Category Archives: garden travel

chasing agaves


Last Saturday, while millions marched their way into the history books, I was driving south to San Diego to meet agave expert Greg Starr.
I had been looking forward to this 2-hour road trip for some time, as a beacon in an otherwise fairly bleak January. Family medical issues against the chaotic national backdrop were starting to take a toll.
My guilt was somewhat lessened by the knowledge that our family would be represented by a marcher. Definitely count me in for the next one and the one after that.
NPR covered the march for the drive south, and the recent back-to-back storms cleared to offer up a gorgeous, cloud-scudded and dry Saturday. Pardon my nativism, but California is so beautiful.

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My destination was this private home where the San Diego Horticultural Society was hosting the talk by Greg Starr and a plant sale. Greg was bringing agaves!

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The front garden was a life-affirming explosion of agaves and aloes.
A blooming cowhorn agave, A. bovicornuta, is still a commanding presence, even among show-stealing flowering aloes.

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Tree in the background is Euphorbia cotinifolia.

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A narrow footpath runs a few feet in front of the house for access.
I’d be guessing at aloe names, since the owner has access to some amazing hybrids.
The bright orange in the left foreground looks a lot like my Aloe ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’

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Agave ‘Jaws’ fronted by a marlothii-hybrid aloe in bud.

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Incredibly tight tapestry of succulents, with some self-sowing alyssum and California poppies managing to find a root-hold.

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Unfortunately, Mr. Starr was unable to attend, probably due to the recent spate of severe weather and heavy rain.
But the owner’s private collection of aloes and agaves was more than enough compensation. That’s Agave ‘Streaker’ above in one of his raised beds in the backyard.

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Agave pumila, at a size I didn’t know they achieved.

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Selection of Agave utahensis

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Aloe longistyla, touchy about drainage, prone to mites, but so beautiful, flaunting some of the largest flowers of any aloe in relation to clump size.

The San Diego Hort. Society members provided lots of interesting plants for sale, including a variegated agave I can’t find a reference for (‘Northern Lights’ — anyone?)
With the Mini already nearly full to capacity, I stopped at Solana Succulents on the way home, detouring west to its location directly on Highway 1 in sight of the Pacific.
Owner Jeff Moore manages to tuck in a stellar selection of rarities in a relatively small-size nursery. Here is where I finally found the long-coveted Agave weberi ‘Arizona Star’ in a gallon.

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A nice shipment from B&B Cactus Farm was on the shelves, like this Astrophytum ornatum. I also brought home a Parodia magnifica.

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And another cowhorn agave.

I don’t think I’ve had Jeff’s self-published book out of arm’s reach since I bought it last Saturday.
“Aloes & Agaves in Cultivation” is everything you’d expect from someone who knows all the growers, hybridizers, and designers in San Diego County.
He’ll be speaking closer to home, at South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes, this March.
And February’s speaker doesn’t look bad either (Panayoti Kelaidis!)

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.

my new earrings (via collaboration of Molly M Designs & Roberto Burle Marx)

You know how one thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a new pair of earrings coming in the mail? Let me explain.
There’s a Roberto Burle Marx exhibit right now at the Jewish Museum in New York (review here, “The Builder of Jungles” by Martin Filler.)
I admit to being slightly confused as to how a museum exhibit could possibly do justice to the work of the great Brazilian modernist landscape architect.
But Burle Marx was an outsized, protean artist, “a painter and sculptor; a designer of textiles, jewelry, theater sets, and costumes; a ceramicist and stained-glass artist.”
Therefore, he’s eminently worthy of an indoor exhibit, though I have to agree with Mr. Filler that:
The primal presence of nature—even in this designer’s highly stylized manner—is needed to fully explain the atavistic magic that emerged from his jungle fervor.”
(If you’re going to the Olympics in Rio this August, in addition to the famous Avenida Atlântica, the Copacabana boardwalk, you’ll want to research some Burle Marx-themed road trips.)


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Avenida Atlântica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, via The New York Times

After reading the NYRB review, I confess my next thought was on the low-brow side: museum shop!
Maybe there were some special prints for sale made for the show, such as a print of this:


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Burle Marx’s design for a rooftop garden, Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1938, via NYRB

or this:

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“A detail of Roberto Burle Marx’s design for the garden of the Ministry of the Army in Brasília from the early 1970s.”
The New York Times – “Revisiting the Constructed Edens of Roberto Burle Marx

I didn’t find a print, but did experience an aha! moment discovering the jewelry of Molly M. I was beginning to think I was hopelessly tone deaf when it comes to jewelry.
It’s gotten so bad that I’ll find myself at work completely denuded of any ornament, having forgotten to wear even a wedding band before leaving the house. What’s wrong with me anyway?
My indifference to jewelry all my life never really bothered me much, but I’ve begun to notice the emotional attachment people feel to their rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings.
Frankly, I’m a little envious of that attachment. So I had a couple Etsy sessions recently, dutifully scanning the sites for something to spark an interest. Nothing. Hopeless.
Until I saw the laser-cut creations of architect-trained Molly M in the Jewish Museum Shop tying into the Burle Marx exhibition.

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Finally, jewelry I actually desired. Now I get it! The Tropicalissimo Quill Necklace made a convert of me.
But a necklace is a big step for the newly converted, formerly jewelry phobic. Maybe there were earrings on Molly M’s own site?
Yes, there are Quill earrings available, as shown in the above photo.

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But at almost 2 inches in diameter, I opted for something smaller in “Radial,” made of “natural and charcoal stained birch.”

You can read more about Molly M here. I think I may have found, via our beloved Roberto Burle Marx, the cure to my jewelry phobia.

beyond the lawn; notes on 2016 LA Garden Conservancy Open Days

Since the 5/7/16 tour, Gov. Jerry Brown surprised us all by announcing that mandatory water restrictions are now suspended except for agriculture. Water use policies will revert back to the local level.
So pat yourself on the back for enduring those spartan showers, ditching the lawn, adding in more permeability to your garden, and overall diligent water use reduction efforts.
(But you still can’t hose down your driveway, so get over that.) Even so, this might be a good moment to emphasize the big picture. From The California Weather Blog:

Nearly all of California is still ‘missing’ at least 1 year’s worth of precipitation over the past 4 years, and in Southern California the numbers suggest closer to 2-3 years’ worth of ‘missing’ rain and snow.
These numbers, of course, don’t even begin to account for the effect of consecutive years of record-high temperatures, which have dramatically increased evaporation in our already drought-stressed region.”

And the bigger, possibly more sobering picture is that even in non-drought years, Los Angeles averages only 15 inches of rainfall. So the problem of too little water for too many people is not going away. Ever. And it was a problem long before the governor hit the red alert button. But you know what? Other cultures have already figured this out, this business of crowding ourselves into hot, dry lands. And there’s great examples all around town. Landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power’s garden on the recent GC Open Days tour is a case study of these principles. And while we all obsess over what to do with the lawn, her almost 20-year-old garden suggests we might also think about where outdoors to eat, nap, cook, read, chat with friends, daydream, warm by a fire, take shelter from the sun, catch an ocean breeze, inhale clouds of jasmine — the scope of possibilities extends far beyond the boundaries of that poster child for this drought, the lawn, and what replaces it.

I liked this line from that keen observer of all things Southern Californian, Joan Didion, in the 5/26/16 New York Review of Books. It easily applies to our attitudes about water in Los Angeles:

I have lived most of my life under misapprehensions of one kind or another.” Boy howdy, you said it, Ms. Didion. Don’t we all? (“California Notes” NYRB 5/26/16)

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This little table and chairs is at the front of Ms. Power’s small Santa Monica house, just off the street, entirely screened by plantings.
A short staircase zig-zags up from the sidewalk through retaining-wall beds filled with agaves and matilija poppies, depositing visitors in this shady “foyer.”
A potted cussonia at the entrance to a garden is always an auspicious sign of good things to come.

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Also in the front courtyard is the first of many small fountains and pools. Implicit is the strong affirmative that, yes, water is precious stuff.
Watch it glisten and sparkle in the sun, ripple in the wind, draw in birds. Just don’t ever take it for granted.

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Narrow passage to the back of the house, a jasmine-scented journey this time of year.

The forgotten spaces in most people’s houses — the side yards and setbacks — I look at as opportunities.”
(all quoted material from “Power of Gardens” by Nancy Goslee Power)

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Already you can sense the strong interplay between indoors and outdoors, the feeling of shelter extending beyond the house, eager to envelope and claim the outdoors as well.

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Up those distant steps leads to the banquette in the photo below.

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Ms. Power’s “napatorium.”

Walled gardens offer so many solutions still relevant in the modern world.
They give privacy and safety from the outside environment, often perceived as hostile.
The living spaces of the house open onto exterior spaces, and outdoor dining is possible in courtyards in good weather most of the year
.”

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[T]he more you define a space, the larger it becomes.”

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The view from the kitchen door.

I designed the water to be seen all the way through the house and make a strong central axis that pulls you outside.”

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A small apartment/cottage shares the wall with the rill.

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Dining area off the kitchen, where the colors warm up.

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The kitchen, windows open to the narrow, pebbled side passageway, a nook in the wall for a potted plant just visible through the window.

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More shaded seating just off the kitchen.

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Everywhere were the tell-tale signs that the outdoors were as lived in as the indoors, if not more so.

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From the street, you’d have no idea what lay up that small flight of steps off the sidewalk, so tours like this are much appreciated.
I wanted Casa Nancina to reveal herself slowly…I didn’t want my landscape to stand out.
It needed to be discreet and feel as if it belonged to the neigbhorhood
.”

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

spring rush


Last Sunday we roadtripped up the coast about two hours near Carpinteria, where Seaside Gardens was having a “Spring Fling.”
The day before, Saturday, I drove myself two hours south to check out the San Diego Horticultural Society’s spring garden tour.
All told, I put 400 miles on the car. The spring rush is definitely on, and already I’m wondering if I’ve got the stamina to keep up.

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But it was so worth it. Everywhere I went the spectacular pin cushion flowers of leucospermum were stealing the show.
A Del Mar garden on the San Diego Horticultural Society tour was filled with these South African shrubs arrayed against a backdrop of Torrey pines.
Australian plants like grevilleas, isopogon, and banksias were well represented too.

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Even though it was a two-hour drive south, I took a chance on the San Diego Hort. Society tour this spring and was not at all disappointed.
Leucospermum and other members of the proteaceae family are grown commercially as cut flowers in San Diego, so it’s no wonder they flourish in private gardens too.
The steep banks of the owner’s ravine were a particularly favorable site.

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Looking down onto the floor of the ravine

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Grevillea ‘Peaches & Cream’ alongside the driveway at the entrance to the house and garden

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For a closeup view of these flamboyant pin cushions, these were some of the beauties Seaside Gardens had for sale on Sunday, about 200 miles north of San Diego.

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‘Tango’

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I think this one was labeled ‘Spider’

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This one was leaning on Leucadendron ‘Ebony’

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Leucospermum reflexum hybrid

in a hothouse

Or a greenhouse, hoop house. Located on Long Island, NY, visited in June 2013.
What I remember most was the all-engulfing moistness of the environment. Evapotranspiration so intense as to make one giddy.
Which is undoubtedly why I lingered for a very long time, to take photos of familiar plants grown so beautifully as summer bedding in that heated greenhouse on Long Island.
Moving slowly between the growing benches, I drifted into reveries of shopping for the summer home in Montauk, to fill the conservatory with lush hanging baskets.
Another life, another garden (another bank account). Would I leave my sunny, arid home for a Gatsbyesque estate with plentiful summer rainfall?
These are the questions that arise when visiting a Long Island hothouse on a lovely day in June. (It’s good to be home.)
Except for the begonias, it wasn’t a botanically palpitating experience.
To me begonias are still the boss for summer containers, light on water, arresting in leaf. I need to find a Begonia luxurians again pronto.
(No need for winter protection here in zone 10. I stack my potted begonias under dry eaves for the winter.)
But it was impressive enough just checking out the growing operations and the boisterous health of well-cared for plants coming out of a winter’s sleep.

Have a great weekend. Maybe visit a local greenhouse?

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notes on spring planting

Though it may not be readily apparent, there really is something positive to say about the garden in January. I’ve been cutting back the grasses, and even allowing for the dozens of poppy seedlings that are emerging and staking a claim on spring, there’s still an impressive amount of vacant planting space opening up. All of which adds zest to a favorite wintertime game, a game played by a mortal pretending to be a god: What do I want spring through fall to look like in my little garden in 2016? In all honesty, a lot of it will look like a dead ringer for 2015, but January is when optimism for the new gardening year is at its zenith and anything feels possible. Astonishing, never-before-seen visions of extraordinary plant beauty are surely to come.


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Like the Catalina Silverlace, Constancea nevinii, seen recently at the Theodore Payne Nursery.


Like envisioning a delicious meal, I daydream in textures, aromas, flavors sweet and sharp. For those few planting places opening up, will it be smooth or crunchy? I have lots of smooth succulents, so let’s find something crunchy, shrubby. It can’t be anything too rich and water dependent, so no traditional, overbred, cordon bleu garden plants. And I’d like something whose flavor won’t overwhelm the rest of this mulligan’s stew, which is heavy on variegated plants and spicy agaves. What’s needed is something in a quietly textural, supporting role. Maybe something in herbs? Isn’t winter savory an attractive little shrub, or is that summer savory? Maybe dracocephalum? Or lavender again, but it’s always iffy in this clay, and I just don’t want to play those odds this year. Plus I want something that billows, smallish in stature. Nepeta has been disappointing, even the much-lauded ‘Walker’s Low.’ What about calamints? Resource lean, aromatic, shrubby. I’ve grown a few kinds before but eventually backed away from their wildly prolific reseeding tendencies. Maybe there’s something new in calamints I haven’t tried?

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Eriogonum crocatum

Some light research turns up Calamintha nepeta ‘Montrose White,’ a calamint discoverd by Nancy Godwin at her Montrose Nursery. Long-blooming, doesn’t reseed, a summer-long feast for pollinators. It’s even won top honors as Perennial of the Year in 2010. Okay, then, calamint it is. Digging Dog Nursery in Albion, California, carries it, along with an intriguing perovskia called ‘Lacey Blue,’ a dwarf form of Russian Sage. With plants like these, summer 2016 can turn up the heat all it wants. We’ll be ready.

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Aristida purpurea

An order to Digging Dog is dispatched, and that settles that. But what else? Wasn’t there an eriogonum I’ve been itching to grow? I have plant notes around here somewhere. Yes, there it is, a smallish native buckwheat with silver leaves and chartreuse flowers, tolerates clay. Eriogonum crocatum! I think I can squeeze in maybe two. Now, who carries it? Why, Theodore Payne does, a mere hour’s drive to Sun Valley, just past Glendale. So be it. (And what should be playing on the radio the whole trip, there and back, but a tribute to David Bowie. I jump in the car, turn on KCRW, and there’s the thumping bass of Panic in Detroit. An auspicious beginning for any road trip.)


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At the entrance to the nursery is an impressive stand of our native Agave shawii

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See that slender, bright green column behind the pots?

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Catalina Ironwood in a ceramic container. Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius.
I stared at this tree long enough that a nursery person approached to warn me not to try this at home.
She explained this was basically tree abuse that they practiced to obtain cuttings for the nursery.
Trees in containers always seem like such a good idea in January, long before they become a miserable chore in July.

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So I wandered the grounds near the nursery. With just an hour before closing, there wasn’t time to explore the canyon (22 acres!)

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Arctostaphylos cruzensis

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Pinus sabiniana, Grey Pine, Foothill Pine, Ghost Pine (lovely pine!)

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I was recently cleaning up this grass in my garden, Aristida purpurea, and inadvertently pulled up the whole clump.

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Not a regimented, upright grass but ethereal, wispy to the point of disorganized. There are more purple tones than the photos show.

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Dudleya densiflora

Riding in the back, serenaded by Bowie all the way home, were two Eriogonum crocatum and a Catalina Silverlace, Constancea nevinii.
2016 is really starting to take shape.


blogger meetup at the Huntington

I should have talked less and picked up the camera more at the meetup this past Saturday at the Huntington Botanical Garden, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun as our nonstop gabfest. The occasion for the meetup was Gerhard (Succulents & More) visiting Los Angeles at the end of a week-long winter sabbatical — a plant-centric sabbatical, of course, which he will be blogging about forthwith. Gail (Piece of Eden), Gail’s husband Alan, Luisa (Crow & Raven), and I were the Southern California welcoming committee.


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Also part of Gerhard’s welcoming committee were the winter-blooming aloes.

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With so many aloes in bloom, the desert garden absorbed all our time and attention.

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Aloe sinkatana

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Aloe rubroviolacea

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We’re all pretty fond of agaves too.

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And hechtias.

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In fact, there’s very little about the desert garden that we’re not all crazy in love with.
I hope Luisa does a post on her beloved opuntias. Alan admirably fulfilled documentary duties.


The desert garden is always jaw-droppingly amazing, but this time I wish I had more photos to substantiate my enthusiasm for the plantings in the new entrance garden. I grabbed a couple photos as I left in the early afternoon, which just hint at the large swathes of the landscape made predominantly of muhly grasses interspersed with kniphofia and aloes. The grasses carry the scene nearly year-round and are especially stunning fall and winter, at their shimmering best in the low angled light. The Huntington’s own hybrid Kniphofia ‘Christmas Cheer’ is in bloom now, and then the torch will be handed over to Aloe ‘David Verity.’ Very minimalist but strategically smart succession planting on a waterwise budget, with washes of blue supplied by the mallee shrub Eucalyptus ‘Moon Lagoon’ The grasses are Muhlenbergia dubia, Muhlenbergia rigens, and Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails.’ There was also a small massed planting of Hesperaloe ‘Brakelights,’ and lots of other things like verbascum and glaucium, but the overall mood of the landscape is governed by swaying, glittering sweeps of grass.

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More like a quick watercolor sketch than a photo, but the general idea is conveyed.
The blue wash is from Eucalyptus ‘Moon Lagoon.’ Kniphofia ‘Christmas Cheer’ is in bloom, like little signal fires dotted amongst the grasses.
After the kniphofia fires die down, Aloe ‘David Verity’ will light up the Muhlenbergia dubia. Really smart, gorgeously simple planting.

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Kniphofia ‘Christmas Cheer’ is a hybrid of Kniphofia rooperi that emerged from the Huntington in the 1970s.
From San Marcos Growers website:
John MacGregor, long-time horticulturist at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, noted that this plant is one of the best winter hummingbird plants he knew of for mild climates.”

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The new entrance garden warrants another, much more comprehensive visit.
And without my blogger friends, there’ll be less talk and more photos. But not nearly as much fun.