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Portland Pots It Up

There’s so many reasons for plants to spend some or even all of their lives in containers.
Aside from the practical reasons — fine-tuning sunlight, better drainage, more moisture, less moisture, special soil mixes, protection from chewing and digging creatures, the ability to shuttle plants indoors where a cold winter will be inhospitable and/or deadly — all these good and sensible reasons aside, containers provide strong graphic and framing opportunities that many of us find hard to resist. And it’s not like our infatuation with pots is new — the oldest pottery found in China dates back almost 20,000 years, so I’d argue that we’re just yielding to an age-old, irresistible impulse that impels us to seek out empty vessels brimming with so much potential. The gardens of Portland we toured exploited this graphic potential like nobody’s business.


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Euphorbia ammak would not survive the Portland winter were it not for the portability of the freckled chartreuse pots in Craig Quirk & Larry Neill’s Floramagoria garden designed by Laura Crockett.
A perfect example of the gorgeous joining hands with the practical. I love this soft color that blends so well with plants. (A year or so ago I found a pot with this same glaze at Rolling Greens in Culver City.)

Continue reading Portland Pots It Up

impressions of Portland gardens (in the zone of filtered sunshine)


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Since returning from touring gardens and nurseries in Portland last week, I’ve been haphazardly researching what makes the Pacific Northwest so full of great gardens and nurseries. Not expecting any definitive answer, just scrounging around for clues. Portland’s enviably soft light at 45 degrees latitude that famously attracts painters and glass artists is one clue. And to account for sheer creativity, I found assorted oddball theories, including one on the geography of personality, which shows the entire West Coast of the U.S. coming up strong in “openness,” which “reflects curiosity, intellect, and creativity at the individual level,” and registering low in neuroticism. (California comes in slightly more neurotic than Oregon and Washington, with the East Coast taking the prize for most neurotic.)


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And then there was the crackpot hucksterism of Erwin L. Weber, paid for by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce in 1924 to encourage settlement in the Pacific Northwest and woo development away from California: ““Filtered sunshine — sunshine filtered thru the clouds — and only a moderate degree of intense sunshine, as exists in the Pacific Northwest, is best for all, and vital to the development of the most energetic peoples…Intense and prolonged sunshine, as exists in the greater portion of the United States is detrimental to the highest human progress. History abounds with the annals of peoples who built up empires and civilizations under the temporary stimulus of intense sunshine. But this same intense sunshine later broke down the stamina and resistance of these peoples, thus causing the fall of their empires and the decay of their civilizations.” (In the Zone of Filtered Sunshine) In his sunshine-is-destiny theory, Mr. Weber appeared to believe it was the strong sun and not the Visigoths that brought down the Roman empire.


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Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ was seen in quite a few of the gardens, a plant that needs to be widely available in Los Angeles.


Weeding through a lot of apocryphal stories and wacky theories is an entertaining byproduct of high-speed Internet, but it invariably leads to a condition that This American Life contributing editor Nancy Updike describes as “Modern Jackass,” which involves expounding at length on a topic about which the speaker actually knows very little. So I’ll stop with the crank theories. Because there is one indisputable, geologic source of all that splendor: the spectacularly fertile Willamette Valley, which stretches from Eugene at its southern end to Portland at its northernmost. As far as I can tell from my admittedly superficial (Modern Jackass) inquiry, this valley was scoured and tumbled by massive ice movements, then filled and refilled with water up to 50 times, when enormous silt deposits were built up, leaving an astonishing depth of loam known as the Willamette silt:

During Pleistocene time, large-volume glacial-outburst floods, which originated in western Montana, periodically flowed down the Columbia River drainage and inundated the Willamette Lowland. These floods deposited up to 250 feet of silt, sand, and gravel in the Portland Basin, and up to 130 feet of silt, known as the Willamette Silt, elsewhere in the Willamette Lowland.” — from “Influence of the Missoula Floods on Willamette Valley Ground Water.”


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Great nurseries are the keystone for supporting a vibrant garden culture, and the Portland area is blessed with dozens of wonderful nurseries, including the three we saw on the tour: Pomarius Nursery, where we had the pre-tour cocktail party, Cistus Nursery, to which I’ve made several pilgrimages in years prior to the tour, and Joy Creek Nursery, also previously visited with friends a few years ago. (The last two have mail-order catalogues, by the way.)

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Commercial dahlia growers beautifully exploit the Willamette silt. Hops grow well here, too, supporting all those microbreweries.

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About 70 miles inland from the coast, Portland can get hot in summer. It can and it did. A couple days over 90 were outright sweltering.

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But generally Portland’s climate brings warm, dry summers and chilly, damp winters.
Fluctuating warm/cold spring temperatures keep the gardeners sharp and the nurseries busy.

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An occasional colder-than-average winter can bring sad losses, but all the gardens we toured were fearless in pushing zones.

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Coddling tender plants has been turned into an art form by Portland gardeners.

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Heading into Portland from the airport, my seat mates on either side of me on the MAX were respectively (a) attending the World Domination Summit and (b) a conference on plant biology.
From the outset, I knew the next few days were going to be interesting, and the exuberant, plant-rich gardens of Portland never let up off the throttle.

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(And now a word from the 2014 Garden Bloggers Fling sponsors, who can all be found here. These sponsors and the volunteer planners make the Fling one of the best garden tours around.)

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More on Portland’s gardens to come.

Bloom Day July 2014

It fell from midnight skies. It drummed on the galvanized – Joni Mitchell, Paprika Plains

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Marty’s been reciting those song lyrics ever since the rain came and fell in exactly that manner Monday night.
We all raced out the kitchen door when the first drops began to dance on the corrugated roof over the pergola.
(Rain fell on the garden bloggers in Portland, too, just in one garden. It was thrilling.)
I spent most of Monday planting what I carried home in my suitcase, so to get a little rain after a midsummer planting is my kind of heaven.
My clothes and other Portland Fling swag will be arriving via UPS in a couple days…

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In other exciting news…ahem…the dasylirion outside the front door opened the flowers along its roof-topping bloom spike.
Above photo taken before I left for Portland.

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Will dasy ever get that gorgeous pre-birth shape back?

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15-foot dasylirion spike disappearing into the jacaranda tree. Unlike agaves, the dasylirion will supposedly persist after blooming.
I’ve had this plant countless years and had never seen a bloom before. We’ve dubbed this bizarre scene “Bee Town.”

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The Silver Vase bromeliad surprised me with a bloom. Aechmea fasciata.

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Spring-planted Aristida purpurea thinly blooming

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Pennisetum ‘Skyrocket’

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The pennisetum with the unstoppable Gomphrena ‘Fireworks.’

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Castor bean’s mace-shaped seedpods are popping up throughout the back garden.
Since the garden looks pretty much like June, I’ll keep this abbreviated so you can move on to other July gardens at the Bloom Day hub, Carol’s blog May Dreams Gardens.

how Alison got her stripes back

So very glad to find a moderate-sized phormium, a true 4-footer, I was willing to overlook the fact that many of this New Zealand Flax’s leaves age into a dull olive green, losing the pale bands that are the inspiration for the alternate name ‘Golden Alison.’ Locally, this phormium goes by ‘Alison Blackman.’


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‘Blue Glow’ agaves, small Australian shrub Brachysema praemorsum, Furcraea macdougalii in the center, phormium off to the right, all tolerating the parched conditions in the front gravel garden.

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The unseasonal heat wave in May blistered some leaves, so a thorough cleaning was undertaken shortly afterward. And that’s how Alison got her stripes back.

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This phormium, bred by Barry Blackman, a nurseryman in New Zealand, was named in memory of his late daughter.


the French Laundry’s Culinary Garden

One score and seven minutes ago our partners brought forth on this town, a new restaurant, conceived in finesse, and dedicated to the proposition that all food is served soigné.” –
Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry celebrating its 20th anniversary July 6, 2014.


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When my oldest son Mitch traveled to the Isle of Skye off of Northern Scotland just to eat at The Three Chimneys is probably when I first realized he was getting fairly serious about eating good food. For his photography services, he has been known to accept payment in the form of a meal at a favorite restaurant. That right there is a pretty good illustration of the kind of business sense that runs in my family.

Mitch visited The French Laundry over the weekend, about an hour north out of San Francisco in Napa Valley, in the town of Yountville. Mediterranean winter wet/summer dry, zone 9ish, a climate very much to a grape’s liking. I can’t even imagine the pressures involved in running a working kitchen garden that supports a world-class restaurant. You can read more about the process on their Facebook page. The French Laundry was inducted into The Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012. Jacket required.

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The menu for July 6, 2014.


sunday clippings 7/6/14

I think the conversation left off with brillantaisia, the salvia look-alike I stumbled upon at the local city college. Except it’s not really a salvia but a member of the acanthaceae family. I did go back for photos and also had an odd encounter with a woman on a bike, who pedaled up to me and matter-of-factly imparted an account while I snapped photos about three youths who were chasing her, trying to steal her bike. Concerned and alarmed, I turned fully toward her and away from the gaping flowers of brillantaisia, whose tall stems were blowing in the twilight sky at my back, and anxiously scanned the campus, which was empty except for me, the woman calmly straddling the bike, and Marty & Ein waiting a small distance away in his VW bus. Did she live close by? Yes. Could we load her and the bike in the bus and take her home? No. Did she need an escort home? No. Confused by her flat demeanor, which didn’t square at all with the account of attempted theft, I repeated the questions again, trying a different order, but she declined all offers of help, never letting up that steady, slightly unnerving gaze she had first fixed on me. I studied her face, too, and could gather about as much information from her inscrutable expression as I could from the brillantaisia, which somehow came to be growing on this chain-link fence behind me and this mysterious woman on the bike. The woman and what she really wanted from me will forever remain a mystery, but it was easy enough to find out some information on the Giant Salvia:

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Brillantaisia subulugurica (or possibly b. ulugurica) on a chain-link fence at Long Beach City College.

From the Flora of Zimbabwe:

Soft-wooded aromatic shrub or even rarely a small tree, up to 5 m tall. Leaves opposite, more or less broadly ovate, sometimes purple-tinged, 10-40 cm long, often cordate at the base but lamina running back down into a winged petiole; margin coarsely toothed with small and large teeth. Flowers in a more or less open, branched purplish inflorescence, 10-40 cm long. Corolla pale to bright blue, mauve, violet or purple, 2 lipped; upper lip 25-52 mm long, covered with purplish glandular hairs; lower lip 17-40 mm long, 3-lobed. Capsule 25-45 mm long, glandular-hairy. Worldwide distribution: Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe.”

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Cuttings have already rooted, and I’ll probably trial the plants in large trash bins like these.

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They can be had cheap from the big box stores to hold big shrubby stuff like Salvia ‘Amistad.’
It dawned on me just a few weeks ago that I had no salvias for the hummingbirds this fall, and these large pails were perfect for a last-minute course correction.

Everyone has probably seen these articles shared on Facebook by the time I mention them the old-fashioned way on a blog, but it’s always worth linking to anything Michael Tortorello writes. His recent piece for The New York Times, Botany’s New Boys, held a particular interest because I keep bumping into these young botany boys at the community garden. Last week one of them regaled me with his enthusiasm for fungi and visions of cash-crop success with shitaki mushrooms grown in a month’s time. Where will he get the spores? I asked.
You guessed it, a TED talk is the answer: Paul Stamet’s “6 ways mushrooms can save the world.” (Transcript here.)
I always fantasize about airbnb’ing our house when the TED talks roll into town about a mile away every spring.

Even with the recent news that Facebook has conducted covert psychology experiments on unwitting subscribers, it seems foolish not to get on board when there’s such a wealth of garden-related stuff being shared. I was introduced to Carolyn Mullet’s page when she asked permission to use a few photos, and found she has a knack for sourcing gardens that I never see via other sites like Pinterest.

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Carolyn asks on her Facebook page how are California gardens faring in this miserable drought. Lots of choices among tough aromatic herbs and small shrubs, succulents, grasses.

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Sometimes being in a tight spot can inspire new ideas. This mother of a drought makes invention a necessity.

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I’ve been half-heartedly (six months now) cleaning up my FB account and streamlining it more for garden-related stuff. Maybe I’ll finish that project one day, and then I’ll link stuff like this:
“Sowing a Garden One Knit Flower at a Time,” Smithsonian article on artist Tatyana Yanishevsky

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What’s sowing and growing in my garden is Mina lobata, the Spanish flag vine. I love it when treasures like this self-seed.

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From the recent CSSA sale, Aloe cameronii has found a home.
Confined mostly to the front garden and containers, succulents are increasingly sneaking into the back garden, which means it’s slowly developing into a drier garden too.

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Also from the sale, variegated Agave x leopoldii will cool his heels in a container for a while. Tag says “choice hybrid of A. schidigera?”

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Lots of those containers find their way under the flea market display pipe stand, which I still can’t bring myself to dismantle.

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There’s always something new and full of potential to fasten to it which would otherwise be forgotten and tucked away in a drawer.
I think I’m allowing this indulgence because, otherwise, we’ve really been clearing stuff out. Really.

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Some of those containers have been migrating to the east patio, which is more dappled sun.

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I clocked our “June gloom” lasting until 2 p.m. last week. But June has unfortunately been well-trained not to spread that lovely grey morning quilt into July.
In July it simply disappears, and like a switch has been flipped, those 70 days become 90 days.

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For those 90-degree days, the golden-leaved tansy ‘Isla Gold.’

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So good with the melianthus.

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The Miscanthus ‘Cabaret’ in the metal tank loves the 90 days too, which have pushed it to the top of the pergola.


I’ll be clearing my desk to get away to Portland for the garden blogger meetup later in the week, so there may not be any more non-stories about women on bikes and whatnot until I move this mountain of work out of the way. But I’ll be needing occasional distractions, so please keeping documenting July in your gardens and I promise to do the same as soon as I can.

notes from the CSSA plant sale at the Huntington June 28-29, 2014

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Aloe cameronii from the Cactus & Succulent Society of America show and sale at the Huntington this weekend.
An aloe famous for the deep coloring of is leaves, which requires harsh treatment to maintain, full sun and minimal water. I can do harsh no problem.
A variegated Agave leopoldii and Hechtia glauca also made the cut.

The sale is a small affair this year, possibly due to the fact that the Huntington itself is in a state of major upheaval as it works on the new Education and Visitor Center and other projects. The main entry and plaza is shrouded in construction fencing, and an ad hoc, tented entry has been fashioned. Something else new was the requirement to purchase admission to the Huntington to attend the plant sale. In the past, the parking lot plant sale could be attended free. I usually spring for the admission ticket anyway, and today I was grateful for the nudge because the desert garden conservatory was open. I unfailingly visit on the days it’s closed, which is more often than not. I think the sign said it’s only open on Saturdays now, but call to check if it’s a make-or-break reason for visiting.


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In the desert garden, there was lots of Agave bracteosa in bloom.

For the cactus lovers, join me in the steamy conservatory after the jump.

Continue reading notes from the CSSA plant sale at the Huntington June 28-29, 2014

Old California Style

Yeah, the architecture is really consistent, isn’t it? French next to Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese.” Alvy Singer musing on Los Angeles architecture in “Annie Hall.”

Adobe-style house in a polyglot landscape. California pepper tree, Schinus molle (from Peru), acacia, and pale Variegated Pride of Madeira, agaves and cactus, feather grass.
Next-door to homes in the Tudor style, mediterranean villa, Cape Cod. I have to say I do prefer this adobe dream to the others.

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streetside: succulent garden 6/24/14

Another gem of a garden found via a traffic shortcut.* I’ve been admiring it for some time and stopped by last night for photos. Driving by, the tall succulents, a Furcraea macdougalii about the size of mine, Euphorbia ammak and ocotillo, were the first striking outlines to capture my attention traveling at the speed of a car, all three plants being good enough reasons to later investigate on foot. Maybe I’m biased, but from a purely aesthetic point of view, to me some of the most successful lawn-free front gardens I’ve seen locally have featured succulents. Their strong outlines are perfectly suited to conform to that tyrannical template we all inherit with these small houses — the path slicing through the middle of a geometric grid enroute to the front door. Succulents have an inherent formalism of structure that suit the rigidity of these ubiquitous layouts that were designed to be horizontally dominated by smooth turf, but their diversity, supercharged dynamism, strong colors and shapes subvert the traditional notion of a staid front garden. All while still managing to be neat and tidy 365 days a year (here in zone 10) and incredibly easy on the monthly water bill. A love of beautiful plants and a strong eye for design can produce startling effects even within this typical suburban design framework. I’ve tagged most of the agaves but leave the ID of the opuntia and other cacti up for discussion.


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Agaves included are ‘Blue Glow,’ desmettiana ‘Variegata,’ macroacantha, parryi, stricta, bracteosa.

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My own Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ bloomed this year, its space already taken by smaller, if less dramatic agaves.

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I’m blanking on this writhing, silvery mass with serrated leaves. Dasylirion? Puya? Nolina? Silvery shrub in the background is a westringia.

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Along with the Pelargonium sidoides, pollinators can find something of interest in flowering ground covers and a big native buckwheat near the front window, St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum).

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The pencil stems with orange flowers on the far left looks like a pedilanthus.

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Small-scale ground covers eloquently underplant the rosettes including this Agave potatorum.

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Aptly named squid agave, A. bracteosa. The strewn leaves are from a neighbor’s parkway magnolia.

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Agaves nestled snugly into the well-placed rocks.

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Ocotillo and a pencil euphorbia, possibly E. leucodendron.

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I mostly avoided taking photos of the house, but the Furcraea macdougalii was smack in the middle of a front window, backed by eriogonum.

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Wreathed in aloes at its base.

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The parkway/hell strip was all helichrysum silver.

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Except for this one, which I’m pretty sure is a sideritis, the first I’ve seen locally outside my own garden.

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Front gardens like this always beg the tantalizing question: What on earth did they save for the back?


*Once again a traffic jam forced me into taking a lesser-traveled route. So I’ve been admiring this newly found garden since spring, during the recent Stanley Cup playoffs and final series, driving en route to watch the games with my mom. After my dad died, we all took up the one sport he never followed, initially as a means to get together frequently during the week. I’d never been a fan of any sport before but knew that televised sports had been an important part of their marriage. I caught an Olympic hockey game in 2010 and admired the speed and athleticism, and thus we started following the fortunes of our beleaguered, star-crossed local team. At first we were unable to even keep an eye trained on the whizzing puck and found the unspoken rules mystifying. But then the Los Angeles Kings did the unimaginable, winning their first Stanley Cup not long after we became fans, keeping their diehard fans waiting over 40 years. In 2012 we still barely understood the concept of icing the puck. This last season, stretching from October to June, was an endurance test for the fans, too, but astonishingly ended in another Stanley Cup. Unlike me, my mom can recite the jersey number and stats on every team member, and she now finds golf and baseball unbearably slow to watch. Go Mom! Go Kings!

sunday clippings 6/22/14

Future shock for me has arrived in the guise of an orange wristband.

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Congratulations! You moved 24,995 steps, 12.07 miles, 249% of goal!Jawbone’s UP pedometer calculates all that aimless garden puttering and tallies up some surprising stats. My orange UP came as a side benefit to Father’s Day, when Marty was presented with a twin set of wristbands, black for him, orange for me. As someone with zero interest in gizmos and in constant war with remote controls, someone who still hasn’t learned all the intricacies of a smart phone, the pedometer function of the wristband has already become addictive. Every day feels so much more productive, and there’s no more remorse for not “getting out and exercising.” It also knows how many times you woke up in the night (last night only once, but I don’t remember doing so), and it logged that near all-nighter I had at the computer last week when I clocked under 3 hours’ sleep on Tuesday. After wearing it only a few days and already finding its data stream astonishing, a real Star Trek moment come true, I checked out some Internet reviews. Quite a few claim it isn’t long-lived and breaks down after a few months. We’ll see if there’s some merit to these reviews or if it’s just trolling from competitors. By the way, those stats were yesterday’s, which included a 4-mile walk to dinner and a movie, but the bulk of those steps were logged at home, in the “compound.” I call that power puttering.

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A lot of those steps were logged checking on the progress of Musschia wollastonii, which at last looks to be thinking about blooming. The perfect exposure in summer turned out to be on the north side of the house, under the triangle palm, morning dappled sun, afternoon shade. This spot was no good in winter, being in deep shade until spring. Speaking of the triangle palm, Dypsis decaryi, I’ve been thinking about attempting to climb a Philodendron melanochrysum up its trunk, image here, with that amazingly elongated “drip tip.” So far Logee’s is the only source, and shipping would be crazy expensive. Cissus discolor is another possibility, also only available via mail order.

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Lots of steps were logged to and from the watering basin, where I can quickly dip pitchers without having to wait for them to be filled up by the hose and there’s less waste. Containers are scattered throughout, with seedlings and cuttings way in the back. It’s basically a hand-watered operation here, with containers and plantings under a year old needing frequent attention. And since I change things up all the time, there’s lots in the year-old category. I’m hoping the seedlings of Hibiscus trionum for planting out late summer will survive the visit to Portland this coming July 11. Nothing makes me feel more like an obsessive lunatic than explaining how to care for the garden during a summer absence. This solar-powered soil sensor I read about in The New York Times (“Planting for Profit, and Greater Good,” June 7, 2014) would make things a lot easier on anyone volunteering for the thankless job of vacation garden duty.

Other plants I’ll be worried about while at the bloggers’ meetup are newly potted cuttings of Brillantaisia subulugurica, a plant I’d never heard of until a couple weeks ago. I was handing out fliers on Dustin’s plant sale at the local community college horticultural department, which was a debacle since it had already closed for summer. But heading back to the car, hoping the fruitless mission wouldn’t be further compounded by a parking ticket, I noticed a mass of blue climbing the chain link fence at the end of the parking lot. Too late for sweet peas, too early for late-season salvias, what could it be? In dusty dry soil, full sun, covered in enormous, comically exaggerated, salvia-esque blooms, with the distinctive lower lip pout, opposite leaves, square stems, but unlike any salvia I’d ever read about or seen. I grabbed some cuttings jutting through the fence and did some Internet research when I got home. Voila, Brillantaisia subulugurica. All the excitement of a plant hunting expedition without the bad food and sore feet. It rooted amazingly fast in water. I need to go back for photos.


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Commelina coelestis

More new things to water. I took a flying leap at this little powerhouse factory of deepest blue, Commelina coelestis, hoping it makes a big clump here with the gold-leaved tansy ‘Isla Gold.’
Locally from Annie’s Annuals & Perennials. And then I wonder why there’s so much blue in the garden this summer.

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Jennifer van der Fluit waters the succulent fence in the front yard of her Long Beach home.”

An update on the “fedge,” a living fence I blogged about here in 2010, appeared recently in The Los Angeles Times in this click-through photo gallery “DIY succulents: Tips for decorating with drought-tolerant plants.” (I’d get current photos myself but I’ve lost the address.) I’ve found that articles from paywall-protected sites can be read if the title of the article is copy-and-pasted into a search engine.

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Jennifer and Appie van der Fluit plant succulents in their 30-foot-long, 4-foot-tall chain-link fence, with a 1-foot-wide channel in between filled with soil.”

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If you’re looking for some weekend reading, The New Yorker did some great reporting on the new direction The Nature Conservancy is taking, such as partnering with corporations like Dow Chemical in an “eco-pragmatic” spirit (“Green is Good” by D.T. Max, full article available to subscribers.) Featured in the piece was Mark Tercek, formerly of Goldman Sachs and now heading up TNC. He writes about the article in a blog post here, which I haven’t fully read yet but the comment section looks explosive. As long-time donors to the TNC, we’ve been arguing over discussing this article at home. Somehow a photo of Ein seems appropriate here, who does such a good job taking care of us.

And lastly, there’s a Cactus & Succulent Sale and Show at the Huntington beginning this coming weekend, June 28, 2014.

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Such sales are where I pick up succulents like this one about to bloom. I lost the tag, but it’s possibly Senecio scaposus v. addoensis

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I’ll end with a photo of Ganna Walska in a Gatsby getup, cradling a crazed-looking cat. I bet she’d drive down from Lotusland for the Huntington’s upcoming plant sale this weekend.

(P.S. Timber Press is running a Hellstrip Contest to celebrate the release of “Hellstrip Gardening” by Evelyn Hadden. $250 is up for grabs. Contest ends July 6, 2014.)