Monthly Archives: September 2013

clippings 9/30/13

While on the subject of concrete, precast manhole covers, stacked. I prefer to have a day’s worth of concrete projects if I’m going to drag all that mess out.


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Found at BHG here, but the link loads slow.


I was continually disturbing the dormancy of the little patch of nerines in the gravel garden by digging in what I forgetfully thought was available garden space, so I moved them into pots again. And not long after they’ve rewarded me for all that rough handling with a bloom. These South African bulbs are fast multipliers.

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Mine were gifts from Matt, who blogs at Growing With Plants. He keeps a wonderful greenhouse full of fall- and winter-blooming bulbs.

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And in the offchance your inbox hasn’t been inundated with friends sending you emails of the Fiona Apple/Chipotle/Willy Wonka Pure Imagination mashup, here’s the link to the video. And some words from The New Yorker on why this pretty little video on eating fresh is raising hackles.


On the subject of inboxes, Gmail users, what are we making of the new segregation system of sorting our mail that Gmail imposed this summer? Personally, I never click on the other categories, “social” or “promotions,” but read only mail labeled “primary.” Retailers suspect as much and aren’t happy about it: “Retailers Fight Exile From Gmail In-Boxes.” — The New York Times, September 15, 2013.
I’m still mad about losing Google Reader and have yet to find an effective replacement for keeping track of online reading.

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Knots. I see knots everywhere. Knotwork for enormous pots at Orange County’s The Lab

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And a photo from their website of the pots without their finery

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unsourced image from Pinterest

Did you ever wonder what holds the center of those heavy sailor doorstops? We have. Marty is a whiz at knotwork, but finding a large, heavy orb has been a problem. Bowling balls are too large. Currently we’re experimenting with bocce balls.


Cevan Forristt

My timid approach to incorporating a bit of the exotic in the garden got me thinking about gardens that boldly embrace the exotic, gardens that become a country wholly unlike the one in which they nominally reside. There’s always a moderating influence that kicks in before I take anything too far. But what if you’re not governed by moderation? What if your compass spins in any direction your heart desires, and the country you inhabit can’t be found on any map?

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Continue reading Cevan Forristt

elephant season

A few tropicals in pots can be a fine sendoff to summer. Here about a mile from the ocean, the big-leaved tropicals like colocasia, the “elephant ears,” bide their time until the temperatures start to really feel uncomfortable. By the time we’re whining about the heat in August, they’re in their element, coolly unfurling the largest leaves we’ve seen all summer. Now that the soft, angled light is what pulls me into the garden early every morning, the tropicals have achieved as much size and leaf as they will attain for me, and around November I’ll be moving the pots to dry out over winter. I’m not a tropics-mad person, per se, and keep just a few pots for what they add to a fall garden. In spring I feed them a little compost and nothing else, so they’re grown on a relatively lean diet, but they don’t like to miss a drink. I’ve pretty much stopped growing any other plants in containers, other than succulents. Even just a few big leaves make quite the impact.


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Colocasia ‘Mojito’

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Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’

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Pseuderanthemum

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While the soil is still warm, I’ve been busy shifting plants around. More evergreen, year-round plants are leaving their containers and moving into the back garden, such as agaves, two cussonias, the cabbage palms, which means there will be less room for softer, herbaceous planting in the back garden for next summer.

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Agave celsii var. albicans ‘UCB’ was moved into the garden near this summer-scorched aeonium

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A Cussonia gamtoosensis, now a little 4-foot tree, has taken a place in the garden too.

Spring will bring the usual self-sown poppies, orlaya, and whatever else turns up, and I’ve added a few bright orange bearded iris. Then the plan is mainly for grasses, yarrow, nepeta, calamint, agastache, the sturdy umbellifer crithmum, and the summer-blooming bulb eucomis to hold the fort for summer and keep local pollinators happy.

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I havn’t grown catmints for some years, but Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ sold me on them again. It still looks amazingly fresh after being cut back mid-summer, and is a wonderful bee plant. Fronting the nepeta with large rocks keeps the cats from indulging in the those catmint-rolling orgies. The rocks are quickly submerged under spring growth. I have to remind myself that the sturdy and fool-proof are a great backbone if you’re continually trying out new plants. On that note, now that I’ve pretty much ripped up the herbaceous planting in the back garden and replanted for next year, it’s always around this time in fall that I wish I had some really large pots to hold the eye. The biggest one I own is an over-the-top, two-headed elephant pot that I found at the curb amongst a bunch of other castoffs with the sign “take me.” It’s been semi-hidden in the front garden ever since. A latent minimalist streak always stays my hand when I think of moving it somewhere more prominent.

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Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii’

I’ve decided there’ll be plenty of time to explore minimalism this winter. Pachyderms of clay for leafy elephant ears. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.

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At this point, adding a couple Mexican chocolate stirrers makes sense.

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And I couldn’t leave the pot empty. A potted Kalanchoe beharensis happened to fit snug inside the rim.

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This winter I’ll probably get all Scandinavian again and move the pot back into the shadows until it’s elephant season once more.

“Gardens: An Essay” by Robert Pogue Harrison (reposted from 10/7/11)

I’m more than a little overexcited at the prospect of hearing Professor Harrison speak at the latest iteration of Natural Discourse entitled “Culture & Cultivation,” to be held October 10, 2013, in Berkeley, California. The previous Natural Discourse programs were held at the nearby University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, which is a stunning setting but limited seating capacity. Co-Curator Shirley Watts found a gem of a new venue, a historic hotel designed by Julia Morgan, The Berkeley City Club. In one stroke, Shirley nailed two of my obsessions: visiting old hotels and listening to clever people discuss why we make gardens. Shirley explained her process for the selection of speakers as simply a matter of “Who do I want to hear“? And having attended the previous ND seminars, I can vouch for her amazing instincts in assembling a riveting series of talks. Never underestimate this woman. This time she’s done it again, including persuading Robert Pogue Harrison to contribute, someone I’ve been following through his pieces for The New York Review of Books and author of:


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Oh, and just a tip when ordering tickets: There is a new, very reduced rate for students and “starving artists,” less than half of a general admission ticket. Starving artists, you know who you are.

Spread this link on Facebook, on your blogs, because I’m selfishly hoping for Natural Discourse IV, V, VI…etc. As far as I know, there’s no other programming like this out there. And with each successful Natural Discourse, there’s a greater chance this program will eventually reach your community.

In honor of the occasion, I’m reviving a two-year-old post that includes a link where you can listen to the mellifluous voice of Professor Harrison.


* * *

Strange how, even in the most unlikely places, thoughts can still turn to gardens. Jury duty last week had me confined for a good part of Friday in a large, drab room full of strangers, all of us potential jurors awaiting selection for a trial. 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., lunch break until 1:00 p.m., finally excused at 2:30 p.m., my juror services ultimately never required. I had expected to be there until 5:00 p.m., so when early dismissal was announced I practically skipped down the courthouse hall. Expecting a long, chair-ridden, time sinkhole of a day, I had grabbed a huge amount to read, including The New York Review of Books of October 13, 2011. (Seems I rarely read entire books anymore, just reviews.) Sometime mid-morning, deep in a review of the Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s latest book, “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life,” the writer of the review was so impressive and his bio in the NYRB so brief that I had to google him on the courthouse’s computers. (Thoughtfully, the courthouse had provided five computers for potential jurors to share.) Among many scholarly works, Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford, published a book in 2008 with the intriguing title “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition,” and an excerpt from this essay subtitled “The Vocation of Care,” could be brought up on the courthouse computer (found here). The long day was now whizzing by in a gluttony of reading, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my last plane or train journey. In this essay Prof. Harrison explores the myths of Eden and how they drive our age and history. He feels that faced with the prospect of living forever in paradise, as Odysseus was on the island of Kalypso, humans would wish desperately to return to their homes and care-ridden lives, “For unlike earthly paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call it the mark of Cura.”

Prof. Harrison recounts the parable of Cura, or Care:

“Once when Care was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took up a piece and began to shape it. While she was meditating on what she had made, Jupiter came by. Care asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, he forbade this, and demanded that it be given his name instead. While Care and Jupiter were disputing, Earth arose and desired that her own name be conferred on the creature, since she had furnished it with part of her body. They asked Saturn to be their arbiter, and he made the following decision, which seemed a just one: ‘Since you, Jupiter, have given its spirit, you shall receive that spirit at its death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since Care first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is now a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called homo, for it is made out of humus (earth).'”


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image source unknown


While care is a constant, interminable condition for human beings, specific human cares represent dilemmas or intrigues that are resolved in due time, the way the plots of stories are resolved in due time…in general human beings experience time as the working out of one care after another.

“Here too we find a correlation between care and gardens. A humanly created garden comes into being in and through time. It is planned by the gardener in advance, then it is seeded or cultivated accordingly, and in due time it yields its fruits or intended gratifications. Meanwhile the gardener is beset by new cares day in and day out. For like a story, a garden has its own developing plot, as it were, whose intrigues keep the caretaker under more or less constant pressure. The true gardener is always ‘the constant gardener.'”

Yesterday I found this audio clip of Prof. Harrison ruminating on the jacaranda tree in the quadrangle outside his window at Stanford, and how “cultivation” is an apt word for expressing the kind and depth of attention required to sustain a garden, an education, a democracy. So far, I’ve only listened to this part 1 of 4 and will catch the rest this weekend.





Clianthus formosus

I stopped in at the Sherman Gardens recently to check in on the succulent garden, which I visited a couple years ago and wrote about here. Although that garden looks the same as the day I visited, there was a stunning newcomer elsewhere on the grounds, in a couple pots on tall pillars.


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Clianthus formosus aka Swainsona formosa, Sturt’s Desert Pea


The brilliant flowers were as noisy as parrots and pulled me in from 50 yards away. I was guessing some kind of erythrina. Up close I could see that the leaves were as subtly beautiful as the flowers were flamboyant. The foliage had the typical, finely cut stamp that all members of the pea family possess, such as lupins, but grey and fuzzy like Dorycnium hirsutum. Offhand, I can’t think of another plant that combines flowers in the colors of the tropics with leaves that would look at home in any mediterranean landscape. The flaming blooms ignite against those pewter leaves, and the red stems spread the flames horizontally. A staff member helped me with the identification but knew little more than a name. She said she noticed them on the truck during a recent plant delivery and grabbed four of them, two for pots, two to trial in the ground.

By this point I already had clianthus penciled in for summer 2014.


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Not so fast. I found this description and alarming bit of advice from Chiltern’s, which carries seeds of this clianthus: “A magnificent, semi-procumbent, evergreen sub-shrub with silky-haired, pale grey-green foliage and large scarlet flowers with a bulbous, velvet-black eye. Although it can be grown on its own roots, it then has a habit of dying just before it flowers. However, it has been found that if grafted as a young seedling onto a similar seedling of Colutea arborescens, it grows and blossoms much more freely and lives longer. We therefore offer a packet of each of these together with full instructions to give your green fingers a real test of skill.”

I hate tests of skill.


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That it’s tricky to grow explains why a beautiful plant first collected in 1699 is not more commonly seen.

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a creeping vine that runs along the ground … and the blossom like a bean blossom, but much larger and of a deep red colour looking very beautiful.”
— collected by British navigator William Dampier in 1699 on Rosemary Island.

Image found here


The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has a lengthy online description of this striking Australian and doesn’t mention any special growing requirements. The Australian National Botanic Gardens gives both reassuring yet still challenging propagation advice for the floral emblem of South Australia:

The hard seed coat of Sturt’s Desert Pea inhibits germination. This effect can be overcome by filing or nicking the seed coat away from the ‘eye’ of the seed; alternatively, the seed may be rubbed gently between sheets of sandpaper. Soaking the seed in warm water gives variable results, Boiling water should not be used as it destroys beneficial bacteria on the seed coat. Since the seedlings develop a long tap root and do not tolerate root disturbance, treated seeds should be planted directly into the chosen garden site or container, or alternatively into small pots for transplanting soon after germination.

“Full sun, perfect drainage and protection from snails are essential. Supplementary watering may not be necessary once the seedlings are established. Under ideal conditions flowering commences about four months after germination. Sturt’s Desert Pea is usually treated as an annual but vigorous flowering may result if root crowns survive from one season to the next. Alternatively, it may be grown in large drums, tubs and upright terracotta drainpipes which allow adequate root development.”

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Clianthus formosus, Sturt’s Desert Pea, an Australian beauty for the brave and those craving a test of skill. I’ll take mine in a 4-inch pot, please.


evie and the agaves

I potted up some offsets from Agave desmettiana ‘Joe Hoak’ yesterday, and Pam’s focus on leaves the 16th of every month was all the occasion I needed to show off the proud agave mama and her pups. That Vanna White of cats, Evie, knows instinctively where the camera will be pointed. Rather than keep shoving her off the table, I relented. Evie and the agaves.


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I think Evie prefers agaves to me scratching her cheeks now.

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She’s got that vapid, showroom expression down pat, don’t you think?

Bloom Day September 2013

After an interminably hot August, I couldn’t wait to start some fall planting as soon as it cooled down a bit, which means there aren’t exactly buckets of blooms to share.

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There was a whisper campaign afoot that a local nursery had Leucadendron ‘Ebony’ relatively cheap, so I grabbed one and redesigned a (relatively) large chunk of the back garden around it.

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Behind the lime-green pelargonium grew a big swath of Persicaria amplexicaulis, now home to the leucadendron. A couple Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ were included while the shrub makes size.

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Little Pelargonium crispum ‘Variegatum’ has held onto its looks all summer, a nice small-scale shrub.

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The succulent in the foreground is Echeveria ‘Opal Moon,’ which is maturing into a surprisingly effective landscape succulent.

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As far as new flowers, the only other big news comes from Japanese anemones, seen here with macleaya and Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger.’ The first time I’ve ever grown the fall-blooming anemones. True story.

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In the border just outside the office, behind the ‘Zwartkop’ aeonium, gomphrenas, gaillardias, and castor bean plants emerged from the heat of August unscathed.

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Gomphrena ‘Strawberry Fields’ and an unidentified furcraea.

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Orange gomphrena and gaillardia

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Ricinus communis ‘New Zealand Purple’

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Pennisetum ‘Sky Rocket,’ russelia, and a young, potted Yucca rostrata. Agave ‘Dragon Toes’ was planted in the ground this year.

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Salvia chiapensis, still one of the all-time champion salvias in my garden, though I’m hearing great things about the newcomer, blue-flowered Salvia ‘Amistad.’

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Agastache ‘Black Adder’ is off to a good start this summer. I think its size should help see it through until spring. Something about my winter clay eats agastaches, even in low rainfall winters.

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This silvery little daisy looks promising, Lessingia filaginifolia, in a pot with Pelargonium ‘Crocodile’

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Solanum pyracanthum

Thanks as always to Carol for hosting the monthly Bloom Day reports.

hillside with Schwentker Watts Design

I was in a wonderful garden the other night, but was caught flat-footed as far as having any photos to show for it. Although only 7:30ish, twilight doesn’t last long in this Los Angeles neighborhood but is quickly swallowed up by the hills that impart such a unique character to these Hollywood communities. Moody, atmospheric shadows come early. Rather than not posting at all, I’ve pulled together what can only be a teaser of this quintessentially mediterranean garden. Luckily, MB Maher had visited the house and garden a couple years ago, so I asked him to search his archives. Along with some photos from an article by The Los Angeles Times‘ (“L.A. Cottage Remade as Wonderland of Color“) I’ve cobbled together a small portrait of the creative extravaganza that is packed floor to ceiling, sidewalk to hilltop, in the home and garden of architect and garden designer James Schwentker and film production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone. James Schwentker is a principal of Schwentker Watts Design, that rare firm that engages in “full-service architecture, landscape, and garden design.”


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The dining terrace of the garden nestles snug and level into a steep hillside in the Franklin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles near Silverlake. Apart from this broad dining terrace, the rest of the garden is carved from the sharply sloping hillside in terraces backed by low retaining walls of broken concrete (“urbanite”). The work involved with managing the slope of a hillside garden is of a kind and degree I’ve yet to encounter. Just thinking about it makes my back throb. Out of the photo’s frame are stairs that lead from the dining terrace both further up the hillside as well as down to the street. The finely cut, jagged leaves leaning in from the bottom left belong to bocconia, a huge, tree-like specimen. Two lemon cypresses, tightly clipped specimens of Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora,’ flank the path that cuts into the hillside leading down to the street. The tight clipping gives the golden spires an elegantly clean, strong line, an idea I may have to try on the three juvenile lemon cypresses I have at home.

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The looming agaves seemingly tapping on the kitchen window also speak to the steep terracing that begins just outside the house.

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Streetview from the LA Times. Behind the hedge is the secluded dining terrace, one of the soaring lemon cypresses just visible.
The house’s colors are described as “mango accented with moss and celery.” (I love it when an architect has plants on the brain.)
That enormous Agave americana resides in one of the largest terracotta pots I’ve ever seen.

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The entry into the 1923 cottage, reputedly once the home of actress Gloria (“Sunset Boulevard”) Swanson.

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The main room, its original low ceiling removed, with the new “catwalk” overhead. The early renovations were a joint effort with Harvey Watts, the other half of Schwentker Watts Design.

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And this is where the catwalk leads, former attic turned sleeping loft. Photo by MB Maher.

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Dining terrace just visible through the doors. LA Times

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Citrus fruit picked from the hillside’s many fruit trees.


the Climbing Onion, Bowiea volubilis

It must be pretty obvious by now that I’m refusing to look at the big, end-of-summer picture. So I’m offering another micro plant portrait, the South African Climbing Onion. Logee’s calls Bowiea volubilis “an old favorite.” If so, this old favorite seems to have fallen out of favor and tumbled back into obscurity. The first time I clapped eyes on it was this year’s Venice Home & Garden Tour 2013, and neither I nor the garden owner had a clue to its identity. The climbing onion I saw in the Venice garden was grown as a hanging plant, a mysterious cascade of bright green, filigreed leaves spiraling out of its pot. Lush, ferny and utterly drought tolerant. I grabbed the owner’s elbow and inquired after its identity. He led me to another one, planted in the ground.

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And there it was, improbably geysering up a tomato cage. The garden owner found a small bulb near this plant and gave it to me. (Again, thank you!) That little bulb has yet to sprout.
A winter-growing houseplant in colder zones, the Venice climbing onions I saw in May were obviously thriving outdoors through a zone 10 winter and early spring.

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Dustin Gimbel, with his Sherlockian knowledge of plants, is the one who identified this mystery as the climbing onion, and then later found a couple enormous bulbs which he left on my porch. There didn’t seem to be much shaking with the climbing onion for the longest time after I repotted it, and I stopped checking it daily. All I had to remember it by was the tomato cage photo. Maybe it wasn’t so special after all. Meanwhile, the climbing onion got busy.

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The climbing onion was waiting for the end of summer to resume growth. When I next took notice, it was putting on quite the performance.

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I’d always intended to grow it as a hanging plant, but now I’m not sure if I want to interrupt this dialogue its having with the rusty table.
If anyone would like to try the little bulb that was gifted to me, I’d be happy to send it on. A time-lapse video and more cultural information can be found here.