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backdrops for plants

Some interesting backdrops I found around town, some intentional, some borrowed, some just sheer serendipity.

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I’m wondering what came first here, the choice of color for the house and then the Lion’s Tail?
Or did the Leonotis leonurus start the ball rolling?

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This is a borrowed backdrop. From the angle where I was standing, I picked up the color of the house next-door.

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This is the house where the agave lives, beige in color, not persimmon.

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The parkway picking up that same persimmon-colored house next-door. Mattress vine, restios, helichrysum, small grasses.

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I’m thinking there’s a lot of clip, clip, clipping to keep the muehlenbeckia off those lovely low-lying rocks.

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Agave vilmoriniana without a backdrop. Well, I suppose asphalt could be considered a backdrop, the default urban kind.
I wish I had the space for this one to let those tentacles unfurl (also called the Octopus Agave).

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The Cow Horn Agave against a stone backdrop. Agave bovicornuta. Oh, I do miss mine.
There’ll be more photos of these terraces to come, just because one can never have too many photos of the Cow Horn Agave.
With aeoniums and Kalanchoe tomentosa.

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A missed opportunity to add a colored backdrop? Hard to say. The entire Spanish house/villa is white. I’ll be posting some more photos of this one too.
I need to track down the name of the grass in the foreground, most likely a sesleria. Amazing with the bulbinella.


fall planting notes 2014


The first second day of fall. Depending on who you talk to, summer was either glorious or it passed like a kidney stone. No in between.
I’d describe summer 2014 and its occasional heatwaves as a cocktail that included plenty of tangy glory mixed with a bitter chaser of slight-to-moderate discomfort.
I had epic plans for a leisurely audio narration on fall planting, but due to file size had to whittle it down to under a breathless two minutes.
I really think including the human voice will be the next big innovation. Somehow, in the future, all our Facebook comments and tweets will be spoken.
What if, instead of rousing speeches, Churchill had tweeted? Would England still have fought on?
Not that my voice has any Churchillian qualities. It always sounds kind of high-pitched to me.
When I was in the Bay Area over the weekend, I was treated to a mesmerizing, geosynchronous tour via iPhone of Fisherman’s Wharf, an app still in the beta stage.
Developed by the Groupon founder and known as Detour, narrators such as a 40-year veteran fishing boat captain lead you via earbuds and your phone through the back alleys and byways of the wharves:
Past that fishing boat, off to your left, duck through this doorway, don’t mind the baleful stares of the fish sellers, right on this spot you’re standing is where they used to shanghai sailors.

In any case, here’s my low-tech, abbreviated rundown on fall planting. The takeaway is Annie’s Annuals may have plants on site not listed as available online.

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Hymenolepis parviflora, the Golden Coulter Bush, aka Athanasia parviflora.
Yellow umbels in summer. Annie’s Annuals doesn’t list this as currently available, so possibly on-site sales only.

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The hymenolepis replaced a big clump of Erigeron ‘Wayne Roderick’ that struggled in full sun.
I’m seriously thinking of rigging a shade tarp over the garden next summer, because even reputed sun lovers like erigeron can’t hack it.

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Ferula communis ssp. glauca, a giant umbellifer that probably won’t bloom its first year in the garden. Brought home from Annie’s Annuals.
Dies after flowering, but what nice lacy leaves. The bloom stalk gets as big as a broomstick. I don’t see this listed as currently available online either.

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Leucadendron ‘Pisa,’ found local, planted in mid-summer

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Tough times call for old stalwarts like santolina.
Speaking of tough, what I really wanted from Annie’s was the ‘Ella Nelson’ yellow eriogonum, but they’ve run out. I was told more will be available soon.

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But If you can’t find what you came for at Annie’s, there always a dozen or so other plants as consolation.
I’ve never trialed the rusty foxglove, Digitalis ferruginea ‘Gigantea,’ so I may as well grow it and kill it once to get it out of my system.
This is the last-gasp manifestation of my pie-eyed inclination to try out every flowering spike under the sun. Dainty flowers just don’t last long in my garden.
Summer 2015 will definitely be shrubbier. As far as flowers, I’m thinking the malvaceae family may have some answers. Hibiscus, lavatera, sphaeralcea.
For spikes, there’s hollyhocks, and I’m trying some purple of the reputedly rust-free Halo series. Annie’s carries a good selection.

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Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’ was found local. Cutting back hard in spring seems to be the general recommendation to avoid the flops.
A glimpse here of its color.

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Eucalyptus ‘Moon Lagoon’ replaced a prostanthera in early summer

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Euphorbia mellifera is always easy and beautiful here, tender elsewhere. I really prefer it to E. lambii.
For 2015 I’m trying it in full sun, near the ‘Moon Lagoon,’ for the pairing of the bright green and blue.
Planted a little too close, I’ll move the euphorbia as soon as necessary, so this is probably just a one-summer chess move.

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Lavandula lanata. I can tell already this one is going to be tricky about drainage.

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These ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ euphorbias were found local. If there’d been a choice, I’m pretty sure ‘Silver Swan’ is the more reliable variegated euphorbia.
The ‘Fireworks’ gomphrenas were cut back and some Verbena bonariensis removed to make room for the euphorbia.

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I bet you didn’t know laundry chores are handled here amongst the agaves. The covered pergola off the kitchen also houses the outdoor laundry shed built against the house.
On top of the laundry shed is the second-story lookout, where I spend lots of quality reading/skylarking time. The corrugated roof does a great job of making every rain sound epic.
Here’s to doing laundry while vast quantities of measurable rain thunder down on the pergola roof this winter. I’m counting on you, La Nina El Nino, to come through.


pandemonium revisited

The New York Times has a very nice article today on Pandemonium Aviaries (“362 Birds, and Unruffled“), which MB Maher visited and photographed in 2012
Since that time, bird rescuer Michelle Raffin has written a book “The Birds of Pandemonium; Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered.


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Also since that time, her marriage of many years has ended, and Michelle is in the process of fine-tuning the perfect exit strategy to ensure the continued care of her demanding flock when she eventually becomes unable to care for them. Now 63, Michelle made that first, life-changing rescue of an injured dove 15 years ago. Since the blog post, I’ve experienced first-hand how bird rescue works. In our case, a lost parakeet landed exhausted in my son’s top-down Miata parked under the jacaranda trees. After a year alone in the bath house off our bedroom, we realized it needed a mate, exactly the pattern Michelle follows with her rescued birds. The character of the bath house has changed too, now more aviary with a tub in it than bath house. Birds are sneaky that way, insinuating themselves into our lives, hearts, bath houses. My original post and more of Mitch’s photos can be found here.

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The aviary now receives birds from some of the country’s most respected zoos for breeding and lifetime care.”
362 Birds, and Unruffled” by Sandy Keenan, The New York Times 9/17/14

streetside; your own personal prairie

When my job canceled today, I knew exactly where I wanted to go before breakfast, before even the first cup of coffee. The local neighborhood prairie.
It’s something you don’t see everyday in my coastal neighborhood in Los Angeles County, where a mix of succulents are usually the first landscape choice for stylishly beating the drought.
This is a very new, waterwise, lawn-to-garden conversion built around a matrix of grasses, with the eyebrow grass, Bouteloua gracilis, predominating. There are zero succulents included.
The folksy, barn-red color of the bungalow and wood-and-cattle-panel fence reinforce the expression of pioneer spirit reflected in their choice of landscape.

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This is prairie Southern California style. The blue against the pillars is from plumbago trained on cattle panel.

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A native cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’

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Easy to tell that the house faces east.

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On the south side, Pittosporum is planted along the outside of the fence near the sidewalk. The dark leaves are a Euphorbia cotinifolia.
White roses are most likely ‘Iceberg.’

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Young cypresses behind the fence. So this open, inviting view is only temporary until the privacy screens mature.

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There’s some sort of mesh shade cloth hanging behind the bell.

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The climber Solanum jasminoides will fill in here too.

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Detail of cattle panel fence, last night’s party lights still lit. Paper bags as shades for battery-powered votives maybe?

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I should have waited for sunrise before taking this photo, but it shows how the fence fits into the side entrance.
From this side I could hear sounds in the kitchen of the household waking, so it seemed impolite to linger.

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Unlike my admittedly superficial trial of the eyebrow grass, these are proving that it will thrive in Southern California.
Bouteloua gracilis is the smallest of the prairie grasses.
Their size sets the scale for the rest of the garden, with plants in bloom just grazing above the knee on a walk from the front door to the mailbox.

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Informal paths of decomposed granite wind through the plantings. We’re often warned against using d.g. where it might be tracked indoors onto wooden floors.
Maybe a shoes-off policy is a house rule here. I like that the porch paint is in the same color range as the d.g.

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Among the big sweeps of eyebrow grass are also carex, phormium, lavender, caryopteris, gaura, Salvia greggii, yarrow.

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And a couple clumps of the ruby grass, Melinus nerviglumis

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How much “down” time a prairie-style landscape imposes is a key issue in a climate that handles dormancy almost imperceptibly. There are many plant choices that will see a zone 10 landscape through the year without any bare soil visible at any time or need for radical haircuts. Roughly calculating, if the grasses are cut back, say, before Christmas, they’ll be making growth again in February. On the other hand, many succulents also have periods where they’re not at their best, high summer for example. Knowing the trade-offs when choosing how and with what plants to replace the front lawn is a crucial consideration. What I like about this house and garden is that it seems to know exactly what it wants.

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extraordinary leaves

All leaves are extraordinary in a basic, photosynthetic sense, and then there are those that push the point even further.
Leaves perform infinite adaptive riffs and improvisations on variegation or curve, curl, and flounce. A couple examples in my garden today. Pam at Digging collects tributes to leaves the 16th of every month.

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Cut-lace leaves of Glaucium flavum look amazingly pristine for mid-September, especially when compared to the battered leaves of a sweet potato in the upper left.
I recently cut the bloomed-out flower trusses off this one, which carried tissue-thin poppies in a delicious shade of peach all summer.

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Another glaucium in the front garden, possibly G. grandiflorum. No bloom as of yet, and there’s no hurry with leaves like that.

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Echium simplex is probably the one plant in the garden whose looks improve with the heat. This is a biennial, blooming in its second year, with rumored triennial tendencies.
In any case, when it feels the urge, tall white spikes will appear.

Bloom Day September 2014

I think I’m finally getting the hang of this heat wave business. I’m taking a cue from the plants: Hunker down and just wait it out.

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When I cut the melianthus back, this Gomphostigma virgatum found some needed breathing room. With a little extra irrigation, it’s revived enough to lightly flower.
A silvery South African shrub that likes more water than most silvery things, it was performing this pretty arching trick and dangling tiny white flowers over the clam shells this morning.
I saw this growing at Digging Dog Nursery in their display garden and asked for it, but it’s not currently listed in the catalogue.

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Lavandula multifida, the fern-leaf lavender, when it doesn’t mysteriously collapse, stays in constant bloom. Two out of the original four planted last year remain.
They bulk up very fast and keep the garden and hummingbirds constantly flush with indigo flowers, but it does lack the eponymous scent.
I love having lavender back in the garden, even the unscented kind, and have another touchy one, Lavandula lanata, waiting to be planted when it cools down later in the month.

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Included just because it looks so very icy cool, Aloe scobinifolia. And also because once it’s in the blog, I’ll have always have a record of its name.
It did have a bloom truss on it when I bought it a few weeks back.

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Gaura is blooming in containers. So many new cultivar names for gaura these days, but they’re all short-lived so I don’t keep track. I only ask that gaura be white, not red or pink.

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White also gives a very different character to Persicaria amplexicaulis

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This is a total Bloom Day cheat, since I bought this Euphorbia milii ‘Amarillo’ yesterday.
But these fancy cultivars of the Crown of Thorns are in bloom all over my neighborhood, especially in the Cambodian-owned gardens.
One house down the street has dozens of these growing wall to wall in containers in the front garden, where they can be admired from the gate.
I got the impression last time I lingered at the gate the owners didn’t appreciate me seemingly stalking their prize plants, so it was time to get one of my own.

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This sticky-leaved Cuphea viscosissima is very heat sensitive. I’m hoping it undergoes an astounding transformation when the weather cools.
It’s a volunteer seedling from plants I grew in the past, which surprised me since they looked so miserable in their short time in the garden.

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A photo from August to show how tall it is for a cuphea, the blurry plant in the foreground. I’ve found a bee and a couple wasps snared by the sticky leaves, so that’s a mark against it too.
I didn’t take a new photo of the marigold Tagetes ‘Cinnabar,’ but there’s no worry or hand-wringing over these Day of the Dead flowers from Mexico during a heat wave.

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I’ve been seeing photos of Pennisetum ‘Vertigo’ on blogs and reports of it hitting 6 feet, but I think this ‘Princess Caroline’ at 8 feet in one season is even bigger, if that’s an appealing feature.

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Seeing this Solanum pyracanthum in a Portland garden made me realize the impact of different climates on this plant. Here it’s wispy and flowers early and at a small size, no matter how frequently I pinch it back. In Portland in July it was much more dense, with the leaves and orange thorns an arresting feature before it blooms. I’ve noticed that the castor bean plant similarly flowers early, while the plants are still young and rangy. Both the solanum and castor bean will act like perennials here too.

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Lotus jacobaeus, famous for it’s wine-colored flowers, has a gold cast this year.

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A short-lived perennial here, this new plant was brought in last year.

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Winter-dormant Pelargonium echinatum has been in bloom all summer.

Since August’s Bloom Day, I’ve cut down the long-blooming Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ to the ground and stopped the near-constant irrigating of Rudbeckia triloba, at which point it collapsed.
I didn’t take photos of Russelia equisetiformis, the yellow form of the firecracker plant, which has been in constant bloom all summer, or the kangaroo paws, but otherwise that’s the September 2014 Bloom Day report I’ll be adding to Carol’s blog May Blooms Gardens, where she collects our flowering reports from all over the world every month.

Gastrolobium ‘Bronze Butterfly’


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Before September turns the corner into fall, when my garden plans will predictably revive and become hopeful and catalogue-driven once again, it’s a good opportunity to take a clear-eyed look at the survivors. The survivors are once-treasured plants that slowly over time become mere backdrop to the latest and newest treasures. The garden changes so often that there are few plants that date back even a decade. This plant is the rare exception, having been a survivor for donkey years, (old slang for a very long time), going back to when it was purchased sometime in the ’90s. After purchase I promptly forgot its name, only remembering ‘Bronze Butterfly,’ because it just so happened that for once the name was a true and vivid description of the plant.


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Old photo showing the bright edge to the leaf margins in spring, with the leaves appearing much darker, almost black.


When the Internet became available (an event that divides my life pre and post more than anything else, with the exception of possibly marriage and kids), a Google search confirmed it as Brachysema praemorsum from Australia. Not only time and technology but taxonomy marches on as well, and currently brachysema is known as gastrolobium. What hasn’t changed is its consistently gorgeous appearance for over a decade now in the front gravel garden. In fact, it’s probably the oldest plant in the garden.* I pulled it from the California native section of a long-defunct nursery near Palos Verdes, Calif, that according to this article closed in 1997 due to the economic effects of severe drought followed by recession in that decade. So I must have brought it home sometime before ’97, at least. I’ve never seen the plant for sale again.

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It might not ever make Plant of the Year, but it has many admirable qualities. First and foremost is its ability to live among agaves and dasylirions on their irrigation schedule, which is pretty much when it rains, and you know how well that’s been going lately. It is from Australia, that continent with so many sympatico, mediterranean-adaptive plants for use in our Southern Calif. gardens. A light clipping to keep it off the agaves is probably the only attention it receives. It doesn’t build up a lot of dead growth in the interior and always looks fresh. When in bloom, the claw-like, red flowers don’t read especially well amongst the leaves and for me aren’t the main attraction.

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It’s really all about the wiry quality to the stems, upon which float the opposite, winged, richly colored leaves. Its meandering tracery makes a fine counterpoint among the solidity of agaves.
Along with durability, a big reason for its survival in the garden is that it never becomes an exasperating or annoying presence. It just never has a bad day.
(On the strength of BB’s performance, another gastrolobium was added this year, G. sericeum, from Australian Native Plants Nursery near Ojai.)

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I have a strong suspicion the two ‘Blue Glow’ agaves that bookend the gastrolobium will complete their life cycle and bloom next year, another reason to do a little portrait of this part of the garden now.

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Another old-timer is the restio behind the agaves. (It’s hard, for me anyway, to tell restios apart, but I think this is Thamnochortus insignis, about 3 feet tall after many years and sprawling to maybe 5 feet in diameter.) With ‘Bronze Butterfly,’ these two are the oldest plants in the front gravel garden, which was lawn in the pre-Internet days when we bought the house. Back then I took out the lawn because I was greedy for space to grow plants. I was actually worried for a time that neighbors would complain of our lawnless state. Now that having a green lawn has become a cause for complaint, I’m hopeful that, unlike the Palos Verdes Begonia Farm, nurseries won’t close due to drought but will instead thrive as robust gardens replace lawn as the new normal. There’s so many great plants out there just waiting to prove what beautiful survivors they can be.

*San Marcos Growers describes it as a 2002 Koala Blooms introduction, which would be after the nursery where I purchased it closed in 1997. I can’t account for the discrepancy in dates and have always believed it was purchased at the Palos Verdes Begonia Farm. In any case, it’s been in the garden at least ten years. UCSC lists it as “Brachysema praemorsa.”

gardens in flux

Whether tearing up lawn or reworking small, targeted areas, it seems like everybody on the West Coast has some part of the garden in transition in response to forces out of our control. (One of which is running out of water. If there’s an upside to this calamitous drought, it’s seeing such ill-suited landscaping choices as large lawns finally being called out for the climate anachronisms they’ve always been, even pre-drought, those glory days when we’d get a whopping 15 inches of rain a year.) I’ve been filling unexpected gaps in the little back garden with big pots of bodacious succulents like agaves, place holders until cooler fall planting temperatures prevail. And it’s why I always like to keep a few big pots ready for just such mid-summer deployment, preferably in cheap terracotta so I don’t feel guilty about plunging them directly into the soil, sometimes as much as a foot in depth. Currently, it looks like pots have parachuted into the garden on a rescue mission, like a scene out of The Agaves Have Landed. Yes, getting a garden to survive through summer and have something to look at in fall can sometimes feel like a military campaign.

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Agave recruits for midsummer gap deploment. Agave americana var. mediopicta ‘Alba’ in the foreground.
Agave attenuata ‘Boutin’s Blue’ is just across the little dog path in the background.

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It’s also a neat way to try out new shapes and plant associations, but I’ll probably lift the pots and leave the space open for self-sowing poppies and such next spring.

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Baltic parsley out, potted agave in. Two midsummer-melted lavenders out, Senecio medley-woodii in, this time planted in the ground.
This senecio had been neglected in its pot and is luxuriating in its new digs. That’s the amazing thing with succulents. So forgiving.

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Not much to look at when small, it has an almost leucadendron-like quality to the arrangement of the leaves and stems when big and shrubby.
Growing succulents on in pots to big sizes for just such a bold remedy is why I prefer to grow them as singletons rather than mixed with lots of other kinds.

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Agave geminiflora. I was this close to planting him in the ground this spring.
This spot turned out to be too dry for a digiplexis. One out of three remain in the back garden.

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The Kalanchoe grandiflora in the blue pot was grabbed for back-garden duty off the front porch.
In fall so many succulents are stirring back into life and growth. We have that much in common at least.
I have an odd tendency of shuffling plants in their off season to the front of the house and then moving them to the back garden when they’re beautiful again.
I’m too old to analyze such social tendencies anymore. It is what it is.
(I do like my neighbors. On Labor Day, when I smacked one of their side-view mirrors with mine, we immediately forgave and hugged and moved on.
Until I get the bill, that is. There is a culture in my neighborhood of cars stopping on our narrow streets to chat with friends on the sidewalk.
Cars wishing to travel through the streets must wait for the conversations to run their course, sometimes several minutes.
On Labor Day, I chose not to wait, because the guy tailgating me was obviously in a hurry, so I threaded through the narrow gap to the safety of my driveway about 50 feet away.
Unfortunately, I was in the wide-body Eurovan, not my Mini, and the sideview mirrors kissed a bit. Hey, move it or lose it. We’re done waiting.)

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Aeoniums to varying degrees pull their horns in for summer and then gradually lose that shell-shocked expression as fall approaches.
This one was temporarily moved to spend summer in the shade near the compost pile and just recently brought back into the garden.
Although generally summer dormant, not all aeoniums have such an extreme reaction to summer. If I kept track of their identities, I’d know which are more sensitive.
This one might be Aeonium balsamiferum, but don’t quote me.

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Echeveria ‘Opal Moon’ also spent most of summer near the compost pile, appearing more presentable by September.

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A potted Yucca rostrata was filling a gap for a few weeks but has since been planted in the front gravel garden to spur growth. A Grevillea lanigera ‘Mt. Tamboritha’ has taken its spot.
So I have been planting some of the (hopefully) tougher plants. We’ve been hitting about 90 degrees, with the 10-day forecast saying more of the same.

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Taking out a phormium to make room for the yucca resulted in a much nicer view of Agave ‘Jaws’ (even if its still crossing swords with Furcraea macdougalii)

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Checking nurseries yesterday for Grevillia ‘Moonlight,’ I stumbled into Bocconia frutescens.

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I think the big leaf is a better choice here than the grevillea, so home it came, planted immediately.
It’s been a bad week for phormiums. That makes two pulled out, one to make way for the Yucca rostrata and another removed for the grevillea bocconia.
The phormium here was a mid red in color, bought as the dwarf ‘Tom Thumb’ but obviously not, because it hit about 3 feet in height/width.
The bocconia can get big, tree-like even, or maintained as a cutback shrub. More shade might be desirable, so I’m keeping all options on the table.

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Cenolophium denudatum this past April 2014, pulled out August 2014.


Where do midsummer gaps come from? (Obviously a question posed on behalf of the nongardening segment of mankind.) Well, one example would be the trial of the umbellifer Cenolophium denudatum coming to an abrupt end, both plants pulled. Three years is a fair trial. Also known as “Baltic Parsley,” it never had much bloom at any one time, and better umbels can be had from many of the umbellifers usually consigned to our vegetable gardens without importing parsley from the Baltics. Evidence to the contrary, there is a method to my planting madness, but I may as well write the plans with my finger on a foggy shower door, for as long as they last. My experiments in the back garden have revolved around devising a mediterranean-adapted meadow for summer winding through evergreen shrubs and suculents for year-round structure, a plan which I’m in the process of re-evaluating, with probably greater emphasis in the future on evergreen shrubs, succulents, and grasses. The severity of the drought calls plans for a summer-centric meadow into question. Emphasis on spring, with the explosion of self-seeding poppies and other annuals in the cool weather just after winter rains, makes a lot more sense.

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An old photo showing the mediopicta getting closer to its midsummer parachute jump. This is one of many pups of the mother plant given to my next-door neighbor.
It was forgotten, neglected, and tucked out of sight on the porch near the driveway, where the overly familiar plants are banished.
But by mid-summer, its presence was required in the back garden. An agave is always ready to serve.
Quite a few of the plants in pots have since been planted too, a Hechtia glauca, a Crassula ‘Jitters,’ the trailing pachyveria and rhipsalis used in the Wall Planter, etc.

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The Eryngium padanifolium was thinned out yesterday. In hindsight, it was planted a little too close to the little patio off the kitchen.
I guess it’s a surprise when some plants actually thrive. I’ve got seedlings for insurance but still hated to move, and probably thereby destroy, a mature, flowering eryngo.
The bloom stalks were half the height of last year, topping out at about 3 feet. Last year they were as high as the pergola.

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This pot of Sticks on Fire has been all over the garden this summer, moved to the little patio yesterday.
I cut the melianthus back in the garden just beyond, so something interesting to look at was needed here.

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I love looking at my new Cussonia natalensis found at XOTX-Tropico in West Hollywood..

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And the new Manihot escuelenta ‘Variegata’ too. I had a rocky relationship with the mail-order nursery that supplied this plant, Aloha Tropicals.
Some problems with billing have been made right, but the main reason for the order, Passiflora ‘Sunburst,’ seems to be dead, and very shortly after arrival. Caveat emptor.


mangaves, water bills, and other mysteries

I’ve been going over the monthly water bills, which this year give usage in 100-cubic feet per month instead of gallons per day. Beyond exasperated with the inscrutable tables and tiers on July’s bill, I made my very first cranky call to a public utility yesterday. Why, in the name of all that’s sensible, and in the midst of this horrific drought, have you stopped listing water usage in helpful and easy-to-comprehend gallons per day? I had known exactly where I stood each month of 2013 by checking the daily gallon usage under the heading “Evaluate Your Conservation Efforts,” and it became a game to see how low we could go. (And not to boast — well, forget it, I am going to boast: Our water usage has always clocked in at well below average.) On the phone, I tried not to sound shrill, aiming for Friendly But Concerned Citizen, but I could sense the voice on the other end was taking my inquiry in the spirit of Oh, great, my first wild-eyed crazy caller of the day and it’s still two hours until lunch. I was left waiting for maybe 3-4 minutes, which pre-Internet might have been an effective ploy to tire us out. Not so much anymore. (Someone had mentioned Lawn Chair Larry earlier in the week, which drew a blank, so that was four minutes productively spent learning about the modern-day Da Vinci of San Pedro, Calif.) She eventually came back on the line and was ready to walk me through the numbers. “A cubic foot of water is 748 gallons…” She started out strong but immediately sputtered out, sounding as wobbly as I am with math. Yes, I know. That formula is in tiny print on the back of the bill, but what about this tier usage? There’s several numbers. Which do I use? At this point it was clear I was guilty of torturing an innocent bureaucrat, so I asked for the Suggestions Department. She suppressed a snicker and then gleefully kicked my can down the road to the “Suggestions Department” (probably someone she was mad at that day), where I left an impassioned voice mail to help us deal with this ferocious drought by sending a bill we can easily read, calculator not required. That’s probably been replayed several times by the “Suggestion Department” for a good laugh.


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photo of zonkey found here


Leaving the water department and on to fresh mysteries, like the mangave in my garden. Mangaves are the zonkeys of the succulent world, intergeneric hybrids between manfredas and agaves. (Save up zonkey research for your next phone complaint.) It’s an offset from a mangave Dustin Gimbel bought at a Riverside plant sale. Not ‘Macho Mocha,” which from what I can tell from photos has a wavier, almost flabby leaf and is overall a bit more relaxed in form. “Macho Mocha’ is thought to be a manfreda hybrid with Agave mitis (nee celsii) This mystery mangave has a thinner leaf and that snap-to, at-attention look of an Agave desmettiana. It might have more color in full-day sun. It gets only morning sun here, afternoon shade under the tetrapanax. At 28 inches in height and 34 inches across, it’s many times the size of Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ in bloom in the front garden, which is about as large as an Echeveria agavoides.

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For scale, shown with Agave ‘Blue Flame’ in the foreground.

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New leaves are typically spotted, which fades on the older leaves. Very small teeth on the margins.
I need to try some of its many pups in full sun, but attempting to remove a pup seems to destabilize the whole plant, so I’ve been reluctant to force the issue.

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That this mystery mangave has turned into such a big presence in the garden has been a nice surprise.

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In the front garden under the triangle palm, the Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ is in delicate bloom, which is where its manfreda/tuberose heritage becomes most apparent.
And whether expressed in teaspoons, gallons, or cubic feet, mangaves, manfredas, and agaves are all very easy on the water bill.


supergraphic Deborah Sussman


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When I visited Los Angeles’ Grand Park for the first time, I didn’t know that environmental designer Deborah Sussman, who passed away last week at age 83, was the force behind those shocking pink chairs and benches, a color Ms. Sussman energetically promoted throughout her 60-year career.

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Her design firm Sussman/Prejza & Co handled “signage, wayfinding, and amenities” for Grand Park, including its color schemes.

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above photo by Jim Simmons found here

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Garden markers (designed by Sussman/Prejza & Company) resemble oversized garden stakes and indicate the region, describe the climate, and talk about the specific characteristics of a featured plant within each garden. Magenta site furnishings throughout the park invite visitors to linger, enjoying its vibrant display. The vibrant color was chosen to act as a year-round “bloom” that complements the seasonal colors of the gardens.” — World Landscape Architecture

photo from Design Boom

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photo from Design Boom

Of course, there were many more celebrated projects before and after Grand Park, beginning in her twenties, when she worked for Charles and Ray Eames.

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I also didn’t know that Sussman had collaborated on the graphics and signage work for the Eames exhibit at Pacific Standard Time when I visited that show at LACMA here.

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Perhaps most famously, Ms. Sussman was the environmental designer for Los Angeles’ 1984 Summer Olympics, the first since 1932 to make a profit. Her brilliant sleight of hand with inexpensive, temporary structures such as scaffolding, bold use of graphics and color in signage, has brought her the status of the graphic designer’s designer. Just last weekend I was chatting with an architect about her, who admitted that he had stowed some of the throwaway ’84 Olympic signage in his garage (lucky him).

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image found at Design & Architecture

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As her last show at the WUHO Gallery proclaimed, Deborah Sussman loved LA, and the bold, vibrant mark she left on this city will be something I’ll be reminded of now every time I visit Grand Park.