a succulent garden in February

On the way to picking up a family member’s weekly box at the CSA Growing Experience in North Long Beach last week, I took the opportunity to drive slowly through the surrounding neighborhood of mostly Spanish-style homes. It was drizzling again, still a charming novelty after years of drought. Because of that drought, there’s very little front lawn left in these neighborhoods, and what’s filling the turf vacuum are all sorts of interesting mashups. I was ready to head for the main thoroughfare again, when I caught a peripheral flare of orange as high as a street parking sign. Could it be? Several K-turns and U-turns later, I found this gem of a garden:

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That promising orange flare was everything I hoped for. If this is Aloe marlothii, it’s the biggest one I’ve seen outside of a botanical garden.
Amidst all the post-drought, lawn-replacing, tentative start-up front gardens, here’s a garden planted long ago and simply for a love of these plants.

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Could the shaggy-headed aloe on the left be ‘Goliath’? (A tree aloe notorious for growing more leaves than the trunk can support and therefore prone to toppling over.)
Whatever its name, it’s a magnificent specimen, with no underplanting to obscure the trunks.

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Here’s a better view of that tree aloe. The experts say to grow them lean, and you’ll have a better chance of keeping them upright.

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I assumed the other trees were palo verdes, but under these overcast skies it’s hard to tell.
The architectural massing of plants builds closest to the house and lessens at the sidewalk.
With strategic positioning of plants, the house is both screened and open to the neighborhood.

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After all this rain, the d.g. still meets the sidewalk in a disciplined line. It was obviously laid down properly, with a good base, then compacted with a roller.
Having the planting on a deep setback from the sidewalk is a neighborly gesture to reassure the spiky plant phobic.

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I wonder how much editing was done before this vision emerged.
This garden struck me as the antithesis of most succulent gardens —
which focus mainly on understory, ground-cover planting that builds tapestries out of all the amazing shapes and leaf colors succulents offer.
Here the huge specimens dominate, surging skyward from an austere base of decomposed granite. A very clean, dramatic effect.

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A great example of the range of moods and styles possible when planting with succulents.

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Long Beach’s illustrious architect Edward Killingsworth

New Year’s Resolution No. 22: Check my hometown newspaper out more often. Included in the Los Angeles Times end-of-year roundup on “The 11 most popular home and garden stories of 2016,” was a piece I had missed that contained some intriguing back story on a house and garden that has been casually mentioned on the blog a couple times. That cool little house I’ve been admiring on countless dog walks happens to have been built by Long Beach’s most famous architect Edward Killingsworth (1917-2004). Never heard of him? I hadn’t either. Unlike other MCM Case Study architects like Eames, Neutra, and Saarinen, Killingsworh hasn’t become a household name. From what little reading I’ve done so far, I get the sense that branding just wasn’t where he focused his energies.


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(photo Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Not that this is a Case Study house, that experiment in residential architecture sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine in the post-war years.
The Frank House in nearby Naples holds that enduring honor.
Strangely enough, my dog-walk house wasn’t meant to survive at all, but was hastily constructed in the 1950s to function as a temporary design model for a proposed project, the 12-story “Marina Towers.”
The Marina Towers condo project was ultimately abandoned, but Killingsworth couldn’t bear to tear down the little model house, so it was rented for a time then ultimately sold.
Apparently, subsequent rehab attempts were not kind to the architect’s vision.

The above photo shows the view of the house I’m familiar with from the vantage point of dog walks on the park across the street. That Yucca rostrata always catches my eye.

From a December 2013 post:

What they say about good bones for faces and houses applies to gardens too. Good bones will see you through some tough times. I’ve posted just a couple photos on this sweet little house and garden before. The front facade is entirely of glass, so one can’t be too obnoxious with the camera under such circumstances. But walking Ein on the park across the street from this house a couple days ago, I noticed that the landscape was being worked on, and heaps of aloes and agaves were strewn on the walkways. I gave the leash to Marty and looked closer. The house was empty. No more George Nelson bubble lamps or butterfly chairs on the balcony. The house had sold! And what on earth were the new owners doing to the garden? Did they have a deep-seated aversion to desert plants? If so, I needed to talk to them about those enormous Yucca rostrata ASAP.”

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(photo Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

View through the front of house to the offshore oil islands and Bluff Park, where we used to walk the corgi. (Now 14, Ein sticks pretty close to home.)

More from the December 2013 post:

I am normally not an overly bold person, but I found myself striding across the street and up to a couple of surprised men standing amongst masses of discarded Agave attenuata. It was the new owner and the gardener, who wasn’t removing the plants but merely thinning them. The owner was an architect and loved the house and garden but said both were in terrible shape. He told me he had been seduced by the furniture seen through the glass wall, too, but when it was all removed and he gained ownership of the house, his heart sank. The magic was gone. Now he wondered if he hadn’t made a terrible mistake. The place was a mess and had not been well cared for. Amazing what a spell all the classic mid century modern furnishings had cast, and how well even a neglected desert garden looks after itself. I told him it had always been my favorite house among the much bigger mansions that lined the street opposite the park, and this seemed to brighten him up considerably. He even showed me into the backyard, which was graveled and already had mature privacy screens of clumping bamboo. It was a gem, even if the interior’s cork floors were in terrible shape. The new owner was knowledgeable about plants (clumping vs. running bamboo) and energetic. There might be a few more dragons to slay than he bargained for, but the house and garden would no doubt surpass what was here before.”

(Check out the Los Angeles Times’ slide show on the stressful but ultimately happy renovation here.)

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(photo Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The backyard in 2016.

The new owner/architect I interrupted that day in 2013 was Ted Hyman, a partner in the firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects.
He and his wife Kelly found out the house was for sale in 2013. At that point, conventional waterfront real estate wisdom was in favor of a teardown.
But the Hymans resisted the teardown route and embarked on an arduous restoration.
So I have the Hymans to thank for my continued enjoyment of this lovely house and garden on future walks (with me pushing the corgi strapped into his dog walker).

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(photo Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

And how does one accomplish a faithful restoration of a home that was never meant to last?
Lots of love and respect for the spirit of the design along with copious research, including a road trip to Santa Barbara to consult the original 7-page plans.
And everything has turned out splendidly. A daughter’s wedding has been held here, and Killingsworth’s widow Laura paid an approving visit, her first since 1958.

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Killingsworth’s Opdahl house via Dwell

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Killingsworth’s Spalding House via SFCurbed

It is so good to be in a space where the spirit can soar, and, with all of this, it must soar with the sense of balance and proportion set up by the spaces we create.”
Edward Killingsworth, “Contemporary Architects.”


revisiting a local succulent garden

I haven’t revisited the garden I posted about here in person, though I’d love to.
But I did find outtakes, photos that, for whatever reason, I didn’t include with the original post, mostly detailed closeups that were repetitive.
Some people have no trouble at all with intricately complex, multi-layered plantings. And they make it look so easy.

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Photos were taken in December, when autumn leaves clung to the plantings but were swept off the walkways.

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Fine jewelry, hand-made shoes, a good meal, exciting painting and sculpture, all things universally appreciated.
Yet how many appreciate the knowledge and craft that went into this?

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Among so much generalized plant blindness, there are occasionally those who can really see.

beyond the lawn; notes on 2016 LA Garden Conservancy Open Days

Since the 5/7/16 tour, Gov. Jerry Brown surprised us all by announcing that mandatory water restrictions are now suspended except for agriculture. Water use policies will revert back to the local level.
So pat yourself on the back for enduring those spartan showers, ditching the lawn, adding in more permeability to your garden, and overall diligent water use reduction efforts.
(But you still can’t hose down your driveway, so get over that.) Even so, this might be a good moment to emphasize the big picture. From The California Weather Blog:

Nearly all of California is still ‘missing’ at least 1 year’s worth of precipitation over the past 4 years, and in Southern California the numbers suggest closer to 2-3 years’ worth of ‘missing’ rain and snow.
These numbers, of course, don’t even begin to account for the effect of consecutive years of record-high temperatures, which have dramatically increased evaporation in our already drought-stressed region.”

And the bigger, possibly more sobering picture is that even in non-drought years, Los Angeles averages only 15 inches of rainfall. So the problem of too little water for too many people is not going away. Ever. And it was a problem long before the governor hit the red alert button. But you know what? Other cultures have already figured this out, this business of crowding ourselves into hot, dry lands. And there’s great examples all around town. Landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power’s garden on the recent GC Open Days tour is a case study of these principles. And while we all obsess over what to do with the lawn, her almost 20-year-old garden suggests we might also think about where outdoors to eat, nap, cook, read, chat with friends, daydream, warm by a fire, take shelter from the sun, catch an ocean breeze, inhale clouds of jasmine — the scope of possibilities extends far beyond the boundaries of that poster child for this drought, the lawn, and what replaces it.

I liked this line from that keen observer of all things Southern Californian, Joan Didion, in the 5/26/16 New York Review of Books. It easily applies to our attitudes about water in Los Angeles:

I have lived most of my life under misapprehensions of one kind or another.” Boy howdy, you said it, Ms. Didion. Don’t we all? (“California Notes” NYRB 5/26/16)

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This little table and chairs is at the front of Ms. Power’s small Santa Monica house, just off the street, entirely screened by plantings.
A short staircase zig-zags up from the sidewalk through retaining-wall beds filled with agaves and matilija poppies, depositing visitors in this shady “foyer.”
A potted cussonia at the entrance to a garden is always an auspicious sign of good things to come.

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Also in the front courtyard is the first of many small fountains and pools. Implicit is the strong affirmative that, yes, water is precious stuff.
Watch it glisten and sparkle in the sun, ripple in the wind, draw in birds. Just don’t ever take it for granted.

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Narrow passage to the back of the house, a jasmine-scented journey this time of year.

The forgotten spaces in most people’s houses — the side yards and setbacks — I look at as opportunities.”
(all quoted material from “Power of Gardens” by Nancy Goslee Power)

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Already you can sense the strong interplay between indoors and outdoors, the feeling of shelter extending beyond the house, eager to envelope and claim the outdoors as well.

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Up those distant steps leads to the banquette in the photo below.

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Ms. Power’s “napatorium.”

Walled gardens offer so many solutions still relevant in the modern world.
They give privacy and safety from the outside environment, often perceived as hostile.
The living spaces of the house open onto exterior spaces, and outdoor dining is possible in courtyards in good weather most of the year
.”

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[T]he more you define a space, the larger it becomes.”

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The view from the kitchen door.

I designed the water to be seen all the way through the house and make a strong central axis that pulls you outside.”

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A small apartment/cottage shares the wall with the rill.

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Dining area off the kitchen, where the colors warm up.

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The kitchen, windows open to the narrow, pebbled side passageway, a nook in the wall for a potted plant just visible through the window.

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More shaded seating just off the kitchen.

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Everywhere were the tell-tale signs that the outdoors were as lived in as the indoors, if not more so.

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From the street, you’d have no idea what lay up that small flight of steps off the sidewalk, so tours like this are much appreciated.
I wanted Casa Nancina to reveal herself slowly…I didn’t want my landscape to stand out.
It needed to be discreet and feel as if it belonged to the neigbhorhood
.”

streetside succulent garden

Some lucky neighborhoods have stimulating examples to study of successful front gardens made without a blade of lawn.
This example is in my hometown, Long Beach, Calif, coastal zone 10, western exposure, December 2015, drought-stricken, irrigation restrictions imposed since last spring.
The garden looks to be of a mature enough age where offsets of original plants have been added to infill and increase the size of individual plant colonies.
Drifts of massed plants, whether herbaceous or succulent, enable strong rhythmic patterns to emerge.
Replanting front gardens that were designed to hold flat planes of lawn is undeniably tricky.
The process needs tinkering and fiddling as some plants fail and others succeed, or the vigorous overrun slower growers. (It’s called “making a garden.”)
The dark mulch on the lower right covers a brand-new landscape next-door dotted with tiny succulents of uniform size, mostly small kinds like echeverias that will take years to fill in.
The garden on the left benefits from big, statuesque plants like ponytail palms, Furcraea macdougalii and Euphorbia ammak, now reaching mature sizes.
There’s also shrubby stuff as a backdrop, like Salvia apiana and Echium candicans, along with the shrub-like succulent Senecio amaniensis.


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Near sunset, the darkened sky was hinting at the rain to come later.

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In this photo alone, I spy several kinds of agaves, including desmettiana, macroacantha, bracteosa, parryi, ‘Blue Glow.’
Panels of small-scale ground covers knit the rosettes together.

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I like the careful buildup of heights and volumes.

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With aloes nestled against agaves. I think the owner has tucked in Salvia nemerosa here, too, for summer bloom.
I also noted some large, shrubby salvias against the house, what looked like the mexicana hybrid ‘Limelight.’

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Agaves ‘Blue Glow’ and possibly stricta.

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Kalanchoe grandiflora and Euphorbia tirucalli

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Good winter color on the Sticks on Fire. We’ve occasionally dipped into the 40s in December.

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On the opposite side of the central path is a beautiful specimen of Euphorbia ammak, a clump of pedilanthus, opuntia, and needle-leaved agaves, possibly geminiflora, stricta or striata.
One of the shrubs as tall as the euphorbia is an overgrown Echium candicans, which has been sheared into a hedge and functions now as a boundary between the two properties.
A young Aloe marlothii is in the foreground. The light was just about gone at this point.

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Not sure whether this is Agave stricta or geminiflora, but it’s set off wonderfully against the rocks and Santa Rita prickly pear.

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Agave potatorum with lots more pups tucked under its skirt of leaves.

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There’s a huge, blooming-size clump of what can only be a puya along the main path to the front door.

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Puya, right?

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Another look at that inflorescence as the sky darkens. Big leaves of flapjack kalanchoes and Kalanchoe synsepela in the foreground.

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Just a great source of inspiration for the neighborhood.

CMU bench/planter at Manaow

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I finally found a moment when Manaow’s CMU bench/planter could be investigated minus the usual throngs of people.
That window of quiet was around 7 a.m. in the morning, when the only activity at this east end of Broadway was the Laundromat next-door opening for business.
I discovered this clever incursion into the parking lot when Mitch and Jessica took me out to breakfast at the The Potholder a couple doors down.
As can be seen from the parking grid and stripes, this Thai restaurant hacked the parking lot for some outdoor dining and came up with a strong graphic design to define the area.

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A hack within a hack. As far as I know, the credit for the original CMU planter hack goes to Annette Gutierrez of Potted.
The humble concrete masonry unit’s stackable, Lego-like potential has since been exploited over and over in seemingly endless planter configurations.
There hasn’t been this much fun with concrete since Frank Lloyd Wright played with the stuff.

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The bench is why I found this one so intriguing.
I’ve been mulling this over and haven’t decided if/where to build a bench of my own.

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The relative permanence and lack of mobility make it a poor fit for me, a chronic shuffler of objects.

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Marty is so ready to start in on this project.

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And the fat and happy succulents are really selling it.

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Have you noticed the unusual placement of the pavers? Gravel-filled space between the pavers gradually widens at the table and chairs area.
(Table and chairs had been brought inside overnight.)

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And then the gap closes on the pavers in front of the entrance.

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Although we haven’t decided to build it yet, this little project’s influence is already being felt.
I knew exactly what container I wanted for the Queen Victoria agave I rescued from the tree litter of the front garden.
It’s not CMU, but a concrete/fibeglass formulation, a kind of CMU lookalike, a hack of a hack…


terraced Spanish Colonial Revival house & garden

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For those of you who enjoy gawking at houses and their gardens as much as I do, here’s a look at the house that belongs with this post from September 2014.
I don’t think I looked up much from the ground level in that 2014 post.

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I do have a tendency to neglect to step back and get the big picture.

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Nice to see the anigozanthos in bloom. Imagine those kangaroo paws red or orange. I think the straw yellow is perfect.
Because of this garden, I’ve been planting every sesleria I can get my hands on, including Sesleria ‘ Greenlee’ and S. autumnalis ‘Campo Verde.’

There might be a short road trip in the works for my weekend. Enjoy yours!

P.S. The Huntington Botanical Garden’s International Succulent Introductions 2015 catalogue is now available.
Just save one of the Cuban agaves for me!

traditional with a twist

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Here’s another house nearby that warrants a second look and always brings a smile.

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It’s the traditional front lawn setup with a bit of a twist. All the supporting plants are exclusively dry garden plants, some rare like the cycads.

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Every plant in the landscape is a “specimen,” like the dasylirion, cycads, potted ponytail palms.
There’s definitely a collector at work here, but a restrained collector with a conservative streak.
That’s my Sherlockian take, anyway, to explain leaving the lawn in place.
(And I mean conservative in temperament, not in a political sense.)
The front porch is given that bristly moustache from horsetail reeds grown in an unseen container.

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Potted tree aloe, palm, and more cycads. I have no idea which cycads they are.
I haven’t been bitten by that bug yet, thankfully, since cycad collecting can be an expensive habit.
And/or a habit that requires great patience while these Jurassic-era plants slowly make size.

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Foundation planting on the wild side.
Overcast skies courtesy of our “June gloom,” one of my favorite times of year.
I feel cheated when June doesn’t gloom up but instead marches straight into bright and sunny.

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I love this bungalow, but sorting and choosing these photos, with the pea-green color of the house, green roof, and the lawn, is making me a bit queasy.

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This house in the same neighborhood makes an interesting exercise in compare-and-contrast.
Do you prefer the green lawn or the buff-colored decomposed granite with dry garden plants?

Pepper Tree courtyard

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Spotted locally around dusk, a front-house courtyard with Pepper Tree (Schinus molle), stone paving “grouted” with Dymondia margaretae.

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Planting includes euphorbias, agaves, phormiums (or dianella) a small Cercis ‘Forest Pansy,’ and purple irises in bloom near the side gate.
There may possibly be bauhinias as well (pink flowers at roof height).

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Plantings are repeated the length of the entrance garden, including a cercis on either side of the front walkway, another pepper tree at the far end.
Aeonium-filled black urns flank the arched entranceway.

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It struck me as such a vibrant example of reimagining the space from the front door to the sidewalk.
Imagine how dreary and perfunctory the same images would be if replaced with lawn.
Private yet still inviting, full of interest but mindful of an overall quiet balance, showcase and shady retreat in one stroke. Nailed it!


driveby gardens; sundown on the Miracle Mile

I worked in the “Miracle Mile” stretch of Wilshire Boulevard on Thursday, approximately the 5600 block. In the surrounding neighborhoods, the houses had gardens that looked promising and full of interest, so during a 20-minute lunch I dashed out to have a look. There have been discrete garden design phases in Southern California, and this neighborhood seemed to have examples of quite a few of them. There was a phase for a while where ‘Iceberg’ roses and ‘Silver Sheen’ pittosporum seemed to be in every garden, and then things got very serious and monochromatic and shrubby, with myoporum, westringia, and helichyrsum. (I happen to love serious, shrubby gardens too.) There were quite a few excellent, succulents-only front gardens. But most exciting for me, I encountered my first blooming beschorneria in Los Angeles, so I know there’s hope for mine, but definitely not this year and possibly not even next year. I forget how massive the rosette is at blooming size, and mine has quite a ways to go still. I couldn’t wait for work to end so I could head back out again, this time with the camera I try to always bring along. But work stretched past 6 o’clock, and it was nearly sundown by the time I set out in search of the beschorneria on the way to catching a bus then a train home.

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En route to the beschorneria, I found this leucospermum in full backlit glory, rivaling the sunset in brilliant peachy gold.
Genius or accidental, the siting was spectacular, and in a hellstrip no less.

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Of all the South African plants in wide use in Los Angeles, a mature leucospermum is still something of a rare sight.

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The spoor of a plant nut was evident in the hellstrip. That looks to be a Senecio decaryi jutting out on the left of the leucospermum.
Including a phormium, euphorbias, aeoniums, underplanted with Senecio mandraliscae.

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It was almost too dark for photos by the time I found the beschorneria again.

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These were right at the property line, overhanging the sidewalk. Beschorneria are frost-tender succulents from Mexico and Central America.
A lengthier revisit to the neighborhoods around the Miracle Mile is definitely in order, judging by the treasures on just two of its streets.
I’ve always found that interesting gardens are infectious, and where’s there’s one or two, there’s bound to be more.