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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”?
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”
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.
African basil, Persicaria orientalis, zinnias, tithonia, crithmum, autumn light and shadows, all wrapped up in a rutabaga vase for a Dutch still-life, abundance-of-summer effect. I should have grabbed a snail or two as bit players to slipperfoot up the side of the vase in the style of painter Balthasar van der Ast. God knows the garden could spare them.
The Seasonal Bouquet Project
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.
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.
Mine were gifts from Matt, who blogs at Growing With Plants. He keeps a wonderful greenhouse full of fall- and winter-blooming bulbs.
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.
Knots. I see knots everywhere. Knotwork for enormous pots at Orange County’s The Lab
And a photo from their website of the pots without their finery
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.
I need to get my hands into some crete this weekend.
From A Merry Mishap, instructions and template included at the link.
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?
Continue reading Cevan Forristt
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.
Colocasia ‘Diamond Head’
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.
Agave celsii var. albicans ‘UCB’ was moved into the garden near this summer-scorched aeonium
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.
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.
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.
At this point, adding a couple Mexican chocolate stirrers makes sense.
And I couldn’t leave the pot empty. A potted Kalanchoe beharensis happened to fit snug inside the rim.
This winter I’ll probably get all Scandinavian again and move the pot back into the shadows until it’s elephant season once more.