green walls around town

The Smog Shoppe, a special event venue in Culver City owned by Woolly Pocket creator Miguel Nelson, famously deployed the pockets on its cinder-block facade in 2009, which has since been regularly reported on by local media and blogs. I’d previously only seen Woolly Pockets at garden shows, with always more pocket than plant visible, and filed the product away as a novelty for the garden deprived. Green walls have only gained momentum since 2009, and are famously curtaining the buildings in many cities around the world, with spectacular examples in the city state of Singapore, which has dubbed itself the Garden City, but these are highly engineered, soil-less, hydroponic affairs. (And why wouldn’t Singapore take advantage of their approx. 2,300 inches of rainfall a year? I’d love to some day take a “rain” vacation there.) The modular, soil-based Woolly Pockets I remembered from garden shows were targeting interiors and exteriors of homes and small offices, the DIY version of green walls. How were the Woollys faring in arid Los Angeles? With admittedly low expectations, traveling through Culver City on La Cienega Boulevard enroute to the Pacific Design Center back in March, as I drove by The Smog Shoppe, I was taken aback at the five-year-old plantings, with nary an edge of Woolly Pocket in sight, just undulating greenery.

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Above photo from the Woolly Pockets website. I didn’t dare risk stepping into La Cienega’s brutal traffic.
The linear band of plants dramatically envelopes the corner-lot building on the three street-facing sides, linked to the ground plane by many similar plants in the narrow border below.
These WPs have no reservoir, so plants in the ground benefit from the runoff.

With the plantings mature, this little corner in Culver City has the exotic air of a lost Mesoamerican jungle temple. A neatly maintained lost temple.

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And what a surprise to see the big, fleshy rosettes of Agave attenuata both in the ground and on the wall.

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The pink foamy flowers I believe are Crassula multicava, which reseeds like mad and doesn’t mind shade on the northern exposure. The blue succulent is Senecio mandraliscae

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Aeoniums, Agave attenuata, Senecio vitalis, Erigeron karvinskianus, and possibly rosemary too.
The naturalistic blue-green palette would take on an entirely different character if, for example, deep burgundy or variegated ‘Sunburst’ aeoniums were used, or the chartreuse and variegated forms of Agave attenuata. On such a broad wall, the visual flow would be jumpy and interrupted.

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Senecio vitalis is dominant in this photo. Drip irrigation is used on big projects like The Smog Shoppe.

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Even maidenhair ferns were mixing it up with the succulents

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I subsequently contacted Woolly Pockets with some basic upkeep questions regarding the plantings at The Smog Shoppe.

We have a team of professionals that maintain our gardens twice per month. Our plants our thriving which means they need a bit of maintenance to trim them back. There’s a lot of growth! Trimming them back is our biggest challenge. Also it took some trial and error initially selecting the right plants since our interior exterior living wall is over 120ft x 15ft and faces north south east and west! Basically, we had to determine different plant mixes for 4 different aspects of the wall which also shift slightly depending on the season.”

Gina Goesse, Customer Service, Woolly Pockets, also confirmed that these are the original Woollys from 2009.

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And out to dinner with my mom this week, a new restaurant on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach was swagging their doorway with what looked like Woolly Pockets.

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In this installation, there seems to be emphasis on the pockets themselves as living drapery, accentuating the architectural lines of the facade. Many of these plants, such as aeoniums, have no trailing capabilities, and are instead geometrically spaced at rhythmic intervals.

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Woolly Pockets were also featured recently in an interior in Apartment Therapy

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This might be my favorite, and what really has me convinced that the Woollys have left novelty behind and are all “grown up,” the “Wally One” in camel in Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser’s Hollywood home, as seen in Dwell.

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At Ramekin’s in Los Feliz, from Woolly Pocket’s blog.

It’s pretty obvious that my dated view of Woolly Pockets hasn’t kept pace as this business adds new products and customers continue to engage and innovate with the Woollys.
Why, if our concrete wall wasn’t already shrouded in creeping fig…


The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity. ” ― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I would just respectfully amend Ms. Jacobs’ wise words with the happy addition of a suffix — “well-located parklets” — because parklets are making quite the difference in street life here in Long Beach.

What is a parklet, you ask?

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This is a parklet. Maybe you’ve already brunched or sipped a margarita in a parklet in your hometown, if home is New York, San Francisco, or Philadelphia. San Francisco started the parklet boom in 2009, and Seattle is including plans for parklets in 2014. This is one of the first parklets in Southern California, installed back in 2012. You’d think in the land of eternal sunshine we wouldn’t have to hack the streets to shoehorn in places for people to congregate, that it’d be understood that sunshine and blue sky are our most important local commodities. But it’s well known that Los Angeles long ago ceded the street first and foremost to cars at the expense of neighborhoods, which has always infuriated me about my hometown, so every little victory counts.

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The idea is as basic as it gets. After obtaining a permit from the City, a couple of parking spaces are commandeered, a deck/platform laid down to extend the pavement grade, and the perimeter bulwarked with planters. The initial expense is covered by the business, as is the maintenance. Other than some low-key grumbling about loss of parking, they’ve been instant successes, with multiplier effects rippling through the neighborhood. More dining, more shopping, more slow feet on the street instead of fast wheels. Gossiping and laughing among agaves, phormiums, cordylines, and bamboo will always be my preference.

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About a mile away from the parklets, closer to the old downtown, Marty is driving his bus past a “bulb-out,” planted with phormiums and blue chalk fingers. Unlike the parklets, which are temporary and relatively cheap to undertake, with the cost carried by the local business, this involves construction crews and a much bigger budget to widen the sidewalk and extend the curbline farther out into the street.

Whether parklet or bulb-out, it’s been so refreshing to see the needs of pedestrians considered for a change, not just cars.

Studio One Eleven is the design firm that spearheaded these local parklets and offers a downloadable parklet toolkit here.

warm thoughts on formal gardens

Have I mentioned how hot it’s been lately?

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It’s the kind of heat that gives a boho plant nut a deeper appreciation of the cool, austere lines of a formal garden.

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A garden built not on the scaffolding of flowers but leaves, eschewing lush variety for lean repetition.

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It’s the kind of heat that makes the formal garden, that ancient response to dry climates, seem fresh and innovative again.

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Katherine Spitz’s garden, Mar Vista, California, 2012 (Katherine Spitz Associates)

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That’s how hot it’s been.

September and its discontents

Every September I’m startled by the heat this month brings.
A heat that, if you’re not careful, can wick away inspiration.
But then that’s what photos like this are for.

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Image found here

At least two more months to go before the winter rains.
Right now, if I had a backhoe, I’d dig up the garden and make it a place for the worship of water.

more on photographer Philip Dixon’s house in Venice, California can be found here.

the disappearance of summer lawns

Lawns are vanishing all over town. The chief ringleader and instigator is the Long Beach Water Department, with their irresistible Lawn-to-Garden Turf Replacement Program. Quite a few of my neighbors have already taken advantage of this program the past couple years, and more applications for the $3K rebate are being accepted now. There will be an upcoming tour May 18 to showcase some of the gardens that have taken up LBWD’s offer. Last evening I snuck a driveby look at one of the houses on the tour.

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Close to the house, behind the potted orange tree is a tall, diaphonous Pittosporum tenuifolium. In back of the Tibouchina urvilleana, center, is an olive tree.

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Blue Chalk Fingers, Senecio vitalis, Festuca glauca, lavender, and a glimpse of Verbena ‘Homestead Purple’
There were Iceberg roses, gaillardia, aeonium, daylilies — lots of blooms to come for summer.
Lots to interest people, birds, insects.

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The parkway has been deturfed too.

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And losing the lawn seems to be going viral in this neighborhood. Dark green ceanothus swirls around an aloe and Salvia chamaedryoides

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A fountain of the firecracker plant, Russelia equisetiformis

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Cylindropuntia and echeverias

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When lawn is removed the fun begins, and these garden makers really seem to be enjoying themselves.
I’m guessing this little bulb is a babiana. (Dustin Gimbel confirmed in a comment Triteleia ‘Ruby’)
This lawn is being nibbled away at the margins, but I’m predicting it won’t be long before it vanishes completely too.

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Agave potatorum nestled up against verbena.

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I noticed this intriguing beauty growing in the parkway a couple houses away.
Not the sago palm, but that foaming, pencil-stemmed wonder with the wax flower-like blooms. The Baja spurge, Euphorbia xanti

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Try to imagine it not squished against a telephone pole.
There were three of these euphorbias in the parkway, one around the corner.

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Everyone’s love affair with Calandrinia spectabilis continues. A couple blocks away, an entire lawn was replaced with this plant.
The landscape cloth used around the crowns of the young plants was too hideous for a photo

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An interesting contrast to these personal gardens lies diagonal across the street from them.
Just four months ago, architects Abramson Teiger finished a major renovation of the Temple Israel, including the landscape.
Long sweeps of feather grass, a problematic self-sower, and nepeta anchor the front of the temple.

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With the prominence succulents continue to enjoy for their evergreen, year-round good looks, it’s unusual for new landscaping projects to include perennials, even evergreen shrubby ones like Verbena lilacina, a California native. I love the needlepoint detail against the concrete work and their billowing effect. Despite their many attractions, billow is one verb that can’t be used with succulents.

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Though succulents are included here too: Senecio mandraliscae, aloes, aeonium. Meyer’s asparagus fern in the back.
What looks like red-dyed mulch are fallen petals from the callistemon bottlebrush trees overhead in the parkway.

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Anigozanthos, the kangaroo paws, in the foreground.
I couldn’t get close enough to these trees for an ID, but they had an Australian look to them.

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In the fading light, against the building can just be seen the slim outline of more anigozanthos, the shrubby Teucrium azureum to the left.

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Feather grass, phlomis, with Teucrium azureum in the rear. All these plants are as drought tolerant as succulents, though their upkeep and cutback needs differ.

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A few streets away, a front lawn has been usurped by Achillea ‘Moonshine.’
All over town, whether commercial projects or residential, the hissing of summer lawns during the hot, dry days of summer is becoming a relic of the past.

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And another lawn vanishes under succulents, pennisetum, and a cloud of Gomphrena decumbens.

hidden mesoamerican palaces

not in Central America but here, in Los Angeles. photo Sowden-House.jpg

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sowden House, of textile-block construction, built for friend and photographer John Sowden in 1926. Renovations by a new owner in 2001 included restoring the stonework and the addition of a courtyard pool and spa. His son, Eric Lloyd Wright, “felt it was a ‘mistake’ to break up the courtyard space with a pool and spa,” which originally had been a lawn. (Wikipedia) Image found here.

In channeling classical Mayan architecture, this primal meditation by Frank Lloyd Wright on nature and civilization seems to have attracted its share of odd owners and a collection of lurid tales, including speculation that it’s the site of the infamous Black Dahlia murder. Now mainly used for film locations, the brooding Sowden house seems more a meditation on civilization and its malcontents.

I’d love to visit, but now I might be too spooked. Maybe in a large group…

dog days of summer take toll on local nursery

I’ve been scouring local nurseries for calamint recently and stopped by Brita’s Old Town Gardens in Seal Beach, California, last week as the likeliest possible local source for Calamintha nepeta. Brita always has interesting stuff, the kind of plants the chain nurseries don’t even know exist. No calamint this time, but there were some gallons of the Achillea ‘Terracotta,’ which I’m planning for large drifts next year. I grabbed a couple gallons of the yarrow, at which point Brita informed me she’d be having a big sale this weekend, and to come back then for a better deal.

Which says it all about Brita: knowledgeable, great eye for plants, scrupulously honest and fair.
There were also a couple large, ever-spendy Albizia ‘Summer Chocolate’ that I was hoping to catch marked down.

photo found here.

Saturday was busy all day, but I returned early Sunday, to find a huge banner on the fence with the icy words LIQUIDATION SALE, along with this little note attached to the fence:

“I love what I do, I enjoy all the reasons you come to visit this
nursery, but this summer’s heat has kept most of you at bay.

To stock for the next season;
Everything and Anything that is not tied down is on Sale.

This is a Liquidity Event!!!

Iron display stands, the Old Metal Gazebos are up for grabs. Amazing pots can be yours!

Many ‘One of a Kind Items’ so come early for the best selection.”

Last week Brita hadn’t mentioned the sale was anything but a routine end-of-summer sale. As soon as the gates opened (yes, I was that early), I rushed up to Brita and stammered, “You know, for a minute there, seeing that banner, I thought you might be…I thought this was…but when I read the little note I realized you’re just clearing stuff out for the new season. What a relief!”

Brita replied, “Actually, no. If this sale doesn’t do the trick, I’m done. On top of the recession, with the extreme heat of the last two months and everyone just staying home, I can’t buy in new stock for fall. We sold about one-sixth of what we needed to sell yesterday. Tell your friends.”

My stomach hurt all day Sunday after hearing this news. Sure, there’s always mail order sources for rare and hard-to-find plants, but there’s no substitute for browsing at a good nursery. For example, I’ve read catalogue descriptions of Phylica pubescens before and been intrigued, but it was only after seeing it at Brita’s yesterday that I became truly smitten with this tender South African shrub for zones 9 and 10. (The unsuspecting ballota that had this spot in my garden Saturday had become woody, so it was about time to remove it anyway. Both the ballota and phylica are wonderfully textural and fuzzy, though the phylica may get taller, possibly up to 5 feet.)


Brita’s prices are going to continue to drop until…well, the future is uncertain at this point, and let’s not dwell on that. If I had any shade left, I’d have brought home Bergenia ciliata, which I’d only read about before, and if I had any more room for trees that dark-leaved mimosa would be mine. There’s tree aloes, more South African shrubs, huge agaves, a wonderfully curated succulent selection, ironwork, enormous pots. This is my selfish appeal to supporters of independent nurseries to get over to Brita’s ASAP!

Brita’s Old Town Gardens
225 Main Street
Seal Beach, California 90740
Monday – Saturday
9:00 AM to 5:00 PM
10:00 AM to 5:00 PM

(562) 430-5019

It’s not as easy for small, independent nurseries to recover from the dog days of summer as it is for…well, small dogs.


Update 11/4/12 – The “Liquidation” sign has been removed. Noted was a small sign advising “Christmas trees available November 23.” Fingers crossed…

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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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.


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.


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.


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.”


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


Part of the Seed Library of Los Angeles/SLOLA


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.



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.