Monthly Archives: October 2013

lost in Florence

Zadie Smith’s essay “Love in the Gardens,” describing complicated family relations against the backdrop of visits to two gardens, the Boboli in Florence accompanied by her father, and the Borghese garden in Rome after her father had died, gave me quite a few shivers of recognition. Not that I traveled much with my father after leaving home except for a mediterranean cruise two years before he died, and a cruise admittedly allows families ample opportunity for timely and strategic retreat. But Ms. Smith and her father had an experience similar to the one Marty and I had when navigating Florence on foot, enroute to the Boboli garden. At least they actually found the garden.

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The Boboli Gardens in Florence, 2002; photograph by Chris Steele-Perkins

In the morning, we set out. We had the idea of reaching the Boboli Gardens. But many people set out from a Florence hotel with the hope of getting to a particular place—few ever get there. You step into a narrow alleyway, carta di città in hand, walk confidently past the gelato place, struggle through the crowd at the mouth of the Ponte Vecchio, take a left, and find yourself in some godforsaken shady vicolo near a children’s hospital, where the temperature is in the 100s and someone keeps trying to sell you a rip-off Prada handbag. You look up pleadingly at the little putty babies. You take a right, a left, another right—here is the Duomo again. But you have already seen the Duomo. In Florence, wherever you try to get to, you end up at the Duomo, which seems to be constantly changing its location.” – Zadie Smith, “Love in the Gardens,” The New York Review of Books, November 7, 2013

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image found here

But then Ms. Smith and her father managed to break free from the gravity pull of the Duomo and find the Boboli, something Marty and I, to my eternal chagrin, weren’t able to accomplish.

Through formal gardens we passed, each one more manicured and overdesigned than the next, our cameras hanging dumbly from our necks, for Boboli is a place that defeats framing. As an aesthetic experience it arrives preframed, and there’s little joy to be had taking a picture of a series of diametric hedges…In Boboli you don’t really escape the city for the country, nor are you allowed to forget for a moment the hours of labor required to shape a hedge into a shape that in no way resembles a hedge. No, not like an English garden at all…though perhaps more honest in its intentions. It speaks of wealth and power without disguise. Boboli is Florence, echoed in nature. As a consequence of this, it is the only garden of which I can remember feeling a little shy. I would not have thought it possible to feel underdressed in a garden, but I did—we both did. Clumsy tourists dragging ourselves around a private fantasia. For though Boboli may be open to the public, it is still somehow the Medicis’ park, and the feeling of trespassing never quite leaves you. It was a relief to find ourselves for a moment on an avenue of curved yew trees, shaded and discreet, where we were offered the possibility of respite, not only from the awful sun, but from the gleaming of monuments and the turrets of villas.”
– Zadie Smith, “Love in the Gardens,” The New York Review of Books, November 7, 2013

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image from Wikipedia

I did manage to pull off one complicated transaction in Florence. Well, two, if successfully waiting in line several hours to see the Uffizi counts, and I still think it does. (Long waits to get into the Uffizi were a security consequence of the car bomb that ripped through the gallery in ’93.) Right before we left Florence and our second-story room in the former mansion of a forgotten dignitary’s mistress, with its balcony overlooking the weir of the Arno where we drank our Peronis, with as much guidebook English as I could muster, I purchased a bottle of bath salts from a local farmacia.

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And that, along with an art book from the Uffizi, is what I brought home from Florence. Traveling pre-blog, I never took photos (more chagrin), because that’s what tourists did, and of course we blended right in, circling endlessly around the Duomo…

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image of The Duomo found here.

prowling the plant nurseries in fall

A startling sight at a local nursery this week was Dalea frutescens in roaring, five-alarm bloom, a Texas native that endures extreme heat and drought, then explodes with flowers in fall. Imagine this Black Dalea with muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris, and the shocking band of red violet they would paint on a landscape in fall. I’d probably have to include some agaves, too, silvery-blue ones like Agave ‘Silver Surfer.’

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Very similar in color to the muhly grass I photographed earlier in the week, another Texas native.
Maybe I could sneak in a couple dalea with the muhly grass in the wild flower garden downtown, guerilla style, for an experiment.
(How’s that for a “borrowed landscape?”)

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I’ve always had a soft spot for members of the pea family.

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We’re always warned by designers not to do all our plant shopping in spring, or risk ending up with a spring-loaded garden that stalls out by late June, but I could easily get in as much trouble shopping in fall.

a kale of two cities

America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

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Unlike Dickens’ tale of London and Paris, the two cities under consideration here are yours and Paris. Because by now it’s probably safe to assume that your city, like mine, has been overrun with kale. I’m talking Tuscan kale, lacinato, dinosaur kale, black kale, cavolo nero. Brassica oleracea. In U.S. cities such as Brooklyn and San Francisco, kale is king. But the kale revolution has been having an uphill battle in Paris. Possibly because of kale’s inclusion in the cabbage family, Paris wants nothing to do with a vegetable that they associate with the malodorous boiled dinners of occupied France during WWII.

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Tuscan kale brought home from the community garden in my spiffy collapsible bucket. Sporting good stores sell fishermen a wide selection of these buckets.

Many credit the River Cafe in London for popularizing this ancient Italian green in the mid ’90s. Elizabeth Schneider’s 1986 book “Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide,” also gets credit. Since the end of the 20th century, cities have rapidly fallen under the spell of Tuscan kale, except for Paris.

I would just like to interject my theory behind kale’s stateside popularity, which has become so rampant locally that there’s even stirrings of a backlash against what some consider the tiresome ubiquity of kale on Californian menus. Apart from its undisputed nutritional bonafides, wonderful texture, taste, and versatility ranging from soup, pasta, and salads, as a home grower I have to testify that this vegetable is coming up on its winter anniversary in a couple months. It didn’t bolt, as all brassicas are well known to do, in the heat of August and September. We haven’t stopped picking leaves all spring and summer, and the flavor will only improve as the days grow colder. The return value is phenomenal, since one planting results in a year or more of greens. This amazingly prolific vegetable grows like a short-lived perennial, at least here in Southern California. So my theory is, because it’s constantly available in the garden, it’s constantly on the menu. The only ones not interested in kale in our house are the parakeets, and I haven’t given up on them yet either.

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Back to kale’s progress in Paris. Revolutions do move fast these digitally enhanced days. The charge now to bring kale to Parisian markets and restaurants is being energetically led by an expat from Brooklyn, Kristen Beddard, who blogs at the kale project. I read the article on Ms. Beddard in The New York Times when it appeared September 21, 2013, and four days later received an email from Jessica, a San Franciscan currently in Paris who blogs at Thread and Bones, recounting her adventures in the market stalls of Paris as she hunted for kale to serve dinner guests. Jessica had read the NYT article, too, so was reasonably certain that the American she was standing behind in line at the open market, the one buying up all the kale, had to be Kristen. In fact, our intrepid Jessica had already corresponded with Kristen, soliciting advice on the most likely markets to find kale, so she was able to follow up a tentative email acquaintance with a tap on the shoulder then a hearty handshake, whereupon Kristen thrust two bunches of kale in Jessica’s hands, and a gingery kale salad was back on the menu.

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C’mon, don’t be so French, Peewee. Eat your kale.

We are all kale-eaters now, or soon will be, with Americans in Paris doing their de Tocqueville-inspiring best to bring kale to the markets and tables of Paris.

chasing muhly grass

As far as seasons go, to me summer is rich, pungent, dense, where autumn is quicksilver, vaporous, light on its feet, with a tartness that is the perfect apertif to summer’s gluttony of sensation. The eaves are now dripping morning dew as the dry season comes to an end, with hopefully the return soon of prodigal rains, and the light arrives in glittering beveled sheaves. Summer and winter can each grow tiresome in their own ways, but I challenge anyone to find fault with those seasons that seem to gently swing in on quiet hinges, spring and fall. Purple muhly grass pretty much sums up how I feel about fall with its transformational buoyancy and crepuscular coloring, but it was a little trickier to find some this year. The big stands of it at the Long Beach airport were “tidied” at some point mid-summer, so no blooms this year. There are similar tidying impulses in my family, though in my case they seem to have skipped a generation. I planted one clump of muhly grass at my mom’s, in a long narrow border with agaves and other succulents, and she was surreptitiously taking scissors to the grass blades throughout summer to keep them neat. Again, the blooms were sacrificed. These big stands of muhly grass pictured below are in a hard-to-reach spot at the entrance to a freeway, safely removed from compulsive tidiers. I biked there a couple nights ago on the way to picking up some gyros for dinner. Muhly grass, pennisetum, sesleria and aloes are what I found, but at the link can be seen what will be back again in spring.

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Stanford’s New Guinea Sculpture Garden

More updates from the Bay Area, this one from occasional AGO photographer and contributor MB Maher. I’ll let him tell this adventure in his own words:

Shirley Watts messaged me to keep my Wednesday evening open. And per her instructions,
I found myself on the 4.09 caltrain to Palo Alto, getting off at Stanford, and
walking Palm Drive to the Oval. (University campuses are pretty astonishing.
Everyone is fit, on bicycles, speaking in Latin, and quoting Ayn Rand.)
Shirley revealed once we were in her pickup truck dodging freshmen that
Professor Harrison (a speaker at Watts’ own Natural Discourse symposium in
Berkeley last week) had taken her on a walk through the Stanford campus in
August, ending at the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, which she was now, months
later, still dreaming and obsessing over, which was where we were headed.”

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According to Harrison, the University had flown in New Guinean tribesmen to make site-specific
work on campus — the tribesmen stayed for a whole year to build a thick, rambling
installation of woodwork

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What I will say about my poor photo-craftsmanship is that
these pieces snake and wobble and sway in a difficult fashion to describe with a
3×2 frame, despite their complete unmoving rigidity. Their curves and meandering
arcs are so pervasive and all-consuming, that if someone were to take a draftsman’s
t-square from their pocket and produce a right-angle in the garden, it would take
your breath away

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So by way of excusing myself and speaking to the sinuous unmoored
beauty of these wood carvings, I must explain that all horizon lines in the coming
photographs are level and that the movement of the pieces is not a result of any
lens distortion. They’re really doing it themselves

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in the news

Since the government shutdown, I’ve been checking in with The New York Times at an increasingly feverish pace, several times a day, (and doing little else, it seems), so it was in real time that the story on James Golden of the blog View From Federal Twist scrolled across my screen last night. What a welcome frisson of surprise and affection it provided, immediately displacing all that news-glut irritability. Anything Michael Tortorello writes is worth dropping what you’re doing to read, but here he was focusing on our beloved blogger from Federal Twist. Read the sumptuous article here. The article coincides with the inclusion of Federal Twist in the Garden Conservancy Open Days this weekend, October 19, in Stockton, New Jersey. If only…

One of MB Maher’s autumnal photos of New York’s Battery Park from 2010 helps me remember what the East Coast looks like in fall.


New York’s Battery Park in fall

But wait, there’s more. Also hot off the blogroll (non-secateur) and into the presses comes a piece on blogger and garden designer Dustin Gimbel in the Orange County Register. Journalist/blogger/impresario and constant gardener herself, Cindy McNatt, penned a warm tribute to Dustin entitled “The constant gardener.”

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From Dustin Gimbel’s home garden, Long Beach, California

There you have it. Two nice reads on the profound effects of gardens and plants and the places they take us, proving that it’s not all been entirely wretched news lately.

Natural Discourse: Culture & Cultivation 10/10/13

What to make of this impulse to create gardens? Most of my ruminations are done leaning on a shovel, or moving a pot inches to the left and wondering why in the world it matters. One of the few constants throughout my life has been making gardens with the single-mindedness of the bowerbird making his bower. Confronted by the idiosyncratic, highly personalized creations of the bowerbird, evolutionary biologists tell us that the bowerbird is, despite all extraordinary outward appearances, simply attracting a mate. So why do I do it, make gardens? Is it all just useless beauty? I fitfully pick up, examine, then put these questions back on an increasingly dusty mental shelf, which is why it’s been so exciting to have Natural Discourse’s co-curator, artist and garden designer Shirley Watts, continue to gather together artists and scientists whose life work is their ceaseless examination of these questions. Natural Discourse provides the unique, multidisciplinary platform for them to tell an eager audience what they’ve discovered — a sold-out audience filled with familiar names such as Saxon Holt, Marion Brenner, Cevan Forristt, Flora Grubb, and Richard Turner.

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Photo: Bower of satin bower bird. David Rothenberg from his book ‘Survival of the Beautiful’

Last Thursday at the Berkeley City Club was a full day of talks by a remarkably diverse group of speakers, each in their own way interested in the “cultivation of appearances,” the “aesthetic imperative,” in Robert Pogue Harrison’s words.

Plant biologist/evangelist and Emmy-award winner Roger Hangarter started off the day placing plants squarely at the fountainhead of all life, and not the inert, sedentary green wallpaper that many see, but surprisingly full of movement and communicative ability via, for example, chemicals. (Some of his heart-stopping time-lapse work can be seen here.)

Margaret Morton, in her photographic studies of the impromptu gardens of New York’s homeless, spoke to the enduring human impulse to make gardens even when basic survival is hardly assured.

Artist Mary Jo McConnell described how she “found a group of artists that live and work in the cloud forests of New Guinea — these artists are birds. The creature that has become McConnell’s obsession, luring her back around the globe, year after year, is known as the Vogelkop Bowerbird.” (Frontline.)

Alice Miceli‘s Chernobyl Project attempts to depict what can’t be seen, the radiation that poisons the abandoned landscape that humans fled after the meltdown of the infamous reactor No. 4. Her astonishingly brave objective is to “create a radiographic series of images of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone depicting the most affected regions…These stunning images are imprinted by the invisible radiation that has contaminated the area since the disaster on 26 April 1986.” Gardens won’t be planted again within a 30-kilometer radius of reactor No. 4 for at least 800 years.

The least image-intensive talk was Prof. Harrison’s, which makes references easier taken out of Thursday’s context. Addressing the inherently bleak, pessimism-inducing view of plants and animals by evolutionary biologists as “survival machines” that “appear in order to survive,” Prof. Harrison calls on witnesses like zoologist Adolf Portmann, in his work “Animal Forms and Patterns: A Study of the Appearance of Animals,” to counter that, conversely, perhaps we “survive in order to appear.”

Without denying the role of function, Prof. Harrision finds that Portman’s work points to the “astonishing richness, variety, and sheer superfluity of the forms of animal and plant life on earth, [and] he suggests..that the external appearance of species is not there to promote life processes but, on the contrary, life processes exist in order to enable appearances; that living things do not appear in order to survive but survive in order to appear.”

And, Prof. Harrison continues, if we “do not appear in order to survive, but survive in order to appear, then the first point I’d like to make is that gardening is a human activity that conspires with the inner urge of living genes to appear. Why? Because by working the soil in which plant life takes root, gardening cultivates appearances.” Gardens provide “a special stage that puts into relief the self-display of living things, including ourselves, human beings.”

Prof. Harrison suggested that there must be two truths, or a duplex veritas, to account for both the functionalistic view that evolutionary biology holds regarding the multiplicity of forms and color that surround us, and a mysterious “aesthetic imperative” that colors the tips of hummingbird wings with a gratuitous subtlety and nuance. This is the “sheer abundance of spectacle and appearance” that mesmerizes all who make gardens. “It is indeed as if everything that is alive has an urge to appear,” said Prof. Harrison, and he quoted philosopher Hannah Arendt:

Whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be touched.”

Okay, maybe all the charm and wit gets scrubbed out when I tell it. You just had to be there. Hopefully, there will be more Natural Discourse events to come.

tithonia for Clarice Cliff

I’m still cutting buckets of tithonia from the community garden plot and filling every vase in the house, even those I usually leave empty, like this museum reissue of a Clarice Cliff vase, the 20th century British ceramic artist famous for her post-WWI “Bizarre” line of ceramics. With her love of strong color, I think she’d approve of tithonia.

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I first became aware of her work through reading about the Bloomsbury group, the salon of British artists that surrounded Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell in pre-WWII England. If you’re looking for a literary rabbit hole to burrow into for a decade or so, I highly recommend the countless journals, letters, and fiction of this prolific, compulsively creative group. Must have been nice to have John Maynard Keynes as your personal stockbroker, too.

Back to Clarice, from Wikipedia: “Between 1932 and 1934 Cliff was the art director for a major project involving nearly 30 artists of the day (prompted by the Prince of Wales) to promote good design on tableware. The ‘Artists in Industry’ earthenware examples were produced under her direction, and the artists included such notable names as Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Vanessa Bell, and Dame Laura Knight. The project ‘Modern Art for the Table’ was launched at Harrods London in October 1934 but received a mixed response from both the public and the press, though at the same time Cliff’s own patterns and shapes were selling in large quantities around the world.”


What occupies my thoughts on the garden for next year this hot Sunday is nothing more earth shakingly consequential than planning the beginning of a smallish spine of shrubs to snake through bays of herbaceous stuff.

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Ozothamnus ‘Sussex Silver’ moved into the back garden last spring, after proving its bonafides in containers I neglected most of 2012.
A note on a Flickr photo suggests that this evergreen shrub is possibly a hybrid of Ozothamnus hookeri and O. rosmarinifolius, first discovered at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, England.

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Wonderful, whipcord texture to its tiny leaves, which stitch along the stems like fine embroidery. Shrubs are due for a comeback in my garden, though they’ll be on the smallish side this time around. I love the bumpy topography they create. I have to admit I have been seduced by Oudolfian visions of flowering meadows, but a long, dry, frost-free growing season isn’t the ideal climate. It’s been a long time since cistus grew here, too, and I miss that resiny scent on a hot summer day, so Cistus ‘Snow Fire’ is coming in the mail, due any day now. Finding tough, beautiful shrubs is the easy part. Australia is loaded with them. And what could be tougher than a shrub with the nickname “Kerosene Bush”?

Occasional Daily Weather Report 10/5/13

Humidity is at zero degrees. The wind rattled and snapped the window shades all night. Sirens wail in the distance. This repost from 11/2/11 sums it up:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.”
— Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind”

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Aunt Annette and Uncle Paul in Chicopee, Massachusetts, still don’t have power on after that freak snowstorm blindsided the East Coast in late October. Here in Los Angeles nothing so devastating has occurred weatherwise, but this morning the Santa Ana winds did arrive, making this the kind of day where ions are so active and static electricity so intense you don’t dare pet a cat. Our house is divided over these seasonal winds, with the breakdown in approval/disapproval generally falling along skin types. Oily skins love it. The sailor in the house loves it. And robust nervous systems usually have no quarrel with these winds blowing out of the cooling high deserts, but the Santa Anas have been notoriously to blame for all manner of calamities and crimes, as Joan Didion explains in this quote from “Los Angeles Notebook.”

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

Kate Braverman in “Lithium for Medea” also finds the winds menacing:

The Santa Ana winds were blasting through the streets, bristling and smelling of desert, of white sunlight, of sharp, wiry plants and white rock…A hot madness was enclosing the city.”

Doomsday literature aside, really, if you keep the lip balm handy, you’ll be fine.