Monthly Archives: August 2011

Square Stems & Other Botanical Curiosities

Studying taxonomic classification and “keying” out the physical characteristics of plants almost 18 years ago was incredibly absorbing, but the detailed vocabulary has mostly slipped from memory from disuse. Still, it’s a rare occasion that I look at a salvia without noting their square stems and opposite leaves. Salvia madrensis must have the squarest stems of any salvia I’ve ever grown. First year I’ve grown this salvia, whose yellow flowers are budding up as the days slowly, almost imperceptibly shorten.


We’ve all heard the expression “plant porn” used frequently. But vegetable porn? I thought the fruit of Trombetta di Albenga, the climbing Italian summer squash, would curve and loop in interesting shapes. I was hoping to have several gourds dangling, but so far the vine seems to be putting its energies into this one rather assertively elongated gourd. A mesmerizing 3 feet in length, we’re wondering how many more feet it can possibly grow. I’ve read it has a faintly artichoke-like flavor, which has to be one of the most wondrous flavors to spring out of the earth, but it’s becoming almost impossible to consider this bizarre curiosity as food.


Another salvia, ‘Wendy’s Wish,’ with square stems not nearly as prominent as S. madrensis, is blooming strong again as fall approaches.
Both the salvia and Musa sumatrana share strong appetites for compost and deep mulches, so have forged quite the partnership.


From botanical curiosities to the avian kind. I never see roosting spectacles such as this at home. In fact, I got so excited at this twilight massing of birds that this became the final image with my old lens. I dropped the camera on the cement bathroom floor of a rest stop on Highway 5. The body of the camera miraculously survived. I’m waiting for a new lens to arrive and have borrowed a 24 mm in the interim. Boy, had I bonded with that 50 mm.


A Summer Afternoon

Photograph entitled “A Summer Afternoon” by Olivia Parker.


That plane shadow could be the DC-3 that flies over our garden twice a day, bringing supplies to Catalina Island. The leaf shadow, Arundo donax.
Looking at this photo, I feel I’m in my garden as much as looking out the window on the garden in front of me.
Interesting how similar photography is to garden-making, both concerned with framing devices, edges, boundaries. Selecting and condensing for emotional response. As Ms. Parker writes, like gardens, “We expect a photograph to be closer than a painting or a drawing to what we think is real.”

What follows is the complete foreword “Anima Motrix” Ms. Parker wrote to her edition of photographs entitled “Weighing The Planets.”

Continue reading A Summer Afternoon

Dinner at Dustin’s

A word of advice. An invitation to dinner at Dustin’s should never be passed up.
Yes, he is a wonderful cook (Salade Niçoise with salmon, chocolate ganache torte).
But prowling around his garden to see what he’s been up to is the real treat.
Take this sapote tree, for instance, with resplendent floodlit trunk gleaming directly behind Reuben Munoz (staking his claim on the planted salvage container dripping Frankenia thymifolia that’s hanging from what’s left of the tree’s branches, upper right). The last time I saw this tree, its canopy shaded half the yard, a most welcome benefit from any tree. But Dustin finally pulled the plug on the sapote when he broke a toe slipping on one of its many slimy fruits that carpeted the garden and drew in clouds of houseflies. The tree is now reduced to sculpture, its dark, corrugated bark laboriously sledge-hammered away, revealing the tree’s mythic core.


Mythic tree, mythic summer dinner party. Thank you, Dustin.

(At the table, far right, the back of Annette’s sweet mother’s head, then Annette Gutierrez, co-owner of Los Angeles’ premiere garden design shop Potted, torso of Dustin’s friend and partner in demolition, Jay, me, Gustavo Gutierrez, Reuben. Directly behind me are the collapsed remains of a magnificent gunnera formerly shaded by the sapote.)


Photos by MB Maher.

Palms & Lawn

I’ve had a very interesting past couple of days. (Interesting in my usual narrow, horticultural sense of the word.)
Thursday I finally made it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to check out up close the new Eli Broad wing built by Renzo Piano and landscaped by artist Robert Irwin, conceived of principally as a palm garden.

Licuala peltata

But those are not the palms at LACMA, where I was Thursday. Rather, that is Licuala peltata in the Palmetum at the Rancho Soledad Nursery in
Rancho Santa Fe, California, about 90 miles south of Los Angeles, which I visited Friday. And where Robert Irwin chose the palms, bromeliads, and furcraeas for his gardens at the Getty Center and LACMA. In fact, he was there selecting more plants for both museums the day before my visit.

I’ll try to explain.

Continue reading Palms & Lawn

Foreword to Piet Oudolf Landscapes in Landscapes

I didn’t dare take this beautiful book on the recent camping trip, so it sat waiting in a quiet house. A couple pages behind the cover’s brisk Helvetica type is this arresting foreword by Robert Hammond, co-founder of the High Line in New York City, which is as far as I got into the book. I think the entire foreword is worth posting here:

The High Line should be preserved, untouched, as a wilderness area. No doubt you will ruin it. So it goes.’

“This comment was handed in on a public input card after our 2003 High Line Ideas Competition and I’ve kept it pinned above my desk ever since. It scared me because I believed it could come true.

“The High Line was a serendipitous wildscape when Joshua David and I first walked on it in the summer 1999. Grasses, wildflowers, and small trees had taken over the surface of the abandoned elevated rail line. It was unplanned and untended, and that’s what made it so special. My biggest fear was that turning it into a park would spur the loss of a magical, accidental landscape thriving in relative secret above the West Side of Manhattan. At first we hoped to keep it as it was, to preserve that wild state and to simply run a path down the middle of the railway. We soon learned that would be impossible. In order to open it to the public we needed to make repairs, and that meant removing what remained of the ties, the rails, and the ballast — and everything growing on top of them. I knew we could not replicate what had taken nature decades to unfold. Even after I saw the plans that Piet Oudolf developed with our design team, led by James Corner Field Operations, schemes that drew inspiration from the palette of volunteer plants found growing there, I was anxious that the new plantings would fall short of that romantic original landscape. It was not until after the park opened in the summer of 2010 and I could see how the High Line’s blooms, grasses, and foliage changed every few weeks that I realized that Piet had not only recaptured that original magic, but that he had also created a new landscape that had the ability to alter the way people feel and how they act.

“People do not walk slowly in New York. They rarely stroll. But they do on the High Line. Couples hold hands. Parents remark upon the various plants as they use the High Line to walk their children leisurely to and from school. Piet’s landscape allows people to breathe easier — not for its manicured beauty, but for its ability to change as nature does.

“The range and complexity of Piet’s plantings give visitors reasons to come back again and again. Week after week, month after month, they are lessons in discovery. Where many garden designers think of landscapes in terms of the four main seasons, Piet’s seasons are broken into seasons. His aspirations may be ecological in nature, but he works like a painter. He dials color up, and then back, sometimes massing bold swatches of color that lead your eye through the landscape, at other times subtly dotting little spectral islands into larger seas of grasses. The complexity of these combinations is heightened as he employs various and distinct aspects of a single plant’s annual cycle for various purposes through a single year. His plants are actors playing multiple roles — the blue stars that entertain with small, pale blue flowers in May return with a bold statement when their foliage turns a brilliant gold in the fall.

“With Oudolf, it’s not just about flowers. His landscapes, while certainly floral, are meant to confound the “what’s-in-bloom?” mentality that drives much of the garden world. Plants are prized for their flowers, yes, but also for their height — and the gradual pace pursued to achieve their eventual statures — for their foliage’s texture and color in spring and summer as well as fall and winter, for their fruit or seedheads, and even for the color of their stems. Whether the plants are ascendant or in decline, all of their features have roles to play, through the year. And it all appears so disarmingly simple.

“Or course, you do not need to think about any of this when you walk through one of his landscapes. But I suspect that you will be moved, or inspired, or maybe you will just feel better — even if you don’t know why. There is something at work that will, I think, connect you to the kind of feelings I experienced when I walked on the High Line that first time — a belief in the ability of such spaces to change the way we see the world, and perhaps each other, season after season, all year long.

Robert Hammond
Friends of the High Line.”


Into The Fog

Every August we head for mists and fogs, usually those that creep on cat’s paws and shroud the coastline of Oregon. But this year, squeezed by budget and time constraints, we took the advice of Far Out Flora and Gardenbook and opted to give the much-closer Northern California coast of Mendocino a try as a stand-in for the Oregonian fog and mists we’re always parched for by August. Kathy of the blog Gardenbook escorted a group of gardeners to Digging Dog Nursery and Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in July of 2010, a trip I was very sorry to miss. I had visited Digging Dog many years ago, long before their display gardens had grown in and become a garden travel destination near the little town of Albion, so a trip back was long overdue.

So last Thursday, all scrubbed and packed, we headed to the Mendocino coast north of San Francisco, about a 10-hour road trip from Los Angeles.


And other than one overnight en route in San Francisco, this summer we were camping, something I haven’t done in over a decade. We packed a bare minimum of camping gear, in case we decided it was simply too awful to endure, reasoning that after making an honest effort there’s no shame in retreating to a motel. But I’d forgotten that camping in a state park is not unlike a rustic motel — showers, bathrooms, firewood for sale. In other words, not much of a challenge even for a camping sissy such as myself. Maybe a thicker pad under the sleeping bags next time.


An interesting twist was no cell phone connection for three days. Abrupt and total electronic detoxification. That might have been the best part.

Continue reading Into The Fog

Foliage Follow-Up August 2011

Thank goodness Pam at Digging hosts a Foliage Follow-Up to May Dreams Gardens Bloom Day. The blooming lineup in my July Bloom Day post can stand in with very little revision for August. Holding down the fort and keeping the hummingbirds and insects happy in August is the same bunch of long-blooming salvias, gaura, knautia, echium, verbascum, euphorbia, Persicaria amplexicaule, kangaroo paws, valerian in bloom since early summer. I throttled back on annuals, so not much new is erupting into blossom this August. Gardens for me are still all about the eruptions, not the staid, unchanging formalities, but this year August looks a lot like July and even June. Would I take a couple lines of track from the High Line, including every last grass and perennial, and plunk it down in my garden? Oh, hell, yeah. I’m a wannabe prairie garden companion. But that would leave me with nine months in a very small garden staring at nubby perennial crowns when there can be evergreen grevilleas in bloom in winter. (Why must the garden be such a heavy-handed teacher of compromise? Work with what you’ve got. Bloom where you live. Know thyself. I get it already!) With the last rainfall over four months ago, arid zone 10 can sometimes turn planning for flowering herbaceous plants in August into a dogged military campaign, but planning for gorgeous leaves is a walk in the park.

Arundo donax ‘Golden Chain,’ Phormium ‘Alison Black,’ Aralia cordata ‘Sun King.’


Continue reading Foliage Follow-Up August 2011

Inter-City Cactus Show & Sale

I went to the show, had my mind blown, took some pictures. In other words, a typical succulent show…except that I introduced myself to a best-selling author on succulents in the landscape and containers and then gushed and fawned and stammered and…oh, the shame!

But the plants loved being fawned over. What utter showboats.

I’m always surprised to see lush leaves and delicate flowers springing from a bloated, contorted, caudiciform base, as in Stephania venosa.


Evem common sempervivums and aeoniums strut and preen like show dogs. That glow is all in the grooming and staging.



Aloe ‘Coral Fire,’ a Kelly Griffin hybrid.


Agave stricta. Brown pot, brown leaf tips. Sometimes it’s best not to overanalyze and go with uncomplicated.


Or there’s always the baroque approach. Succulents on a clamshell.


Euphorbia poissonii. Really makes you wonder what defenses a plant could possibly have to merit this name in a genus well-known for its caustic, milky sap.
From Wikipedia: “The most active toxin…binds to pain receptors…It stimulates the neurons to fire repeatedly, causing pain.” I note the Wiki photo looks like an entirely different plant, but image searches also show the euphorbia depicted in this photo:


The dyckias were ravishing.


Sometimes it’s hard to imagine living with these show plants on a day-to-day basis. Having a quiet breakfast on the sun porch among your treasures — wait a second. Wasn’t the abromeitiella on that table last night? And who took the sports page? C’mon ‘bro, give it back.

Abromeitiella brevifolia.


I think I’ve seen this enormous Moringa ovalifolia in the several shows I’ve attended this summer. Just wheel him in and hand the ribbon over.


Succulent shows are where horticulture definitely veers off into the fetishistic, obsessive, hobbyist realm, which might make garden designers uncomfortable, but there’s an incredible amount of cultivation knowledge to be gained, and each plant arrives pre-Photoshopped for your contemplation of its ideal state. A succulent show is an unapologetic plant zoo.

The show will also be held today, August 14, 2011, at the LA Arboretum, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Arguing With A Bad-Tempered Gardener

What an odd concept, to separate enjoyment of gardens from the process of garden-making. A garden magazine article a couple months ago introduced me to this astonishing notion, when it profiled the owner of a complex garden who spoke intelligently about his garden, knew every inch of it, but had it all designed, constructed, planted, and maintained by someone else. Shocking. Yes, all these years, and that particular idea had never occurred to me. What a revelation. And then a book is published this spring by an Englishwoman living in Wales, Anne Wareham, entitled “The Bad-Tempered Gardener,” in which she declaims “I hate gardening.” Hates it, yet spends a good part of her adult life imprinting the landscape with patterns such as this:

Photograph by Clive Nichols

Finally, a garden book I had to read.

Continue reading Arguing With A Bad-Tempered Gardener

Devils in the Details

I’ve been pestering MB Maher to shake loose some more video work, and he keeps telling me the coffers are empty at the moment, that he’s hard at work on a new series on designers tentatively titled Field Studies. However, he agreed to make a trailer for AGO readers of a piece in this series on Reuben Munoz, who channels the salvage instincts of Derek Jarman and combines them with the theatricality of Tony Duquette, but with a shamanistic inflection that his uniquely his own.

So, without further ado, a glimpse of the work of the brujo in residence at Rancho Reubidoux.

Field Studies – trailer from MB Maher on Vimeo.