Monthly Archives: September 2010

Not At Home

When home during summer (in our non-air-conditioned home), I hang out on the cool east side of the house, religiously sweeping this small patio clean and smooth to receive scorched, bare feet, occasionally laying down rugs for the corgi and cats, bringing a sliver of the reading material that piles up in the house, maybe a Peroni (if it’s after 4 o’clock.) The tile was left over from a friend’s DIY project and laid down decades ago, now badly in need of updating. This east side of the house was a no-go zone when we moved in 22 years ago, with massive oleanders pressing against the windows of the house, their girth reaching to the property line, filling this entire area that is now the patio. That Dutch door is where I head every morning with a cup of coffee to spy on to see what the neighborhood is up to. I defend this space like a cornered badger. Construction materials, rowing machines, bicycles materialize from time to time, but the offending space invader is immediately carried off the premises. And then I sweep again. In another life, I would be the sweeper of libraries, late at night. A little reading, a little sweeping…whisk, whisk.


But I’m rarely at home for the moment. Hope to be back here soon.


Autumn is a time to dream of American prairies, shoulder high with the blooms of plants bearing the names of forgotten explorers.
Right alongside the list of places I’ve yet to visit is the list of plants I’ve yet to see, such as vernonia, named for English botanist William Vernon.

(V. altiissima, angustifolia, arkansana, baldwinii, crinita, fasciculata, flexuosa, gerberiformis, glabra, karaguensis, Melleri, missurica, noveboracensis and no doubt others.)

An American prairie plant, member of the asteracea, blooming in fall. “Habitats include upland areas of dry prairies, hill prairies, glades, openings in upland forests, thinly wooded rocky slopes, pastures, abandoned fields, areas along railroads, and miscellaneous waste areas.” Looks like purple ageratum in photos. Although British landscape architect Russell Page famously dismissed perennials as so much “colored hay,” the English tried mightily, and still do, along with now the German and Dutch, to marry the classical garden style with the informal use of soft-stemmed flowering perennials, many of them from North American prairies.

Some of us just can’t get enough of the colored hay.

(photo from The Telegraph)


And sometimes a poem can convey much more than a photo.

Ironweed by Robert Morgan

There is a shade of purple in
this flower near summer’s end that makes
you proud to be alive in such
a world, and thrilled to know the gift
of sight. It seems a color sent
from memory or dream. In fields,
along old trails, at pasture edge,
the ironweed bares its vivid tint,
profoundest violet, a note
from farthest star and deepest time,
the glow of sacred royalty
and timbre of eternity
right here beside a dried-up stream

published in the Atlantic June 2010

Rust Never Sleeps: Recent Work by Dustin Gimbel

Congratulations to Dustin Gimbel of Second Nature Garden Design for the recent write-up in The Orange County Register on his landscape design work at a Huntington Harbor, California, home.

If pets are chewing or foot traffic stomping your prize succulents, here’s a dramatic solution to safeguard every ruffly, curvaceous leaf.


Cindy McNatt wrote the piece, entitled “Steeling yourself for the modern experience,” and MB Maher provided the photos.

AGO previously profiled Dustin here.

Of Elephants and Mobile Homes

If one morning I was presented with a list of the garden tasks I would ultimately end up accomplishing that day, I would probably consider it an absurd amount of work and pitch the list in the trash. That’s the inherent paradox of puttering in a garden: it never seems like work at the time, yet you know something very similar to work must have taken place to have caused so much soreness to sweaty and dirt-coated limbs by the day’s end. And this in a garden without frost deadlines, no vegetables, none of the usual labor-intensive gardening activities. Yesterday I wanted to get planted some of the winter-blooming salvias I purchased at the Fullerton Arboretum, which necessitated moving a Tradescantia ‘Concord Grape,’ a variegated symphytum, then finding homes for those two, digging, more digging, locating tools, losing them, hauling compost, and on it goes. Garden tasks always come in multiples of at least three, and some days the ripple effect can go on, unplanned, for an entire afternoon.

Mid-September provided unanticipated and unwelcome disruptions, causing me to have to, gasp, leave the garden for a few days. I’ve missed both Bloom Day, the 15th of every month, hosted by May Dreams Gardens, and Foliage Followup, the 16th of every month, hosted by Digging, and even though I’m late to the party I’m adding just a few photos to the collective blog record of what’s in bloom and leaf mid-month.

Salvia broussonetii, of the Canary Islands, from the recent Fullerton Arboretum salvia sale. Nice crinkly leaves like S. sclarea. Amazing how many good plants hail from the Canary Islands, an archipelago off Spain named by the Romans “canaan,” or “the ones who worship dogs,” inspired by the early inhabitants’ reverence for dogs. What sensible people.


The Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ is getting that late summer, buttery thickness to its leaves.


Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’ has a distinctive shine to its leaves that sets it apart from other, mostly matte-leaved elephant ears.


The castor bean ‘New Zealand Purple’ is finally showing strong growth after a rude, early summer transplant. The chartreuse blur in the background lower left is a golden-leaved ceratostigma. (I”m pretty sure this cultivar is ‘My Love.’)


Salvia ‘Limelight’ opened its first blue bloom while I was away. I broke a branch of this very brittle salvia just leaning in to get a photo. If the fall Santa Ana winds hold off for a month, it should be a good show for me and a new source of nectar for the hummingbirds.


Pots filled with the little maple-leaved begonia, B. partita, the cordyline trademarked Festival Grass, fatshedera, pelargoniums, grown against a backdrop of Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea.’


And a glimpse of the newly acquired elephant pot. My mom has recently downsized to a mobile home park, which is a charming blend of brand-new prefab homes alongside 1950s-era mobile homes. (The charm for me was in the older mobile homes.) We stayed in this mobile home park on Alamitos Bay during the termite tenting, when I had ample opportunity to explore while walking the corgi. A good amount of succulents are grown in what little space there is available to garden, mostly in pots. It was one of the older mobile homes, what I’d call a “trailer,” that had been hastily evacuated, whether due to illness or some other misfortune, that had a handwritten sign taped to the siding indicating “Free stuff.” Most of it was animal and travel themed, a collection of an adventurous spirit, now shoved into meaningless disarray on the porch. I hope this elephant pot brought its owner good luck for as long as he needed it. I had left my own disordered mess behind at home but, unlike the owner of the elephant pot, was fortunate in being able to push it all back into some semblance of order and meaning once again.


Home Again

The termite control crews have left, the gas is turned back on, and very little damage to plants has occurred.
An enormous, ruffly echeveria as big as a cabbage was one of the few casualties, even though it seemed in a safe location.

This leucadendron close to the path, just opposite the palm, is still upright and glowing.


Oh, and I came home with an enormous pot that had been labeled with a handwritten sign “Free stuff.”
Cut-out latticework, scrolling detail, and elephant heads for handles. Very late British Empire.

Warm thanks to all who left such nice comments.

It’s good to be home.

Under A Big Tent

If I named my home at this moment, something I’ve been mulling over for a while, Hotel Chaotica would be a good fit.
The big tent is coming next week under which death will be dealt to the termites chewing away at the ribs of this 100-year-old wooden house.

I find this photo of Manihot grahamii’s little flowers so soothing.


Maybe you didn’t know, but it is very selfish to think of one’s garden at such a moment. I read this in everyone’s eyes and the errant comments they let slip about being accepting of the damage that might occur to plants, plus being cheerfully admonished to think of the big picture. Psychologically, the work is underway to thicken my hide. Plants are plants, whereas a house is your home. Priorities. Buck up, for goodness’ sake.

But the garden is where I live.

I let that comment slip yesterday. The plaintive tone in that voice surprised me. It was my voice all right, but very thin in tone, lacking the adult timbre I’ve built up all these years.

Time for another soothing interlude. Blue is such a calming color.


The biggest danger is to the 15-foot triangle palm, Dypsis decaryi, planted about two feet away from the foundations.
There’s room enough between palm and house for the tenting tarp and sand bags, but I’ve read that the gas can leach into the soil and kill a plant two to four feet away.
Nothing to be done at this point but wait it out.


I briefly checked out of the Hotel Chaotica Saturday morning to attend the annual salvia sale at Fullerton Arboretum.
I was hoping to find a Salvia madrensis, a yellow-flowered sage with sexy red stems, and fortune smiled.


Fortune more than smiled, it laughed maniacally. Along with Salvia madrensis, I brought home S. karwinskii, S. macrophylla ‘Upright Form,’ and S. broussonetii, with a large leaf very similar to the clary sage. All but S. broussonetii will make enormous-sized shrubs. (At the arboretum, I looked up from the salvias long enough to note that quite a few of the salviaphiles’ hair was matted to their head, probably in the same configuration as when they leapt out of bed that joyous morning of the sale, which made me nervously run fingers through my own hair, even though I was fairly certain I had remembered to comb it.)

Salvia macrophylla, more soothing blue.


Salvia karwinskii’s thick, felty leaves sold me on this very big salvia. No idea where to put it.
You think the cats know something is up? Joseph is usually skylarking on the roof by this time of the morning.


The salvias were added to the giant holding area where garden stuff has been herded to make ready for the tenting crew, all the potted plants, chairs, tables. It looks like the aftermath of a disaster movie about a garden, with all the props ready to be loaded into trucks.

Sunday’s priority was moving some choice plants along the west side of the house about to have the curtain literally drop on them this Wednesday. An Agave bracteosa was moved with a good-sized ball of soil, a beschorneria had very little soil come away with its roots, and a large Aloe striata had to be stripped of most of its leaves, since very little root or soil was left to transplant.

In anticipation of the big tent, we’ve been juggling safety issues of people, animals, plants. Just when the plants’ safety seems settled for a moment, down comes another ball of anxiety:
The cats, four of them.

This morning I have been offered a VW bus to keep the cats in for just the two nights. I’ll probably sleep in the VW with them. A Hotel Chaotica on wheels.


A sultan of a succulent

Erepsia lacera. A succulent with large, sweet sultan-like flowers. (At least what I call sweet sultan, the annual Centaurea moschata.)


From Annie’s Annuals. A fast grower. As often as I trim it off the bricks, I’m surprised to see any flowers.
My mom pointed them out to me the other night, and then added she would like some in her little garden too. This from a woman who only recognizes pelargoniums as possessing true flowers.
With my mom’s seal of approval, now I know this little succulent definitely has crowd appeal. I’ll need to take some cuttings since Annie’s currently doesn’t have erepsia in production.
Fortunately, rooting cuttings from succulents doesn’t overtax even my weak propagation skills.

Also known as “Paarl Roosvygie,” in Afrikaans, I guess. From South Africa.


Just behind the erepsia, bulbinella in a good flush of bloom too.
The dark green menace on the right is Agave ‘Jaws.’


Some Good News

If newspapers had come in two editions this past decade, one edition with only good news, the other edition with not-so-good news, the good news edition would have been slim indeed. Flung by the delivery person who always aims for my agaves, it would probably have blown away down the street like a kite before hitting my driveway. This past decade knocked the stuffing out of me, forcing me to jettison what little I thought I’d come to understand about human nature. I’ve never been one not to face unpleasant facts, but a blog about gardening seemed a reasonable response to what I’ve witnessed so far of the 21st century. It seemed a good time to focus on what you love, no matter how narrow and insignificant the subject might seem to the uninitiated, and find others who valued it as well.

In that spirit, this will come as good news only to a very small number of people, but that select few can rejoice. Western Hills, the garden, has been saved, for the moment at least, though it may not be a nursery ever again.


A photosynthetic palace, a beloved Northern California nursery destination for many years, as written here previously. All photos by MB Maher.



The view from the house on the property.


In honor of the occasion, I did a quick tour around my garden to identify plants obtained from Western Hills. Not many are left. Possibly a dyckia. Astonishing what a meat grinder my garden is, chewing up plants and leaving no trace. An elephant’s graveyard for nursery stock.

I did find what is probably the last notebook entry of a Western Hills shopping trip in April 2003:

Corydalis ‘Pere David.’ One of countless blue corydalis I fed into the meat grinder garden.
Daphne ‘Carol Mackie.’ Oh, to recapture the innocent days of gardening youth when one blithely purchased daphnes with every expectation that they would flourish.
Angelica sylvestris purpurea
Hellebore ‘Boughton Beauty’
Ruta chalepensis, the fringed rue
Viola ‘Dancing Geisha’
a variegated plectranthus
Sisyrinchium ‘Judith Kinear.’ (No hits when searching for a plant under this name today.)
Helicotrichon sempervirens ‘Sapphire’

From the Garden Conservancy website, the new owners are Chris and Tim Szybalski. Chris is co-owner of Westbrae Nursery in Berkeley, Calif.
With their purchase of Western Hills, I just know this is the beginning of another beautiful collaboration between people and place.


Fail Better (Summer Recap)

I admit it’s a little early for a summer recap, but there is a penultimate feel to the garden today. By this time, whatever plans I’ve laid have either happened or failed to happen.

It’s time to admit this is as lush as the little tropical terrace will get this summer. And what a lot of somber green there is, though that’s mostly an impression the back wall covered in creeping fig brings. The fig, Ficus pumila, is getting shaggy again and needs the second of its twice-a-year shearings.

The tetrapanax, pushing up behind the potted variegated agave, has made it to about 3 feet this year. In the telescoped view a photo brings, a golden-leaved coprosma is directly behind the rice paper plant, then the dark green of the wall, though in actuality there’s plenty of other things growing here too, and even a short pathway that curves inward behind the pergola. The trunks belong to the smoke tree ‘Grace.”


Continue reading Fail Better (Summer Recap)

Mixology in the Garden

A couple days ago a non-gardening member of the household burst through the screen door and out onto the porch and barked at me, “Grow me some cilantro!”

I barked back, “Grow it yourself. The smell makes me retch. What do you want it for?”

And the non-gardener went on to detail the alcoholic beverages for which cilantro is a useful ingredient.

At which point it occurred to me that we’re obviously taking entirely the wrong approach in attempting to encourage non-gardeners to get their hands dirty by touting the healthy benefits of growing fresh vegetables, including exercise and obesity reduction. What a virtuous bore. Maybe a bit less virtue and more vice?

Infusing booze with homegrown ingredients would seem a much more likely inducement. In another example of those zeitgeist-channeling moments we all occasionally stumble into, the New York Times had an article on this subject the very day the non-gardener fired off a request for cilantro.

So we made up a list of possible home-grown candidates, some more fanciful than others since not just infusion but distillation would be required, but just an idea list:

juniper (gin)
potatoes (vodka)
artemisia (absinthe)
malbec grapes – vodka and wine
string beans (bloody mary’s)
et cetera
et cetera


Think of the beautiful bottles you’d have to collect! And the bacchanalias, the harvest parties, with tables and ingredients staged and ready for guests to make mixology magic on a Labor Day weekend.
It might even induce me to grow more vegetables. Just don’t ask me to drink anything flavored with cilantro.