raise the red lantern

More photos from MB Maher as he meanders north of San Francisco, these from Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, California, a collection of outdoor gardens inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire, curated by owner Teresa Raffo.

I haven’t been back yet to Cornerstone to see Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot’s “Red Lantern,” the second of their chicken-wire-and-crystal installations at Cornerstone, a companion piece to “Bai Yun” (“White Cloud”), so I was excited to see what Mitch’s photos would reveal. Andy Cao says “Red Lantern,” installed summer 2011, was probably inspired by his empathy for the experiences of Chinese railroad laborers in 19th Century America, in which he found an echo for his own sense of displacement as a Vietnamese refugee. (For me a red lantern will forever be associated with the 1991 Chinese film by Zhang Yimou, “Raise the Red Lantern,” on the queue for repeat viewing tonight.) Railroad tracks lead to a giant lantern glittering with red crystals, which may or may not allude to traditional Chinese wedding headdresses. While I’m strongly attracted to the seductive, sparkling details of “Red Lantern,” overall I prefer “White Cloud” in a landscape — less specific, more dreamy.

This photo from the Cornerstone website conveys the general outlines of “Red Lantern.”


But as these photos from MB Maher illustrate, Cao and Perrot’s intention is to create a work where the viewer can “Step inside a painting and experience it themselves.” Lauren Reed-Guy for San Francisco Chronicle.


In the end, the only thing I need is my intuition and how I see and that’s it. The rest? I just make things,’ says Cao, who draws his inspiration from art, poetry, music, fashion and photography.” (Meg McConahey for the Press Democrat)



I don’t find sculptural art essential to a garden, but appreciate how a garden — the horizon, earth, water, wind, sunlight and shadow — can be essential to the expression of some artists, and I love how Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot play with these elements.

“White Cloud”


When you see these two materials, crystals and chicken wire, they have nothing in common, he says. But when you put them together, something happens. By taking things out of their context, you give them a whole new application and association.
(Meg McConahey for the Press Democrat)


Cao and Perrot work out of Cao Perrot Studio.

Pandemonium Aviaries

Photographer MB Maher sent in some photos from a visit he paid to an exotic bird sanctuary in Northern California called Pandemonium Aviaries, which hosted a fund-raising Birdhouse Design Contest on May 6, 2012, and he described the owner’s zeal on behalf of the birds as worthy of a Werner Herzog documentary. Mitch also told me that Pandemonium Aviaries won the San Francisco Garden Show’s raffle* of the Savannah! exhibit created by John Greenlee for the recent 2012 garden show, with the grasses from the exhibit now in the process of being installed at the aviaries.


Continue reading Pandemonium Aviaries

tobacco-free zone

Note to self: Stop planting Nicotiana mutabilis in full afternoon sun.
Note to garden: Stop spitting out my favorite plants.

Friday morning my Nicotiana mutabilis that wintered over from last year looked like this. Obviously still trying to get the hang of photographing this beautiful plant to its best advantage. Tiny, changeable-colored tubular bells (mutant/mutate/mutabilis) arrayed over a candelabra-like edifice that when built up and mature is as twinkling and swaying a piece of complex plant architecture as you’re ever likely to see.


But I won’t be getting any more photo practice on this ornamental tobacco from southern Brazil this year. Returning Friday evening, I found it in a dead faint after enduring temps in the mid 80s, full afternoon sun. Hoping it would revive and be fresh and dewy once again the next morning, it was instead in total collapse, leaves draped in flaccid curtains along the stems. I have lots of Nicotiana alata seedlings in different colors coming on, but mutabilis is in a league of its own. So annoying. The soil was laced with white threads, so there may have been a fungus involved that killed the plant when the soil warmed, some kind of fusarium wilt. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to overwinter nicotianas in my heavy clay soil for that reason alone and grow even this tender perennial as strictly an annual. But that’s just speculation and guesswork at this point. Yet the theory makes sense, since the stress of intense afternoon sun would set in motion a sequence of events where “the plant transpires more than it can transport, the stomata close, the leaves wilt, and the plant dies.” Just in case, any new nicotianas will be planted at the far side of the garden, in afternoon shade, in very free-draining soil.

Bike to Work Day

Today, 5/18/12, is Bike to Work Day, which I heard over the car radio stuck in traffic. So I have no cycling adventure to recount, but it’s the perfect opportunity to share this very cool photo of Humphrey Bogart cycling on a Warner Brothers Studio backlot circa 1945.


The photograph comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Steven Rea’s book Hollywood Rides A Bike; Cycling With The Stars, published by Angel City Press, and is also on Rea’s blog Rides A Bike. My town of Long Beach has invested in cycling in a big way, with designated one-way streets and bike lanes. Bike thievery is at an all-time high, too, as my husband will woefully attest. I’ve been looking forward to choosing a basket for my bike to load up with all the tomatoes and beans from my little community garden plot about a mile away — except that tomatoes now seem a long shot this summer. The plants are dying, and the soil, after no supplemental irrigation for two weeks, continues to be a squelchy, heavy mud. Explanations range among (A) I’m the worst vegetable gardener that’s ever lived; (B) a fellow gardener has been surreptitiously turning my plot into a bog for reasons unknown; or (C) there’s a leaky pipe. More on this sad state of affairs later.

But what a nice photo of Bogie. Which also illustrates that funny biking clothing is strictly optional.

Wrapping Up the Venice Garden & Home Tour 2012

The Venice Garden & Home Tour is an annual fundraising event, benefiting the children of the Neighborhood Youth Association’s (NYA) Las Doradas Children’s Center in Venice, CA. This self-guided walking tour showcases the unique homes and gardens of the creative Venice Beach community, with original homeowner style as well as the designs of renowned architects and landscapers. The Tour was conceived by Venice landscape designer Jay Griffith and Venice community leaders Linda Lucks and Jan Brilliot. NYA was founded in 1906, and has served thousands of “at risk” children and families in its 106 years.”

The last of the posts on this year’s abbreviated tour, having seen just a handful of the 32 homes and gardens. Maybe it was the food trucks that slowed us down this year, the scent of Korean BBQ and Indian curry wafting through the streets, seducing us to spend at least a full hour for lunch, unlike the forced marches of prior tours. This garden was originally designed by Jay Griffith, redesigned by Russ Cleta, so I’m not sure which designer deserves the award for largest agaves in a small garden setting. (The tour is a little Hollywoodish, after all.) These heroic agaves were such a force to be reckoned with that lemons were stuck on some of the spines near high-traffic areas for the tour.


Continue reading Wrapping Up the Venice Garden & Home Tour 2012

Bloom Day May 2012

Carol’s hosting of Bloom Day is one of the highlights of the month in garden blogdom. Yes, blooms can be had year-round, but instead of scratching around to find them as we do some months, May delivers them by the truckload. With the the South African aloe blooms almost finished and now the stirring of the classic garden perennials, flowering trees and shrubs, along with the quicksilver appearance and departure of the woodland ephemerals, the California natives just about to tuck in before the onset of summer drought — apart from moving your garden into a different climate zone every few years, a May Bloom Day is the best alternative and one of the great virtual garden tour opportunities around.

Granted, there’s a weird rhythm to spring in my own garden, where tulips appear in containers in February after six weeks of chilling in the fridge, and if you’re not careful the year-round growing conditions can make it a challenge to remember to save a few spots for summer stuff. After leaning in a direction that was getting a bit evergreen-heavy, the garden’s currently see-sawing toward leaving space for summer opportunities, a kind of Mediterranean Oudolf-lite. Umbellifers of any kind are an enduring favorite, and those that can squeeze into existing plantings are treasured most. Orlaya grandiflora has proven itself an ingenious self-sower, even if the most robust plant is the one seeded into dry paving.


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Continue reading Bloom Day May 2012

mother’s day 2012

And my mom is on a bus heading north on the Atlantic seaboard to join up with a cruise off the coast of Canada. But there were birthdays to shop for yesterday, so naturally (selfishly?) I headed for a destination that included plants as well as possible gifts, Roger’s Gardens in Orange County, California. I always find a little plant shopping helpful before diving into the murky waters of gift shopping.

Harpochloa falx ‘Compact Black,’ Black Caterpillar Grass, in small 4-inch pots, was too interesting to pass up.
Photo and description from High Country Gardens.


Aloes and agaves planted in the display beds




Some of the agaves, like this A. potatorum, are underplanted with a variegated ceanothus (possibly this one).
Self-sown Geranium maderense getting a little too chummy.


And possibly because the jacarandas in the hell strip are treating us to a couple months of purple rain, I’m finding myself suddenly attracted to brooms and lingered to check these out at Roger’s. I’ve made a vow to sweep every day, and sometimes twice a day, lest the dreaded buildup of sticky petals is carried underfoot into every nook and cranny of our lives.


Brooms and women go waaay back, to the antecedent besom broom, simple twigs tied to a handle.


Some simple ideas that caught my eye. Possible display for tillandsias.


And the very clever florists at Roger’s hung glass lanterns filled with water and leaves.




and mossed a beat-up chair, turning it into a fernery


Happy Sunday to moms and kids everywhere, a greeting which leaves out absolutely no one and means everyone is entitled to a nice brunch today.

saturday’s clippings 5/12/12

Quote of the week: “I can’t believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus,” philosophized a 26-year-old woman who torched a 3,500-year-old bald cypress known as The Senator last January, one of the 10 oldest trees on earth, while smoking a meth pipe in the tree’s hollow trunk. Orlando Sentinel story here.

Update on car jack stand planters written about here in Succulent Experiments. The repurposed window screen may cause the soil to dry out too quickly even for succulents. Growth seems to be in reverse gear rather than forward, so time to try something else. The pale green Crassula expansa never regained that lovely fluffiness. Full disclosure is in order because that post still gets an amazing number of hits. (Almost as many as The Tree Collard. Who knew?)

Artichokes were everywhere on garden tours this year. These chokes were growing in a hell strip devoted solely to artichokes.
(Doesn’t that make it a heaven strip?)

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Is it me, or does the subject of gardens and landscapes seem overly weighted down with polemics? Fashion, music, cooking, design — there’s controversy and sustainability subtext in some of these areas as well, and rightly so, but with gardens it seems to get especially overwrought. Be prepared to stand your ground among the welter of categories used like accusations: design-driven, plant-driven, natives, non-natives, edible, ornamental. Granted, with a garden comes responsibility for the health of the soil, creatures, finite resources — but after that’s been reasonably sorted out, I say let it rip. How to describe this approach? Maybe a good analogy to this unapologetically flashy kind of gardening I love is pop music — changeable, not meant to last, absorbing influences from all over the globe, interested in color and rhythm, no purpose other than to get your toe tapping and your eye dancing. Not monumental but fleeting. Riffing on the seasons. Pop gardening? Maybe I just need a break from garden tours for a while.

At home, summer’s jungle quickens. This castor bean plant which lives over frost-free year to frost-free year is already a small tree in May, about 8 feet high. With the trunk growing thick and woody, this will be its last summer then I’ll start over with some of the progeny that sprout around its base. The deep color of the castor bean seedlings has been true to its namesake ‘New Zealand Purple.’ Barely room enough for two in the back garden.

I love to see it with the amber grass Stipa arundinacea* More thinning on the to-do list this weekend. Tender Salvia wagneriana is an iffy bloomer, very sensitive to temperature and day length, and hasn’t had more than a dozen blooms at any time. Its saving grace up to now is its ability to throw sporadic blooms throughout a zone 10 winter, but that hardly earns it space for summer. Its fate will be decided this weekend. In fact, looking at these photos has me convinced it’s gotta go. (A few hours later, and Salvia wagneriana is gone, destined for compost, its absence barely causing a ripple in the jungle. A few nicotianas from the seeds Nan Ondra shared last winter, ‘Ondra’s Brown Mix,’ will be a much better fit here.) Another nicotiana, N. mutabilis, lived over the winter and is sending up bloom trusses to the left of the stipa/New Zealand Wind Grass. (Edited to explain that description was left even though photos are inexplicably no longer available.)


Strappy leaves are eucomis, and the little daisy is Argyranthemum haouarytheum.


Salvia canariensis was very nearly pulled out a few weeks ago for its sprawling, ungainly ways, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this huge salvia.
As an interim solution, lower branches have been thinned out, with lots more taken out today, pruning it into a vase-like shape as for a buddleia.
In a couple weeks it will lose that surprised “What a bad haircut I got” look. This is generally a short-lived shrub. Always grow it dry and lean.


The pale yellow hesperaloe is blooming this year, kind of a photographic moot point against all those golden kangaroo paws.


Longest-lasting bulb for pots has been Ornithogalum dubium, in bloom on the front porch over a month. More, please, for next year.

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An easy nasturium species for summer containers, Tropolaeolum peregrinum, the Canary Creeper.

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I know, I know, what a lot of plants. You’d think I just moved out of an apartment and finally got my own garden. But that happened over 20 years ago, and I’ve been gardening this way ever since.

*This grass is now known as Anemanthele lessoniana, but I’m just slow to adapt to the new name

No. 24 on the Venice Garden & Home Tour

Beautifully restored craftsman set in low maintenance and low water ‘Sonoma’ style gardens. Garden design by owner Craig Boelson

This bungalow, which the owner described as slated for demolition when he took over the property, had lots of things to say to fellow bungalow owners like me. Chiefly what it exemplified was the power of restraint joined with simple, sure-handed taste. No lawn at all, neither in the front garden nor back, the ground surfaced in gravel or dry-laid repurposed bricks that came with the property when the owner acquired it. The house’s dark chocolate-colored paint and white trim set the basic tones used throughout the house and garden, building up a sustained mood both rich and light. The deep, wraparound front porch is rimmed in the front garden with succulents and Agave attenuata, with small trees and gravel deployed where traditionally lawn would be maintained. This was the definitive anti-compulsory maintenance house and garden.

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Continue reading No. 24 on the Venice Garden & Home Tour

No. 9 on the Venice Garden & Home Tour

Design gem by artist/architect homeowners; live, work, home studio & gardens. Architect: Molly Reid Studio. Garden Dry Design & Cliff Garten Studio.”

Blurbs like these on a one-page map were the only guides to selecting which homes and gardens to tour among the 32 on offer. Any gardens described as “minimalist,” “simple” or “zen,” or worse yet, “simple and zen” were scratched off the list. And who knows? Maybe we missed some simple, zen gems. Because the garden at No. 9 on the tour was both simple and minimalist, a tidy space for entertaining and relaxation nestled between the house and studio.

Corrugated steel-clad studio, wisteria arbor, decks, raised beds for vegetables, lawn.


I’d have taken it all in with one appreciative glance, pivoted, and headed for the next stop on the tour, if not for the interior of the house.


Continue reading No. 9 on the Venice Garden & Home Tour