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scenes from San Pedro, Calif.

I want to show you a house and garden I found earlier today, but first you’ll need to look at the Pacific Ocean, just as I did before I found the house.


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No, this wasn’t a vacation. I had a couple hours between jobs in San Pedro, California, a small town just over a couple bridges from Long Beach.


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San Pedro is possibly one of the oddest cities in Los Angeles County, a little harbor town in which the mighty Port of Los Angeles is located that still manages to retain the look and feel of an Italian fishing village. It is as psychologically isolated from the rest of Los Angeles as the Cinque Terre is physically cut off from the rest of Italy. A town immune to endless attempts at gentrification. Town of my father and countless relatives. I lived here in an apartment house overlooking the waterfront in my mid to late twenties. Both my sons were born here. My first community garden was here. So when I got a 2-hour break between work assignments in San Pedro this morning, it was with an insider’s knowledge that I headed to Point Fermin Park, to see if I could maybe sneak into the Sunken City, the apocalyptic remains of a 20th century neighborhood that slumped and slid on geologic waves into the sea.


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But I couldn’t very well crawl underneath the security fencing surrounding the Sunken City in work clothes. That would be silly! (and coincidentally illegal but nobody cares.) So I settled for a walk amongst the huge magnolias in adjacent Point Fermin Park, the southernmost point of Los Angeles County, land’s end high up on vertiginous bluffs overlooking the seaweed-strewn tidepools of the Pacific Ocean.

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This hilly little town has numerous microclimates. I left hot, clear skies at 6th Street, disappointed that at noon there’d be little chance for decent photos, and traveled less than a mile to find the park shrouded in a moody, dense fog. The cliffs smelled of anise, the fog horns blew, and I happily practiced my rusty native plant ID skills on the coastal scrub. Lemonberry (Rhus integrifolia), coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis). And the dreaded exotic invasive tamarisk (Tamarix aphylla).


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Continue reading scenes from San Pedro, Calif.

Dwell on Design/Los Angeles 2012

The Metro Blue Line out of Long Beach dropped me off on the doorstep of the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday, the last day of Dwell on Design. There’s such a buoyant feeling to bounding off a train at the platform and hitting the pavement in a few short steps, compared to a long drive and still having to face the deflating task of parking and where and how to pay for it. One of the oddities of public transportation in Los Angeles is that the rest of the day will be spent telling people that you didn’t drive, you took the train. Really? they will say. Yes, the train! we say, bursting with the pride of daring explorers. We still can’t get over the fact that there are trains whizzing over, under, and alongside clogged streets and freeways, with more lines added all the time. New lines to Culver City just this week. And we’re promised that the ugly freeway snarl that is the Forbidden Zone (Santa Monica/Westside) will also be conquered one day. For over ten years I’ve been taking the trains for the freelance court reporting work I do anywhere there are tracks laid down, but it’s a rare thing to head to downtown LA on a weekend, and I finally made my decision to go at the proverbial last minute. There was a staggering amount to see, but photos are a product of the catch-as-catch-can, indoor trade show school of photography.

As soon as you enter, “Screenplay” demanded immediate attention, all undulating 21 feet of it, from every vantage point possible. By the Oyler Wu Collaborative, from certain angles it felt as though the hulk of a steel-cable suspension bridge had been twisted and compacted and lowered onto the polished concrete floor for our up-close viewing pleasure.

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Things were already looking promising. The expanded stainless steel furniture by Damian Velasquez really amped up my idle but happy browsing into full-on engagement. Expanded stainless steel is a material I often use in my fabrication daydreams for the outdoor benches and shelving I crave, so these chairs, tables and sofas prompted me to sputter out the few questions I asked of any designers at the show. I’ve even got a small collection of expanded metal objects, mostly industrial baskets and trays found at local salvage yards. The furniture is laborious to produce so is pricey, the sofa going for about $4,000. All powder-coated and weather resistant. I truly lurved them.

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I’m also captivated by Bend’s line of furniture Geometric, and these lovely ceramics from BKB Ceramics of Joshua Tree, California.

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Loll’s outdoor line made from 100% recycled materials (mostly milk jugs)

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Annette and Mary of Potted debuted their fabulous City Planters and drew in the hordes with their seductive, exclusively Potted pottery.
Both these lines are made locally in Los Angeles. Potted has been at the vanguard of Los Angeles designers committed to finding local workshops to fabricate their designs.

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When four hours of circling the exhibits caused feet to falter, there were fascinating symposia to wander into and grab a chair, like the engrossing panel discussion of the Purdy-Devis residence on which garden designer Laura Cooper collaborated. Then it was back out onto the main floor to peruse lightweight concrete materials, sun-fast fabrics, sustainable wallpaper.

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I overheard a mildly snarky remark about designers’ current “arms race for a sustainability badge.” I think this is a case where I’ll gladly suffer through the overuse of a buzz word like “sustainability” and cheer on the application of its principles.

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There was lots of gee-whiz design to ponder.

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Airstream and camping porn.

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Really well-done show, Dwell.

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Sol House/Natural Discourse UCBG 7/13/12

Some intriguing snippets of information and photos are circulating as the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley is transformed for the July 13, 2012 launch of Natural Discourse, an in-situ collaboration among scientists, artists, and the venerable botanical garden.

Construction has begun on Sol House, a contemporary take on Thoreau’s cabin by architects Rael San Fratello.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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Contemplative and idyllic, right? But this is Natural Discourse, whose stated aim is to engage the “larger community on matters of conservation, bio-diversity and environment,” which means you may need to look twice and put on your thinking cap, as Sister Immaculata used to say. This simple wooden structure will have perforated walls to hold solar photovoltaic glass tubes (“cylindrical panels of CIGS thin-film solar cells”) salvaged from the wreckage of the bankrupt renewable energy company Solyndra.

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Yes, that Solyndra.

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photo by MB Maher

Thousands upon thousands of the glass tubes lay idle in dark warehouses after the bankruptcy.
Through a shipping acquaintance, Rael San Fratello managed to obtain a small quantity for the Sol House.

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photo by MB Maher

Solyndra’s technology was sound but couldn’t compete with cheaper-to-produce solar panels.
(The University of Tennessee, as just one example, has incorporated Solyndra’s glass tubes in their “Living Light House.”)

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photo by MB Maher

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photo by MB Maher

Natural Discourse at UCBG 7/13/12: You, me, Thoreau, the remnants of a failed solar start-up, and much, much more.

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photo by MB Maher

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

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Karl Blossfeldt Botanical Photogravures

MB Maher brought these incredible antique prints to my attention recently, accompanied by this little note:

This process is ink-based and requires making a steel plate of the
photo image with acid baths, high-level light exposures, et cetera,
until one can use the plates in an inked-press. The depth of tone is
supposed to be unrivaled and gorgeous
.”

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Published in 1929 as Urformen der Kunst (Archetypes of Art), the original photogravures are offered for sale by Panteek. From Panteek’s website:

Born in Schielo, Germany, early on Blossfeldt (1865-1932) was a sculptor’s apprentice and modeler at the Art Ironworks and Foundry in Magdesprung. After studying painting and sculpture on a scholarship at the School of the Royal Museum of Arts and Crafts in Berlin from 1884 to 1891, he worked under Professor Meurer in Italy, Greece, and North Africa collecting plant specimens. It was during these years that Blossfeldt’s interest in plant photography blossomed, along with the study of music.”

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For about 33 years, from 1898 to 1931, he was a professor in the sculpture of living plants at the Kunstgewerbemuseum (College of Arts and Crafts) in Berlin. In 1899, he began to photograph plant forms with a home made camera incorporating these studies into his teaching curriculum. Blossfeldt continued to travel throughout his life, particularly in the Mediterranean, collecting specimens of foreign plants. He retired in 1931.”

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Influenced by the 19th century German tradition of natural philosophy, Karl Blossfeldt believed that ‘the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure.’ Over a period of 30 years, he photographed leaves, seed pods, stems, and other plant parts, against neutral white or grey backgrounds in Northern light & under magnification. He drew inspiration, like many before him, from the medical botany & herbaria of the late Middle Ages and the 17th and 18th centuries.”

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“Deeply steeped in many disciplines, both scientific, creative & artistic, he has distilled a vision of the botanical world that is so vibrant & powerful, it bridges & fuses many worlds.”

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Lots more images on Panteek’s website. Choosing just four could drive one mad.

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African Queen, fore and aft

Trumpet lily ‘African Queen’ this morning.


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on the scent of tillandsias

Tillandsias, epiphytic bromeliads or “air plants,” have almost single-handedly elevated the caliber of gifts for people who love plants. Aeriums, terrariums, glass globes, and light bulb shapes like these from Los Angeles-based outdoor living shop Potted have all been inspired by and designed to accommodate tillandsias’ clever rejection of all things earthbound — and who wouldn’t gladly give or receive such airy, translucent worlds-within-worlds?


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But it wasn’t until I came nose-to-bloom with Tillandsia straminea at garden designer Dustin Gimbel’s garden recently that I realized that, in addition to being one of the hippest gift shop novelties being offered by great taste-makers like Potted and Dirt Couture, tillandsias in their own right are fascinating little bromeliads, some with delicate blooms and perfume that carries on a warm June evening. Like a hawk moth to a datura’s trumpet, I returned again and again that night to inhale its jasmine-ish scent.

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Some of the best plant discoveries are made not in plant nurseries or catalogues but in other people’s gardens. I’m also infatuated with Dustin’s Bocconia arborea, a macleaya relative, seen here with his ever-increasing assortment of hand-made, concrete, disembodied deities…

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As to the tillandsias, as it happens, one of the best places to see the most diverse collection of tillandsias around is not 10 miles from my home. Today at Rainforest Flora, Inc., in Torrance, Calif., I discovered there are other scented tillandsias, too, like T. streptocarpa, also a summer bloomer.

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Rainforest Flora creates elaborate naturalistic settings to display their tillandsias.

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But I’m trying out a spheroid, hinged wire cage for my T. straminea.

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Tillandsia straminea and streptocarpa’s new home is under my pergola, where the dappled light seems perfect except for possibly that late-afternoon blast of sun. The conventional wisdom says the more silver in the leaf, the more sun it can stand, but I’ll be watchful.


Tillandsias are frost sensitive and are grown as houseplants outside zone 10. Mist once a week and immerse completely for a few minutes once a month.

Bloom Day June 2012

I got in too late yesterday for photos for a Bloom Day post, so made a head start last night on checking out the blogs linked on Carol’s May Dreams Gardens host site for Bloom Day.
I think that’s the best “issue” on June gardens I’ve seen in a long time.

Summer-blooming bulbs like crocosmia and eucomis stirring here in June.

Crocosmia and Teucrium hircanicum

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Eucomis almost buried under a daisy with fennel-like leaves, Argyranthemum haouarytheum.

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As with June Bloom Days past, white valerian seeding around at the edges. The seasons-spanning kangaroo paws, succulents and grasses.
I’ve been nibbling away at the bricks under the pergola, whose once-seamless perimeter is now as gap-toothed as a hockey player’s smile.
(how ’bout those Stanley Cup-winning LA Kings?!)

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Latest brick removal was instigated by finding a source for Eryngium pandanifolium, the Giant Sea Holly.
I sowed seed last fall of a ‘Physic Purple’ variety but didn’t get any germination, and then it popped up a month ago on Plant Delights online offerings.
Sometimes you’ve just got to scratch that plant itch. Of course I had to squeeze some Ruby Grass in while the eryngo thickens up.

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More brick removal yesterday to try out Pennisetum ‘Sky Rocket,’ a sterile hybrid from the same batch as ‘Fireworks.’
I’ve been on a destructive tear lately and have started hammering off the slippery tiles in the side patio too.

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Onward and upward. This summer I’m training Passiflora sanguinolenta up the pergola. A rarity among passifloras, this one has proven to be a dainty, nonaggressive climber.
Sidling up to Aloe distans at ground level.

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Not this Bloom Day but certainly by the next, I’ll finally get to see Lobelia tupa blooming in my garden. I think the trick was thinning out plants possibly crowding it.
(Gosh, there’s a surprise, overcrowding in my garden?)

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First spikes appearing on Persicaria amplexicaulis. Salvia canariensis is more colored bracts than blooms now.

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Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ in the iron tank. Eryngium tripartitum barely visible blooming here too.

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One lone drumstick allium amidst eyebrow grass, Bouteloua gracilis.
I think the 29 other Allium sphaerocephalum may have been swamped by the burgeoning Mint Bush, Prostranthera ovalifolia ‘Variegata’

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And since this post has wandered into Foliage Followup’s turf of the 16th of every month, hosted by Pam at Digging, I’ll close with a photo of a restio new to me.
Cannonmois virgata, identified by San Marcos Growers as more probably C. grandis.
SMG’s photo shows the beautiful culms.

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I was considering this restio to replace the rose I removed from the patio room, whose tile is being demolished…wonder where I left my hammer and chisel?

the spell of the present

Though we may occasionally argue about what a garden is, I think we can all agree that what a garden does is cast a “spell of the present.”

I loved this eminently quotable piece from Diane Ackerman a couple days ago in The New York Times entitled “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?”


The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.”

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One solution is to spend a few minutes every day just paying close attention to some facet of nature….for whole moments one may see nothing but the flaky trunk of a paper-birch tree with its papyrus-like bark. Or, indoors, watch how a vase full of tulips, whose genes have traveled eons and silk roads, arch their spumoni-colored ruffles and nod gently by an open window.”

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And the killer opening to the last paragraph:

On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unattainium, lies presence…”

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Ms. Ackerman’s book, “A Natural History of the Senses,” sounds like it’s right up my alley.

CSSA Plant Sale at the Huntington Botanical Gardens

The Cactus & Succulent Society of America’s plant sale at the Huntington June 29 through July 1, 2012, is one I hope not to miss this year.

I’ve moved my little Agave parrasana ‘Fireball’ from last year’s plant sales into a prominent location as a reminder.


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A big succulent plant show and sale is the strongest mind-altering, mood-enhancing, sensory-overloading drug there is. Mark your calendars!

Huntington Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA.
Sale: Friday – Sunday.
Show: Saturday & Sunday 10.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.

the learning garden at Venice High School

I’m late posting about the Learning Garden, a garden stop on the May 2012 Venice Garden & Home Tour, and today the LG offers a class open to the public on vermiculture/composting, a deadline I had been hoping to beat. Late notice is better than none, I suppose, and there will always be more classes taking place at the LG. This interesting horticultural laboratory/seed bank/open-air high school botany class was our first stop on the garden tour.


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Truthfully, stepping through the gates, I immediately began to mentally calculate how many minutes I’d have to stay for courtesy’s sake before I could beat feet to other, less vegetable-intensive gardens on the tour. I’ve got my own disheveled vegetable garden, thank you very much, and don’t feel a burning need to tour another. Circling around with an eye fixed on the exit, trying to look intensely absorbed in the raised beds, I wandered into an area of the garden growing the unmistakeably glorious compound foliage of Aralia cordata. What the hell? By this time, I was grabbing the docent’s elbow to help me identify some stunning plants that would have been at home in an old Heronswood catalogue. But she couldn’t ID them, she said, because they were rare Chinese medicinals. The elbow I had grabbed belonged to one of the garden’s founders, Julie Mann, who has a strong interest in homeopathic medicine, but this herbal garden with the tantalizingly nameless plants was the province of another docent, who had some mysterious pipeline to plants new to the West. I’m guessing this treasure trove of plants is looked after by students of Yo San University and Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine affiliated with LG.

The topic of medicinal plants whiplashed from boring to sexy in less than three minutes. From LG’s website:

The Medicinal Herb Garden includes an amazing variety of Chinese, Ayurvedic, Native American, and homeopathic medicinal plants. Some of these plants are being grown for the first time in Southern California; we are literally writing the book on how to grow these healing herbs in our Mediterranean climate. Students of the various healing modalities are provided the opportunity to see these herbs up close and live and can learn how to grow and prepare them for use, while learning their healing attributes. As students propagate these necessary herbs, The Learning Garden becomes a plant and seed depository to assist other gardens in their development.”

Now I was intrigued. What started out as a perfunctory visit turned into a fascinating 30-minute tour.


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Part of the allure of the garden was the contrast between briskly efficient hydroponics and other cutting-edge practices against a backdrop evidencing the years of heart-breaking neglect the garden has obviously suffered. It was in a Grey Gardensesque abandoned state that this 100-year-old educational resource was reclaimed by Julie Mann and others in 2001, and much still needs to be done. Horticulture classes on high school curricula have long since gone the way of shop classes like carpentry, photography, ceramics, upholstery, mechanics, i.e. dodo-land.


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From their website: “The Learning Garden blossoms from what once was an underutilized, weedy portion of Venice High School into an outdoor learning center with hands-on education in horticulture, permaculture, herbology, botany, nutrition, art, photography and environmental science.”

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A garden shed and office held shelves full of carefully marked seeds. At some primal level, I find this a very comforting sight.

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Part of the Seed Library of Los Angeles/SLOLA

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Gardenmaster David King: “As seeds grow out repeatedly in our soil and microclimates, they adapt.”
“Far more quickly than one could achieve at home, a variation of Waltham broccoli specific to Los Angeles or even specific to Venice can be developed, better suited to local conditions.” (latimesblog)

The paneless, 1920’s-era greenhouse awaits a patron with deep pockets to help with reglassing.

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From their DVD, a highly recommended resource for educators:

JULIE MANN: “The high school students that first came into the garden that first year would never dare eat anything out of the garden. It was dirty. It was yuck. They would never take the food that they grew and eat it. It was too strange for them. By the next year, I saw the kids climbing the loquat tree and eating things right off the tree.”

Contact The Learning Garden here to request a copy of their DVD and for information on volunteering. I’d be happy to mail my DVD to anyone interested.