’t found confirmation that the image is that of a bird perched specifically on an agave bloom, but I love it nonetheless. On her website you can find this image and more in this style under Monotype Prints. A video of the mural in progress in 2016, accompanied by “Tango Milonga Sensual” and “Electronic Tango for Two” by Ariel Sanchez, can be found here.
More notes on micro-moves in my small back garden, mostly having to do with a succulent-forward mindset for fall/winter here in zone 10. If you scroll down to the previous post, where I mention having to move an aloe because Agave kerchovei was encroaching, here’s what actually transpired:
I moved the agave instead, giving a formerly potted Mangave ‘Mission to Mars’ its sunny spot in the garden.
The agave was moved to the base of the slipper plants, where the mangave, fabulous in its beehive pot, was holding court. I was very loath to move this agave for a couple reasons, not least of which was taking a chance with marring its slowly acquired beauty. But overriding even aesthetics, another crucial consideration was that of all my agaves, kerchovei has the meanest defenses. I get poked and scratched by plants all day long, but it is only with this agave that I’ve learned to drop what I’m doing, bathe the site with hydrogen peroxide and then hold it under running water for a minute or so, apply neosporin (the pain formulation), bandaid, and only then resume whatever I was doing. Otherwise, a welt quickly appears and with it a very unique, insistent pain that is impossible to ignore. If I act fast, there will be no welt or pain, but the site will still be sensitive and sore for a day or so.
All the low pots around the agave’s periphery were placed to keep those terminal spines well away from us as we walk by to do the laundry, sit under the pergola, etc. I did think about saying goodbye to the agave entirely (gulp!), but the move went without incident so it gets a reprieve for now. These soft-leaved mangaves that also make big architectural rosettes are going to be giving agaves a run for their money in the warmer zones, especially in small gardens where agave spine strikes can be a recurring problem.
And that nice big beehive pot that was home to the purple mangave? It came to the rescue of Mangave ‘Kaleidoscope’ that was being shaded by Salvia mexicana.
This mangave is supposed to live up to its name with eye-wateringly gawdy, red-streaked and flecked coloration in full sun, whereas mine is merely subdued variegation. I don’t mind losing all the color but that increasing shade will ultimately become a health problem for any succulent. I’ve also relocated Aloes scobinifolia, classenii, and gerstneri. Aloe classenii is known for its deep red leaf coloration in sun, and gerstneri’s blooms come encased in brown bracts that eventually drop to reveal the vibrant color beneath, a performance I’ve yet to see and am hopeful might happen next year in its new, sunnier location.
The salvia and Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ are the main shade instigators, along with Passiflora ‘Flying V’ clambering over them too. Late winter/early spring I plan to cut the salvia and passiflora back hard.
Agave ‘Snowglow’ is another refugee from increasing shade as the grevillea has gained garage-roof height. The agave was moved out over a year ago and has been slowly recovering, but it doesn’t have the perfect spherical geometry of one grown consistently in good light.
The birdbath’s temporary staging of silver dyckia has been removed and the dyckia will need a home to grow roots — pot or garden? Undecided. I thought I was done with rapidly increasing clumps of very scratchy terrestrial bromeliads so I’m still mulling this over. I would think the little Aloe ‘Rooikappie’ would be a favorite in colder gardens for overwintering indoors. Reblooms, smallish, lots of offsets if the mother plant gets too large.
Another variegated Euphorbia ammak was added to the mix of potted succulents. This one was dug up from a narrow strip along the east fence that will be renovated this year.
Need a little more distraction and plant talk? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a broken tooth, the VP debates are tonight, and Marty is out of town — I’ll hang out here a little bit longer if that’s okay. I was looking up the provenance of bicolored Aloe ‘David Verity,’ first seen at the Huntington’s new entrance garden and bought at one of their plant sales, and San Marcos Growers’ entry says it originates with “Boyd Walker, who grew out some of Dave Verity’s hybrids at his Pacific Palisades garden.” Now, I’ve read that entry many times, but this time I was intrigued enough by Mr. Walker and his Pacific Palisades garden, about 30 miles north of me near Santa Monica, to do some investigating. Was the garden still there? Unknown. Mr. Walker died in 2001, and his UCLA memoriam doesn’t even mention the aloe work of this Battle of the Bulge survivor, famed ichthyologist, grunion expert, and authority on Zuni fetishes. A single life is a wondrous thing. I did find an article Robert Smaus wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 1990, back in the newspaper’s horticultural heyday, that gives a glimpse of his garden in words with some specific advice on caring for echeverias:
“To ensure that all energy goes to producing the leaves, Walker pinches back the echeverias’ flowers, and every year he cuts rosettes from the stems, lets them dry out in the air for a few days, then re-roots them in empty pots. Once roots appear, he transplants them into soil. He picks a pot that is as big in diameter as the rosette; when the leaves overhang the sides by 2 inches, he moves it into a larger pot. His soil mix is simplicity itself: 1 part garden soil, 1 part sand, 1 part perlite and 1 part compost from his own pile. He fertilizes the plants several times a year. Old stems, by the way, are saved. Little plantlets sprout along the lengths of the old stems, and these are eventually severed off and rooted.” — “A Winter Palette : Succulents Provide Brilliant Color During the Coldest Months, Usually the Dreariest Time in the Garden” by Robert Smaus, Los Angeles Times, 1/14/90
Somehow, what the low angled light of October does to grasses always catches me by surprise. I caught this peripheral shimmer on the way to the office yesterday morning, turned to find the source and gasped. Of course it’s one of the reasons I love these big grasses, but it’s been hot and weird lately and expecting revelatory moments from the garden in the morning is not top of mind as I head to the office to check the news. But with the sun sweeping low, these fountains of light are once again enthralling.
This is the first year I’ve had Muhlenbergia lindheimeri flowering in the garden, and I’m completely infatuated with its slim spikes of bloom beginning in September. To its left is Miscanthus ‘Silver Sceptre’ which begins bloom in early summer. The early morning dew acts as a pomade on the miscanthus and slicks down the frizzy, months’ old blooms, but as the day progresses they fuzz out again. Kind of a charming performance, and more attractive on a plant than my big mop of hair that hasn’t had a haircut since lockdown.
From the back wall of the garden looking east, past the Aloe ferox hybrid, at the dessicated state of the tetrapanax, a state of dishevelment it’s always in by end of summer. In colder zones the rice paper plants are gloriously lush by summer’s end right up to the first frost. In autumn in my zone 10, the tetrapanax will shake off the summer doldrums and throw antler-like blooms in November/December. Melianthus is another “foliage” plant that’s almost leafless by September and just showing new growth in October. Ditto for the sonchus tribe. Bocconia never loses its cool and looks good all summer but does drop more leaves on hot days. Melianthus ‘Purple Haze’ strikes me as even less capable than the species of gracefully tolerating summer’s stress test.
With the laundry shed doors wide open — nice! — another look at the trunks of the tetrapanax and its wizened leaves. I doubt I’ll ever see a Yucca rostrata form a trunk in my lifetime — they are sooo slooow in low rainfall climates, but this stage is gorgeous enough.* Alcantarea imperialis to its left. Heuchera maxima to the right of the brom was added earlier this year, a ‘Tara’ hedychium was moved back here with castor beans, and there’s generally been a lot more planting in this corner under the acacia now that a hose easily reaches. Yesterday Ageratum corymbosum was planted, part of an order from Annie’s Annuals, and Lobelia tupa is getting another tryout here too. There’s strong morning sun here with bright cool sun the rest of the day in summer. Lobelia tupa fried in full sun in previous attempts.*
A big surprise has been the fortitude of umbellifer Peucedanum verticillare, the celery-like leaves mid photo above. Not known as a zone 10 plant, its health and lust for life at the end of summer bodes well for possible bloom next spring. Also here is the summer-dormant giant fennel, Ferula communis, which showed uncharacteristic leafy growth in August. I’m not sure what to make of this performance but have decided to give it a little more water to reward the effort. At this point it’s all guesswork. (Dan Pearson wrote an account of it in bloom this year in his English garden for those unfamiliar with this giant umbellifer from Greece.)
The self-sown castor beans under the acacia have been really good this summer. I finally “got religion” about pinching and cutting off the flower buds that always form before the plants get a chance to make some leafy structure, and they are obviously much better for it. Tall, well branched, big leaves.
The seed report, summer 2020. The many varieties of cosmos sown in late June did not readily take to life in pots. I must not be throwing on enough seaweed fertilizer because there are plenty of anecdotal accounts online of cosmos loving containers. I won’t be trying that again, but it was fun to mother hen the seedlings during lockdown. Zinnias were not easy in pots either. And I think I’m done with Rudbeckia triloba now that I’ve found Cosmos sulphureus, much longer blooming and more tolerant of drier conditions among the succulents.
Celosia ‘Cramer’s Amazon’ planted from 4-inch pots in August is flourishing in one of the hottest parts of the garden. The same celosia planted in dappled sun is a pitiful thing, so handling the hot months of September and October here is definitely in this celosia’s wheelhouse. Wednesday this past week snuck up to 105. Forecast was high 90’s, but by 10 a.m. the heat was increasing with a speed I can only liken to a heat storm, if there is such a phenomenon. The sarracenia/pitcher plants were toasted before I could move them to shade, and by 10 a.m. it was apparent that the succulents in pots against the house that have been staged there all summer would not survive the day if left in place. (The pitcher plants will recover but the blooms were fried.)
The LA Times has a list of native plant sales going forward this fall here — where you might be able to find Muhlenbergia lindheimeri if you’re interested or that flannel bush you’ve been dying to grow. If we ever get the wooden fence torn down and the new one up, I’m going to be needing a flannel bush myself. They grow as espaliers, right? The side gate has finally been finished, and no termite will ever feast on it again because it’s metal. So there. More on that soon.
I know it’s been a rough week, but don’t let the bastards get you down! Stay safe and for the best revenge, have a great weekend.
(Edited 10/19/20: Lobelia tupa 2020 shriveled up in the recent heat wave, and in dappled sun! I think that’s a definitive trial. The last of three to survive, a Verbascum bombyciferum also crumpled and melted from the heat. One of the lemon cypresses was removed over the weekend, and the first cut came crashing down on aforementioned, very slow-growing Yucca rostrata. Marty jumped in and removed the branch within seconds, and no further debris came down on the garden. There was some crimping of the yucca’s leaves but it seems to be shaking off the assault. The light sweeping in from the east with the third cypress gone is revelatory. Pondering a post on planting for privacy in a very small garden, at the property lines, and how we all make a hash out of it. My neighbor is afraid of my cypresses, I’m afraid of their pepper tree, etc., but so far we’re all dealing with it amiably.)
Remember that mythical place, Vacationland? Sure, you do. Lock up the house, leave instructions for friends to care for the pets and garden, and set off for the airport or a road trip to shed the ever-tightening skin that forms with the unavoidable accumulation of daily habits. I’m the first to admit my daily habits are extremely comfortable. All the coffee I want and berries and Greek yogurt every morning. But no matter how luxurious your circumstances, from time to time we can all profit from the happily disorienting effects of a change of scene to blow wide open again the creaky doors of perception and get them banging on their hinges. And that’s the one thing that lots of us have been unable to do these past months. And if all we’re pining for is a vacation, we’re the lucky ones.
Like most of our experiences of late, I can only offer a virtual change of scene, vicarious participation in Mitch’s recent vacation to Glacier National Park and a side trip to Yellowstone, both illustrious destinations in the Vacationland roster. His day job brings him in constant (masked) contact with the public, so he’s been self-testing weekly at a site set up at Dodger Stadium here in Los Angeles. He and a friend flew to Bozeman, Montana, then rented a car to reach their glamping digs in Glacier National Park and eventually a brief sojourn in Yellowstone. Mitch has already tested negative on his return. So weird to include all these details, but unfortunately that’s where we are.
Vacationland. One couple kicking the tires of an old concept in these very new times. And just to ease the pangs of envy somewhat, let it be known that like all forays into Vacationland there were drawbacks to report: slightly too cold in the tent at night unless you woke up at 3 a.m. to tend the fire, temporary closure of road travel deeper into GNP due to an early snowstorm, a very odd and uneasy visit to a private hot spring, and the access to the wonders of Yellowstone felt to be too programmatic and Disneyfied. But it wouldn’t be a trip to Vacationland without a few grumbles, would it? That’s just how the mythology works.
On with the slideshow…
Mitch writes: “The herd had been edging toward the road over the last few minutes, but now one of the bulls straddled the double-yellow with purpose and indicated exactly what was going to happen. The level of clear communication was breathtaking. ‘Get all these pickup trucks out of here, I’m bringing the family across the highway.’
“And the bison got in single-file formation to bring everyone across the highway. Which I’d read about but never seen — somewhere in the 8th grade curriculum the teacher would conjure an image of bison walking through a storm in single-file with the lead animal bearing the brunt of winds and frost and the rest of the herd shielded one behind the other until the lead bison dies of exposure, falls out of the way, and the number two bison takes his place in front. No other animals are known to do this, the teacher explained, further burnishing the myth of the plains buffalo. And here they were, really doing it.”
“The real magic was watching them march straight to the river — a strategic mistake! I thought as I assumed the river would be an issue for them, and that they would end up with their backs to the water and a phalanx of humans pinning them against the riverbanks. No hesitation, no slowing down. They kept up speed into the water and forded the river as a team. Never seen anything like it.”
“On the opposite side, the biggest bull shook the water off his coat like a dog after a bath and then stood and regarded me in a challenge and a guarantee that I would stay on my side.”
It helps to remember that Vacationland is out there, waiting for us when we’re ready!
I grabbed some stuff to read from the piles stacked on the “sunroom” floor, a small, heavily windowed room with a western exposure just off the kitchen that we use as a reading room. Heading back outside in 100 degree heat, everything got tossed up into the garden lookout over the laundry shed, where I spent a good portion of the Labor Day weekend heatwave. I clambered up the ladder and opened The Rock Garden Quarterly from Fall 2019 to the first article “Sand Plunges at RHS Wisley” by Chloe Wells. Hmmm, something very familiar here…so I climbed back down and ran into the “computer shed” to check the blog, search string “Wisley.”
Thanks to that article, I now fully understand what I was looking at on a trip to England and the RHS Wisley in 2017…sand plunges! Not being familiar with the concept, I thought it was all about display techniques when I visited the Alpine Display House. Not so!
“In winter or dormant periods, we keep our plunges dry. Containers have a perched water table, the volume of soil which will always be moist in the bottom of any pot. The plunge mitigates this effect, acting as a kind of sponge, aiding drainage by providing a continuous movement of water down through the pot so the roots don’t sit wet. The sand also buffers extreme temperatures and keeps roots from freezing.”
“In hot weather, the sand around the pots is kept moist, providing a cool root environment. At times when many alpines are in a slower growth rate (between the natural spring and autumn rains, for exampe), this means we don’t need to water heavily directly into the pot and risk over watering. However, the terracotta’s porosity allows some water movement back into the pots, helping to prevent complete dessication. Roots can use the water in the sand below as an extension of their compost. In a busy department with unpredictabe weather, this type of buffer is essential!“
The “heat dome” over the weekend brought us up to 100 degrees by our home temperature gauges here in Long Beach a mile from the ocean. At 8 p.m. Saturday night the temp was 90, which is incredibly unusual for it to remain that hot near the coast, but by Sunday morning it had dropped to low 70s. Sunday’s temp didn’t seem to fully hit 100 for us and then cooled quickly by nightfall. Much higher temps were of course recorded elsewhere throughout Los Angeles County and varied considerably. Labor Day itself on Monday barely broke into the 80s here. No light penetrates through today’s grey sky, and ash covers the cars from the fires north and south of us. A Pompeiian-like feeling of gloom and doom is unshakeably pervasive today.
On building a sand plunge bench: “Sufficient depth is important, as the deeper the sand, the further away the water table will be from your pot. Line the bottom with polythene or horticultural permeable liner (usually sold as landscape fabric in the U.S.) and drill drainage holes through the wood and liner. Untreated wood will rot fairly quickly, and be sure it is strong enough to hold the weight of wet sand.” Cinder block is also used for building the benches, as photos in the article depict.
I joined the North American Rock Garden Society after the garden bloggers trip to Denver in 2019, where the rock gardens dazzled, and have since found the journal a very good read, highly recommended. (Some rock garden photos from that trip here.)
I seem to have reached that point in the life of a garden and plant obsessive where what I read often touches on something I’ve seen or read in the past, like the sand plunges at Wisley. Or today, reading the blog Prairiebreak by Panayoti Kelaidis, Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at the DBG (who I met and whose garden I visited in 2019), I find he’s explored Greece with a gentleman I’ve just placed a seed order with, Lefteri Dariotis “(better known on social media as ‘Liberto Dario’).” Liberto’s seed list offers an incredible range of sideritis and a silene that coincidentally just germinated in one of my seed trays, Silene fabaria ssp. domokina, “A fantastic Greek native biennial or short-lived perennial with exquisite green and gray leaves with marble like markings during the first year before the upright stems of dropping green flowers form.” I’ve also seen this silene described as a “poor man’s Bukiniczia cabulica.” My seed came from Derry Watkin’s Special Plants. I find that sowing seeds helps get one out of the sticky tar pit of the present and into a lighter, future-leaning frame of mind.
More recent reading of note: In The New Yorker, Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Disturbances of the Garden,” in which she delineates an interesting distinction between the Trees of Life and Knowledge: “I have since come to see that in the garden itself, throughout human association with it, the Edenic plan works in the same way: the Tree of Life is agriculture and the Tree of Knowledge is horticulture. We cultivate food, and when there is a surplus of it, producing wealth, we cultivate the spaces of contemplation, a garden of plants not necessary for physical survival. The awareness of that fact is what gives the garden its special, powerful place in our lives and our imaginations.”
And a documentary very much worth your while, no matter where you garden or what style you subscribe to, is The Gardener, an exquisitely beautiful film of Frank Cabot’s garden Les Quatre Vents in Quebec, which just opened to the public in 2009. Mr. Cabot may be familiar to you for his founding of the Garden Conservancy after visiting the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California, and wondering how such gardens can be saved. But you really need to see what he was up to with his own garden, drawing on his travels including wartime experience in Japan and the gardens of Kyoto and plant expeditions in the Himalayas, all filtered through an inquisitive, restless intellect matched by an unerring, gentle taste. There was lots of money in the family for anything he imagined, and thank goodness his imaginings were sublime. The fact that he knew precisely what he was doing in the garden (“I am just a plagiarist”) and what influences he was drawing upon made the interviews with him utterly absorbing for me, even though we are zones, pocketbooks, and worlds apart. Obsessions I totally get in whatever form they arrive.
After they no longer had any use for it, my parakeets’ bird cage was moved into the driveway, staged near the trash bins for removal. A neighbor sorta admired it there and mused about taking it home then lost interest. I’ve always loved its shape, how it flares at the top — indeed, I brought it home before I had any parakeets, who basically strayed into our lives and, voila, I happened to have a bird cage for them. (Semper paratus!) It was really just a token birdcage, because in the bath house they flew freely in and out of its bars.
On one of these recent restless, housebound mornings, in a fit of sentiment I reclaimed it from the trash area and hung it under the pergola. At least it’s see-through, I reasoned, and won’t block the view of the garden…(as if reason had anything to do with it). A couple days later I decided that this clutch of agave pups that are often neglected on the potting bench would have a better chance of survival if placed more prominently. But to be honest, that’s giving a veneer of practicality to this little tableaux that it doesn’t deserve. It’s just a case of the lockdown fidgets. I carefully slipped the agaves inside the cage like ships in a bottle, and I think Marty added the eggs made of stone. I’d rather fill the cage with tillandsias but don’t have a shady spot to hang it at the moment.
And the tillandsias have lots of other options now. Last year a rusty mattress found curbside was cut up and a few panels of six springs slid under the pergola beams so I could admire the spirals. One recent aimless day it struck me as an ideal tillandsia perch, so I collected some tillys from around the garden and inserted them into the spirals.
Some days the effect strikes me as sublime, other days a little on the junky side. It’s a constant push/pull, this hating the clutter but loving to play with it. Last year quite a few of the individual rusty spirals were stripped and painted black, possibly to fabricate individual lights, but electrical work is beyond my bandwidth at the moment. I’ll see if I can rope Marty into that project 😉
I’ve been congregating tillandsias in vessels under the pergola for some time. It’s ideally suited for their lightweight requirements — bright light, good air circulation, easy access for frequent misting.
A few do blush deep pink when they bloom. Curtains of rhipsalis, epiphytic cactus, just seem to make natural accompaniments for tillandsias.
And it’s not like I haven’t mixed up rusted metal with tillandsias before. This one has cactus on top, tillandsias underneath.
As a practical note, I do have to say that keeping the tillandsias grouped together makes caring for them that much easier, and looking up into their silvery scrolls and arabesques is a delight. I’m much more inclined to mist them every morning now. A little practicality, a little madness…