Tag Archives: terraced gardens

planting details at the Reid garden

I went through my Reid garden photos again, looking for clear examples of the subtly layered plant communities that rose up around my feet as I followed the paths, scanning the garden like a hungry predator, looking down then quickly back up to trace the changing treeline, the alternating pools of light then shade, the understory of shrubs surrounded by blankets of ground-hugging sedums, bergenias, hardy begonias, grasses. Immersed in the garden, it feels as though the enfolding landscape continually builds up then releases great dramatic tension, holding charged breaths filled to bursting, then exhaling in a pool of sunlight, or a vista over fields and distant stands of trees. Heady stuff.

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Filling over two acres, plants are allowed to contribute the full breadth of their character and are seen in all their dimensions.

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The Lion’s Tail, Leonotis leonurus, was a dazzlingly exotic beast to American Conifer Society members on the tour.
I heard languages from all over the world amongst our group excitedly conferring over the Lion’s Tail.

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Remember, this is a California garden in September, in a mediterranean climate (theoretically winter wet/summer dry) under water restrictions due to our cursed, ongoing drought.

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On the path alongside the serpentine wall.

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Their terraced landscape covers two and a half of the 140 rolling acres they bought outside Occidental in 1989.
A few miles east of the Pacific Ocean and south of the Russian River, the garden overlooks farm fields, apple orchards, and fir forests
.” — (“A Passionate Pursuit”)

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Now on the semi-parched lawn atop the wall.

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Leucadendron, Rosa mutabilis, and Salvia involucrata.

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Cussonia paniculata on the left, in the distance behind the veil of Stipa gigantea, white oleander on the right.

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Up against the house, tibouchina and abutilon.

There is a new book out, that I haven’t read yet, entitled “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes,” by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, that describes this kind of “ecological landscape design.” If you have a nearby garden to study that follows these principles, consider yourself fortunate, because brilliant examples like the Reid garden in Northern California are not often seen. Gardens attached to nurseries, like nearby Western Hills in Occidental, are often good places to study this kind of planting, because detailed plant knowledge is the key.

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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Photo found here

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.

terraced gardens and the Cow Horn agave

I love terraced gardens, with their multiple shifting perspectives from up, down, side to side. I can probably trace this appreciation to an aunt’s hilltop home in the harbor town of San Pedro, Calif. My dad’s sister had a house that overlooked Los Angeles Harbor, bought with fishing money, when there were still big local schools of sardine and albacore. The hill was buttressed by multiple terraces. The plantings were nondescript, but the idea intrigued me even as a kid, this modest example of domestic-scale geoengineering, with the land falling away beneath you, yet there always being level ground underfoot provided by the terracing. Visiting the terraced villages of the Cinque Terre in Italy many years later was a continuation of this childhood fascination. Terraced gardens still pull me in to this day, as this local one did featuring a favorite agave from western Mexico, the Cow Horn agave.


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Agave bovicornuta here being harassed by a bougainvillea. Yucca rostrata on the topmost terrace.

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Aeoniums and lavender, Kalanchoe tomentosa, Aloe striata, with an attempt to tame and train bougainvillea against a retaining wall.
A Dragon Tree holds a corner of the upper terrace.

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Another feature of terrace gardens: incredibly satisfied-looking plants in the free drainage and warmth from the stone in this eastern exposure.
This house and garden is just a couple blocks from the ocean.

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Deep green and blue again, this time the green provided by the Pencil Cactus, Euphorbia tirucalli
The blue agave looks like possibly Agave celsii ‘Nova’ (now going by A. mitis.) except that solitary agave is not known for pupping so many offsets.
It also looks a lot like my ‘Dragon Toes,’ which does offset freely.

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Seems like I gravitate for a while to the powder blue agaves or variegated agaves, but there will always be room for the deep emerald green of the Cowhorn Agave.
Mine succumbed to overwatering in the back garden a couple years ago, and I haven’t seen it on offer locally since.
The back garden is becoming almost as dry as the front gravel garden, so I’ve started planting agaves in the ground in the back again. We’ll see how they fare.

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With rosemary and Echeveria agavoides.

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What the bougainvillea really wants is the terraces all to itself.
I’d never unleash it in this situation, where keeping it in bounds will require frequent trimming, putting the succulents in danger of being trampled if not smothered first.
I do admire the horizontal line of its dark green leaves snaking across the retaining walls in the upper photos, but the amount of labor and leaf litter…
All that clipping sacrifices the flowers anyway, turning what’s normally a study in scarlet to a minor meditation on magenta.

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A glimpse of the sloping front lawn of the house next-door, which shows how the Cow Horn agave matches the depth of color of green grass.

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With the paddle plant, Kalanchoe luciae ‘Fascination.’

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Another bonus of terraces is the fact that agaves are not at shin level, which is where I frequently engaged with my Cow Horn agave —
but always in cowboy jeans, of course.