Category Archives: shop talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

friday clippings 6/5/15

Late spring conversation at our house sums up living in a “mixed” household (gardeners/nongardeners):

Duncan, from the back porch: Whatcha doin’ out there?
Me, from deep in the garden: Sitting in a field of poppies.
Duncan (scanning for alleged field of poppies): Okay.

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Disembodied voice from deep in garden continues: It’s just one plant really, but I’m pretending.
And it’s not a poppy exactly, but in the poppy family.
Glaucium grandiflorum from Iran, a country we don’t get much good news about, and yet there grows this poppy that is so…so…

Duncan: Pretty?

Voice from deep in garden: Yes! So very pretty.

Duncan: Okaaay.

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Voice from deep in garden continues talking to now-empty back porch:

Botanists should be the ones in charge of things, politics, treaties, border disputes…What’s good for the plant world will necessarily be good for everything else…

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(plant-drunk words and theorizing continute to drift over poppies)

In other news…

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Cyrtanthus elatus x montanus is in bloom, a hybrid of a South African bulb.
I haven’t noticed any real dormancy requirements with this one, where watering needs to be withheld to let it rest. Makes it easy.

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And in still other news (real news), if you’re not on Facebook, you may have missed the announcement that Sunset is moving its offices to Oakland.
Its test gardens and kitchen will be moved to Cornerstone, Sonoma, Calif. (read here).
Cornerstone is a collection of outdoor gardens, shops and restaurants inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire, curated by owner Teresa Raffo.
It was the site of possibly my favorite garden show ever, “The Late Show,” in 2009.
Sunset at Cornerstone makes perfect sense.

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There are permanent installations by artists, designers, and landscape architects to visit year-round, like the “Garden of Contrast” by James Van Sweden and Sheila Brady

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“White Cloud” by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot

And yet another change for a major garden publication, Better Homes and Gardens announced recently that Stephen Orr will be the new Editor-in-Chief.
I loved Orr’s book Tomorrow’s Garden, fresh and forward-looking, all which bodes well for BHG.

And this weekend Toronto hosts the Garden Bloggers Fling, so there should be lots of good reading from attendees in the weeks ahead.

The first week of June, and it’s still mild and overcast (glorious!) here in Los Angeles. Enjoy your weekend!

compound interest

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Image found here

I don’t have a lot of botanical vocabulary at my fingertips anymore, but I do know a compound leaf when I see one*, since I’ve always had a pronounced weakness for them. If you’ve got a potted Fatsia japonica tucked in against the baseboards near a south-facing window, chances are you do too. A compound leaf guarantees a lushly dramatic presence. Aralia, tetrapanax, angelica are some examples that come quickly to mind, all with great shaggy leaves that unleash heaps of transverse, horizontal energy into the garden. I’ve got some good examples at the moment, three that I’ve planted almost on top of each other.

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Palmately compound Not compound, but palmate leaves of tetrapanax with that jagged, horizontal energy I was trying to describe.
Edited to add: See Saucydog’s comment below.

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Tetrapanax overhanging melianthus, starting to invade each other’s spatial planes

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Pinnately compound, Melianthus major ‘Purple Haze’**

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And completing the compound trifecta this spring, an umbellifer from Maderia, Melanoselinum decipiens, its trial run in the garden this year.
(All those umbellifers we love to cut for vases, like Queen Anne’s Lace (Ammi majus) are characterized by compound leaves.)

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For floating, hovering, shadow-making mystery suspended mid-air, go compound.

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Dustin Gimbel brought his buddy, photographer Joshua McCullough, over recently, and as we both stood before the melanoselinum, or “Black Parsley” as it’s also known by, I mentioned, possibly a little nervously, that I hear it gets pretty big. Joshua responded that he’s seen it growing in the wild, and big might be an understatement. Huge would be getting somewhat closer to the truth. I’ve already started removing some of its lower leaves to reduce some of the congestion and crowding as it flings those great leaves wide.

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I keep the tetrapanax limbed up, too, so I can plant every square inch around its trunk.

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The filtered light is perfect for things like bromeliads.

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If I had a larger garden, I doubt I’d choose to plant this much complicated, jagged beauty in such close proximity.
But I really don’t think it’s possible for a garden to have too much compound interest.

*except not really. See Saucydog’s comment re tetrapanax’s palmate leaf, not palmately compound leaf.
**(And I just noticed another example, the golden tansy Tanacetum vulgare ‘Isla Gold’ in the lower right.)

elephant season

A few tropicals in pots can be a fine sendoff to summer. Here about a mile from the ocean, the big-leaved tropicals like colocasia, the “elephant ears,” bide their time until the temperatures start to really feel uncomfortable. By the time we’re whining about the heat in August, they’re in their element, coolly unfurling the largest leaves we’ve seen all summer. Now that the soft, angled light is what pulls me into the garden early every morning, the tropicals have achieved as much size and leaf as they will attain for me, and around November I’ll be moving the pots to dry out over winter. I’m not a tropics-mad person, per se, and keep just a few pots for what they add to a fall garden. In spring I feed them a little compost and nothing else, so they’re grown on a relatively lean diet, but they don’t like to miss a drink. I’ve pretty much stopped growing any other plants in containers, other than succulents. Even just a few big leaves make quite the impact.

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Colocasia ‘Mojito’

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Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’

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While the soil is still warm, I’ve been busy shifting plants around. More evergreen, year-round plants are leaving their containers and moving into the back garden, such as agaves, two cussonias, the cabbage palms, which means there will be less room for softer, herbaceous planting in the back garden for next summer.

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Agave celsii var. albicans ‘UCB’ was moved into the garden near this summer-scorched aeonium

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A Cussonia gamtoosensis, now a little 4-foot tree, has taken a place in the garden too.

Spring will bring the usual self-sown poppies, orlaya, and whatever else turns up, and I’ve added a few bright orange bearded iris. Then the plan is mainly for grasses, yarrow, nepeta, calamint, agastache, the sturdy umbellifer crithmum, and the summer-blooming bulb eucomis to hold the fort for summer and keep local pollinators happy.

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I havn’t grown catmints for some years, but Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ sold me on them again. It still looks amazingly fresh after being cut back mid-summer, and is a wonderful bee plant. Fronting the nepeta with large rocks keeps the cats from indulging in the those catmint-rolling orgies. The rocks are quickly submerged under spring growth. I have to remind myself that the sturdy and fool-proof are a great backbone if you’re continually trying out new plants. On that note, now that I’ve pretty much ripped up the herbaceous planting in the back garden and replanted for next year, it’s always around this time in fall that I wish I had some really large pots to hold the eye. The biggest one I own is an over-the-top, two-headed elephant pot that I found at the curb amongst a bunch of other castoffs with the sign “take me.” It’s been semi-hidden in the front garden ever since. A latent minimalist streak always stays my hand when I think of moving it somewhere more prominent.

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Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii’

I’ve decided there’ll be plenty of time to explore minimalism this winter. Pachyderms of clay for leafy elephant ears. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.

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At this point, adding a couple Mexican chocolate stirrers makes sense.

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And I couldn’t leave the pot empty. A potted Kalanchoe beharensis happened to fit snug inside the rim.

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This winter I’ll probably get all Scandinavian again and move the pot back into the shadows until it’s elephant season once more.

staining concrete

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

the learning garden at Venice High School

I’m late posting about the Learning Garden, a garden stop on the May 2012 Venice Garden & Home Tour, and today the LG offers a class open to the public on vermiculture/composting, a deadline I had been hoping to beat. Late notice is better than none, I suppose, and there will always be more classes taking place at the LG. This interesting horticultural laboratory/seed bank/open-air high school botany class was our first stop on the garden tour.


Truthfully, stepping through the gates, I immediately began to mentally calculate how many minutes I’d have to stay for courtesy’s sake before I could beat feet to other, less vegetable-intensive gardens on the tour. I’ve got my own disheveled vegetable garden, thank you very much, and don’t feel a burning need to tour another. Circling around with an eye fixed on the exit, trying to look intensely absorbed in the raised beds, I wandered into an area of the garden growing the unmistakeably glorious compound foliage of Aralia cordata. What the hell? By this time, I was grabbing the docent’s elbow to help me identify some stunning plants that would have been at home in an old Heronswood catalogue. But she couldn’t ID them, she said, because they were rare Chinese medicinals. The elbow I had grabbed belonged to one of the garden’s founders, Julie Mann, who has a strong interest in homeopathic medicine, but this herbal garden with the tantalizingly nameless plants was the province of another docent, who had some mysterious pipeline to plants new to the West. I’m guessing this treasure trove of plants is looked after by students of Yo San University and Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine affiliated with LG.

The topic of medicinal plants whiplashed from boring to sexy in less than three minutes. From LG’s website:

The Medicinal Herb Garden includes an amazing variety of Chinese, Ayurvedic, Native American, and homeopathic medicinal plants. Some of these plants are being grown for the first time in Southern California; we are literally writing the book on how to grow these healing herbs in our Mediterranean climate. Students of the various healing modalities are provided the opportunity to see these herbs up close and live and can learn how to grow and prepare them for use, while learning their healing attributes. As students propagate these necessary herbs, The Learning Garden becomes a plant and seed depository to assist other gardens in their development.”

Now I was intrigued. What started out as a perfunctory visit turned into a fascinating 30-minute tour.


Part of the allure of the garden was the contrast between briskly efficient hydroponics and other cutting-edge practices against a backdrop evidencing the years of heart-breaking neglect the garden has obviously suffered. It was in a Grey Gardensesque abandoned state that this 100-year-old educational resource was reclaimed by Julie Mann and others in 2001, and much still needs to be done. Horticulture classes on high school curricula have long since gone the way of shop classes like carpentry, photography, ceramics, upholstery, mechanics, i.e. dodo-land.


From their website: “The Learning Garden blossoms from what once was an underutilized, weedy portion of Venice High School into an outdoor learning center with hands-on education in horticulture, permaculture, herbology, botany, nutrition, art, photography and environmental science.”


A garden shed and office held shelves full of carefully marked seeds. At some primal level, I find this a very comforting sight.


Part of the Seed Library of Los Angeles/SLOLA


Gardenmaster David King: “As seeds grow out repeatedly in our soil and microclimates, they adapt.”
“Far more quickly than one could achieve at home, a variation of Waltham broccoli specific to Los Angeles or even specific to Venice can be developed, better suited to local conditions.” (latimesblog)

The paneless, 1920’s-era greenhouse awaits a patron with deep pockets to help with reglassing.



From their DVD, a highly recommended resource for educators:

JULIE MANN: “The high school students that first came into the garden that first year would never dare eat anything out of the garden. It was dirty. It was yuck. They would never take the food that they grew and eat it. It was too strange for them. By the next year, I saw the kids climbing the loquat tree and eating things right off the tree.”

Contact The Learning Garden here to request a copy of their DVD and for information on volunteering. I’d be happy to mail my DVD to anyone interested.

summer notes

Though I’ve been practicing lots of garden math — some addition but mostly subtraction and a little light division — the garden still seems almost unchanged and very familiar this summer, and I haven’t decided yet if that’s necessarily a good thing. The Amicia zygomeris is back, still robust and healthy. Evergreen in a zone 10 winter. Its purple-stained “pouches” helpfully draw Teucrium hyrcanicum into the conversation. Purple, yellow and soon a few spears of orange crocosmia chattering away in this corner of the garden. Listening in as these conversations develop is the best part of summer. As usual, I want intense, boisterous summer conversation from a very small garden that is expected to have something to say in other seasons too. Easy on supplemental irrigation a must. (That’s not too much to ask, right?) Amicia, from Mexico, is named for Italian astronomer and mathematician Giovanni Battista Amici. I first learned of amicia from one of British gardener/writer Christopher Lloyd’s books. Plant Delights thinks it’s hardy to zone 7. Grew to over 6 feet tall last summer. A unique outline that reads well, a tropical effect without all the “weight” associated with tropical plants. (One of the subtractions this spring was a banana. Even the supposed dwarf varieties grow into giants here.)


Oenothera is a big jolt of yellow. With Bouteloua, the filmy eyebrow grass, and variegated sisyrinchium.
Smattering of sky blue notes from tweedia. Potted Echeveria agavoides ‘Lipstick’


Chartreuse shrub leycesteria seems to have survived a move last fall, leafing out here with self-sown purple orach, Atriplex hortensis. Hoping the leycesteria doesn’t burn here in afternoon sun. Growing in an 8-inch pot, the lily ‘Lankon’ is almost done with its one bloom, so now’s the time for a photo, even a bad one which doesn’t do justice to the speckled, tie-dye petals. This lily made a big splash at Chelsea last year, a hybrid between Lilium longiflorum, which grows well here in Southern California and is the reason I took a chance on it, and Lilium lankongense, which comes from Yunnan in China. Getting it to rebloom next year will be the real trick. Summer dormant bulbs are so much easier in pots, unlike the lily which never truly goes dormant and will need to be kept watered. The garden just isn’t kept moist enough to suit lilies, so they’re grown in pots only — just a few. More and more, by August I balk at caring for containers. I was told by a lily grower at a plant show this spring that these down-turned, martagon-like lilies will never be grown commercially for cut flowers because of the difficulty in shipping them without breakage. That one bloom scented the whole back garden.


The tropicals are gaining size, all plants that have seen quite a few summers in the garden. These two are Colocasia ‘Mojito’ and ‘Diamond Head.’ They are kept dry in their pots outdoors over winter.


Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger.’ For an experiment, I kept a small clump watered over winter, not allowing it to go dormant. This large pot was kept dry. Growth in both pots seems about the same. A very tough plant, highly recommended. Will grow enormous when fattened with feeding and lots of water, though does fine treated on the leaner side.


Not much new this year for potted summer plants other than the Tibouchina ‘Gibraltar,’ which I like quite a lot. Very refined for a variegated plant, even without the purple princess flowers.


When euphorbias are good, they are very, very good. Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’ hasn’t missed a beat since last autumn, now becoming engulfed by summer growers — which just might be the end of it. Good air circulation at the base is paramount in my experience. I’ve been thinking about putting the path back in through this big border, which will necessarily scale plants down to about knee-high level again. Planting pathway edges is some of the most satisfying, (grasses, dianthus, Crambe maritima! succulents) but then I’ll lose the depth and space for the really big plants. Maybe this fall I’ll make the change.


Grasses proliferate. There’s probably more grasses than perennials now. Stipa arundinacea/Anemanthele lessoniana grows tawnier by the day.


While getting photos of the euphorb and stipa, I caught the crew heading for the office this morning.


Looking forward to some garden blog reading this Saturday, the LA Kings’ second game in the Stanley Cup tonight, and maybe a cactus show if I make it down to San Diego tomorrow. Feeling a little lazy for a two-hour drive tomorrow, but we’ll see.

Bike to Work Day

Today, 5/18/12, is Bike to Work Day, which I heard over the car radio stuck in traffic. So I have no cycling adventure to recount, but it’s the perfect opportunity to share this very cool photo of Humphrey Bogart cycling on a Warner Brothers Studio backlot circa 1945.


The photograph comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Steven Rea’s book Hollywood Rides A Bike; Cycling With The Stars, published by Angel City Press, and is also on Rea’s blog Rides A Bike. My town of Long Beach has invested in cycling in a big way, with designated one-way streets and bike lanes. Bike thievery is at an all-time high, too, as my husband will woefully attest. I’ve been looking forward to choosing a basket for my bike to load up with all the tomatoes and beans from my little community garden plot about a mile away — except that tomatoes now seem a long shot this summer. The plants are dying, and the soil, after no supplemental irrigation for two weeks, continues to be a squelchy, heavy mud. Explanations range among (A) I’m the worst vegetable gardener that’s ever lived; (B) a fellow gardener has been surreptitiously turning my plot into a bog for reasons unknown; or (C) there’s a leaky pipe. More on this sad state of affairs later.

But what a nice photo of Bogie. Which also illustrates that funny biking clothing is strictly optional.

saturday’s clippings 5/12/12

Quote of the week: “I can’t believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus,” philosophized a 26-year-old woman who torched a 3,500-year-old bald cypress known as The Senator last January, one of the 10 oldest trees on earth, while smoking a meth pipe in the tree’s hollow trunk. Orlando Sentinel story here.

Update on car jack stand planters written about here in Succulent Experiments. The repurposed window screen may cause the soil to dry out too quickly even for succulents. Growth seems to be in reverse gear rather than forward, so time to try something else. The pale green Crassula expansa never regained that lovely fluffiness. Full disclosure is in order because that post still gets an amazing number of hits. (Almost as many as The Tree Collard. Who knew?)

Artichokes were everywhere on garden tours this year. These chokes were growing in a hell strip devoted solely to artichokes.
(Doesn’t that make it a heaven strip?)

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Is it me, or does the subject of gardens and landscapes seem overly weighted down with polemics? Fashion, music, cooking, design — there’s controversy and sustainability subtext in some of these areas as well, and rightly so, but with gardens it seems to get especially overwrought. Be prepared to stand your ground among the welter of categories used like accusations: design-driven, plant-driven, natives, non-natives, edible, ornamental. Granted, with a garden comes responsibility for the health of the soil, creatures, finite resources — but after that’s been reasonably sorted out, I say let it rip. How to describe this approach? Maybe a good analogy to this unapologetically flashy kind of gardening I love is pop music — changeable, not meant to last, absorbing influences from all over the globe, interested in color and rhythm, no purpose other than to get your toe tapping and your eye dancing. Not monumental but fleeting. Riffing on the seasons. Pop gardening? Maybe I just need a break from garden tours for a while.

At home, summer’s jungle quickens. This castor bean plant which lives over frost-free year to frost-free year is already a small tree in May, about 8 feet high. With the trunk growing thick and woody, this will be its last summer then I’ll start over with some of the progeny that sprout around its base. The deep color of the castor bean seedlings has been true to its namesake ‘New Zealand Purple.’ Barely room enough for two in the back garden.

I love to see it with the amber grass Stipa arundinacea* More thinning on the to-do list this weekend. Tender Salvia wagneriana is an iffy bloomer, very sensitive to temperature and day length, and hasn’t had more than a dozen blooms at any time. Its saving grace up to now is its ability to throw sporadic blooms throughout a zone 10 winter, but that hardly earns it space for summer. Its fate will be decided this weekend. In fact, looking at these photos has me convinced it’s gotta go. (A few hours later, and Salvia wagneriana is gone, destined for compost, its absence barely causing a ripple in the jungle. A few nicotianas from the seeds Nan Ondra shared last winter, ‘Ondra’s Brown Mix,’ will be a much better fit here.) Another nicotiana, N. mutabilis, lived over the winter and is sending up bloom trusses to the left of the stipa/New Zealand Wind Grass. (Edited to explain that description was left even though photos are inexplicably no longer available.)


Strappy leaves are eucomis, and the little daisy is Argyranthemum haouarytheum.


Salvia canariensis was very nearly pulled out a few weeks ago for its sprawling, ungainly ways, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this huge salvia.
As an interim solution, lower branches have been thinned out, with lots more taken out today, pruning it into a vase-like shape as for a buddleia.
In a couple weeks it will lose that surprised “What a bad haircut I got” look. This is generally a short-lived shrub. Always grow it dry and lean.


The pale yellow hesperaloe is blooming this year, kind of a photographic moot point against all those golden kangaroo paws.


Longest-lasting bulb for pots has been Ornithogalum dubium, in bloom on the front porch over a month. More, please, for next year.

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An easy nasturium species for summer containers, Tropolaeolum peregrinum, the Canary Creeper.

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I know, I know, what a lot of plants. You’d think I just moved out of an apartment and finally got my own garden. But that happened over 20 years ago, and I’ve been gardening this way ever since.

*This grass is now known as Anemanthele lessoniana, but I’m just slow to adapt to the new name

Carex pansa

Somewhere out there in nature, he reasoned, there had to be a grass…that would be naturally low-growing, drought-tolerant, evergreen, and trampleable: a natural lawn grass.” – The New Yorker, August 19, 1996, “The Grassman.”

Carex pansa, the California meadow sedge, as seen in a garden on the recent Mar Vista garden tour, blanketing the backyard of a fairly large property. I’d never seen such an extensive planting of the California meadow sedge before. A pathway of stepping stones on a base of decomposed granite meandered through the sedge.


In The New Yorker article published August 19, 1996, entitled “The Grassman,” Wade Graham traces Greenlee’s early enthusiasm for outsized prairie grasses growing where manicured lawns once held sway, up to his epiphany:

Eventually, it came to Greenlee: Americans have to have some sort of lawn…The botanist in him asked, If grasses can be big and floriferous, why can’t they also be the opposite: low, self-effacing, and well-behaved?”


John Greelee wrote back in December 2001 in “Sedge Lawns for Every Landscape” that “This native Pacific Coast sedge is hands-down one of the finest native sedges for making natural lawns. Largely untested in the East, it has proven durable in Texas and Colorado. Slowly creeping, dark green foliage grows 4 to 6 inches unmowed. California meadow sedge will tolerate varied types of soil conditions and temperatures, from sandy, exposed seacoasts to heavy clays and hot, inland valleys. It is also exceptionally traffic tolerant. Thriving in full sun to partial shade, it will thin out in deep shade. Mowing two to three times per year keeps the foliage low, tight, and lawnlike. Unmowed, it makes an attractive meadow and remains evergreen in all but the coldest climates. California meadow sedge is fast to establish from plugs planted 6 to 12 inches on center.”