Tag Archives: mediterranean climate

hillside with Schwentker Watts Design

I was in a wonderful garden the other night, but was caught flat-footed as far as having any photos to show for it. Although only 7:30ish, twilight doesn’t last long in this Los Angeles neighborhood but is quickly swallowed up by the hills that impart such a unique character to these Hollywood communities. Moody, atmospheric shadows come early. Rather than not posting at all, I’ve pulled together what can only be a teaser of this quintessentially mediterranean garden. Luckily, MB Maher had visited the house and garden a couple years ago, so I asked him to search his archives. Along with some photos from an article by The Los Angeles Times‘ (“L.A. Cottage Remade as Wonderland of Color“) I’ve cobbled together a small portrait of the creative extravaganza that is packed floor to ceiling, sidewalk to hilltop, in the home and garden of architect and garden designer James Schwentker and film production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone. James Schwentker is a principal of Schwentker Watts Design, that rare firm that engages in “full-service architecture, landscape, and garden design.”

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The dining terrace of the garden nestles snug and level into a steep hillside in the Franklin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles near Silverlake. Apart from this broad dining terrace, the rest of the garden is carved from the sharply sloping hillside in terraces backed by low retaining walls of broken concrete (“urbanite”). The work involved with managing the slope of a hillside garden is of a kind and degree I’ve yet to encounter. Just thinking about it makes my back throb. Out of the photo’s frame are stairs that lead from the dining terrace both further up the hillside as well as down to the street. The finely cut, jagged leaves leaning in from the bottom left belong to bocconia, a huge, tree-like specimen. Two lemon cypresses, tightly clipped specimens of Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora,’ flank the path that cuts into the hillside leading down to the street. The tight clipping gives the golden spires an elegantly clean, strong line, an idea I may have to try on the three juvenile lemon cypresses I have at home.

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The looming agaves seemingly tapping on the kitchen window also speak to the steep terracing that begins just outside the house.

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Streetview from the LA Times. Behind the hedge is the secluded dining terrace, one of the soaring lemon cypresses just visible.
The house’s colors are described as “mango accented with moss and celery.” (I love it when an architect has plants on the brain.)
That enormous Agave americana resides in one of the largest terracotta pots I’ve ever seen.

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The entry into the 1923 cottage, reputedly once the home of actress Gloria (“Sunset Boulevard”) Swanson.

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The main room, its original low ceiling removed, with the new “catwalk” overhead. The early renovations were a joint effort with Harvey Watts, the other half of Schwentker Watts Design.

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And this is where the catwalk leads, former attic turned sleeping loft. Photo by MB Maher.

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Dining terrace just visible through the doors. LA Times

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Citrus fruit picked from the hillside’s many fruit trees.

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.

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.

Villa Mundo Nuevo

This fall photographer MB Maher revisited this Northern Californian residential garden designed by landscape architect Jarrod Baumann of Zeterre Landscape Architecture and built by contractor Jim Everett of EvLand LLC that won the 2010 California Landscape Contractors Association Trophy Award. An early rough video preview of this project from last November can be found here. Laura Livengood Schaub first blogged on this project on Interleafing May 2010, found here.


Continue reading Villa Mundo Nuevo

The Gospel According to San Marcos

The devoted gathered to hear Mr. Baldwin of the premiere West Coast nursery San Marcos Growers give a talk at Roger’s Gardens last Saturday on new plant introductions. Be warned that this post will be plant-wonkish in the extreme.


Continue reading The Gospel According to San Marcos

Grace Under Pressure


This is about as basic as it gets, squirting water out of a garden hose.
Very inefficient and ineffective, yet I grab a hose practically every day, however briefly, to at least water the pots and new plantings.
And as a quick spritzer sometimes to humidify the air. And sometimes just for the sheer goofy pleasure of it.
Hummingbirds have been known to compound the delight by flying into the spray for dazzling aerial baths. The photo was taken sometime last spring.
In that interval after the smoke tree ‘Grace’ leafs out but before the tropical Euphorbia cotinifolia, whose bare twigs are in the mid right foreground, that array of antlers over my head.
Probably sometime in late March/April. (Possibly we were lubing the weather vane cockerel and the camera was brought along for the ride.)


Back to me in the bathrobe. The goldeny blur under Grace is a duranta.
To its left is/was my beloved Euphorbia ceratocarpa (RIP) which succumbed in fall, though I may have found a seedling.
It’s too soon to tell, but there are three cuttings in sand, yet to root.
It is that rarest of euphorbs, one that does not throw its progeny into every nook and cranny.
One of the few references I’ve found to it was from the Brit Sarah Raven of Perch Hill, that her father, John Raven, brought it home from Sicily.
A very willowy euphorb with airy, sparklerish blooms.
(I have no provenance for that green wool robe either, a gift from my son off Ebay, but it looks like a robe straight out of Bessie Glass’ closet.)

No hose required today, and rain is forecast off and on for the rest of the week.
What does the coming of the rain mean to a gardener in a Mediterranean climate?

Alhambra GrandPaBruce

As a start, check out the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra in Spain for its celebration of water:
Constant moving of plants and sitting areas precludes a built-in irrigation system, though I do lay drip hose sometimes when the mood strikes, like last spring.
But drip hose just seems less useful in complicated plantings.
Why underground cisterns are not built into, at the very least, every new house here in So. Calif., to store precious rainwater, is a mystery.
Sixty gallons of rain saved in trash cans is a luxury for potted plants but really doesn’t go very far when faced with a minimum of six months of drought.

Our personal water usage consistently stays at below average for a household of four, though it could be even lower.
Grey water systems, ironically, still seem problematic, since grey water can’t be stored for lengthy periods of time.
There hasn’t been a lawn here since moving in over 20 years ago.
It’s always interesting to read the fiery exchanges on Garden Rant whenever lawns are discussed, and you can plug “lawn” into their search engine for more threads.
It’d be helpful if zones, length of growing season, and average rainfall were given as a prelude to discussion, but it’s a subject that’s been polarizing people for decades.
Delivery (some might say theft) of water from Northern California to Southern California through one of the biggest waterworks projects in human history, the California aqueduct, is straining under population growth demands and drought.

For an intro into the back-stabbing politics over water rights, one need go no further than Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown.


Water use, public and private, is an enduring obsession.

Horticultural Mash Notes from the Middle of the World

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Zone 10, 32 degrees latitude, to be exact. Have been reading this fall many blogs of brave gardeners in cold climes putting a cheerful face on the impending winter, asserting that gardens and gardeners need a rest anyway. This may or may not be true, but such narratives consistently sustain us through adversity, and I’m all for that. But summer is when our landscape rests, and fall when it springs back to life.

What does a Southern Calif obsessive gardener do in what passes for our winter? (Besides start a blog in the 21st century.) Start seeds (lots of verbascum this year), take cuttings, move plants, shuffle pots. Same stuff as cold-climate gardeners (except no greenhouse required.) Gawk at the amazing, slanting, autumnal light. Fool around with the deciduous-versus-evergreen ratio and how much bare ground will be tolerable for three months. Going the evergreen/Italian route sacrifices available room for the ephemerals, of course, so the ratio fluctuates year to year. Lately, allowing space for ephemeral spring bloomers is winning out. Excitement vs. evergreen stasis. Each fall one negotiates whether to go the hardy annual route or just tough it out sans “color.” I usually choose the latter but made up one pot of maroon linaria, Euphorbia ‘Breathless Blush,’ and prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis. What else? Oh, and wait for rain. On our knees.

Rumor is six days of rain are imminent. The garden goes off life support at last. Clouds willing, the watering cans will collect webs until April. I’m gradually adjusting my horticultural ambitions to follow the growth/rain cycles here, with emphasis on rain-driven spring displays which begin as early as Feb, then tapering off expectations for summer’s annual drought. Maybe some agastache and grasses and call it done. With possibly some tropicals thrown into the mix for late fall as long as water rationing allows. More on that later.

And I have no idea why this obsession found me, which is sort of the impetus for the blog. In all honesty, I’m not very good at practical gardening either, which in no way diminishes the pleasure gained. I’m reasonably sure that any framework that allows one to consider issues of proportion and balance, whether in gardens or any other area, is worth pursuing.

More on Los Angeles, Zone 10: Rainfall averages approximately 15 inches. In a banner year. A subtle, dry landscape, easily sculpted by man and thus easily distorted, occasionally into the grotesque. Most of my life, I’ve always wanted to live elsewhere; now I never want to leave. Yet I just read that more people are now leaving Calif for Texas and Oklahoma as arrived from those states during the Dust Bowl. Migrations ever in flux.

From Marin Independent Journal on July 15, 2000, by Diane Lynch

“Q: Why is most of California’s climate referred to as Mediterranean? Isn’t that stretching it a bit far?

A: There are five regions in the world that have so-called Mediterranean climates. They are characterized by their locations 30 to 40 degrees from the equator on the western sides of continents and by the dry summers and wet, mild winters they typically have. Interestingly, the western edges of the continents have cold offshore currents and a complex phenomenon called upwelling, which makes these ocean areas very rich and varied in life forms and also moderates the summer temperatures in coastal areas. The reason we have rain in the winter months and not in the summer months is due to the fact that we are between two major climate zones: the northwest zone brings rain to the Seattle area most of the year but affects us mostly in the winter months, and the southern California zone, which is dry and calm and dominates our summer weather. Other areas of the world that have similar climates are the southwestern tip of Africa, portions of western Australia, the central coast of Chile, as well as the Mediterranean Basin, which has the world’s largest area with this climate. The amounts of rainfall and length of dry spells vary considerably within each of these regions. Summer drought is the defining factor but it can range from 11-12 months down to 1-2 months.”

Thank you, Diane Lynch.
(photo by MB Maher)