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Fernando Caruncho’s Design Studio

Images from Architectural Digest of the design studio of the Spanish landscape architect who resolutely insists on being called a gardener.
As with stripping down occupations to their mythic essence, Caruncho does the same for gardens, revealing anew the power of simple, age-old forms.
Timeless essentials from a former philosophy student who discovered the garden is the perfect venue for investigating dialectics of nature and spirit.
A seamless fusion of Moorish, French, Spanish influences, always the geometric elevated and emphasized over color.
The design studio is made of primal building blocks of box, jasmine, fig, pomegranate, bay laurel, lime, gravel, water.
Not as much a signature style as a deeply assimilated understanding of previous civilizations’ response to living in the light, heat, seasonal drought of the Mediterranean Basin.
So important is the play of light in Caruncho’s work that he considers his gardens a “light box.”
Celebrated for work including a wheat-filled parterre, Caruncho’s design studio has a neo-Medieval air. A contemplative compound for the philosophizing gardener.


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The floors are the gravel, the ceiling is the sky, and the walls are the clipped laurel and boxwood that follow the curves.”

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Photography by Simon Watson
Source here.

waiting out a furcraea’s awkward years

This furcraea has been kicking around in the garden, oh, such a very long time.
It’s been in pots, planted in the ground, and then moved several times, frequently serving as a midnight snail snack.
This summer is the first time I can truly say it looks like a happy furcraea.

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I have been cutting out the disheveled lower leaves, and it’s thrown so many beautiful, new leaves that the whole plant is finally achieving a perfection I doubted I’d ever see.
It’s related to agaves but completely thornless, so sprawling on the bricks near foot traffic won’t be a problem.
And although this Brazilian is known to appreciate a little shade, it’s been thriving in near full-sun conditions, so I’m not changing a thing.
Who knows what’s factored into its new-found good looks? As it’s matured and the leaves toughened, the snails seem to have lost interest.
About 3 feet high and wide and expected to almost double that size, it should be able to grow to maturity in its current location (gulp).
For someone who’s a compulsive plant mover, this furcraea has finally grown into a plant that’s safe from my restless shovel.
In other words, I really can’t imagine it anywhere else.

completion of the High Line September 21, 2014

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Before it was constructed, the New York Central Railroad had operated a rail freight line at grade, or street level, along Tenth Avenue, and men on horseback (“West Side cowboys”) had ridden ahead of the train with red flags or lanterns to warn pedestrians of its coming; yet even with this picturesque alarm system, so many careless, inebriated or simply unlucky citizens had gotten run over that the street acquired the notorious name “Death Avenue.” For over 70 years, since the mid-19th century, public outcry had agitated against this danger to life and limb, demanding a safer solution: thus, the High Line.” (Here.)

Completed September 21, 2014, the High Line park has now become many things to many people, its Rashomon effect hashed out in the comments section of the many articles written about its success. It’s been five years since the first phase opened, with the third and final phase finished this fall. Over that span of time, my unadulterated delight at the railway’s rebirth into a park with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf has become complicated by learning of many other divergent reactions, and quite a few outright hostile ones, including accusing the park of being a Trojan Horse hiding rapacious developers. Because of the unimagined success of its new life as a beloved city park and tourist destination, drawing 5 million a year, it’s easy to forget its humble origins in community activism. I’ve seen neighborhood activism up close, and it isn’t always pretty. Contentious, divisive, disillusioning, these are what come to mind. Semi-contemporaneous with the grass-roots conversion of the disused railway line into a public park in NYC, my neighborhood association in Los Angeles was also involved in a grass roots effort concerning a property suffering from extreme landlord neglect, a property that slipped in and out of drug dealing. After years of frustrating engagement with the city at all levels, code, police, planning, the property seemed to magically accelerate on a fast track to a “pocket park,’ a cherished pipe dream of neighborhood activists. All of a sudden, the long-sought grant money was there, the city’s will was no longer wobbly but strong, and after years of dead-end efforts, the pocket park was a go. Plans were approved, the troubled property was sacrificed on the altar of eminent domain, and the park is now a year old. (I had nothing to do with the process, only attending a couple meetings and ceremonies.) The differences in scale between the two projects couldn’t be more stark, but I have to admit I had my doubts that either project would ever get off the ground. Another difference is that, unlike the High Line project, everyone in our neighborhood is wildly enthusiastic about our result. But then our neighborhood is in no danger of developers rushing in to build luxury penthouses to take advantage of views of our pocket park. (Some might say more’s the pity!)


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The High Line experienced a similar acceleration when Giuliani and his pro-demolition sympathies left office, replaced by Michael Bloomberg, whose new agenda included finding innovative ways to include more parks despite the seemingly maxed-out density of NYC. The dream of a park in the sky found a powerful champion. With the completion of the final phase, and housebound with a sore throat, I dug a little deeper into the formation of the High Line, and what I found was a mulligan stew of community activism, timely rezoning, and a strange concept called “air rights,” mixed with insatiable appetites for high-end real estate development. The gentrifcation of this former manufacturing neighborhood was going to happen with or without the High Line. As with so many American cities, manufacturing had long decamped. Art galleries and designer ateliers had already moved in. Businesses directly under the disused structure were agitating for its removal to develop their valuable properties skyward. Ultimately, what came to the rescue of these disgruntled businesses as well as park proponents was ingenious manipulation of TDRs (Transferable Development Rights). And built into plans for the High Line’s redesign were considerations for unopposed views and open space that arguably wouldn’t have been a vision for this neighborhood’s growth had the High Line been demolished.

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High Line Adjacency Controls: Required Open Space
A minimum of 20% of the lot area would be required to be reserved as landscaped open space. To provide a visual extension of the High Line, the required open space would be located adjacent to and at a height not to exceed the level of the High Line. The required open space could not front on Tenth Avenue and could be used as a public or private space
.” (Here.)


But back to the inception. The owners of the railway, CSX, who acquired it from Conrail in 1998, resisted the swelling outcry for demolition and opted instead to commission a study of potential uses. (Bless CSX for that.) Rail banking was a proposal that intrigued neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond, both in attendance at that meeting unveiling the results of the study. (My community garden lies in a disused railway easement, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also a beneficiary of rail banking.) After that momentous meeting, David and Hammond formed the nonprofit Friends of the High Line, fully in support of a park use for the railway.

Along with requisitioning the potential use study, CSX fortuitously hired photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose evocative photos were just the boost the proposed park needed.


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photo by Joel Sternfeld 2000

One of the single most important things that happened to save the High Line in the very early days was when CSX made it possible for Joel Sternfeld’s project to photograph the High Line,” says David.
“They basically made it possible for the world to see what was on top of the High Line.
” (Here.)

In the beginning, we didn’t know what the High Line should ultimately look like. We didn’t know exactly what the design should be. We always thought the community and the city should decide what it should be. Over time, people coalesced around Joel’s photo and when you asked them, “What do you want the High Line to be?” they’d point to Joel’s photos and they’d say, “I want it to be like that.” In some ways, that was the biggest inspiration behind the design, Joel’s photos of the landscape.” (Interview with Robert Hammond Here.)

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Now when I see pictures of just the High Line without any people, I realize it wasn’t as good.
It’s really beautiful when you have people interacting with the new landscape of the High Line
.” — Robert Hammond Here.

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What was striking is that in all my reading, not once was the amazingly complex plantsmanship of Piet Oudolf cited as part of the appeal that lures so many to the High Line.
Through his plantings, Oudolf matched the spirit of Sternfeld’s photos of the abandoned railway recolonized by plants.

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Where once there was a clang and clamor of industry, the noisy, physical manifestation of America’s 20th Century manufacturing might, the old railway has been repurposed for another kind of movement that seems to strike some as aimless, idle, purposeless: people making multivaried use of a park.

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The fact that this new amenity sprang from older industrial infrastructure says a lot about the current moment in New York’s evolution. A city that had once pioneered so many technological and urban planning solutions, that had dazzled the world with its public works, its skyscrapers, bridges, subways, water-delivery system, its Central Park, palatial train stations, libraries and museums, appears unable to undertake any innovative construction on a grand scale, and is now consigned to cannibalizing its past and retrofitting it to function as an image, a consumable spectacle. Productivity has given way to narcissism; or, to put it more charitably, work has yielded to leisure.” (Here.)

I would argue that instead of cannibalizing the past, the past has been honored and included in the present moment, which is a continuum that the wisest cities respect.
I would argue that the High Line gives all of us, not just the 1 percent, million-dollar views of New York.
And the fact that funding was found for a park (a park!) and not another sports arena still strikes me as extraordinary and reason enough to celebrate.

I’ve included photos of one of my visits to the High Line in June 2013.

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Railroad lines crisscrossing the country move freight, delivering everything from coal to cars.
But one rail line running above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side moves your soul, delivering sanctuary amid coneflower and pink evening primrose
.” (Here.)


Reading for this post can found at these links:

http://www.thehighline.org/

http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-nyc-mayor-bloombergs-urban-planning-legacy.html

http://journalism.nyu.edu/publishing/archives/portfolio/subramanian/HighLine_Resident.html

http://www.asla.org/ContentDetail.aspx?id=34419

http://www.hraadvisors.com/featured/the-high-line/#&panel1-4

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/under-the-high-line-a-gay-past/

http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2005/july-august/taking-the-high-line.html

http://observer.com/2008/02/developers-want-easier-access-to-high-line-air-rights-but-should-city-fix-something-that-doesnt-look-broken/

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/responsible-living/sponsorvideo/improbable-journey-the-story-of-new-yorks-high-line

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/realestate/the-great-race-for-manhattan-air-rights.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/westchelsea/westchelsea3b.shtml

terraced gardens and the Cow Horn agave

I love terraced gardens, with their multiple shifting perspectives from up, down, side to side. I can probably trace this appreciation to an aunt’s hilltop home in the harbor town of San Pedro, Calif. My dad’s sister had a house that overlooked Los Angeles Harbor, bought with fishing money, when there were still big local schools of sardine and albacore. The hill was buttressed by multiple terraces. The plantings were nondescript, but the idea intrigued me even as a kid, this modest example of domestic-scale geoengineering, with the land falling away beneath you, yet there always being level ground underfoot provided by the terracing. Visiting the terraced villages of the Cinque Terre in Italy many years later was a continuation of this childhood fascination. Terraced gardens still pull me in to this day, as this local one did featuring a favorite agave from western Mexico, the Cow Horn agave.


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Agave bovicornuta here being harassed by a bougainvillea. Yucca rostrata on the topmost terrace.

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Aeoniums and lavender, Kalanchoe tomentosa, Aloe striata, with an attempt to tame and train bougainvillea against a retaining wall.
A Dragon Tree holds a corner of the upper terrace.

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Another feature of terrace gardens: incredibly satisfied-looking plants in the free drainage and warmth from the stone in this eastern exposure.
This house and garden is just a couple blocks from the ocean.

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Deep green and blue again, this time the green provided by the Pencil Cactus, Euphorbia tirucalli
The blue agave looks like possibly Agave celsii ‘Nova’ (now going by A. mitis.) except that solitary agave is not known for pupping so many offsets.
It also looks a lot like my ‘Dragon Toes,’ which does offset freely.

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Seems like I gravitate for a while to the powder blue agaves or variegated agaves, but there will always be room for the deep emerald green of the Cowhorn Agave.
Mine succumbed to overwatering in the back garden a couple years ago, and I haven’t seen it on offer locally since.
The back garden is becoming almost as dry as the front gravel garden, so I’ve started planting agaves in the ground in the back again. We’ll see how they fare.

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With rosemary and Echeveria agavoides.

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What the bougainvillea really wants is the terraces all to itself.
I’d never unleash it in this situation, where keeping it in bounds will require frequent trimming, putting the succulents in danger of being trampled if not smothered first.
I do admire the horizontal line of its dark green leaves snaking across the retaining walls in the upper photos, but the amount of labor and leaf litter…
All that clipping sacrifices the flowers anyway, turning what’s normally a study in scarlet to a minor meditation on magenta.

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A glimpse of the sloping front lawn of the house next-door, which shows how the Cow Horn agave matches the depth of color of green grass.

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With the paddle plant, Kalanchoe luciae ‘Fascination.’

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Another bonus of terraces is the fact that agaves are not at shin level, which is where I frequently engaged with my Cow Horn agave —
but always in cowboy jeans, of course.


beam me here



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Actor Zachary Quinto, probably best known for playing the young Spock in the JJ Abrams’ Star Trek movies, on the evidence of his garden, seems to be a well-grounded young man.
It’s not very often that a house for sale comes with a garden that I could see myself puttering in, a garden without irreversible mistakes or in need of buckets of sweat equity.
Good bones is the cliche I’m trying but failing to avoid. The hardscape looks easy to care for, the angles are sharp and clean, with abundant retaining walls for seating or containers.
Some areas look sunny enough for potted agaves but with mature shade trees for cooling sitting areas and, just as importantly, shading the house.
And no surprise that privacy screening looks to be thoroughly handled and in move-in shape, ready for morning coffee.
The roofline’s deep overhangs will also help soften the blast from the heat. Personally, I’d like a little more ground to play with, but I could be arm-twisted into downsizing.
I’d keep the dining table and the Acapulco chairs too. From The Los Angeles Times.

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a garden wedding



When someone who works in landscape design gets married, even the agaves are dressed for the occasion.

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Congratulations to Mary True and Cheryl Fippen on their recent wedding in Berkeley, California.
Thank you both for your kind permission to use these photos.
Additional thanks to Shirley Watts and MB Maher.
All photography by MB Maher.


streetside with grasses and succulents

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Because of this house, I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon trying to source a flat of Sesleria autumnalis or Sesleria ‘Greenlee.’
No luck yet, but I will not be deterred.

Continue reading streetside with grasses and succulents

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