the uninvited

we are all on watch, just a little on edge here.


closer and closer to the gloaming, only the fiercest colors now pierce the gathering dark
while shy creatures creep out of hiding, feeling emboldened to assert their elemental natures


This Monday we’ll be locking the gates, shutting off the porch lights, and watching The Uninvited (1944). Beautiful old house on a cliff in Cornwall offered for sale at impossibly cheap prices for reasons that none of the town folk care to discuss. A lost dog. Amazing staircase that animals refuse to ascend. A seance with an Ouija board and shattering glass. Ruth Hussey and Ray Milland impeccably dressed for life in a country house. My kind of scary movie.

Oh, and the haunting scent of mimosa reaching into cold rooms, reaching across time…


(Photo of Acacia pravissima by Forest Farm. The mimosa scent from the perfume worn by Stella’s mother probably derived from Acacia dealbata.)

Chionanthus retusus

The Chinese Fringe Tree. A deciduous tree beloved by both gardener and birds for clouds of bloom in spring.


Followed by those indigo autumn berries. Now about 15 feet in height, at maturity reaching 20-25 feet.


True story: The fringe tree was dragged to its current spot in the back garden by an ’82 Jeep Wagoneer straining on the ropes, tires tearing up the front lawn pre-gravel garden, inching it slowly from the west side of the house to the east, neighbors agape at the sight. First mistake was planting this wider-than-tall tree in a narrow strip along the driveway. By the time this mistake became apparent, the sapling didn’t impress as too big to transplant, but after freeing up the root ball there was no way for man or beast to lift that root ball up and out of that deep, deep hole. Wagoneer to the rescue. One of the more foolish garden escapades I’ve initiated but with a “berry” happy ending. Bought as a tiny seedling from Burkard’s Nursery in Pasadena.

Lipstick Traces

Artful smudging. Irving Penn’s 1986 ad for Loreal.


Artless smudging. Kalanchoe luciae ‘Fantastic,’ Variegated Paddle Plant.


Gardeners’ World by Julian Barnes

Hearing the news this week that Julian Barnes won this year’s Man Booker prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending had me searching for my unread copy of Barnes’ Arthur & George buried somewhere in a disgracefully cluttered bookshelf amidst rhinos, rabbits and a snapshot of Madame Ganna Walska. Also brought to mind was his short story, “Gardeners’ World,” from the collection Pulse, which presents a portrait of a marriage via the garden as battlefield, with gardening the banal pursuit of a couple whose relationship has gone a bit soggy. I’ve only read reviews and snippets of this mordant piece on a shared garden and haven’t yet bought the collection, since I freely admit that what little I’ve read of this story, although very funny, gives me the willies.

A brief exchange from the story:

“What have you done with the blackberry?”
“What blackberry?”
This made him more tense. Their garden was hardly that big.
“The one along the back wall.”
“Oh, that briar.”
“That briar was a blackberry with blackberries on it. I brought you two and personally fed them into your mouth.”
“I’m planning something along that wall. Maybe a Russian vine, but that’s a bit cowardly. I was thinking a clematis.”
“You dug up my blackberry.’
Your blackberry?” She was always at her coolest when she knew, and knew that he knew, that she’d done something without consultation.

Other memorable lines include: “Can we please, please not call it a water feature?”

Only a British writer would be capable of producing such a withering, lacerating look at the territoriality issues in a relationship spilling over and turning gardening into a blood sport. If it seems like your cup of tea in fiction, more excerpts from “Gardeners’ World” can be found here.

Garden Party in Westwood, CA Oct 22 & 23

With speakers the likes of such SoCal horticultural heroes as Bart O’Brien from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is hosting this inaugural event, Lili Singer, Emily Green, John Greenlee, all whose talks will be spread across both days, making it almost impossible to choose which day to attend…

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden invites you to celebrate gardens, gardening and gardeners at Grow Native Nursery Westwood’s Autumn Garden Party. Four California native plant experts will present lectures at the two-day event at RSABG’s Los Angeles retail nursery location.”

I’m fairly sure the seslerias are European, not native, so this photo of Sesleria ‘Greenlee’ in my garden is not precisely on topic. But it is an amazingly good grass.


I have so many questions about gardening with natives, whether exclusively or partially, so now must get to the hard work of deciding which day to attend. In case you missed it embedded above, the link to the event is here.

Anatomy of a Pot of Tender Plants

There’s some great names in the plant world, and Cussonia is up there with some of my favorites.
And for pure enjoyment, no history of the name is necessary, just an appreciation for vowels and syllables.
Also lends itself to a good name for a cat (Pussonia?). And then there’s the visual enjoyment they provide.


Some scant history. Small evergreen trees from South Africa. Right there you know they’ll be tender, but still eminently desirable for containers. Members of the Araliaceae family, another name with a good complement of vowels. I’m hesitant to write their common name, Cabbage Tree, since it might then be confused for an edible, which it emphatically is not. Don’t you dare go near this with a dinner fork.

From plantzafrica, describing C. paniculata: “The name Cussonia was given by Carl Peter Thunberg to commemorate the French botanist Pierre Cusson (1727-1783).”


I have a small, struggling pot of Cussonia paniculata, but these photos are of the splendid Cussonia gamtoosensis, or Gamboos Cabbage Tree, which has done the most rewarding thing any plant can do, and that is to seem genuinely glad to be under your care. C. gamtoosensis has flourished, zooming ahead of C. paniculata in leafage and trunk. Purchased from a local nursery spring 2011. I had passed it by in autumn 2010, but noted the exuberant little guy again the following spring, after it had spent the winter sitting in an aisle of remaindered plants, now offered at discount. My Cussonia paniculata is such a malingering, cranky, trouble child that I hesitated briefly on bringing home another, but this Gamboos Cabbage Tree’s vigor and lust for life after a long winter in a gallon can solidly won me over.

Since Pam/Digging has declared this Support Your Independent Nursery month, a nod is in order to this great local nursery, International Garden Center & Floral Design and their amazing selection of pottery, succulents, water plants. I pop in every time I work near the airport/LAX. (The grower of this cussonia was Northern California’s Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.) Both these cussonias I’m discussing are caudiciform, growing from a swollen stem or caudex, but this is only apparent on my C. paniculata. The gamtoosensis shows no caudex at all. But that tells you how tough and drought tolerant these little trees are, which makes them perfect candidates for container culture.


Which brings us to the succulents planted at the base of the cussonia, Delosperma sphalmanthoides, bought from another wonderful independent Northern California nursery, Cottage Gardens of Petaluma. This little succulent was growing in a gorgeous display garden at CGP. One of the very helpful nurserymen led me to it and pointed it out as his favorite. Also known as the Tufted Ice Plant, High Country Gardens lists it for zones 5-9, so this little one is not tender at all.


flowers for tori

A single nerine stem of congratulations for being the first woman artist whose new album simultaneously listed in the Top 10 of Billboard’s alternative, classical, and rock categories. A listen to the new Night of Hunters can be found at that link.


Because I find Tori Amos one of those nourishing artists, along with Bjork, PJ Harvey, who on first listen you wonder, Where does this come from, these sounds and words? Always the start of a great relationship between artist and audience. In Tori’s case, for me many of the words never do become very clear, but just enough syllables (and especially long e’s) gleam through to create incantatory songscapes.

Liquid Diamonds is one of my favorites from 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel. (I drove my then 15-year-old son and a girlfriend and dropped them off to see Tori at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, part of her tour for this record in 1998. It was his first “date.”)

winter whites

I know it’s only mid-October, but I’m already dreaming of winter whites.
Evie sports her winter coat year-round and so is always exquisitely attired.


And frosty astelia gets the juices flowing for more winter whites. But the winter whites I’m referring to are not fetched from a wobbly wardrobe kept in the attic, which would be violative of the ancient “no whites after Labor Day” rule I’ve read about, nor does it refer to any specific weather condition. It’s more a state of mind here in Southern California. What the concept of winter whites really means is there will be more roasted vegetables for dinner. More books will be read. Skin will feel chilled again and have to be covered in something warm and plush. Long walks can be had without breaking a sweat. Soup! To-do lists freshened up and reprioritized. Tulip bulbs potted up in December. Really hot baths again. The muffled sounds of foggy mornings. (Soup!) Imaginary gardens built and torn apart. Seeds to be sown. Becoming reacquainted with the delicious sights and sounds of rain.

And almost as significant, Downton Abbey returning in January.


In every home winter whites arrive in the most amazing packages.

Bloom Day October 2011

The highest temps all summer hit last week, an unwelcome intrusion into fall planting season. Limbing up the big smoke tree a few weeks ago allowed a lot more light into the back garden, setting in motion some deadly domino effects when the mercury rose. Such an unlikely candidate to suffer from too much sun as a large, established echium fried in the heat wave. The ‘Tajinaste’ echium’s leaves had become accustomed to a much gentler sunlight all summer. Along with more sunlight flooding in through the smoke tree canopy, the echium’s neighbor, the big Solanum marginatum I removed, also had provided a measure of cover. (I took cuttings of what I could this morning and removed the echium’s carcass.) An Agave attenuata lost a couple leaves from the searing sun, but no other lasting damage. The potted tropicals reveled in the heat.

Otherwise, the garden is in the same holding pattern bloom-wise as September, with the salvias still in bloom as well as Persicaria amplexicaulis, shown here with a truss of Salvia canariensis.


The persicaria again with a Ricinus communis seedling just making size this fall.


There’s now three big castor bean plants, which is all this little garden can handle. Salvia madrensis in background.


The same ricinus with Rudbeckia triloba, just planted in August, brought home from a visit to Digging Dog Nursery in Mendocino County, California.
(Kathy at Garden Book just attended Digging Dog’s fall plant sale and has some stunning photos of her visit.)


This Selinum wallichianum also comes from my visit to Digging Dog in August.


The dahlia ‘Chat Noir’ staggered in the high temps but regained composure, showing some new blooms this morning.


Nerines in the front gravel garden are establishing good clumps (all year-old gifts from Matt Mattus/Growing With Plants)
I believe these are all N. samiensis. A deep orange in bloom this morning.


This Orange Clock Vine turned up at a local nursery this fall, Thunbergia gregorii, one I’ve long wanted to grow.
Pure orange blooms, no contrasting dark eye. The thunbergias do amazingly well in Southern California year-round.


Many succulents are in bloom. And I don’t think Grevillea ‘Superb’ has been without a bloom all summer.


Check out Bloom Day hostess Carol’s Indiana garden at May Dreams Gardens, with links to all the gardens participating this October Bloom Day.

the gardening beatle

I think it was George’s son Dhani Harrison who let slip in the Martin Scorcese documentary “Living in the Material World,” (last week on HBO) that the family sometimes called George “Capability,” jokingly comparing George to the great 18th century English landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. At age 27, George bought the derelict property Friar Park. His second wife Olivia moved in later. Dan Pearson describes visiting Friar Park and talking with Olivia about its evolution in an article for The Guardian entitled “Magical Mystery Tour“:

We never set out to make the garden a restoration, we were just doing it for the joy of it…You don’t have to know anything or everything to make a garden and George set out quite independently to do it his own way. ‘It’s amateur hour’ was a mantra and clearing away the dark Victorian palette of laurel and yew and overgrown box was key to being able to move the garden forward. Beth Chatto’s visit to the gardens proved key as a confidence-building exercise. With typical practicality she had said: ‘You know, George, if you had an old sofa in your house that you didn’t like you’d throw it out!’ The comment was a liberation and that was how they began to lift the gloom to make way for a new layer.”

From the dearth of photos available of the gardens at Friar Park, it would be hard not to conclude that this was a very personal endeavor, rarely shared with the public. Image found here:


In 2008 an exhibit was entered in the Chelsea Garden Show entitled “From Life to Life; A Garden for George.”

I forget who in the documentary commented that George had the most extraordinarily disparate groups of people visiting Friar Park. Along with the pantheon of musicians he hung out with, as a producer of the Monty Python movies and Withnail & I, George’s guests could include Terry Gilliam, John Cleese and the Python gang, as well as Eastern mystics, Rhavi Shankar, visits by Dan Pearson and Beth Chatto. The house and gardens obviously sheltered a rich, layered life. I have to admit to not being much of a Beatles fanatic though consider myself passably knowledgeable on Beatles lore, but watching the documentary unwind the songwriting attributions to George of such songs as “Something” caught me by surprise. I knew it, of course, but had forgotten I knew it. George’s son told a lovely story of his father out in the garden until midnight, running around with a shrub in his hand, trying to find the perfect spot for it, so I’ll end with — what else? Here Comes The Sun.