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!

Have a great week.

Posted in MB Maher, photography | 2 Comments

Labor Day weekend heat wave reading

the covered garden lookout over the laundry shed against the house’s south wall. If there’s a breeze, the lookout is the best place to catch it.

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.)

during the heat wave, some of the agaves felt almost too hot to touch. amazing what conditions plants (and people!) can tolerate

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.” 

My treasure, my beloved, Agave mitis var. abidior, seems to have sailed through the heat wave unscathed

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.

Lastly, some very sad news: over a million Joshua trees were destroyed in the Dome Fire this August (“Mojave Desert fire in August destroyed the heart of a beloved Joshua tree forest.”) I didn’t think it was possible for my heart to break into even smaller pieces this year until I read “What The Fire Took.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

more rusty stuff

Some recent distractions in the garden.


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.

feeling a little caged maybe?

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.

there were a surprising number of tillys around the garden to recruit for the spiral project

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 just added three more tillandsias after a recent visit to Rain Forest Flora. The spirals might look less junkyard if they were stripped and painted black, and I happen to have a few of those around too…

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…

Posted in journal, pots and containers | 4 Comments

new to my garden; Justicia brandegeana ‘Red’


What is that?


I was stretching my legs at a local nursery last week, not looking for anything in particular, just keeping track of what plants are up for sale in late August. Cosmos, zinnias, and dahlias have all showed up this week. Are they always this late? Attempting to grow some cosmos and zinnias myself this year has got me heavily invested in issues of timing for sowing and growing these summer annuals in zone 10. Among the salvias for sale there were a couple plants covered in incredibly fat brushes of dusky red bracts. These were no salvias!


Even before checking the tag, I knew it was a so-called shrimp plant, but I’d never seen one in these colors before. The tag simply noted Justicia brandegeana ‘Red.’ A tropical from Mexico and Guatemala, I’ve never really wanted to grow the more familiar species with rust-colored bracts. But seeing it obviously enjoying a very hot August, with sensational bracts surpassing those of Salvia involucrata, which is always miserable in my garden, a three-gallon needed to come home with me for closer study. Those tough, corrugated leaves and prolific show of flowers had “easy” written all over them. We’ll see. I tipped it out of the pot that was only half filled with soil and added about a third more soil, then slipped it back into its nursery pot.


Justicias are apparently hugely popular in Florida where they’ve naturalized. I see them very occasionally locally here in Southern California. To avoid the blare of mid-day sun, I placed mine at the west end under the pergola, but I can move it again if it sulks. The colors seem to have intensified since I brought it home.


This might be just a summer fling with the red justicia. I can’t think of a place in the garden for it, not just for lack of space (to 6′) but because it strikes me as slightly out of character with the rest of my garden. It seems designed as a pick-me-up for late summer. It reminds me slightly of another Acanthaceae family member, Brillantaisia, the Giant Sage from Africa. Hummingbirds and butterflies adore it, and I’ve always been a sucker for anything with showy bracts. It’s reputed to have a very long season of bloom. I wonder how I’ll feel about it in December! Stems can be brittle and benefit from pinching and constant trimming. For now, injecting something happy and flourishing into the garden is the perfect antidote to a very hot, steamy August.

Posted in Plant Portraits, pots and containers | 5 Comments

friday clippings 8/21/20

When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility,” Sue Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and psychotherapist and wife of garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, writes in her new book, “The Well-Gardened Mind.” (The New Yorker 8/24/20 “The Therapeutic Power of Gardening“).

I’ve been studying the muddled and furled, tightly congested blooms every morning for a week; this morning slits of gold gleamed through the silver and the blooms came into sharper focus

Taking that quote probably further than necessary, I’ve got so many narratives going in multiple seed trays, that I wasn’t sure I could keep their stories straight and feared the high temps would close the book on some of them. Some are more precious to me than others, e.g. I’d be a wreck if I lost all the tiny seedlings of Verbascum epixanthinum, which might be the chartreuse-leaved verbascum I grew many years ago. So far, with strict labeling and moving the trays into the shade in the hottest part of the day, we’re doing OK. It’s all very exciting, but I much prefer it when the plants handle this on their own, this question of when and where to set down roots. Writing their own stories, so to speak, without my ghostwriting help, like this glaucium that seeded into the bricks this spring. I really should have edited it out because the pathway has shrunk by a foot, but look at it this morning. What a storytelller!

from the ‘Fountain’ series of Amaranthus caudatus, bought in a six pack that included crimson colors. I kept three plants of this biscuity pink color and gave the crimson away.

It’s nice to have around some plants that really seem to enjoy this hot, muggy, steamy August, like amaranthus and a celosia I ordered from Annie’s Annuals a couple weeks ago.

Celosia argentea cristata ‘Cramer’s Amazon’ has doubled in size since this photo. Might be worth it for the leaves alone. This epic blog entry from The Belmont Rooster convinced me to give this celosia a try.
Variegated cassava is a big fan of the heat (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’)

Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ blooms are fabulously presentable for a long period of time, even into the dog days of August. They remind me slightly of eremurus, the foxtail lilies, though of course short and squat versions. From the New Yorker article quoted above, I can sympathize with writer Rebecca Mead’s dazzled reaction on seeing eremurus for the first time in Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden: “In the dense bed of plants before us, thin stems topped with clinging bursts of delicate pastel flowers—orange, pink, yellow—had grown to twice the height of their neighbors, looking like slender sticks of licorice dipped in sherbet. “They are foxtail lilies,” Tom explained. “They are from Kazakhstan. Aren’t they great?” Yes, they are! But not suitable for zone 10, unfortunately, whereas eucomis seem fairly happy here. I need to decide whether to keep them in containers or try again planting in the ground. I think it will be containers because past experiments in the ground produced flabby, miserable specimens.

A garden can be “a meeting place for our innermost, dream-infused selves and the real physical world.” “The Well-Gardened Mind.” (The New Yorker 8/24/20 “The Therapeutic Power of Gardening“).

With the cosmos, gomphrena, and now Autumn sage hybrids in bloom, I’ve got a garden fantasy going this August that I’m calling Wildflowers in the Desert. I had a couple rooted branches of Peruvian Apple Cactus, Cereus repandus, one in a pipe, and slipped them into the garden to expand on the theme. I love the heft and thick line that they add to the sesleria grass and rosette-shaped succulents. This cactus grows much too large to plant in the ground but it’s fun to play around with, and I notice flower buds are forming on the branches.

the tallest branch of the Peruvian Apple Cactus was planted in a tall cylinder by Dustin Gimbel. Acacia craspedocarpa in bloom on the left — another heat lover
variegated plectranthus loving the heat in half-day sun
Senecio tropaeolifolius, the False Nasturtium, gets better as the days get hotter

Have a great weekend and stay safe out there, especially friends near the wildfires in Northern California.

Posted in clippings, journal | 6 Comments

making the most of it

Cat gets me up every morning between 5-5:30 a.m. The five pale lime trumpets flaring from their dusky bracts on Puya mirabilis were my reward this morning while the coffee was still dripping. Amazingly, somehow there’s a reward in the garden every morning.

Emotionally, this summer feels like summers when I was 12 or 13 — when I stuck close to home because I wasn’t allowed yet to get in trouble with friends with cars. I’m regressing to the point that I’ve even started wearing cutoff jeans again. And for the first time in many many years, I’m spending lazy afternoons again at the beach. (I actually like social distancing at the beach. Unlike in my teens, nobody can suddenly loom over you while sunbathing and ask, So what’s your name?) While my pysche is living through Proustian flashbacks of housebound summers past, my beachside reading material is very much an outgrowth of recent events, personally and globally, a book on chance called The Biggest Bluff: “That’s the thing about life: You can do what you do but in the end, some things remain stubbornly outside your control. You can’t calculate for dumb bad luck. As they say, man plans, God laughs. I could definitely detect a slight cackle.”

Puya mirabilis’ thin grassy leaves just visible lower left
Another noteworthy event in August is the fresh sight of the smooth, naked stems of the Slipper Plant simultaneously leafing out and flowering (Pedilanthus macrocarpus). That anything can be fresh in August is a miracle. The hummingbirds are big fans too. This view of the Slipper Plant is a new one — the enormous, two-trunked Cordyline ‘Red Planet’ was sacrificed to restore some breathing room here. The glare and shimmer in the garden means the August heat is on.
I love how the V-shaped Slipper Plant tapers down to a very small footprint. I’ve added another clump toward the eastern end.
Second clump of Slipper plant on the right. A Yucca ‘Bright Star’ I had set aside for the front garden seemed a good replacement for Stipa ichu, Peruvian Feather Grass. Note for future garden plans: Any feathery, swaying grasses, including Stipa barbata, should never be planted where they will get snagged on spines and thorns. They need open sites for full expression.
With Cordyline ‘Red Planet’ gone, Phormium ‘Black Rage’ is the last remaining wedge of deep burgundy, and I’m thinking it’s more than enough. Rudbeckia triloba just coming into bloom behind the phormium
What’s also freshened up a bit are the pitcher plants now that they’re out of full sun. Most of the crispy pitchers have been removed and flower buds are forming.
A variegated sedum found its way into the funnel. Low-growing pitcher plant in foreground is Sarracenia ‘Scarlet Belle,’ the taller in the background are ‘Tarnok’

The Cosmos sulphureus I grew from seed has been so good that I decided to bring in Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ again to see how these deep saturated colors play with the grasses and succulents for August and beyond. The ‘Fireworks’ gomphrena, as opposed to the familiar annual varieties, is a tender perennial species that comes from the grasslands/pampas of Argentina and was a sensation when it was introduced several years ago. It’s like having alliums for months that tolerate very dry, full sun conditions. Perennial here in zone 10, I removed my old ‘Fireworks’ to make way for a clump of Lindheimeri muhly grass. I assumed the nurseries this August would be inundated with it, as they were last year — except inexplicably my local nursery had not a one on their plant tables. On the way out I noted one 3-gallon container against the fence with the familiar shocking pink bobbles. The tag read ‘Truffala Pink.’ Already there’s spinoffs of ‘Fireworks’? Checking my phone at the nursery, the scuttlebutt is ‘Truffula’ is a more compact form. Fine, I’ll give it a go, even in a huge size I can’t use. I took it home and cut the 3-gallon into three clumps.

I do like the jolt of these hot colors together
Gomphrena ‘Truffula’ — tiny pink flowers to the left are Cuphea ramosissima
Gomphrena ‘Truffula’ might be a better fit than the taller ‘Fireworks’ with the agaves and sesleria

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Landcraft Enviroments in Long Island, New York, pictured above, which I visited with a bunch of garden friends in June 2013, has even come up with a chartreuse-leaved gomphrena called ‘Cosmic Flare.‘ This just might be the Next Big Thing in Plants for 2021 if production is ramped up and it makes its way to the West Coast.

Gomphrena ‘Cosmic Flare,’ image from Select Seeds (available as plants)
You know how plants people get asked what plants they would bring to a desert island? Kinda feels like we’re all living on desert islands now. And just to stretch the analogy further, I actually brought home a real desert island plant, Robinson Crusoe’s Cabbage, Dendroseris littoralis, nearly eaten to extinction by European-introduced goats.
The clump of Miscanthus nepalensis has really thickened up this summer, the green arching leaves on the right. It flowered well the past couple years but leaf growth was slow and thin. Agastache ‘Blue Boa’ in its first summer is every bit as good as the catalogues say. Salvia ‘Mystic Spires’ is lower right.

The other Cosmos bipinnatus plants won’t be in flower for a couple more weeks at least, if they make it through the ongoing heat wave. Sowing seeds and nurturing them through summer is not for the fainthearted! But it is a huge amount of fun nonetheless. Just keep a spray bottle handy at all times. For cosmos, you have to figure three months to bloom from seed, and I started most of mine in late June. I’ve been checking Jimi Blake’s Instagram feed religiously now, because he often posts videos almost an hour long, touring the amazing planting he’s playing with at his garden in County Wicklow, Ireland. Despite the difference in climate, there’s a lot to learn from his enthusiasm, fearlessness, and his emphasis on succession planting, not to mention his mean propagation skills. This summer he’s taken to propagating cuttings in pure sand, without stripping the cutting of its upper leaves, multiples in a pot, and having good success rates. I’m very tempted to start his online courses too. It’s especially fun to watch his excitement as he experiments with mixing in cacti and other succulents now. And I’ve since found out that Cosmos sulphureus is a favorite of Jimi too and was a big part of his garden in 2019. Jimi first saw this cosmos at the RHS Wisley cosmos trials in 2016, when more than 80 varieties of Cosmos bipinnatus and sulphureus were planted to compare newer varieties to the old stalwarts like the ‘Sonata’ series. Newer varieties are indeed beating out the older strains, including a new series called ‘Apollo.’ The ‘Cupcake’ strain, developed by Thompson & Morgan from plants found by a Santa Rosa, CA woman several years ago, was the public’s favorite. The petals are uniquely fused to form a chalice. I finally got around to buying Jimi’s book this week, A Beautiful Obsession…highly recommended, full of inspo as well as practical information on planting and zone pushing. And for cosmos seed, check out Floret Flowers’ incredible selection.

And this is precisely why I don’t blog more frequently, because when I start I can’t shut up. Hope you’re well and having more good days than bad days…

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, clippings, cut flowers, design, journal, plant crushes, plant nurseries, pots and containers, succulents | 5 Comments

garden notes late July 2020

The bathhouse/birdhouse, screens removed. The last of the rescued parakeets lived almost 15 years here and has been laid to rest in the front garden with his little friend, who died a few months earlier. Bird cages have been removed, and the bathhouse is getting its woodwork brightened. The parakeets had free rein and chewed up quite a bit of the woodwork, as the chewing marks on the post in the foreground shows. Chinese Fringe Tree is to the right.
slow-growing potted trees are a rewarding investment in time. Pseudobombax ellipticum with blooming echeveria, Cussonia natalensis, right. Medusa Tree Aloe far left.
The cussonia is absolutely clean at the moment — it’s a favorite for ants and their scale farms

More garden chit-chat. Let’s see, where to begin? I never know what bits of info will be useful so I’ll just meander. Working from most recent, last night I moved the potted Cussonia natalensis into this corner made by the bathhouse and laundry shed that gets morning sun. The cussonia was flourishing in the dappled light under the Chinese Fringe tree, so this move might be regretted, but the corner shows off the lush growth it’s put on this year after I tip-pruned the branches. Other pots were shifted out of the corner, including an Agave ‘Northern Lights,’ a San Diego, backyard-bred, mystery designer agave whose heritage still remains unclear to me. I’ll get a better photo, but for now it’s been moved just around the corner beyond that stressed Medusa Aloe in the black pot, Aloe tongaensis. The Medusa Aloe had to be dug up and repotted because of new fence construction and also because it was miserable in a very dry narrow strip against the east fence. I was waffling over planting it in the back garden, but even though its future size will be less than the huge Aloe bainseii, I opted to plant the smaller French Aloe instead, Aloe pluridens, another tree aloe that will allegedly mature to no more than 8ish feet. I’ll get a better photo at some point, but this one below shows where the French aloe has been planted, to the left of the wire cage:

foreground aloe is A. elgonica, which has been thinned a bit this week. Aloe pluridens can barely be seen in the background surrounded by Savannah Blue African Sage. A glaucium and clump of Pennisetum maissicum were removed for the salvias and French Aloe

Behind the tiny Aloe pluridens is a new-to-me salvia that appeared in local nurseries last week, and I was so excited by its theoretical potential that I bought and planted four one-gallons. As usual, excitement overcame reason in deciding to plant mid-summer, albeit a very mild summer so far, but better than holding them in gallons until fall, months away. ‘Savannah Blue‘ is a hybrid of two South African sages, Salvia namaensis and Salvia repens, that has a calamint-like effect in bloom. The leaves are extraordinary for a salvia, branching from low basal growth — small, leathery leaves dissected like a scented geranium. It has the sturdy look of a plant that will laugh at heat while flowering for months — I’ve been wrong before, but it’s just the kind of plant I want to grow with big succulents for summer. The sterile Calamintha ‘Montrose White’ is of course just such a plant too, and if I had more room I’d have drifts of it within hand’s reach to release its pungent scent.

Salvia x ‘Savannah Blue’
Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud,’ Cosmos sulphureus ‘Bright Lights,’ Tulbaghia ‘Cosmic’ lower right

I can’t find the post, but I’m fairly sure I blogged about the transformation the letter “A” was having on the garden: agapanthus, aloes, anigozanthos as flowering mainstays throughout the year, working well in a semi-dry garden with agaves and other succulents.

Cosmos sulphureus — tall, see-through, dynamically bobs and sways in the breeze

To that group I’d add another “A” for annuals like this Cosmos sulphureus. I don’t need wall-to-wall flowers, but summer means procreation, right? Floral sex in the garden is a hallmark of summer, along with the color, scent, and wildlife flowers bring. Finding stuff to bloom in July and August has been a challenge. Dahlias need a rich soil and lots of water, which would devastate the succulents, and it can’t be anything too beamy with a large footprint. Annuals in zone 10 generally flower longer and tolerate heat much better than perennials I’ve tried, and space doesn’t need to be permanently allocated for them as for perennials. I like how it keeps the garden light on its feet, changing year to year.

Agave mitis var. albidior on the right, caged Aloe tomentosa, Aloe ‘Moonglow’ distant right
A Yucca pallida is buried under oregano and euphorbia. Agave salmiana var. ferox on the left.
Berkheya purpurea fronting the miscanthus to the left of the agapanthus
Agapanthus ‘Indigo Frost’ with Sesleria ‘Campo Azul’ — the bright green ferny leaves to the left are an intriguing artemisia I found local called ‘Leprechaun.’ This agapanthus is finished blooming.
Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Tiger Stripes’ now cut back to the left of Sideritis oroteneriffae

The Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Tiger Stripes’ was cut back a couple weeks ago and is growing new leaves and already new flower buds. I put in another (!) order to Annie’s Annuals and may pull the coreopsis to give Echium ‘Tajinaste’ a home here. This corner gets full sun all day and is the spot that ‘Tajinaste’ was most happy when previously grown.

potted Cosmos ‘Xanthos’ and a recent find, Agave ‘Leapin’ Lizards,’ a variegated geminiflora

I also ordered more Ursinia anthemoides and Alonsoa meridonalis ‘Apricot,’ two annuals that could almost be considered signature plants of Annie’s that I have yet to grow. The ursinia has wonderful ferny leaves and floating flowers on gooseneck stems, a total charmer.


Ursinia’s ring of fire is revealed when the flowers open in the morning.

Tiny flowers of Alonsoa ‘Apricot’ at the base of Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ — three more alonsoa are on order. I like that it’s taller and more open branched than diascias.

So I’m all about the annuals now, and have loads of named Cosmos bipinnatus seedlings to nurse through warmer days, but there are good “tender perennials” that flower as hard as annuals to continually consider for summer. This Phygelius ‘Colorburst Orange’ I bought back in March has cycled around into bloom again, and it’s the same stature and habit of growth as when bought. Often growth hormones and growing techniques play tricks and present a vision of perfection that isn’t sustained for long in the garden. This Colorburst series does seem to have a compact habit of growth and uniform bloom built into it. I’m inclined to leave it in to see what it does next year too.


Another big project was thinning the enormous, congested clump of Eryngium pandanifolium. I irrigated the clump deeply after removing several rosettes. Looking at Internet photos, I don’t think this eryngo throws many blooms even in good times, but I hope to get more than two stalks next year now that it can be given a little more water and compost at its base.


And another big project! This giant rosette of Agave ‘Kara’s Stripes’ represents some crazy tomfoolery even by my standards. It had been encroaching on the front garden path for years, and at some point pivoted like a radar dish and took over the path completely. After cutting it off, Marty indulged me and carried it to the back garden. I dug a not very deep hole and winced as Marty dropped it in, fearing it would fall over and smash everything around it. As I hoped, the weight of the rosette has kept it steady, and for the first time in its life it’s upright. It’s been plopped directly over a struggling patch of Alstroemeria ‘Third Harmonic’ (so long, Peruvian lilies!) and after a few weeks still looks none the worse for wear. And it’s supporting the bronze fennel — a twofer!


Ever since a hose was hooked up to reach back here, this far corner has seen a lot of planting. The unrooted agave rosette is on the left of a Red Lantern Banksia, B. caleyi. The dark-leaved crinum is just behind, with a sphaeralcea to its right.

Heuchera maxima were planted recently under the acacia, so good in this bright shade/half sun and dry soil

With all the shuffling of pots, somehow the mangaves all ended up in the same spot so they get a group portrait. Big one on the right is ‘Mission to Mars,’ foreground is probably ‘Lavender Lady,’ and left rear in the ground is probably ‘Silver Fox.’ (Most of the mangaves anyway, except for ‘Tooth Fairy’ and ‘Kaleidoscope.’) And that leafy sprig with ‘Lavender Lady’ is a bit of Amorphophallus impressus that is showing up in quite a few pots this summer. The tubers are flat, beige, and impossible to tell right side up from upside down. Obviously, I’ve become less and less careful with them!

sneaky silveleaf ponyfoot, Dichondra sericea has sown the seam between bricks and porch
Note for recordkeeping: little agave behind Euphorbia greenwayi is a cross of nizandra with potatorum
Obligatory summer portrait of Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ that I’ve had since forever
Alocasia ‘Regal Shield’ was moved into stronger light
Three potted aloes getting some nice summer color — as am I spending all day in the garden! Clockwise, Aloe conifera, Aloe betsileensis, and a mystery aloe at the bottom. The single carnations that bloomed here in spring were cut back hard, cuttings taken. Top left is a container of Origanum dictamnus slipped in recently .

I’ll finish up with a portrait of Agave pygmaea ‘Dragon Toes’ from the back side, an angle I don’t often get of this agave.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, clippings, journal, succulents | 8 Comments

succulents and ceramics


Following the new social distancing guidelines, by the time I came to the end of the prescribed one-way route through the Sherman Gardens last month, my camera battery was dead just as I reached the last garden before the exit; the succulent garden. What a disappointment.


Fortunately, my poor planning was salvaged when MB Maher paid a visit at magic hour earlier in the week and shared the images I missed — in particular, that cobalt blue agave bloom spike! — which I believe has already been snapped up and sold.


The ceramic sculptures are part of the continuing exhibit Sculptura Botanica, ongoing through September 15, 2020 at the Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona del Mar, California. The botanical studies in ceramic by Dustin Gimbel seemed especially at home amidst the flamboyance of these leafy sculptural beauties, whether bromeliad or succulent.


So glad Mitch grabbed photos of some of my favorite seedpods, the matte, jet black eucalyptus.


And I completely missed these sinuous fern fronds.


Good to know the sculptures double as strategic lookouts for birds as well.


Mitch notes: “As Gimbel traces and also embellishes these natural forms, his work becomes that rarest of things; both a mirror and a window.”

  • what: in-situ installation showcasing botanical-themed ceramic work of Dustin Gimbel
  • where: Sherman Library & Gardens
  • when: May 15 through September 15, 2020
  • 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

photos by MB Maher.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, MB Maher, Occasional Daily Photo, succulents | 4 Comments

garden notes 7/12/20

tiny hot pink flower of Melocactus azureus, one of the many back porch plants
Opening the door and coming down the stairs first thing in the morning, the cool air emanating from the garden envelopes me even before the shapes and colors fill my eyes. The whole house fan sucks in this cool air and brings it into the house after sundown.

Pots line one side of the back porch stairs — the first year I’ve done this. Tripping hazard? Not really, not if you don’t try anything cute like taking a shortcut over the pots. Just follow the stairs straight down. No objections from Marty yet…


Take the ladder up to the lookout and climb over the cushions and cat and magazines to the far eastern end, which has a flat asphalt roof. I’ve discovered this year that this is exactly what I’ve needed for potted rhipsalis.

Slim trunk belongs to a potted Pseudobombax ellipticum, the Shaving Brush Tree, which does provide some mid-day shade for the rhipsalis — poppy seedhead from Sculptura Botanica

I hung the funnel filled with bromeliads and hanging cactus at this end too. There’s a couple full sun moments, so if the angle of the sun doesn’t change soon, there may need to be further adjustments. The terrestrial bromeliad Orthophytum magalhaesii just visible upper left was brieflly subjected to strong sun yesterday. It’s able to tolerate sun, but this much? Uncertain.

Ursulaea tuitensis is another bromeliad sun lover (aka Aechmea tuitensis)
Just opposite the end of the lookout with the hanging rhipsalis, Begonia ‘Red Fred’ is likewise in danger of too much sun — which gives the leaves a luscious ruddiness but occasionally a few singed edges too. Aloe ‘Goliath’ provides some shade but not enough
Tropicals like the vine Solanum wendlandii, the Costa Rican Nightshade, know what to do with July heat
Wish there were yards of flowering oregano like this one ‘Gentle Breeze’
After growing this daisy for many years, this is the best location by far for Anthemis ‘Susannah Mitchell’ — spilling on the bricks and in easy reach to deadhead and pinch for bushiness because it can get straggly. But it does wilt in afternoon sun so still not the optimal spot…
more potted seedlings accumulate, mostly cosmos, some tithonia, cuphea

The title of this photo could be “plants in bondage.” Euphorbia cooperi is taking its turn in the iron sphere. I moved the iron stand with pitcher plants here out of full sun just before temps hit the 90sF. The tips of the pitchers always crisp, but otherwise the plants appear healthy, increasing in size, with a couple flower buds.

plants in cages theme continues underneath
With the iron stand for the pitcher plants moved, there’s an unobstructed view of Agave ‘Dragon Toes’ from the garden office. All that Carex testacea is self-sown. Orange daisies are gerbera in the foreground and Cosmos sulphureus in background. The slim aloe in the foreground is a yellow A. cameronii — the iron stand used to be directly overhead of the aloe
Orange cosmos and Agapanthus ‘Storm Cloud’
elongating blooms of Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’
Reader Ed Morrow asked if I feed the succulents. I did just buy some fish emulsion for the annuals in pots like cosmos, but with the succulents I basically stay out of their way. A pot of cuttings of the Ghost Plant, Graptopetalum paraguayense, taken from the clump spilling onto the front garden path
Aeoniums are usually their fattest and happiest winter and spring here, but ‘Copper Penny’ aeonium is one of the exceptions. It’s at its best when stressed by summer (imho)
Aeonium ‘Berry Exciting’ is another one that gets good summer color
Aloe ‘Verity Nice’ — wire trellis is one of the prototypes we’ve been experimenting with for the front garden. The mesh gauge is a little too soft so we’ll upgrade to cattle panel
Succulents are easy here, but not foolproof. Here’s an example of what utter neglect can do — a clump of aloes at my mom’s house left unwatered for months. The trough is the pedestal base of the urn that held the Euphorbia canariensis.
The traumatized aloe will be given mostly shade for now while it gets its footing. The tilly in front of the birdbath is what I’m hoping is T. secunda

Final mage from the garden last night, before heading in around 7 p.m to turn on the whole house fan, to draw in the cool evening air and vent out the heat.

Posted in clippings, journal, pots and containers, succulents | 4 Comments

garden mysteries and dilemmas

Some minor drama and quandaries in the garden recently.

The bloom stalk of possibly Tillandsia secunda leaning on Alcantarea odorata

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.

 photo 1-P1010886.jpg
Urn and euphorbia were purchased at a sale and auction of the contents of the old Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles to make way for its next iteration as a boutique hotel — photo from 2016

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….

Agave salmiana var. ferox ‘Medio Picta’

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.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, clippings, journal, pots and containers | Tagged , , | 7 Comments