Category Archives: Plant Portraits

friday clippings 6/24/16

Little Diego next-door has taken upon himself the challenge of learning drumming. In the last couple months, he’s been practicing on whatever is handy, whether it be pots, pans, buckets, gates. It was hard to tell at first how invested he was in his new-found chaotic project. I suspected it was just a goof to annoy his mom, but he has persisted for at least a few months. And today I could detect for the first time his discovery of pattern and repetition. I mean it was just the usual wild thrashing and then, boom, he was controlling the beat. A momentous day for the little guy. He lives just on the other side of the east fence, against which the three big lemon cypresses somewhat muffle his practice sessions.


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For muffling little drummer boys, privacy, beauty, bird sanctuary, the cypresses are incredibly valuable to us. But of course I couldn’t just let them be cypresses.
They’d be perfect as scaffolding for vines, right? But not at the expense of harming them, of course. And that’s a very fine line, I’ve come to find out.

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I’m still amazed that the Solanum ‘Navidad, Jalisco’ from Annie’s Annuals has become this happy.
It was planted against the fence, in the dry soil amongst the cypresses, with not enough light, and seemed to be puny and languishing for forever…until it wasn’t.
This is all so new, that a plant has actually followed orders: Get in there, don’t mind the awful conditions, and climb that cypress, will ya?
And it’s possible the solanum may be too obliging and eager to please. Because when it comes to choosing between the cypresses and a rollicking, rampageous vine, that’s an easy choice to make.
Little Diego has lots more practicing to do this summer.

Have a great weekend.


Stipa ichru

The Peruvian Feather Grass may save the world from Mexican Feather Grass, Nassella (formerly Stipa) tenuissima.
Whether the world needs saving from the rampant reseeder MFG depends on your point of view and where you garden. (More on that here.)
I’ve heard grass authority and famous contrarian John Greenlee proclaim that he’d rather see Los Angeles’ vast concrete spaces festooned with MFG than bare.
MFG effortlessly insinuates itself into cracks in paving. The biggest concern would arise if your Southern California garden abuts open spaces where MFG can escape.
In that context, Stipa ichru, aka Jarava ichru, aka Peruvian Feather Grass, is being touted as a substitute.

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This is its first summer in my garden, and already I’ve noted some differences, though. For one, PFG is taller.
And because it’s not a prolific reseeder, we’ll probably be seeing it more as a specimen than en masse, as the MFG is so often used.
It might be too early to judge if this is a long-lasting trait or due to its young, small size, but Peruvian Feather Grass has more of an arching, weeping form.

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My early impression is that this grass really deserves to be considered on its own merits. because it’s a beauty.
I’ll be thrilled if it reseeds…lightly.

last of the poppies

I’m just now starting to see photos of poppies in bloom showing up in gardens in colder climates, but by June the annual poppies are usually finished here.
In my garden, as June continues the mild, overcast weather of May, there are a couple of holdouts.

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I’ve never planted this variety, which looks like the simple “Lettuce Leaf Poppy.” I note that they showed up in 2013, too, here.
“Lettuce Leaf Poppy” and “Breadseed Poppy” are the politically correct common names, because we musn’t use the “o” word.
(For a great story on opium dens, you can’t beat Conan Doyle’s “The Man With The Twisted Lip.”)
Maybe it rode in on a poppy seed bagel. My poppy show comes mainly from Papaver setigerum, which I’ve documented profusely on the blog.
It’s much smaller in stature than those towering in the photo above.
With these much bigger poppies, when a new flower is open in the morning, it takes you aback, like someone shouting, “Hey! Check it out! Whaddaya think?!”
But any poppy is OK by me. Poppies are characters loaded with silky personality.
And there’s all that…um, history they carry, that illicit, pharmaceutical, double life they’ve led since prehistoric times.
Poppies and people and pain relief go way, way back.

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There’s just these two plants left that germinated later than the first flush of poppies that got going in February and March, which is typical for Southern California.
Drip hoses and continuing overcast weather are responsible for these remaining two. We’ve loved the gloomy skies of May and June, a kind of weather I find rather addictive.

Stipa barbata

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Stipa barbata last night before sundown, appearing bioluminescent in the dwindling light, whipsawing back and forth in the late afternoon breeze like some flagelliform creature in an aquarium.
Still photos really can’t do it justice. I need to work on my video skills. In the calm of this morning, the grass was limp, docile, almost ordinary.

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These two clumps have a lot of growing left to do. This grass is famously slow to bulk up and stingy with its seed too.
But in a breeze, they are as mesmerizing as — I don’t know, the last time I watched the jellyfish at the Long Beach Aquarium.
That kind of mesmerizing.


don’t forget the lilies

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Lilium ‘Black Charm,’ whose first bloom opened June 1st.

Against the backdrop of my increasingly scrubby, grassy, agave-filled garden, lilies look like something that glided in on a red carpet.
When they’re in bloom, I always crave more. Beautifully easy in containers. This one overwintered in a very dryish container in the pot ghetto but did get the occasional sprinkle.
Unlike lots of other bulbs, lilies never go completely dormant so will need some moisture year-round. Abandon them to a no-rain winter at your peril.
Plan ahead and order via catalogues in the fall for the best selection. Or, like me, leave it to chance to find bulbs in bins at the nurseries in spring, if you can find them then at all.
I like them in containers for 1) the best drainage and 2) as a means to keep track of them.
As often as I change things up, I’ve been known to unintentionally slice through bulbs with a shovel, a feat always accompanied by a stabbing pain to the heart as well.


busy, busy

It’s spring. Feeling a little pressed for time yet? Join the club. Some of what I’ve been up to the past few weeks include:


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Cutting sweet peas from my mom’s vines. Buckets and buckets. Mine planted at the community garden withered away from lack of attention/water.
Suffering a severe case of garden-neglect guilt, I pulled out all my dead vines, along with the collapsed winter peas and fava beans, and got a few tomatoes and squash planted.
There wasn’t enough winter rain to sustain my plot, and being a bad garden gnome, I hadn’t watered in a couple months. So my mom once again saved the day.
Is it rude to call your mom a good garden gnome? I keep her little raised bed planted winter and summer, and she does the rest.
I didn’t buy her flowers for Mother’s Day because her house is filled with scent and color from vases of sweet peas in every room.
I did run over for a brief visit to bring her a card and share some cake, a two-hour window during which a thief took the opportunity to steal my bike from behind a locked gate.
Nice work, thief, stealing a girl’s bike on Mother’s Day. Couldn’t you switch your reptilian brain off for one day in honor of your mom?
(Roger’s in Newport Beach brings in the best only local selection of sweet peas in fall, award-winning types, all heavily scented, long-stemmed.)

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It’s always exciting to stumble upon new plants, like this Dichondra sericea, found at Merrihew’s Sunset Garden.
At first sight I thought it must be some new brunnera cultivar. The leaves are leathery, about the size of a silver dollar.
San Marcos Growers says:
“It has been found repeatedly in a single location in San Cruz County in Arizona but is more widespread farther to the south in the Río Mayo region of southern Sonora and Chihuahua.
It is similar to Dichondra argentea, the plant commonly called Sliver Dichondra or ‘Silver Falls’, but it is evergreen in frost free climates and has much bigger leaves.

Merrihew’s, a great little neighborhood nursery, was the first stop on last weekend’s Garden Conservancy Open Day.

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As usual, plants are perpetually on the move, sometimes out of the garden and back into a pot like this Agave macroacantha ‘Blue Ribbon’
When I sentenced it to the rigors of the outpost that is the front gravel garden, it was a mess, with leaves pitted and rolling at the edges when they should be straight.
Total neglect in the front gravel garden is apparently what it needed to mature out of its ugly phase.
I moved it back into a pot because it was getting swamped by faster-growing agaves. And because it’s so pretty now. Pups freely too.
The bloomed-out poppies have been pulled and any big openings filled with grasses, mostly pennisetum like ‘Fairy Tails’ and ‘Karley Rose.’

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Might as well take ‘Cornelius’ portrait too. He’s starting to get a nice arch to his leaves.

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Behind ‘Cornelius,’ Cotyledon orbiculata deserves a portrait of those peachy bells and long, silvery stems.

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The Huntington plant sale had a couple Rosa ‘Mutabilis,’ so I fell off the no-more-roses wagon.
In its favor, it’s a single, which means it sheds its silky petals elegantly and doesn’t need deadheading.
It’s reasonably tough and healthy, for a rose, and makes a nice shrubby shape.
This unique rose of mysterious provenance is celebrated for summer-long bloom in colors that cycle through gold, orange, deep pink.
It’s been shoehorned in among the lemon cypresses at the east fence, with drip hose laid to give it a fighting chance.

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Last Wednesday was overcast, like today, and work was reasonably under control (unlike today).
First thought under those conditions is: What do I want to get done in the garden?
There’s a chronic backburner plan to fill one of my trash can planters with blowsy summer stuff.
Cheap, deep, and roomy, metal trash cans are great for seasonal extravaganzas.
I bought them a few years ago but never really got with the program, using them more for overflow odds and ends.

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A quick trip to the local nursery yielded a Buddleia ‘Cranrazz,’ Linaria ‘Licilia Peach,’ and Achillea ‘Sunrise.’
As I prepared to stuff the plants in, it was impossible to ignore what a rusted, pitted eyesore it had become. (“Hey, Marty, you got any spraypaint?“)
30 minutes later the can was a sleek matte black, filled with compost and fresh potting soil, and the plants installed.

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Buddleias drive me a bit mad in the ground. Too big, all that deadheading. I like the idea of being able to pitch it at the end of summer.
Before I’d backfilled in soil and watered it in, the butterflies had already arrived. They don’t call it the butterfly bush for nothing.

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I was so pleased with my new, deep containers that I asked Marty to paint another one for a Mother’s Day present. I’m thinking maybe orange tithonias for this one.
The ‘Hallelujah’ bilbergia was planted up over the weekend with some aeonium and Euphorbia mauritanica. I’m testing its sun tolerance.
I was told by Marina del Rey Garden Center that the more jagged the leaf, the more sun a bromeliad can take. Sun brings out the best color.

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I usually keep a chair here on the bricks over the winter, but there’s not much room….or time…for sitting in spring.

status update Rudbeckia maxima 5/2/16

Another example of the odd juxtapositions that occur in my garden from year to year, due to an unremitting curiosity about plants I just don’t get to see locally:

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Lights, laundry shed, giant coneflower!

The cabbage coneflower, Rudbeckia maxima, known for growing in moist ditches from Arkansas to Texas, bizarrely enough, is settling into my dryish garden in Los Angeles without much fuss.
It’s too early to tell still, but it unwiltingly sailed through unseasonal high temperatures into the 90s in April. Those are some tough, leathery, cabbagey leaves.
And I do appreciate such enthusiastic blooming in its first year. I’m still waiting for 3-year-old clumps of ‘Totally Tangerine’ geum and ‘Terracotta’ yarrow to bloom.
The conventional wisdom is to let the rudbeckia’s flowers turn into seedheads, sit back, and then watch the birds feast. Up above the shed, I’ve got the cushions ready.
If like me you crave height and movement from a summer garden, this rudbeckia is for you. And if you have a moist ditch, even better.

Elsewhere in the garden…

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Papaver rupifragum. No uncertainties about this poppy. It’s been reseeding here for ages and loves a dry garden.

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Glaucium grandiflorum, planted spring 2014. Another very tough customer that never gets a minute’s worry from me.
Except I do worry a bit that there’s been no seedlings, and it’s not known for longevity. There’s always something to worry about…

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Salvia uliginosa, aka the bog sage. Quite the misnomer. Another plant that wouldn’t mind moister conditions but manages fine without.
This salvia, planted fall 2015, like similarly easy ‘Waverly’ and S. chiapensis, cycles in and out of the garden. The bog sage adds wonderful swaying movement. (And hummingbirds.)
My heavy soil incites intense emotions. I hate it and I love it. I love it when its stiffness and heaviness keeps plants like the bog sage and tetrapanax from running rampant.
I love it for allowing me to grow unlikely candidates like Rudbeckia maxima and Persicaria amplexicaulis without toting buckets and buckets of water.
(I hate it for harboring pathogens that it unleashes on warm summer days to kill prized dry garden shrubs.)

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The reseeding ‘Ondra’s Brown Mix’ nicotianas are still incredibly lovely, so needed their portrait included as well.

And so on with May!

an hour in San Francisco Botanical Garden in April


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At the Friend Gate, Ageratum corymbosum Bartlettina sordida (thanks, Mr. Feix!)

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with a Fuchsia magellanica. Or maybe thymifolia. I didn’t check. No time!

A few weeks ago I had the rather condensed pleasure of visiting San Francisco’s Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park for an hour.
Ahead of me in line were a couple from Scotland. Just behind me the pair were from Israel. The ticket taker was therefore not that impressed by a visitor from Los Angeles.
As far as distance traveled, I was the obvious slacker.

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I chose the Friend Gate entrance because that’s where the daily plant sales are held.

Entering through the Friend Gate was a happy accident. Just steps away were the Australian and New Zealand gardens, and not much further away the Mediterranean garden.
I immediately set to work power walking, dodging dawdlers intent on constructing the perfect selfie. Compression of time made me even more singled-minded than usual.

Continue reading an hour in San Francisco Botanical Garden in April

Bloom Day hangover/Foliage followup April 2016

The distinctive measured pace of a garden this time of year, compared to the frenetic pace outside my front gate, is what I find so compelling: the syncopated intervals between birdcalls, the varying rhythms of arrival and departure of hummingbirds, butterflies, bees. Incidents on the wing gently drift in and out…but this weekend it’s all against a background roar of engines. (It’s Grand Prix time in Long Beach again.)
Bloom Day falls on the 15th, hosted by May Dreams Gardens. Foliage Followup is hosted by Digging on the 16th, so I’m straddling memes today.

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The ballota is just now enlongating with bobbles of chenille-like blooms.
The largish green-leaved plant on the right is a Teucrium betonicum I found seeded in the gravel in the front garden this winter.
Strangely enough, the mother plant was grown way back in 2012.

In the back garden, I’m loving the low scrubbiness of it all, with occasional verticals and undulating agaves piercing through the hummocks of greys and greens.
And the proportions are, at this moment, just what I’ve been trying to accomplish for the past couple years.
New stuff I’ve been planting will no doubt change the shape by next year, so it’s a fleeting effect that I’ve come to appreciate just because it is so transitory.
Stepping out the back door this morning from a quiet house into a garden humming and buzzing and flitting with life — well, just add coffee for a perfect Saturday morning.
Even the Grand Prix can’t ruin that. Thankfully, the city has restricted the number of days racecars can “practice” before the big event, so it’s squeezed into mainly a weekend now.
A fair compromise between the businesses that flourish during race time and the residents that mostly suffer through it.

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I’ll spare you repeat photos of poppies, grevilleas, salvias and whatnot. Tanacetum niveum is new to both Bloom Day and the garden this year.
I’ve always loved the simple clean blooms of plants like chamomile. This daisy is no ground-hugger like chamomile, but billows up and out, with finely cut grey leaves.
It can become shrub-like in size given enough room to develop. It’s constrained by the tight quarters here. Purported to reseed, fingers crossed.
Looks like I trialed it/killed it back in 2010.

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Marrubium supinum’s blooms are similar in structure to ballota, but with a slight wash of color.

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I wouldn’t mind several more clumps of Kniphofia thompsonii dotted throughout.

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Plectranthus neochilus still obligingly covers the stump of Cotinus ‘Grace,’ buried under there somewhere and quietly decomposing.

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Some find the strong scent/stink/skunkiness offputting. I don’t scent it on the air, just on contact, when clipping it back.

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Gerberas at the base of the plectranthus stump.

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Other daises elsewhere in bloom include orange arctotis and maroon osteospermum.

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I planted the Eriogonum crocatum a little too far from the paths for photos, so this one gives just the basic outline of the blooms which start out chartreuse and age to brown.
I can’t wait for it to bulk up some more. I really do try to stick to the never-walk-on-the-garden rule, especially with clay like mine that compacts so easily.

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The potted camellia on the front porch hasn’t gotten much play on Bloom Day though it’s been in bloom a few months.

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Erodium pelargoniflorum reseeds into the gravel amongst the agaves in the front of the house.
If kept watered, it would probably bloom into summer. I say embrace the ephemeral!

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Anisodontea ‘Strybing Beauty’ is growing into quite a graceful presence, loose and open.
Last year the mallows were represented by Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral,’ a wonderful plant for a much bigger garden than mine.

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Potted Glory of Texas, a thelocactus just opening its blooms.

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I tossed some ixia into the garden this winter, in a few colors, ordered off ebay.

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Finishing up with the odd blooms of slipper spurge, Pedilanthus bracteatus, another one I keep forgetting to include on Bloom Days.


Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’

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Love it or hate it, Fatsia ‘Spider’s Web’ can now be found locally in Southern California. Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar is carrying it in affordable one-gallons. Fatsias grow like weeds here in dry shade, so when Southern California bloggers first saw this fatsia in Portland, Oregon gardens at the 2014 blogger meetup, we were, well, a bit indignant. By all rights, fancy cultivars of Fatsia japonica should be readily available at our local nurseries too. Pathetically, it’s taken two years. Let’s step it up, local nurseries! I’ve been told that the succulent craze is hitting nurseries in their pocketbooks, because succulents aren’t killed off as easily as spring/summer bedding, failures which usually bring lots of repeat customers. Succulents endure and don’t require seasonal replanting either, hence less nursery visits. One way for nurseries to stand out is by offering slightly off-the-beaten track plants. Nurseries that source specialty plants like this fatsia will always get my loyalty.

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About that variegation. We once hired a painter (hi David!) who used to clean his brushes by whipping them around centrifugally, covering pots and plants in nearest proximity with a stippled whitewash. This plant reminds me of that painter David, and how quickly he was hustled off the job after that whirling dervish brush-cleaning trick. Or maybe the variegation reminds you of a bad case of spider mites. I like how it brightens shady corners and reminds me of heated discussions over controversial variegation with plant friends.

(The Garden Bloggers Fling for 2016 is meeting in Minneapolis July 14-17, 2016.)