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

echiums, blue spikes for dry gardens

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At the Huntington earlier in the week…

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Echiums getting the formal treatment.

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Formal, informal, echiums never hit a false note. They’re some of the wildest, spikiest blues around. Sometimes shading into violet, with other species spiking in white, red. Many are island species that love coastal California.

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These are big plants, bigger than my small garden can handle. A couple Echium wildpretii is all I have room for at the moment. The above photo of E. wildpetii from 2018 shows that even without flowering they’re impressive plants.

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with cistus at the San Francisco Botanical Garden
Echium gentianoides ‘Tajinaste’
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Echium simplex
‘Star of Madeira’

For stunning leaves, flowers, for full hot sun…echium.

Posted in garden travel, garden visit | 4 Comments

garden notes 3/20/19

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Euphorbia rigida in bloom. Tall growth just behind is Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ sown in situ in fall, thinned to two big clumps, just coming into bloom

Yesterday I removed the diseased carcass of Agave ovatifolia ‘Frosty Blue’ which lived its brief but spectacular life – until this rainy winter – under the acacia tree in the far southeast corner. You’d think having to battle for resources with tree roots would provide ample enough drainage — or so I mistakenly thought. But, truthfully, the thick debris littered by the acacia made an agave residing under its canopy an extremely poor choice, and I wasn’t terribly sorry to have to remove it. Miscanthus transmorrisonensis has already settled into the vacancy. Thin grass blades will fare much better under the debris onslaught, and I’m very excited to watch how this grass develops over summer (vacancies don’t last long here). John Greenlee says it’s the best miscanthus for the west, which makes one think miscanthus are somehow problematic here, yet I’ve always had consistent success with them. If anything, it’s their rush to gigantism girth-wise that’s problematic. It is considered evergreen in this zone 10 which may be why it’s considered the best. I’ll just have to grow it to find out. I’ve never amended or mounded the garden soil for the fast drainage that some agaves and other succulents crave, and this winter the heavy clay chickens came home to roost. Agave parrasana ‘Fireball’ has been dug up, diseased leaves sheared off, and is rehabbing in a container. Agave schidigera ‘Shira ito no Ohi’ could not be salvaged and has been sacrificially cored, a method of cleaning out the center like preparing an artichoke that supposedly induces offsetting. Potted agaves fared well, as did many others in the ground.

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I grew three pots of Lotus berthelotti over the winter, and the first day that hit over 80 degrees I moved them into the ground as small-scale ground covers. Winter dreams slam up against warm-weather realities real fast. I can keep up with watering shallow containers twice a day for only so long.

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Just as I hoped, the lotus cascaded 3 feet down tall wrought iron plant stands that I had fabricated for the popup shop last year but ultimately deemed were a little too rustic for sale. (I found some deeper pots for the stands and filled them experimentally with low-growing Arctotis ‘Ruby Creeper.’)

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Calendula were grown from seed in fall for just a couple pots, with Linaria ‘Licilia Peach’ added recently.

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A plant I’ve long wanted to trial but always lacked a sunny open patch, Silene uniflora ‘Druett’s Variegated’ is finally getting a trial in a pot with the indestructible silvery shrub ozothamnus.

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My mystery aloe is in bloom. It dips and swoops, unlike the rigid upright blooms of Aloe x principis, so I’m still unsure as to its identity. I’m pretty sure it’s a ferox hybrid of some sort. Whatever it is, I like it, so provenance is not that important.

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My new crush, Berzelia lanuginosa, appropriately goes by the common name Buttonbush. Fond of moist seeps in its natural habitat in the Western Cape of South Africa, I’ll keep it in a container near the garden hose.

Oh, and happy first day of spring!

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

Digital Nature 2019

(More from MB Maher, far-flung AGO correspondent. Winter storms, family stuff, a host of things kept me from attending Natural Discourse‘s Digital Nature 2019 at the LA Arboretum this past February. So I’ve been pumping Mitch, who has worked with Shirley Watts on her botanical garden-specific installations since the inception of ND back in 2012, for info harder than usual. And of course I have to share. I don’t know how else to prepare you except to assure you he writes like he talks, references to Plato’s Cave included. Following is the unabridged, unedited froth of his tech-wonkish impressions from Digital Nature 2019. )

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I won’t have time to write much – just got on the scene with Shirley mid-installation. As I
arrive, a peacock throws his tail into my face – he was seated above in a branch with his
plumage running an aquamarine river down to head-height & then whammo mouth full of
feathers. I capture above image of his walk of shame as he realizes his mistake, squawks, & pulls his tail out of reach. This place is lousy with fornicating peacocks. Wish you could be here!

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Immediately meet Benj whom I know from the Folly Bowl standing on a 15 foot ladder offering his services gratis to install and calibrate (4 projectors interlaced!) Brigitte Zieger’s side-scrolling forest video piece…

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…imagining a bucolic but vacant landscape, a world without us, where the only traces of a long-dead civilization are our tattered protest signs. Calls for economic policy action, regime change, human rights for humans that don’t exist anymore – all that’s left of us are our slogans – including but not limited to a sign from the era of George W. Bush reading Fuck the Troops, which understandably the Arboretum was not interested in having on County property, wading into the morass of vintage obscenities and the relevance thereto – Brigitte will remain in Paris for the exhibition & there is some debate about letting her know by email that Benji has rotoscoped / sanitized the crawl of her infinite canvas. You’ll remember Brigitte from her video piece at LACMA show years ago when a sassy belle epoch gunslinger stepped out of her pastoral wallpaper & shot at museum goers. (I include that film still for you below.)

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Brigitte could be the star of the show, just by virtue of square footage – in the end, I’m a
sucker for 200 linear feet of travertine projection surface. I spend the most amount of time with this piece, equally because of its difficulty to document as its pure enjoyment factor – the slow crawl of the engraved images rolls like the paper scroll of a visual player-piano.

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David Janesko & Adam Donnelly are building plywood camera obscuras aimed into the desert plantings to remind us of the grace & pagan wonder of optics — allegory of the human eye — the first way you’ve ever perceived anything, through the crapshoot of the fovea — & I feel for them, I really do — this is my bread & butter – never stray far from plato’s cave, et cetera – but these are dioramas for optics nerds — & I’m not sure general audiences can be awestruck by something so understated — we still overlook the sorcery of coin-operated telescopes on the roof deck of the Empire State. A fully fledged scene should be playing out in front of these lenses — drama enough to turn the camera obscura into rich cinema or a cosmic peepshow — instead a static hazy projection of a euphorbia — which, I’ll be honest, I looked at for quite some time.

I meet David on a gravel path near his obscuras when the place is still empty, a few minutes of quiet before they let the crowds in, & he’s with his own digital camera shooting thru some kind of toilet paper tube with a prism fixed to the end of it & a diopter lens hot- glued behind it – he disassembles it for me there on the path with the practice of a solider cleaning a rifle — the prism separates red, green, & yellow & the diopter stacks the separations back together for the sensor. With the cardboard lens taken apart, I can see straight down the barrel to his CMOS sensor & I exclaim like a pedantic photographer, Oh my gosh your sensor will get dusty! Mad-scientist image-makers care not for such things, & I’m grateful he didn’t laugh in my face any more than necessary. He reviewed a few images for me on the back of his camera to show the effects of the prism & it took my breath away — oversaturated high-contrast multiple-exposure images in the family of Wim Wenders’ dream sequences from Until The End of The World. Finger-like branches & cacti multiplied in candy-colored funhouse mirrors. I immediately bought some prisms.

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Still from Bis ans Ende der Welt (1991), Until the End of the World, dir. Wim Wenders.

Andy Rappaport of Minnesota Street fame is installing a trifold screen in the fountain, visible from street, which looks great against the backdrop of the foothills, ostensibly about climate change & rising sea levels although I have not seen the wall text (there is no wall text yet) and video friends (Jason) have immediately requested an audience with Shirley on the possibility of screening their own films in said fountain against said backdrop of foothills and natural splendor.

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We are all racing the weather. I hear Chris Kallmyer ask Shirley as he sets up a quantity of tube amps, electric lanterns, LED light bars, “What’s our rain plan?“ and Shirley just laughs the tired laugh of somebody who hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in five to seven business days. It looks like we’ll lose Saturday night to forecasted storm which is a blow / tragedy / best case scenario given our February wintertime scene. Some clouds with a weak constitution began to fizz moisture an hour ago and I felt the desire to throw myself over one of the hundred-thousand-dollar projectors but was told by a technician that they can actually tolerate a lot more moisture than we were seeing.

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As usual, my mission is to pull apart magic hour like saltwater taffy & spread the good light
across 10 acres of exhibits — which invariably doesn’t work. I regret not balancing ambient twilight with projections on more than a few video installations — the trickiest shit, of course, being Shirley’s own video piece out in the parking lot. She somehow tracked down a 75,000 lumen projector to compete with passing auto traffic, built a family of oil derricks from 2x4s, rigged them with projection screens, & ran imagery of carefree palm trees against blue sky, California wild fires, chaparral looking prescient, embers looking vindictive, et cetera. The effect is striking (video doesn’t lend itself to shaped frames very well very often) but I never figured out how to document it properly.

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Mia Feuer has taken over the greenhouses with a family of hippopotafemasaurs she’s cast
from curvaceous studio models into hydrocarbon goddesses of uncertain origin but
bacchanalian stature (see above recumbent allure). Shirley brought Mia to speak years
ago – do you remember? – about her work in the tar sands inserting birch trees back into
the mud slurry upside down – encouraging ravens to live in the inverted root systems of
the bitumen flats, if memory serves. Her family name means fire.

Given her vast and incomprehensible workload there in the greenhouses as the hours tick
down to opening night, I often excuse myself from her company with a bow of my head
and a sincere wish of, “Godspeed,” and Mia immediately corrects me each time without
looking up from her work to say, “Goddesspeed.” Just visible, embedded in the S-curved
tail of the front-facing Odalisque is the nozzle and hose of a gasoline pump.

One night as she inserts hundreds of giant framing nails into florists’ foam to gild the
spiked tail of the huntress, (each nail squeaking into the foam with high-pitched and
excruciating echo-location pings), I offer her my memories of Liza Lou who once beaded
100,000 blades of emerald green grass in a suburban backyard diorama. When asked
about her particular brand of madness / the unnecessary labor of beading the lawn, Liza
responded, “The dignity is in the doing.” And Mia likes this very much. She tells a story
about witches being pierced with nails to prove they weren’t witches and how much
pleasure she takes in adding each nail to the huntress she’s built so that this foam woman
could fight back like a comic book character, if called upon, and launch a storm of nails at an aggressor – or enjoy the metallic jostle as her armored tail slides behind her.

A sibling of cerberus & hydra, the chimera is depicted often with a lion’s body, a snake’s tail, & a goat bursting out of its back – if you came upon one in antiquity with only a toga & a broadsword to defend yourself it was pretty much game over – and that’s pretty close to the feeling you get standing next to these creatures. The specificity of the hands and feet is so unnerving – at one point during the opening, I meet a woman regarding the Artemis figure with a look of the sublime on her face & while I’m photographing her, by way of explanation she says, These are my hands. She points to fingers pulling an arrow from a quiver and says, I was in the studio over christmas and Mia needed a few extra castings. The rest of this isn’t me [she gestures toward the hippo], but still it’s so strange to so clearly recognize my hands on someone else.

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A single gasoline jerrycan is the central but low-key link to the fossil fuels that power, you know, literally the petrochemical foams she built the hippoladies with, but also our built world, our demise, et cetera. “Solar Mothers,” is rife with apocalyptic suggestions, even tropes, & it’s no mistake that the jerrycan is both shiny and chrome. Listening closely, some of the hippofems can be heard to say, Witness me!

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John Carpenter set up in the meadow on a 10×10 scrim, strangely less interactive than his 2017 piece & lamented to me that he had missed out on the travertine wall this time around. The moment for Carpenter’s piece came around closing time on opening night when the barmaid at the cash bar had started to get a little freer with her whiskey pours & a woman in a broad-brimmed Spanish hat began impromptu to dance flamenco between the projector and the screen so that her agile silhouette appeared in Carpenter’s undulating algorithms seamlessly — as if he had written a part for Spanish dance all along! I raced into position with my camera, but the lady finished her dance as I tightened my focus & stepped out from behind the screen self-consciously. Her boyfriend & a few others applauded and then the night was over. More soon, m

Posted in artists, garden visit, MB Maher | 5 Comments

upcoming dates

This is what’s on my radar this spring. I’m also going to include these dates in “Dates to Remember” under the masthead for ease of reference and will be updating throughout the spring and summer. Let me know if there’s an event that shouldn’t be missed and I’ll be sure to include it.

March 15, 2019, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., landscape designer and ceramicist Dustin Gimbel will speak on “Sculpture and Modernism” at the Sherman Library and Gardens (if you missed Dustin’s talk during Modernism Week, now’s your chance to catch up with him locally — and he’s bringing a selection of his ceramics for sale after the talk.) 2647 East Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, CA 92625

March 17, 2019, The Desert Horticulture Society of the Coachella Valley 14th Annual Garden Tour, 12 p.m., 1943 E Sandalwood Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262. Self-guided

March 19, 2019, 1-4 p.m., APLD Greater Los Angeles and Pacific Horticulture present Nigel Dunnett at the Huntington Library & Botanical Gardens, Ahmanson Room

March 21-24, 2019, San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, Cal Expo, Pavilion Building, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95815

April 6-7, 2019, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 16th Annual Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour

April 13, 2019, UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden Spring Plant Sale — check website for updated details

April 13, 2019, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., APLD S.E.E. Garden Tour, order tickets here

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April 25-28, 2019, 30th Annual Southern California Spring Garden Show “At Home in the Garden,” 3333 Bear Street, Costa Mesa , CA 92626

April 27, 2019, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., San Diego Horticultural Society Spring Garden Tour

April 27, 2019, 1-5 p.m., Huntington Botanical Garden’s Annual Spring Plant Sale, (open to members Friday, April 26, and April 27 til 1 p.m.)

May 4-5, 2019, Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour

May 5, 2019, Los Angeles, Garden Conservancy Open Days — check website for updated details

You should also be checking in with Gardening in LA for a comprehensive list of local events.

Posted in garden visit, plant sales | 4 Comments

miscellany from the Modernism Week Garden Tour 2019

On the recent Palm Springs Modernism Week self-guided garden tour, it was impossible to confine one’s attention to houses solely on the tour, so I’m including some other swivel-headed discoveries. No, I didn’t find #thatpinkdoor, but there were plenty of other sights to ogle. I haven’t been in such a landscape design-rich environment since the Venice Home & Garden tours (RIP). All of which brings renewed zeal to do something about my own front garden, which wasn’t designed so much as barricaded by fencing and hedging to keep pets and children safe on a very busy street. Definitely time for an upgrade. And I found lots of inspiring examples, Palms Springs style, for creating a more street- friendly privacy, using low walls, see-through gates and entry courtyards. In other words, sharing the garden with the neighborhood. Easing up a bit on the foreboding and forbidding. For someone who equates garden with sanctuary, that’s a lesson I need to absorb for my own front garden’s makeover.

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In Palm Springs, of course palm tree stumps become architectural pillars
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This stunning “driveby” find is none other than the Kaufmann house, designed by Richard Neutra, plantings recently updated by Marmol Radziner. “Cactus Slim,” founder of the Moorten Botanical Garden, advised on earlier plantings which subsequent owners removed. See Garden Design’s “Green Machine.
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Villa Vecchia, owners and designers Gino Dreese and Troy Williams, featured on the tour
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Villa Vecchia, owners and designers Gino Dreese and Troy Williams, featured on the tour
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Posted in design, driveby gardens, garden travel, pots and containers | Tagged | 11 Comments