Mitch has been tagging along with Josh Rosen (the airplantman) to check out some of his custom installation work to get a sense of how Josh’s tillandsia-specific designs work in situ. In this home in the Pacific Palisades, the classic powder-coated Air Plant Frame has been stacked four high in narrow floor-to-ceiling windows — a sleek, “airy,” translucent take on a green wall without the complicated irrigation system. The frames can be removed for once-a-week drenching or are easily handsprayed. And after talking with Josh about tillandsias’ cultural requirements (here), I know these windows either face north or east, their preferred light exposure indoors.
The ongoing renaissance in indoor plants comes with a design savvy that I’m pretty sure wasn’t there in the groovy, heavily macramed ’70s. Figuring out where and how to stage plants has become as much a design imperative as a horticultural one. (And I’m so glad that “black thumb” nonsense is getting less traction as more and more of us just dive in and see what works — see, as in pay attention. That’s really all it takes.)
Other stuff tends to accumulate to support our green habit — tables, hangers, shelves, trays to collect water. A space can easily tip from warm and eclectic into a direction that minimalists just don’t want to go. For those who love plants and sleek interior spaces too, the airplantman has an answer. Actually, lots of answers.
And of course the airplantman’s answer to living with plants indoors involves tillandsias, the epiphytic, tree-hugging bromeliads numbering over 600 species that he fell in love with over a decade ago. For Josh, their rootless, soil-less ways are an inexhaustible source of design inspiration.
As a landscape architect, by necessity Josh works from the ground up. Now, with his design work and fabrications inspired by tillandsias, I’d say he’s pretty happy that’s no longer always the case.
It’s great to see the garden “sweat” again. Whether glistening from morning dew or transpiration, it’s a sight for sore (dry) eyes.
The leaves of the tree aloe ‘Goliath’ were a grimy, sooty mess just a few days ago. Hosespray and rising humidity have restored them to good as new. The smooth-leaved succulents have had the easiest time recovering from the recent bone-dry, dirty air.
NASA is a fan of the marvels and importance of plant transpiration too. The Space Station has a new mission called ECOSTRESS (ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station) which will “study how plants sweat, providing the most detailed measurements of plant temperatures available from space and helping researchers monitor the health of Earth’s vegetation.” The little movie will tell you all about it.
We all seem to be engaged, willingly or not, in a massive, crowd-sourced project to break irony. The length of the state is studded with wildfires exacerbated by climate change, while we are simultaneously involved in a lawsuit with the federal government to settle “whether California has the right to set its own greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards.” It’s surreal enough that I feel like I’m living trapped in one of James’ tar paintings. (Happy Halloween!)
You can catch up with his most recent work at the current exhibit “Terrestrial and Celestial”:
Where: Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building B-3, Santa Monica
And if you haven’t heard James speak about his work, you’re in for a treat on Saturday, November 16, 2019, 11 a.m., at the Craig Krull Gallery. He’s a rare bird indeed, bearing witness to his time with brainy artistry and profound concern over this increasingly imperiled human project and the many species we’re hurrying to extinction — and he’s an absolute hoot to hear speak.
The firecracker plant (fountainbush, coral plant, among a plethora of common names) is an incredibly tough addition to a frost-free dry garden, attributes which also make it an excellent choice for flourishing in containers, which can be a rough life for plants. Russelia makes container life look easy. I’ve seen it planted in the hellstrips of Palm Springs, where summer temperatures routinely surpass 100F.
A native to Mexico and Guatemala, the bright red flowers of the species are what’s commonly available at local nurseries. Hummingbirds are mad for the totally tubular blooms too.
There is also a pale yellow form, but at the Huntington’s fall plant sale I was thrilled to find the much rarer peachy form under the label ‘Flamingo Park,’ Pink Coral Fountain. The next step, obviously, was to find the perfect pot to showcase its cascading, fountain-like qualities.
I didn’t seriously expect to find anything as fabulous as Willy Guhl’s Spindle planter at local nurseries, just something slim and tall. Nothing seemed suitable, so I settled for a 12-inch simple clay pot that is now hanging from the pergola…sigh. Not fabulous at all, just barely serviceable and most likely temporary. (If I could afford an original Guhl creation or a well-made re-creation, the best chance locally of finding one would be Inner Gardens.)
But I really don’t understand why shameless knockoffs of the Spindle planter aren’t routinely available at every corner nursery. That simple sculptural shape is what my plants and I want to live with, not busy neoclassical scrolls or curlicues or garlands. And because I have lots (and lots) of potted plants, I mostly prefer that matte neutral finish over highly glazed primary colors. And apart from accommodating plants that want to fountain and drape, varying heights for potted plants to me is essential to counter the tyranny of the ground plane and add in a little multidimensionality, theatricality, stagecraft, call it what you will. A tabletop or bookshelf size indoors would be amazing too (we could call it the “little willy“!) If you’re an adventurous fabricator in Los Angeles, give me a call…
With a credo of “achieving the most with the minimum of effort,” Guhl is a design hero in his native Switzerland, where for almost 40 years he taught at Zurich Kunstgewerbeschule (School for Arts and Crafts) and was an early proponent of mass-produced, flat-packed furniture.
It was the invitation of the manufacturers of the industrial product Eternit in 1951 that led him in the direction of designing containers and furniture for the outdoors. Intended for use in roofing and pipes, this concrete/asbestos formulation was offered to Guhl and his students for an experimental collaboration in designing new planters. Guhl’s subsequent innovative work with the product lent the industrial material significant credibility; Guhl felt that “no other building substance that is so thin gives so much stability.” (here) Recognition by the New York Museum of Modern Art of Guhl’s Loop chair in 2001 was short-lived; after two weeks, the chair was removed from display due to concern over the asbestos in the Eternit formula. The Loop chair is still made in Switzerland, of course now minus the asbestos.
I’ve done a lot of crazy things over the years in an attempt to bring height and drama to potted plants. Of course, nothing I’ve come up with ever looks as effortlessly cool as Willy Guhl’s Spindle planter.
“The Santa Ana winds were blasting through the streets, bristling and smelling of desert, of white sunlight, of sharp, wiry plants and white rock…A hot madness was enclosing the city.” Kate Braverman, Lithium for Medea (February 5, 1949 – October 12, 2019)
California’s wildfire season is fully upon us this week, both in Northern and Southern California. These seasonal hot, dry winds go by many names. Here in Los Angeles, I’ve always known them as the Santa Anas; in Northern California they go by the Diablos. From my personal, nonscientific vantage point, I’ve always experienced Santa Ana season as one in which our typically gentle maritime climate becomes upended by furiously destructive, dessicating devil winds that blow in hair-dryer hot from the east, carrying unfamiliar scents and often igniting wildfires. Your skin itches, your nerves get jangly, and a general feeling of unease descends on our golden la-la land. But these last three years, the unprecedented range and fury of the fires is unlike anything these winds have wrought in living memory.
(A more technical description would be: “The Santa Anas are katabatic winds—Greek for “flowing downhill,” arising in higher altitudes and blowing down towards sea level. Santa Ana winds originate from high-pressure airmasses over the Great Basin and upper Mojave Desert. Any low-pressure area over the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California, can change the stability of the Great Basin High, causing a pressure gradient that turns the synoptic scale winds southward down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and into the Southern California region. Cool, dry air flows outward in a clockwise spiral from the high pressure center. This cool, dry airmass sweeps across the deserts of eastern California toward the coast, and encounters the towering Transverse Ranges, which separate coastal Southern California from the deserts. The airmass, flowing from high pressure in the Great Basin to a low pressure center off the coast, takes the path of least resistance by channeling through the mountain passes to the lower coastal elevations, as the low pressure area off the coast pulls the airmass offshore. ” — Wikipedia)
Fighting off these wildfires in the wildland-urban interface areas like the Pacific Palisades may involve evacuations, lost pets, and possibly turning your white house pink by the fire retardant Phos-chek. And as the utilities face legal liability for their infrastructure sparking deadly wildfires, preemptive power shutoffs are a recent tactical maneuver that may become the new normal in wildfire season.
It’s quibbling to complain about houses turning pink when the alternative is too awful to contemplate. Still, Mitch’s photos of his friends’ family home recently sprayed with the fire retardant Phos-chek brought a visual specificity to the treatment that I previously hadn’t considered. It covers everything, not just “wildland fuels” but houses and gardens too. And don’t reach for the power washer for cleanup, which might force the residue into crevices that will be forever pink; rather, a gentle spray from the garden hose is advised.
(“Wildland fire retardants are generally quite water-soluble and can be removed from smooth surfaces with little effort prior to drying. Undissolved components may, however, penetrate into porous or rough surfaces and become difficult to remove. When allowed to dry, contained thickeners may form films that tend to hold the dried retardant rather tightly to that on which it lands. This is desirable when it lands on wildland fuels. It is less desirable, however, when trying to remove it from other areas. Retardant residues should be removed as soon as possible. After drying, some scrubbing or power washing of structures and equipment may be required. Care should be taken when using power washing equipment to prevent increased penetration of the dry powder components into porous or on rough surfaces. A mild surfactant, including those that contain enzymes, may assist or improve the ease of removal.” Phos-Chek® Fire Retardants For Use in Preventing & Controlling Fires in Wildland Fuels)
Zika’s deck saw a lot of action over the course of the firewatch. Los Angeles Times film crews shot headline photos from here, firefighters kept watch overnight, sleeping on patio furniture. Not being hesitant to show gratitude, Zika deposited a dead rat she hunted down in the canyon upon being freed from the bedroom closet, right at the feet of the sleeping firemen — which in case they didn’t know, translates into thank-you.
Hoping to hear more happy endings from those currently under firewatch. The winds are predicted to pick up even more fiercely on Saturday. Stay safe.
One of those quirky associations that happens when looking for the perfect autumn light for an increasingly lanky potted euphorbia. Passiflora ‘Flying V’ handles its own light needs by threading itself through a grevillea, and so an improbable relationship is formed. This mix of the potted and planted is a never-ending source of delight.
Another source of delight is fall plant sales, and this Friday, October 25, is the Huntington’s fall plant sale — I think I’m going to be needing some more potting soil. And maybe a few more pots too…
I love the buzz of excitement of trying out new plants. In my garden, a good share of the newcomers always seems to include a few salvias, which isn’t surprising considering these multivarious members of the mint family number almost a thousand species.
If you say, “I love roses,” or “I collect agaves,” most of us generally know what you’re talking about. But to state, “I’m mad for salvias” is being vague to the point of meaninglessness.
Do you mean the Salvia nemerosa and sylvestris meadow sages prominent in Oudolfian prairie sweeps?
Or maybe you’re talking about salvias much more suitable for Southern California’s summer-dry climate, the California native sages, those gorgeously aromatic shrubby kinds that bloom mainly in spring. Oh, wait, I know! You’re talking about those ubiquitous summer annual types that come in fire-engine red (Salvia coccinea) or deep navy blue (Salvia farinacea) — oh, sorry, not your taste? Of course not! No offense intended. How about something wilder, like the Autumn Sage, the southwestern U.S. Salvia greggii? No? Bigger? Shrubbier? More shade tolerant? Possibly the Mountain Sage, Salvia microphylla? No? Hmmm, okay, now I’ve got it — you must be talking about the fall-blooming subtropical salvias from Mexico for frost-free gardens. Are we on the same page now? Not yet? With almost 500 species in the New World and over 300 species from the Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Asia, it’s no wonder we can’t agree on what we mean by garden salvias. And here in Southern California a few subtropical kinds render summer almost irrelevant by blooming in fall and into winter (see list here).
Those lippy flowers may be instantly recognizable, but the diverse habits of growth, cultural requirements, hardiness, and season of bloom are all over the map.
There are even salvias to grow just for the leaves, like the silver, furry, scalloped leaves of Salvia argentea, or the rumpled, corrugated basal leaves of the biennial clary sage, Salvia sclarea, neither of which ever seem ecstatic to be alive in zone 10. Salvia verticillata is good in leaf and flower but not a fan of a mild winter.
I think that’s what piques my interest most about salvias. The genus is bursting with good garden plant potential, and I’m sure there has to be one I’ve yet to discover that is the perfect salvia for my small zone 10 garden and pollinator friends — because they are pollinator plants par excellence. If you want to get up close and friendly with hummingbirds, plant salvias. But so far, if you asked me to recommend salvias for a small zone 10 garden, to be on the safe side, I’d still suggest old standbys like Salvia chiapensis, the bog sage Salvia uliginosa, and the hybrid ‘Waverly.’ And that’s after years of trialing countless kinds. Expansive, floppy growth habits and water needs eliminate a lot of salvias for my small dryish garden, and the perennials are problematic in zone 10 mild winters. Off and on I grow a few subtropicals in containers to manage their water needs, when I feel up to wrangling with their eventual size and cutback requirements. Lately I’ve been trialing more of the greggii and microphylla hybrids, my Goldilocks answer for a small, dryish garden.
A couple new oddities I just picked up recently show some interesting potential. In the case of Salvia microphylla ‘Big Pink,’ from Waterwise Botanicals, the appeal was its graceful habit of growth and the largish leaves.
Waterwise Botanicals is touting this Salvia farinacea ‘Lavender Fields’ as a lavender substitute, an interesting sales tactic. I zeroed in on this salvia in an aisle filled with blooming sages at Village Nursery. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks to have some Salvia reptans involved, especially in those long, thin, very un-farinacea-like leaves. It’s low-key, naturalistic demeanor looks promising for planting among smaller grasses like seslerias.
Salvias are easy to grow in frost-free areas of Southern California — maybe too easy, a case of familiarity breeds neglect. The showiest, most well-grown salvias I’ve ever seen have been grown in colder climates where they are fussed over, grown as annuals, and/or protected over winter — in other words, treated like treasured prima donnas.
A short list of growers with good selections would have to include Dyson’s Nurseries in the UK, Flowers By The Sea in the U.S., and Annie’s Annuals & Perennials as well. It’s always interesting to see how periodically new plants elbow out of the pack of thousands of hybrids to take the salvia world by storm. ‘Amistad,’ discovered in Argentina by Rolando Uria in 2005, has achieved widespread acclaim, and now there’s a new deep pink form called ‘Amante.’ The ‘Wishes’ salvias from Australia have similarly achieved rock-star status, and new color forms have appeared since the original pink ‘Love and Wishes.’ With their alluring gemstone colors and wide-ranging cultural requirements, there’s always something shaking in the world of salvias, and experimenting with new kinds can get addictive (looking at you next ‘Elk Blue Note.’) If you’re seeing salvias in bloom around town in Southern California and feel the lack in your own garden, now is the best time for planting.
(Shirley Watts’ series of symposia entitled Natural Discourse, bringing scientists and artists into botanical gardens to make site-specific work, has taken on an even fiercer urgency seven years after its inception in 2012, as scientists and artists grapple with the real-time manifestations of climate change. MB Maher attended the most recent event and felt compelled to document it in detail, both photographically and in words.)
letter from sagehen creek field station
Mitchell Maher August 9, 2019 Truckee, California
I drove into the forest without stopping at the local grocery and didn’t count on the miles of unpaved road that now separate me from the highway, from the town of Truckee, California, from mobile phone service, from anything but the almonds I have in the car & my stale baguette. The Sagehen Creek Field Station manages 9,000 acres of experimental forest at 7,227 feet in somewhat dusty isolation and I regret immediately how empty my water bottle is.
In the Field Station compound, I meet Shirley Watts coming out of a tool shed without a staple gun. I set it down somewhere around here, she says, and enlists me in the search while giving me a hug. She notices a patch of tomato seeds and juice on my white button-up. That’s funny, she says, I was just eating a tomato sandwich too. I definitely wasn’t eating a tomato sandwich, Shirley — I think this is yours. I point out an identical stain of tomato seeds and juice on her striped button-up shirt which was transferred in our embrace. She laughs and removes some of her stain with her thumbnail. Luckily you won’t be able to see much of this on my devil’s cloth, she says. (Watts wears mostly striped fabrics after reading Michel Pastoureau’s history of stripes, “The Devil’s Cloth.” Patterns where foreground is indistinguishable from background appeal to her, together with the long association of stripes with Satan, jugglers, prisoners, and the criminally insane — Shirley’s people. The bottom inch of her arctic white hair has been dipped in a stripe of black.)
Watts invented and began curating Natural Discourse showings in 2012 — bringing artists together with scientists and architects to shake loose truths of the natural world, the built environment, and the connective tissue, the poetry, of both. At first, these cross-pollinated group shows and symposia were flush with a radical insouciance; spiders were fed LSD and their drunken webs transcribed onto glasshouse panes (Gail Wight, 2012). But over many iterations hosted by California’s Natural History Museums and Universities, all nuance and subject has been taken over by the climate crisis. It was hard to find an artist or scholar who didn’t want to speak or make work about climate, Watts told me. The transition to advocacy was inevitable.
There is no fixed template for a Natural Discourse event, but the inaugural showing held at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley showcased much of what Watts aspired to. Five speakers, eight artists, three architects, two poets. Overall, an insistence that landscape matters. And that these institutions – botanical gardens, natural history museums, parks, field stations – are not only integral to an American experience, but an ideal place to discuss our character and future. In the weeks before and after the show, a rotunda in the Ashby BART subway station took on cathedral dimensions when Natural Discourse artists printed clerestory window panes with transmissive photo imagery from the Botanical Garden. Video artists Nadia Hironaka & Matt Suib swept the 34 acres of the garden with infrared cameras and produced false-color hallucinatory films that screened on site from inside ivy-thick walls near the Palm House. The mood of the installations was celebratory and inclusive — the Larsen-B Ice Shelf had already dissolved, but it was still possible to live a life without the drumbeat of heatwaves, hurricanes, and carbon — an ignorance that isn’t available seven years later while Greta Thunberg sails into New York harbor as I write.
I was in the audience for the opening 2012 symposium, and the crackle of recognition between listener and speaker was — what I can only imagine to be — the branching current of Walter de Maria’s lightening field enduring strike after strike. Academics and designers and nonprofessionals touched off long fuses of concepts that sizzled throughout the day. Speakers who had never met or known of each other kept referencing each other’s material excitedly as the talks went on. Curator Bill Fox name-checked poet Hazel White at the lectern for the reading she had delivered hours before. Artists stood up during scholarly lectures and reminded attendees that their installations were only steps up the footpath & related directly to topics under discussion. Speakers one by one gathered all the threads of why we make and keep personal gardens – why we mix the tight control of our interior spaces with a wild unenforceable outer jungle. How we invent and maintain the porous boundaries of nature. To grid the planet, to make every centimeter knowable, is to take custody of a demanding and contiguous garden.
Mitch was up in the Berkeley Hills over the weekend, which were suitably bathed in the golden light of autumn. Knowing how much I love eavesdropping on gardens, he grabbed some quick, discreet photos of his rambles. (I’m sharing them here, because I know you love eavesdropping on gardens as much as I do.) Intentionally or not, his camera also picked up small, subtle gestures that pay tribute to the seasonal shift, California-style.
Only two more weeks to go until Halloween, and our neighborhood is in a frenzy of decorating — not so much at our house. But now I’m thinking a pumpkin on a pedestal for the front garden might be a nice touch in honor of the season…
On Friday, October 4, 2019, San Marcos Growers opened up its wholesale nursery gates to celebrate 40 years in horticulture. On this Field Day event, the first since 2010, the gardens throughout the nursery were seemingly shouting their own full-throated congratulations, with aloes firing off blooms like roman candles and fall-blooming grasses handling firework display duties for full sun.