Monthly Archives: March 2010

Calandrinia spectabilis

On the Agave Walk this cerise Chilean showoff opens its first flower of spring. Zone 8-10.


The calandrinia sprawls onto the Agave Walk and is cut back by half to allow foot traffic. Even with this heavy-handed treatment it flowers prolifically all summer long. Greeny-blue succulent leaves, a tough plant for full sun, best with minimal supplemental irrigation to contain the tendency to sprawl. Its vigor matches that of Senecio mandraliscae, in that they both will overrun detailed succulent plantings. These types of aggressive sprawlers are perfect to edge pathways, where you can cut as much or as little back as you like, depending on if you’re in an expansive mood and welcoming visitors all summer or must keep your head down and work through the season, in which case you let the sprawlers loose to take over the pathways. I’m kidding, of course (sort of.)

I love the way most gardeners are instinctive cartographers of their little worlds, giving imposing-sounding names like the “Agave Walk” to a stretch of walkway no bigger than 10 feet long, 4 feet wide, named for the potted agaves that have been congregating here, mostly so I can watch the interplay of solidity and movement the agaves take part in with the perennials and grasses planted just behind the pots.

Just behind the agave walk in the main border, the castor bean ‘New Zealand Red’* is starting to elbow its way out of the pack. Ricinus has naturalized in Southern California in waste areas, so I’m keeping a careful eye on this one all summer. What broke down my resistance was this variety, the best red I’ve seen so far.


*Edited to correct name to ‘New Zealand Purple.’

Western Hills


The story of Western Hills can’t be fully told by an outsider, of course, so this will in no way be an attempt at a complete history. The former nursery and now endangered 3-acre garden have woven through Northern Californian garden history and the careers and fortunes of San Francisco Bay Area designers for the last 50 years. Indeed, at its peak, obsessive gardeners from all over the world traveled here. I merely made biannual pilgrimages from Southern California beginning in the early 1980’s, armed with notebooks and plant lists, never drumming up the nerve to speak to its owners, Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich, who I’d often see on the pathways absorbed in giving tours to the impassioned gardeners that found their way to this remote garden in the hills of Occidental, California, seemingly as far west as is possible to venture without falling into the ocean. Bodega Bay, immortalized in Hitchcock’s The Birds, is just a few miles to the west.

When the pursuit of plants was still an adventure and not a mouse click, when one smuggled plants in suitcases from Europe because there was no U.S. source — a time hard to imagine, before Heronswood, Plant Delights, before the Internet — in this barren horticultural landscape the rare plants nursery at Western Hills became the beacon that guided me to a fecund world brimming over with a stunning riches of plant wealth, a world I returned to again and again for over 20 years.

Like all lost worlds, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a time when, for example, now-common plants like diascias, euphorbias and penstemons were rarities unavailable in U.S. commerce, only written of in English garden books. These were plants eminently suitable for my zone 10 garden but frustratingly out of reach. It was this kind of plant, perfectly adapted for use in my garden in the Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles, that I brought home by the dozens from Western Hills Nursery in the trunk of the car, spilling over into the back seat, occasionally tied to the roof of the car, or on the floor between our feet.

What I was mostly oblivious to, however, largely because I had no place for them in my small garden, were the woody shrubs and trees that were being carefully selected and placed in the garden at Western Hills, inspired by the natural planting styles espoused by such horticulturalists as the 19th Century’s William Robinson.

The garden at Western Hills (USDA Zone 8, Sunset Zone 14/15/) slowly evolved over the decades of my visits, and as I walked its paths so many years ago, scouring the understories of its trees and shrubs for the next perennial or subshrub to shoehorn into my garden, I often neglected to bring my gaze upward. It seemed only just last week, wandering its abandoned paths in stunned amazement, did I truly apprehend the full scope of their horticultural ambitions.

Like all good plantsmen, Hawkins and Olbrich were steeped in the garden writers and makers of the past, absorbed their principles, then added their own unique adaptations, tempered by their own character, time, and place.


Ahead of its time, the garden today now has a sleepy, magical quality. You will not find intricate hardscape or elaborately paved sitting areas, just simple tracks through an astonishing array of plants, from spring bulbs of the tiniest stature, up through shrubs of infinite variety of leaf, flower and berry, and now the mature canopy of rare trees, many of which have required the assistance of an arborist to identify.

This timeless garden is literally poised at the edge of oblivion, of being wiped from horticultural memory.

If there is such a thing as perfect horticultural pitch, Hawkins and Olbrich were blessed with it. The complex perennial plantings they loved to engineer have not entirely survived the neglect, as is naturally the case with detailed perennial plantings, which need constant thinning and rejuvenation, but what remains has a purity of purpose, creating broad, rich carpets of tough and adaptive plants like phormium, astelia, phlomis, furcraea, eryngiums, echium, gunnera, linaria, hellebores, geraniums, lychnis, pulmonarias, symphytums, myosotis, lamium, ferns of all kinds, dicentra, euphorbias. It is an outdoor master horticultural class, espousing and vivifying the axiom “right plant, right place.”

In the face of such horticultural zeal, three acres was woefully inadequate, and the mature garden now needs careful editing and pruning to keep sight lines clear and growing conditions ideal.

After the deaths of Hawkins and Olbrich, the nursery and garden were bequeathed to and run by nursery associate Maggie Wych in 1991 and then sold in 2006. The new owners Robert Stansel and Joseph Gatta, had ambitious plans to maintain and preserve the garden and reopen the nursery, but due to the recession have had to make the painful decision to allow the property to lapse into foreclosure.

In its present mature state, the garden would seem to represent a maintenance challenge far beyond the abilities of a single owner, and a consortium is contemplated as a solution. The Garden Conservancy is compiling a photographic record of the garden and hoping to ensure its “long-term preservation.” MB Maher and I were at Western Hills in the early, slightly rainy morning of March 26, 2010, to add to the photographic record.


The Garden Conservancy has put together a rich history of Western Hills on its website, with links to newspaper articles and also the horticultural essays written by Lester Hawkins for Pacific Horticulture. Like those they admired and whose writings they absorbed, including Messrs. Robinson, E. A. Bowles, and Graham Stuart Thomas, we can add the names of Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich to the pantheon of horticulturists still relevant to us today. Their legacy is not in doubt. If only their beloved and astounding garden can be preserved as well.

Warm thanks to Robert Stansel (who identified this camellia as ‘Dark Knight’).


Postscript to the nursery’s future under new owners here.


Among the minor reasons I took up blogging was to simply make an effort to retain plant names again. I’ve got shelves of old garden notebooks, in which I kept copious notes of plants desired, plants purchased, when they were planted in the garden, lists of seeds, when they were sown, nurseries, gardens to visit, etc., a habit I no longer keep that seems as far away and unattainable now as legible handwriting. I console myself with the theory that it’s the Internet’s fault, that since there’s so much information immediately available my plant sleuthing skills and memory are withering away, and that this is what’s responsible for the demise of my record keeping. But I do worry that I’m subconsciously viewing plants now as interchangeable shapes and colors, spiky or round, shade or sun. I much prefer being on a first-name basis with them.

There was a time I could stand before any plant in my garden and know its name by genus, species, and variety, but so often now when I stand before a plant there’s just a blankness. Here’s a case in point. This little abutilon has so much to recommend it. True, the flowers are small and do not possess the dramatic shape and coloring of some of the megapotamicum varieties, but the overall proportions of the plant — leaf, flower, and size — work so well together. It is not excessively scandent, with branches splaying out and dragging along the ground like so many abutilons end up behaving, but has a compact, bushy shape.


I was sure its name had something to do with avocados, like ‘Guacamole,’ but apparently not, so it shall remain nameless. If I should lose it, I’ll be unable to replace it. And when I give cuttings to friends, there will be that awkward moment, like not knowing someone’s last name when you introduce them: You’ll love this plant! It’s Abutilon _______________. The hybridizer’s handiwork will also regrettably go unacknowledged.

In my defense is the simple fact that this is an extraordinary time to be a gardener, with easy access to many great specialty and general plant nurseries. In an attempt to break the bad nameless habit, I’m trying out a “Recent Plant Purchases” page on the blog to keep a running list of new plant acquisitions. This makes me very, very happy.

Garden Show Road Trip

Can there exist a more potent rite of spring than the garden show road trip?

Can’t think of any offhand. This week’s road trip was up to the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, continuing through this weekend.

Driving up from Los Angeles, about seven hours, Highway 5 through the Central Valley. On the CD player, Vampire Weekend, interspersed with a couple old novels on audio, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and, yes, Moby Dick. Call me excited, Ishmael.

The West Coast’s main garden shows, the San Francisco and Seattle Northwest Garden Show, gave us a bit of a cliffhanger last year when the current owner called it quits. A buyer finally stepped in, so the relief to garden show junkies was palpable when both shows got the green light for spring 2010. The SF show moved venue out of SF to San Mateo. I went up with photographer MB Maher, whose vastly superior photos are still unprocessed, so this is a sprinkling from my camera. (Edited 3/27/10. See Dirt Du Jour’s post with a slideshow of MB Maher’s photos.) Because previous garden shows always seem to take place in unlit caves, we had picked up some rental lights at Adolph Gasser’s photo equipment shop in SF, but the lights proved to be unnecessary (for a professional anyway), and this year’s venue, though out of the way, was reasonably well-lit.

If there was a theme for the show, it’d be Resistance is Futile. That would be resistance to succulents, which abounded at the show, as exemplified in the giant Borg cube of succulents suspended in a moat by Organic Mechanics in their visual double entendre entitled “The Living Room.” A detail of the cube’s gothic doorway and dining tableau within.


From the “Salvaged Creole Jazz Courtyard,” a detail of the fountain, very Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil:


From the same garden, succulents suspended in rebar in a treble and bass motif fence:


In “Re-Generation ‘The World Without Us,'” I was told the armadillo does double duty as a BBQ when you roll back his armored plate.


Detail from the same garden, which was a post-apocalyptic-lite vision vastly different from, say, Mad Max or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Spare and lean, rust and stone, I understand this was the grand prize winner:


Detail of steps:


At the other end of the spectrum from spare and lean was the cast concrete wonderland by Keeyla Meadows, “The Habitat Dance with a Red Snake.” At first glance, I assumed it was an homage to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but the program describes it as inspired by the endangered San Francisco Garter Snake. Whatever its inspiration, children will be delighted.


Typical for garden shows, most of the display gardens seemed intended to demonstrate the contractor’s facility with hardscape for outdoor sitting and eating areas, as in this very traditional treatment:


Those designers daring to exercise restraint, such as Huettl Landscape Architects, stood out amongst the over-the-top displays. “Via Aqua”:


I didn’t make it to the vendor booths, since we were there for the preview and the booths weren’t open yet. I would guess the general gardening public will be pleased with the show, the garden cognoscenti possibly less so, but it’s a solid effort by the new owners. Let’s hope the show continues on next year and attracts more of the talented Bay Area garden designers.

Lastly, a nice touch at the show was fairly diligent plant labeling.


Poppies of Spring

Visual kief, intoxicating to the eye, O’Keefian, the ephemeral poppies of spring.


These are not the flamboyant Oriental poppies immortalized by the painter Georgia O’Keefe. The Orientals won’t grow in Southern
California, requiring more winter chill hours than we have to give, but there are lots of annual poppies with which to console
one’s self for that grievous loss.

Along with the Spanish poppies colonizing the front path, Papaver ruprifragum, the Poppy of Troy, P. setigerum, has found a home this spring
next to the back porch, in the crevice between porch and path. These Dwarf Breadseed poppies might be my favorite, and I’m so glad a
few have returned this year. None were found in the main garden beds, just these few that reseeded into the cool verges at the pathways’


I’m getting some friendly queries, like Why are these weeds growing here? My enthusiastic reply varies but usually includes something along
the lines of, Weeds? No, this isn’t a weed (this point is endlessly debatable and best dealt with abruptly). It’s the Poppy of Troy!
(Men go for this.) Don’t worry, it’s an annual and will disappear when summer arrives. Isn’t this a great opportunity to really get a look at
the pistils and stamens? Did you notice how the seed capsule is a perfect seed dispersal unit, a gorgeous pepper shaker?
etc. Usually, the
questioner is satisfied with these explanations.


The Poppies of Troy don’t make masses of leaves that can smother neighbors. At 2 to 3 feet, they never need staking. They are perfectly
proportioned and self-contained, in stature if not seed. I’d probably enjoy them sprouting up through the kitchen floor, but then that’s just me.
Intoxicated by poppies.


All In A Day’s Work

The desultory, unfocused morning stretched into the same kind of afternoon, and I gave up the pretense of attempting to accomplish anything and headed for a bath.

With an unread December Gardens Illustrated issue propped on the reading stand (often I just read the Frank Ronan pieces in the back and skip the main magazine entirely, saving the photos for more desperate, needy times, which would be now) I sat back in the hot water and examined my frustration at not accomplishing much. I would be heading north to the San Francisco garden show in two days and needed to get some work items out of the way, and this is just what I had been assiduously avoiding doing all day. I could tell this was beginning to eat at me when I found myself blasting PJ Harvey out of the garden office’s computer speakers to counter a neighbor’s more easy listening selections. Off to the tub for some hydrotherapy before the neighbors started to complain.

A wise choice. The bath house itself breathes sanctuary. It was painstakingly built by my husband, now asleep for an afternoon nap a few feet away.
I wouldn’t trade its rustic splendor for the Taj Mahal.

I pulled from the bath stand my little amber bottle of bath salts from Florence and placed it on the window ledge to better work its talisman magic on my mood. Although now empty, just the sight of it cheered me immensely. In Florence we had spent hours on foot searching for the Boboli Gardens, a rare instance of failure of navigation skills while traveling. Minutes before leaving Florence for home, I had run into a small pharmacy shop and managed to communicate a need for local bath salts and successfully procure them. There was the intrepid spirit I seemed to be missing today.

Irritation gradually seeped out into the bath water, and it occurred to me I had a few minor accomplishments to salvage from the day. Quite a few, actually. So what had I done today?

*Potted up three dahlias, moved the pots into the sun and gave them a good, long drink.
*Added fresh potting soil to the Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger,’ moved the enormous pot into the sun, soaked it.
*Weeded the brick terrace with a butter knife to ease out the weeds between the bricks.
*Found a seeding of Glaucium flavum in the terrace bricks (hooray!) and transplanted it into the garden.
*Found a eucomis bulb under debris on a pathway, miraculously intact and not mushed out, and planted it.
*Transplanted a seedling of a hyacinth bean vine.
*Swept the terrace.
*Weeded garden beds.
*Added blood and bone fertilizer to the clematis.

Sure, this was minor garden puttering, but still I was grateful for a small list of accomplishments. What do people without gardens do when plagued by such an unsettled mood? And will I ever go back to Florence for more bath salts and to actually find the Boboli Gardens this time?


From Ants to Squills

This fantastic architecture must have an equally fantastic pollinator, yes? The Giant Fork-Tongued Moth maybe?

Well, let’s leave out mythical insects. What’s left would be the usual garden-variety pollinators, and possibly just ants.


Just ants? Don’t let E. O. Wilson catch you making that offhand remark. Someone left his book The Naturalist on the dining room table yesterday, a book I never finished but mean to eventually. That category makes a very tall stack near my bed. You can hear a brief interview here, where he “characterizes the mutualistic symbiosis between ant and fungus as ‘one of the most successful experiments in the evolution of life.'” Ants rarely play the role of pollinator, a curious fact given their abundance. The Wikipedia entry on the mega-colonies of the Argentine ant asserts that the “enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society.”

In the interests of science, I cordially invite Mr. Wilson to remove the entire colony of Argentine ants now living under our house and garden to study far, far away. And then report back his insights in another wonderful book.

Back to the squills, Scilla peruviana, Giant Squill, Peruvian Lily, etc. All is not as it appears there either. Apparently, the ship bringing the bulbs from Spain was named PERU. Mr. Linnaeus in 1753 mistakenly named the bulbs for the ship and not country of origin. As often as botanical nomenclature shifts around, whereupon cimicifuga must now be known as actaea, apparently one doesn’t tinker with Mr. Linnaeus’ handiwork unless it’s for reclassification purposes, and not merely mistaking ship for country.

Scilla peruviana, from the Mediterranean (Spain) is lovely with the green-flowering hellebores, so I’ve been transplanting hellebore seedlings among the bulbs. Most references on the bulb allude to its sporadic blooming habits, taking the occasional year off. These bulbs were planted last fall, and this is their first year in my garden. Zoned 8 to 10.

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

With salvias planted just a few feet away from windows and doors, humans and hummers are in constant close proximity here. This is by necessity, the constraints of a small garden, rather than by design. The fact is, hummers and I both happen to be crazy for salvias. It makes for some interesting encounters, spilt cups of coffee, and cats rudely awakened from a dozy afternoon nap. Who wouldn’t be enchanted by these little guys darting in several times a day for a quick nip?

Right now, the salvias and verbenas outside the office are a big draw. When I hear a hummer come skidding in for a landing, I make a grab for the camera but always come up empty. Doesn’t help that they’re green. Today the blur of speed materialized out of pixels into barely recognizable shape. Although my best photographic attempt thus far, this hummer’s name must be Waldo, as in where the heck is Waldo in this photo? Squint and focus on the far left verbena, just to the right.


Friends and family assume that because I garden I am a de facto font of wisdom regarding the natural world. It shames me to admit that I’ve just recently learned that Southern California is one of the few places blessed to have hummingbirds year-round. I’m just as bundled up in my own little world as everyone else, and mostly step outside my kitchen door assuming that the world that greets me also greets everyone else in much the same form, with a few superficial details altered.

Again Waldo, the little Anna hummingbird:


I’ve even become able to recognize certain hummers by the distinct thrum of their wings. One little guy makes a a poker cards-in-bicycle-wheels racket when he wings in. Several years ago, there was a hummer who demanded face time, literally flying in inches from my face and hovering for a few seconds before heading off to the flowers. This became an everyday custom for a whole summer season, but hasn’t been taken up yet by another hummer in subsequent years. I miss the face time and that little guy’s chutzpah. Yesterday a hummer bathed in the jet of water from the hose, which I then took pains to keep a soft spritz, not the “power cone” setting, to keep him from tumbling out of the sky. I still haven’t decided if they are the most sociable bird since the chicken or if it’s just me in my usual state of anthropomorphic overdrive.

See you around, Waldo.



Seems impossible that just two days ago I was having that tender moment about spring.

Yesterday and today heat records were broken, and now everyone is grousing that it’s hotter than Jakarta (really only mid 80’s but we’re a delicate bunch, donchaknow).

So instead of spring ephemerals, we’re grinding gears a bit to shift to singing the praises of the stoic heat lovers, fennel, Phlomis italica and Prostranthera ovalifolia ‘Variegata’


And So It Begins Again

Yes, phrases do bubble up from the depths unbidden until I find myself saying them aloud on a day such as this, about 75 degrees, neither cold nor warm, more like an amniotic bath, birds and insects attending to their business while I can’t attend to mine, hopelessly distracted by such a fine spring day.

And so it begins again. Another spring.