notes on spring planting

Though it may not be readily apparent, there really is something positive to say about the garden in January. I’ve been cutting back the grasses, and even allowing for the dozens of poppy seedlings that are emerging and staking a claim on spring, there’s still an impressive amount of vacant planting space opening up. All of which adds zest to a favorite wintertime game, a game played by a mortal pretending to be a god: What do I want spring through fall to look like in my little garden in 2016? In all honesty, a lot of it will look like a dead ringer for 2015, but January is when optimism for the new gardening year is at its zenith and anything feels possible. Astonishing, never-before-seen visions of extraordinary plant beauty are surely to come.


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Like the Catalina Silverlace, Constancea nevinii, seen recently at the Theodore Payne Nursery.


Like envisioning a delicious meal, I daydream in textures, aromas, flavors sweet and sharp. For those few planting places opening up, will it be smooth or crunchy? I have lots of smooth succulents, so let’s find something crunchy, shrubby. It can’t be anything too rich and water dependent, so no traditional, overbred, cordon bleu garden plants. And I’d like something whose flavor won’t overwhelm the rest of this mulligan’s stew, which is heavy on variegated plants and spicy agaves. What’s needed is something in a quietly textural, supporting role. Maybe something in herbs? Isn’t winter savory an attractive little shrub, or is that summer savory? Maybe dracocephalum? Or lavender again, but it’s always iffy in this clay, and I just don’t want to play those odds this year. Plus I want something that billows, smallish in stature. Nepeta has been disappointing, even the much-lauded ‘Walker’s Low.’ What about calamints? Resource lean, aromatic, shrubby. I’ve grown a few kinds before but eventually backed away from their wildly prolific reseeding tendencies. Maybe there’s something new in calamints I haven’t tried?

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Eriogonum crocatum

Some light research turns up Calamintha nepeta ‘Montrose White,’ a calamint discoverd by Nancy Godwin at her Montrose Nursery. Long-blooming, doesn’t reseed, a summer-long feast for pollinators. It’s even won top honors as Perennial of the Year in 2010. Okay, then, calamint it is. Digging Dog Nursery in Albion, California, carries it, along with an intriguing perovskia called ‘Lacey Blue,’ a dwarf form of Russian Sage. With plants like these, summer 2016 can turn up the heat all it wants. We’ll be ready.

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Aristida purpurea

An order to Digging Dog is dispatched, and that settles that. But what else? Wasn’t there an eriogonum I’ve been itching to grow? I have plant notes around here somewhere. Yes, there it is, a smallish native buckwheat with silver leaves and chartreuse flowers, tolerates clay. Eriogonum crocatum! I think I can squeeze in maybe two. Now, who carries it? Why, Theodore Payne does, a mere hour’s drive to Sun Valley, just past Glendale. So be it. (And what should be playing on the radio the whole trip, there and back, but a tribute to David Bowie. I jump in the car, turn on KCRW, and there’s the thumping bass of Panic in Detroit. An auspicious beginning for any road trip.)


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At the entrance to the nursery is an impressive stand of our native Agave shawii

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See that slender, bright green column behind the pots?

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Catalina Ironwood in a ceramic container. Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius.
I stared at this tree long enough that a nursery person approached to warn me not to try this at home.
She explained this was basically tree abuse that they practiced to obtain cuttings for the nursery.
Trees in containers always seem like such a good idea in January, long before they become a miserable chore in July.

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So I wandered the grounds near the nursery. With just an hour before closing, there wasn’t time to explore the canyon (22 acres!)

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Arctostaphylos cruzensis

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Pinus sabiniana, Grey Pine, Foothill Pine, Ghost Pine (lovely pine!)

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I was recently cleaning up this grass in my garden, Aristida purpurea, and inadvertently pulled up the whole clump.

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Not a regimented, upright grass but ethereal, wispy to the point of disorganized. There are more purple tones than the photos show.

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Dudleya densiflora

Riding in the back, serenaded by Bowie all the way home, were two Eriogonum crocatum and a Catalina Silverlace, Constancea nevinii.
2016 is really starting to take shape.


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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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’).

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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.