Category Archives: Department of Instruction

Natural Discourse: Fire! 9/30 & 10/1/16

I’ve lived long enough to have experienced the dispersal of information about plants move from paper to the computer screen, and it seems I rarely have the sense anymore that I’m cut off from an essential stream of information on one of my favorite topics. But in other important cultural, scientific, and political matters, I often feel that with the digital floodgates open on seemingly every topic and opinion, many vital issues fall prey to a lack of inflection or emphasis and are thereby deemed irrelevant in the popular imagination. Yes, platforms like the TED talks help give marginally popular issues a voice, but for those of us always scanning the sky, the land, thermometers and rain gauges, I do feel our concerns are woefully underrepresented in popular media. And what’s incredibly frustrating is that these concerns of ours are not narrowly personal but important and central to everything we love (life!). So when programming like Natural Discourse came along back in 2012, I immediately sensed this is the focus that’s been lacking.

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Photo above taken by photographer George Bennett, when fire was threatening the 747 Wing House in the Malibu hills.
The house, designed by architect David Hertz from the wings of a decommissioned Boeing 747, is on the site of Tony Duquette’s Ranch, which itself was destroyed in a brush fire in the 1990’s.
When fire was menacing the Wing House in 2013, George was on site with his camera. He has been invited him to show us these stunning images and recount this close brush with destruction.

Shirley Watts has brought Natural Discourse, an “ongoing series of symposia, publications, and site-specific art installations that explores the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of botanical gardens and natural history museums,” this year to the Huntington on September 30 and October 1, aiming her intensely curious, curatorial mind on a subject of both regional and timely importance. Apart from record drought continuing in the West, July has been pronounced the hottest month on record, and our notorious fire season has leaped its usual seasonal boundaries and has morphed into an ongoing conflagration. The subject of fire is, well, hot. If ever there was a time to shout Fire! — this is it. Fire in all its guises, destructive, regenerative, inspirational, will be discussed by a fascinating group of scientists and artists at this year’s Natural Discourse at the Huntington September 30th and October 1st:

Friday evening from 7:30 to 8:30:
John Doyle, Jean-Lou Chameau Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems at Caltech. His talk Fire and Life, will highlight Southern California’s particularly complex relationship with fire.
Mia Feuer, artist, Assistant Professor of Sculpture at CA College of the Arts, will talk about her work at the tar sands in Alberta, CA.​​​

Saturday from 9 to 4:
Thomas Fenn, Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Ancient Pyro-technology. Tom is an archaeologist who specializes in examining early technologies. His research combines chemistry, geology, archeology, cultural anthropology and history. He will talk to us about the history of man’s discovery and use of fire.
George Bennett, photographer, will talk about fire at the Wing House in Malibu
Erica Newman, fire ecologist will talk about biodiversity in chaparral and what to expect with fire and climate change
William L. Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, will talk about fire as an outdoor spectacle and as art in the environment.
Sara Hiner, musician and Eric Elias, pyro-technician, will talk about their collaboration on the fireworks at Hollywood Bowl
Mark Briggs, river ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund’s Rio Grande/Bravo Programs will talk about controlled burns on the US/Mexican border

I do think it’s incredibly important to support this unique programming (written in my best, silkiest NPR/PBS-solicitous voice), and it’s just been made easier to do so.
Prices have been reduced; tickets can be ordered here.

Los Angeles, if ever there was a discourse designed specifically with you in mind, this is it. Come support Natural Discourse. I’d love to see you there.

Natural Discourse: Flora & Fauna; A Day at the Natural History Museum 10/17/15

From the Natural Discourse event registration page:

Natural Discourse has been invited to explore the Natural History Museum! The Museum opens its doors for a day-long conversation about gardens, art, science, and collections.

Natural Discourse is an ongoing series of symposia, publications, and site-specific art installations that explores the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of botanical gardens and natural history museums.”

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Image above from Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium at Houghton Library at Harvard University
Maura C. Flannery, Professor of Biology at St John’s University, will reveal the secret lives of herbarium specimens

Living (and suffering) as we do in a mostly plant-blind world, there are precious few opportunities to further our appreciation of plants as the real engine that drives our world. The Natural Discourse series of lectures has evolved into an invigorating and must-see event for plant lovers since its inception in 2012. Whether the theme is Form & Function, Culture & Cultivation, Light & Image, or 2015’s Flora & Fauna, garden designer and symposium curator Shirley Watts unfailingly assembles a deep bench of artists, designers, writers, and scientists whose work, in surprising and brilliantly idiosyncratic ways, celebrates the primacy of plants. My geek love for plants not only finds a natural echo but is amplified and expanded in undreamt of ways. As well as being located in Southern California again, I appreciate the timing in the month of October as a kind of requiem to Los Angeles’ long summer.

If you haven’t attended a Natural Discourse before, there’s so many reasons to make the event this year your first.
The setting in Exposition Park means not only are there a number of other museums to visit and gardens to explore, but the strategic Metro stop at Exposition Park means you can leave the car home.
In Los Angeles, that counts as an arms-raised-in-a-V triumph.
The vast complex of museums means if a pal would rather ogle dinosaur bones or visit the California Science Center to view the majestic space shuttle Endeavour, you can easily part ways and reunite off and on throughout the day.

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James Griffith, From the Infinite to the Particular 4, tar on panel
Image courtesy of Craig Krull Gallery

Personally, I’m wildly excited to hear the official “tar story.” I’ve blogged several times on James Griffith’s use of local tar as a medium for his current work.
Due to Shirley’s formidable persuasive powers, now we can all hear his remarkable account in person.
(James’ tar painting theme dovetails nicely with the Keynote Lecture given by Rosamond Purcell at La Brea Tar Pits and Museum on Friday, October 16, at 6:30 p.m.)

Long-standing champion of restoration of the cement-bottomed Los Angeles River, landscape architect Mia Lehrer is another speaker I won’t want to miss.
Ms. Lehrer recently converted a four-acre parking lot at Exposition Park into garden:

We created a four-acre garden on what was once the parking lot for both staff and visitors on the side of the museum that faces Exposition Boulevard. There was an ambition to open up the museum to the community, and to the Metro that traverses Exposition Boulevard to become not just a museum of natural history but also become more relevant through its exploration into urban ecology by creating gardens that allow a better way to live in the city.” – L.A. Designer: Mia Lehrer, Shaping The City Through Public Space

Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens, will speak on plant exploration and collections. Another example of Shirley’s curatorial genius, photographer Rosamond Purcell’s resume includes work with comedian/magician/actor Ricky Jay as well as naturalist Stephen Jay Gould. These are not solemn, fidget-in-your-seat lectures but bracing, wide-ranging, wholly engrossing explorations of culture intersecting with plants from myriad vantage points. I promise you, for the price of a dinner for two, your plant-loving soul will be fed and nurtured enough to see you through winter and into spring. I’m going to try to remember to wear a name tag, so please grab my elbow and say hello.

The complete list of speakers:

JoAnne Northrup, Director of Contemporary Art Initiatives at the Nevada Museum of Art, on taxidermy, contemporary art, and 19th century wildlife painting
Maura C. Flannery, Professor of Biology at St John’s University, on the secret lives of herbarium specimens
Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens, on plant exploration and collections
James Griffith, Painter, on using tar from the LaBrea Tar Pits as an artistic medium
Mia Lehrer, Landscape Architect, on the creation of the Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum
Rosamond Purcell, Photographer, on her images of Natural History collections around the world
Natania Meeker & Antonia Szabari, Associate Professors of French, Italian and Comparative Literature at USC, on animated plants and vegetal cinema

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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.

“Gardens: An Essay” by Robert Pogue Harrison (reposted from 10/7/11)

I’m more than a little overexcited at the prospect of hearing Professor Harrison speak at the latest iteration of Natural Discourse entitled “Culture & Cultivation,” to be held October 10, 2013, in Berkeley, California. The previous Natural Discourse programs were held at the nearby University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, which is a stunning setting but limited seating capacity. Co-Curator Shirley Watts found a gem of a new venue, a historic hotel designed by Julia Morgan, The Berkeley City Club. In one stroke, Shirley nailed two of my obsessions: visiting old hotels and listening to clever people discuss why we make gardens. Shirley explained her process for the selection of speakers as simply a matter of “Who do I want to hear“? And having attended the previous ND seminars, I can vouch for her amazing instincts in assembling a riveting series of talks. Never underestimate this woman. This time she’s done it again, including persuading Robert Pogue Harrison to contribute, someone I’ve been following through his pieces for The New York Review of Books and author of:

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Oh, and just a tip when ordering tickets: There is a new, very reduced rate for students and “starving artists,” less than half of a general admission ticket. Starving artists, you know who you are.

Spread this link on Facebook, on your blogs, because I’m selfishly hoping for Natural Discourse IV, V, VI…etc. As far as I know, there’s no other programming like this out there. And with each successful Natural Discourse, there’s a greater chance this program will eventually reach your community.

In honor of the occasion, I’m reviving a two-year-old post that includes a link where you can listen to the mellifluous voice of Professor Harrison.

* * *

Strange how, even in the most unlikely places, thoughts can still turn to gardens. Jury duty last week had me confined for a good part of Friday in a large, drab room full of strangers, all of us potential jurors awaiting selection for a trial. 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., lunch break until 1:00 p.m., finally excused at 2:30 p.m., my juror services ultimately never required. I had expected to be there until 5:00 p.m., so when early dismissal was announced I practically skipped down the courthouse hall. Expecting a long, chair-ridden, time sinkhole of a day, I had grabbed a huge amount to read, including The New York Review of Books of October 13, 2011. (Seems I rarely read entire books anymore, just reviews.) Sometime mid-morning, deep in a review of the Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s latest book, “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life,” the writer of the review was so impressive and his bio in the NYRB so brief that I had to google him on the courthouse’s computers. (Thoughtfully, the courthouse had provided five computers for potential jurors to share.) Among many scholarly works, Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford, published a book in 2008 with the intriguing title “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition,” and an excerpt from this essay subtitled “The Vocation of Care,” could be brought up on the courthouse computer (found here). The long day was now whizzing by in a gluttony of reading, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my last plane or train journey. In this essay Prof. Harrison explores the myths of Eden and how they drive our age and history. He feels that faced with the prospect of living forever in paradise, as Odysseus was on the island of Kalypso, humans would wish desperately to return to their homes and care-ridden lives, “For unlike earthly paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call it the mark of Cura.”

Prof. Harrison recounts the parable of Cura, or Care:

“Once when Care was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took up a piece and began to shape it. While she was meditating on what she had made, Jupiter came by. Care asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, he forbade this, and demanded that it be given his name instead. While Care and Jupiter were disputing, Earth arose and desired that her own name be conferred on the creature, since she had furnished it with part of her body. They asked Saturn to be their arbiter, and he made the following decision, which seemed a just one: ‘Since you, Jupiter, have given its spirit, you shall receive that spirit at its death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since Care first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is now a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called homo, for it is made out of humus (earth).'”


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While care is a constant, interminable condition for human beings, specific human cares represent dilemmas or intrigues that are resolved in due time, the way the plots of stories are resolved in due time…in general human beings experience time as the working out of one care after another.

“Here too we find a correlation between care and gardens. A humanly created garden comes into being in and through time. It is planned by the gardener in advance, then it is seeded or cultivated accordingly, and in due time it yields its fruits or intended gratifications. Meanwhile the gardener is beset by new cares day in and day out. For like a story, a garden has its own developing plot, as it were, whose intrigues keep the caretaker under more or less constant pressure. The true gardener is always ‘the constant gardener.'”

Yesterday I found this audio clip of Prof. Harrison ruminating on the jacaranda tree in the quadrangle outside his window at Stanford, and how “cultivation” is an apt word for expressing the kind and depth of attention required to sustain a garden, an education, a democracy. So far, I’ve only listened to this part 1 of 4 and will catch the rest this weekend.

kokedama for slackers

If you keep up with just a few design blogs, there’s probably no need to explain kokedama, or Japanese mossed bonsai strung up like plant puppets, which I posted about here. Those expert creations involve carefully calibrating a plant’s light and soil needs, not to mention expert wrapping, packing, and tying skills. (Design Sponge has provided a good tutorial.) The ethereal effect of tightly wound, dangling orbs bursting with plants is so compelling that I might actually get around to trying it one day.

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But if, like me, you have no tolerance, time, or the requisite fine motor skills for the expert stuff, or if your attention span this busy spring is in tatters, may I suggest joining me in an experimental alternative: Grab a small bromeliad, wrap some green moss around the roots including some of the coarse growing medium it came potted in, tie with raffia, and take advantage of the nooks of trees to wedge in the bastardized kokedama. From conception to wedging, it took me about 15 minutes since I had the green moss and raffia ribbon on hand. Being plant savvy, we know that bromeliads don’t really need a ball of soil to thrive and always appreciate the dappled light shade under a tree and the humid proximity of other growing things. This is basically how many bromeliads grow in the wild anyway, epiphytic, in the crotch of trees. The pittosporum shrub I limbed up (meaning removed its lower branches so it graduated from shrub to small tree) has become the perfect armature for hanging Spanish moss and other tillandsias, and now the little bromeliad kokedama. And the spring plant shows are the best hunting ground for small, affordable bromeliads. The trick is to know when to stop. A gaudy, Southern Gothic effect can take over really fast. Not that that’s a bad thing.

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Where bromeliads have to stay indoors for winter, this would be a nice summer vacation home. The raffia ribbon works fine for bromeliads that will be wedged into branches. Twine or cotton thread might be a better choice for strength if it is to hang. My bromeliad is Neoregelia ‘Punctatissima Rubra’ x ‘Tigrina,’ grown more for its leaves than flowers. I’ll be misting the moss when I mist the tillandsias, about once a week, and will make sure that the bromeliad’s central cups stay filled with water. If mossing a dwarf olive tree seems out of reach, try practicing kokedama on tough, forgiving bromeliads.

staining concrete

One of the more excruciating projects this past summer involved the tiled patio on the east side of the house, photo taken 10/3/10. The indoor tile left over from a friend’s DIY project was a mistake the day we laid it down almost two decades ago. It was the right price, as in free, but I’ve always hated it. It’s incredibly slippery when wet, which is quite often since I’m always watering the containers here. The fact that it was free blinded me to the obvious distinction in traction between indoor and outdoor tile. Our big Newfoundland Toby used to tear through this space, performing a cartoon-character skid when the tiles were wet, like a goofy Newf on ice skates, madly pumping his paws to regain footing before shooting out the gate.


Like a sore tooth, it was a low-grade source of constant annoyance. The solution had to be cheap, of course, and every time I walked through this space I ticked off possible alternatives. Just lay gravel down over it? I actually saw this done on a local garden tour, the entire concrete driveway left in situ but graveled over, a no-sledgehammer method of transforming a utilitarian driveway into crunchy conservatory terrace for potted plants. But I couldn’t just careen from crazy solution to crazier solution all the time.

Then one morning in early summer when I was home alone (6/10/12 to be exact), I grabbed a hammer and chisel, and with no overarching plan knocked off a tile, just to see if I could. And I could. It was surprisingly easy. At that point, I had a tile patio minus one tile, which is no longer an intact patio but basically a demo in progress. So I kept at it, in secret, until every tile was removed. Amazingly, no one came around to the east patio until it was half finished, at which point it became a fait accompli. Some tips on how to get motivated for onerous, back-breaking tasks: Read a particularly incendiary article on a topic sure to push your buttons, grab the hammer and chisel, and have at it. (Good thing it was an election year.) Swing wide, swing hard, substitute issues for tiles, and shatter them into tiny pieces. Wear protective safety glasses.


And for a brief, bare moment there was triumph. Triumph replaced fairly quickly by dismay. Because, you see, removing tile is actually the easy part. It doesn’t feel like the easy part at the time, oh no, but the real sturm und drang is still to come. And that’s when you realize that it’s the mastic/glue/thinset stuff underneath the tile that’s the real enemy. I was pretty handy with the chisel, so I assumed it was a simple matter of patiently, laboriously scraping it off, but it didn’t “pop” off like the tile did. In fact, it didn’t budge at all, so I did some research. Yes, now, not before I started. It was a shock, to put it mildly, to find there were No Easy Answers. Internet research revealed nothing but desperate people who had stumbled into this same quagmire, all looking for some way out, with the list of what couldn’t be done growing the more I researched it. For flooring, you can’t add new tile or stone until the old mastic is removed. In fact, you really can’t do much of anything except stare dumbstruck at the great, unholy mess you’ve created.

The mastic remained until mid August, when in desperation we attacked it with a rented floor resurfacing machine, a monster that leaped and bucked like a crazed bronco, at one point throwing Marty and slamming him into the side of the house. The diamond blades created a head-splitting noise and produced dust clouds that reached white-out conditions. (And all that long day Marty never once said, “What the hell were you thinking?”)


After a miserable day of dust masks, hearing protection, enduring August temperatures in Dust Bowl conditions, we were left with this — almost all traces of the mastic removed.

Now what? Besides the expense, adding anything on top would screw with the grading. And after that ordeal, staining the concrete seemed like a walk in the park. I briefly checked out estimates with professionals, but opted for DIY once again, and a week later we purchased a cheap concrete stain set from a big box store, about $80. The process included four distinct steps, including a light acid wash to clean the surface, the main color, highlights, then a sealer. My biggest concern was for nearby plants getting residue washed into their soil, because a lot of water is used in the process, but all plants survived the stain application fine.


The sprayer had gummed up by the time the highlights were applied, even after carefully cleaning the equipment, which ultimately gave a stippled, paint-spattered effect instead of more even coverage, and the grid from the tile ghosted through. But by this point, we were so thrilled to have survived the ordeal that any result would have been deemed acceptable.


Photo taken 11/1/12 of the stained (non-slippery) concrete.

Seems like every DIY project has its unexpected twists and turns, setbacks, painful lessons, and this one seemed to have more than most. (Sample painful lesson: some things, like flooring tile and wall paper, are forever.) What started way back with poor planning, by using the wrong material, ended up, after more poor planning, surprisingly OK. And with Christmas not far off, who knows? There might possibly be some new outdoor furniture under the tree.

Succulent Experiments: A Tutorial

What a surprise that Apartment Therapy liked the hanging planters for succulents I blogged about recently. The ones made from…um…car jack stands. Which we just happen to have in abundance here at home because there’s a couple 1970’s Volkswagen vans in the driveway that require frequent maintenance up on the jack stands. All work supervised by the VW engineer in chief.


Here’s one of the planters with Crassula expansa subsp. fragilis, with the photo from the original post.


Apartment Therapy said they “would love to see a tutorial.”
That’s all the encouragement MB Maher needed to create a little video on the improbable subject of turning car jack stands into succulent planters.

There’s very little useful instruction happening and really just a lot of silliness but, hey, it’s my first how-to. And, yes, I forgot there were eyeglasses on top of my head. A couple important points I neglected to mention: The excess window screen is eventually cut off, leaving maybe an inch to roll and fold down and tuck in about even with the top of the jack stand. And if you use smaller plants, they can be arranged around the central hanger. The method depicted in the video was chosen because I wanted to start with a bigger, fuller plant.

Car Jack Stand with Succulent, an Anti How-to from MB Maher on Vimeo.

Warm thanks to Apartment Therapy and MB Maher.

March is Women’s History Month

Let’s keep to the theme of horticulture, shall we? And just to make it easy, we’ll choose a
famous and flamboyant practitioner of the garden arts, Vita Sackville-West, creator of the
garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. I doubt there’s a gardener alive who is ignorant of Vita’s
contribution to horticulture or hasn’t placed visiting Sissinghurst on their short list of must-see


A noblewoman precluded by gender from inheriting her dynastic home Knole, a loss she suffered acutely from her
entire life. A diplomat’s wife, accompanying her husband, Harold Nicolson, on his assignments to Persia, where she
botanized and collected bulbs and hated playing the proper wife of a British civil servant.

A lover of women, most famously Virginia Woolf, who loved her in return but could not help but admit Vita wrote
with a “pen of brass.” Nonetheless, Virginia admired her fearlessness, the striding into drawing rooms of London’s
upper classes in jodpurs and pearls, and immortalized her friend in her own book Orlando, the account of a nobleman
yes, man, whose life improbably spans centuries and gender, just as Vita straddled the past and the present,
the crested and cloven, in mind if not body.

Mother of two sons (some contemporaries would suggest she was a rather indifferent mother to Nigel and Ben), she
first cut her gardening teeth at Long Barn before she and Harold bought the ruins of an Elizabethan manor house that was
Sissinghurst. It was here where they perfected their marriage of the formal and informal, where Harold laid out the severe
grid of box-lined beds which Vita filled to bursting with the perennials and old roses like ‘Celestial’ that she adored. It was
here that the white garden was envisioned in the winter of 1949, the “pale garden that I am now planting under the
first flakes of snow.”

Their own marriage also accommodated a rich interplay and complexity, affording the comforts of friendship, home, garden,
and family, his journalism, her poetry, but allowing each to pursue love affairs, in Harold’s case as in hers, with their own sex,
despite which their devotion to each other never wavered.

An award-winning poet (The Land). Recipient of the Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Garden writer for the Observer, with a unique style wholly her own:

The problem of the small garden. I received a letter which went straight to my heart,
more especially as it contained a plaintive cry that unintentionally scanned as a line of verse,
‘I never shall adapt my means to my desires.’ A perfectly good alexandrine, concisely expressing
the feeling of millions, if not of millionaires.”

And another favorite: “We All Have Walls…Often I hear people say, ‘How lucky you are to have
these old walls; you can grow anything against them,’ and then when I point out that every house
means at least four walls — north, south, east and west — they say, ‘I never thought of that.'”

(Surely the reader was bemoaning a lack of walls built with mellow 15th century brick, but
Vita’s advice is still practical, if a bit disingenuous.)

Vita died at age 70, in 1962, of stomach cancer, thought to have been brought on by the lead leaching from
the old cider press at Sissinghurst, leaving Harold bereft and utterly heartbroken. Sissinghurst was ultimately
handed over to the National Trust, despite Vita’s famously vowing to never have that shiny, hard plaque
affixed to her door.

Vita still speaks to gardeners of all means, even the castle-less, when she entreats us to “Follow my steps,
oh gardener, down these woods. Luxuriate in this, my startling jungle.”