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.


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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a Shirley Watts’ garden

Monday features two long-time friends (and family) of AGO. Oldest son Mitch took these photos of a Shirley Watts-designed garden a few years back and kindly agreed to let me share them here.

The garden had a lot of formal, established features and furniture to incorporate into the new design, but nonetheless, to those who know her work, Watt’s artistic eye and hand can easily be seen throughout. Like all Watts’ gardens I’ve seen, there’s a uniquely timeless, modern/classical fusion that always lends an air of tranquility and simplicity — but with plenty of startling details, beautifully sensual plants, and bravura flourishes to discover.

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Continue reading

floral fireworks

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Oooh…it looks just like…Calluna vulgaris !

At fireworks shows, I’m the one that keeps up a running commentary of free associations, so this “Flowerwork” by artist Sarah Illenberger for The Plant journal was an instant hit with me.

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From her website: “Sarah is renowned for creating vivid, witty images that open up new perspectives on seemingly familiar subjects.”


thanks to Jessica at Thread & Bones. Via Miss Moss

Natural Discourse: Light & Image 2014, an epilogue

Ever wonder when our buildings are going to have the photosensitivity and photoreactivity of plants? Dale Clifford, with his focus on biomimetics applied to architecture, is on the case, investigating the possibility of designing a photoreactive brick inspired by the quadrangular, shade-modulating shape of a cactus. Looking for a tidy description of life on earth? Plant biologist Roger Hangarter has one for you: excited electrons powered by the sun. I’m totally borrowing that, Roger.


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Christian Thornton, Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio

Questions, questions. Can modern glass kilns reduce their energy footprint?
Certainly, by as much as 30 percent, if recycled glass is used and the kilns are run on vegetable oil discarded by local Oaxacan restaurants.

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Cobaea scandens in the Ware Collection of Glass Plants

And what did 19th century university botany departments do when dried specimens were insufficiently detailed for the rigorous study of plant architecture? Find the finest glass artists in the world, of course, German glass blowers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, to create glass models with precise, scientific accuracy. Harvard’s Ware Collection of Glass Plants transcends its scientific origins and is now regarded as a prized art collection visited by millions every year.

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Shirley Watts readies the book table sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore.
Clarissa Dalloway may have bought the flowers for her party herself, but the large vase on the book table was, I think, provided by Silverlake Farms.

All these questions and more could only have been answered by another installment of Natural Discourse, the peripatetic series of lectures curated by artist and garden designer Shirley Watts that allows artists and scientists to share their unique perspectives and fields of inquiry into our beloved plant world, which was held Saturday, October 18, 2014, at the LA County Arboretum.

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The auditorium at the LA County Arboretum was the biggest space yet of the three iterations of Natural Discourse, and for that reason I thought it perhaps the most challenging venue thus far.

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But wherever Natural Discourse is located, whether perched in a conservatory-like glass hall atop the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, or in a historic landmark hotel designed by Julia Morgan, or at your local arboretum, the effect is consistently hypnotic. The lights go down, the chattering eventually subsides, and Marion Brenner begins to articulate her relationship to light and its role in obtaining her exquisitely timeless landscape photographs seen on the projection screen. And then you begin to scribble furiously as she explains how she now shoots wirelessly to an iPad to live-proof her work.

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Photo found here

Possibly only at Natural Discourse will you meet an artist concerned with how long it will take an agave bloom to grow and thereby destroy the glass necklace he’s designed and placed on its flowering shoot.
(Christian Thornton of Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio has recorded 8 inches of growth a day.)

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The welcome being given by Richard Schulhof, Director of the LA Arboretum.

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Jenny Brown, Collection Manager of the Ware Collection of Glass Plants, playfully engages with the interactive programming wizardry of John Carpenter.

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Mr. Carpenter’s work asks questions like: Why can’t the fleeting thrill of blowing on a dandelion be prolonged?
(You can view the results of his dandelion inquiry at the link.)
Carpenter’s work may bring to mind the digitally interactive sequences in the movie Minority Report, which he designed.

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I want to personally thank Sue Dadd and James Griffith for providing both food and lodging Friday night.
And thanks also to their charming cat Kabuki, who slept at my feet all night.

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Very early Saturday morning I crept out in jammies and socks to have a private natural discourse with their stunning garden, this time a ravine adjacent to the Folly Bowl.
Talk about excited electrons!

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Photos of Natural Discourse at the LA County Arboretum by MB Maher.

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.

completion of the High Line September 21, 2014

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Before it was constructed, the New York Central Railroad had operated a rail freight line at grade, or street level, along Tenth Avenue, and men on horseback (“West Side cowboys”) had ridden ahead of the train with red flags or lanterns to warn pedestrians of its coming; yet even with this picturesque alarm system, so many careless, inebriated or simply unlucky citizens had gotten run over that the street acquired the notorious name “Death Avenue.” For over 70 years, since the mid-19th century, public outcry had agitated against this danger to life and limb, demanding a safer solution: thus, the High Line.” (Here.)

Completed September 21, 2014, the High Line park has now become many things to many people, its Rashomon effect hashed out in the comments section of the many articles written about its success. It’s been five years since the first phase opened, with the third and final phase finished this fall. Over that span of time, my unadulterated delight at the railway’s rebirth into a park with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf has become complicated by learning of many other divergent reactions, and quite a few outright hostile ones, including accusing the park of being a Trojan Horse hiding rapacious developers. Because of the unimagined success of its new life as a beloved city park and tourist destination, drawing 5 million a year, it’s easy to forget its humble origins in community activism. I’ve seen neighborhood activism up close, and it isn’t always pretty. Contentious, divisive, disillusioning, these are what come to mind. Semi-contemporaneous with the grass-roots conversion of the disused railway line into a public park in NYC, my neighborhood association in Los Angeles was also involved in a grass roots effort concerning a property suffering from extreme landlord neglect, a property that slipped in and out of drug dealing. After years of frustrating engagement with the city at all levels, code, police, planning, the property seemed to magically accelerate on a fast track to a “pocket park,’ a cherished pipe dream of neighborhood activists. All of a sudden, the long-sought grant money was there, the city’s will was no longer wobbly but strong, and after years of dead-end efforts, the pocket park was a go. Plans were approved, the troubled property was sacrificed on the altar of eminent domain, and the park is now a year old. (I had nothing to do with the process, only attending a couple meetings and ceremonies.) The differences in scale between the two projects couldn’t be more stark, but I have to admit I had my doubts that either project would ever get off the ground. Another difference is that, unlike the High Line project, everyone in our neighborhood is wildly enthusiastic about our result. But then our neighborhood is in no danger of developers rushing in to build luxury penthouses to take advantage of views of our pocket park. (Some might say more’s the pity!)


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The High Line experienced a similar acceleration when Giuliani and his pro-demolition sympathies left office, replaced by Michael Bloomberg, whose new agenda included finding innovative ways to include more parks despite the seemingly maxed-out density of NYC. The dream of a park in the sky found a powerful champion. With the completion of the final phase, and housebound with a sore throat, I dug a little deeper into the formation of the High Line, and what I found was a mulligan stew of community activism, timely rezoning, and a strange concept called “air rights,” mixed with insatiable appetites for high-end real estate development. The gentrifcation of this former manufacturing neighborhood was going to happen with or without the High Line. As with so many American cities, manufacturing had long decamped. Art galleries and designer ateliers had already moved in. Businesses directly under the disused structure were agitating for its removal to develop their valuable properties skyward. Ultimately, what came to the rescue of these disgruntled businesses as well as park proponents was ingenious manipulation of TDRs (Transferable Development Rights). And built into plans for the High Line’s redesign were considerations for unopposed views and open space that arguably wouldn’t have been a vision for this neighborhood’s growth had the High Line been demolished.

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High Line Adjacency Controls: Required Open Space
A minimum of 20% of the lot area would be required to be reserved as landscaped open space. To provide a visual extension of the High Line, the required open space would be located adjacent to and at a height not to exceed the level of the High Line. The required open space could not front on Tenth Avenue and could be used as a public or private space
.” (Here.)


But back to the inception. The owners of the railway, CSX, who acquired it from Conrail in 1998, resisted the swelling outcry for demolition and opted instead to commission a study of potential uses. (Bless CSX for that.) Rail banking was a proposal that intrigued neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond, both in attendance at that meeting unveiling the results of the study. (My community garden lies in a disused railway easement, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also a beneficiary of rail banking.) After that momentous meeting, David and Hammond formed the nonprofit Friends of the High Line, fully in support of a park use for the railway.

Along with requisitioning the potential use study, CSX fortuitously hired photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose evocative photos were just the boost the proposed park needed.


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photo by Joel Sternfeld 2000

One of the single most important things that happened to save the High Line in the very early days was when CSX made it possible for Joel Sternfeld’s project to photograph the High Line,” says David.
“They basically made it possible for the world to see what was on top of the High Line.
” (Here.)

In the beginning, we didn’t know what the High Line should ultimately look like. We didn’t know exactly what the design should be. We always thought the community and the city should decide what it should be. Over time, people coalesced around Joel’s photo and when you asked them, “What do you want the High Line to be?” they’d point to Joel’s photos and they’d say, “I want it to be like that.” In some ways, that was the biggest inspiration behind the design, Joel’s photos of the landscape.” (Interview with Robert Hammond Here.)

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Now when I see pictures of just the High Line without any people, I realize it wasn’t as good.
It’s really beautiful when you have people interacting with the new landscape of the High Line
.” — Robert Hammond Here.

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What was striking is that in all my reading, not once was the amazingly complex plantsmanship of Piet Oudolf cited as part of the appeal that lures so many to the High Line.
Through his plantings, Oudolf matched the spirit of Sternfeld’s photos of the abandoned railway recolonized by plants.

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Where once there was a clang and clamor of industry, the noisy, physical manifestation of America’s 20th Century manufacturing might, the old railway has been repurposed for another kind of movement that seems to strike some as aimless, idle, purposeless: people making multivaried use of a park.

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The fact that this new amenity sprang from older industrial infrastructure says a lot about the current moment in New York’s evolution. A city that had once pioneered so many technological and urban planning solutions, that had dazzled the world with its public works, its skyscrapers, bridges, subways, water-delivery system, its Central Park, palatial train stations, libraries and museums, appears unable to undertake any innovative construction on a grand scale, and is now consigned to cannibalizing its past and retrofitting it to function as an image, a consumable spectacle. Productivity has given way to narcissism; or, to put it more charitably, work has yielded to leisure.” (Here.)

I would argue that instead of cannibalizing the past, the past has been honored and included in the present moment, which is a continuum that the wisest cities respect.
I would argue that the High Line gives all of us, not just the 1 percent, million-dollar views of New York.
And the fact that funding was found for a park (a park!) and not another sports arena still strikes me as extraordinary and reason enough to celebrate.

I’ve included photos of one of my visits to the High Line in June 2013.

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Railroad lines crisscrossing the country move freight, delivering everything from coal to cars.
But one rail line running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side moves your soul, delivering sanctuary amid coneflower and pink evening primrose
.” (Here.)


Reading for this post can found at these links:

http://www.thehighline.org/

http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-nyc-mayor-bloombergs-urban-planning-legacy.html

http://journalism.nyu.edu/publishing/archives/portfolio/subramanian/HighLine_Resident.html

http://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=34419

http://www.hraadvisors.com/featured/the-high-line/#&panel1-4

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/under-the-high-line-a-gay-past/

http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2005/july-august/taking-the-high-line.html

Developers Want Easier Access to High Line Air Rights; But Should City Fix Something That Doesn’t Look Broken?

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/responsible-living/sponsorvideo/improbable-journey-the-story-of-new-yorks-high-line

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/westchelsea/westchelsea3b.shtml

a garden wedding



When someone who works in landscape design gets married, even the agaves are dressed for the occasion.

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Congratulations to Mary True and Cheryl Fippen on their recent wedding in Berkeley, California.
Thank you both for your kind permission to use these photos.
Additional thanks to Shirley Watts and MB Maher.
All photography by MB Maher.


Friday clippings 8/22/14


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At first sight I became enthralled by artist James Griffith’s exquisite, painterly ripostes to the “drill, baby, drill” set — my words, not his. James is much more polite.
By way of a secret alchemy, he utilizes that precious resource from our local La Brea Tar Pits in a uniquely subversive fashion, to cover canvases with delicate, etching-like portraits of species that don’t get a say in our energy politics, such as the humble and familiar crow, bat, mouse, and deer. His work reminds that all species are stuck in this moment together. I love my little tar bat that was last year’s Christmas present.

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James has a new show beginning September 6, 2014, at the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station, where you can see the latest members of his tar pit menagerie.

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James is also co-creator with garden designer Sue Dadd of the Folly Bowl, their own personal outdoor amphitheater in which they host a summer-long series of concerts. This coming Saturday’s concert, August 23rd, is described on their Facebook page for The Folly Bowl. If you go, keep an eye out for one of the biggest Agave franzosinii south of the Ruth Bancroft Garden.

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Drawing from the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Plants at Harvard. Collection manager Jenny Brown and glass artist Christian Thornton will be two of the lecturers at Natural Discourse this October 18, 2014.

Another date to save: On October 18, 2014, impresario, artist, and garden designer Shirley Watts, is bringing Natural Discourse: Light & Image to the Los Angeles County Arboretum, which promises to be another amazing day of riveting lectures, this time here in our very own backyard. Shirley assembles together for one day the equivalent of a botanical salon filled with some of the most interesting speakers I’ve been privileged to hear. I wrote about them here and here and here — you can do a blog search for other posts too. Richard Turner, former editor of Pacific Horticulture, had this to say of earlier iterations of Natural Discourse:

The first symposia, held at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, were among the very best days I’ve ever spent sitting and listening to others speak.

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The Ruth Bancroft Garden by Marion Brenner, who will be one of the lecturers at Natural Discourse October 18th, 2014, at Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Garden bloggers in particular won’t want to miss a single pearl of wisdom that falls from legendary landscape photographer Marion Brenner’s lips at this upcoming Natural Discourse: Light & Image.

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Sansevieria ‘Black Gold’ at California Greenhouses

If anyone is tempted to visit the Orange County nurseries I mentioned here, I hope I caught you before you made the trip. You must add to your itinerary California Greenhouses.
Annette Gutierrez, co-owner of Potted, recommended this one to me, and I checked it out earlier this week. It is worth the trip alone.

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Some nurseries, like sports teams, have a “deep bench,” and California Nurseries has one of the deepest around.
Succulents in all sizes, from enormous dragon trees, tree aloes, and Yucca rostrata, to table after table of all the wee ones we love to stuff in pots, and at nearly wholesale prices.
Fantastic section of houseplants too.

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California Greenhouses currently has a couple enormous Aloe capitata var. quartzicola for sale, at least 3-gallon size if not 5.
More than double the size of this Aloe capitata var. quartzicola, photo taken in my garden this June.

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Department of Corrections: This is one of the so-called shrub begonias ‘Paul Hernandez,’ and it’s managed to thrive despite my having the blackest thumb a begonia enthusiast can have. I wish Freud had wondered instead what a begonia wants, because I sure as heck don’t know. I’ve made some comments that reference this gunnera-sized begonia as ‘Gene Daniels,’ so I need to correct that. I don’t think I’ve ever grown ‘Gene Daniels,’ but two begonias named after guys — you can see how I made the mistake. Checking the blog, I see that ‘Paul Hernandez’ dates back to 2011 in my garden, the only begonia I’ve grown with that kind of longevity, so we need to keep his identity straight. Good plants need to be rewarded; the next big pot I buy is going to be for Paul. Judging by the mottled color, I think Paul looks a little hungry. Maybe some fish emulsion?

I’ll close with my favorite quote of the week: “‘At the end of the day,’ Dr. Richard wrote in his diary this summer, ‘the plants are still in need of a drink, and so are we.’”

At least I have that in common with the energetic couple restoring a 250-year-old house in southwest France. There were a couple more epigrammatic, Wilde-worthy quotes in The New York Times article and luscious slideshow, “A Blank Slate With Fig Trees,” including success with houseguests requires “to never see them over breakfast.”

Happy weekend!


the French Laundry’s Culinary Garden

One score and seven minutes ago our partners brought forth on this town, a new restaurant, conceived in finesse, and dedicated to the proposition that all food is served soigné.” —
Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry celebrating its 20th anniversary July 6, 2014.


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When my oldest son Mitch traveled to the Isle of Skye off of Northern Scotland just to eat at The Three Chimneys is probably when I first realized he was getting fairly serious about eating good food. For his photography services, he has been known to accept payment in the form of a meal at a favorite restaurant. That right there is a pretty good illustration of the kind of business sense that runs in my family.

Mitch visited The French Laundry over the weekend, about an hour north out of San Francisco in Napa Valley, in the town of Yountville. Mediterranean winter wet/summer dry, zone 9ish, a climate very much to a grape’s liking. I can’t even imagine the pressures involved in running a working kitchen garden that supports a world-class restaurant. You can read more about the process on their Facebook page. The French Laundry was inducted into The Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012. Jacket required.

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The menu for July 6, 2014.