Monthly Archives: April 2010

Anatomy of a Plant Purchase

April 2010 Gardens Illustrated arrives in the mailbox.

Two-page spread depicts in photographic splendor Carol Klein’s sumptuous spring-blooming choices to grow underneath Cornus controversa ‘Variegata.’

What’s this Prunella-like, spiky, dusky pink-flowered wunderkind with the lush foliage? A calamint maybe? Lamium orvala, you say? Never heard of it.

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(Photo courtesy of UK Hardy Plant Society)

This photo is responsible for the ensuing mad dash to the computer. The excellent Hayefield blog kept by Nancy Ondra profiles it under “Three Neat Plants” for May 2009, along with Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold.’ Which despite being a comfrey, is very rare. I love comfreys — tough, happy, durable plants for shade — but rarely do they reach out and grab you through the monitor, Videodrome style. This ‘Axminster Gold’ had me by the lapels.

And look, Digging Dog has it for 2010! — no, sold out. After much frantic clicking, a single source for the comfrey is found for $20, normally what I could consider an absurd amount to pay for a plant. But it’s apparently the only one available in the whole world at this moment in time.

And that, my friends, is the anatomy of a plant purchase, one that’s left me breathless and short $31 (including shipping) without setting foot out of the house. (Never did and probably never will see the movie Videodrome but the reference comes in handy.)

Now, back to this Lamium orvala…maybe there’s a cheap seed source…

To A Good Home

The wind has battered the alstroemeria. The support I provided, a bottomless wrought iron chair, serves more as a guillotine, bending the stalks around knee level. A gigantic tomato cage, 6 feet high and as much across, might contain this irrationally exuberant plant.

Yes, I’m feeling defensive, to explain the need to cut down a beautiful plant in its prime, in spring, in full bloom. But I’ve noticed the moment I consider the garden without a problematic plant, it’s days are numbered. And I’m definitely envisioning the garden without it.

The biggest concern are the three gorgeous, chartreuse native Monterey cypresses planted along the fence line, that are being crushed and deformed by the peruvian lilies. These were planted for privacy screening and must be protected at all costs.

(And the Siam Ruby banana currently in too much shade would be perfect in this spot, maybe with some more bronze fennel.)

Sooo…this weekend will most likely be the alstroemeria’s last. If anyone wishes to dare to try a bit of this robust grower in their roomy garden, I will send along divisions for the price of postage only. Leave a comment if you’re interested (and start looking around for a gigantic tomato cage).

More GC Open Days/Pasadena

More on the Pasadena gardens on the Garden Conservancy Open Days, April 25, 2010.

This was my first tour of Pasadena gardens. I knew the gardens would be large, stately, formal. What I wasn’t prepared for was their scale. The six we saw were truly estate gardens in every sense of the word. Seeing the vernacular elements of garden design on this massive scale can be disorienting; coming home later to my little garden, it felt like I was looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. It took a couple days before the fun-house mirror effect wore off and my garden looked normal again and not so…well, so squished.

Sally and Harlan Bixby Garden. Spanish Revival architecture, 1922. One-acre garden redesigned in 1990’s by Owen Peterson/Bob Erickson.

Immediately I sensed a languor to human movement through such large spaces. You slow down, amble, drift along.


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To admire intimate details of inlaid tiles adorning doorways and arches.

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And a juggernaut of Euphorbia ammak jutting up well past the roof.
The Huntington curated this desert garden, accessed through a side gate off the main pool/pergola area.

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The wisteria on the pergolas had already bloomed, but more scented plants were arrayed in large pots around the pool, including brugmansias, roses, and plumeria. I sat down on the pool’s retaining wall covered in Delft tiles to take in the opposite matching pergolas and the flight of steps flanked in enormous Aloe plicatus leading up to the house.

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Pleasure grounds in every sense, sybaritic, Gatsby-esque.

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All photos by MB Maher.

The Garden Conservacy Open Days – Pasadena

A small taste of the tour held Sunday, April 25, 2010. This is from Rancho La Loma.

I haven’t seen terracing like this since the Cinque Terre in Italy, the difference being the use of our “local stone,” repurposed broken concrete stacked for the retaining walls. The designer, Marco Barrantes, told me he uses gravel between the stacked concrete for extra stability.

These baby ducks had found a shady nest in some golden sedge.

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I found the elder Mr. Barrantes walking the paths of this beautiful garden his son created for him, chatting with the garden tourists and answering questions about the plants and what kind of grapes they grew (Zinfandel. And yes, they are made into wine.) Before he turned away from our brief exchange, he looked back and said simply, “I am happy.”

Indeed. Looks like la dolce vita to me.

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All photos by MB Maher.

At the Garden Show/Mall

The show was held in an Orange County mall, the South Coast Plaza. If retail therapy is your thing, this mall is the Dr. Freud’s couch of retail therapy. Yves St. Laurent, Tiffany’s, Dolce Gabana, etc. The garden show seemed a hobbyist affair, with a focus on stands filled solely with Japanese maples, or table after table of orchids, I suppose the ultimate in plant porn. Bearded iris. Lots of succulents. Clematis. Tillandsias. Pelargoniums. African Violets.

Not counting agaves (never count agaves), I haven’t been bitten by the hobbyist bug yet, but I like checking out all the different kinds of plant vendors and watching the customers and specialty growers interact. It’s the knowledge and enthusiasm of the growers and vendors that always makes garden shows worthwhile.

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At the garden show I saw this:

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and this:

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(The Juicy Leaf)

and this:

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But then gave up on trying to photograph past escalators and upper balconies and other visual intrusions.

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I put aside the camera and braved the throngs congregating around the tables, to come home with this:

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A powdery blue Agave potatorum. There’s some damage to one of the leaves, but the price was right. Cheap, in fact. The old pot has seen better days, too, rebuilt with glue after the kids knocked it off a table during some out-of-control grab-ass (hi-jinks? rough-housing? In our house, it’s grab-ass.) It was one of the few agaves I saw at the show. My A. potatorum that bloomed last summer was a much deeper blue, and I asked the salesman why this one was so pale, and he shrugged, then I shrugged too. The butterfly agaves are so variable.

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I was determined to force myself to shop the mall stores afterwards, because my work shoes are a disgrace and need replacing, but after I bagged the agave I beat feet and headed home. Impossible to segue from plants to shoes. (Moving from plants to books is no problem at all, but this mall closed its excellent book store, Book Soup, for another high-end designer atelier.)

There was an enormous, Rose Parade-like centerpiece depicting tropical birds and foliage:

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The mall was a mob scene. Judging by the sharp elbows, everyone seemed excited to be at the show. Even though the display gardens might be getting suspiciously formulaic, and the sheer volume of garden tchotchkes concentrated under one massive roof can induce an epic case of garden-show fatigue, I was excited to be at the show too. I doubt there’s a garden show in existence where that wouldn’t be true.

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The garden show is ongoing through Sunday.

For the Vase

We had ferocious, 30-knot winds Wednesday. All night the old wooden house was buffeted and storm-tossed, creaking and groaning like she was about to slip her foundation moorings.
The wind chimes clanged like alarm bells.

I couldn’t sleep past 4 a.m. because I just had to check for damage.
No trees or big branches were brought down, but there were some stalks of alstroemeria flattened, so I cut them for a vase.

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I rarely rob the garden to cut flowers for vases. The lavender was a gift from my neighbor last night.
The only other bloom is a single stalk of the gladiolus ‘Atom,’ red bloom rimmed in white, which was stubbornly growing to face away from view, so it got the chop too.

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The morning was absolutely still, not a breath of wind, and there had been a light rain during the night. Perfect.

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Today I used a stick to redirect more lax alstroemeria stems off helpless neighbors. Did this last summer quite a bit too.

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A beautiful, rambunctious plant, with lots of blooms for the garden and lots to spare for vases.

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(But never turn your back on it, and keep a sharp eye out at all times.)

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There’s going to be lots more vases ahead for these lilies of Peru.

Lysimachia atropurpurea

Some plants never live up to their catalogue descriptions.

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Never mind their growth habits or cultural needs, they simply fail to live up to the gushing prose that purports to describe what they actually, physically look like.

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This is my first year growing Lysimachia atropurpurea, and knowing nothing about its length of bloom time or how it will tolerate summer heat or a soil on the dryish side, or too much shade or sun; whether it flops or runs at the root or performs more like an annual than a perennial in zone 10’s relatively dormancy-free winter —

Apart from all that, I can safely say that, visually, this plant is every inch the knockout it’s reputed to be.

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Will those silvery leaves quickly turn a drab green? Will budworms deform that luscious, berry-colored flower spike?

Like the first date, sometimes it’s kinda nice not to know, when just raw attraction is enough.

Hello, beautiful.

(Stern report on growth and cultural habits to follow as the season progresses.)

Burgundy Gooseneck Loosestrife, alleged long bloomer, June through August or May through September depending on source. Allegedly deer resistant. To 2 feet. Full sun/part shade. Zone 4 to 10. Average water. Comes true from seed. Hummingbird’s delight. Makes a good cut flower. Makes your children smarter. Will bring you boundless good luck, etc., etc..

Agave ‘Kissho Kan’

Dwarf Variegated Butterfly Agave. Slow-growing to only a foot. Translation “Happy crown” or “Lucky crown”
On the West Coast, these formerly pricy, collectible agaves are really dropping in price. If I see one in a 4-inch pot, I swoop.

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I might have taken a moment to brush it off after potting it but seemed to have been overwhelmed with its beauty in the green pot and just grabbed a camera.

“Forgive our dust.”

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For reasons I don’t understand, many slightly different variegated striations are named ‘Kissho Kan.’ A Japanese selection. Either a selection of A. potatorum or parryi.

My Agave potatorum bloomed this summer and is no more, so this little guy takes the sting out of that monocarpic loss.

San Marco Growers is sticking with ‘Kichiokan Marginata.’

Whatever its name, I feel extremely kissho with this agave.

Zone 10-11 but at this size would seem to be easy to overwinter.

Into White

A simple garden with acres of sky.

Fearing I had carelessly brought in more white flowers than is sensible, it turns out it wasn’t much of a white-out after all, except maybe with the camera.
For me, it’d be impossible to photograph this diascia without the euphorbia leaning in. Probably the white diascia ‘Ice Cracker’. The euphorbia is ‘Ascot Rainbow’:

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Focusing solely on color can make gardening seem like interior design that fights back, when of course gardens are so much more.
(The house is getting that “museum” look, but the garden is always full of surprises.)
Still, I like the way the white flowers stand by ready to gracefully accompany whatever cycles into bloom, such as the verbascum:

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The white agrostemma defies all photographic attempts so far. The white valerian I seeded last fall is easier to capture, mixing it up with the reseeding dwarf breadseed poppies, P. setigerum. Centranthus ruber naturalizes locally but always the reddish color:

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The valerian has reached the top of the 5-foot plant stand, up which I had ambitious plans to grow the vine rhodochiton. Except rhodochiton wants nothing to do with me or my garden. I hear it grows beautifully for Northern California. Past time to dump out the barren seed trays.

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The ‘Limelight’ Miracles of Peru are reseeding lightly but pack a concentrated jolt of color into the ghostly whites.

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Cobaea scandens is responding to the lengthening days with more blooms. This vine also has a white variety:

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The diascia and valerian will bloom into fall.

With everything emptying into white

(only those born before 1965 will get the song lyric reference.)

Tending the Front Garden

Couple weekends ago I worked in the front garden. Removed a few bricks for Sempervivum ‘Spring Beauty.’

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Then weeded the Spanish poppies from the bricks and cleaned out this agave of pups and old leaves.

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Why’s it such a big deal to work in the front garden? Possibly because, for me, a garden is synonymous with privacy and enclosure. Over and over, I find Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden cited by gardeners as a prime influence, and I’m sure reading that book multiple times as a kid formed my ideas, for good or ill, on gardens. A garden must have a gate to push open, it must be enclosed, and it must be your secret (for as long as you want to keep it).

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So it’s safe to say that the front garden has been low on the list of gardening priorities. It’s actually taken me a while to even consider it as a garden rather than a holding area for plants overflowing from the back garden. And you’d never know there wasn’t a monoculture of grass behind my boxwood hedge in the front yard if you didn’t stop to peer around it. The drought-tolerant boxwood hedge was a useful means of “greening” up the front of the house to hide the minor revolutionary act of taking out the lawn we inherited with the house many years ago, when such an act drew lots of raised eyebrows. Meadows, vegetable gardens, all manner of revolutionary acts can be insinuated into a neighborhood if the eye, like in a magic act, is tricked to look elsewhere.

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Where and how people place plants can be so revealing. For example, where’s my civic spirit, to neglect the front and focus on my private garden in back? A friend used to argue with me that a boring front landscape didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t a jardin des paradis in the backyard. I try to remember that when I pass miles and miles of boring front landscapes. And I’ve been on enough garden tours to note that the front garden often sleeps while the back garden parties, so it’s not just my own garden freak flag flying with this arrangement.

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And I haven’t been exactly neglecting the front. It’s been through loads of incarnations, but it just doesn’t draw me in like the back garden. The front is a challenge, the back a refuge.

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The front garden was enclosed long ago, to safely contain kids and dogs, but because of city ordinances the fences can be no higher than three feet. In effect, no privacy. So the private courtyard I intended for the front garden, an enduring design feature of mediterranean climates, was not to be. I can probably trace my renewed interest in the front garden to when the box hedges planted along the sidewalk reached over six feet in height, topping the fence. Unlike fences, the height of hedges is given a pass by the city (knock wood). Box comes and goes into fashion, with Piet Oudolf’s fantastically undulating boxwood hedges probably single-handedly nudging it back into current favor. It’s all I can do to remember to shear mine in a straight line twice a year, probably the only gardening “chore” I perform. I hate dragging the extension cord and inflicting all that racket on the neighborhood for 10 or so minutes, but I do love the refinement of box. And myrtle, for that matter, though it’s much slower growing. Here’s a peek of the hedge and fence, the cars and neighbors’ houses.

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I love hearing the voices of passersby walking unseen behind the hedge, the voices’ owners popping into sight just as they pass. What this says about me psychologically, it’s probably best not to know. Observer, separate and apart, would be a guess. Gardens really do inhabit psychological as well as physical space.

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The front garden was graveled over long ago, then became a kind of testing ground for the toughest plants grown in the back garden. A simple, DIY, dry-laid brick path gets you where you need to go. Gravel is scraped away for new additions. When I decided I needed a larger border here a couple years ago, I sifted the gravel out of the soil for the border. L-a-b-o-r-i-o-u-s. The back garden is where I cosset and pamper plants, so when a plant has proven its worthiness it gets to move to the front, where care and irrigation is minimal. This has been a slow process, with no clear plan in mind other than to keep to mostly low-growing plants for a chapparal effect, so the little community of plants that have formed in the front garden seems to be guided by a hand other than mine. Which is probably why this garden has the ability to surprise me when I pull into the driveway (another big drawback visually to the front garden). Photographic opportunities are always hampered, even with the hedges, with passing cars, our cars, power lines, neighbors’ houses, and all this has the effect of quickly puncturing that blissful state so easily attained in the back garden. I day-dream more in the garden than the house:

If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Gaston Bachelard

Aloe brevifolia

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‘Sunburst’ aeonium, living up to its name, facing the western setting sun.

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While I surreptitiously made a garden in the front yard, my neighbor across the street surreptitiously monitored its progress. Last summer she dug up her lawn and planted a mix of succulents and shrubs. Quite a few of my plants have found a new home across the street. I can’t claim all the credit; the civic water supplies are tightening due to a lengthy drought. Many of the front yards on my street have replaced the lawn with tough, drought-tolerant plants, native or otherwise. This ripple effect a front garden can have is something I never considered when planting it. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the city wouldn’t allow me to build an 8-foot wall around the front garden so many years ago.

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