Poor Man’s Jewels

Aeoniums and Helichrysum petiolare, very common in these parts. Matte and fuzzy riffing off each other, spangled in morning dew.

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I’ve always felt plants more than hold their own in the world of precious objects. Lucky for my family, there’s really nothing else I’d rather gaze upon. My wedding ring is a plain gold band, and while I admire the craftsmanship of jewelers and silversmiths, it’s always been plants that rivet and hold my attention.

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Helichrysum is routinely subsumed into summer container plantings, recruited for duty as the “trailer,” but it is so much more than a component in a formula for a summer container. It is an obliging plant. It is a clever plant. It is a supremely friendly plant. In the austerity and low light of a winter garden in So. Calif, its many fine qualities are burnished — doubly so without brash summer flowers elbowing it out of the limelight.

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Which reminds me. I have seen a case of local benign neglect produce an amazingly innovative performance by the chartreuse variety of this helichrysum named ‘Limelight.’ What it has done is happily shrug off its mundane surroundings and wend its way up the wall, exploring the brick with its felt wands and arranging itself smugly in arabesques and curlicues. This stunning performance is there on the corner of 4th and I forget what other street for all with eyes to see. This gray one playing with the aeonium is a dwarf variety, so will not achieve that scale. They are perennial here in zone 10.

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The Trouble With Etsy

Yesterday morning, in the shower, I wondered if men were writing the code and starting up sites like Etsy, and if women were thereafter predominantly the ones selling their wares in this virtual bazaar. There’s no point to a lengthier prefatory explanation. One just never knows what ruminations a hot shower will bring about, though topics like what will 21st century labor look like are a good bet for me. Immediately after the shower, next order of business was Google.

My familiarity with the crafts site Etsy can’t be more than a year old, gleaned from reading design blogs probably. I’ve never bought anything from Etsy, but it is a very intriguing concept. One of my best friends in high school in the ’70s was an ardent practitioner of the the arcane needle arts, like lace making, tatting, and lots other esoteric ones that I don’t remember because, frankly, I just wasn’t paying attention. Chalk it up to callow youth, but I felt if it wasn’t Art, it was a hobby, busy work, a diversion and distraction from More Important Things. Throw in there, too, “women’s work.” I admired her handiwork and always offered enthusiastic praise and support, but was secretly puzzled by her zeal to pursue one craft after another as if her life depended on it. She serially tackled and mastered craft after craft, always producing exquisite work.

Sometime in the mid ’90s this friend took me to an exhibition in Santa Monica of Liza Lou’s “Kitchen,” and I began to see my friend’s obsession with new eyes. In fact, my friend had been one of the many volunteers who helped bead hundreds of blades of grass for “Backyard.” For Liza Lou, “The dignity of the doing is the meaning of my work.”

A detail of Liza Lou’s “Kitchen” from American Craft magazine:

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I knew my friend hoped to ease out of her office job and sell her work at craft shows and maybe local shops, but she ended up landing a job with the U.S. Post Office which consumed even more of her time and energy, then had a child in her forties, and then — whoosh. I often wonder how things might have turned out if the Internet and Etsy were around back in the ’70s.

According to what my search string discovered, she would have allegedly entered a nearly all-female ghetto of craft piecework, a throwback to early 20th century sweatshops and disasters like the Triangle Sewing Factory Fire, albeit your own private sweat shop where the door remained unlocked in case of conflagration.

Someone had indeed crunched the numbers. First of all, my hunch was correct: The Etsy site is primarily used by women but was developed by some guys in Brooklyn.

The search string I used after my shower was “Etsy statistics male female,” which catapulted me into a controversy started by Sara Mosle in an article she wrote for Double XX entitled “Etsy.com Peddles a False Feminist Fantasy.” Sample quote: “Etsy actively fosters the delusion that any woman with pluck and ingenuity can earn a viable living without leaving her home.”

Mosle’s article was further discussed and its premise mostly rejected on The Frisky in an article by Amelia McDonnell-Parry entitled “Etsy: A ‘Female Ghetto’ For The Creative & Crafty?” Sample quote: “Etsy hasn’t pulled the wool over their eyes, they aren’t stuck in some artsy/crafty female ghetto just because they aren’t getting rich off handmade stationery.” The mostly irate readers’ comments are also worth perusing.

But wait, there’s more. The most incendiary rebuke to Mosle’s article comes from Jezebel in a piece entitled “Slate Ladyblog Slaps The “Feminist Fantasy” Of Etsy.” Here the readers’ remarks are, as my youngest son would put it, off the chain.

I remembered reading a more positive, boosterish piece on Etsy in the New York Times recently, so hunted for that. (“That Hobby Looks Like a Lot of Work,” by Alex Williams 12/16/09.) This article held out the hope of a possible six-figure income being derived from selling on Etsy. Here, too, the readers’ comments are as informative as the article itself. Reader “Lily Briscoe” (obviously a Virginia Woolf fan) wrote: “The products are creative and wonderful. I admire the women who produce these one of a kind items. However, from an economic perspective, Etsy is basically promoting a glorified version of piece work. In the early 20th century, women living in cold water tenements on the Lower Eastside churned out beautiful things too. The article reads like another sign that our country’s prosperity is sliding backwards. Where are the jobs that provide benefits and a living wage?”

Another reader warned that anyone knitting as many hours a day as a woman featured in the article would soon end up an upper-body cripple.

Brett from Arizona’s response to the NYT article: “Why did this home made market ever go away? Because mass production is cheaper and more efficient. That may sound like evil corporate speak, but it actually amounts to more resources being used. More gas for delivery, more on decentralized logistics and it all adds up to costing more to society than mass production. Mechanization and economies of scale made sense in 1900 and still do. Machines free us from drudgery and economies of scale make the marginal inputs into production less costly…as has already been told, some will find themselves returning to the servitude of manual labor that we purposely left behind during the industrial revolution.”

Etsy as business incubator or personal sweat shop? Another installment in the continuing saga of machines, fitness of purpose, people, work, labor, craft, what to do with our hands, what to do with our brains, what to do with our talents (how good am I at this skill anyway?), and as Liza Lou succinctly put it, “The dignity of the doing.”

Winter Storms

The long-awaited winter storms did arrive with a vengeance, drumming rain deep into the soil. Don’t you want a subterranean view of a cross section of the earth moistening sequentially into ever richer chocolate layers as the rain percolates down in fudgy rivulets — how far down, who can say? (It’s both limiting and freeing, blessing and curse, to have an imagination unfettered by the laws of science.) The rains have brought worry and inconvenience to many, so a gardener’s elation is somewhat tempered by that knowledge — at least in polite company. Privately, this is a time for jubilation. The garden looks like it’s been slapped into taking a breath.

Leaving the land and heading out to sea, here’s the Los Angeles Lighthouse and jetty yesterday afternoon, clouds and wave spume nearly interchangeable. The photographer, MB Maher, is still seasick today.

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Now off to satisfy an urge for a slice of chocolate cake, grab a cup of tea, and find the old dog-eared copy of To The Lighthouse, where Lily Briscoe paints in the garden and Mrs. Ramsay throws her shawl over an object in the children’s bedroom (an animal’s skull?) that keeps them awake and afraid. Fitting end to a rainy workweek.

More rain possibly next week.

Cat on Pedestal

The pedestal being a stack of concrete that occasionally holds a pot or, as in this case, a cat named Newt, or is just left empty, a plinth crowded on four sides by the horticultural Darwinian struggle that is the front gravel garden.

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The South African restio seemingly grazing Newt’s cheek behind the fountain grass is Thamnochortus insignis, which still holds the record for the most money ever paid by me for a plant. Now restios are available in 4-inch pots every spring/summer, but at the time, before even Hinkley’s Heronswood began to beat the drum for restios, it was a foliar revelation, a one-off specimen a nursery owned (and which set me back a c-note). It does amazingly well here in zone 10 with no real irrigation beyond the winter rains. In too much shade, restios can flop. But given the full sun and bone-dry conditions of the gravel garden, this one maintains it’s glorious upright vase shape year round. These photos were taken yesterday, on the afternoon of the 17th, just before the first (fingers crossed) of a supposed series of week-long rainstorms rolled in. The euphorbia obscuring Newt’s tail is E. lambii, the phormium ‘Alison Blackman.’

Detail of the restio’s inflorescence, arching and falling like Danny Ocean’s fountains at the Bellagio. Photo taken earlier in the year:

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Back to the cat on the pedestal. Felis silvestris catus, our Newt, who can spit like a cobra, a performance we enjoy provoking until the poor thing gets cotton mouth. Newt has this amazing, sculptural sweep to her upper body due to, alas, the loss of a front limb from injury. “Spunky” seems like such a quaint, almost demeaning epithet, but it gets closest to describing this little cat’s resilience. And I suppose “spunky” fits the gravel garden as well. More on its plants later.

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Pelargonium echinatum

From Robin Parer’s Geraniaceae site comes possible confirmation as to the identity of my 3-year-old, winter-flowering, summer-dormant pelargonium, P. echinatum, whose winter performance in a 6-inch pot thrills me no end. Just as cold-climate gardeners haul their tender beauties out of mothballs every spring after danger of frost has passed, here in zone 10 the reverse process can occur in fall for summer dormant plants. About the time in November I’m tipping over the huge pot of the tropical Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ to keep it rain-free during the winter, growth appears on this charmer, signaling the need for moisture:


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PlantzAfrica has extensive information on this species’ care and propagation. Possibilities are only limited by the number of pots containing ostensibly dead plants one has table space and tolerance for in summer, a time when one hopes their garden affirms life in its strongest voice. The danger is in tucking their unsightly dormant state too far out of sight and mind in summer, where the resurgence will go unnoticed in fall. Ensured success is as simple as tipping the pot right side up again to accept winter rains.

Foliage Followup (and other digressions)

The answer to Bloom Day, the 15th of every month, is the Foliage Follow-up, the brainchild of Pam Pennick of the excellent blog Digging, whose garden has endured both record high temps in summer and now record low temps this winter — kinda why “climate change” is more apt a term than “global warming,” since every cold spell is pounced upon as proof, aha! that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing warming (because then we’d be warm and sweaty all the time, right?) and that it’s all the socialist payback plot of evil scientists. But as reader Paul Schickler of Brooklyn so ably stated in a letter to the New York Times on January 1, 2010, “Yes, we may possibly err in thinking that we need to spend uncounted billions on green technologies, new industries and fostering worldwide unanimity of purpose. But if climate fears do turn out to be less than apocalyptic, we can ease our embarrassment with a full-employment economy, fiscal surplus, clean air, a more peaceful world and a more optimistic future for our children. I’m ready to be thus embarrassed.”

Whoops, where’d that digression come from? Back to the garden…

This whole enterprise of naming what’s in bloom and leaf seems so unfair on my part because here in zone 10 we usually don’t get temps lower than the 40s to contend with — this winter at least, so far, knock wood — so consequently there’s always lots in bloom and leaf, no matter the skill level of the gardener, and if you’ve got garden space for exotic evergreen shrubs, the sky’s the limit. (A couple years ago, a rare freeze did occur, and it was the talk of the town. I lost a sole plectranthus and the cats’ water bowl iced over, nothing to cry over. The Huntington Botanical Garden had just bedded out masses of Zwartkop aeoniums, all of which were lost, amongst other tender stuff. It also, strangely enough, snowed in South Central L.A., but only there.)

But soon enough, probably around June, as I check the Bloom Day blogs (a day shy of that other famous Bloomsday of James Joyce’s Ulysses, June 16, commemorating June 16, 1904), I’ll bewail the deficit of strong perennial bloom in my garden, the sore lack of breezy, Piet Oudolfesque, diaphanous beauties like veronicastrum, astrantia, the zaftig prairie stalwarts like baptisia and eupatorium that refuse to check in at the Hotel Southern California of the endless summers and suburbs, of the 4-Oh-5 and 1-Oh-1 freeways, of the lack of proper winter chill. We’ve all got our zonal (and urban planning) crosses to bear.

So with that disclaimer, and barring further digressions, I offer the leafy charms of Coprosma ‘County Park Red’
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Sedum nussbaumerianum, Coppertone Stonecrop:

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Oxalis spiralis sprawls in the cool winter months then retreats during summer. The dark burgundy form is out of frame, planted in the ground. The variegated plant is a sterile basil ‘Pesto Perpetuo.’ So pretty, I haven’t as yet snagged a leaf for the kitchen. And with tomatoes out of season, what’s the point anyway?

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Fatshedera, bigeneric cross of, you guessed it, fatsia and hedera, picked up at the Cistus Nursery of Portland, Oregon, this past July. Lost the tag to this cultivar:

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The round-leaved mint bush, Prostanthera. I assumed this is P. rotundifolia but find reference to the variegated mint bush as P. ovalifolia. Whatever it is, it’s a lovely, minty, shimmering shrub from Australia that I’ve grown off and on for over a decade. Tiny lavender bells appear in spring. It can get big fast:

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The little Moroccan toadflax likes the cool winter temps too. Linaria reticulata ‘Flamenco’:

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Another fine-leaved shrub, the New Zealander Lophomyrtus x ralphii ‘Red Dragon’ that I keep in pots to bring to the fore when the succulence of summer’s bounty can no longer upstage their delicate beauty. (That and the fact that there’s simply no ground left in which to to plant them.)

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Hebe ‘Quicksilver’ bringing a cross-stitch counterpoint to the solidity of a potted agave:

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Hellebore argutifolius is in bloom, as are still the Waverly salvias and Teucrium azureum, thank goodness, for the hummers that stop by several times a day. Salvia chiapensis is awakening. The bronzy fennel backs rusty spears of Libertia peregrinans, and the white umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora has started to bloom.

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There’s lots to look at in January. Temps are mostly in the 60s, sometimes 70s. The light is wonderful, not the “toaster oven” light of summer, as cinematographer Gordon Willis described Los Angeles light to Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview. But I digress…

The Best Zwartzkop in the Neighborhood

lives at David and Crissy’s house a few doors down the street and is obligingly in bloom this 15th of January in honor of Bloom Day :

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Nomenclature issues for Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ are discussed by San Marcos Growers . The dirty leaves in the San Marcos photo are usually how my dark aeoniums look, and I have to restrain myself from polishing the leaves (whereas I never have to restrain myself from wild impulses to dust things indoors). I doubt David and Crissy are surreptitiously polishing their Zwartkop, but that its high gleam is a consequence of the light, cleansing rain two days ago.

Abutilons and pelargoniums revel in the cool mid-winter temps. The pelargoniums flower better in heat, of course, but I always prefer the dramatic color brought out by colder temperatures in the leaves.

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Yes, the rosettes of succulents do not technically belong in a Bloom Day post

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A green aeonium, elongating into bloom, potentially a future Bloom Day post.

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Timing is Everything

in garden design. Really enjoyed the cyber garden summit on regionalism held last week, and found myself nodding along with comments by West Coast writers, such as the Germinatrix and Garden Porn, about being led down the primrose path by a good deal of the anglo-centric garden literature written in the last half of the 20th century. One of the Germinatrix’s main complaints revolved around many of the classic border plants being water guzzlers, and how regional substitutes had to be found, e.g., tough euphorbias for blowsy, water-chugging hydrangeas.

I would modestly add another observation: the difficulty of achieving any degree of simultaneity, the cornerstone of English borders, in a mild winter climate, where plants tend to burst into solo performances at inopportune moments instead of rising together in the crescendo you planned for spring and/or summer.

Here’s the soloist for January, intended to be part of the spring corps de ballet, an Orange Chiffon poppy:

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A welcome sight, yes, but guaranteed to be bloomed out now by spring. The objective of amassing a good bunch of self-sowing plants will still be met, so all is not lost. And this poppy blooming today just reminds and reinforces the direction I’ve been heading in anyway, of planning for a big early spring show and reducing attention (and irrigation) in the dry season. One day this direction may ultimately land me looking at my garden filled with aloes blooming in January, with very little room left for herbaceous stuff later in the year, as seen in the Huntington’s succulent and cactus garden several winters ago:

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In fact, the whole idea of “borders” is best jettisoned in zone 10, a concept I still have difficulty moving beyond, so ingrained has it become by those effective British proselytizers Jekyll, Verey, Hobhouse, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Lacy, Keen, and on and on. Even Beth Chatto’s rainfall-dependent gravel garden in East Anglia is a massive border. I still routinely plant in a large border, eight feet deep, giving lots more space to plants than people, when I rationally know there should be more permeable hardscape artfully designed to showcase the wondrous array of exotics we can grow, an ancient truism of Mediterranean garden design. If only those obsessive British horticulturists hadn’t gotten to me first…

All My Agaves

My love affair with agaves runs deep and goes back decades. Now their sculpted beauty and Fibonacci flare are gaining widespread appreciation, surpassing their heretofore cult status, with gorgeous new hybrids popping up as prolifically as feather grass in gravel. Which is great news, if you ask me.

Now on to the burning question: Potted or unpotted? Agaves in or out of pots, here in zone 10, apart from aesthetic issues, really depends on ultimate size and thorniness. No frost issues to contend with, though leaf burn can occur, as when I carelessly moved a variegated A. americana out of dappled shade into full summer sun, discoloring and burning the leaves, rather than a graduated build-up to full sun exposure.

Apart from the undeniable charisma of an agave in a pot, a big part of their allure in pots is endlessly moving them around the garden for maximum effect. In our mild winters, they add instant glamour to areas gone dormant and add bulk to the remnants of wispy grasses left uncut until spring. When the plantings fill in again in spring, the pots are whisked away for drama duty elsewhere.

But as far as size, careful siting and species selection is key. You just can’t argue with a poorly sited Agave americana, ultimate size over 6×8, and countless lost arguments are on display in gardens all over town, usually resulting from planting too close to walkways. A poorly sited agave will invariably become a victim of abuse, with offending leaves hacked off. Debra Lee Baldwin last week profiled some smaller agaves for the Los Angeles Times.

A small sampling of my agaves includes ‘Mr. Ripple,’ thought to be an Agave salmiana hybrid, planted in the ground, ultimate size 5X8. Approximately 2X3 now but growing fast. An entrancing feature of agaves is their leaf imprints, a feature Mr. Ripple has in spades. His composed suavity is counterpoint for the Olea europaea “Little Ollies” planted along the fence leaning in from the right:


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Closeup of Mr. Ripple’s devilish charms:

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Years ago I found several seedlings of A. desmettiana at Burkhard’s in Pasadena, which are about 1×1 now, a beauty which, in a family of show-offs, still manages to distinguish itself.
This agave is now purportedly only found in the wild around villages of the former Mayan empire:

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Agave attenuata ‘Kara’s Choice’ has been moved from this pot and planted in the front garden this past July. (Edited to correct name to ‘Kara’s Stripes.’)

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Potted Agave americana variegata anchoring a sea of Salvia ‘Waverly’ pooling onto the path:

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There’s only so much garden available for a hulking, saw-toothed, gorgeous. undulating mass of biosculpure.
So ‘Jaws’ stays potted, where his ultimate size of 4×8 will hopefully be curtailed. (sizing per Plant Delights)

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Agaves lift a planting of succulents into the sublime. My feeble memory tells me this is A guadalajarana, but a quick Google check says otherwise, so it shall go unnamed.
Powdery blue, slim, long leaves, burnt orange spines. Senecio vitalis in the back with Senecio mandraliscae in the foreground.
Agave geminiflora, needle-leaved, on the left with variegated aeoniums:

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But don’t relegate them to strictly succulent plantings. Just as often I prefer them as bulkwarks in mixed plantings. (A. americana, potted):

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Agave titanota, bought off Ebay, a treasure trove for agave collectors.
Though I’m not completely convinced this really is A. titanota, even allowing for there being supposedly two types in commerce, as explained by Desert Tropicals:

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All-time fave, Agave bovicornuta, the Cow-Horn agave, when young is a favorite of snails, and keeping him potted allows for close vigilance. Less than two years old, now about 1X2, capable of 3X5. Unlike the American agaves, which “pup,” or sucker freely, this gem retains its architectonic glory. San Marcos Growers writes: “This is a great looking green agave for planting in the garden or in containers. Because this plant does not naturally sucker or produce bulbils on the flower stalk and needs cross pollination for seed set, plants in landscapes generally only last one generation. For this reason it has been relatively rare in cultivation but with new propagation techniques, such as laboratory micro propagation (tissue culture), this beautiful plant is becoming more commonly available. The name cow horn agave and the specific epithet “bovicornuta” (bovi meaning cow and cornuta meaning horn) comes from the teeth recurving in opposing fashion much like a bulls horn. Common names for this agave in Mexico have been lechuilla verde, sapari, sapuli and noriba. Its flowers were washed and used to make tortillas and the stems used to make mescal, though it is noted as being more bitter than other agave used for these purposes. As with other agave this plant has juice which is caustic and has been documented to cause temporary dermatitis on sensitive skin.”

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Spineless agave impostor, Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta,’ can take more moisture than an agave. This poor specimen has been dug and repotted to convalesce from a near-lethal snail attack:

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A classic, and possibly my first agave, A. americana var. medio-picta ‘Alba.’

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Apart from living with a plant that knows how to fight back, the only drawback, inherent with all beloved plants, is their irresistible collectability, which, if taken to extremes, can dilute the drama they so effortlessly add to a garden. (Which begs the question: Can an obsessive ever really know when they’ve taken things to extremes?) And being monocarpic, once they get around to flowering, it’s all over for the mother plant. Alas, my A. potatorum flowered this summer, it’s 6-foot tall flower stalk leaning over and dropping seeds into my son’s convertible Miata. Now, there’s a container idea, with built-in wheels…