rainy day schedule and its effects on big, jagged leaves

That makes two drizzly Mondays in a row. Did our collective obsession with California winter rain last year have the unintended and adverse effect of scaring it away? Drought does bring out magical thinking in me. I’ve given up on rain, don’t watch the forecasts anymore, which is clearly the preferred method for success. So I will continue my cunning campaign of giving no thought at all to winter rainfall, because this stealth approach seems to bring out the clouds. When it does drizzle in autumn, I reflexively greet the rain with my old elementary school advisory, those profoundly impactful words “rainy day schedule.” Which meant we remained in classrooms waiting for final dismissal rather than playing dodgeball out on the tarmac. Instead of our hooligan jubilations at being relatively unsupervised outdoors, the swishing sounds from the heavy cotton layers of the nuns’ habit, the rattle of the long rosary at their sides as they prowled the aisles, pencils dutifully scribbling at homework, and rain spattering at the casement windows would continue to be the hushed soundtrack to our desk-bound lives until the clock struck three. (I’ve checked out those huge rosaries at flea markets recently and was shocked at the hefty price.) Now at the sign of even modest drizzle, I say the words aloud ironically, “rainy day schedule,” because unlike my dodgeball days, they’ve become the happiest words I know. Not that I’m thinking about rain anymore or anything. What I am thinking about are big, jagged leaves.


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The bocconia came through summer beautifully on a semi-attentive regimen of drip hoses once a week, maybe every two weeks. Okay, sometimes I was reminded by its declining appearance to get the soaker hose going pronto, admittedly not the most rigorous irrigation schedule. But the soaker hoses sure beat carrying watering cans and moving the garden hose all summer (or, more often, failing to do so).
And in the spirit of full disclosure, these photos were taken after some surprise light rainfall on October 17, and what plant doesn’t look good glistening wet?

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In my garden big, jagged leaves come from melianthus, tetrapanax, and bocconia.
Two out of three are in the process of pulling themselves together after a couple recent heat waves. The third, bocconia, is resplendent this fall.

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In full sun with lax summer irrigation, Bocconia frutescens starts to look a little puckered by August, and seems to drop leaves more freely than usual. Adding drip hoses this summer and more reliable irrigation was obviously the preference of all three. The bocconia and tetrapanax bloom in fall, the melianthus in spring.
(Although San Marcos Growers has the Tree Poppy as a spring/summer bloomer.)

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Melianthus ‘Purple Haze,’ February 2016

The cultivar from Roger Raiche, ‘Purple Haze,’ doesn’t try to bloom at all, which is fine with me, and it has lived up to its reputation as a compact melianthus, becoming no larger than a robust Jerusalem sage or phlomis, an important consideration for me because the species is a lanky giant here. I do think ‘Purple Haze,’ because it is less vigorous than the species, requires more summer irrigation than the species to look its best, and of the three plants discussed here the melianthus is most reliant on irrigation.

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cycads at the Los Angeles County Arboretum October 2016

I’ve been mulling over a list of similar contenders for a semi-dry, full sun summer garden in mediterranean climates. I’m thinking more on a herbaceous scale or smallish shrubs. Acanthus is a classic contender, of course, but A. mollis needs afternoon shade, and I’m just becoming familiar with other acanthus species for hopefully full sun. Macleaya, the bocconia’s herbaceous relative, has fabulous leaves, bigger, less jagged, more scalloped. Ricinus communis, the castor bean plant, especially in its darkest form ‘New Zealand Purple’ makes the list. The cabbage palms, cussonias, do eventually grow into trees here, as do the manihots and loquats. I’m hours away from ordering a fig, Ficus afghanistanica ‘Silver Lyre,’ from Cistus Nursery, if I don’t talk myself out of it again for the umpteenth time. Ultimate size will be an issue with the fig as well. The dandelion relative, sonchus, is an intriguing possibility. I’m trying out a new one, Sonchus palmensis, in a stock tank. I suspect if I had provided more reliable summer irrigation to other sonchus I’ve grown, like S. congestus and canariensis, I might have had better results. Cycads are a possibility, and you won’t need to worry about summer irrigation when they’re established, but you will need to set up a cycad investment fund right this moment if you hope to procure a nice specimen one day. Same advice for adding some specimen palms, like the Blue Hesper Palm, Brahea armata.
Bixbybotanicals suggested artichoke, which I’ve never tried in the ornamental garden, nor cardoons.
Any other suggestions are most welcome.

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Bocconia bloom panicle January 2015

There might come a time when I have to forego such charismatic plants, those with idiosyncratically jagged leaves that sculpt the garden with their exotic presence and need just a little help getting through summer, sometimes what seems like an endless summer now, rain-wise. You’ve got to be light on your feet these days in keeping a garden.

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Tetrapanax, December 2014.
The tetrapanax is budding up some enormous flower buds surrounded by crisped new leaf growth that was burned in the heat wave a couple weeks back, when we reached 106 (September 26).
Can’t we have a brief intermission from setting records all the time?

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Despite the welcome drizzle, hot and dry is predicted for the overarching, foreseeable future.
Still, it’s no time to throw in the trowel. The right plants are out there.

I hope you enjoy our rainy day schedule the next couple days.

exploring a coastal garden with Lili Singer

This Pacific Palisades garden was the final garden we visited 1/24/13 with Lili Singer via the LA County Arboretum Thursday Garden Talk series. Despite being firmly in the grasp of winter this January morning, or as firm a grasp on winter as Los Angeles can manage, all three of the gardens sparkled on this rainy-day field trip. Posts on the other two gardens can be found here and here. Being born and raised in semi-arid Los Angeles means I doubt I’ll ever view a rainy day as an inconvenience. Rain is always a godsend, like an unexpected kindness. True, traffic becomes even more awful, if that’s possible, but then I generally expect the worst where that’s concerned.

This last garden celebrates water in true mediterranean fashion, with water gardens and fountains. Richard Hayden is the designer here, and I note from his site that we both attended the same UCLA horticulture certificate program. (Some of the excellent instructors for this program in the past have included Lili Singer.) The owner/client is a huge fan of not only Dan Hinkley, meaning she continually brings up new plant enthusiasms for the designer to consider, but also the garden antiquarian and salvage porn king Big Daddy’s. The full complexity of planting in any garden isn’t visible in the dormant month of January, but it’s an excellent opportunity to clearly appreciate the structure and layout. Listening to the client and Richard banter throughout the tour about some of this garden’s old projects, new projects, abandoned projects, was a fascinating peek into the close relationship that develops between client and designer.


leucadendron, arbutus opposite

It can only quicken anticipation of what’s further down the garden path when an enormous Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ greets you at the front door.


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Laurus nobilis ‘Aureus’

A potted bay tree is one of those timeless mediterranean garden features, like boxwood hedging, crunchy gravel underfoot, or urns planted with agaves.

Image found here.
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Its leaves are useful for cooking just about anything that simmers. Laurus nobilis becomes a very large tree in zone 10, so keeping it contained also serves to control its ultimate size. What tempted me into undertaking the grindingly slow task of growing a bay standard from twig to tree was the added promise of those golden leaves in the variety ‘Aureus.’

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It hasn’t been easy. Over the years, I’ve come very close to composting this little tree, mail-ordered from Dan Hinkley’s Heronswood nursery aeons ago as a tiny rooted twig. This is the first summer the tree’s leaves are uniformly golden. The previous decade or so of its life the leaves were ugly, mottled, sickish looking, neither gold nor green. I assumed full sun was the problem and tried dappled shade for it in the afternoon. The bay grew in size, the canopy filled out in the classic standard, if not actual lollipop shape, and I continued to use the leaves in the kitchen. But this winter I’d had enough of the malingerer and pulled off every last, disgusting leaf, keeping them al for cooking, of course. Flavor has been consistently good. The little tree surprisingly rewarded me this spring with the glimmering, goldeny, aureate leaves I’d always envisioned. I plucked one of its leaves just the other night to simmer with a pot of lentils.

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The ‘Waverly’ salvia has spilled onto the bricks and engulfed the pot, which is now too heavy to move to try for a less chaotic photo. The little tree is almost 5’9″ in height, including the pot. Not quite a full lollipop canopy yet, and it needs more limbing up. But it just might get moved to a prime location where it can be fully appreciated now that it seems to have shaken off its awkward juvenile growth phase. I had started to crowd the bay and ruin its lines with odds and ends, a Crithmum maritimum, the vine Manettia cordifolia, which I’ll happily move elsewhere now that the bay seems to be on its way.

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The moral being, by all means, grow a standard bay tree, but don’t torment yourself with ‘Aureus,’ unless you’re drawn to plants that puzzle you with their needs.

Timing is Everything

in garden design. Really enjoyed the cyber garden summit on regionalism held last week, and found myself nodding along with comments by West Coast writers, such as the Germinatrix and Garden Porn, about being led down the primrose path by a good deal of the anglo-centric garden literature written in the last half of the 20th century. One of the Germinatrix’s main complaints revolved around many of the classic border plants being water guzzlers, and how regional substitutes had to be found, e.g., tough euphorbias for blowsy, water-chugging hydrangeas.

I would modestly add another observation: the difficulty of achieving any degree of simultaneity, the cornerstone of English borders, in a mild winter climate, where plants tend to burst into solo performances at inopportune moments instead of rising together in the crescendo you planned for spring and/or summer.

Here’s the soloist for January, intended to be part of the spring corps de ballet, an Orange Chiffon poppy:

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A welcome sight, yes, but guaranteed to be bloomed out now by spring. The objective of amassing a good bunch of self-sowing plants will still be met, so all is not lost. And this poppy blooming today just reminds and reinforces the direction I’ve been heading in anyway, of planning for a big early spring show and reducing attention (and irrigation) in the dry season. One day this direction may ultimately land me looking at my garden filled with aloes blooming in January, with very little room left for herbaceous stuff later in the year, as seen in the Huntington’s succulent and cactus garden several winters ago:

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In fact, the whole idea of “borders” is best jettisoned in zone 10, a concept I still have difficulty moving beyond, so ingrained has it become by those effective British proselytizers Jekyll, Verey, Hobhouse, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Lacy, Keen, and on and on. Even Beth Chatto’s rainfall-dependent gravel garden in East Anglia is a massive border. I still routinely plant in a large border, eight feet deep, giving lots more space to plants than people, when I rationally know there should be more permeable hardscape artfully designed to showcase the wondrous array of exotics we can grow, an ancient truism of Mediterranean garden design. If only those obsessive British horticulturists hadn’t gotten to me first…