Monthly Archives: February 2014

Shirley Watts in “Curbed”

The Garden Bloggers Fling hostess for the 2013 meetup, garden designer Shirley Watts, got a nice writeup in the Bay Area’s Curbed today. Very gratifying to see a primarily real estate magazine throw some love at landscapes and gardens too. Both Shirley and photographer MB Maher, whose photos were used, have been long-time friends of AGO. Feel free to repost and/or Like it on Facebook to encourage more of this kind of coverage.

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I especially loved reading about Shirley’s 2003 installation at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, which I unfortunately missed out on seeing firsthand: “The installation, which had more moving parts than a Swiss clock, centered on multiple cube-shaped screens rising out of a densely planted landscape of grasses and ferns. The screens, hung at different heights and inclinations like organic objects themselves, played vintage 1950s time-lapse footage of highly saturated flowers opening and closing. “I’m mesmerized by time-lapse footage,” Watts says. “Something about it allows us to see what we don’t normally see. It teaches us things about natural systems, movement also. And in the Bay Area, the center of innovation, the idea of bringing televisions into the garden was natural.”

Unfortunately, the 2014 Garden Bloggers Fling has already sold out, a victim of its own wild success, but it doesn’t hurt to check if there’s a waiting list. The San Francisco Garden & Flower Show is just around the corner, March 19-23, 2014.

community garden 2/26/14

After sowing some borlotti beans late afternoon in anticipation of rain, I tracked down all the sweet peas in bloom in neighboring plots.
The results of my sweet pea safari:

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And I always stop to admire how Scarlet Flax has woven through some kale.

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A reseeding annual, Linum grandiflorum ‘Rubrum.’ So is this intentional or a happy accident?
One of the things I like most about reseeders is how they constantly offer new possibilities to consider, like scarlet and blue-green. Just rip it out if it’s not your taste.

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Self-sown sunflowers already in bloom. Reseeders are indifferent to planting guides and timetables.
I was going to wait until late March to start mine. (So many plans for my little 10X10 plot.)

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Sweet peas don’t reseed true to their stunning varieties, so new seed must be bought fresh every season.
Some of the best growing instructions for florist-grade sweet peas can be found at Floret.

agaves love company

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At least I think they do, because I’m forcing them to get along. It might be closer to the truth to admit that it’s me that loves the company of agaves.

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Because if that’s love Mr. Ripple is showing the little powdery blue A. potatorum, it’s his own unique brand of tough love.
I had to trim a bit of Mr. Ripple recently to allow the others some breathing room.
In the background, that’s Agave schidigera giving Mr. Ripple a wide berth.

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Newly planted Agave parrasana ‘Fireball’ in the land of rosettes that is the front garden, surrounded by Echeveria agavoides.
I wish I noticed that pup peeking out before I planted it. Supposedly, this agave remains solitary, without offsetting.

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I hadn’t planted any new agaves in the front garden for some time. Honestly, I suspected I was overdoing it a bit. Thank goodness I’ve come to my senses.

What to do with your lawn when there’s a drought

Just lose the lawn and don’t look back.
And if and when rainfall in California ever gets back to normal levels, which isn’t much anyway, you just might realize you want your lawn back about as much as you want shag carpeting and avocado-colored appliances again.

That would be my own blunt advice, but for a little more nuance and gentle persuasion, check out Julie Chai’s recent article for The San Francisco Chronicle, “Drought landscaping: 5 inspiring lawn-free yards.”

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One of the gardens under discussion in the article is this one, designed by Beth Mullins. Photo by MB Maher.
Also included are gardens designed by Rebecca Sweet, whose garden was visited in the 2013 Garden Bloggers Fling.


The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity. ” ― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I would just respectfully amend Ms. Jacobs’ wise words with the happy addition of a suffix — “well-located parklets” — because parklets are making quite the difference in street life here in Long Beach.

What is a parklet, you ask?

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This is a parklet. Maybe you’ve already brunched or sipped a margarita in a parklet in your hometown, if home is New York, San Francisco, or Philadelphia. San Francisco started the parklet boom in 2009, and Seattle is including plans for parklets in 2014. This is one of the first parklets in Southern California, installed back in 2012. You’d think in the land of eternal sunshine we wouldn’t have to hack the streets to shoehorn in places for people to congregate, that it’d be understood that sunshine and blue sky are our most important local commodities. But it’s well known that Los Angeles long ago ceded the street first and foremost to cars at the expense of neighborhoods, which has always infuriated me about my hometown, so every little victory counts.

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The idea is as basic as it gets. After obtaining a permit from the City, a couple of parking spaces are commandeered, a deck/platform laid down to extend the pavement grade, and the perimeter bulwarked with planters. The initial expense is covered by the business, as is the maintenance. Other than some low-key grumbling about loss of parking, they’ve been instant successes, with multiplier effects rippling through the neighborhood. More dining, more shopping, more slow feet on the street instead of fast wheels. Gossiping and laughing among agaves, phormiums, cordylines, and bamboo will always be my preference.

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About a mile away from the parklets, closer to the old downtown, Marty is driving his bus past a “bulb-out,” planted with phormiums and blue chalk fingers. Unlike the parklets, which are temporary and relatively cheap to undertake, with the cost carried by the local business, this involves construction crews and a much bigger budget to widen the sidewalk and extend the curbline farther out into the street.

Whether parklet or bulb-out, it’s been so refreshing to see the needs of pedestrians considered for a change, not just cars.

Studio One Eleven is the design firm that spearheaded these local parklets and offers a downloadable parklet toolkit here.

back at the ranch

All day long this past work- and appointment-filled Wednesday I clung to the idea of fitting in a short visit to Rancho Los Alamitos. I’d heard there were some changes with the barns, and there was a new foal, all reasons enough to go. And in late February the noisette roses just might be in early bloom. Plus this was Wednesday, one of the weekdays they’d be open, unlike Monday or Tuesday. I stubbornly held the idea in the foreground of my much-distracted brain, while repeated interruptions and crises did their best to submerge it deep into the background throughout the day. But an hour before close at 5 p.m. I found myself triumphantly slipping a $5 bill into the donation box and sprinting off to find the cactus garden while there was still light. This roughly 8-acre remnant of the huge land grant given to a loyal Spanish soldier in 1784, the genesis story for my hometown, is just 4 miles from my house, but sometimes it feels like you have to move worlds to fit in a visit. But when you do go, what you park behind the gates that insulate the rancho from the press of suburbs, freeways, and CSULB/Long Beach State University is, pardon the cliche, not so much a car but a time machine.

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The 19th century adobe ranch house is thought to be the oldest domestic building still standing in Southern California
The twin Moreton Bay Figs have shaded the ranch since 1887

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Staghorn ferns near the base of a palm, backlit scarlet bougainvillea in the distance

What always floors me about the rancho, gifted by its last owners, the Bixby family, to the city of Long Beach in the ’60s, is its humility. With all that oil money to spend in the ’20s (discovered a few years after a drought killed off the largest cattle ranch in the U.S. — long story), Florence Bixby (1898-1961) somehow resisted the fashion of turning the ranch into a depot for Old World antiquities. It is a place fiercely vernacular and true. She may have hired the best landscape architects in the ’20s and ’30s to shape the gardens, like Frederick Law Olmsted and Florence Yoch, but the materials were homespun simple, local. Florence Bixby, always credited as the main design influence over the house and garden as they appear today, didn’t loot temples for marble or send out legions of plant hunters for the rarest of the rare, and yet Sunset includes it among 13 of the best public gardens in the U.S. And the rancho’s simplicity can’t be explained away with an argument that Florence was a simpleton who didn’t get out much. The painter Mary Cassatt visited for years, and the home was filled with art. (To put the rancho’s embrace of all things West in context, Cassatt’s brother, Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, built New York’s magnificent but doomed Penn Station in 1910 based on the Roman baths of Caracalla. The outrage over Penn Station’s demolition in the mid ’60s pretty much launched the modern historical preservation movement, which was right around the time the rancho left private ownership and was gifted to the public.)

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The front lawn. The small gate on the left leads to a secret garden adjacent to the house’s interior courtyard.
The noisettes weren’t in bloom yet, but the rambling banks rose was, seen just to the right of the clump of bird of paradise and elsewhere in the garden.

While other members of Florence’s tribe, the 1 percenters of her day, hid the working man origins of their wealth, Florence embraced them. This is the modest home of someone with a high sensitivity to the pitfalls of hubris, someone with a resolutely austere but gracious cast of mind. Above all, this is a home, not a showcase for wealth. Florence’s home. And you can still feel it in every footfall. And I so wish they’d occasionally list it for rent with airbnb. (just kidding, Florence!)

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The interior courtyard that horse-shoes behind the house.

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A wall and pool enclosing the courtyard

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Two big evergreen vines, the Easter Lily vine, Beaumontia grandiflora, and the Cup of Gold vine, Solandra maxima, are trained along the low roofline.
For the moment, the smaller white flowers of the beaumontia are being outmaneuvered by the flamboyance of the cup of gold vine in bloom.

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On the opposite side of the house is the Music Patio

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Vintage pottery atop the walls of the Secret Garden

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A white flash of the horse Bristol visible just behind the fence. The barn was moved, at great cost and effort, back to its original location.
The now one-year-old foal Preston and its mother Valentina were moved out during renovations. Both are snug inside the barn again.
Trees were thinned, leaving those the Bixby family planted, Schinus molle, California pepper trees, to remain.

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The last of the Shire horses, the breed that powered the ranches of the 19th century

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Cypress Steps and patio

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The rose garden. (What else is there to say about a rose garden in winter, other than maybe “Nice box hedging”?)

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A portion of the garden designed by Frederick Law Olmsted

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The geranium walk designed by Florence Yoch.
Yoch’s handiwork can at times seem so spare, so simple that viewers might wonder why clients didn’t think of certain devices themselves.”
(The New York Times)

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Olmsted’s oleander walk connects the rose garden to the cypress steps. The oleanders succumbed to a pest and have since been replaced, possibly by mulberry, but I couldn’t find a reference.

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The tennis court. No pool, but a tennis court. I know I’m overly reading into the landscape as psychological profile, but doesn’t that spell “Protestant work ethic” in bold letters?

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An entry to the tennis court

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The grape arbor runs the length of the tennis court and leads at one end to the cactus garden and the geranium and oleander walks at the other

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The flagstone path leads, if I’m oriented correctly, to the south lawn and the giant Moreton bay figs

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In the Cactus Garden, looking at the fencing of the tennis court

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William Hertrich, the first curator of the Huntington Desert Garden, worked with Florence on the Cactus Garden

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The new educational center, finished last spring, has images of the plants of the rancho on its walls, including Agave franzosinii

I’ll leave you in the cactus garden to find your way back to where you parked your time machine.

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More photos and information on current events can be found on the Rancho’s Facebook page and in this article by Suzanne Muchnic for The Los Angeles Times.

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Modernism Week in Palm Springs

It’s Modernism Week in Palm Springs, so what architectural gem did I visit? A Wexler steel house? Maybe a Neutra?
Nope, but I did visit a cactarium, the world’s first.

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The cactarium belongs to the Moorten Botanical Garden, a small, idiosyncratic, family-run botanical garden right off the main drag in Palm Springs. If you veer left and take East Palm Canyon Drive, you run into a strip of hipster hotels like Ace Hotel. But if you keep right on South Palm Canyon Drive, you’ll find Moorten’s and sights like these.

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The legendary Hollywood-Palm Springs connection insinuates itself even into a small botanical garden. Its founder, Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten, was one of the original Keystone Cops.

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Leaving the small, quonset hut-like cactarium for the main garden, San Jacinto Mountains in the background.

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The enthusiastic, mad love for desert plants permeates every inch of this little garden.

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Palm Springs in February is a glorious place to be. Temps reached just 87 degrees. The air was fresh and sweet, a marked change from our “hard” port air. If we go back before summer, we’ll take in Sunnylands too. Modernism Week extends to February 23, 2014, and there are still tickets available to some events. We lucked into last-minute tickets to a lecture by landscape designer Maureen Gilmer, entitled “The Neglected Palette.” (Some of what she discussed included her take on old-school, hand-drawn designs versus auto-CAD, which can be read in an article she wrote here.) Ms. Gilmer is the author of “Palm Springs-Style Gardening,” and you can see what inspires her from her Pinterest board here.

Bloom Day February 2014

I wonder if I’d get tired of a garden with nothing but chartreuse flowers for months on end. I suppose it’s possible.

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Helleborus argutifolius. Tough and beautiful, doesn’t complain, doesn’t expect any special treatment. All stellar attributes. Incredibly promiscuous in the seeding-around department, but nobody’s perfect.

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Euphorbia rigida is also full of similarly positive attributes but only lightly reseeds.

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This euphorbia is an absolute terror as far as reseeding, but again it’s hard to say no to chartreuse. (Hard to say no to euphorbias in general.) It’s either E. niciciana (Euphorbia seguieriana ssp.niciciana) or E. nicaeensis. I remember buying it years ago as E. niciciana, but I could be mistaken. I know I’ll regret not weeding out these few plants, but they make even February seem lush.

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Echeveria agavoides is possibly even more charming in bloom, if that’s possible

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Poppy time. The first blooms of Papaver rupifragum

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A gazania just starting to close up shop as the sun was setting.

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Gaillardia ‘Oranges & Lemons’ in need of a cutback for spring.

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In the front garden, new blooms on the enormous patch of dyckia. The lack of rain has impacted the snail population to the garden’s advantage this winter.
Snails love dyckia spears like I love asparagus spears.

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I’m including the Brachysema praemorsum ‘Bronze Butterfly’ because technically it is blooming, but the red claw-like blooms are both virtually invisible as well as insignificant.

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This salvia looks very promising, a cross of Salvia pulchella with Salvia involucrata. My source, Annie’s Annuals, thanks Strybing Arboretum for this purportedly compact salvia.

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The Phlomis lanata I planted in fall are beginning to bloom. Very excited to see how this fairly compact phlomis with the common name of Pygmy Jerusalem Sage fits into the scheme of things.

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Lavandula multifida has been in steady, nonstop bloom since its fall planting.

Snow, mud, or otherwise, we all want to know how February is treating you. As always, Carol at May Dreams Gardens collects our stories.

mon petit chou

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Members of the cabbage family were especially alluring at my community garden yesterday. No wonder “my little cabbage” is a French expression of affection.

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This dry, sunny winter seems to agree with them.

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Such a good-looking family. Exquisite chartreuse florets of the Romanesco broccoli.

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All photos taken of neighboring gardens. My little patch this winter is sans petit chou.
I’m still traumatized by a run-in with the cabbage moth years ago, but seeing all these so beautifully (and organically) grown gives me courage.

echeverias in a vase

Valentine’s Day quiz:

A small vase holds the short stem of a ruffly rosette that’s not a flower. What can it be?
a) some kind of kale
b) I don’t know, but whatever it is it’s monstrous and obscene
c) an overgrown, long-necked echeveria

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Not much of a quiz, because of course it’s an echeveria with about half of its stem trimmed off. They do grow leggy in these parts. I’ll probably root these in sand in a few days, but for now am enjoying how these little vases are managing to support such top-heavy bouquets. The vase itself is what’s really quiz-worthy. In fact, they’re not vases at all, but actually something brought out in the ’70s called the “Uncandle.” The Pyrex name on the glass was the tipoff that this barbell-shaped glassware had some mysterious, heat-tolerant purpose in a past life. I was given a couple as a holiday present (thank you, Dustin!) and was told they were for forcing small bulbs. I later found a few more at a local thrift shop.

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It could have used a wash, but I was out the door. So smudgy fingerprints and all, this Valentine’s Day’s bouquet comes in a retro blast from the ’70s…the Uncandle.