Monthly Archives: June 2010

So I Go Out To Buy A Hosta

…and come home with an astelia.

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Astelia banksii.

Hostas intrigue me because, in Zone 10 gardening manuals, they can reliably be found under the entry “When Pigs Can Fly.” Yet there’s always a few for sale at nurseries in spring, usually some unhappy-looking, decrepit specimens, no doubt unhappy because they know they’re soon to be sacrificed on the altar of some transplanted Easterner’s nostalgic case of raging zonal denial. Now, I’m a native zone-10-er, and I try to make a garden that revels in its zone. But it hasn’t escaped my notice that everyone seems to be growing and attempting to overwinter zone 10 plants, so why not the reverse in zone 10? Tender perennials are grown as annuals out of their hardiness range, so why not cold-hardy perennials grown as annuals in zone 10? I’m not interested in the hosta’s flowers, which a young plant may or may not produce, just the leaves. Over the mild winter, the hosta will succumb to sleep deprivation, when their required dormancy fails to initiate. Whatever else a garden may be, and I’ll probably die with that question on my lips like Charles Foster Kane, it is to begin with an artificial construct.

I’ve been mulling this over and thinking that trying out a single hosta in a pot this summer might be an interesting experiment. In terms of waste, most tulips are grown as annuals, are they not? And the hosta can feed the compost pile over the winter. If the potted hosta sat in a saucer of water in light shade, it just might be deceived into believing it was back home somewhere in Japan. And I’d have a summer’s worth of gazing into those exotic, pleated leaves. What a deal.

And just this week, Margaret Roach, on her blog A Way To Garden, revealed that she prefers her hostas potted. That was all the incentive needed. (Thank you, Margaret!)

I did indeed find hostas at a neighborhood nursery just a few blocks away, and they were indeed miserable specimens. I had to check the label for variety, because all variegation or blueness to leaf had bleached out in the full-sun treatment they were being given. I grabbed the best-looking sieboldiana they had, then made a perfunctory check of the nursery before heading to the cash register.

Oh, my. The succulent section had lots of new arrivals. Hard to believe, but local nurseries are just now catching on that succulent mania has swept the nation. Bit of a cognitive delay. But now the rare stuff is finally trickling in. I steered clear of the expensive stuff, but what nice sedums they had! This one, labeled ‘Blue Mini Rosette,’ most likely S. pachyclados, resembling a saxifrage, obligingly filled a gaping hole in a pot of Sticks on Fire. (In a small garden, any expanse of soil over 3 inches is considered gaping.)

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Might as well check out the shrubs too. What’s that glinting silvery in the mid-afternoon sun? Oh, sure, the expensive astelias. What? You say you’re in a gallon? Lordy, let’s go!

In its gallon size, the astelia was a couple bucks more than the hosta. Bye-bye hosta. I still think it’s a worthy experiment, but I’ll take reveling in my zone versus a lab experiment any day. I completely understand the experimentation by those in colder zones, with temps slipping and sliding all over the map, and where would horticulture be without the yearning for the foreign and strange?

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Photo Dump

Not an elegant title, bordering on the indelicate, but that’s about all I can manage on Wednesday, just some shots from the past few days.

Begonia ‘Bonfire’ and aeoniums. I was thrilled to carry this begonia over the winter, the pot turned on its side outdoors to keep it dry and dormant through the winter rains.

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The solanums are leaping into growth and flower, even under our typical “June gloom” skies. Love the gloom. It’s not Meyerowitz’s Cape Light, it’s not the Pacific Northwest’s famous pearly light, but it is a respite from the impending four months of unremitting sunshine, or Life in a Toaster Oven.

Solanum rantonnetiii ‘Variegata’

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Solanum pyracanthum

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The ‘Waverly’ salvia has been blooming since at least February, and now its dusky bracts look especially purply against the bronze fennel.

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A pot of succulent cuttings running amok. Odds and ends get stuck in here as they inadvertently break off from their mother plants.
The green aeonium is A. balsamiferum. Red-tipped echeveria is E. agavoides.

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Summer and Smoke

Starring Cotinus ‘Grace.’

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Here glimpsed through a frame of chains (This Year’s Folly).

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A confusion of smoke trees. The tropical Euphorbia cotinifolia is in the foreground, just now leafing out in June, a self-sown seedling from previous E. cotinifolias. Multi-stems give this very brittle, fast-growing tree strength to withstand strong winds, not a concern in colder zones, where it’s grown seasonally for summer containers. Grace, no slouch herself in the fast-growing department, smokes in the background, oblivious to the vicissitudes of trees from the tropics.

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All photos except the chains by MB Maher.

Dendromecon harfordii (David’s Catalina Tree Poppy)

Driving by, I slow down to shout at David, who’s laying a recycled concrete paver/DG (decomposed granite) path in the front yard.
Don’t you love neighbors who drive by slowly and shout at you while you’re hard at work? I’ve been mystified by this shrub all year but was reluctant to knock on the door to inquire about a shrub, and prowling around the front yard without permission could possibly be misconstrued.

Me: David! Just the man I need to talk to!

David drops what he’s doing and good-naturedly saunters over. I gesture toward the massive, 8-foot shrub obscuring half his bungalow. On the other side of his front door, coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis, is performing the same vegetata obscura routine. David is going for California natives in a big way. In his small front yard, I also detect a young Coast Live Oak. It’s clear that here lives another sufferer of the small garden syndrome.

Me: Is that a dendromecon?

David: It’s a Catalina Tree Poppy.

Me: Oh.

David: Got it from Tree of Life nursery.

Me: But, David, it’s been in bloom all winter!

David: Yeah, I know. Never stops blooming. Bill and Tom grew it and said it blooms all year.

Me: So yours isn’t a freak?

David: (slightly offended) No, mine’s not a freak!

We both stare at the tree poppy in full bloom. I’ve never heard the common name Catalina Tree Poppy used before. Bush Poppy or the Island Bush Poppy, yes, but never Catalina Tree Poppy. I know it’s got to be a dendromecon but don’t want to push the point and brand myself a geek who insists on botanical Latin. And, really, what the heck else could it be? Citrus yellow poppy flowers spangled against bluey-green leaves.

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But it’s so very, very large. And who knew dendromecons were such long bloomers?
By this time, I’ve been parked in the middle of the street at least five minutes, cars are coming up in the rear-view, and it’s time to get moving.

Later I walk over for closer inspection. Definitely a dendromecon.

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A little Internet research reveals the Catalina and Channel Islands dendromecon is D. harfordii and can reach tree-like proportions. The mainland dendromecon, D. rigida, is smaller, the leaves are slightly serrated, and it’s reputed to be a tougher if less attractive shrub. Yet the Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery says “The plants are nearly identical if treated alike. D. rigida is a little more hardy and D. harfordii is a little easier to do from cuttings. Plants planted together in the same climate are so similar they would not key out with the taxonomy books.” Both are extremely drought tolerant, as David attested for his tree poppy. The evergreen dendromecons range along the coast from Sonoma County north of San Francisco down to to Baja California.

Length of bloom is a subjective concept, dependent on the length of one’s growing season, i.e., long blooming in zone 10 versus zone 4 or 5, where the growing season is a few months. But by my own eyes, driving up and down my street, day in/day out, I can testify this shrub is literally in bloom every single day, 12 months a year. And not just a few token blooms but a lavish amount of bloom. It’s been in the ground three years, and I’m fairly certain it’s just this past year that the ever-blooming ability has been confounding me as I drive past. (Kind of a Groundhog Day plant.) Traditional references like Sunset Western Garden Book list these papaveracea members as blooming spring through summer, but the native plant nurseries seem to be in on the secret of their year-round bloom.

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David seems immune to this astonishing fact. To him, it’s just a big shrub with nice yellow poppy flowers that wants to grow too big. Cutting it back apparently increases bloom, so he seems to be doing everything right with this shrub. He was more excited about a small manzanita he’s just planted that seems to be tentatively choosing to live in his garden. Two previous manzanitas opted out.

Me: Maybe the tree poppy will stop blooming in August, kind of poop out in the heat?

David: Hasn’t so far.

One more photo of David and Crissy’s house. I told David I really admired his postmodern fence, a whip-smart allusion to a fence, propped up like the fake saloons on cowboy movie sets, and how it added heft and structure to the natives without making the yard seem even smaller. David listened politely to my compliments, but I noticed there were no head nods of recognition in response to my description, and he may have even looked a bit perplexed. So I shut up to let him speak.

David: It’s a snow fence. It keeps the skateboarders off the plants.

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Never heard the term “snow fence” before either. David was full of surprises.

Laughter in the Distance

Not a title to a pulpy romance novel but a snippet of Hinkley’s hilarious prose from his infamous Heronswood nursery catalogues. (The nursery was opened in 1987, bought by Burpee in 2000 and closed by them in 2006.) The catalogues unfortunately haven’t survived office purges, but the context I remember for the quote is that he’s awaiting dinner party guests at Heronswood, working frantically in the garden around twilight, when he hears guests arrive. As the sounds of laughter and tinkling glasses begin to waft over the garden, he becomes morosely suspended in that moment before he leaves the garden and joins the guests. He lingers at his garden tasks, brooding over the distant merriment, and stuck in that moment as pure but isolated observer he writes, “I hate the sound of laughter in the distance.” I could be entirely wrong about the context, of course. But that was the magic of Hinkley’s writing, how it transported one to states of being and places beyond plant catalogues.

Hinkley’s talk, “The Dry Lush,” was sponsored by Roger’s Gardens of Orange County, held in the Newport Coast Community Center on 5/28/10. I had heard Hinkley joined forces with Monrovia as a venue for introducing worthy plants discovered on his plant-hunting trips, and I assumed this talk would be highlighting some of these new plant introductions. Not so at all. Most of the plants he spoke of during the hour talk and accompanying slide show were old friends. (The link to Hinkley’s website provides a plant list from a talk he gave under the title “The Dry Lush” in Utah recently, and the plant list for our talk varied slightly but has the same general outline.)

While Heronswood was a thirsty shade garden, Hinkley’s new garden, Windcliff on the Kitsap Peninsula, is an open, sunny 5 acres frequently strafed by roaring winds, which he says keeps the crowns of plants dry. Rainfall is under 40 inches a year. Summer is overcast but not rainy, as many people assume is the case for the Pacific Northwest. There was a mad scramble for pens and paper when he stated that upon arrival at Windcliff, weed removal was accomplished by spraying undiluted, distilled vinegar. Temperatures have to exceed 75 degrees for this method to be effective, and applications may have to be repeated, but with diligence vinegar will remove even bermuda grass, and is especially good for graveled areas.

Some gleanings from the talk. The plants he profiled for drought-tolerant plantings are many familiar structural beauties: opuntia, yucca, agave, aloe, nolina, beschorneria. He warmly recommended Aloe striatula for its bloom both in spring and fall. Shrubs discussed included acacia, genista, members of the proteacea. Grevillea victoriae blooms nearly year-round at Windcliff, for which hummingbirds give grateful thanks, nectar being just as sweet whether sipped from native or non-native plants. Ceanothus thrysiflorus var. griseus ‘Kurt Zadnik,’ a rich indigo blue, selected by Roger Raiche and passed from hand to eager hand for years, will soon be introduced by Monrovia. Grasses were difficult at shady Heronswood but are a natural for the new windy site, such as Stipa gigantea.

No one in the U.S. ever mentions the New Zealand daisy bushes, the olearias, so it was gratifying to see them profiled in his talk. Olearia x mollis seems to be Hinkley’s favorite. (Mine repeatedly succumbed to scale.)

Olearia ‘Henry Travers’ from the UK’s Garden Cottage Nursery:

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Readers of his catalogue will remember his enthusiasm for restios, which still get him excited. The huge, frothy Rhodocoma capensis is a giant restio he particularly admires. I can testify to the restios’ many virtues. Thamnochortus insignis puts up with much abuse in the front gravel garden, not only droughty conditions but the effusive summer bloom of a lespedeza, and does it in typical restio style. Nothing fazes them. And if you don’t crowd them and allow them to display their graceful, fountain-like shape year-round, so much the better.

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Hinkley seemed almost abashed to bring up agapanthus in a room crowded with zone 10 gardeners who see them daily in municipal plantings, but he strongly admires their toughness and late summer bloom and has amassed 65 species at Windcliff. I’ve never grown agapanthus myself but admit to recognizing their potential. That shape, for one, like a giant allium. I’ve been keeping an eye out for cultivars and species that do something a little different, and Hinkley has found the drooping petals of A. inapertus particularly exciting. The dark cultivars are more alluring than the familiar washy lilac blues, but I remain uncommitted. Once a plant acquires a civic/municipal identity, it’s difficult to overcome that bias.

Yet this year I’ve selected this reliable roadside grower and moved it from ubiquitous status to prime pot status, Limonium perezii, vigorous waste area colonizer, so why limonium and not agapanthus? Just find the statice more interesting, I suppose, and less thirsty in a pot. So sometimes the mundane does deserve a closer look. But then I daydream about taking the mundane statice and engineering an even wavier, possibly chartreuse leaf and deeper blue flower. The agapanthus I’d want to make more purple and allium-esque, only because the allium is the difficult rarity in my garden. What an exasperatingly conflicted group gardeners can be.

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Hinkley asked, Who grows dierama? My hand stayed clamped at my side. Raising it would surely jinx blooms this year. He then teased the zone 10 audience that there was a plant he grew that we could not, Embothrium. (He may have been referring to Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean Fire Bush, but didn’t give a species.) Moving along to his next plant, Hinkley was interrupted by a hand rising up from the audience, and a possibly slightly petulant voice asked, “Excuse me. Why can’t we grow embothrium?” Too much zone 10 summer, apparently.

I now have Hinkley’s word of honor that Melianthus ‘Purple Haze’ will stay a dwarf, saints be praised, to 2 feet for him so at least double that for me. But with the species looming 12 feet and higher, that’s great news. This is a large, cut-back shrub for me, and lately I’ve felt unequal to the task of growing this monster and haven’t done so for a few years. Next year’s plant list grows longer and longer, and it’s still early June.

Naturally, I began a mental inventory of what Heronswood plants remain in my garden. Practically none. Perhaps a single beschorneria. This Begonia grandis ‘Heron’s Pirouette’ just waking up in June was probably bought from Plant Delights.

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And then I remembered the perpetual rebuke that comes in the form of Clematis recta ‘Purpurea,’ the selection ‘Lime Close,’ sulking just on the other side of this Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain.’ There is very little to show of the clematis other than a crispy, very green leaf.

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Since I’ve owned it, it’s undergone a name change to ‘Seriously Black.’ Whatever its name, it’s having a very long sulk of, oh, about eight years or so, during which time it was moved at least once, so you figure allow three years to recover from that insult. At this point, I can’t be bothered to care anymore, and it’d be too much trouble to dig out. (Did you hear that, C. recta of the seriously black leaf? I just don’t care!!) I would say it’s obviously not a zone 10 candidate, but many gardeners get good results from clematis in this zone, so my experience is by no means definitive.

Hinkley relayed an anecdote similar to Vita Sackville West’s experience with garden visitors gushing over robust plants: “How lucky you are to have these old walls; you can grow anything against them!” The point being, unless one lives in a tent, we all have walls. Many of Hinkley’s woody lilies are grown protected from excessive wet under eaves, and/or on a south-facing aspect, and visitors will often comment on how fortunate Hinkley is to have this prime southern exposure. (Again, unless one lives in a tent, we all have south-facing exposures, even if they have to be exhumed from under overgrown shrubs.)

The love of plants is transformative, a truism exemplified by a community college teacher from Michigan who became the creator of a world-famous rare plant nursery, then morphed again into plant explorer and lecturer, and it can bring a world seemingly without walls…if occasionally some irksome laughter in the distance.