Walk the Walk

Long Beach Water Department is leading by example to gently ease citizens out of the mindset that wants to seed or unroll mowable turf grass as the default landscape. Who else is better positioned to educate the public on alternative landscapes for those expansive lawns that just won’t cut it anymore on Southern California’s average rainfall of 15 inches a year? At their own offices, this is exactly what they’ve done. Nothing fancy, no prohibitively expensive hardscape to dash low-budget hopes, just old-fashioned, solid plantsmanship.

During some errands yesterday, I stopped by their offices on 1800 E. Wardlow in Long Beach, which are tucked quite a ways back from the road.
If it wasn’t for this Agave vilmoriniana waving at me, I might have driven right on by.


Thyme interplanted among pavers and possibly a yellow gazania. Unlike thyme, Dymondia magaretae tolerates foot traffic. Here bordered by grasses and gaura.


Dendromecon rigida with the beach aster, Erigeron glaucus, in the background, a line of newly planted dudleyas barely visible to the left.
Decomposed granite paths weave among the plantings.


C’mon, men. Don’t mow your landscape, play with it. Drop the mower, put on a loincloth and build a cairn. You know you’ve always wanted to, but cairns just look silly on lawns and need to be surrounded by something windswept. Now grab a Guinness and admire your handiwork.


In the first photo above, grasses are a blue fescue and Stipa tenuissima, the latter getting the haircut treatment my husband gives ours in the parkway. Many Southern California designers are no longer utilizing this potentially invasive stipa, but you have to give it credit for its role as a gateway grass, building further interest in bunch grasses. As far as I can tell, it is universally beloved by all who see and touch it.

Second photo above: Ocotillo, Fonquieria splendens underplanted with Sedum rubrotinctum (‘Pork and Beans’) and Graptopetalum paraguayense (‘Ghost Plant’).


The plantings were a mix of natives and exotics, including the Chilean Calandrinia grandiflora, magenta flowers in the above photo, as well as the New Zealand sedge, Carex testacea not pictured. Some native plants that were not photographed included toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia (fronted by a big planting of Lobelia laxiflora), Salvia clevelandii, Salvia spathacea, Agaves shawii and deserti.

Agave franzosinii

This photo was taken by MB Maher during a visit he made to artists Sue Dadd and James Griffith’s amazing Folly Bowl last summer.

Some agave, huh?


I’m now fairly sure that this uber-undulating creature is Agave franzosinii, which develops this distinctive kinetic energy to its luminous, silvery leaves when mature.
If there’s another agave out there that gives this shimmering, geyser-like performance, please leave a comment and correct me. The Folly Bowl agave seems to corkscrew and twist as opposed to the Lotusland agave, whose leaves are more uniformly, well, lotus-like, but even so, I still suspect the Folly Bowl agave is A. franzosinii. Lotusland seemingly has the definitive A. franzosinii against which all contenders are measured. For example, the true A. franzosinii should not offset much, and the teeth are further apart than agaves sold under the same name. San Marcos Growers sells this agave from stock obtained from Lotusland, but occasionally this agave will pop up for sale from other sources, with variations such as the teeth being closer together or upright leaves that fail to cascade.

From Agaves, Yuccas and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish:

No record exists of a natural distribution of Agave franzosinii. It has been known ornamentally for more than 100 years, particularly in European gardens. Whether it is an unusual form of A. americana, with which it clearly is related closely, or a one-time hybrid remains open to further work.”

I have to thank garden designer Dustin Gimbel for bringing this agave’s name to my attention. Many of us have probably looked at this agave in photos or in actual botanical gardens without knowing its name. I know I have.

Trio Nursery in Santa Barbara, California, has sold this plant recently and may have current stock.
There is a photo of this agave at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California, from their Flickr photostream here, including an inspiring image of Ms. Bancroft herself still hard at work.

Occasional Daily Photo 5/25/11

In a few weeks, the leaf margins of this flapjacks kalanchoe have flared a deep red.
Which composes quite a picture with Pelargonium ‘Splendide.’


Laurus nobilis ‘Aureus’

A potted bay tree is one of those timeless mediterranean garden features, like boxwood hedging, crunchy gravel underfoot, or urns planted with agaves.

Image found here.

Its leaves are useful for cooking just about anything that simmers. Laurus nobilis becomes a very large tree in zone 10, so keeping it contained also serves to control its ultimate size. What tempted me into undertaking the grindingly slow task of growing a bay standard from twig to tree was the added promise of those golden leaves in the variety ‘Aureus.’


It hasn’t been easy. Over the years, I’ve come very close to composting this little tree, mail-ordered from Dan Hinkley’s Heronswood nursery aeons ago as a tiny rooted twig. This is the first summer the tree’s leaves are uniformly golden. The previous decade or so of its life the leaves were ugly, mottled, sickish looking, neither gold nor green. I assumed full sun was the problem and tried dappled shade for it in the afternoon. The bay grew in size, the canopy filled out in the classic standard, if not actual lollipop shape, and I continued to use the leaves in the kitchen. But this winter I’d had enough of the malingerer and pulled off every last, disgusting leaf, keeping them al for cooking, of course. Flavor has been consistently good. The little tree surprisingly rewarded me this spring with the glimmering, goldeny, aureate leaves I’d always envisioned. I plucked one of its leaves just the other night to simmer with a pot of lentils.


The ‘Waverly’ salvia has spilled onto the bricks and engulfed the pot, which is now too heavy to move to try for a less chaotic photo. The little tree is almost 5’9″ in height, including the pot. Not quite a full lollipop canopy yet, and it needs more limbing up. But it just might get moved to a prime location where it can be fully appreciated now that it seems to have shaken off its awkward juvenile growth phase. I had started to crowd the bay and ruin its lines with odds and ends, a Crithmum maritimum, the vine Manettia cordifolia, which I’ll happily move elsewhere now that the bay seems to be on its way.


The moral being, by all means, grow a standard bay tree, but don’t torment yourself with ‘Aureus,’ unless you’re drawn to plants that puzzle you with their needs.

Aerial Fizz

Thanks to the late plantsman and artist Kevin Nicolay for this phrase he coined to describe plants that possess elongated fireworks of some kind, whether seed capsule or flower. I think it originates from an interview with Kevin in Horticulture many years ago.

I suppose it’s possible to carry the idea too far, but if so I wouldn’t know where to draw the line. Indeed, drawing a line is exactly what aerial fizz plants can be relied upon to do, an elegant line sometimes still and emphatic as a woodcut, sometimes lazily swaying. Aerial fizz plants animate and slice through unused dimensions of garden space. I’ve come to rely heavily on such plants for my small garden.

I planted three clumps of Pennisetum spathiolatum, the Slender Veldt Grass (to zone 6/7), along the pathway of the back garden that you can’t help but brush against, see, touch, when taking out the trash or feeding the cats on the back porch or chasing the corgi. This would most likely be a terrible idea for a public garden, since I imagine there are some people who don’t wish to be caressed by plants and would be horribly annoyed. At least, I’m pretty sure such people exist.


This grass stays about a foot high but shoots a scrim of flowering missiles to 4 feet. Just behind the grass, the kangaroo paws branch skyward to 5 feet. All this and more within a few feet of the back door. Lots of verticals. Too hectic? Personally, I like to get a garden up on its hind legs and just added more extreme verticality over the weekend amongst the grasses.



Similar to echinops but in yellow instead of blue, and without the massive girth, Craspedia globosa aka Billy Balls. There’s a name I won’t forget. Craspedia is always listed as a great dried flower, good for hobbyists. But I saw this plant used in a landscape in San Francisco last year, possibly designed by Beth Mullins, and I’ve been on the lookout for it at nurseries ever since. I found two 4-inch pots this weekend.


From the land Down Under, Australia, as well as New Zealand and Tasmania. Possibly perennial in my zone 10, grown as an annual elsewhere. This is clearly not just a hobbyist’s plant, since it possesses enormous amounts of aerial fizz, as much as any allium, though mustard yellow rather than purple, and grassy, silvery leaves that are nothing to be ashamed of. I like to see these plants spring from the horizontal, as if bursting vigorously through the pavement, not deep in a border. To live this close with plants, they have to possess good leaves that stay neat, if not interesting, for much of the growing season.


Many plants I can’t grow in zone 10, or grow well, possess excellent aerial fizz. Sanguisorbas, thalictrum, astrantia, astilbe. Knautia provides this quality. (Dierama does as well, but it takes so long to establish I’m still unsure if it will bloom well in zone 10.) But there is a point when blooms become too large, and we’ve left the realm of aerial fizz and entered another, where round, solid shapes provide heft, not fizz.


Persicaria amplexicaule insinuating blooms into the kangaroo paws. I know, I know, watch the ketchup and mustard. In a small garden, the color clashes come fast and furious. This knotweed is too good not to grow and provides months of aerial fizz. I’ve tried the white varieties, and they’re just not as vigorous. (The golden-leaved variety ‘Golden Arrow’ is difficult to site to both flower well and avoid leaf burn but when conditions are met is a gorgeous plant.)


Removing the mustard, in photo if not garden. In small gardens, compromise is inevitable. For me verticality, movement, aerial fizz trumps color every time.


Plant Sale Weekend

I was determined to get to the UC Irvine Arboretum plant sale this weekend, having had to miss the Huntington Botanical Garden’s big sale last weekend. But before I could browse UCI’s small sale, there were some minor roadblocks. (Just get me to a plant sale, please!) A faltering car had to be traded in and a new one purchased, zillions of forms needed filling out. But with steely, unswayable resolve the goal was finally achieved, and sometime around 1 o’clock I was pulling into a driveway marked by a hand-lettered sign that said simply “PLANT SALE.” (which I always read as BLISS.) Once at the arboretum, it didn’t take long at all to scan the half dozen tables set up with plants for sale. Aloes marlothii, distans, the hybrid ‘Hercules,’ nothing terribly rare but good prices for large plants. In the nearby botanical garden, banks of frothy blue flowers caught my eye and drew me away from the sale tables. Masses of Aristea ecklonii were in bloom, a South African iris relative. I have an aristea growing in my gravel garden, but it hasn’t bloomed yet, and I’m not sure if it’s ecklonii. Judging by the vigor and scads of sparkling bloom on display at the arboretum, it would seem A. ecklonii is the one to have. Yes, the blooms are tiny, but the 3-foot tall sprays are voluminous, and the mass effect of deep, piercing blue against the bright green leaves summed up why I find blue flowers so irresistible.

I hadn’t seen it for sale on the tables, which seemed odd since it was taking over quite a bit of their botanical garden.
One more lap around the sale tables and I found a couple pots of it and bagged one to take home, along with an Aeonium urbicum.


Continue reading Plant Sale Weekend

Occasional Daily Photo 5/21/11

Some new things in bloom I woke up to this morning.

Viscaria oculata from Annie’s Annuals.
I grew this annual from seed many years ago. It’s amazing good fortune to have a nursery do all that work and offer up gems like these for sale, just a few plants if that’s all you need. I brought home small plants from AA’s Richmond nursery in March 2011. Separate color strains offered too. Sigh…


A truss of bloom on Salvia canariensis. The blooms on this salvia are very oregano-esque, with flowers and bracts appealing to the oregano lover in me.
This plant does have a strong odor, but what’s a little funky smell between friends?



Heliophila longifolia. Flowers not fully open yet this overcast morning. Again, from Annie’s. And, again, one I grew long ago. All I need is a couple plants.
I much prefer someone else keep all that seed-growing gear and not me. I vividly remember the leaning stacks of tofu containers kept for that purpose.


The potted Manihot grahamii tree is getting its summer canopy and forming flower buds too.


The Reading Room

Decades before I first picked up a shelter/lifestyle magazine or a Restoration Hardware catalogue, Al Pacino taught me the art of luxurious multi-tasking while having a long soak in a tub.

Image found here.

Continue reading The Reading Room

Occasional Daily Weather Report 5/18/11

A late-season storm unexpectedly watered the garden for me the past couple nights.
In mid-May, this is a huge help. Such a boost to plants budding up for summer, like this Geranium ‘Dragon Heart.’*
For this storm to reach us, the rest of the West Coast must be pretty soggy.


Average Los Angeles rainfall annually approximately 15 inches, falling mainly January/February/March.

*’Dragon Heart’ pulled July 2011. Big leaves always burned, soil too dry. ‘Ann Folkard’ much better performer in zone 10.

Nick Horman’s Incredible Tape Ball

Yesterday’s post on the High Line provoked some interesting discussion on parks, which reminded me of this little movie MB Maher took last fall in New York, a scene he stumbled upon in Central Park. Artist and pickle impresario Nick Horman rolled a giant tape ball along pathways in Central Park, its sticky tape capturing leaves, kids, laughter, wonder — setting in motion all manner of stuff. And his pickles are truly excellent.

Nick Horman And The Tape Ball, a movie by MB Maher.