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Natural Discourse: Light & Image 2014, an epilogue

Ever wonder when our buildings are going to have the photosensitivity and photoreactivity of plants? Dale Clifford, with his focus on biomimetics applied to architecture, is on the case, investigating the possibility of designing a photoreactive brick inspired by the quadrangular, shade-modulating shape of a cactus. Looking for a tidy description of life on earth? Plant biologist Roger Hangarter has one for you: excited electrons powered by the sun. I’m totally borrowing that, Roger.


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Christian Thornton, Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio

Questions, questions. Can modern glass kilns reduce their energy footprint?
Certainly, by as much as 30 percent, if recycled glass is used and the kilns are run on vegetable oil discarded by local Oaxacan restaurants.

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Cobaea scandens in the Ware Collection of Glass Plants

And what did 19th century university botany departments do when dried specimens were insufficiently detailed for the rigorous study of plant architecture? Find the finest glass artists in the world, of course, German glass blowers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, to create glass models with precise, scientific accuracy. Harvard’s Ware Collection of Glass Plants transcends its scientific origins and is now regarded as a prized art collection visited by millions every year.

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Shirley Watts readies the book table sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore.
Clarissa Dalloway may have bought the flowers for her party herself, but the large vase on the book table was, I think, provided by Silverlake Farms.

All these questions and more could only have been answered by another installment of Natural Discourse, the peripatetic series of lectures curated by artist and garden designer Shirley Watts that allows artists and scientists to share their unique perspectives and fields of inquiry into our beloved plant world, which was held Saturday, October 18, 2014, at the LA County Arboretum.

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The auditorium at the LA County Arboretum was the biggest space yet of the three iterations of Natural Discourse, and for that reason I thought it perhaps the most challenging venue thus far.

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But wherever Natural Discourse is located, whether perched in a conservatory-like glass hall atop the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, or in a historic landmark hotel designed by Julia Morgan, or at your local arboretum, the effect is consistently hypnotic. The lights go down, the chattering eventually subsides, and Marion Brenner begins to articulate her relationship to light and its role in obtaining her exquisitely timeless landscape photographs seen on the projection screen. And then you begin to scribble furiously as she explains how she now shoots wirelessly to an iPad to live-proof her work.

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Photo found here

Possibly only at Natural Discourse will you meet an artist concerned with how long it will take an agave bloom to grow and thereby destroy the glass necklace he’s designed and placed on its flowering shoot.
(Christian Thornton of Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio has recorded 8 inches of growth a day.)

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The welcome being given by Richard Schulhof, Director of the LA Arboretum.

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Jenny Brown, Collection Manager of the Ware Collection of Glass Plants, playfully engages with the interactive programming wizardry of John Carpenter.

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Mr. Carpenter’s work asks questions like: Why can’t the fleeting thrill of blowing on a dandelion be prolonged?
(You can view the results of his dandelion inquiry at the link.)
Carpenter’s work may bring to mind the digitally interactive sequences in the movie Minority Report, which he designed.

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I want to personally thank Sue Dadd and James Griffith for providing both food and lodging Friday night.
And thanks also to their charming cat Kabuki, who slept at my feet all night.

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Very early Saturday morning I crept out in jammies and socks to have a private natural discourse with their stunning garden, this time a ravine adjacent to the Folly Bowl.
Talk about excited electrons!

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Photos of Natural Discourse at the LA County Arboretum by MB Maher.

Pedilanthus bracteatus, planted

One of the best things about fall is being able to dig again. Since it’s cooled down, I’ve been digging in the vegetable garden plot and can’t resist moving things around at home too, such as this tall, lanky succulent that I’ve finally planted in the back garden. It had tripled in size from when I brought it home in 2011 and plopped it, still in its nursery can, into a large pot by the east gate. It seemed to love the morning sun, afternoon shade there, so I left well enough alone. But always I’ve been tempted to try this assertively vertical succulent in the back garden, where I’d be able to see it more often. I finally got up the nerve to do it over the weekend. I knew the large pot’s tall sides were providing support for the long, 6-foot stems but didn’t realize to what extent until I had lifted the 5-gallon pot clear of the rim, and the top-heavy plant immediately fell sideways, nearly catapulting out of my arms. Amazingly, no stems were broken in getting it into the ground, and once the hole was backfilled it stopped rocking and listing. With the big container no longer providing support, the stems initially splayed out in all directions but then ultimately found their balance, arranging themselves in a vase-shaped equilibrium.

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Nearly leafless, it gives a similar silhouette as an ocotillo but without the potential for injury. It’s completely smooth, thornless.

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A clump of the New Zealand evergreen grass Harpochloa falx was getting overwhelmed by other plants, and after moving it I realized there might be space enough for the pedilanthus if some aeoniums and sedums were moved too. With everything cleared out, the lanky brute was able to be squeezed in among the remaining agaves, dry conditions perfectly to its liking. The pedilanthus had more than proven its drought-tolerant chops by residing in that 5-gallon nursery can for three years on a semi-forgetful watering regimen and still managing to grow over the top of the gate.
The only question is how it will manage now in full sun rather than half-day sun. I’d hate to have to move it again. I’ll revisit that question next summer.

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Because of it’s height, I rarely got a glimpse of the ruddy bracts.
Now that the big pot no longer girdles the stems and they’ve relaxed downward a bit, I can enjoy the bracts in all their bizarre, shrimpy-green coloration.

Natural Discourse at Los Angeles Co. Arboretum 10/18/14

The drive will be considerably shorter for me to this year’s Natural Discourse, which will be held close to home at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden:
A symposium presented by the Garden Conservancy and the Arboretum that will explore the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of the botanical garden.”

Natural Discourse: Light & Image
Saturday, October 18, 2014, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
301 North Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007

Wahoo! Garden designer/Natural Discourse curator Shirley Watts assembles a mesmerizing group of storytellers in a day-long event that has no equal in the botanical world.


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Coincidentally, and perfectly in keeping with this year’s theme of Light & Image, Shirley’s lanterns inscribed with excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made the cover of Pacific Horticulture this month, with photos by MB Maher, and an interview by Lorene Edwards Forkner: “Artful Gardens; A conversation with Shirley Alexandra Watts.” 19-year-old Mary Shelley famously conceived of the idea for her novel Frankenstein while vacationing with friends in Geneva, Switzerland. The weather was miserable, so they passed the time indoors in an impromptu game of Can You Top This Scary Story. (I think it’s safe to say that Mary probably won that game hands down when she recounted the germ for the story that grew into her book: “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”)

All of which proves that sparks fly when like-minded people gather to entertain each other. See for yourself at Natural Discourse tomorrow, Saturday, October 18, 2014, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You can search the blog for the many posts I’ve written about previous Natural Discourse symposia, such as this one here.

Bloom Day October 2014

Guest-hosted by Evie the Cat.


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Not another Bloom Day…and you’ve got nuthin’

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Wait, I got it! Why don’t you show them your nerines?*

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Let’s see what else we’ve got…

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Evie, those aren’t blooms!

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I better take over. Bloom on the snaky succulent Senecio anteuphorbium

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Oh, that was exciting…except not really. At least the variegated manihot has some personality.

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A self-sown Solanum pyracanthum, long-standing member of the summer 2014 Bloom Day Hit Parade

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Salvia ‘Love & Wishes’ was planted mid-summer.

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Wow, now you’re really reaching. Might as well show the nerines again.

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I know…those orange bobbles!

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The annual Emilia javanica ‘Irish Poet’ still looking as fresh as summer.


Carol at May Dreams Gardens collects monthly Bloom Day posts year-round.


*Note to Grace: Remember when finding new plant blogs was almost as exciting as receiving plants in the mail? Well, that’s how I felt when I discovered Matt Mathus’ blog Growing With Plants. In one of his many erudite posts, about five paragraphs deep into a dissertation on his gorgeous nerines, he mentioned that he had lots of extra bulbs, and if anyone wanted any, to let him know. That was probably my first experience of the interwebs made real, when it ceased being an abstraction and became peopled with like-minded sorts full of curiosity and generosity, like Nan Ondra who gave me the emilia seeds, and you too, for instance. And that’s the little story I promised you about how I came to have a pot of nerines.

Culver City Cactus Tower

Yes, it’s true, I’ve been prowling craigslist, hoping to stumble upon dream listings like “free fence post cactus!” or “unwanted cactus, you dig and haul away.”
I want to line the east fence with large containers of mature succulents, none of which I possess at the moment, but then that’s what craigslist and Sunday afternoons are for.
No luck so far, but somehow my search led me to the Cactus Tower in Culver City created by the firm Eric Owen Moss Architects.
A warehouse was stripped to its steel beams and used as a support for hoisting cactus into the sky. If only my little project could just as successfully get off the ground…


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stripped back to expose its original steel framework, the tower has been repurposed as an outdoor meeting area
for the production company who occupies the abutting building. once enwrapped in a corrugated metal,
the unit has been reconceived as an open web of steelwork and plantlife
.” — Design Boom

Photos from Eric Owen Moss Architects and Design Boom.

friday agave love

I had a paycheck a couple weeks back that was bigger than expected, so that’s when my ongoing cold inspection of every variegated octopus agave on offer around town turned into hot acquisition. Always expensive, always a little bit beat up, because those long arms/leaves are impossible to ship and keep in stock undamaged. Agave vilmoriniana ‘Stained Glass’ is the variegated form available, named after the late Charles Glass, curator of the Cante Institute and Botanic Garden in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, who was circuitously responsible for bringing this agave to the attention of San Marcos Growers, which introduced it in 2008. The best group of local specimens I’ve found are at the International Garden Center near the airport, and since I often work near LAX I had been checking them out for some time. Flush and with a serious intent to buy, I methodically compared each agave, counting the number of pristine leaves, and the plant with the most was the take-home winner. I emptied out this big industrial tank of accumulated odds and ends, but chiefly an enormous Miscanthus ‘Cabaret.’ It does remind me of an octopus trying to climb out of an aquarium (which I have seen done, by the way. Marty worked with fish trapped in power plant intakes way back and once brought home a small octopus. One afternoon was enlivened by the sight of it making its determined way across our beach rental’s shag carpet to the perceived freedom of the toilet. The feisty kraken was returned unharmed to the aquarium, where we fed it small crabs for a while then released it.)


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Same type of methodical comparison resulted in choosing my Agave gypsophila ‘Ivory Curls,’ purchased as consolation for suffering with a head cold in October. (There’s as many justifications for buying agaves as there are agaves to buy, and there’s two for you, a good paycheck and a bad head cold.) This was the best-looking rosette, but other plants already had pups attached, a nice bonus. Decisions, decisions. The pup-forming plants’ leaves were much more distressed, mottled with those brown spots I see on a lot of Agave americana ‘Mediopicta.’ It’s probably a harmless blemish possibly caused by overhead watering, but why ask for trouble? The good-looking but solitary plant made the cut. The blue agave behind it is Agave franzosinii, both agaves’ leaves now curling in unison. The franzosinii had already outgrown its first pot, so these cheap buckets I had on hand seemed a good temporary home. A couple Salvia ‘Amistad’ were ousted, planted in the garden, and now it’s Bucket O’gave. The gypsophila will reputedly grow no bigger than 2-3 feet high and wide, but the franzosinii can reach the size of a VW bug and will probably explode out of the bucket in a year. What I’ll do at that point is still in the planning stages (no idea!) Little agave in the front is A. X leopoldii. The species Agave vilmoriniana was also purchased and planted in the ground. I’ve been on a county-wide agave rampage this fall.

And that’s the Friday agave report.

Fernando Caruncho’s Design Studio

Images from Architectural Digest of the design studio of the Spanish landscape architect who resolutely insists on being called a gardener.
As with stripping down occupations to their mythic essence, Caruncho does the same for gardens, revealing anew the power of simple, age-old forms.
Timeless essentials from a former philosophy student who discovered the garden is the perfect venue for investigating dialectics of nature and spirit.
A seamless fusion of Moorish, French, Spanish influences, always the geometric elevated and emphasized over color.
The design studio is made of primal building blocks of box, jasmine, fig, pomegranate, bay laurel, lime, gravel, water.
Not as much a signature style as a deeply assimilated understanding of previous civilizations’ response to living in the light, heat, seasonal drought of the Mediterranean Basin.
So important is the play of light in Caruncho’s work that he considers his gardens a “light box.”
Celebrated for work including a wheat-filled parterre, Caruncho’s design studio has a neo-Medieval air. A contemplative compound for the philosophizing gardener.


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The floors are the gravel, the ceiling is the sky, and the walls are the clipped laurel and boxwood that follow the curves.”

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Photography by Simon Watson
Source here.

waiting out a furcraea’s awkward years

This furcraea has been kicking around in the garden, oh, such a very long time.
It’s been in pots, planted in the ground, and then moved several times, frequently serving as a midnight snail snack.
This summer is the first time I can truly say it looks like a happy furcraea.

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I have been cutting out the disheveled lower leaves, and it’s thrown so many beautiful, new leaves that the whole plant is finally achieving a perfection I doubted I’d ever see.
It’s related to agaves but completely thornless, so sprawling on the bricks near foot traffic won’t be a problem.
And although this Brazilian is known to appreciate a little shade, it’s been thriving in near full-sun conditions, so I’m not changing a thing.
Who knows what’s factored into its new-found good looks? As it’s matured and the leaves toughened, the snails seem to have lost interest.
About 3 feet high and wide and expected to almost double that size, it should be able to grow to maturity in its current location (gulp).
For someone who’s a compulsive plant mover, this furcraea has finally grown into a plant that’s safe from my restless shovel.
In other words, I really can’t imagine it anywhere else.

completion of the High Line September 21, 2014

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Before it was constructed, the New York Central Railroad had operated a rail freight line at grade, or street level, along Tenth Avenue, and men on horseback (“West Side cowboys”) had ridden ahead of the train with red flags or lanterns to warn pedestrians of its coming; yet even with this picturesque alarm system, so many careless, inebriated or simply unlucky citizens had gotten run over that the street acquired the notorious name “Death Avenue.” For over 70 years, since the mid-19th century, public outcry had agitated against this danger to life and limb, demanding a safer solution: thus, the High Line.” (Here.)

Completed September 21, 2014, the High Line park has now become many things to many people, its Rashomon effect hashed out in the comments section of the many articles written about its success. It’s been five years since the first phase opened, with the third and final phase finished this fall. Over that span of time, my unadulterated delight at the railway’s rebirth into a park with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf has become complicated by learning of many other divergent reactions, and quite a few outright hostile ones, including accusing the park of being a Trojan Horse hiding rapacious developers. Because of the unimagined success of its new life as a beloved city park and tourist destination, drawing 5 million a year, it’s easy to forget its humble origins in community activism. I’ve seen neighborhood activism up close, and it isn’t always pretty. Contentious, divisive, disillusioning, these are what come to mind. Semi-contemporaneous with the grass-roots conversion of the disused railway line into a public park in NYC, my neighborhood association in Los Angeles was also involved in a grass roots effort concerning a property suffering from extreme landlord neglect, a property that slipped in and out of drug dealing. After years of frustrating engagement with the city at all levels, code, police, planning, the property seemed to magically accelerate on a fast track to a “pocket park,’ a cherished pipe dream of neighborhood activists. All of a sudden, the long-sought grant money was there, the city’s will was no longer wobbly but strong, and after years of dead-end efforts, the pocket park was a go. Plans were approved, the troubled property was sacrificed on the altar of eminent domain, and the park is now a year old. (I had nothing to do with the process, only attending a couple meetings and ceremonies.) The differences in scale between the two projects couldn’t be more stark, but I have to admit I had my doubts that either project would ever get off the ground. Another difference is that, unlike the High Line project, everyone in our neighborhood is wildly enthusiastic about our result. But then our neighborhood is in no danger of developers rushing in to build luxury penthouses to take advantage of views of our pocket park. (Some might say more’s the pity!)


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The High Line experienced a similar acceleration when Giuliani and his pro-demolition sympathies left office, replaced by Michael Bloomberg, whose new agenda included finding innovative ways to include more parks despite the seemingly maxed-out density of NYC. The dream of a park in the sky found a powerful champion. With the completion of the final phase, and housebound with a sore throat, I dug a little deeper into the formation of the High Line, and what I found was a mulligan stew of community activism, timely rezoning, and a strange concept called “air rights,” mixed with insatiable appetites for high-end real estate development. The gentrifcation of this former manufacturing neighborhood was going to happen with or without the High Line. As with so many American cities, manufacturing had long decamped. Art galleries and designer ateliers had already moved in. Businesses directly under the disused structure were agitating for its removal to develop their valuable properties skyward. Ultimately, what came to the rescue of these disgruntled businesses as well as park proponents was ingenious manipulation of TDRs (Transferable Development Rights). And built into plans for the High Line’s redesign were considerations for unopposed views and open space that arguably wouldn’t have been a vision for this neighborhood’s growth had the High Line been demolished.

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High Line Adjacency Controls: Required Open Space
A minimum of 20% of the lot area would be required to be reserved as landscaped open space. To provide a visual extension of the High Line, the required open space would be located adjacent to and at a height not to exceed the level of the High Line. The required open space could not front on Tenth Avenue and could be used as a public or private space
.” (Here.)


But back to the inception. The owners of the railway, CSX, who acquired it from Conrail in 1998, resisted the swelling outcry for demolition and opted instead to commission a study of potential uses. (Bless CSX for that.) Rail banking was a proposal that intrigued neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond, both in attendance at that meeting unveiling the results of the study. (My community garden lies in a disused railway easement, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also a beneficiary of rail banking.) After that momentous meeting, David and Hammond formed the nonprofit Friends of the High Line, fully in support of a park use for the railway.

Along with requisitioning the potential use study, CSX fortuitously hired photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose evocative photos were just the boost the proposed park needed.


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photo by Joel Sternfeld 2000

One of the single most important things that happened to save the High Line in the very early days was when CSX made it possible for Joel Sternfeld’s project to photograph the High Line,” says David.
“They basically made it possible for the world to see what was on top of the High Line.
” (Here.)

In the beginning, we didn’t know what the High Line should ultimately look like. We didn’t know exactly what the design should be. We always thought the community and the city should decide what it should be. Over time, people coalesced around Joel’s photo and when you asked them, “What do you want the High Line to be?” they’d point to Joel’s photos and they’d say, “I want it to be like that.” In some ways, that was the biggest inspiration behind the design, Joel’s photos of the landscape.” (Interview with Robert Hammond Here.)

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Now when I see pictures of just the High Line without any people, I realize it wasn’t as good.
It’s really beautiful when you have people interacting with the new landscape of the High Line
.” — Robert Hammond Here.

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What was striking is that in all my reading, not once was the amazingly complex plantsmanship of Piet Oudolf cited as part of the appeal that lures so many to the High Line.
Through his plantings, Oudolf matched the spirit of Sternfeld’s photos of the abandoned railway recolonized by plants.

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Where once there was a clang and clamor of industry, the noisy, physical manifestation of America’s 20th Century manufacturing might, the old railway has been repurposed for another kind of movement that seems to strike some as aimless, idle, purposeless: people making multivaried use of a park.

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The fact that this new amenity sprang from older industrial infrastructure says a lot about the current moment in New York’s evolution. A city that had once pioneered so many technological and urban planning solutions, that had dazzled the world with its public works, its skyscrapers, bridges, subways, water-delivery system, its Central Park, palatial train stations, libraries and museums, appears unable to undertake any innovative construction on a grand scale, and is now consigned to cannibalizing its past and retrofitting it to function as an image, a consumable spectacle. Productivity has given way to narcissism; or, to put it more charitably, work has yielded to leisure.” (Here.)

I would argue that instead of cannibalizing the past, the past has been honored and included in the present moment, which is a continuum that the wisest cities respect.
I would argue that the High Line gives all of us, not just the 1 percent, million-dollar views of New York.
And the fact that funding was found for a park (a park!) and not another sports arena still strikes me as extraordinary and reason enough to celebrate.

I’ve included photos of one of my visits to the High Line in June 2013.

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Railroad lines crisscrossing the country move freight, delivering everything from coal to cars.
But one rail line running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side moves your soul, delivering sanctuary amid coneflower and pink evening primrose
.” (Here.)


Reading for this post can found at these links:

http://www.thehighline.org/

http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-nyc-mayor-bloombergs-urban-planning-legacy.html

http://journalism.nyu.edu/publishing/archives/portfolio/subramanian/HighLine_Resident.html

http://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=34419

http://www.hraadvisors.com/featured/the-high-line/#&panel1-4

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/under-the-high-line-a-gay-past/

http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2005/july-august/taking-the-high-line.html

http://observer.com/2008/02/developers-want-easier-access-to-high-line-air-rights-but-should-city-fix-something-that-doesnt-look-broken/

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/responsible-living/sponsorvideo/improbable-journey-the-story-of-new-yorks-high-line

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/realestate/the-great-race-for-manhattan-air-rights.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/westchelsea/westchelsea3b.shtml

terraced gardens and the Cow Horn agave

I love terraced gardens, with their multiple shifting perspectives from up, down, side to side. I can probably trace this appreciation to an aunt’s hilltop home in the harbor town of San Pedro, Calif. My dad’s sister had a house that overlooked Los Angeles Harbor, bought with fishing money, when there were still big local schools of sardine and albacore. The hill was buttressed by multiple terraces. The plantings were nondescript, but the idea intrigued me even as a kid, this modest example of domestic-scale geoengineering, with the land falling away beneath you, yet there always being level ground underfoot provided by the terracing. Visiting the terraced villages of the Cinque Terre in Italy many years later was a continuation of this childhood fascination. Terraced gardens still pull me in to this day, as this local one did featuring a favorite agave from western Mexico, the Cow Horn agave.


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Agave bovicornuta here being harassed by a bougainvillea. Yucca rostrata on the topmost terrace.

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Aeoniums and lavender, Kalanchoe tomentosa, Aloe striata, with an attempt to tame and train bougainvillea against a retaining wall.
A Dragon Tree holds a corner of the upper terrace.

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Another feature of terrace gardens: incredibly satisfied-looking plants in the free drainage and warmth from the stone in this eastern exposure.
This house and garden is just a couple blocks from the ocean.

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Deep green and blue again, this time the green provided by the Pencil Cactus, Euphorbia tirucalli
The blue agave looks like possibly Agave celsii ‘Nova’ (now going by A. mitis.) except that solitary agave is not known for pupping so many offsets.
It also looks a lot like my ‘Dragon Toes,’ which does offset freely.

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Seems like I gravitate for a while to the powder blue agaves or variegated agaves, but there will always be room for the deep emerald green of the Cowhorn Agave.
Mine succumbed to overwatering in the back garden a couple years ago, and I haven’t seen it on offer locally since.
The back garden is becoming almost as dry as the front gravel garden, so I’ve started planting agaves in the ground in the back again. We’ll see how they fare.

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With rosemary and Echeveria agavoides.

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What the bougainvillea really wants is the terraces all to itself.
I’d never unleash it in this situation, where keeping it in bounds will require frequent trimming, putting the succulents in danger of being trampled if not smothered first.
I do admire the horizontal line of its dark green leaves snaking across the retaining walls in the upper photos, but the amount of labor and leaf litter…
All that clipping sacrifices the flowers anyway, turning what’s normally a study in scarlet to a minor meditation on magenta.

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A glimpse of the sloping front lawn of the house next-door, which shows how the Cow Horn agave matches the depth of color of green grass.

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With the paddle plant, Kalanchoe luciae ‘Fascination.’

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Another bonus of terraces is the fact that agaves are not at shin level, which is where I frequently engaged with my Cow Horn agave —
but always in cowboy jeans, of course.