Monthly Archives: November 2012

how to gift wrap an agave

I had some time late yesterday afternoon so decided to dip my toe into holiday retail.
In truth, all I did was look at plants. And even bought a few. For myself.
This season of giving is off to a roaring start.

But look, Christmas trees in the background. See? I was holiday shopping!

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Astelia and echeverias

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Agave ‘Blue Glow’

Continue reading how to gift wrap an agave

still life with castor bean plant

The inspiration to include some seed pods from the castor bean plant in leftover Thanksgiving vases already filled with chamomile and hypericum came from this photo from thequintessentialmagazine. Nice touch with the alocasia leaf too.


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Like a bloody echinops, the ricinus makes striking cutting material. I suppose it’s the awareness of the castor bean plant’s intensely poisonous properties that prevents me from ever considering it suitable for vases. It’s obviously causing me alliterative fits just talking about it…poisonous properties prevent

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Yet that theory doesn’t really hold water, because the hypericum berries are poisonous too, and I brought those home for vases.
I wonder if any guests would even know that either or both of these plants are poisonous, and if so, would close proximity to them arouse mental discomfort or squeamishness?

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And over the holidays we’ll be surrounded, as usual, by toxins amongst all the sparkly lights and baubles. That’s not indulging in bah-humbug sentiments, just talking practicalities. Soon homes will be filled with that other holiday plant suspicious for ill effects when ingested, the poinsettia, though that turns out to be mostly urban legend and not medical fact. Still, it’s a euphorbia, with the typically caustic milky sap that euphorbias possess, that’s known to cause skin rashes. Holly and mistletoe also are reputed to be moderately toxic.

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Toxicity issues aside, I think the castor bean seed pods would look amazing in wreaths. Ricinus has naturalized in Southern California, and though many of the seed pods are a dessicated brown this time of year, there’s still lots of bright scarlet pods to pick. The seed pods I picked today are Ricinus communis ‘New Zealand Purple,’ that lives over the winter in my garden, but I bet there’s plants in gardens everywhere that, for whatever reason, just aren’t considered vase-worthy and might be due for a second look. Obviously, use care (gloves?) when handling this kind of plant material for holiday decorations, and site them well away from pets and small kids.

Plant portrait; Agave attenuata and St. Augustine grass

Clean, bright simplicity. Agave attenuata underplanted with variegated St. Augustine grass, by garden designer Dustin Gimbel. This tough, subtropical grass works beautifully in holding this slope, and is allowed to grow long and shaggy or clipped and tidy, according to the owner’s whim and schedule. No frost issues for this coastal Southern California garden.


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staining concrete

One of the more excruciating projects this past summer involved the tiled patio on the east side of the house, photo taken 10/3/10. The indoor tile left over from a friend’s DIY project was a mistake the day we laid it down almost two decades ago. It was the right price, as in free, but I’ve always hated it. It’s incredibly slippery when wet, which is quite often since I’m always watering the containers here. The fact that it was free blinded me to the obvious distinction in traction between indoor and outdoor tile. Our big Newfoundland Toby used to tear through this space, performing a cartoon-character skid when the tiles were wet, like a goofy Newf on ice skates, madly pumping his paws to regain footing before shooting out the gate.


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Like a sore tooth, it was a low-grade source of constant annoyance. The solution had to be cheap, of course, and every time I walked through this space I ticked off possible alternatives. Just lay gravel down over it? I actually saw this done on a local garden tour, the entire concrete driveway left in situ but graveled over, a no-sledgehammer method of transforming a utilitarian driveway into crunchy conservatory terrace for potted plants. But I couldn’t just careen from crazy solution to crazier solution all the time.

Then one morning in early summer when I was home alone (6/10/12 to be exact), I grabbed a hammer and chisel, and with no overarching plan knocked off a tile, just to see if I could. And I could. It was surprisingly easy. At that point, I had a tile patio minus one tile, which is no longer an intact patio but basically a demo in progress. So I kept at it, in secret, until every tile was removed. Amazingly, no one came around to the east patio until it was half finished, at which point it became a fait accompli. Some tips on how to get motivated for onerous, back-breaking tasks: Read a particularly incendiary article on a topic sure to push your buttons, grab the hammer and chisel, and have at it. (Good thing it was an election year.) Swing wide, swing hard, substitute issues for tiles, and shatter them into tiny pieces. Wear protective safety glasses.


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And for a brief, bare moment there was triumph. Triumph replaced fairly quickly by dismay. Because, you see, removing tile is actually the easy part. It doesn’t feel like the easy part at the time, oh no, but the real sturm und drang is still to come. And that’s when you realize that it’s the mastic/glue/thinset stuff underneath the tile that’s the real enemy. I was pretty handy with the chisel, so I assumed it was a simple matter of patiently, laboriously scraping it off, but it didn’t “pop” off like the tile did. In fact, it didn’t budge at all, so I did some research. Yes, now, not before I started. It was a shock, to put it mildly, to find there were No Easy Answers. Internet research revealed nothing but desperate people who had stumbled into this same quagmire, all looking for some way out, with the list of what couldn’t be done growing the more I researched it. For flooring, you can’t add new tile or stone until the old mastic is removed. In fact, you really can’t do much of anything except stare dumbstruck at the great, unholy mess you’ve created.

The mastic remained until mid August, when in desperation we attacked it with a rented floor resurfacing machine, a monster that leaped and bucked like a crazed bronco, at one point throwing Marty and slamming him into the side of the house. The diamond blades created a head-splitting noise and produced dust clouds that reached white-out conditions. (And all that long day Marty never once said, “What the hell were you thinking?”)


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After a miserable day of dust masks, hearing protection, enduring August temperatures in Dust Bowl conditions, we were left with this — almost all traces of the mastic removed.

Now what? Besides the expense, adding anything on top would screw with the grading. And after that ordeal, staining the concrete seemed like a walk in the park. I briefly checked out estimates with professionals, but opted for DIY once again, and a week later we purchased a cheap concrete stain set from a big box store, about $80. The process included four distinct steps, including a light acid wash to clean the surface, the main color, highlights, then a sealer. My biggest concern was for nearby plants getting residue washed into their soil, because a lot of water is used in the process, but all plants survived the stain application fine.


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The sprayer had gummed up by the time the highlights were applied, even after carefully cleaning the equipment, which ultimately gave a stippled, paint-spattered effect instead of more even coverage, and the grid from the tile ghosted through. But by this point, we were so thrilled to have survived the ordeal that any result would have been deemed acceptable.

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Photo taken 11/1/12 of the stained (non-slippery) concrete.


Seems like every DIY project has its unexpected twists and turns, setbacks, painful lessons, and this one seemed to have more than most. (Sample painful lesson: some things, like flooring tile and wall paper, are forever.) What started way back with poor planning, by using the wrong material, ended up, after more poor planning, surprisingly OK. And with Christmas not far off, who knows? There might possibly be some new outdoor furniture under the tree.

porpoising (sunday clippings 11/18/12)

Surfacing briefly, like the porpoises I watched slicing the surface of the ocean on the ferry boat crossing to Catalina Island Friday.


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A visit mostly all business*, the pleasure coming mainly from the 30-minute walk to the conference room at a resort not far out of town where I would be working in the afternoon. The pleasure of walking in a small town decorated in Catalina Tile.

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An island with water scarcity issues far worse than the mainland, slightly alleviated recently by desalinization plants.
Translation: Succulents are everywhere.

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Bougainvillea lines the roads on which tourists zip around in rented golf carts, which gives the island a Jurassic Park feel.
We hitched a lift on one of the golf carts the last steep 500 feet or so to the resort.

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Back on the mainland in my own garden, Aloe capitata var. quartzicola promises to reveal its first bloom this week.
That is, if the snails don’t get it first.

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Not to be outdone by a winter-blooming aloe, Verbascum ‘Clementine’ made the ridiculous decision to send up a bloom in November.
I’m hoping this doesn’t mean she’ll be too exhausted to bloom in spring.

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I mentioned recently the salvaged tank where the Hibiscus acetosella is growing.
The leaning inflorescence crashing in on the tank belongs to the tetrapanax. Beautiful, no?

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Such beauty bears a price. Come closer:

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Closer still:

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There were a couple bees, the odd hoverfly, and the occasional wasp, but mostly just hundreds and hundreds of flies.
Sorry, but I just had to share.

(If Linda is reading, tonight’s viewing will be Ken Burn’s The Dust Bowl.)

*One day I swear to pay a visit to the Wrigley Botanical Garden.

Occasional Daily Photo 11/14/12

I planted this Hibiscus acetosella in a big, salvaged industrial tank in July, replacing some Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ that finished unexpectedly early, and it grows so much better in the steadier conditions of a container than in the darwinian struggle of my summer garden. Before this year, it never really sank in that this hibiscus actually thrives in the warm days and cool nights of autumn, because it had previously always withered away in too-dry soil by September. Perennial in zone 10, fast growing enough to be grown as an annual in colder zones. The fleeting blooms are sparsely produced and incidental to the Japanese Maple-like leaves, which are the primary motivation for growing this hibiscus. The flowers come in the same brooding color as the leaves and are barely noticeable unless backlit by the morning sun. Five blooms were open this morning. Such startling discoveries add a jolt of excitement to the morning garden browse.

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The Fall Color Project 2012

Contributing to the The Fall Color Project this year, hosted by Dave at Growing the Home Garden, won’t be as easy as stepping out the back door and taking a photo of the smoke tree ‘Grace,’ now dearly departed since August, who semi-reliably colored up beautifully in fall, written about here.


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Cotinus ‘Grace’ December 2010

Finding local fall color is never easy. This is coastal Southern California after all, and the nighttime temperatures are just now dipping occasionally into the high 40’s. Frosts are rare and freakish. Evergreens probably have the edge over deciduous trees here.

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But I noticed the Gulf muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris, at the Long Beach Airport, was in fine form this year.

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And liquidambars are a reasonable bet for fall color.

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As is Gingko biloba.


This “living fossil” has many fans. According to a recent article in The New York Times, designer George Nelson, of iconic Bubble Lamp fame, strongly favored the gingko:

We moved several times during those 21 years. The most interesting was the brownstone that George bought around 1960, on 22nd Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. Back then, the block was decimated: there were no restaurants, no stores, no nothing. George had me go door to door to ask the owners of buildings on the block to get the city to plant trees. They had to be ginkgo trees. If you walk down 22nd Street now, you’ll see mature ginkgo trees.”

Though we mourn the loss of Grace, our relationship with her had deteriorated into a 1950s sci-fi movie, The Attack of the House-Eating Smoke Tree. In the early-morning sky made visible again by the departure of Grace, Marty observed the transit of the International Space Station overhead at 5:15 a.m. And the light filling the garden this fall is a color project all its own, lighting up the corollas of nicotiana like tiny flares.

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Thanks, Dave, for hosting The Fall Color Project for 2012.

agaves en masse

This was one of those days when I could have used an I Brake For Agaves bumper sticker.


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Every town in every climate has its repertoire of plants suitable for massing in civic spaces, roadsides, road medians. Here in my coastal zone 10 we see lots of agapanthus or phormium or tulbaghia/society garlic or daylilies. Big bunch grasses are beginning to be more frequently seen. For obvious reasons, agaves are not usually candidates, unless it’s the soft-leaved Agave attenuata. But the designers of the plantings around this industrial lot saw the perfect opportunity to let loose a multitude of variegated Agave americana.


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A regiment of agaves, for the agaves en masse were also en garde, defending a boundary between public area and trespass

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Agave as guard dog

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Guard dog in bright, undulating stripes. Nobody does stripes like an agave.

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At the corner the dangerous brutes were ringed in by a length of heavy chain.

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Like junkyard dogs, they were living in formidable conditions.
Equipment-compacted soil and god knows what chemical runoff from the machinery.

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Maybe it’s the years of training, but I must have spent a half hour among them, stepping in, crouching next to, reaching over, and came away without a scratch.
Good boy. Nice dog agave.

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In these numbers, it’s difficult to discern where one agave ends and another begins.
That perfect specimen is swallowed up in a sea of writhing, offsetting agaves.

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It’s one of those horticultural ironies that a prized specimen plant or container focal point in one climate grows like weeds
in somebody else’s home town.

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I once tried to keep a single potted hosta alive for an entire summer (and failed).
And then there was the winter I applied a mulch of ice chips to a doomed peony…