Monthly Archives: December 2013

garden notes 12/30/13

Over the holidays, daytime temps have been hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering my sister-in-law’s flight into Los Angeles from Cody, Wyoming, was delayed by storms for four days, it seems churlish to complain about the warm weather. I’ll just say that it was intensely exciting to see wisps of fog begin to blow in from the ocean Saturday afternoon, starting out thin, like faint smoke signals, then quickly bulking up into billows large enough to trigger the foghorns. At this dessicated point mid winter, I gladly welcome moisture in whatever form it chooses to come.

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Cussonia gamtoosensis as fog-catcher

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Still young, crooked, and gawky, the canopy should broaden substantially by next winter.

I transplanted both of my South African cussonias, C. paniculata and gamtoosensis, into the garden over the summer. These evergreen mountain cabbage trees are stunning in containers and are worth the trouble of hauling in for the winter where not hardy. Odd that they are seen more often as conservatory plants in colder climates than they are here in Los Angeles, where they need no protection during winter. I’ve become less inclined to water containers all year, so the cussonias were planted in the garden when each had attained enough size and height so as not to appear absurdly puny in the landscape. The paniculata inexplicably declined almost overnight, with the caudex collapsing and turning to mush. Full sun too strong? Clay soil too heavy? Because of its caudiciform ways (swollen base of main stem for water storage), I may have mistakenly assumed it preferred dryish soil after transplanting it into the garden, because now I’m finding lots of references that say otherwise. Not that I’m shirking blame, but the paniculata was a weak grower even when pampered in a pot. The gamtoosensis has been much easier, steadily gorgeous every inch of its growth, whether in container or garden, and now is almost 5 feet tall. (Please, please don’t try anything inexplicable now, okay?) Mine was found in a remaindered section at a local nursery but was grown by Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.

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Something else new for pots, a dwarf, very blue form of Agave guadalarajana with burgundy teeth and spines named ‘Leon.’ Monterey Bay Nursery’s label says ultimate size 2X2 for this “Maguey Chato.” From tissue culture by the wizards at Rancho Soledad. Cyrus Pringle collected this agave near Guadalajara for the Smithsonian in 1893. A devout Quaker, Mr. Pringle is one of the “top five historical botanists for quantity of new species discovered,” with quite a lot of his collecting done in Mexico. Winter is the perfect time to read about Tintin-like botanist adventurers. Which reminds me that finding a comfortable pair of hiking boots is resolution No. 1 for the new year.

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Also from Mexico, Echeveria agavoides is unsnaking bloom stalks to dangle its tiny flower rattles. When a group is in bloom, the various twisting, goose-neck stalks are charming contrast to their solid, ground-hugging attributes. This echeveria was given the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993 as “suitable for growing under glass.”

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In the last week of December, Agave desmettiana opened its pollen pop-up shop for the bees. The bloom stalk is approx 15 feet tall. Not at all sure what to plant here, if anything, when it dies after flowering. I’m leaning toward a low and silvery carpet of Dymondia margaretae to show off the acacia that will take over here.

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And there’s been lots of puttering with odds and ends collected from plant shows over the summer.

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And experiments with catching the amazingly luminous, low-angled light these last days of 2013.

holiday lull

How are we all doing? Holding up okay? The first holiday is already a wrap, and we’re suspended smack in the middle of the countdown to the next, so resumption of routine is still a week away. (And happy holidays, if I didn’t say so already.) If you’re in Los Angeles, may I suggest a trip to the Getty during this holiday lull? Traffic is fairly light, and the weather has been almost unbearably warm, so bring strong sunglasses to curb the blinding glare from all that travertine. And water. It will cost you $3 a bottle at the Getty. And a large bag to stow the water bottle as you enter the galleries since there’s plentiful museum staff to point out your egregious behavior. And make sure you have a fully charged camera battery. Oh, and you must stay for the sunset. And whatever you do, don’t forget to…well, that’s enough of me doing my best troop leader impersonation. I will, though, just lastly point out that the Aloe bainesii are starting to bloom among the budding Euphorbia ingens, and it is quite the sight around 4 o’clock. And after checking out the Central Garden in winter, with the huge sycamores along the rill scrubbed of all their leaves, inside the Getty there’s several wonderful photography exhibits, including the absorbing camera obscura work of Abelardo Morell. As usual, I was drawn to the work depicting landscapes.

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Camera Obscura: View of Central Park Looking North-Spring, 2010

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Camera Obscura: View of Central Park Looking North-Summer, 2008

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Camera Obscura: View of Central Park Looking North-Fall, 2008

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Camera Obscura: View Of Central Park Looking North-Winter, 2013

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Camera Obscura: Garden With Olive Tree Inside Room With Plants, Outside Florence, Italy, 2009

flea market 101

Getting to our first ever flea market as buyers sellers last Sunday was a journey of just five miles. Still, it was epic in scope and had all the hallmarks of a serious expedition: Not sleeping the night before, endless mental checklists, thermoses, camp chairs, rising before dawn, no breakfast. It was a good thing Dustin fed us all the night before when we stopped by to load up his stuff. (Were the butterflies in our stomachs due to flea market jitters or Dustin’s roasted chilis?)

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Marty was my loyal sherpa for a day. His ’70 bus carried it all. Strapped to the roof were most of the tables and Reuben’s murals. (see Reuben’s magisterial account here.)
Mitch was in town and managed to find time between packing and unpacking to snap some photos.

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Every inch of the bus was dragooned into flea market duty.

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And then, still before breakfast, it’s time to unpack it all.

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The unexpected juxtapositions are pure flea market, like the hot plate/Mr. Peanut thingy from Dustin’s grandmother sharing table space with his concrete buddha. (Mr. Peanut found his buyer late in the day.) Reuben’s two smelt pots, one seen just behind the armillary sphere, attracted interest early from the “pros.” It was a fine introduction in flea market economics to observe how Reuben set and finessed prices. The heavy smelt pots eventually sold late in the day for very close to Reuben’s initial asking price, to the same gent who couldn’t live without Mr. Peanut. I’m telling you, every transaction could be the basis for a short story.

The story arc to Dustin’s concrete gems alone was worth the price of admission. Our carnival barking became more aggressive as the day progressed, as the concrete was handled, the facets examined then returned to the tables. “Charm your friends! Harm your enemies!” And all morning they went unsold. Not one sale. It seemed a thundering judgment had been made: We loved them, but nobody else did. And then in an instant, everything changed, and Dustin was mobbed with buyers. A florist wanted dozens. A bride-to-be wanted them for tables for her wedding in September, and could Dustin paint them white? People were drawn in by the frenzy, and more gems sold. (And what a great idea the future bride had. Diamonds=wedding. Get it?)

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The displays became more refined throughout the day — mostly because there’s lots of down time between buyers. The whole lot of these old pharmacy jars were bought early in the day at one go, all eight of them. The smaller “monkey fists” about the size of billiard balls (which hold the center) sold only when we came down in price by quite a bit. Lots of people just took photos, spun around, and dove back into the crowds. The stuff on our tables was endlessly fondled and caressed, sometimes followed by a sale, just as frequently not. Watching the interaction between people and objects was so very, very interesting, who was attracted to what and why. I expected the why to remain a mystery, but loved when people tried to articulate it, offering stories of their longing. I had experienced how sellers weave narratives around their stuff for sale, but it was a surprise to find it works both ways. Buyers do this too, like the girl who wanted the lab beakers for her budding scientist brother. I fell hard for these stories and came way down in price. I did discover that my source for industrial salvage is charging me too much. I brought these metal trays back home, since I couldn’t break even with them.

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The buyers were fascinatingly unpredictable. People wanted to buy Marty’s bus, our display tables, including this tool cart. Dustin’s grandmother’s tchotchkes sold well. What we called Dustin’s “tostadas” sold late in the day. Just a few people noticed these were made of a unique, very lightweight, sculptural concrete formulation, but those that did notice were intensely interested. Same thing with Reuben’s smelt pots, which are sculptural, fused-glass byproducts of molten industrial processes. Those whose eye they caught immediately recognized their complex provenance. Watching objects work their magic on people was the best part of the day. Dustin’s “ficus tree root with superimposed grapevine” sculpture found its adoring owner late in the day too.

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I was secretly hoping Reuben’s conical, heavy lanterns wouldn’t sell, so I’d be forced to make a decision on them, but sell they did.
Dustin was fiendishly delighted when the glass vase he found abandoned in his alley went to an appreciative buyer.

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By 4 o’clock we were home, and it was all unpacked. We were entrusted temporarily with Reuben’s stuff, which was all carefully put away — after I had a good play with it.

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Would we do it again? We’re thinking maybe February, if there’s any spaces still available. Was the money good? I thought so, although Reuben thought this flea’s attendance wasn’t the best he’s seen. We were prepared to accommodate big transactions with Square, and it did come in handy. Some people wanted bags to carry off their purchases, and we had none, but we did have a wagon that we loaned out all day to carry off the heavier items, which was always faithfully returned. Was the explicitly garden-related stuff a hit? Not really. The only one to even give the garden books and magazines a glance was Kris, who wrote about her adventure here. (Such a treat to meet you and your friends, Kris.)

Reuben, Dustin, Mitch, Marty, I’d flea-market again with you in a heartbeat, just name the time and place. The only caveat is there must be breakfast next time.

ghosts of gardens past

Cleaning out old photo albums releases lots of ghosts of gardens past. Do I feel guilty and as greedy as Scrooge over all the plants that have come and gone? Not a bit.
I do notice that I’ve become more of a climate realist, following the rainfall patterns, with less emphasis on masses of summer-blooming plants during what is typically our dry season.

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Some of the ghosts are huge and come armed with hooks. The only time I bother to find some gloves and wear them is preparing to do battle with an agave. (That’s a knife in my hand.)
I doubt I’d wrestle with a monster this size again. The only way to release the kraken was to break the pot. Actually, this agave is still alive and kicking, but in my neighbor’s garden.

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The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
— T.S. Eliot was absolutely right.

The garden has lots of kitty ghosts too. Jones, our tabby, as of about a month ago, is no more. Also known as Joseph, aka Professor Joe B. Tiger.
aka Beaner. We think he made it to over 20 years’ old at least. What a cantankerous beast he was.

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More ghosts of plants past, like the beautiful but invasive feather grass, Stipa tenuissima, which has been systematically expunged from the garden.
The cats particularly loved this grass — to sleep on, to hide behind, to play in like their own personal Serengeti.

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The yucca is one of the few plants still around today. With anthemis and the ‘Bill Wallis’ geranium.

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Yucca, coronilla, agastache. I need to find that pig-ear cotyledon again.

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I probably have a tenth of the containers I once kept. Holy mole…

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A dwarf form of Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea,’ the golden-leaved Persicaria amplexicaulis, fuchsias, plectranthus, pelargoniums, etc., etc., all ghosts now.

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At some point things started getting shrubbier and grassier, more structural, but always planting so densely that the intention became buried. Did a love of plants spoil the design? Oh, heavens, yes, absolutely. There will always be other gardens to visit and admire for their strong design. I still need the plants. In the background are two “golfball” pittosporums that were clipped into spheres, a shape that they seemed to outgrow weekly. Clipped structure is such high maintenance. Definitely not for me. The dark-leaved shrubs in the foreground are Lophomyrtus x ralphii ‘Red Dragon.’

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Better view of the golfball pitts. They always stubbornly inclined more to a light bulb shape than spherical.

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The yucca engulfed by Geranium ‘Dragon Heart.’

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The summer I let white valerian take over.

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The tawny, strawberry-blonde tresses of Stipa arundinacea (Anemanthele lessoniana) have been a long-time favorite.
Sedum nussbaumerianum pushes these colors even harder.

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This grass and anything burgundy, like amaranthus or ricinus. Yum.

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Same color as the stipa but now in Libertia peregrinans. What a good year 2011 was for Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain.’

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Alstroemeria ‘The Third Harmonic,’ wonderful in vases, atrocious in the garden. Tall and unsteady, needing sturdy support (high maintenance)

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I can’t even remember the names of some of the many succulents that passed through the garden. This pom pom was rampageous.

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the many adventures in moss

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I miss the scent of the roses almost as much as their flowers. Chromatella’s was deep and complex, with notes of tobacco.

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Some things never change. The garden is as overstuffed as it ever was. 2013 will be remembered as the year the eryngiums bloomed well. Onward to 2014!

I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Digging out from under piles of work, with holiday prep woefully inadequate to date, I’ve been daydreaming, romanticizing really, what I could do with a pair of ice skates and a frozen river. The reality is, in Los Angeles it was too hot yesterday for an extra sweater over a T-shirt. But I can’t complain. (I have a neighbor who uses that as his constant rejoinder to “How are you”? Always he gives the calm response, with a philosophical shrug and smile, “I can’t complain.” I’ve been trying on the phrase for size, but still need a lot more practice with it.)

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Amsterdam’s frozen canals in 2012

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From a 2012 Huffington Post piece.

And just because a daydreaming procrastinator loves company, here’s a link to an article on the world’s best ice skating from Four Seasons Magazine. Note the comment from Patty in Davis, California: “Half way between Montreal & Quebec City is a privately owned labyrinth of zambonied ice paths through the woods totaling 12km. This is the largest non rink ice skating in the world. It is called The Labyrinth du Domaine Enchanteur. It is absolutely amazing, an ice skaters mecca!! See for yourself, well off the beaten path, no crowds here. These people are beekeepers and have this in the winter along with ice fishing to support their livestock and bees.”

Someone is skating through snowy woods on The Labyrinth du Domaine Enchanteur today. My speed and distance will be dictated by the wheels on this office chair. But I can’t complain. And I’m a terrible ice skater anyway.

so cold that plants are turning purple

The cold weather is coaxing some fine seasonal coloration out of plants, especially those whose names hint to a destiny with the color purple anyway.

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Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’

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deeply plummy mid ribs on the leaves of Melianthus ‘Purple Haze’

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Yucca aloifolia ‘Purpurea’

I hope your gardens are faring as well as possible in this seriously cold December, and that you’ve protected and saved from the freeze that’s blasted North America’s west coast what you could and/or become resigned to bouts of intense plant shopping in spring. In the meantime, there will always be catalogues to browse in winter, like England’s Crug Farm Plants. Though they’re mostly untried (and unavailable) in Southern California, I’m thinking hardy scheffleras like S. alpina and macrophylla might be just the thing for containers kept on the moist side next summer.

flea market prep

I had so much fun yesterday organizing for the flea market this Sunday. Tapping poppy seeds into packets, gathering up all the lab beakers into a partitioned wooden box for a safe journey, making bunches of dried poppy seedpods to work their dessicated charms in old pharmacy jars.

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But then there was the crazy part too. The “You can’t sell that! It’s a first edition! What’s gotten into you? Not the antlers! You’re selling our history!

Okay, okay, calm down. See? It’s going back on the shelf. Better now? Just breathe deep.

It also occurred to me yesterday to add the stacks of garden books into the outgoing flea market pile. Thomas Hobbs, Sarah Raven, Christopher Lloyd, out they go.
The old Gardens Illustrated too. At the very least, Reuben, Dustin, and I will have something to read at the flea.

I had no idea flea market prep would be so…so very cleansing. I’ve been adding more photos under the Dates to Remember link at the top.

history of my garden, part VIII

I decided last year that I needed to break up the big border that covers most of the back garden and carve a narrow, oblique path through part of it. Nothing formal and really just an access path, curving probably not more than 10 feet in length. As I’ve mentioned frequently before, this is after all a small urban garden, really just a small patch to experiment and play with plants. And the plants I wanted to grow now and walk among in summer were tough things like nepetas, yarrows and eucomis, of just the right stature for lining a little path, with bigger plants like melianthus further back. There once was a relatively broad, bricked path that arched through the whole back garden like a terracotta crescent moon, that the boys used to pull wagons and race scooters on, but I began pulling it up, small stretches at a time, when the scooters were put away for good and I had an itch to claim more ground to grow big plants that grew head-high by late summer, so the garden would undergo dramatic, seasonal transformations, just like the rest of my life seemed to constantly undergo. Lately I’ve wanted to scale most of the back garden to knee-high or no more than thigh-high by mid-summer, punctuated by tall grasses and mediumish shrubs. It’s all very vague, isn’t it, these intimations about how we want to feel in a garden/landscape? At least for me it is. But I love to see the changes in spatial character and how the different plants relate to each other with these constantly shifting strategies.

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This new little path’s progress interests me very much. Half of it was planted with foot-tolerant dymondia as an experiment, which has performed so well that now the other half has been completed with plugs of dymondia pulled from the established plantings. A couple salvaged street grates/manhole covers serve as stepping stones.
Seedlings are coming up everywhere, including the ribs/interstices of one of the grates.

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Salvia canariensis var. candissima seeded into the dymondia, where it most certainly cannot remain, as it will eventually tower over 7 feet in height and width.


Closeup of this salvia’s bloom from May 2011

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Geranium maderense ‘Alba’ seedlings are coming up in profusion. I potted a few up for the flea market.

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And what this geranium will look like in bloom in its second year, after which it dies off but flings its progeny in all directions.
Maturing to a rotund 5 by 5 feet, only a couple seedlings of the multitudes it sends forth can be kept.

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Just barely glimpsed in the top left of the photo with the grate is one of several Echeveria agavoides I planted along the path mid summer, now almost completely overgrown. The bright red edge brought on by the cold nights betrayed their hiding place this morning, alerting me to the need to move them soon before they’re completely engulfed and forgotten.

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Also along this little path is a crassula (is it Crassula perforata?) that has taught me something interesting. In a pot, it was constantly neglected and forgotten, and I became increasingly exasperated with it, to the point that I removed it from its pot and sat the rootball on a shallow depression in an old concrete footing. I liked the way it looked at the path’s edge and at that point didn’t care that it would soon die from such treatment, or so I assumed. The succulent surprised me by actually rooting into the concrete, and now the two are one. It survived the past summer with next-to-no water. And now I’m much more interested in this heroic performance than I ever was growing it in a pot.

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Not far from the crassula, under this blanket of Plectranthus neochilus the stump of the smoke tree ‘Grace’ quietly decomposes. The stump sent out shoots all last spring, but the plectranthus eventually smothered it entirely. ‘Grace’ turned out to be way too much tree for this tiny back garden, and I think my neighbors on either side would emphatically agree.

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A couple feet more down the path, recently planted Coprosma ‘Plum Hussy’ gets even plummier as the nights grow chillier

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All those bricks that have enabled my whims concerning changing the size and scale of hardscape over the years were recently put to use at the front of the house, on the west side, dry laid on a bed of sand to fill a wide border between the house and driveway, where I used to grow, among other things, a Magnolia liliflora ‘Nigra.’ It hated the strong western exposure and dryish soil, and protested by always looking like a white-fly-infested abomination, except for February when the those exquisite eggplant-colored goblets covered the shrub. And recently banishing plants from close proximity to the crumbling foundations has become an urgent priority, so the entire border between the driveway and house has now been bricked over. Bricks aren’t my preferred color or style for paths and patios, but they’re cheap and versatile when dry laid on sand, make a permeable surface, and are about as close to hardscape Legos as one can get. I can always do these small projects myself quickly and with minimal assistance.

I was being facetious of course with the title of this post, but after proofing it, it turns out not by much. I meant to write about just the crassula but got a bit carried away with that little path’s back story…

Sunday clippings 12/8/13

(baby, it’s cold outside…)

The cold front that’s been scaring the bejeezus out of Central Valley citrus growers hit new lows last night. The back garden temperature gauge registered 40 degrees at 7ish a.m., but that’s our moderating coastal influence looking after us. I can remember maybe once in 25 years at this house waking to a skin of ice on the cats’ outdoor water bowl, and that was the year the bedded-out ‘Zwartkop’ aeoniums turned to blackened mush at the Huntington. A salutary effect of the colder temps is getting to play-act at enduring a real winter, which means I don’t go out without my brown corduroy trench coat and have even taken to wearing Marty’s Kangol/Samuel L. woolen cap. (That would be me channeling Samuel L. in Pulp Fiction, not Snakes on Planes.) The cold weather has been liberating in the sense that we can pretend we’ve finally joined the clan of the cold-weather tribes, even if those hardy tribes would probably scoff at what they’d consider still shirt-sleeve and flip-flops weather.

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The first hellebore flowers in the back garden this morning

Yesterday we mapquested ourselves to Big Daddy’s in Culver City, not that far away but always tricky for me to find on La Cienega Place and not on the boulevard. Remodelista was hosting a holiday market at Big Daddy’s, and it was wonderful to see it so well-attended. I’d been noticing among friends and family that holiday cheer is at best tepid this year. My mom is the ultimate holiday cheer barometer and uncharacteristically hasn’t unpacked any of her boxes and boxes of decorations yet, though I noted last night her little collapsible tree had finally been shaken from its box, string of lights intact and ready to glow. My haircutter’s theory yesterday is that having a Thanksgiving so late in the month is to blame for any holiday fatigue. Taking my own holiday-cheer pulse, I seem to feel the same about this holiday as I do every year, which is generally positive towards a seasonal celebration that endorses bringing trees and branches and cones and seedpods indoors, with one notable variation. I seem to want to go, get out, see stuff this year, and have even bought tickets for a Nutcracker ballet. I’ve also bought tickets for the Peter Pan-inspired play Peter and the Starcatcher, so for me there seems to be a definite childhood regression theme to the holidays this year.

A few photos from Big Daddy’s yesterday:

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We had to park a couple blocks away, and on the way back I noticed a thick, overgrown stand of horsetail reed planted in a narrow band between a commercial building and sidewalk, a common urban deployment of this linearly sculptural but invasive rush. I grabbed the pen knife from the glove box and cut as many of the cone-producing stems as I could shove into a grocery bag. I find the new, dark brown/black cones on the forest green stems, punctuated by black bars at regular intervals, exceptionally beautiful. From those cones, spores will be launched to further the survival of this aggressive, expansionist, eons-old plant, so cutting it back when in early bloom is a public service, the way I see it.

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And, boy, do they look great in a vase, in a holiday-cheerful sort of way.

a very merry flea

Where & When: Find us Sunday, December 15, 2013, at the Long Beach Antique Market. It opens early (6:30 a.m.!), so it won’t take too big of a bite out of your day.

Who: Me, garden designer Dustin Gimbel (non-secateur), and graphic artist Reuben Munoz (RanchoReubidoux) will be manning the stall for a winter blogger meetup and pop-up shop at one of the best flea markets in Southern California. Our little flea market just became even merrier, now that Reuben has joined the festivities.

Why: Holiday shopping at the malls has always been a no-go zone for me, and online shopping can get a little…well, sterile. I’ve made it a tradition to hit the fleas in December, for the people watching, for the serendipitous flea-bagging, for the sheer spectacle of it all. I can’t wait to find out what it’s like on the other side of the table, not that I won’t be squeezing in a good browse too…

What: There’ll be some industrial salvage, pots and plants, along with some hand-made stuff created just for this flea, including mural pieces by Reuben.

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Dustin’s concrete gems continue to proliferate, short and squat gems, elongated pyramidal gems, sea urchin gems…
(Diamonds are an agave’s best friend.)

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And I’m coaxing more and more sailor knotwork out of Marty now that his summer job on the Catalina Island ferries is on hiatus, the huge doorstops that take incredible muscle to tighten (I can’t do it yet, dammit!) as well as smaller sizes for bookshelves, paper weights — wherever the eye would like to trace the lines of a briny, ropy orb, or a computer-fatigued hand needs to grasp and weigh something reassuringly solid, or a reminder is needed that fresh breezes and adventures are on the way. The office is more rigging loft now, with rope strewn everywhere. We found some beautiful vintage line at a marine salvage yard in Newport Beach, including some lovely honey colors and subtle variegateds.

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I can hardly bear to sell any of it, so even if I have to reload the car with it all, it’s a win/win. At least we’ll get the chance to meet up with some of you, our comrades and fellow devotees of the impeccable design work done by the plant kindgdom. We’re gathering up simple textures and shapes that people with an eye for beautiful plants would like to have nearby, especially in winter. I can’t speak for Reuben, though — no telling what he’s up to! And I have no idea how we’re going to fit it all into one stall, especially since Dustin wants to bring some big specimen plants. But it promises to be a very merry flea indeed, if slightly shambolic as the best fleas are, with hot cider and cookies. We’d all love to meet up with you there. (Marty dared me to fit in the word shambolic. He should know I never back away from a dare.)