Monthly Archives: May 2010

Where are the Women Designers?

In the aftermath of this year’s Chelsea show, the dearth of entries by women is discussed in this provocative article from the Telegraph.

The article quotes a Sue Hayward, who wonders if the deficit can be due to the fact that, instead of burly construction matters and hardscape, “women have more affinity with plants – only a minority want to get down and dirty.” Really? And this line startled me too: “Is it, in part, because so many female garden designers are career-changers working part-time?” I wonder who’s crunched those numbers, or is this just anecdotal?

Perhaps some of these questions will be addressed in the BBC radio program to be aired May 31 on women and gardening.

More information and interviews found here.

Happy holidays to those readers celebrating them today, whether it be Bank Holiday or Memorial Day or something else.

Choppy segue to Artemisia pedemontana, a ground-hugging charmer in the front gravel garden but velcro for sticks and other bits.


Mergers & Acquisitions

If nature abhors a vacuum, then I am nature’s willing handmaiden. By late May, the garden is stuffed, bursting at the seams like this potted Euphorbia tirucalli.


Echevarias and sedums tucked into every available spot. Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ filling in again after laying low over the winter.


Atriplex hortensis, the purple orach, and Verbena bonariensis dominate the air space.


Yet the plant purchases keep on coming. This summer was to be about downsizing. Fewer pots to maintain and water throughout a very long growing season. The small garden in situ would have to absorb it all. Must have let down my guard because, boy, did I fall off the wagon — fell off it hard, then loaded it up with plants.

I’m still puzzling over what switch flipped that had me racing madly through the nursery, slowing the cart down only for small children and the elderly. For one thing, I never grab a cart. That way lies madness. One must have some rules, however arbitrary, and then stick to them.

The first rule is, only what I can carry with two hands (surprisingly, a lot).

Second rule is, for those moments of extreme weak will, a small hand basket. (Nurseries tend to hide these hand baskets, for obvious reasons, so I’ve often spent up to 20 minutes searching for one.)

There is no third rule, and this just might be the weak link. For that day, there was the second-rule hand basket overflowing with pots, sitting atop the large cart, also overflowing with pots, clearly an unforeseen set of circumstances lying well outside any known rule.

What separated this trip from one of my usual composed, judicious nursery saunters was that it came at the end of Debra Lee Baldwin’s talk at Roger’s Gardens. I’m guessing it has something to do with the “compadres” effect, sitting in solidarity on those bleacher seats with my tribe. Permission to purchase electrified the air. All I know is, after Debra’s talk, the brakes on the wagon were off. I even tossed a couple heucheras on the cart, very uncharacteristic, since I’m not at all a heuchera junkie, but this one has a big, soft leaf, supposedly bred for southern climes. (The best heuchera I ever grew was our native Channel Islands Heuchera maxima, which grew to the size of a zucchini and was often mistaken for one by visitors.)

I never keep a ghetto for new plant purchases. There’s no room, for one thing, so they’d surely expire in some out-of-the-way spot awaiting planting. A planting frenzy always follows a nursery shopping frenzy the very day of, if not morning after, and this planting frenzy had to be the biggest in recent memory. You know that smug, clever feeling when you’ve managed to squeeze in the last impulse buy? Well, it’s fleeting, and there’s always a hangover the next day as you survey your lack of self-control writ large upon the garden.

The spreadsheet (AA denotes a plant from Annie’s Annuals):

Heuchera ‘Southern Comfort’
See note above.

Chrysocephalum apiculatum ‘Flambe Orange’ (2 ea 4-inch pots)’

Teucrium hybrid ‘Fairy Dust’ (2 ea 4-inch pots)

Eryngium tripartitum AA (2 ea 4-inch pots)
Tap-rooted, will take up little space.

Aeonium spathulatum var. cruentum AA
Aeoniums need no justification

Arthropodium cirratum ‘Renga Lily’ AA

Neoregelia ‘Purple Stoly’

Saxifraga stolonifera
Replacing last year’s

Venidium ‘Orange Prince’

Tanacetum niveum AA (2 ea 4-inch pots)
Started this from seed last fall but missed a watering cycle(s)

Euphorbia rigida AA
Euphorbias need no justification

Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Arctic Summer’ AA
Verbascums need no justification

Nicotiana suaveolens AA (2 ea 4-inch pots)
Started N. mutabilis from seed last fall but missed a watering cycle(s).
And nicotianas need no justification

Polygonum orientale, variegated (2 ea 4-inch pots)
Hasn’t prospered for me yet. Third time’s the charm.

Sedum nussbaumerianum was trimmed back just a bit to make room for Euphorbia rigida, etc., etc., until all new acquisitions were merged into the garden.


This weekend were staying miles away from plant nurseries.


Edited spring 3/31/11: Polygonum orientale was spectacular summer 2010. Heuchera ‘Southern Comfort’ made the best of a poor site, showed beautiful new spring growth, and has been moved to better digs. Teucrium ‘Fairy Duster’ amazingly durable. Euphorbia rigida might be my favorite new euphorb. The neoregelia is robust and thriving. Aeonium is now in bloom. The verbascum bloomed well and a new one was brought in. All others mentioned in above list are not around to greet spring 2011 and did nothing to speak of in 2010.

Small Moves

“Small moves, Ellie.” No, I didn’t read the book Contact by Carl Sagan but am quoting from the movie, where Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway is advised as a child by her father to take it slow when scanning for alien radio transmissions, and cover small patches of space at a time. So I quote movie dialogue as I work in my garden — where’s the harm in that?

In a small garden, it’s all about small moves too. The two blue pots of Calceolaria ‘Kentish Hero’ were moved closer to these terracotta urns planted recently with mostly orange arctotis and some golden lotus vine, Lotus maculata. The urns had been filled with tulips for early spring, and now the arctotis will bloom through summer. The lotus and arctotis are perennial here in zone 10, but like lots of tender perennials can exhaust themselves in bloom and be fairly short-lived.


This is my first year growing the lotus/parrot’s beak vine. This one is L. maculata ‘Gold Flame.’


Small moves, sometimes shifting pots from just a few feet away, and something entirely new is started. I like keeping container plantings fairly simple to afford these kinds of opportunities. And stuffing too many plants in one container turns watering into a summertime ball-and-chain chore. Just one 4-inch potted arctotis was used in each urn, so they’ll have plenty of root-run. Directly behind the urns, planted in the narrow border behind them, a Stipa arundinacea will add it’s own tawny tresses to this grouping as it thickens up over the summer, the concept of “borrowed landscape” rendered on a tiny scale. All of these containers have some filling out to do.


I say with orange, the more smolder, the better. Formerly, the two blue pots were grouped with this tall green ceramic pot filled with succulents and staged on a small paved area in the center of the main border, which sees a lot of pot-switching action too.


Hard to get definition from the pouchy, orange blobs of the calceolaria, but they do have the typical “pocketbook” flower:


I tucked in a couple of these Chrysocephalum apiculatum ‘Flambe Orange’ in the terracotta urns too. The leaf has a chartreuse cast to it. Must have been a helichrysum in a former life.


I’m cutting way back on pots this summer except for a few potted tropicals. Succulents in pots don’t count, of course. But no elaborate, thirsty, potted confections with coleus this year. Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t find recruits for these modest, impromptu groupings. The potted amaryllis is much better here, with these other strong colors, than by its lonesome. Under the pergola, where these pots are staged, it’s kind of an “outdoor conservatory” approach, where what’s looking its best briefly gets center stage.


I’ve been in a bit of a mopey, “why’s my garden so tiny?” funk, so these small moves, these slight shifts in perspective can be momentous in a small garden. I wonder if anyone thinks their garden is the perfect size.

Need A House? Call Ms. Mouse!

Meet my heroine, Ms. Henrietta Mouse.


“…she is an artist, a designer, a dreamer, a builder, a creator, all that and more too.”

The Venice Garden Tour got me thinking about Henrietta Mouse again, a children’s book that was a particular favorite in our house over 20 years ago. Ms. Mouse, architect extraordinaire, designed houses for her animal friends, and the Venice architects and designers’ canny adaptations to crowded urban living conditions revived memories of this lovely book.

When it came time to lay in a good stock of children’s books over 25 years ago, lots of those Little Golden Books, like Saggy Baggy Elephant, were gifted to us on the kids’ birthdays. I was appalled. I had a long list of books for them when they reached 12 and over, but for the younger ages I had no such list. These Little Golden Books obviously weren’t going to cut the mustard, so I started browsing the library shelves. What I found at the library amounted to a golden age in children’s literature, especially the art work. Reading aloud Chris Van Allsburg’s The Garden of Abdul Gazasi was thrilling for the kids, but the drawings of the topiary in Mr. Gazasi’s garden had me hooked. These are the kinds of books parents don’t mind reading aloud the requisite 100th time.

Assuming our copy of the Ms. Mouse book was long gone, I searched on the Internet for the author’s name and hoped to maybe find a copy. Turns out this book is out of print but beloved by so many it sells for $250.


We were all stunned. Our Ms. Mouse achieving superstar status! Which led to the pressing question: Where was our copy?

Coming home from work late the next day, there it was on my desk. The garage had been ransacked and our copy found in storage. As I remembered, my youngest son’s name is inscribed in the inner cover, and it’s a little beat up from all that childhood adoration.


The artist Doris Susan Smith loves to depict cross-section views of the various dwellings, a technique also favored by the director Wes Anderson in his films like The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox.


From NYT review 11/221/81: “This book is a showcase for a new artist, and her work is so enjoyable it’s more than worth the price of admission. There are 16 double-page spreads, in pen and ink and lustrous watercolor, showing the animals’ dwellings. They range from an underwater Atlantis for Trout, through Pig’s deliberately ostentatious palace (”See what piggy money can do!”), to a compact, snug home for Worm (with storage cellar and greenhouse-attic, all inside a pear securely fastened to its tree branch by rope and brass fittings), to a tent for decorator Ms. Mouse, a nature lover at heart. Each dwelling is lovingly furnished down to the tiniest detail. The animals themselves, in the best tradition of this demanding genre, are true to their own species, yet have distinctly human characteristics. Let’s hope Doris Susan Smith does many more books.”

If this book pops up at a flea market or thrift shop, grab it. You won’t be disappointed, whatever your age.

Esquisses Pour Le Boulanger

Spoke to MB Maher earlier this week as he edited a small road movie from his time in Northern California. He emphasized the throw-away nature of this piece, but also his embarrassing need to keep shooting, even with a 50-dollar video camera, after his main DSLR bit the dust in Marin. Soundtrack by West African Mbalax player Baaba Maal, from his album Television. Looks best at full-screen, the set of bottom arrows on the right.

esquisses pour le boulanger from M. Maher on Vimeo.

The Succulent Lady

I kept telling everyone, “I’m going to a talk by the Succulent Lady!”

Unlike my friends and family, most garden bloggers need no further description to know I’m talking about Debra Lee Baldwin, in Southern California promoting her new book Succulent Container Gardens.


A brief digression, in words and pictures. The talk was held at Roger’s Gardens, in Corona del Mar, California, no more than a mile from the Pacific Ocean. I don’t think I’ve written of this nursery before, but we go way back. Decades. At one point I contemplated a blog post entitled “Roger’s & Me,” because we are that intertwined (unbeknownst to them), but there is a lurking ambivalence to my patronage. I was once shopping at a very small, independent nursery, and in discussing erodiums I mentioned I had bought such-and-such plant at Roger’s, only to become the recipient of a severe stank eye, with no further explanation or conversation on the subject. (Indeed, Debra mentioned in her talk that Roger’s is the most successful independently owned nursery on the entire West Coast.) I can surmise that small, mom-and-pop nurseries feel intimidated by this juggernaut of a destination nursery and landscape design firm in one of the wealthiest enclaves in Orange County, California. Being a promiscuous collector of plants, I have no such qualms, but do make it a point to visit and buy from all the smaller nurseries. What a big heart, right? More like a big plant lust.

Which is what I’ve appreciated about Roger’s, their buying in lots of rare stuff in 4-inch pots for planting up their nursery display gardens, which they change out frequently, and they have gotten on board with landscaping with succulents and woody lilies in a big way. Over the past couple years, the entire perimeter of the nursery has been transformed into a wonderland of exotic drought-tolerant shrubs, succulents, aloes and agaves, and what’s left over from their landscaping is always made available for sale at the nursery. I probably check this nursery out twice a month during summer. And there’s no doubt that Roger’s Gardens has its finger on the pulse of the horticultural zeitgeist. They were the first U.S. nursery to bring in David Austin roses from England and imported and showcased terracotta pots from Impruneta, Italy, before I’d ever heard of such wizardry with clay. And heaven help me, they now have an impressive selection from Annie’s Annuals. Annie and company have an affinity for aeoniums that I heartily share, like this Aeonium spathulatum var. cruentum, who jumped like a lost puppy into the trunk of my car yesterday:


In the great heyday of salvia collecting, at least a decade ago, Roger’s enthusiasm for salvias rivaled that of Betsy Clebsch’s, though increasingly the retail space allocated for perennials has been shrinking at Roger’s. In fact, most of that space once lined with gallon cans of perennials has been filled this year with Japanese maples. Succulents, once relegated to a small collection in an out-of-the-way section of the nursery, have also taken over vast amounts of prime nursery real estate. But I noticed this summer it’s all about edibles. For the first time, Roger’s has built a raised bed display garden near the main entrance and planted it with veggies. They’ve always had designer tomatoes for summer and a good selection of vegetable seeds and plants, but this summer the emphasis on edibles has the unmistakable appearance of a raison d’etre. (Another sidebar: Roger’s is building a nice collection of another genus I’ve been increasingly interested in, begonias. Here’s Begonia ‘Paul Hernandez, a luxurians hybrid. I took this photo yesterday to document the Saxifraga cotyledon I brought home from Roger’s after Debra’s talk, which is perfect for this shady urn, and the photo shows the massive leaf of ‘Paul Hernandez.’ With Plectranthus argentatus.)


In a recent post by Loree of Danger Gardens she blogged about her enthusiasm for bromeliads, and I commented how they’re what’s hot down in So. Calif., too, not necessarily replacing succulents but certainly augmenting succulent summer displays, and it was this nursery I was thinking about. Their central display bed upon entering the nursery has been changed over from agaves and succulents to almost entirely bromeliads this summer. The chartreuse sedum running along the bottom of the photo, ‘Ogon,’ is good for shade:


Dyckias are hot too, and then there’s this winged-leaved or jacks-shaped leaved plant that I also saw at Western Hills recently, which exudes a unique, galactic kind of energy, no? If anyone knows its name, please comment. (Edited: Many thanks to Kelly of Floradora for the identification of Colletia paradoxa.)


That’s probably more than enough of the Roger’s & Me back story. I was there bright and early on a Saturday morning for Debra Lee Baldwin. Countless times I’ve prowled this nursery while talks were being held in the small amphitheater, now backed by a tall hedge to separate it from the rest of the nursery, but I had never once attended a talk here before. So today it was my tuchas sitting on the hard, wooden amphitheater benches, awaiting the succulent lady to begin her talk. Every seat eventually filled up.

Although I’ve long grown aloes, agaves and yuccas, it was probably Thomas Hobbs’ books, Shocking Beauty and The Jewel Box Garden, that revved up the use of smaller succulents for me and launched quite a few ghastly experiments with succulents and moss. (I’m probably in the minority, but any book with the word “designing” or “design” in the title I usually avoid and am more intrigued by lush, Byronic titles for books, searching more for inspiration than instruction, so have to disclose that I have yet to purchase Debra’s books. But titles can be deceiving and are often foisted on books by editors, and a cursory look at Debra’s books was plenty inspirational.) There was a mossed succulent wreath on a table for Debra’s talk, but she never discussed it and mentioned peat moss and sphagnum moss only to say they should be avoided for their properties of holding water too tightly and then being too difficult to re-wet. I’ve noticed a distinctly anaerobic odor to one of the few remaining moss experiments I’ve kept, which is coir instead of moss, probably even worse for water retention.


Debra’s creations are much more sleek, and she referred often to the concept for pots of “Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers.” She asked the audience for a show of hands of those familiar with this concept, and surprisingly it was very few. Perhaps it’s more of an East Coast thing? West Coast designers have expressed some fatigue with this rigid formula, but in Debra’s hands it was a vivid tool for demonstrating planting techniques in front of a large general audience of mixed design experience. Generic potting soil is augmented by perlite, which can be bought cheaply in bulk under the brand “Dry Stall” from feed stores when you’re stopping by to fill up on alfalfa pellets to nourish the garden and checking out the trendy livestock troughs.

Debra created two separate succulent pots to demonstrate her process. She had pushed a shopping cart like one of us regular punters through the nursery before her talk to gather materials. On the cart can be seen the Zwartzkopf aeonium that she broke into pieces and flung into the audience — Debra’s PT Barnum instincts are spot on. Also on the cart is the golden Sedum nussbaumerianum, Sedum ‘Ogon,’ and the firesticks Euphorbia tirucalli. The two pots she made were composed of mainly small aeoniums, echevarias, and sedums. (The pots were raffled off to the audience, so no photos were possible.)


As a speaker, she’s a natural, warm and enthusiastic. Not at all a clock-watcher, she ran well over the given hour to answer questions and to make up the second pot. In both cases, she used shallow bowls, one terracotta and one a golden ceramic with browny-red streaks, filled the soil to the rim, and built up a souffle of succulents high above the pot’s rim. What looks like an unstable tower will knit together in about a week, she says, so treat it gently and keep it in dappled shade during that time. A big, ruffly echevaria from a 5-inch pot is sited in the center, sitting high on the potting soil nearly flush with the pot’s edge, then the smaller succulents are pressed in around and around, like frosting a cake. The amount of succulents used for a 12-inch bowl was astonishing, and she admitted the design proportions fall apart fairly quickly as the succulents grow, in six months or so. Just when you think a toothpick would have trouble finding a crevice, Debra pronounces it time to mulch with gravel. She revealed the magazine Sunset’s mantra for photo shots, the equivalent of “no wire hangers”: No bare dirt, ever. And a soft painter’s brush is useful for brushing off debris. Chopsticks come in handy for reaching in to compress the soil. Her favorite color for glazed pots is either cobalt blue or deep red — she takes her colors straight up and primary. She admitted that she doesn’t always follow conventional wisdom in allowing calluses to form on new succulent cuttings before using them in pots and only follows this precaution for rarities.

The success of her books, still on Amazon’s best-seller lists, Debra feels is partly due to their publication coinciding with a severe drought in California. In her own inland San Diego garden, many of the succulents she experimented with were marginally hardy, and the Great Freeze of 2007 culled the weak from the herd. She now grows only succulents hardy for her zone, so there’s no longer a need to throw bed sheets over tender plants when frost is predicted. Over and over she referred to the Southern California coastal communities as the “banana belt,” where everything and anything succulent flourishes due to the maritime influence, whereas just a few miles inland aeoniums will mush out in a rare freeze like that of 2007. Photographs for her books were taken within a 50-mile radius of her own garden in San Diego.

More video tutorials, photos, and Debra’s speaking schedule are available on her website Debra Lee Baldwin, and Debra also blogs at Gardening Gone Wild.

The Shuffle

The annual summer pot shuffle. Which pots shall be plucked from the margins and take pride of place, beautiful specimens of their kind? Every summer brings a different answer.


This Agave parryi’s spikes are kept well out of corgi eye range, elevated by the plant stand.


Agave geminiflora was borrowed from the front garden, initially trialed amongst diascia, then finally moved to join its brothers and sisters on the agave walk.


The large swath of the Waverly salvia and Calandrinia spectabilis calls out for an agave walk as a visual bulwark (and is just a big enough strip to hold assorted potted agaves and friends, like an occasional variegated crassula/jade plant).



Who’s languishing, concentric roots circling tighter and tighter, and in dire need of bigger digs? Who needs dead leaves cut off and snail poop cleaned from the pots? (All raise hands.)


More thoughts on pots. Looks like a rather timid collection, mostly all terracotta.


Mostly this has to do with the shuffle, that the pots get moved around frequently and pot color coordination is preferably not another element to consider. Frequently the pots are placed directly into the garden, so the more unobtrustive the pot, the better. Also, many of these plants grow large in zone 10, and the biggest pots I can find are required. Plain terracotta fills the bill in the numbers I need them. These pots aren’t focal points but integral to the garden, not the hardscape setting, and I actually prefer it when the garden surges forward and swallows up the base of the pot, as with this Aloe distans. The pot is an old portion of clay drain pipe, which hoists the long stem of the aloe aloft.


When the aerial summer display shoots skyward, the pot shuffle begins, in search of the perfect spot for each to add their unique contribution.


On A Misty May Morning

Heavy mist, almost a full-blown drizzle. This has been one long, cool spring, with rain forecast for the weekend. Unheard of for May!

Carex and Echevaria nodulosa


Agave impressa, brought home from the Huntington Botanic Garden’s plant sale over the weekend, estimated size about a foot, planted in a very crowded front garden. Blades of the blue-eyed grass, sisyrinchium, lean over to make their acquaintance.


Flower-budded wands of Lespedeza ‘Gibraltar’ aching over a leucadendron.


Agave ‘Mr. Ripple’ under siege from lespedeza, brings to mind Rudyard Kipling’s poem: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” Agaves are always perfectly composed.


The Angelic Ones

I’m so glad I planted this Angelica stricta ‘Purpurea’ (from Annie’s Annuals, of course) in a pot rather than dooming another angelica by trialing it in the garden.


I’m not completely convinced the problem was soil (amended clay) but more of finding the right exposure; a good dose of morning sun and then partial shade the rest of the day, which is the exposure this pot is providing. Angelica pachycarpa for full to partial shade loves my garden, even to the point of reseeding, and the traditional Angelica archangelica also grows well here in shade, but the alluring A. gigas has been problematic. I had the good fortune to see this planted at Hinkley’s Heronswood, underplanted with electric creeping jenny, Lysimachia nummularia. What a buzz when A. gigas first started making the nursery rounds!

Having this angelica up close in a pot is making all the difference — in my viewing pleasure and in its survival. Doesn’t even matter if it blooms (but it’d be nice). I slipped in a bromeliad bought at the Huntington Botanic Garden’s plant sale May 16, Aechmea recurvata ‘Aztec Gold,’ the slim golden leaves on the left. Variegated bigeneric fatshedera is in the center (edited to add photo 5/18/10).


The dark red ‘Festival’ grass, actually a cordyline, was also melting away in the garden, and I’ve noticed it doing the same disappearing act about town. I tucked in a dying, tiny, two-leaved remnant in the pot and forgot about it, which was of course its cue to flourish. I like it much better gracefully mingling in a pot rather than the splayed-out, dejected clump it makes in the garden. This summer many of my pots are filled with such garden refugees rather than summer annual displays.