Category Archives: climate

Wednesday clippings 4/15/15 (water on the brain)

Finally, a chance to spend some time with the blog again. There’s been lots of reading to catch up on, after the guv dropped that bombshell. (Pass the almonds.*)

One of the best sources of information I’ve found was right there on my blogroll, journalist Emily Green’s Chance of Rain.
In concert with KCET, Emily is writing an amazingly detailed series bristling with helpful links and step-by-step instructions for those wondering what to do with their lawns.
Definitely read Emily’s After the Lawn series before making a call to any lawn removal company that’s eager to snap up your rebate dollars in exchange for wall-to-wall gravel.

Amidst all the finger pointing and accusations, at least we’re beginning to talk about our water situation.
Ironically, after decades of denial, we just can’t seem to shut up about it now.

This entry under the Dot Earth blog at The New York Times rounds up dozens of articles for background reading.

And here’s a great interactive map on water use across the state, city by city, courtesy of The New York Times (“How Water Cuts Could Affect Every Community in California“)

And who knew that a century-old, squatter’s rights mentality governs ground water for agricultural use? Emily Green deciphers the state’s arcane water rights here: (Whose Water Is It Anyway?)

So, yes, I’ve been reading up on the politics of the recent water restrictions. Because it’s not like we need more information on how to design dry gardens.
Reaching into my bookshelf, I can pull out Beth Chatto‘s The Dry Garden, a chronicle of the 30-year-old garden she’s made in East Anglia, England, supported on rainfall alone.
(Which if I remember correctly is, at 30 inches, at least double our 15-inch average pre-drought.)

Then there’s Bob Perry’s landmark resource Landscape Plants for California Gardens.

More recently, there’s the great California resource Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs

Lambley Nursery in Australia is also planting display gardens sustained on mostly rainwater.

At home I’ve been tweaking the garden the past few years to accommodate drier conditions anyway, and our water bill is consistently below average.
Granted, smaller properties like ours will have an easier time adjusting to restrictions.
What lawn we inherited when buying the house was removed over 20 years ago. I’ve never been emotionally attached to closely cropped, bright green turf.
But both neighbors to the east, who cherish their front lawns, have been quietly irrigating them with grey water for years.

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Berkheya purpurea, brought home from Cistus last summer, is a riveting, prickly daisy out of South Africa.
One of countless examples, native and exotic, of gorgeous plants blithely indifferent to dry conditions.
The literature cites berkheya’s habitat as stream banks, so we’ll see how tough it really is.
Once established, anything tap-rooted has a big advantage.

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Hymenolepis parviflora, a dry-tolerant shrub with chartreuse umbels. Nature is a genius.
In the past few years a lot of perennial/biennial/annual umbels have passed through the garden, the toughest probably being cenolophium, melanoselinum, yet even they needed pampering.
This one, however, is the real deal. Hymenolepis is a short-lived shrub from So. Africa that will probably need to be renewed from cuttings in a few years. I’m cool with that.

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Lily ‘Black Charm.’ Fortunately lilies love container life. I find it makes better water sense to grow them in pots to provide the even moisture they crave than in the ground.
The bucket collecting water from the shower is a steady source for container plants now.

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Seeing the Desert Bird of Paradise in rampant bloom wedged into the heat-reflected, bone-dry parkways along Long Beach City College set off a county-wide search for a source.

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The City College’s Hort. Department sold all their stock at their recent plant sale, but one local nursery had a couple plants.
I replaced Salvia ‘Amistad’ with Caesalpinia gilliesii. I know Sunset is marketing this salvia as waterwise, but I’d planted mine far from the hose bib, and it was showing some stress.

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Verbascum in Dustin Gimbel‘s garden, seed collected on his recent trip to Italy. He gave me two of these wavy-leaved mulleins, possibly V. undulatum.
Verbascums are classic perennials for dry gardens.

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Water garden out, agave in. Formerly a small water garden, now a cache pot for Agave franzosinii.
Surrounded by the unstoppable globe mallow Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral,’ a hybrid developed at Hopley’s in the UK.
Planted last fall, I’ve cut back and thinned the globe mallow three times since mid winter.
It’s never stopped blooming and, because of its vigor, I purposely avoid adding water.

One last point, an important one to keep in mind.
It’s no big surprise that trees are a constituency without much representation at the water restriction negotiations table.
I vigorously applaud Emily Green’s emphasis on prioritizing irrigation for our trees.

Landscape reform is sweeping California more as an emergency response to drought and less as a considered piece of town planning. Representatives from three of the region’s largest water providers, a City of Los Angeles arborist, and a Los Angeles County botanist interviewed for this article all seemed surprised when asked if they had consulted one another about the impact on the region’s urban canopy before moving to dry out the lawns in which most of the trees are planted.” After the Lawn Part I

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*”[A]ccording to estimates by the Public Policy Institute of California, more water was used to grow almonds in 2013 than was used by all homes and businesses in San Francisco and Los Angeles put together. Even worse, most of those almonds are then exported — which means, effectively, that we are exporting water. Unless you’re the person or company making money off this deal, that’s just nuts.” – “Making Sense of Water

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.

streetside; your own personal prairie

When my job canceled today, I knew exactly where I wanted to go before breakfast, before even the first cup of coffee. The local neighborhood prairie.
It’s something you don’t see everyday in my coastal neighborhood in Los Angeles County, where a mix of succulents are usually the first landscape choice for stylishly beating the drought.
This is a very new, waterwise, lawn-to-garden conversion built around a matrix of grasses, with the eyebrow grass, Bouteloua gracilis, predominating. There are zero succulents included.
The folksy, barn-red color of the bungalow and wood-and-cattle-panel fence reinforce the expression of pioneer spirit reflected in their choice of landscape.

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This is prairie Southern California style. The blue against the pillars is from plumbago trained on cattle panel.

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A native cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’

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Easy to tell that the house faces east.

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On the south side, Pittosporum is planted along the outside of the fence near the sidewalk. The dark leaves are a Euphorbia cotinifolia.
White roses are most likely ‘Iceberg.’

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Young cypresses behind the fence. So this open, inviting view is only temporary until the privacy screens mature.

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There’s some sort of mesh shade cloth hanging behind the bell.

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The climber Solanum jasminoides will fill in here too.

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Detail of cattle panel fence, last night’s party lights still lit. Paper bags as shades for battery-powered votives maybe?

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I should have waited for sunrise before taking this photo, but it shows how the fence fits into the side entrance.
From this side I could hear sounds in the kitchen of the household waking, so it seemed impolite to linger.

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Unlike my admittedly superficial trial of the eyebrow grass, these are proving that it will thrive in Southern California.
Bouteloua gracilis is the smallest of the prairie grasses.
Their size sets the scale for the rest of the garden, with plants in bloom just grazing above the knee on a walk from the front door to the mailbox.

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Informal paths of decomposed granite wind through the plantings. We’re often warned against using d.g. where it might be tracked indoors onto wooden floors.
Maybe a shoes-off policy is a house rule here. I like that the porch paint is in the same color range as the d.g.

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Among the big sweeps of eyebrow grass are also carex, phormium, lavender, caryopteris, gaura, Salvia greggii, yarrow.

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And a couple clumps of the ruby grass, Melinus nerviglumis

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How much “down” time a prairie-style landscape imposes is a key issue in a climate that handles dormancy almost imperceptibly. There are many plant choices that will see a zone 10 landscape through the year without any bare soil visible at any time or need for radical haircuts. Roughly calculating, if the grasses are cut back, say, before Christmas, they’ll be making growth again in February. On the other hand, many succulents also have periods where they’re not at their best, high summer for example. Knowing the trade-offs when choosing how and with what plants to replace the front lawn is a crucial consideration. What I like about this house and garden is that it seems to know exactly what it wants.

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impressions of Portland gardens (in the zone of filtered sunshine)


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Since returning from touring gardens and nurseries in Portland last week, I’ve been haphazardly researching what makes the Pacific Northwest so full of great gardens and nurseries. Not expecting any definitive answer, just scrounging around for clues. Portland’s enviably soft light at 45 degrees latitude that famously attracts painters and glass artists is one clue. And to account for sheer creativity, I found assorted oddball theories, including one on the geography of personality, which shows the entire West Coast of the U.S. coming up strong in “openness,” which “reflects curiosity, intellect, and creativity at the individual level,” and registering low in neuroticism. (California comes in slightly more neurotic than Oregon and Washington, with the East Coast taking the prize for most neurotic.)


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And then there was the crackpot hucksterism of Erwin L. Weber, paid for by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce in 1924 to encourage settlement in the Pacific Northwest and woo development away from California: ““Filtered sunshine — sunshine filtered thru the clouds — and only a moderate degree of intense sunshine, as exists in the Pacific Northwest, is best for all, and vital to the development of the most energetic peoples…Intense and prolonged sunshine, as exists in the greater portion of the United States is detrimental to the highest human progress. History abounds with the annals of peoples who built up empires and civilizations under the temporary stimulus of intense sunshine. But this same intense sunshine later broke down the stamina and resistance of these peoples, thus causing the fall of their empires and the decay of their civilizations.” (In the Zone of Filtered Sunshine) In his sunshine-is-destiny theory, Mr. Weber appeared to believe it was the strong sun and not the Visigoths that brought down the Roman empire.


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Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ was seen in quite a few of the gardens, a plant that needs to be widely available in Los Angeles.


Weeding through a lot of apocryphal stories and wacky theories is an entertaining byproduct of high-speed Internet, but it invariably leads to a condition that This American Life contributing editor Nancy Updike describes as “Modern Jackass,” which involves expounding at length on a topic about which the speaker actually knows very little. So I’ll stop with the crank theories. Because there is one indisputable, geologic source of all that splendor: the spectacularly fertile Willamette Valley, which stretches from Eugene at its southern end to Portland at its northernmost. As far as I can tell from my admittedly superficial (Modern Jackass) inquiry, this valley was scoured and tumbled by massive ice movements, then filled and refilled with water up to 50 times, when enormous silt deposits were built up, leaving an astonishing depth of loam known as the Willamette silt:

During Pleistocene time, large-volume glacial-outburst floods, which originated in western Montana, periodically flowed down the Columbia River drainage and inundated the Willamette Lowland. These floods deposited up to 250 feet of silt, sand, and gravel in the Portland Basin, and up to 130 feet of silt, known as the Willamette Silt, elsewhere in the Willamette Lowland.” — from “Influence of the Missoula Floods on Willamette Valley Ground Water.”


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Great nurseries are the keystone for supporting a vibrant garden culture, and the Portland area is blessed with dozens of wonderful nurseries, including the three we saw on the tour: Pomarius Nursery, where we had the pre-tour cocktail party, Cistus Nursery, to which I’ve made several pilgrimages in years prior to the tour, and Joy Creek Nursery, also previously visited with friends a few years ago. (The last two have mail-order catalogues, by the way.)

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Commercial dahlia growers beautifully exploit the Willamette silt. Hops grow well here, too, supporting all those microbreweries.

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About 70 miles inland from the coast, Portland can get hot in summer. It can and it did. A couple days over 90 were outright sweltering.

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But generally Portland’s climate brings warm, dry summers and chilly, damp winters.
Fluctuating warm/cold spring temperatures keep the gardeners sharp and the nurseries busy.

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An occasional colder-than-average winter can bring sad losses, but all the gardens we toured were fearless in pushing zones.

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Coddling tender plants has been turned into an art form by Portland gardeners.

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Heading into Portland from the airport, my seat mates on either side of me on the MAX were respectively (a) attending the World Domination Summit and (b) a conference on plant biology.
From the outset, I knew the next few days were going to be interesting, and the exuberant, plant-rich gardens of Portland never let up off the throttle.

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(And now a word from the 2014 Garden Bloggers Fling sponsors, who can all be found here. These sponsors and the volunteer planners make the Fling one of the best garden tours around.)

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More on Portland’s gardens to come.

What to do with your lawn when there’s a drought

Just lose the lawn and don’t look back.
And if and when rainfall in California ever gets back to normal levels, which isn’t much anyway, you just might realize you want your lawn back about as much as you want shag carpeting and avocado-colored appliances again.

That would be my own blunt advice, but for a little more nuance and gentle persuasion, check out Julie Chai’s recent article for The San Francisco Chronicle, “Drought landscaping: 5 inspiring lawn-free yards.”


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One of the gardens under discussion in the article is this one, designed by Beth Mullins. Photo by MB Maher.
Also included are gardens designed by Rebecca Sweet, whose garden was visited in the 2013 Garden Bloggers Fling.


riad means garden

It’s February, so thoughts naturally turn to travel, escape, adventure. But I’m not going anywhere at the moment, so I look harder, stare longer, at local scenes, hoping to squeeze something new and startling out of familiar sights. But walking or biking around town, craving some inspiration from a jewel-box of a front garden, is more often an exercise in frustration than inspiration. In low-rainfall climates like mine, where gardens are in use year-round, they are frequently concealed behind walls, hedges, fences. This is an ancient impulse, in thrall to instincts dating back to the first riad. (See The New York Times images of some of the riads of Taroudant.) Here at home we’ve gotten into the habit of referring to our house and garden as “the compound.” Not in a crazy sect sense, but in the sense of sanctuary. Like the ancient riads of Morocco. The word itself is Arabian for garden. So to everyone whose high walls prevent my enjoyment of your luscious gardens as I pass by, I get it. I really do. And I should, because I’m working on my own riad too.


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Dar al Hossoun, Taroudant, Morocco

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Simon Watson for The New York Times

the new courthouse

Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse, Long Beach, California

The old, crumbling, brutalist-era courthouse where I did a lot of jury duty time was finally, mercifully shuttered, its broken escalators never to confound us again, and the new courthouse went up a couple blocks from the old one, officially opening last September 2013. It’s a massive building, meant to absorb the judicial business of many other tributary courthouses in the Los Angeles Superior Court system that have been closed due to budgetary cutbacks. (All these closures have reminded many again of the truism that “justice delayed is justice denied.”)


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The only public entrance, with its jutting promontory, the ipe-lined overhang, facing east on Magnolia, photo via here

For months I admired the new courthouse from a distance, as I whizzed by in the car to and from the nearby freeway onramp. Compared to the dreary old courthouse, this gleaming glass facade seemed to have more in common with an opera house. Driving on the south side of the new courthouse on Broadway a few weeks ago, I noticed the parkway in bloom with hesperaloe and made a mental note to walk the perimeter that weekend. When I finally did a few laps around the courthouse late in the day on a Saturday, I was so impressed with the landscape architecture that I spent the next week researching the LA responsible, a straightforward-enough question that proved surprisingly frustrating to find an answer to. It turns out the answer was buried in the question. I couldn’t find a name for the landscape architect because the multidisciplinary engineering firm that designed the courthouse, AECOM, is headed by a landscape architect and urban planner, Joseph E. Brown, FASLA. That the building seemed to me so thoroughly integrated with the landscape architecture was because it was conceived that way, literally from the ground up. AECOM’s chief executive, Mr. Brown described his vision for AECOM in a 2009 interview published by ASLA’s The Dirt, Uniting the Built and Natural Environments; “Peering into the Future: An Interview with Joseph E. Brown, FASLA.”*

As a landscape architect and urban designer, I’ll be in charge of the entire set of capabilities including architecture, building engineering, design, planning, economics, and program management. I’ll be leveling the playing field among disciplines as opposed to the current cafeteria-style model of practice, which is inflexible and hierarchical. In our future, engineering and architecture will be calibrated with science, counterbalanced with the fields of ecology and landscape.”

As the comments to the interview show, not everyone agrees with Mr. Brown’s opinion that it will take mega, multidisciplinary firms like his to handle the complex design challenges of 21st century projects. It’s an intriguing proposition guaranteed to piss off principals of boutique firms. And there will be built-in suspicion for any corporate entity that proclaims their enormous size will be both to their benefit and ours (society’s). All matters for future reading and investigation. All I know is what I’ve linked here. And that the courthouse was delivered ahead of schedule.

Continue reading the new courthouse

just another acacia

At plant nurseries, I’m often a hapless Mr. Magoo, peering and squinting at new shapes and wildly filling in the blanks with extravagant theories.

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For example, the twisted, contorted stems of this mystery tree, or shrub grown on standard, reminded me of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).

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But what about that weeping habit of growth? And those nubby protuberances, were they catkins?

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Okay, okay. Up close, I see they’re not catkins but tiny, bristly flower clusters. Long chains of yellow bloom. Could it be a diminutive laburnum?

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Wrong again, Magoo. Not with spidery leaves like that, which bear the hallmarks of a denizen from Down Under, where thread-like leaves are a necessary adaptation to scorching temps.
The tag solved the mystery and stifled further speculation, as much fun as that was. Just another acacia. Acacia merinthophora, the Zigzag Wattle, from Australia.

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I have to say in my defense that keeping track of all the gorgeous acacias in the world would be a life’s work.

(Acacia merinthophora: Small, drought tolerant, evergreen tree, 8-12 feet, hardy to 25-30 F.)

giving thanks for rain

a very polite and well-timed rain arrived after the Thanksgiving holiday, sometime after midnight.
On Wednesday I brought in chairs that summered in the garden for holiday duty.

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The new rain gutters gurgled musically as they efficiently carried rain away from the 100-year-old foundations, a happy ending to the month-long gutter ordeal.
(Marty fell off the roof, ass over tea kettle, but amazingly emerged with only muscle soreness for a couple weeks. Thank you, gods of calamity!)
Listening to the orchestral rhapsody of rain in the gutters, on corrugated roofs, on pavement, kept me busy most of Friday morning.

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I was awake at 5 a.m. today, anticipating the early morning patrol after the rain.

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Prowling the garden to see what the rain brought, I found newly sprouted seedlings of Erodium pelargoniflorum. Rain makes fast work of germination.

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And then I remembered I shook the seed pods of the South African bulb Albuca maxima in this area of the front gravel garden and searched for signs of germination.
These tiny strands may just be baby albucas.

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In bloom it resembles a 5-foot snowdrop.

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A couple of leaves of nearby Agave ‘Jaws’ provide support when it blooms. Rain-soaked agave leaves unfurl quickly, leaving ghostly imprint patterns.

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What the skies looked like late Friday afternoon over the back garden. Could a day be any more perfect?
Wishing you perfection this holiday weekend. And it doesn’t even have to be a whole day. Moments count.

So Cal Hort’s “Coffee in the Nash Garden”


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Potted dwarf pomegranate

Southern California Horticultural Society sent out a “Coffee in the Garden” invitation to its members for a late October visit to Donivee Nash’s garden in Arcadia, redesigned by Judy Horton in 2009. Participation in hort. society events in the past always seemed to founder on the anticipated sludge of freeway traffic, but this one was 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on a cool, foggy Sunday. Most of LA would still be gently snoring under the covers, I reasoned. That I ended up being an hour and a half late as a consequence of the 710 freeway shutting down when two semis caught fire just stiffened my resolve to attend as many such events as possible, whenever and wherever, because there’s really no grace period on the freeways anyway. Arriving late and rattled, I fell in with a group following the designer Judy Horton around the garden, trying to gauge what topics had been covered so I wouldn’t annoyingly repeat the same questions. If I did, Ms. Horton was gracious enough not to let on.

The Garden Conservancy provides some illuminating background on the Nash Garden in their Open Days Program from April 2013:

Donivee Taylor Nash was brought up in Delaware surrounded by the rich culture of nineteenth-century estate gardens—Winterthur and Longwood included. She brought these gardening roots to this 1938 New England-style saltbox thirty years ago. Although the house and landscape have grown and changed, its park-like graciousness is still very much in evidence. Donivee is a collector of beautiful specimen plants; over the years she added roses and perennials to the existing English-style gardens. She added a poolside pavilion (a miniature version of a Beatrix Farrand design at Dumbarton Oaks) to the west end of the pool, which is a cool oasis in hot summers. In 2009, when the couple wanted to unify the backyard and reduce water consumption, they called upon well-known garden designer Judy Horton who accomplished the transformation of their landscape. Out went much of the lawn, in came eighteen trees, including a sycamore grove to screen the tennis court, a birch grove underplanted with hundreds of Japanese anemones, and a mixed grove surrounding an antique Japanese lantern. A fig tree garden was added east of the tennis court, and an olive terrace south of the house. Mediterranean plants are now artfully planted near the living and dining rooms. The golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) still shades the patio as it has for decades, but now is accompanied by a fresh palette of lavender, silver, white, and chartreuse.”

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In its current form, this is a mediterranean-inspired garden that celebrates the light that pours in and bathes the earth 33 degrees north of the equator.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this brilliant light all my life.
(When I was young and wanted nothing but to leave, it was intrusive, unforgiving, a relentless glare. Now love has the upper hand. Just keep a lime green umbrella handy.)

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The estate-like spaciousness is emphasized by broad, low hedges of westringia, teucrium and rosemary, which are also sometimes clipped into balls or left to run in long bands along the lawn that has been greatly reduced and reproportioned by Ms. Horton. These tough shrubs require little supplemental irrigation. It’s interesting to view this garden’s recent transition to a more water thrifty profile in light of November being the 100-year anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The aqueduct’s chief designer William Mulholland envisioned semi-arid Los Angeles would “blossom like a rose,” a prophecy many of us have come to realize became fulfilled at much too high a cost.

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I love the trick of breaking free from the belt of trees at the perimeter and planting new trees forward into the lawn, adding more depth and interplay with shapes and planes.
The remaining lawn seems to become less assertive a feature in its own right and is integrated into the overall landscape as just another choice of ground cover.

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The golden light of the foothills sets the fine-leaved mediterranean plantings shimmering.
Strong, smooth blades of iris pierce the gravel, which the Santa Barbara daisy Erigeron karvinskianus freely seeds into, as does Verbena bonariensis.

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Ms. Horton said this supposed non-fruiting olive tree fruited this year.

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The sweep of a glittering landscape is everywhere emphasized as with this choice of underplanting with Cerastium tomentosum.

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Near the house the garden was full of salvias in bloom. Japanese anemones too.

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Detail of the Dumbarton Oaks-inspired pool pavilion

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The planting of roses fronting the property along the street speaks to the evolution of the garden from English-inspired rose garden to its sleek and lean lines today.

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Having arrived late, I stayed until the coffee things had been cleared away. Some gardens are just hard to leave.