Monthly Archives: May 2013

K is for kniphofia

These get moved around the garden quite a bit, one of the reasons I can never keep track of their proper names. This may possibly be Kniphofia ‘Glow,’ but I wouldn’t swear to it. Currently, this remaining clump is deep in the back, near the compost pile, an out-of-the-way place for experiments, yes, but also a last-chance proving ground for the beautiful but exasperating ones like kniphofia. For a plant, being moved ever closer to the compost pile is very much like placing a shovel at the ready near the plant in question, a not-so-veiled threat to clean up your act or risk being converted to compost. Threats aside, it’s also an open, sunny site that has the added advantage of hiding their copious leaves from view, which is the main reason they get uprooted so often. Kniphofias really do claim their fair share of garden real estate, and then some.

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But when they’re in bloom, all is forgiven.
Just look at that demure, beseeching bend to their necks. “Why, we’re nothing but beautiful and no trouble at all!”
Haven’t we all tried that line before?

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Back by the compost bin, they’ll have to duke it out with bare-knuckle streetfighters like macleaya, Arundo donax, and Japanese anemones.
Mazeltov. May the best plant win.

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But just to prove I can occasionally be nice to plants and not always the severe taskmaster, here’s a kniphofia I just gave a prime location right outside my office, Kniphofia thompsonii var. snowdenii. I moved it from the front garden which is undergoing an impromptu revision as a result of planting a tree in the midst of all the sun lovers. You’ve gotta keep plants on their toes. Nobody is allowed to get complacent around here. The tree, Acacia podalyriifolia, has taken us all by surprise by growing in leaps and bounds, necessitating some reshuffling this spring as sunny conditions turn swiftly to shade under the acacia’s rapidly expanding canopy. I really should have moved this kniphofia anyway to a site with steadier moisture. It had practically none in the front garden.

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Because here’s what a happy, mature clump looks like, photographed at Mendocino Botanical Garden 8/11. It looks quite different from my Kniphofia thompsonii var. snowdenii, but I think this is the effect of good culture and conditions it likes. And doesn’t everything look different in a botanical garden anyway, versus a small home garden where space is on a stingy budget? But there may be various forms in circulation. Confusing the issue is a kniphofia also listed as K. thomsonii, whose photo looks very similar to mine on Far Reaches Farm’s website, that I’ve also seen referred to as K. thomsonii var. thomsonii. Whatever its correct name, the blooms are more open and aloe-esque, the leaves thinner and tidier. Even in the poor conditions of the front garden, it bloomed more frequently than the garden hybrids, and the leaves stay neat and low. This one now has pride of place, sited well away from the compost bins…for now at least. Any clarification on the names thomsonii/thompsonii is most welcome.

when plants aren’t what you expected

And I mean in the specific sense of mail-ordering one plant and then receiving a different one. With plants, impostors and mix-ups can be difficult to detect. It’s not like mail-ordering a rug, which when it arrives two weeks later it’s immediately apparent that it’s the wrong color or size. In the slow-paced world of plants and gardens, the reckoning can come as much as a year later and even years beyond.

Take, for example, my hibiscus whose first bloom opened this morning.

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I’m not going to name the excellent nursery from which I ordered this plant, because I’d hate to dissuade anyone from diving into their extensive catalogue listings. Everything else I’ve ordered has been accurately labeled. Nurseries with cutting-edge catalogues that try to keep the boundless appetites of plant fanatics satisfied while still managing to stay in business are bound to have a few slip-ups like this. And on the whole, the drama of mistaken identity adds undeniable excitement (such is my life).

The plant I ordered was Hibiscus moscheutos var. incanus. It was one of those mid-January, summer-starved, daydreamy purchases. (January 2012.) I was probably attracted to its silvery leaves and tolerance for dry soil. Like a cistus, its flowers were supposed to be white, not yellow, with a maroon throat. Not that the color of the bloom was important. Silvery leaves were the main attraction.

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What opened today was a hibiscus with lovely, soft yellow flowers and dark green, okra-like leaves.

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From the very beginning, the green leaves were a puzzle that indicated something might be amiss. Maybe they’ll change to silver when the plant matures, I reasoned. But the yellow bloom, which is slightly deeper in color than the photos depict, is the tipoff that this is something other than the hibiscus I ordered. From the nursery’s catalogue, it looks like possibly Hibiscus aculeatus, which they also carry, a native hibiscus from southern U.S. Or it could be Abelmoschus manihot.

Whatever it is, I love it. The flowers are thankfully not hybrid-huge in size but still a substantial 3 inches across, and the proportions of leaf and flower hold the promise of a graceful flowering shrub for summer. The only problem is, if this is Hibiscus aculeatus, it thrives in bogs and soggy ditches, conditions completely foreign to my garden.

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For now I am carrying an extra gallon or so of water to this hibiscus, situated way in the back near the compost pile, where the hose is unable to reach this lovely mistake. About a foot and a half in height now, we’ll see how it fares by late August or so, assuming a disciplined watering program can be maintained — a big assumption.


Occasional Daily Photo 5/27/13

Driving through California Heights for a recent garden tour, just before sunset I happened upon this house, seemingly fixed in amber during the rancho period of old California. This little house sits (as does ours) on the 300,000-acre tract that was granted by the Spanish crown to a Spanish soldier, Manuel Nieto, in 1790 as a “reward for his military service and to encourage settlement in California,” a tract later broken up into five ranchos.


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(California Heights, originally part of Rancho Los Cerritos)


friday flower studies

Is it Friday already?


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Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Mahogany’

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Large furry leaves of Plectranthus argentatus, spiky red orbs are Ricinus communis ‘New Zealand Purple, lacy gray leaves from Senecio viravira

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Tiny, almost-black flowers on tall stems of Pelargonium sidoides

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All together now, sing!

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Let’s hope the most difficult decision to be made this holiday weekend is what to bring in for vases..

plant hunting late May

I’ve been checking out local nurseries the past couple weeks, both independents and chains/franchises, which isn’t news since I do this quite a lot, but bringing a serious intent to change some of the garden late in May is news. I know a lot of gardens are just beginning to send out their personal shoppers (us) in May, but a zone 10 summer garden should ideally be settled by now, planned and planted last fall, which always gives superior results compared to a spring planting, much less a late spring planting. There should be no more fiddling with it after May, because summer will knock most new plantings on their ass. But the Diascia personata really had to go. I think it’s a good plant with great potential, maybe a bit more afternoon shade. (Grace, I think you’d love it if the leaves stay clean for you.) And maybe it’s suited for larger gardens, not because of it’s size but because it’s best seen massed, and from a distance. That pinky-coral color never stopped grating on me, which is odd because I don’t mind it on the smaller diascias. On the whole, I prefer Diascia integerrima.

As a replacement, I was leaning towards something blue/violet, in agastaches maybe, but none were to be found local, and small-sized mail order plants would be of no use this late in the season. I settled on Salvia greggii ‘Salmon Dance,’ a) because, well, there it was in 4-inch pots; b) they’re tough as old boots; c) they’re not pink; and d) as a sloppy-seconds planting, at the very least the hummingbirds will be happy. Although it’s not a conscious plan, pink continues to be purged from the garden and the reign of orange goes on.


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This morning I split off some pieces from a large clump of Pennisetum ‘Sky Rocket,’ which is just getting its burgundy plumes, to fill the gap along with the salvia. This pennisetum, planted last year, thickens fast but the blades seem to top out at a relatively modest height of 2 and half feet or so. If it holds to this height, it will prove to be a valuable grass indeed. Grown as an annual in zones below 8.

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Image from San Marcos Growers

And though I didn’t find exactly what I needed, as is typical of plant nursery jaunts, I found lots that I wanted. There was a cordyline I haven’t seen before, Cordyline ‘Electric Star,’ the clumping kind with subtle, phormium-like coloration. I’d have been all over this cordyline in a smaller, cheaper size.

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Another surprise was Isoplexis canariensis for sale locally, exquisitely in bloom in gallon containers at H&H Nursery, under their label. Always exciting to see a plant make the leap and graduate from rare and desirable to readily available and dependable. It’s still a little early to know just how dependable or long-lived. The photo is from my garden in April, but it’s still in bloom and sending out fresh spikes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes as ubiquitous as that other strong orange, leonotis. Keeping with my orange/warm color fetish, there were a couple kniphofias at H&H I haven’t seen available local before, ‘Alcazar’ and ‘Nancy’s Red.’ Selections like these have previously been found only in Digging Dog’s catalogue.

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Also at H&H was an unusual, smooth-skinned Kalanchoe beharensis appropriately named ‘Furless.’ I still can’t decide if smooth leaves are necessarily desirable in a Kalanchoe beharensis. Checking around, I find Glasshouse Works lists something similar called ‘Baby’s Bottom.’ I had no idea there was such variety with this kalanchoe, with some leaves deeply lobed. Mine pictured above was brought home from a plant sale last year, supposedly variegated. It hasn’t shown very strong variegation so far, but the edges do seem a bit more incised and ruffled than the species as I remember growing it.


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I ran into this beauty, one of the annual Chilean bellflowers, nolana, at Brita’s nursery in Seal Beach, where it was growing in the ground, possibly from self-sowing.

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A big, sprawling thing, with black stems and black splotches on the flower capsules. The nolana commonly available from seed is Nolana paradoxa, but an image search didn’t produce photos showing those sexy black markings.

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And I was thrilled to score a couple Digitalis trojana in bloom and hopefully ready to throw some seed around. This is one I don’t mind planting in late spring, because if it’s anything like that other tawny foxglove from Turkey, Digitalis ferruginea, it will hate hanging on sleepless through a mild winter. If it self-sows, it just might find the perfect spot, the one I never seem to find for it.

driveby gardens; more on the disappearing lawn

I got a very late start on the self-guided Lawn-to-Garden tour Saturday, thirty gardens from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., just because Friday was an unusually odd workday and I lingered and wallowed far too long in the glory of being home Saturday morning.


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There might have been some extended Saturday morning puttering with hanging tillandsias on maritime salvage.

Continue reading driveby gardens; more on the disappearing lawn

Bloom Day May 2013



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It’s our blue period again, and not just ours. Jacaranda mimosifolia trees are painting the whole town blue.
Spiky plants in the front garden will fly these pennants until July, when the blue period ends, and the trees in the parkway will be fully leafed out.

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In the back garden, two-year-old clumps of Penstemon ‘Enor’ have started to bloom.
I had a big penstemon phase about five years ago, then attention wandered elsewhere.
I like this one’s tall, slim spikes and smallish flowers.

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Some of the new plants I’m trying this year, like this umbellifer Cenolophium denudatum, will be encouraged to stay and self-sow.
It fulfills the important requirement of tolerating fairly dry soil, while still keeping lush good looks.
Same deal with the blue-flowered Aristea ecklonii, a South African iris relative.

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Diascia personata, tall and pink in the background behind Orlaya grandiflora, is more problematic. Good height and promising growth habit, open and loose, but had a difficult time with recent hot days, not to mention the leaves have been curled and disfigured since active growth started a couple months ago. Looks like thrips damage, a problem I’ve never had in the garden before. And though I love its height and structure, I’m not crazy enough about that color to put up with deformed leaves.
All the lacy white orlaya this year were self-sown volunteers.

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I should probably stop experimenting and just grow anigozanthos. These bloom stalks will last into fall.

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There’s a couple clumps, one gold and the other a rusty orange. I’d love to add a chartreuse-flowered clump too.

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Another experiment was Verbascum ‘Clementine.’ Lovely plant but a bit of a lightweight as far as sun and drought tolerance.
I’ll probably stick to the silver-leaved verbascums in the future.
Silvery Sideritis syriaca on the left, dark green clump in the foreground is Persicaria amplexicaulis.

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I’m very glad to be growing nepeta again, a few clumps of ‘Walker’s Low.’ It’s as drought tolerant as ballota, whose white wands are just behind the nepeta.

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And it’s nice to have a few of these Senecio stellata self-sowing, though they absolutely must have afternoon shade.

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Eryngium planum is blooming this year in a couple spots. Once I stopped crowding them and gave them sun at their bases, they complied.

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Pelargoniums continue to work their charm on me and are tough as nails in pots.
This one is Pelargonium caffrum X ‘Diana,’ whose flowers remind me of lewisias.

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Just one bloom on a couple plants of Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Mahogany’ opened for Bloom Day.

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A few plants of Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis’ self-sowed this spring.

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There are some amazingly fresh spring gardens to wander through at our host’s site for Bloom Day, Carol at May Dreams Gardens, filled with all sorts of plants and bulbs I can only dream of growing. May dreams indeed!


unidentified fabulous grass/sedge (Chloris virgata)

I’ve gone through a couple online plant catalogues this morning and checked out the online index to John Greenlee’s Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses. Nada. Still no ID. I brought this grass home from Western Hills long ago, when Maggie Wych was running the Northern Californian nursery after the original owners bequeathed it to her. The grass has been an afterthought since then, not much more than a memento from Western Hills straggling along in too much shade, placed too close to pathways where it gets a good stomping, never watered. Blades are dark green. I usually forget about it until a few of these sparkly, tassel-like flowers appear.

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Like the nursery Western Hills, this grass is a survivor. Last fall I moved it into a full-sun position, just to test its mettle even further. I also wanted to get it away from my clumsy feet trodding on it, breaking those beautiful tassels. It handled with aplomb temps that precipitously climbed into the 90s the past two days. I think it’s proven itself. It deserves a name. Any grassophiles out there, help would be appreciated. About a foot high, topping 2 feet when in bloom. Evergreen here. A small division this fall is offered in exchange for a name. Email me if you don’t want to guess in public.


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unknown grass with Orlaya grandiflora and Ursinia sericea

Edited 5/17/13: Thanks to Stacie at Western Hills for contacting Maggie Wych (former owner of Western Hills). The grass is Chloris virgata, the feather windmill grass.

Ethan Hawke fondles switchgrass at the High Line

There’s an attention grabber. No, that’s not a recent tabloid headline and, yes, I am being facetious, but I find it amazing that the High Line (and switchgrass!) is casually slipped into a bit of puffery about the current goings-on of Ethan Hawke.

From the May 13, 2013, issue of The New Yorker: “Ethan Hawke traipsed the High Line with his hands in his pockets, his blue-gray eyes wide in the strong morning light…Knifing through a bed of switchgrass, he observed…”

No further explanation of what the High Line is, or what switchgrass is for that matter (panicum). It’s just assumed we’ll know — or should know.

In the land of public opinion, the High Line has been an idea in transit, moving relatively swiftly from an impossible feat to a controversial instigator of gentrification, now coasting and settling into a beloved space mentioned in articles about film stars. I’ve been a fan every step of the way. Will the High Line be the impetus for plants and landscapes to begin to share a little space in the collective cultural mind, alongside film stars and cat videos? Wouldn’t that be something? Can headlines like “Autumn crocus now in bloom at the High Line!” be far off?

I’ll always read any piece on Ethan Hawke, because of all the Chekhov plays he’s been doing, because of the Before Sunrise/Sunset movies and Gattaca, and because of the film version he made of Jack London’s White Fang, in which at 21 he costarred with the incomparable Klaus Maria Brandauer and that equally incomparable actor Jed, the wolf mix that played White Fang. The scene where Jed rescues Ethan from a mine collapse is especially riveting, as is the scene when Jed dispatches the bad guys.

But I had no idea Ethan Hawke had narrated a history of the High Line. I suppose his movie Chelsea Walls was a tipoff to his involvement in the neighborhood.

There is something so emotionally satisfying about moving through a landscape — which is why I think there’s something uniquely American about the High Line and its contribution to landscape design. Footfall after footfall expectation builds, scent and sound are stirred, memories too. Memories like walking to and from school on paths through empty fields, an interlude of intense freedom bracketed by responsibility at both departure and arrival. Even in a tiny garden like mine, moving through a landscape is embarking on a journey of discovery. Cutting a little path through the main border and scaling the plants down to knee-high at the path’s edge has been an interesting and rewarding experiment this year.

Where the bricks end is where the new path begins, maybe 8 feet in curved length. It’s really just a dog track in width now that summer growth is spilling onto it, fit for corgi-sized adventures.


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Summer gardens and parks, coming soon to a neighborhood near you.