Tag Archives: MB Maher

sacred geometry of the spiral aloe

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June 2015

Dave’s spiral aloe is sporting some fine sacred geometry. He sent me these photos to show the progress his aloe has made since I photographed it in July 2012:

I came across your Bloom Day July 2012 posting and saw a photo of my Aloe polyphylla at the bottom.
I thought you’d like to see a recent picture of it, three years later and still getting bigger. It’s about 34″ diameter now
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June 2015

And a wider shot of Dave’s slice of urban horticultural heaven in the Lower Haight, San Francisco.

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The study of the recurring forms in nature, or sacred geometry, tends to attract some New Agey theories and followers, but the Vetruvian numbers don’t lie.
Whether spiraling aloes or nautilus shells, these patterns repeat over and over. We crave them in our gardens and co-opt them in our buildings.
There are Pinterest boards devoted to Things that Spiral, which is where I found this photo of the spiral staircase at Kew Gardens.
It’s the one I should have taken when I visited but was too overwhelmed to lift a camera.

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Aloe polyphylla’s home is a high rainfall area in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. Do not, as I have done, treat it as a dry-garden aloe.
In my opinion, causing the death of a spiral aloe under your care ranks up there as one of horticulture’s biggest heartaches. I’ve killed several. Maybe half a dozen.
(I wrote about one such attempt here.)
It seemed only right to pass up the aloes for sale in very affordable one-gallons at Terra Sol Nursery in Santa Barbara recently, where the above photo was taken.
I’m just not ready yet to try again, which must be a great relief to the spiral aloes of the world.

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In the meantime, it is a comfort to have Mitch’s portrait of the mythic Spiral Aloe.

(Thank you, Dave, for an update on your spectacular spiral aloe!)


potted plants on the move

The summer containers in nondrought-stricken gardens can become quite a virtuoso display.
I’ve understandably pared things down the past few years but am always amazed at how even a relatively small group of pots can exclaim “Summer!”

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All the pots scattered through the garden become candidates for a massed summer display.
I appreciate how growing a single species to a pot means it can be a focal point at one time of year and part of a big group display at another time.
A good place for summer staging is around the Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus) which bisects the long, narrow patios on the east.
Now that the tree has fully leafed out and all the flowers have fallen, I’ve massed pots on either side of the tree to take advantage of its dappled light.
A chaise in dappled light isn’t a bad idea either. A Mid-Century Homecrest, it needs a touch-up of black paint but is the most comfortable lounger, like floating in zero-gravity.
(Thanks again to Shirley Watts for hauling it down from Alameda in her truck.)

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This group of pots has been gradually accumulating here the past month or so, pulled from all over the garden.
The chartreuse Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ was moved in when it gained enough size to make an impact.
Unlike so many colocasias, this tropical reliably returns from winter dormancy year after year. I turn the whole pot on its side and leave it outdoors in winter.
I have lots of small, slow-growing agaves in pots, but I like having a couple good-sized potted agaves to mass for summer.
There’s a couple pups here of ‘Blue Flame’ and ‘Boutin’s Blue,’ both of which don’t mind some shade.
The golden Schefflera ‘Amate Soleil’ was fine in full winter sun but definitely needed dappled shade by June.

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The pots of mostly foliage are easy on the water budget, and water from the shower handles all the containers.
The latest addition is a big pot of cosmos, chamomile and silver-leaved horehound/marrubium, a gift to the bees.

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Looking from the other end, Cussonia spicata in the tall grey pot is doing so much better in the dappled light after wintering in full sun.
Variegated manihot, potted succulents, and closer to the table the huge Aeonium ‘Cyclops,’ also moved here to escape full summer sun.

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The base of the fringe tree is unplanted, covered with a mulch of its own leaves year-round.
The view after August rain last year (see post here). I’ve since broken that coffee cup, a favorite from a local tugboat company.
And Mitch took those wooden planters up to his garden in San Francisco.
Before my neighbor planted palms on his side of the fence, this little patio used to be a heat trap by mid-day and went mostly unused until evening.
As a native Angeleno, it’s taken me a lifetime to appreciate the slim footprint of the ubiquitous palms and the lovely shade they cast.

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I’ve been playing around with that tall iron stand for 20 years or so. When I saw photos of Maurizio Zucchi’s home, I felt both validated and incredibly envious.
The little Euphorbia ammak at its base has a long way to grow to make an impact. I’d so love to find some more iron scaffolding for this patio.
The twisty tuteur supports a marmalade bush, Streptosolen jamesonii, I’m hoping can be trained up through its spirals.
The empty frame is part of the floor grate to the broken heater we inherited with the house.

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Last summer the vine Mina lobata grew up the iron stand’s girders, wilting in the afternoon sun.
I found a seedling of this vine that’s been potted up to try in morning sun/afternoon shade.

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Potted’s City Planter was planted up last summer and has been bullet-proof ever since.

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Hopefully this will be the last time I move this monster pot for a few months.
Showing is one of two lamps salvaged from Warehouse No. 1, the oldest warehouse in Los Angeles Harbor.
Marty kept a little workroom in the basement of the cavernous warehouse when he worked for the Port of LA, so we have a strong affection for the old relic.

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The remaining rosette of the huge clump of dyckia I just removed this week from the front garden.
Dyckias and year-round tree litter are just not a good combination. I was so sick of the mess.

I know a lot of pots of tender plants are on the move out of basements and greenhouses, where they vacationed like winter snowbirds.
Sometimes I wonder if the pots in this frost-free garden don’t have just as many miles under their rims.

a Shirley Watts’ garden

Monday features two long-time friends (and family) of AGO. Oldest son Mitch took these photos of a Shirley Watts-designed garden a few years back and kindly agreed to let me share them here.

The garden had a lot of formal, established features and furniture to incorporate into the new design, but nonetheless, to those who know her work, Watt’s artistic eye and hand can easily be seen throughout. Like all Watts’ gardens I’ve seen, there’s a uniquely timeless, modern/classical fusion that always lends an air of tranquility and simplicity — but with plenty of startling details, beautifully sensual plants, and bravura flourishes to discover.

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Continue reading a Shirley Watts’ garden

Natural Discourse: Light & Image 2014, an epilogue

Ever wonder when our buildings are going to have the photosensitivity and photoreactivity of plants? Dale Clifford, with his focus on biomimetics applied to architecture, is on the case, investigating the possibility of designing a photoreactive brick inspired by the quadrangular, shade-modulating shape of a cactus. Looking for a tidy description of life on earth? Plant biologist Roger Hangarter has one for you: excited electrons powered by the sun. I’m totally borrowing that, Roger.


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Christian Thornton, Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio

Questions, questions. Can modern glass kilns reduce their energy footprint?
Certainly, by as much as 30 percent, if recycled glass is used and the kilns are run on vegetable oil discarded by local Oaxacan restaurants.

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Cobaea scandens in the Ware Collection of Glass Plants

And what did 19th century university botany departments do when dried specimens were insufficiently detailed for the rigorous study of plant architecture? Find the finest glass artists in the world, of course, German glass blowers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, to create glass models with precise, scientific accuracy. Harvard’s Ware Collection of Glass Plants transcends its scientific origins and is now regarded as a prized art collection visited by millions every year.

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Shirley Watts readies the book table sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore.
Clarissa Dalloway may have bought the flowers for her party herself, but the large vase on the book table was, I think, provided by Silverlake Farms.

All these questions and more could only have been answered by another installment of Natural Discourse, the peripatetic series of lectures curated by artist and garden designer Shirley Watts that allows artists and scientists to share their unique perspectives and fields of inquiry into our beloved plant world, which was held Saturday, October 18, 2014, at the LA County Arboretum.

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The auditorium at the LA County Arboretum was the biggest space yet of the three iterations of Natural Discourse, and for that reason I thought it perhaps the most challenging venue thus far.

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But wherever Natural Discourse is located, whether perched in a conservatory-like glass hall atop the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, or in a historic landmark hotel designed by Julia Morgan, or at your local arboretum, the effect is consistently hypnotic. The lights go down, the chattering eventually subsides, and Marion Brenner begins to articulate her relationship to light and its role in obtaining her exquisitely timeless landscape photographs seen on the projection screen. And then you begin to scribble furiously as she explains how she now shoots wirelessly to an iPad to live-proof her work.

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Possibly only at Natural Discourse will you meet an artist concerned with how long it will take an agave bloom to grow and thereby destroy the glass necklace he’s designed and placed on its flowering shoot.
(Christian Thornton of Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio has recorded 8 inches of growth a day.)

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The welcome being given by Richard Schulhof, Director of the LA Arboretum.

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Jenny Brown, Collection Manager of the Ware Collection of Glass Plants, playfully engages with the interactive programming wizardry of John Carpenter.

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Mr. Carpenter’s work asks questions like: Why can’t the fleeting thrill of blowing on a dandelion be prolonged?
(You can view the results of his dandelion inquiry at the link.)
Carpenter’s work may bring to mind the digitally interactive sequences in the movie Minority Report, which he designed.

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I want to personally thank Sue Dadd and James Griffith for providing both food and lodging Friday night.
And thanks also to their charming cat Kabuki, who slept at my feet all night.

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Very early Saturday morning I crept out in jammies and socks to have a private natural discourse with their stunning garden, this time a ravine adjacent to the Folly Bowl.
Talk about excited electrons!

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Photos of Natural Discourse at the LA County Arboretum by MB Maher.

Natural Discourse at Los Angeles Co. Arboretum 10/18/14

The drive will be considerably shorter for me to this year’s Natural Discourse, which will be held close to home at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden:
A symposium presented by the Garden Conservancy and the Arboretum that will explore the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of the botanical garden.”

Natural Discourse: Light & Image
Saturday, October 18, 2014, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
301 North Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007

Wahoo! Garden designer/Natural Discourse curator Shirley Watts assembles a mesmerizing group of storytellers in a day-long event that has no equal in the botanical world.


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Coincidentally, and perfectly in keeping with this year’s theme of Light & Image, Shirley’s lanterns inscribed with excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made the cover of Pacific Horticulture this month, with photos by MB Maher, and an interview by Lorene Edwards Forkner: “Artful Gardens; A conversation with Shirley Alexandra Watts.” 19-year-old Mary Shelley famously conceived of the idea for her novel Frankenstein while vacationing with friends in Geneva, Switzerland. The weather was miserable, so they passed the time indoors in an impromptu game of Can You Top This Scary Story. (I think it’s safe to say that Mary probably won that game hands down when she recounted the germ for the story that grew into her book: “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”)

All of which proves that sparks fly when like-minded people gather to entertain each other. See for yourself at Natural Discourse tomorrow, Saturday, October 18, 2014, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You can search the blog for the many posts I’ve written about previous Natural Discourse symposia, such as this one here.

pandemonium revisited

The New York Times has a very nice article today on Pandemonium Aviaries (“362 Birds, and Unruffled“), which MB Maher visited and photographed in 2012
Since that time, bird rescuer Michelle Raffin has written a book “The Birds of Pandemonium; Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered.


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Also since that time, her marriage of many years has ended, and Michelle is in the process of fine-tuning the perfect exit strategy to ensure the continued care of her demanding flock when she eventually becomes unable to care for them. Now 63, Michelle made that first, life-changing rescue of an injured dove 15 years ago. Since the blog post, I’ve experienced first-hand how bird rescue works. In our case, a lost parakeet landed exhausted in my son’s top-down Miata parked under the jacaranda trees. After a year alone in the bath house off our bedroom, we realized it needed a mate, exactly the pattern Michelle follows with her rescued birds. The character of the bath house has changed too, now more aviary with a tub in it than bath house. Birds are sneaky that way, insinuating themselves into our lives, hearts, bath houses. My original post and more of Mitch’s photos can be found here.

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The aviary now receives birds from some of the country’s most respected zoos for breeding and lifetime care.”
362 Birds, and Unruffled” by Sandy Keenan, The New York Times 9/17/14

the French Laundry’s Culinary Garden

One score and seven minutes ago our partners brought forth on this town, a new restaurant, conceived in finesse, and dedicated to the proposition that all food is served soigné.” —
Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry celebrating its 20th anniversary July 6, 2014.


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When my oldest son Mitch traveled to the Isle of Skye off of Northern Scotland just to eat at The Three Chimneys is probably when I first realized he was getting fairly serious about eating good food. For his photography services, he has been known to accept payment in the form of a meal at a favorite restaurant. That right there is a pretty good illustration of the kind of business sense that runs in my family.

Mitch visited The French Laundry over the weekend, about an hour north out of San Francisco in Napa Valley, in the town of Yountville. Mediterranean winter wet/summer dry, zone 9ish, a climate very much to a grape’s liking. I can’t even imagine the pressures involved in running a working kitchen garden that supports a world-class restaurant. You can read more about the process on their Facebook page. The French Laundry was inducted into The Culinary Hall of Fame in 2012. Jacket required.

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The menu for July 6, 2014.


Shirley Watts in “Curbed”

The Garden Bloggers Fling hostess for the 2013 meetup, garden designer Shirley Watts, got a nice writeup in the Bay Area’s Curbed today. Very gratifying to see a primarily real estate magazine throw some love at landscapes and gardens too. Both Shirley and photographer MB Maher, whose photos were used, have been long-time friends of AGO. Feel free to repost and/or Like it on Facebook to encourage more of this kind of coverage.


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I especially loved reading about Shirley’s 2003 installation at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, which I unfortunately missed out on seeing firsthand: “The installation, which had more moving parts than a Swiss clock, centered on multiple cube-shaped screens rising out of a densely planted landscape of grasses and ferns. The screens, hung at different heights and inclinations like organic objects themselves, played vintage 1950s time-lapse footage of highly saturated flowers opening and closing. “I’m mesmerized by time-lapse footage,” Watts says. “Something about it allows us to see what we don’t normally see. It teaches us things about natural systems, movement also. And in the Bay Area, the center of innovation, the idea of bringing televisions into the garden was natural.”

Unfortunately, the 2014 Garden Bloggers Fling has already sold out, a victim of its own wild success, but it doesn’t hurt to check if there’s a waiting list. The San Francisco Garden & Flower Show is just around the corner, March 19-23, 2014.


What to do with your lawn when there’s a drought

Just lose the lawn and don’t look back.
And if and when rainfall in California ever gets back to normal levels, which isn’t much anyway, you just might realize you want your lawn back about as much as you want shag carpeting and avocado-colored appliances again.

That would be my own blunt advice, but for a little more nuance and gentle persuasion, check out Julie Chai’s recent article for The San Francisco Chronicle, “Drought landscaping: 5 inspiring lawn-free yards.”


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One of the gardens under discussion in the article is this one, designed by Beth Mullins. Photo by MB Maher.
Also included are gardens designed by Rebecca Sweet, whose garden was visited in the 2013 Garden Bloggers Fling.