notes on spring planting

Though it may not be readily apparent, there really is something positive to say about the garden in January. I’ve been cutting back the grasses, and even allowing for the dozens of poppy seedlings that are emerging and staking a claim on spring, there’s still an impressive amount of vacant planting space opening up. All of which adds zest to a favorite wintertime game, a game played by a mortal pretending to be a god: What do I want spring through fall to look like in my little garden in 2016? In all honesty, a lot of it will look like a dead ringer for 2015, but January is when optimism for the new gardening year is at its zenith and anything feels possible. Astonishing, never-before-seen visions of extraordinary plant beauty are surely to come.

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Like the Catalina Silverlace, Constancea nevinii, seen recently at the Theodore Payne Nursery.

Like envisioning a delicious meal, I daydream in textures, aromas, flavors sweet and sharp. For those few planting places opening up, will it be smooth or crunchy? I have lots of smooth succulents, so let’s find something crunchy, shrubby. It can’t be anything too rich and water dependent, so no traditional, overbred, cordon bleu garden plants. And I’d like something whose flavor won’t overwhelm the rest of this mulligan’s stew, which is heavy on variegated plants and spicy agaves. What’s needed is something in a quietly textural, supporting role. Maybe something in herbs? Isn’t winter savory an attractive little shrub, or is that summer savory? Maybe dracocephalum? Or lavender again, but it’s always iffy in this clay, and I just don’t want to play those odds this year. Plus I want something that billows, smallish in stature. Nepeta has been disappointing, even the much-lauded ‘Walker’s Low.’ What about calamints? Resource lean, aromatic, shrubby. I’ve grown a few kinds before but eventually backed away from their wildly prolific reseeding tendencies. Maybe there’s something new in calamints I haven’t tried?

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Eriogonum crocatum

Some light research turns up Calamintha nepeta ‘Montrose White,’ a calamint discoverd by Nancy Godwin at her Montrose Nursery. Long-blooming, doesn’t reseed, a summer-long feast for pollinators. It’s even won top honors as Perennial of the Year in 2010. Okay, then, calamint it is. Digging Dog Nursery in Albion, California, carries it, along with an intriguing perovskia called ‘Lacey Blue,’ a dwarf form of Russian Sage. With plants like these, summer 2016 can turn up the heat all it wants. We’ll be ready.

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Aristida purpurea

An order to Digging Dog is dispatched, and that settles that. But what else? Wasn’t there an eriogonum I’ve been itching to grow? I have plant notes around here somewhere. Yes, there it is, a smallish native buckwheat with silver leaves and chartreuse flowers, tolerates clay. Eriogonum crocatum! I think I can squeeze in maybe two. Now, who carries it? Why, Theodore Payne does, a mere hour’s drive to Sun Valley, just past Glendale. So be it. (And what should be playing on the radio the whole trip, there and back, but a tribute to David Bowie. I jump in the car, turn on KCRW, and there’s the thumping bass of Panic in Detroit. An auspicious beginning for any road trip.)

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At the entrance to the nursery is an impressive stand of our native Agave shawii

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See that slender, bright green column behind the pots?

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Catalina Ironwood in a ceramic container. Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius. I stared at this tree long enough that a nursery person approached to warn me not to try this at home. She explained this was basically tree abuse that they practiced to obtain cuttings for the nursery. Trees in containers always seem like such a good idea in January, long before they become a miserable chore in July.

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So I wandered the grounds near the nursery. With just an hour before closing, there wasn’t time to explore the canyon (22 acres!)

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Arctostaphylos cruzensis

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Pinus sabiniana, Grey Pine, Foothill Pine, Ghost Pine (lovely pine!)

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I was recently cleaning up this grass in my garden, Aristida purpurea, and inadvertently pulled up the whole clump.

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Not a regimented, upright grass but ethereal, wispy to the point of disorganized. There are more purple tones than the photos show.

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Dudleya densiflora

Riding in the back, serenaded by Bowie all the way home, were two Eriogonum crocatum and a Catalina Silverlace, Constancea nevinii.
2016 is really starting to take shape.

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15 Responses to notes on spring planting

  1. Jane Strong says:

    It’s so wonderful to read plant reviews like yours. You are not selling anything. You tell it like it is. Right now I’m looking for froth, too. You call it billows. I have not had a lot of success with either lavender or nepeta either. Now I know why. Clay.

  2. ks says:

    I am grateful for the rain but a muddy garden with standing water indicates it will be awhile before I can actually plant anything ! I was particularly brutal with the dig-outs this past fall, and it’s a struggle not to be overwhelmed with choices. You made some nice selections, the Eriogonum is very compelling.

  3. Denise says:

    @Jane, yes, froth works too. My clay soil is a force to be reckoned with. Some years it really seems to go on the attack!
    @Kathy, not to be rude, but did you have to steal all our rain?

  4. Renee says:

    So nice! This is why I love January too.. All the opportunity to bring new things in, and maybe experiment a little. And thanks for the nursery recommendation!

  5. hoov says:

    Frothy pale grass looks so lovely with Agaves. That’s a fabulous Manzanita, despite the “cruz” in the name. Enjoy the January! It’s a bit melancholy though, losing Ziggy Stardust and Professor Snape in the same week.

  6. Kris P says:

    I can always count on you for being a plant adventurer and offering new ideas for our climate, Denise. I eagerly await your reviews on your recent selections. Just this evening, I suggested a friend consider a Manihot based not on my own experience with the plant but on yours.

  7. Theodore Payne…going on the list for next time I’m in L.A. – which by the way won’t be at Christmastime so hopefully I’ll be able to take a page from Gerhard’s book and organize a meet up with everyone…yay!

    Lucky you getting to start garden clean-up and reworking. I’m wondering how many plants I can fit on the Ark when it comes down our street…

  8. Alan @ It's Not Work, It's Gardening! says:

    Love the Eriogonum crocatum in that squarish terra cotta pot!

    I’ve had trouble with perovskia in clay — just doesn’t thrive like it should.

  9. Denise says:

    @Renee, you’re most welcome. And if you check the TP website it shows they bring plants to a Hollywood Farmer’s Market. I definitely want to catch them again there.
    @Hoov, the manzanitas were enormous and many are in bloom. It sounds like Bowie handled death as he did life, shaking it by the lapels, so it’s more energizing than saddening. At least we can still hear both of their amazing voices.
    @Kris, my problem is I always expect new plants to be big presences the first year, and we know that’s not necessarily the case.
    @Loree, you’d have lost your mind among the huge manzanitas. It can get really hot there in summer, so winter/spring/fall would be wise.
    @Alan, I haven’t grown perovskia in a while. I wonder if that’s the reason? Sheesh, what a merry-go-round!

  10. Alison says:

    I play this game of “what can I cram into the garden?” in early spring too. I often forget how much space things take up once they’ve reached their seasonal peak of growth. That Aristida looks like a great grass. I wonder how it will do here in the PNW.

  11. David Feix says:

    Denise, your process starts out differently than mine(never have I ordered something mailorder!), but then realigns with my own in the end. Nothing quite so satisfying as being on the hunt for the new while actually visiting a nursery!

    I wouldn’t be so quick to rule out trees in pots, I do it all the time myself, and have found the Catalina Ironwood quite amenable. What might facilitate cultivation is giving it a container with bottom removed, and enjoying it in a more dappled shade location. Plus, who says it has to live forever, or not later be recycled into your own or someone else’s garden?

    More of an Eagles than Bowie fan myself, but Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride would also seem auspicious for a trip to Theodore Payne Nursery… Lovely photos and writing as always. I’m waiting for my friends Andy Siekkinen and artist friend Dan Arcos to arrive, and then off to either the Bancroft Garden or the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden for a fun communion with beauty and fresh growth.

  12. Your post is infectious! Now I want to get planting! Maybe there’s new inventory at our local nurseries already? Worth checking out on the weekend.

  13. Antho says:

    These Agaves shawii are fantastifc

  14. Denise says:

    @Alison, it’s true, it will all look crammed in by June, but then there’s the toll a long, hot, dry summer will take to thin things out again. As far as the aristida, it looks like it’s good to zone 6 (
    @David, I love your optimism as far as the tree-in-container idea. I’ve been a committed mail-orderer going way back to Heronswood days. LA still doesn’t have the Bay Area’s nursery resources.
    @Gerhard, I hear you’re stealing all our rain, which makes for some soggy soil. The eriogonum came with a tag warning that the root system is small, so to keep it in its pot for a while, so I won’t be planting quite yet either.
    @Antho, yes, it is a nice colony of that agave. Agave stricta also makes a great mass planting (photo here:

  15. Linda from Each Little World says:

    I have heard some people still have problems with Nepeta Montrose White. The one that is being used extensively in our botanic garden in Wisconsin is Calmintha nepeta ssp nepeta because it definitely does not reseed. I have been growing this for about three years in my garden with no problems so far.

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