White Point Nature Preserve; landscape interrupted

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White Point Nature Preserve in San Pedro, CA is a remarkable gift of public open space nestled into 100 acres of bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s a landscape that visibly bears the marks of tumultuous human endeavors spanning at least the last two centuries, including the concrete and *rusting defenses built to prevent military invasion. Walking its paths, the landscape provokes insistent questions impossible to ignore like: How in heck did all this prime coastal Southern Californian real estate with a front-seat view of Catalina Island escape developers’ interest to become set aside for hiking trails and rebuilding native plant and wildlife communities?

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Not a few miles up the coast there are swanky resorts and a famously branded golf course, but here at WPNP it’s been granted permission to slowly find its way back to coastal bluff scrub. How did this happen? I’ll tell you what I know. My credentials? I’m an old Pedro girl myself (btw “Pedro” is pronounced by the locals with a long “e”), and my brothers and cousins regularly surfed Royal Palms just across the road from WPNP. And when Marty told me the story of the wreck of the Dominator off nearby Rocky Point, sailing us in as close as safety and the tides allowed to inspect its *rusting hulk, is probably when I knew I’d marry him. And I have a thing for disturbed places whose very existence poses thought-provoking questions about land use. (*And apparently I’m also drawn to stories with lots of rust.)

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The 102-acre White Point property was transferred to the City of Los Angeles in
1978, by means of a quit claim deed from the Secretary of the Interior for ‘perpetual
use as and for public park and recreation purposes
Master Plan for the White Point Nature Preserve

The White Point site holds significant cultural resources mirroring California’s rich history. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first encountered the indigenous inhabitants, the
Gabrielinos, in 1542. Spanish colonization of the area began in 1769, and in 1827, the Sepulveda family was given White Point as part of the vast Rancho de Los Palos Verdes land grant. The Sepulvedas used the land for grazing cattle. In 1899, Japanese immigrants leased the land and established an abalone fishery, a beachfront resort and later, farmed the area. During WWII, White Point was taken by the Federal government and incorporated into the Coastal Defense system of Fort MacArthur
.” — Master Plan for the White Point Nature Preserve, Pages 63-64

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WPNP was included in the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour in 2018, a very exciting piece of news that I frustratingly couldn’t act on at the time since an AGO pop-up event was planned for the same day. But it seemed so fitting and gratifying to me that the site of this former military installation overlooking the Pacific Ocean was still furthering worthwhile, non-military, post-Cold War era pursuits, and I couldn’t wait to visit this latest worthy iteration involving native plants. Our young family had benefited immeasurably from this site when one of the former barracks was transformed into a Montessori preschool with a sleepy rural ambience that Mitch attended half days from 1986-88 when I worked from home.

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Mitch still takes his friends to visit White Point– photo by MB Maher

San Pedro has its own rough, land’s end feel to it, and White Point pushes that to a Bronte-esque apotheosis. That it appeared to be semi-forgotten only added to its allure. Artists’ studios and a hostel also found a home here, but at the time it felt like we had the mostly deserted fort to ourselves — just us, some chickens and rabbits, about a dozen free-range preschoolers, and row after row of empty barracks. In my burnished memory, the rickety playground fence draped in passionflower vines seemed to be continually enveloped in clouds of butterflies.

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White Point is a highly disturbed parcel of land comprised of large open field areas with limited road access to several buildings, foundations and underground structures. All vegetation habitats have been exposed to varying degrees of anthropogenic disturbances. Prior to these man-made alterations to the area, the land was most likely composed of coastal sage scrub (CSS), coastal bluff scrub and native grassland plant communities. At present, the native habitat has been replaced almost completely by annual non-native grassland and disturbed ruderal vegetation with planted ornamental trees scattered throughout the site. Remnants of coastal sage scrub vegetation can be found on the site in the form of small patches of sage scrub shrubs and individual CSS plants. ” Master Plan for the White Point Nature Preserve

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Even though we left San Pedro in 1989 (buying a house here was out of our price range), this particular area had been such a beloved feature of our daily lives that I didn’t even check for an address when I raced up to visit the nature preserve the first chance I got — and then couldn’t find it. After that mortifying experience of driving around and around a very familiar area and not being able to locate a large green building with red trim and clear signage, I didn’t try again for a year.

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Last week I resolved to give it another go and, humbled, this time checked for an address: 1600 W Paseo Del Mar, San Pedro, CA 90731. In 2018 I had entered the “upper reservation” from Gaffey Street, just as I always did five days a week so many years ago. I later learned that recent landslides in 2011 stemming from an unknown source of groundwater cut off WPNP from that access. (Groundwater issues aside, this is a notorious geologically active area due to the Palos Verdes Fault. The road along the coast seems to have new hollows and twists every time we go, turning into an especially rollicking rollercoaster near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wayfarers Chapel, and that newish golf course had some trouble with its greens falling down the cliffs into the ocean too.)

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The Master Plan for the White Point Nature Preserve, published in August 2001, which I’m freely quoting from for this post, answered a lot of my questions. Because I know this area a bit, I had some theories as to its current status, but after we left San Pedro in 1989 I lost track of the chain of custody of the land. Roughly, it goes like this: Home to the Gabrielino Indians, grabbed by the Spanish who leased it to Japanese fisherman, who lost the lease when they were sent to WWII internment camps and the military took over the land, later deeded by the Secretary of the Interior to the City of Los Angeles in 1978, which stipulated the area “be used for coastal open space retention, habitat restoration, passive recreation and historical preservation” in 2000. Managed in partnership with the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, landscape restoration plantings commenced around 2001.

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The proposed project is also consistent with the Natural Community Conservation Program (NCCP). The NCCP was initiated by the California Department of Fish and Game in order to streamline and coordinate development and preservation of habitat, especially coastal sage scrub and related plant communities. The program is established by the Natural Conservation Planning Act of 1991 (Fish and Game Code Section 2800.) The intent of this program is to encourage cooperation among landowners and developers, conservationists and regulatory agencies to protect long-term viable populations of California’s native plants and animals in their natural habitats and in landscape units which are large enough to ensure their continued existence. The NCCP Planning Agreement identifies six target species for the Rancho Palos Verdes planning area: California gnatcatcher, cactus wren, San Diego horned lizard, Palos Verdes blue butterfly, El Segundo blue butterfly and a plant, the bright-green dudleya or live forever.”

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exotic plants mingle with natives like Salvia leucophylla and dudleya
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rusted hatch to underground military infrastructure overgrown with mustard, Brassica nigra

Further out from the education center the remnants of former military operations become more prominent, and aging hardscape covers some of the ground.

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non-native garland daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium)
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“Among the most invasive non-native herbs of White Point are fennel, garland
daisy, mustards, giant reed and ice plant.”
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Catalina Island in the distance
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photo by MB Maher of nearby military fortifications

If you like roaming through “anthropogenically disturbed” landscapes that visibly spill their layers of historical secrets, a landscape interrupted but not beaten, White Point has your number too. Dogs on leash are welcome. A native vervain I discovered in bloom on my hike, Verbena lasiostachys, was available at their plant sale I happened to luck into, which is held the second Saturday of every month.

Posted in garden visit, journal, plant sales | 4 Comments

bloom day May 2019

Correcting the record: In early May I wrote “Reseeding nicotianas are a fixture of spring now and come to the fore after the poppies are almost over. I sowed some ‘Tinkerbell’ nicotianas, which are so similar to this reseeding flowering tobacco that originated from ‘Nan Ondra’s Brown Mix’ that I really didn’t need to bother.”

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Thumb’s up for Nicotiana ‘Tinkerbell.’ Self-sown Verbena bonariensis started blooming this month too

A premature rush to judgment. ‘Tinkerbell’ is a wonderful variety that in just a few weeks since I wrote that dismissal has grown taller than my reseeders, which gives more opportunities for the flowers to twist and dangle and flaunt those chili-colored trumpets with the pale reverse. I hope that fixes any misunderstanding. I love the variety of nicotiana reseeders I’m seeing in the garden, all manner and combination of langsdorfii and alata influences, but it doesn’t mean new strains like ‘Tinkerbell’ don’t have something to offer as well.

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Self-sown lime green nicotianas with Miscanthus ‘Silver Sceptre’
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Kangaroo paws, white nicotiana, Salvia ‘Limelight’

The first and tallest kangaroo paw is always this unknown pale yellow with genes from Anigozanthos flavidus. Contrary to paws’ reputation in general as short-lived, this clump increases every year. The darker colors get most of the attention, but this one gets my allegiance for continuing to thrive in a very crowded garden. It’s increasingly hemmed in by Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ and the bocconia yet still throwing 6-foot blooms. Not to mention the Melianthus ‘Purple Haze’ that was moved behind the paws to get it out of afternoon sun.

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fire and ice, kangaroo paws and kalanchoe silver spoons

This relatively small-sized ‘Red Velvet’ kangaroo paw came home from the nursery already in bloom in late winter, a dangerous period for plant shopping. I don’t think I would purchase it today. There’s already a tall ‘Big Red’ in the garden, possibly too young for blooming this year.

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Salvias with Anigozanthos ‘Tequila Sunrise’ pushing through Orlaya grandiflora
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I’ve been deadheading Orlaya grandiflora to prolong the very good spring they’re having
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Salvia ‘Purple Majesty’
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Grevillea ‘King’s Fire’ is a robust grower planted a little too close to the walkway against the house. Everyone’s been pretty good-natured about this sprawler so far, even though the walkway is in frequent use because it leads to the main refrigerator in the garage, with only a small bar fridge kept in the circa 1919 kitchen. I feel that the opportunities for viewing close-up hummingbird and bee action are so worth a little less walkway — but then I’m notorious for siding in favor of plants on encroachment issues.

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Aristida purpurea and Verbena bonariensis reseeding near the skirts
of Grevillea ‘King’s Fire’

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Aloe arborescens ‘Variegata’ throwing its first bloom. Centranthus lecoqui reseeding is kept to a minimum so as not to crowd the succulents. Phormium-like Cordyline ‘Red Planet’ is vigorous and holds its color well — though I’ve yet to see it for sale again. Named varieties of cordyline do seem to come and go.
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Echium wildpretii
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Alstroemeria ‘The Third Harmonic’
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Aloe camperi
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Tecoma ‘Bells of Fire’
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Aloe ‘Rooikappie’ with succulent-leaved Pelargonium acetosum in background
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All four fall-planted Kniphofia thomsonii are throwing blooms
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Glaucium flavum
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ledebouria works well in pots of succulents, here with Aeonium balsamiferum
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spring-planted Malacothamnus jonesii
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Erodium ‘Whitwell Superb’
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Erodium pelargoniflorum reseeds as a spring annual
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The last of the honeywort — pulled when it gets overgrown and bedraggled

My browser is still playing tricks on me, so I’ve been unable to comment on some of my favorite garden blogs. Snafus aside with such tedious things as cookies and caches, I love checking out what gardens are up to around the country at May Dreams Gardens, which hosts Bloom Day reports on the 15th of every month.

Posted in Bloom Day | 10 Comments

resort style

The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days for Los Angeles was held last Sunday, and its five gardens fairly well covered the breadth of idiosyncratic ambitions people have for the land immediately surrounding their homes — from verdant gardens supporting lush plant life to urban havens allowing their owners to comfortably exist outdoors. The most fully realized vision of resort style belonged to the Davis garden. Swimming, cooking, sunning, watching movies or a dancing fire — most of these activities are either impossible to do in my garden or difficult to arrange, and I wouldn’t un-plant it or change that for anything. But…I wouldn’t mind being invited over to this one for repeat visits during the hot and sultry months of July, August, September…

From the GC’s website:

The Davis family bought this 1918 Italian Renaissance home in 2005. In 2017, we began an extensive renovation of the back yard to better fit our grown-up family! With the help of architect J. Thomas Kaiser, designer Donna Berg, and landscaper Isidore Orozco, we came up with an innovative plan. The original garage was removed and replaced. A trellis was built alongside both entrances to this room and ‘Eden’ climbing roses are making their way up and over. A dramatic pergola was built with an outdoor kitchen, table for twelve, living room, fireplace, and outdoor entertainment system. In the garden you will find citrus trees, azaleas, white star jasmine, Schefflera arboricola, Chinese elm, dwarf mondo grass, boxwoods, hydrangeas, Hawaiian ginger, camellias, and Pittosporum mock orange.

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bamboo as privacy screen
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the pink periscope appearing oddly out of place is actually a flamingo pool float
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Posted in garden travel, garden visit | 10 Comments

more talk about plants

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I’m blaming it on spring. A beautifully soft, mild spring. And that rainy winter certainly didn’t hurt in rebuilding confidence. New acquisitions are now unloaded from the back of the Mini at near weekly intervals. Amazingly, this little garden swallows it all up, but certain accommodations do have to be made. I won’t be tempted by behemoths like Agave franzosinii again. There’s very little room left for big, beamy, full-sun planting, but when someone thins out a cactus and leaves some branches in their parkway, the tallest the Mini can handle gets a ride home to be rooted (which is precisely why I should never drive a car bigger than the Mini.) Slim and vertical are welcome. And containers give so many options, like with Cotula ‘Big Yellow Moon’ which was planted up a couple months ago, the pot plunged into the gravel at the sunny, western end of the pergola. You know how plants are sometimes described as cheerful? Well, cotula is goofily cheerful, with those bobbing satellites straight out of a fifth-grade science project. There’s not enough sunny ground for the cotula to sprawl as it would prefer, so the container makes a small patch possible. (The anarchist in me hopes it spills over and roots into the gravel of this rapidly shrinking sitting area.) Containers do proliferate around the pergola. Potted Crassula ‘Jitters’ is just behind the cotula, a specimen a few years old, next to a newish butterfly agave bought to replace the Agave potatorum that bloomed. Agave weberi ‘Arizona Star’ is the variegate in the foreground, its ultimate size deliberately restrained by a container.

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Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’ getting shaded by the lemon cypresses was dug up and potted and moved into more sun. Slim and vertical get the thumb’s up and containers help control ultimate size.
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The chocolate cosmos on the shop stool is a holdover from last August. (And, yes, I am a bit obsessed with how it has exceeded all expectations — previous attempts always produced dismal results.) Its scale is perfect for a container, and the depth and richness of color together with that scent tick off all the boxes. A great cut flower too. It bloomed most of the fall/winter, was cut back around January, and has started flowering again. Having had zero success with this Mexican cosmos in the ground, I can only conclude that it’s all about growing them in a quick-to-warm container and not an overcrowded garden, plus getting lucky with a vigorous strain. The shop stool was deployed because a brownish-red thunbergia was also planted in the pot and needed room to trail. That the succulents continue to thrive underneath and pool around the stool’s legs, I confess, makes me feel just a little bit smug about successfully exploiting the full-sun air space hovering a few feet over the garden. Making it all fit like a puzzle is the game.

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more puzzle planting around the tetrapanax

The eastern end of the pergola is for the half-day-sun lovers. (Some of the succulents here would prefer full sun but they do okay.) So many bromeliads including the big silvery Alcantarea odorata thrive at the eastern end of the garden in bright light but shaded from strong afternoon sun by the tetrapanax.

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Ursulaea tuitensis

Earlier in the week I tucked in another spring plant sale purchase, Ursulaea tuitensis, a full-sun bromeliad from Mexico found last weekend at the Huntington’s sale. I have a hard time wrapping my head around a full-sun brom, but for the reddest leaves the risk must be taken. Just to be safe, I’ll watch it in half-day sun for a few weeks.

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That same full-sun risk was taken with Aechmea recurvata var. ‘Benrathii,’ which took on these stressed-out inky tints — fun but probably not sustainable, so it’s been moved back under the tetrapanax too.

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The tetrapanax is critical in diffusing strong sunlight and sometimes offering actual physical support too — tillandsias love life tied to its branches, and a leggy Aeonium ‘Zwartkopf’ is using it like a crutch. But its main talent is in keeping bromeliads happy under its canopy.

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Aechmea recurvata ‘Aztec Gold’ happily pups away in a funnel swaying in dappled sun
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Bilbergia ‘Violetta’ pup. Mother plant brought home in 2013 bloomed this winter

Bromeliads are such lookers and so easy to keep happy, that I can’t stop bringing more home. They don’t require much soil, so are equally good in the ground or containers.

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Some of the broms are tucked into pots with summer tropicals like alocasia.
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Sustaining the collecting habit requires zoning in on where the range of plants I love to grow — from bromeliads to agaves — grow best. The eaves under the pergola are the perfect environment for tillandsias and rhipsalis.

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It’s so hard to predict which acquisitions are in it for the long haul, and it’s the surprises that keep things interesting. Aristolochia fimbriata is more a small-scale scrambler than a climber, yet it has a steady vigor I appreciate, hoisting itself up among salvias this spring to show off those gorgeous leaves. The bizarro flowers are a kick but just a little creepy, so I don’t mind that they’re often buried under the leaves. I’ve had this diminutive White-Veined Dutchman’s Pipe reseeding in the garden since at least 2014.

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‘Single Black’ carnations thrive in full sun with the succulents, scenting the air intensely of cloves — something succulents just can’t do

I think this is the second year in the garden for the tall ‘Single Black’ carnations, and I’ve already started to move offsets around whenever a rare patch of full sun opens up. Plants with scent and absorbing details that require close-up inspection were made for small gardens.

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Which I suppose is why I’ve been gravitating to the scented pelargoniums that cover themselves in nebulas of bloom and prefer the same conditions as my potted agaves. The tall “pelly” in the back is ‘Pomona,’ a hybrid bred by Jay Kapac that I brought home from Robin Parer’s booth at the recent South Coast plant fair.

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Pelargonium ‘Simple Sister’ from Robin Parer’s nursery Geraniaceae
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Pelargonium ‘Queen of Hearts’ from the Huntington’s spring plant sale, another Jay Kapac hybrid
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I haven’t grown herbaceous geraniums in years, and I’m not really a fan of the masses of bloom that ‘Rozanne’ provides, but I’ve always been a sucker for the meandering psilostemon hybrids with intense, black-eyed magenta flowers. ‘Ann Folkard’ turned up at a local nursery, and ‘Dragon Heart‘ was on Robin Parer’s table at South Coast. (‘Dragon Heart’ didn’t like full sun the last time I grew it so will be trialed in part sun.)

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Reseeding nicotianas are a fixture of spring now and come to the fore after the poppies are almost over. I sowed some ‘Tinkerbell’ nicotianas, which are so similar to this reseeding flowering tobacco that originated from ‘Nan Ondra’s Brown Mix’ that I really didn’t need to bother.

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With reseeding comes unexpected variations in color, from white to pale chartreuse through lime green to darkest red-brown — so far I haven’t met one I didn’t like.

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Pots of lily bulbs are waiting to bloom near the legs of Salvia ‘Limelight’

Bulbs of Lily ‘Night Flyer’ and ‘African Queen’ were brought home from the South Coast show, Penstemon ‘Midnight’ was grabbed from a local nursery, a great penstemon I grew years ago, etc., etc…

Have a great weekend! And just a reminder that the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day for Los Angeles gardens is tomorrow, Sunday, May 5.

Posted in journal | 5 Comments

tuesday clippings 4/23/19

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The pitcher plant Sarracenia ‘Scarlet Belle’ is sending out more flowers than leaves this spring. I have no idea if this is usual, unusual, a sign of imminent demise, or what exactly.

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But at least the pitcher plants made it to another spring. I’d find the slow-draining funnel glistening like a pond after some of the heavy rain this winter, so when the soil became thoroughly saturated the funnel occasionally waited out rainstorms tipped on its side under the pergola.

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New growth on Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’
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Echium wildpretii elongating into bloom
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Fresh growth on Melianthus ‘Purple Haze’
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Salvia purpurea ‘Lavender Lace’

Last fall I planted lots of salvias in containers. Salvia purpurea struck me as the most promising for the garden, so it has been planted in the ground at the edge of the Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ canopy. My salvia experiment involved a hunch that the so-called late-blooming salvias would probably bloom in the somewhat similar conditions of our zone 10 spring as well, and so it has been borne out for some. ‘Limelight,’ ‘Purple Majesty,’ and ‘Raspberry Truffle’ are all in bloom.

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Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’

Of course, for a nearly year-round purple salvia we now have ‘Amistad,’ and ‘Love and Wishes’ is a ringer for ‘Raspberry Truffle’ but much more floriferous. So other than ‘Limelight,’ there are arguably newer salvias in similar colors for multiple seasons of bloom. But I love a good horticultural experiment over winter.

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Last week I saw the Rice Flower in bloom in a display bed at Roger’s Gardens and was thunderstruck at its bobbly textured splendor. Ozothamnus diosmifolius used to be known as a helichrysum and is grown mainly for the cut flower trade. I gather the pink strains are most desirable (but not to me). All the references say it needs replacing after three years or so due to incorrigible lankiness. Being shortlived is not a disqualifier for me. None of the nurseries were carrying it, but surprisingly I bumped into this 3-gallon at a big box store. A potted watsonia sunk in the garden was finishing bloom and the rice flower was swapped in its place.

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I had planned to keep the newcomer Berzelia lanuginosa in a pot but ultimately decided it would be safer in the ground for summer, when missing one day of water could be fatal. Shrubby plants with bobbly flowers seem to be a recurring theme lately. I’ve planted a couple dwarf santolina to replace the whale’s tongue agave, and the bobble-headed Cotula ‘Big Yellow Moon’ spills from a pot. I’ve yet to get a decent photo of its charms, but soon.

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Graptoveria opalina doing its opalescent thing
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pots of scented geraniums and agaves thrive in the same conditions
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April’s bright light and coolish temps have been very kind to the poppies.

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Lemon Cypresses at east fence, Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ on the right
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This stock tank’s main function was to cover the legs of the lemon cypresses against the east fence. At some point, all the odds and ends thrown into the tank have become distilled and clarified through attrition. Now it’s filled to bursting with a single flourishing astelia and bromeliads. The bromeliads are thickly multiplying and doing so well here that I’ve added some more reddish-leaved pups. (The plants to the left, pseudopanax, ponytail palm, Mexican pepper leaf Piper auritum, are in separate pots.)

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In the interests of record-keeping continuity, I didn’t sow any purple orach this year and miss its bass notes. A notorious reseeder but not in this garden, it seems, unlike the castor bean. I’m missing lavenders too. ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ was good but too big. If I trial another it will be an intermedia hybrid called ‘Phenomenal.’ The hoped-for tight cushions from my three plants of Euphorbia mauritanica have yet to materialize. How is it done? More sun and leaner soil, I’d wager, and possibly a windier site. Mine are not cushions at all but lanky and still not up to blooming much. Plants in the garden April 2018 that didn’t make it through last summer include Phlomis ‘Sunningdale Gold,’ lovely and sorely missed but not a strong grower here and simply faded away. Salvia fruticosa mildewed and was pulled but I’d love to try it again with better air circulation. Fremontodendron ‘Ken Taylor’ had too much competition from the cypresses, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to give the flannel bush everything it needs to thrive. Senecio palmeri merits another chance too. And in the fun but scary department, the nightshade Solanum valerianum is no longer allowed to romp through the lemon cypresses. Turn and face the strange, spring 2019!

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, clippings, journal, pots and containers, succulents | Tagged | 6 Comments

spring surge

In what’s become a spring ritual, I thinned out a whole bunch of poppies today (my go-to poppy, Papaver setigerum, which has been reseeding for years). And yanked handfuls of branches from the bulging honeywort, Cerinthe major purpurascens, too. When what is after all a low-key succulent garden most of the year becomes inundated by the spring tidal surge of self-sowers, I’m simultaneously thrilled and alarmed. Alarmed because you can’t crowd agaves and aloes like this for long before they begin to complain. And they’ve already had their hands full coping with that wet winter after years of drought, the agaves in particular.

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Unlike a lot of gardens in cooler zones just now fattening up for spring and summer, this one will necessarily begin to slim down for the upcoming dry season. This photo was taken yesterday, before the poppies and cerinthe were thinned. (I was thrilled to find a young Beschorneria ‘Flamingo Glow’ still alive under all this growth.) Yes, it’s a crazy tightrope but so enthralling…

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The Minoan lace, Orlaya grandiflora, coming into bloom now, is a few weeks later than the poppies but does overlap with their bloom time.

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Agave pygmaea ‘Dragon Toes,’ who lost just a few leaves to winter wet, is much more prominent now that towering (mite-infested) branches of Aloe elgonica have been pruned out, and the Yucca ‘Blue Boy’ are subsequently also showing a higher profile. (Losses, gains, gardens have more ups and downs than the stock market.) Anigozanthos ‘Yellow Gem’ is pushing out blooms just behind the yucca. I’ve seen kangaroo paws in bloom around town, but my three clumps are just getting going.

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poppies sprinkled throughout the back garden are a nice sight to wake up to on an April morning

Roughly, the rectangular back garden consists of an evergreen band of succulents planted close to the house and pergola, intermittently backed by small(ish) shrubs that in winter conceal dormant summer growers like Verbena bonariensis, big grasses, kangaroo paws, eryngiums, salvias, hopefully some verbascums and giant fennel this year — scaling up to a final band of big stuff planted nearly up against the back wall (grevillea, bocconia, adenanthos, and an enormous clump of Eryngium pandanifolium).

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Aloe ‘Moonglow’ and Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ in January

As usual, for winter what’s desired is the solidity and textural interest of evergreen shrubs, (and of course winter-blooming aloes) but come spring it’s all I can do to keep from ripping out all the leucadendrons, eremophila, and coprosma to load up on spring and summer ephemerals. After seesawing for years over seasonal emphasis, a sober compromise has evolved, with the shrubby stuff like leucadendrons getting cut back fairly hard in spring so surrounding summer growers are more prominent. Small incidents light up every season, which is an acceptable compromise for a small, zone 10 garden that has to support a restless, plant-collecting habit.

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So instead of ripping up the garden every few years, I play around with containers. Much less upheaval.

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Albuca spiralis, all coiled, kinetic energy topped with chartreuse, fritillary-esque flowers, is incredibly easy in a pot. The giant Albuca maxima is thriving in the front garden which goes very dry in summer.

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With the poppies thinned, light and air circulation are gradually being restored to the succulents. Poppies engulfed the Agave gypsophila ssp. pablocarrilloi ‘Ivory Curls’ for most of March/April, and nearly concealed that first bloom on the variegated Aloe arborescens. A few clumps of Glaucium flavum will give me a needed poppy fix during summer, after the spring ephemeral poppies are gone.

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The mangaves seemed to have survived the winter wet. Almost dead center is ‘Catch a Wave.’ Carex testacea reseeds here, and I’m trying out Lychnis coronaria ‘Gardener’s World’ in this area too.

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Checking the vegetable section of Lincoln Avenue Nursery in Pasadena, I was thrilled to find Mertensia maritima — it is after all a sought-after edible known as the oyster plant, even though I wouldn’t dream of treating such a beauty as a salad crop. It seems there’s just no end of beautiful plants to bring home for a spin in the garden. And sometimes I actually deceive myself into thinking I can devise a plan to fit them all!

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, shop talk, succulents | 10 Comments

recycling; it takes more than a bottle village

After a hard-scrabble life of over 60 years, and after the roughshod course of a couple marriages and the tragic loss of most of her children, Tressa Prisbrey decided when she settled in Simi Valley with her third husband, Mr. Prisbrey, that it was time to properly display her lifelong pencil collection numbering over 17,000. (I know this sounds like an entry in a Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ segment, Bluff the Listener, but trust me, I’m not making this up.) Concrete block for the walls was beyond her budget, so she headed to the local dump, where the building materials were the right price.

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Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village

I suppose outsider art by definition must have a quirky origin story, but it seems whatever the impetus, the function of the bottle houses evolved to protect mementos of her children and all the detritus she clung to during her peripatetic life, sheltered by the walls she made with the bottles she retrieved from the local dump.

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photos by MB Maher

To ruthlessly condense a remarkable story even further, this homespun shrine is now known as Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village and has been deemed California Historical Landmark No. 939 as well as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A friend of Mitch asked him to photodocument the site, which has been crumbling since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, in need of funding for repairs.

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Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village

There’s so many bizarre facets to this story, among them the rare instance of a woman (who had her first of seven children at the age of 15 by a husband 37 years her senior) being a practitioner of this kind of folk art/assemblage, especially in the mid 1950s. In these photos I see a busy innocence at play that miraculously was still intact and unscathed after a calamitous life of near constant sorrow. And on a technical level, I’m also struck by the realization that, in contrast to the 21st century, there must have been a relative purity to the public dumps she rummaged through in the 1950s, which lacked the complex plastic waste overflowing ours.

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You’ve probably heard that all that paper, plastic, and glass we’ve been helpfully segregating into our designated bins every week, which prior to 2018 discreetly sailed away from our shores filling otherwise empty, offloaded ships back to China as “reverse haulage” for processing,  is now, for many communities, garbage without a country.  Ever since China said no to importing our waste in January 2018, we’ve been scrambling to keep it out of landfills, the ocean — and even when China was handling the stuff, the percentage getting recycled wasn’t that great anyway.   I don’t know — maybe we should figure out how to handle our own garbage? There’s a moonshot moment for you right there. (See: “Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling.”)

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Who knew that our recycling infrastructure in 2019  would be about as effective in reducing waste as one woman’s bottle village? 

When curbside recycling…is often viewed in terms of profit rather than public utility, who sets the conditions and who reaps the benefits? When policy authority is largely deferred to state and local governments — which have a wide range of capabilities and authority themselves — where does the EPA fit in? When programs or products fall through the cracks, who is the last line of defense to catch them in an open market system?” — Waste Dive 11/29/18 “EPA Recycling Summit highlights lack of national responsibility”

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“’We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,’ said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.” (The New York Times)

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Waste Dive has helpfully compiled information on “How recycling is changing in all 50 states,” where you can look up your state to check on the current status of recycling your trash. For the moment, unlike the bottle village, it isn’t a pretty picture.

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Posted in artists, MB Maher | Tagged , | 6 Comments

garden tour season 2019

  • Upcoming garden tour:
  • APLD S.E.E. garden tour Saturday, April 13, 2019, 9-4 p.m.
  • tickets @ https://tinyurl.com/y5tzaeky

One’s own garden is never enough. One’s friends’ gardens are never enough. Seeing lots of other gardens is essential sustenance for this peculiar obsession, and the opportunities don’t arise often enough. The spatial possibilities we’ve overlooked, the exposure to previously unknown plants and practices (and plant people!) — to confront lurking design prejudices and blindnesses that have stealthily accumulated, to shake off the sloth of winter, to renew vows to do better, dig deeper, for all these reasons and more, take a garden tour.

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Wisteria-outlined front porch of Duvivier/Tipton house in Venice. The small front garden of edibles in raised beds is hidden by a privacy fence

These are scenes from last weekend’s 16th Annual Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour. Saturday the tour visited gardens in foothill communities like Pasadena, Altadena, and Sunday the gardens were located on the Westside.

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Back garden of Duvivier/Tipton — “water is made visible with rain chains, a steel cistern, and a bespoke water wheel that feeds a creek. A dry hill is planted with giant coreopsis. Native trees include western sycamore, Fremont’s cottonwood, and Santa Cruz Island Ironwood.”
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And while on the subject of prejudices, perhaps you’ve assumed a garden tour built around the use of California native plants and water-wise practices might be on the quiet, homespun side. Perhaps you would be surprised to find that these are rambunctious, contemporary, stylish urban gardens overflowing with cutting edge ideas and experimentation.

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Fence behind the water wheel is espaliered with ceanothus.
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On the tour you’ll find gardens large and small that encompass a myriad of activities, including beekeeping on the roof.

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the dry hill planted with giant coreopsis
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on Saturday’s itinerary, the Bonfigli/Hessing garden in Altadena, which i also visited in 2010

The winter rains have unleashed an amazingly fecund spring show. The intoxicating scent of our native sages, Los Angeles’ heady spring perfume, clings to the warming air.

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I’m thrilled that garden tour season is upon us once again. For those with crowded windowsills, starved for their own gardens, these tours are an absolute feast of ideas to file away for the future. Kudos to all the owners and volunteers who make these garden tours possible. Check Dates to Remember under the masthead for more upcoming tours.

Posted in garden travel, garden visit | 3 Comments

the giant fennel

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Agia Sophia, Monemvasia, Greece (13th century Byzantine church)

Mitch has been sending photos from his wanderings in Greece this week while I watch his cat.

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Monemvasia, “Gibraltar of the East,” island connected to mainland Greece by causeway
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I don’t mean to always be a supergeek botanical nuisance, but there’s been a tall umbellifer cropping up in the background in those haunting scenes of Peloponnesian ruins, in stupendous bloom — I wonder, could it be the Mediterranean’s own giant fennel? Ferula communis ‘Gigantea’ is not the edible fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), but a spectacular monocarpic showboat grown for its ferny leaves and luminous, statuesque presence in bloom.

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The timing of his photos is positively freakish because, coincidentally, before seeing these photos, I had planted two in my garden earlier in the week, grown by Annie’s Annuals but picked up at a local nursery, my second attempt with this fennel. This time I gave them all the sun I could find in my very crowded garden.

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So having giant fennel on the brain, I asked for more photos, please, perhaps a closeup to help with ID, and he cheerfully complied. I don’t know what else it could be but giant fennel. It’s that same commanding, aureate vision I had in mind when settling in my two 4-inch plants this week.

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Of course my little urban garden can’t compete with a setting of Mycenaean stonework . (Don’t quote me on the age of the stonework, but it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?)

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There definitely seems to be some synergy going on with the fennel and the stones — drainage, alkalinity maybe.

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Mitch was very excited about this superbloom of Grecian poppies, and normally I’d be all over the poppies…

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But it’s Greece’s giant fennel that has stolen my heart this spring.

all photos by MB Maher

Posted in garden travel, MB Maher, Plant Portraits | 8 Comments

Nigel Dunnett’s Low-Input, High-Impact Landscapes

A few days before he was scheduled to speak at the Huntington on March 19, Nigel Dunnett took a short side trip to experience Southern California’s superbloom.

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photos by MB Maher

The APLD Greater Los Angeles and Pacific Horticulture Society had invited the Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture at the Department of Landscape Architecture of the University of Sheffield to talk about his ecological planting approach, which is gaining widespread recognition through some of his high-profile work in the UK at Olympic Park, the Barbican Centre, and Buckingham Palace.

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figures in a landscape
photos by MB Maher

But the very first thing he mentioned in his talk “Low-Input, High-Impact Landscapes” was our superbloom, which he had just seen earlier in the week, witnessing its compellingly immersive effects first hand. (AGO contributor MB Maher had taken a day as well the week before to find the superbloom, covering about 500 miles, and these are his photos.)

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photos by MB Maher

This past winter’s rains delivered a stunningly lavish spring wildflower show in Southern California that whipped up an epic case of #fomo frenzy in a drought-fatigued, wildfire-harassed public. Because of the overenthusiastic response, some fields had to be temporarily closed. It seemed everyone wanted to become part of the landscape, to channel the life force that super-animated our hillsides and meadows.

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photos by MB Maher

The superbloom effectively affirmed Prof. Dunnett’s belief that the general public craves an active, dynamic experience as opposed to being passive observers, that they gravitate to large-scale, dramatic gestures from the natural world. And this is the kind of experience he hopes to duplicate in designed settings, which he talked about that day at the Huntington and explores in his book Naturalistic Planting Design; The Essential Guide, to be released in the U.S. this summer.

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photos by MB Maher

This sense of being immersed in a landscape is a sought-after effect in his work. He feels that because people do make an emotional connection with landscapes, that effective planting design is like any art form that induces an emotional response. His ecologically based designs aim to “enhance nature” in an effort to stimulate a response similar to the superbloom’s effect on the public, but on an interactional, daily basis.

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Phacelia campanularia
photos by MB Maher

But as we all know, such effects as hillsides blanketed in wildflowers are fleeting. How to push those emotional buttons year-round is the challenge inherent in each of his designs, informed by decades of observation and trial and error. And though he avoids using the word “sustainable,” fearing it signals a deadly earnest and dull approach to planting, such practices are the backbone of his work. He relies on strongly successional, dynamic plantings, as opposed to the static “municipal” kind that he inherited with the Barbican Centre.

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Barbican Centre
photos by MB Maher

The complex known as the Barbican includes 4,000 units of residential housing (Barbican Estates) and an enormous performing arts center, the largest in Europe, all of it spreading over 40 acres. It was built on a site heavily bombed in WWII in the concrete-heavy brutalist style, opening to the public in 1982. All of the plantings at the Barbican are essentially roof gardens, “with car parks, the arts complex, and recreational facilities beneath.”

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photos by MB Maher

The well-traveled MB Maher happened to be in London this week, so off he trotted to show me what the Barbican looks like mid-March.

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Euphorbia wulfenii prominent in March
photos by MB Maher

About a half a dozen years ago a leak occurred at the Barbican, and Dunnett’s technical reputation with green roofs led to a consultation. As his website puts it, “[T]he opportunity arose for completely new plantings to be installed.” This opportunity was not without friction — a year of meetings with tenants and residents was necessary to gain planning approval for this new, naturalistic style.

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Soil depths range from just 3 inches at the periphery to 3 feet near building support columns, and for such extreme conditions the model of a steppe ecosystem was the driving inspiration. (From the website: “In nature, steppes or steppe grasslands occur in dry regions with continental climates (hot dry summers, cold winters).  Plants are adapted to these harsh conditions.  The plantings at The Barbican are not attempting to copy any naturally-occurring steppe grasslands, but are a designed version, using perennials and grasses from steppe regions or dry grasslands and meadows.”)

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Tulipa praestans; spring bulb display is monochromatic, naturalistic,
not riotous “municipal” color displays but “color eruptions”
photos by MB Maher

In keeping with steppe plantings, fertility is kept low, always starting with weed-free soil. Planting is dense to suppress weeds — nine to twelve plants per square meter. Only clump formers are selected; no rhizomatous or stoloniferous plants allowed. Some moderate self-sowing is allowed, e.g. Euphorbia wulfenii. The matrix grass is Sesleria nitida. Wave after wave of complex plantings rise up among the matrix plants throughout the year in a never-ending symphonic display: “I plant in layers so that one set of plants grows up and through the preceding set of plants, leading to that continuous succession.”

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Prof. Dunnett’s plantings at the Barbican have achieved a 70% reduction in water use, with a 40% reduction in maintenance. He has carefully tracked the public’s reaction to the radically new plantings, visiting the centre incognito throughout the year to observe impressions. The residents are almost completely enthusiastic and have developed solid volunteer support crews, but there is an old gentleman who lambasts Prof. Dunnett at every opportunity for changing out the old plantings. Change is hard.

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Of course during the talk many of us wondered how these principles would apply to large-scale plantings in Los Angeles, and after a break that was the first question asked. Prof. Dunnett feels the basic principles of dynamic landscapes can be universally applied, with the dense planting of meadows opening up to accommodate “desert” spacing, that the method of naturalistic drifts and clumps with repeated “outliers” could be adapted for native sages, encelia, succulents. Perhaps piercing a matrix of sesleria, lomandra and/or muhly grasses we could have plant communities consisting of Aloe striata for winter/spring with Euphorbia rigida or mauritanica, hesperaloe for summer with Phlomis lanata, calamints, eriogonum, smallish cistus, kangaroo paws, agapanthus, tulbaghia — it is a fascinating puzzle with lots of possibilities. Tom Stuart-Smith is working on developing similar mediterranean-adapted plant communities in Spain. The idea of mixed plantings is fundamental to Prof. Dunnett’s vision, since monocultures are prone to gaps and disease. Experience has shown naturalistic plantings generally have a 10-year life cycle, with refreshing and simple edits needed after five years or so.

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To learn about his P3 rule and the complex horticultural methods underpinning his designs, go to his excellent website, where you’ll also find seasonal photos illustrating the achievement of “continuous and successive waves of colour over long periods of time, through orchestrating a series of dramatic colour washes over the entire site, from spring through to late autumn, and then to finish off the year with a textural array of seeds heads, plant structures and foliage.” 

When his book arrives this summer, Naturalistic Planting Design; The Essential Guide, it will be required reading on how to build dynamism into designed landscapes, so we can all feel that superbloom rush — without the long drive.

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Posted in climate, design, MB Maher, science | 10 Comments