Category Archives: MB Maher

the light is left on at Rancho Reubidoux


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I’ve been dreading completing this post, but since Reuben and Paul have officially decamped from their house and garden at Rancho Reubidoux as of last week and moved into their new home, it’s time to unpack these last images and move on as well. Continue reading the light is left on at Rancho Reubidoux

Bloom Day May 2017 (and assorted garden projects)

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Photo taken last night, when I still hoped I could squeak this post in under the Bloom Day deadline, the 15th of every month, and be righteously on time, but it was not to be. Flash of red is from the ladybird poppies, P. commutatum, mostly over but left in situ for reseeding.

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Never loads of flowers but always plenty of rosettes.

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Still, if you look closely, the plants are procreating. Like the little echeverias that began to bloom while I was away.

Continue reading Bloom Day May 2017 (and assorted garden projects)

a Hollywood Hills garden in three acts

(This Sunday, May 7th, you have another opportunity to visit this extraordinary garden. Details here.)

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The recent APLD watershed garden tour was exemplary in every way that such tours should be; lots of interesting and pertinent design solutions for SoCal dry gardens that illustrated ways to channel and marshall water and plant according to optimal conservation principles without sacrificing design. And there was one garden on the tour which was the home of designers, which is an entirely different animal than a designer-client collaboration. In their own gardens, designers constantly edit and replant, sharpen the focus, ruthlessly remove weak performers.

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This garden is a personal laboratory, a freewheeling, unfettered deployment of adventurous planting and design ideas nestled snugly into the Hollywood Hills. During a subsequent late afternoon visit, over glasses of prosecco, I learned a bit of the garden’s story as it evolved over the three major phases of its existence.

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The garden in its current iteration is between three to four years old. The terracing is believed to have been started back in 1947, just a few years after the house was built. The first owners unleashed ivy on the terraces and turfed what level areas they could, what you might call defensive landscaping. When Eugene McCarthy and Carla Fry moved in, the ivy and turf became short-timers. Eugene, a property master for many films, is instinctively attracted to the strong, sculptural outlines of plants such as tree aloes, and began clearing and planting as he collected specimens from farmers markets and even the big box stores. A trio of Aloe marlothii he planted are now ten years old and were in spectacularly synchronous bloom for the first time earlier this year.

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Sadly, Carla died in 2002, and it wasn’t until Eugene and Johanna Woollcott found each other that the garden’s current form began to take shape maybe three to four years ago. Needless to say, it was their mutual love of plants that brought them together, and the garden vividly celebrates every bit of that bond.

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Checking the blog after the visit, I realized I had already seen some of Johanna Woollcott’s design work (Wild Gardens LA) via the Venice Home & Garden Tour some years ago. Johanna brought clarity and coherence to the terraces and planting. Some terraces were knocked down and leveled for larger planting areas, new paths and retaining walls poured. Unless I miscounted, there are now three main terraces holding back the hillside.

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In the new framework, with all ivy and turf now banished, only the best of nonthirsty plants were allowed admittance to the garden.

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There’s more detailed photos of the stair plantings in a previous post here.

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The sitting area at the topmost terrace. Unfortunately, none of us thought to straighten the rug.

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Looking down on the big patio on what I’m calling the second or mid-level terrace.

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Detail of the original retaining wall, which I’m told is holding up amazingly well decades later. Eugene said a nearby Wallace Neff house gave them the idea of pairing the retaining walls with big saucers of aeoniums.

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Serpentine, sinuous, sexy. I love terracing. And so do these deliriously happy plants.

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A new retaining wall/bench/flight of stairs starts at ground level at the street-level entrance to the garden and runs up the hillside alongside the house, meeting up with the first terrace. I’ve seen some incredible concrete projects this spring, and this two-tiered retaining wall, done in one pour, ranks up there with the most impressive.

The young trees to the left of the wall are a trio of gingkos planted to shade the house. Other trees include acacias, including the Pearl Acacia, P. podalyrifolia, Palo Verde trees, a cork oak, and an impressively august specimen of the ‘Dr. Hurd’ manzanita.

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Upon asking, Johanna said Eugene simply came home one day with the horse, as if that was the most ordinary of occurrences. And for them, I’m sure it is.

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Underfoot is alternatively gravel and decomposed concrete, and on the terraces broken concrete is used for paths. Johanna says that, despite appearances, the boundary metal fence is not CorTen.

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Many of the objects are collected from their travels.

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Like this ornate urn from Morocco, holding back a vast sea of foaming peppermint pelargoniums.

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View of the house rising out of the lush planting, with the gingkos mentioned above.

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A gabion bench in the lower garden is filled with more treasures and mementos.

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The garden unfolds in discovery after discovery of myriad details and autobiographical incidents.

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The fireplace on the large patio at the back of the house holds many such trophies from travels.

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The large patio seen from overhead. Those are four potted smoke trees against the house. Lots of entertaining/partying happens here. I’m told celebratory prosecco is freely poured on Friday nights, just as it was on this one.

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Ruby, the current canine mistress of the garden, is a ringer for this garden statue.

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And everywhere, fabulous planting.

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If you go (details here), let me know what else you find out about this remarkable hillside garden.

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Johanna and Eugene are the nicest garden hosts and historians and will tirelessly answer any questions.

photos by MB Maher.

catching up with Dustin Gimbel

This has really been Dustin’s year, and I think a recap is in order.

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Dustin Gimbel, Second Nature Garden Design

In early 2017 Dustin and Potted launched his Point Pot.

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Long Beach’s own “communal dining space,” Steelcraft, let us play around with some Point Pots at their shiny new outdoor venue, which cleverly repurposes multiple shipping containers to house food vendors. (Thank you, Kimberly!)

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After all, Long Beach is one of the biggest ports in the world, and containers stacked and stretching seemingly to the horizon is a familiar sight now. (But it wasn’t always so. I vividly remember my dad’s “On The Waterfront” cargo hook in the back of our VW bug before the harbor was fully containerized and goods still came in burlap sacks or loose piles in ships’ holds that had to be stevedored by big muscles. Malcom McLean forever changed all that.)

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The Point Pot at Steelcraft seemed like a good fit. I’m a fan of the potential of empty vessels of all kinds, whether filled with tillandsias or ramen shops. It’s all a matter of scale.

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Love the name of this microbrewery. (Los Angeles aka Smog City — might as well own it.)

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Dustin’s pace this year makes me feel like I’m moving at the speed of an old Galapagos tortoise. He’s a one-man artists’ colony. Luckily, there will be a couple opportunities for you to catch up with Dustin this spring.

The first opportunity will be April 27-30 at the Southern California Spring Garden Show, where he’s been a frequent contributor. I have no idea what he’s whipping up this year so I’ll be as surprised as you.

The second opportunity will be a tour of his private garden May 6-7 via the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour. It was at Mary Lou’s legendary, much-loved nursery many years ago that I first met teen-aged Dustin, before he apprenticed at Great Dixter, Heronswood, Greenlee’s nursery, etc, etc.

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And his private garden is currently looking exceptionally fine, having been primped and and tricked out for a photo shoot that will grace the pages sometime next year of one of the West Coast’s premiere garden/lifestyle magazines. Ferrying Mitch to the airport a couple days ago, I took a detour to Dustin’s and pushed Mitch out the door to grab some quick photos. Because everything was just so perfect.

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Fermob with matching California poppies. Perfect, right?
Dustin was hoping the Aristolochia gigantea would be in full bloom for the shoot, but alas gardens don’t always cooperate with such human timetables. But I bet it’s in bloom for the upcoming tour.

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Orange planter in back is vintage, the low white bowls in foreground are Dustin’s.

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This might be my favorite out of his new Robby the Robot/Forbidden Planet series.

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The shelving was newly built to accommodate the burgeoning number of pieces coming out of his studio just behind that wall.
The center, legged piece has been dubbed, if I remember correctly, “lambypants.” (Or maybe I just made that up.)

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Ripe lemons snuggle up to the totems now.

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The aristolochia vine just coming into bloom.

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The front garden this year is predominantly white, silver and green, with touches of orange from aloes, leucospermum, and leonotis.
Linen-white Minoan lace, the umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora, is just coming into bloom among agaves, weeping acacias, and lots of other treasures.
See for yourself this May. Check out the maps and other info on the self-guided tour here.

All photos by MB Maher

a garden visit with bixbybotanicals

It all started with a very sweet and generous offer of some foliage for vases. Via bixbybotanicals Instagram, I learned that his Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ was in full winter dress, and he was willing to share some of the largesse with anyone in Long Beach. The South African conebushes are prized for their long vase life, and since my leucadendrons at home are too young to pillage for vases, I jumped at the chance to pick up some ruddy-leaved branches.

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The Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ in question, so you’ll know in case you’re ever offered some branches. Just say yes. And you never know — not only did we leave with a bucket stuffed with cone bush branches, but also some delicious duck eggs, which were ravenously consumed for dinner that night.

Okay, great taste in shrubs and garden fowl — who is this guy anyway?

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The shorthand answer to that question? Just an Italian Renaissance art scholar/teacher and incredibly busy father of two with a big love of dry garden plants and a strong affinity for garden design.

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Of course, I immediately began pestering Jeremy for a return visit with the AGO crew (Mitch), and he graciously agreed to let us explore.

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And on an average suburban lot, there is an incredible amount to explore. The parkway is filled with California natives, including milkweed and self-sowing Calif. poppies, making a plant-rich corridor between the hell strip and the front garden.

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And here’s where Jeremy’s garden and other front-yard lawn conversions part ways. Just behind that thick band of plants bordering the sidewalk is this surprisingly private piece of serenity, just feet from the street. I don’t think I’ve seen a river of blue chalk sticks/Senecio mandralsicae used to better effect. And, yes, Jeremy says they do require a stern hand to keep them in check. A ‘Creme Brulee’ agave peeks through salvia, the red echoed by callistemon in bloom opposite.

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All anchored by the shiny simplicity of that lone stock tank. (There’s another one in the back garden.)

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I love how he took featureless, flat panels of lawn and sculpted the space into a multi-faceted garden that works for the family, wildlife, and the neighborhood. A strong sense of enclosure without a fence — who knew? My own street-side (and mangy) box hedges are striking me as unnecessarily claustrophobic now.

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Jeremy seems to have effortlessly managed balancing the broad strokes that strongly lead the eye with the detailed planting that rewards closer inspection. I counted a total of three Yucca rostrata, but there may be more.

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The front garden was started in 2012, when it was nothing but a flat expanse of lawn and a couple palms. Not a trace of either is left. (Those are a neighbor’s palms in the background.)

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Now there’s nooks to watch the kids chase butterflies.

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That Salvia canariensis on the corner of the house behind the nasturtiums is going to be stunning in bloom.

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Mixed in amongst the nasturtiums is the charmingly nubby Helenium puberulum, a Calif. native.

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And opposite the chairs and table is another gorgeous bit of planting, deftly angled to screen the house on the driveway side. Obviously a collector of choice plants, nevertheless his design instincts are manifest in subtle screening and massing for privacy balanced by openness/negative space. A sentinel arbutus stands apart, with the strong afternoon sun blurring the outline of a 5-foot Leucadendron discolor ‘Pom Pom’ to the arbutus’ left, one I’ve killed a couple times. Jeremy admitted to lots of failures, too, but his successes are envy-inducing.

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Encircling ‘Pom Pom’ is a detailed planting of aloes, yucca, golden coleonema, senecio, Euphorbia lambii. Like me, he browses for plants at local H&H Nursery as well as flea markets.

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Detail of arbutus bloom.

But where are those ducks? we asked, hoping to steal a peek into the back garden. The ruse worked.

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To visit the ducks, we were led behind a sleek black fence at the end of the driveway guarded by Acacia cognata.

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And a dombeya, the highly scented Tropical Hydrangea. Jeremy said he chased this small tree’s identity for years.

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All was finally revealed during a visit to Disneyland, where the dombeya was growing, and labeled, in Toontown. In an instant, the silly and the sublime converged.

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Meet the ducks. Mural in the background was done by Jeremy’s brother.

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I want ducks!

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I asked how the gardens were handling the recent (relatively) heavy rain, and Jeremy said the front garden came through like a champ. But there has been a bit of flooding in the back garden.

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I’m sure I was told but can’t remember who built the duck enclosure. What duck wouldn’t obligingly lay as many eggs as possible in such cheerful digs?

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There’s a serious container fanatic at work here too…

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A termite-infested pergola attached to the house had to be knocked down when they moved in, leaving this low wall along the driveway as the perfect spot for staging containers.

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In case you bloggers are feeling that it’s all about Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, Jeremy is a faithful reader of blogs.

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Melianthus major

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Winter-blooming Dahlia imperialis, after several moves, in a spot obviously to its liking.

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For the leucadendron branches, the duck eggs, and the inspiring garden visit, thank you so much, Jeremy!

All photos by MB Maher.

Digital Nature at the Los Angeles County Arboretum 10/21 & 10/22/16

When: 6-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, October 21 and 22, 2016
Where: Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia.
Tickets: $16 adults and $14 children 5-12.
Information: 626-821-4623, www.arboretum.org.
Read more here.


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Digital Nature opened last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, an event designed to be as sparklingly ephemeral as morning dew in Los Angeles.
It closes tonight, so you have a Saturday ahead to plan a fall afternoon at the Los Angeles Co. Arboretum and maybe stop in at their plant sale while waiting for nightfall.

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If like me you tend to feel a twinge of dejection at being cast out of botanical gardens late afternoon, when things really seem to be getting interesting, today is your chance to experience the collective soft breath of the plants as they settle in for the night, the peacocks heading for their roosts, the dim rustling of leaves, the last birdcall. Though it’s been hot here all week, the Arboretum seems to be generating its own celebratory weather for this event, intriguingly chilly and moody, as if expressly ordered for the occasion by impresario Shirley Watts, known to blog readers as the curator of Natural Discourse, the series of symposia that melds the humanities and sciences to illuminate our ever-changing relationship to the natural world.

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In Digital Nature, Shirley gets to explore a favorite theme, the intersection of technology and nature, and has invited video artists and engineers to the Arboretum in a one-off installation for this special event.

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That drift of mist over the aloes is probably emanating from the “Smog House,” a disused greenhouse that once held experiments on the effect of smog on plants.
Artist Kevin Cooley has brought the abandoned greenhouse back to life for Digital Nature

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Other exhibits include cactus blooms opening and closing, over and over, like we’ve always wanted them to.

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Interactive digital artist John Carpenter creates work that allows us all to be maestros of shape and color.

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Come see what’s showing at the Arboretum under the Bismarckia nobilis tonight.

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All photos by MB Maher.


Senecio glastifolius

I posted this photo Mitch took back in April 2010 under the title “Unidentified Giant Composite.”


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Garden designer Kelly Kilpatrick (Floradora Garden Design) helpfully provided its true name.
Annie’s Annuals & Perennials has been an off-and-on source for this giant South African daisy rarely offered elsewhere in the trade.

San Francisco Botanical Garden discusses this daisy’s provenance:

“At the tip of South Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, lies the floral kingdom of the Cape Province, a tiny area of land with a dazzling assortment of endemic plants (plants found nowhere else), twice as many as are found in California! The Cape’s Mediterranean climate, mild and wet winters, dry and hot summers, helps promote this marvelous diversity, together with the Province’s isolated position at the end of the continent.

Senecio glastifolius grows in a narrow stretch along the south coast, and also appears in the fynbos, areas of evergreen shrubs of varying sizes and varieties in company with proteas, heather and restios. It is a tall, semi-woody perennial with a single layer of brilliant lavender petaled ray florets surrounding a central disk of golden florets. Its leaves are lance-shaped and coarsely toothed. It grows densely to three feet or higher. In Afrikaans, it is called, “Waterdissel” (water thistle) for its water-loving habits and thistly leaves.”

Usually a display of daisies this tall and wide comes only in fall, from other members in the asteraceae family, like the New England asters. {I won’t mention any species names because they will have changed again by the time I post this.) So a sight like this in April is quite extraordinary. Plus, I like the fact that those of us in zone 9 and 10 have a big daisy to call our own. SF Botanical Garden does reference the unwanted spread of this daisy in Australia and New Zealand “if it finds water.” So just in case, I’d be careful about planting it where it might spread into native plant communities. But if you are one of the lucky ones with a garden of a size to accommodate a shrubby daisy big enough to hide a Buick, Annie’s Annuals & Perennials is offering it right now.
I’d love to try it in one of my stock tanks and pinch it back mercilessly.


Happy Val Day

Interesting, isn’t it, that one of America’s most notorious authors of books banned under then-existing obscenity laws had the middle name Valentine? All true. Henry Valentine Miller.
“The publication of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in the United States in 1961 by Grove Press led to a series of obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Grove Press, Inc., v. Gerstein, citing Jacobellis v. Ohio (which was decided the same day in 1964), overruled the state court findings of obscenity and declared the book a work of literature…Following the trial, in 1964–65, other books of Miller’s which had also been banned in the US were published by Grove Press: Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn, Quiet Days in Clichy, Sexus, Plexus and Nexus.” from the Wiki on Henry Miller

In my teens I loved Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
I don’t think I made it through all the Tropics. But as a teenager, I generally read everything my brothers read.
Then in my early twenties, living on my own I unconsciously switched to reading books written almost solely by or about women, Woolf and Wharton, Austen and DeBeauvoir.
This Val Day, not necessarily in this order, I’m thinking of the power of love, of books, sons and brothers, a good breakfast, foggy mornings, and the power of SCOTUS too.
And I’m bringing a bouquet of sunflowers to you to celebrate the day. They arrived early this morning, all the way from Tanzania.
Mitch is traveling through East Africa with IPFRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) and in Tanzania they stopped at a sunflower oil factory. The photos are fairly self-explanatory. Enjoy!

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roll out the barrel(s)

I know spiky agaves in the garden make some people nervous, but lovers of architectural plants for the dry garden can get into a lot more trouble than an agave.
The golden barrel cactus has recently gotten under my skin, figuratively speaking only, thank goodness.
Echinocactus grusonii holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most familiar yet endangered cactus planted around Southern California.
Illegal collecting and the building of the Zimapan Dam and reservoir in its native Hidalgo, Mexico, haven’t helped matters.
Indeed, Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Garden, believes it is probably no longer to be found in the wild.


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Golden barrel cactus at the Ruth Bancroft Garden


Regrettably, I have only one golden barrel cactus to roll out, to test its light-splintering qualities this fall, now that light and wind have replaced heat as the big news in the garden.
I plug pots of agaves into the garden all the time as the seasons (or my itchy digging fingers) open up space for their big sculptural rosettes.
But this is a first for me, temporarily moving a potted barrel cactus into the garden, and that’s for a couple reasons.
In my experience, barrel cactus are rarely used as specimens and are almost always planted in groups. Would just one look silly?
And, secondly, Echinocactus grusonii deals with any absent-minded mishandling quickly and savagely, inflicting a “dirty wound,” prone to infection.
So why risk it, you say?

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The key word is “golden.” It has a wonderful solidity, but all those golden spines arrayed like hundreds of tiny propellors impart a surprising lightness too.
Doesn’t that silver pot make it look like a prickly loaf of rising bread?
Placement of cactus in the landscape does bring up valid concerns for pets and children. My little experiment is in a spot safe from wandering corgi paws.

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As far as planting as a specimen versus in groups, I’m still undecided.
Here golden barrel cactus is a specimen with fiery red Crassula pubescens ssp. radicans. I am so not ashamed of wanting to steal this idea.

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With dyckias and Echeveria agavoides at the Huntington’s Desert Garden

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The same area stepping further back, when the Palo Verdes were in bloom, photo by Mitch.

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A group of barrel cactus with the whale’s tongue agave (A. ovatifolia) at the Sherman Gardens

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A small group as an accent in a complex planting at the Jardin Majorelle in Morocco, photo by Mitch Maher.

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With Dragon Trees at Lotusland.

This cactus grows readily from seed, maturing to flowering size in roughly 15 years.
The Getty in particular has a spectacular mass planting of this cactus.

postscript to Natural Discourse; Flora & Fauna

It’s been such a pleasure to see what shape and expression each successive Natural Discourse has taken. Developed by Shirley Watts and Mary Anne Friel for the Berkeley Botanic Garden, a group of artists were invited to make site-specific work for the garden and then give talks about that work. (‘Natural Discourse: Artists, Architects, Scientists & Poets in the Garden.’) Shirley Watts has continued this series of talks and brought it to other venues and arboreta. I’ve loved them all.

Shirley’s household as a child blended both art and science, with parents working in music and medicine.
As a result, she effortlessly moves between the two worlds and finds the intricate linkages between both, the overlap where science and art inform and enrich each other.
Working in gardens, we know how much science is involved in making that perfect moment on a warm June day.
Boundless romantic longing moderated by keen observation are what makes our gardens cause visitors to shrug, “Oh, you can grow anything. You have such a green thumb.”
Artists and scientists are both filled with longing for their subjects, and both rely on thumbs and brains in their work.
Shirley doesn’t feel the need to segregate them into separate symposia, recognizing the contributions each make to the other.

The physical collections of herbaria and natural history museums were a theme of this year’s Natural Discourse.
To talk about these collections, you need to bring in explorers, adventurers, disaster, hubris, lack of funding, lost collections, redemption. All the really juicy stuff.
And the specimen of Liatris punctata collected by Custer two years before Little Big Horn with his handwritten tag that was nearly thrown in the trash.
As always, it was a great time.


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Shirley Watts on opening night at the La Brea Tar Pits

Continue reading postscript to Natural Discourse; Flora & Fauna