As of today, March 30, 2020, in Southern California we can still walk our neighborhoods, if not the parks, trails, and beaches, and that is no small comfort. Mitch’s base during this “safer at home” period has been Hollywood, and he took some photos of a garden that he visits regularly on daily walks, one the locals know as the Blue Garden. Poppies, native and somniferum varieties, irises, scarlet flax, larkspur, phlomis, brugmansia, and dozens and dozens of blue bottles can easily turn a short walk into the highlight of the day, even if done solo or keeping a distance of 6 feet apart. Can gardens be heroes too? I think so.
Mitch sent along this note: There are “secret” public steps that run along the vertical length of this garden, so everyone in the neighborhood has a relationship with it. The garden is experienced on those steps, in the rhythm and timing that it takes a human to climb stairs, and at that speed the frequency and composition of blue glass is a knockout.
Everyone knows the place as the Blue Garden. But the speed & isolating frames of photography run opposite to the human experience in this case — in my images, it looks like there are a few blue items sprinkled across terraces lackadaisically, when in reality as you experience the installation on foot, the piercing blue is overwhelming.
There’s a couple of Ty Nant imported mineral waters, more than a few Sky Vodka liters, swanky olive oil, Absolut Vodka for sure, but no Sapphire gin — it’s the wrong hue.
There’s a resolute carpet of dymondia, poppies reseeding through railroad ties, rebar arbors, a few pendulous daturas — it’s a rich detonation of spring.
Someone has been generous with color and seed catalog purchases for years.
We photographed with Velvia 50 because that’s what’s necessary under quarantine. Bombastic saturation, irresponsible color fidelity, wild drunken cangiantismo. We need this.
The delight of walking through a landscape with a camera at magic hour after so many days indoors simmering beans cannot be overstated.
Since I greedily planted the long, narrow front garden smack up against the fence that separates us from legions of parked cars and noisy, fast-moving traffic, it’s difficult to maneuver around for photos (and maintenance). Also, a lot of toothy customers are packed in these close quarters, like the fearsome ‘Jaws,’ and Furcraea macdougalii. I constantly vacillate between privacy and a more streamlined garden that’s visually open to my neighbors. The west end closer to the driveway is unhedged, but this eastern end is like a little green cloister.
The cotyledon I wrote about earlier in the week is in the front garden, and a young tree aloe ‘Hercules,’ and a manzanita ‘Louis Edmonds,’ and a Nolina nelsonii, various agaves, Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ — it’s a mishmash of a garden. The main criteria for a plant’s inclusion is, once established, the ability to go completely summer dry.
And towering 20 feet over it all, fairly close to the house, is the triangle palm, Dypsis decaryi. I’ve noticed that when there isn’t a clear viewpoint or sightline into a space, planting is less about design than a collector’s free-for-all.
In March reseeding Erodium pelargoniflorum carpets the ground around the succulents — you can see the little white flowers cozying up to ‘Jaws’ in the first photo. This annual erodium completely dies out when the soil dries out in summer.
The 3-foot wooden fence is backed on the sidewalk side by a 7-foot high box hedge — a dodge to get around fence height ordinances. I’ve always hated this fence/hedge arrangement, and as of a month ago I desperately wanted it gone — but a month of sheltering in place has changed my mind again. For one thing, so many birds and small mammals love these hedges — to nest in, to duck into when danger threatens. And both the boxwood and olives are fantastic for what turns into a very dry summer garden — the olives being far more attractive than the box, which gets patchy and thin but usually recovers with winter rain. And then there’s that investment in time to grow the hedges and their abilities as sound buffers, carbon sinks, and particulate sponges to consider. And lately I can re-appreciate the psychological distance they provide too. For now, I think the hedges are winning this very old argument.
But planting and experimenting with even an awkward bit of ground is enormous fun — a leucospermum and Acanthus spinosus were planted just yesterday.
For more garden tours, both front and back, although the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour had to be canceled this weekend, they had the genius idea to share it online — and you can check it out here.
Leaving the bizarro world aside for the moment, and desperately clinging to the bright side, at least this unusual March has been a good month for rain in Los Angeles. We’re just about an inch below average, which is great for the spring garden tours (if they hadn’t been cancelled…)
In the front garden, this brawny, chunky succulent has taken over a big swath of ground. For now I like having more of the same plant as opposed to an intricate tapestry, but that could change. When it’s in bloom, like now, I especially appreciate the multiple statuesque stems with mop-topped apricot bells.
For more plant portraits, a lot of the arboreta and public gardens include What’s in Bloom on their websites — for example, here’s Descanso Gardens.
Continuing in a reflective, “safer at home” mood, from the AGO archives, these would be plants that got away for various reasons — grew too large, grew too slow, grew in a spot I needed for something new, but all of which are fabulous constructs and sorely missed. And now I find they are difficult to replace. Yes, seed might be available somewhere in the world, but I’ve often found that when plants are rare and scarce it’s for a simple reason — they are difficult to propagate. I can get some annuals to grow from seed, but difficult stuff? My patience and skills aren’t really up to the task. If you find any of these plants along your zone 10 plant acquisition routes, I can assure you they are interesting characters to grow and observe.
And then there was that unnamed chartreuse, crinkly-leaved verbascum, and the willowy Euphorbia ceratocarpa…
I’m convinced that plant and garden people have deep inner resources, but even so, please take care…and don’t stop planting!
Burrowing into plant and seed catalogues isn’t a bad idea at the moment. Mail ordering plants and seeds is eminently doable even in a pandemic crisis, and if you’re hanging out a lot at home, so much the better for keeping track of fragile new seedlings and transplants. I sowed a few zinnia and cosmos this gloriously drizzly morning (‘Queen Lime Orange’ and ‘Xanthos,’ respectively), ordered from Chiltern’s in the UK because a) the UK is still a plant mecca, and b) they also had a more heat-tolerant dill I’ve been interested in trying, ‘Tetra.’ These will be for pots. I wouldn’t plant zinnias in my dryish summer garden anyway, even if there was a patch of unoccupied soil. Somehow sowing seeds, even ornamentals, is as reassuring to me as a well-stocked pantry. Beans, pasta, and a few summer flowers — the essentials!
I love my winter garden and all my spiky, shrubby friends. It is not lost on me that, in a weird reversal of intentions and aspirations, my zone 10 winter garden is filled with the tender plants and succulents that are temporary stars of summer gardens in colder climates. And then those summer gardens will be filled with all the perennials I wish I could grow here in zone 10. I love how these different visions of a summer garden — movement vs. statism, softness vs. solidity, pointillist vs. architectural — nourish garden imaginations everywhere and expand the sense of what’s possible.
Whether the emphasis is on cactus and succulents, a dream of wildflower-filled meadows or scrubby chapparal, the idea of a garden is broad and malleable enough to encompass anything we can imagine. (As a simple baseline in making a garden I’d say 1) do no harm, 2) work with your climate’s rainfall patterns or you’ll be miserable, and 3) allow as many local wildlife species to thrive with you there as possible.)
By early spring, I’m ready for some wind-tossed, out-of-control exuberance in the garden, something that perennials do so well. But here in the mild winter, mediterranean climate of zone 10, many perennials don’t return a second year, refusing to break dormancy and wake up again for another spring. A nice surprise this winter was the return of the lacy leaves of the giant fennel, Ferula communis, I planted almost a year ago, which completely disappeared last summer. And I’m trying another phlomis, this one herbaceous, unlike recently trialed shrubby Phlomis lanata (a great phlomis for a larger dry garden.) Phlomis tuberosa ‘Bronze Flamingo’ will most likely be unsuccessful here, just like related Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone,’ but for now it’s showing new basal growth. And the old maxim of killing a plant three times is a useful guideline, because hopefully in those three times you’ll have experimented with different exposures and growing conditions. And because I’ve watched them bloom spectacularly all winter in a small garden near my mom’s house, I’m trying a few plants of the tall, wispy annual Coreopsis tinctoria, an heirloom variety Annie’s Annuals carries called ‘Tiger Stripes.’
Trying out new plants is a thrill that never gets old, even if it’s from a genus I’ve repeatedly grown. Phygelius are hardly newcomers to this garden. I’ve run hot/cold for years with the so-called cape figwort aka cape fuschia. (See here and here and here.) From South Africa, they would seem to be ideal plants for zone 10 summers. Gardens colder than zone 7 often grow these heavy-blooming, hummingbird-friendly plants as annuals.
They are big, lanky, shrubby perennials, and I’ve always had a problem getting a semblance of uniform growth and bloom out of them. Flowers invariably appear at the end of long, wayward branches that fall to the ground and smother surrounding plants. (And blooms on the ground, let’s face it, is the garden equivalent of “burying the lead.” Or is it “lede”?)
But I keep an open mind and continually trial the new phygelius on the block because they seem bursting with good summer garden potential for zone 10. In local nurseries now is ‘Colorburst Orange,’ and a couple came home with me, squeezed in at the base of a phormium among Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty.’
If you can’t find phygelius varieties local, Digging Dog always carries a nice selection. So much to grow!
Artist, filmmaker, and gardener Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, England, needs some crowd-sourcing love. If it’s one of those places you dream of one day visiting, you might want to consider helping to secure its future by donating what you can by the end of this month. I’ve always wanted to experience sweeps of sea kale, Crambe maritima, growing in shingle at Prospect Cottage in the shadow of nuclear reactors. (What romantic visions I conjure!) Tilda Swinton is one of a group of artists lending their support to the Art Fund campaign: “My excitement about this vision for Prospect Cottage lies in its projected future as an open, inclusive and encouraging machine for the inspiration and practical working lives of those who might come and share in its special qualities, qualities that, as a young artist, I was lucky enough to benefit from alongside Derek and so many of our friends and fellow travellers.”
A few more odds and ends from my garden, some hopefully less fleeting than others:
Notwithstanding the recent visit to Palm Springs for Modernism Week, I still have yet to visit nearby Sunnylands, the so-called Camp David of the West in its heyday, when it was the private residence of the Annenbergs, Ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore — these are Mitch’s photos. He was able to saunter over for a quick look since the condo a friend loaned him for the talk overlooked the Sunnylands golf course. The Annenbergs’ house was designed by MCM architect A. Quincy Jones in 1963, but Sunnylands, to my mind, is all about the fairly new desert garden and its spectacular mass plantings of palo verde trees, succulents and cacti. In 2006 the Annenberg Foundation Trust commissioned the Office of James Burnett landscape architecture firm to create a 9-acre garden on the 200-acre site which was the Annenbergs’ desert retreat. OJB’s work earned the Honor Award in 2012 from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
I knew the Annenberg name only from seeing it scroll across my tv screen when watching my local PBS station. In reading up on Sunnylands, I impatiently swiped aside accounts of the international summits, diplomatic triumphs, and art collection donated to the Metropolitan to indulge an admittedly crass curiosity: Where did the Annenberg fortune come from? Like Hearst, the source of Annenberg’s wealth was print media, which he later expanded into radio and television. Annenberg grew his father’s publishing acquisitions into the company Triangle Publications, which ultimately included a lucrative roster of publications like TV Guide, Seventeen, the Daily Racing Form. Annenberg’s fortune was also channeled into heroic-scale philanthropy and supported an abiding sense of public service.
I asked Marty to drill drainage holes in this metal cart yesterday. Without drainage it was fairly useless, accumulating water and leaves and making a slimy brew of them all winter. When I returned home late in the afternoon, Marty was gone, the drainage holes had been drilled, and I was in a mood to tear into something. So I spent the next four hours or so ignoring phone calls, moving tables and chairs, transferring pots to the metal cart, repotting where needed, sweeping and raking until it was too dark to work.
This narrow eastern side of the house has always been problematic. Mostly hardscape, all awkward angles and fences, yet it’s by far the largest, friendliest space for people — if only I didn’t collect so damned many potted plants. And as it is the summer hangout, I need to be careful about cluttering it up. With spring around the corner, and knowing my weakness for pretty new plants, now is the time for a clean sweep and regaining some control.
About all that hardscape. Tempted as I am to hide that fence with plants, the space is really too narrow and too root-infested from the neighbor’s plantings. And I have to admit, with the rest of the garden so densely planted, this open area does provide some breathing room. The bricks are laid on sand up to the tree, where beyond is a patio of stained concrete. The leaded glass salvage windows are part of the dutch gate and fencing leading to the front garden. I’m hoping to replace everything soon with expanded-metal panels. Anything but wood again.
All winter-long I continually sweep the leaf litter into that little square surrounding the trunk of the Chinese fringe tree, then in spring I use most of the leaves for mulch elsewhere. The pile was twice as high up the trunk yesterday. Thankfully, the tree seems to have finally dropped its last leaf, another reason to take on a spring cleanup. This little square of leaf mulch is also a prime grub-digging spot for raccoons and possums, and they’re welcome to it. (At one time I actually contemplated planting under the fringe tree — see here.)
New spring rules: all small potted plants on the eastern patio must fit on the metal cart with wheels.
Now I feel ready to tackle those mail-ordered plants which should be arriving any day…
I could describe February as the Month of Tiny Flowers in my garden except, honestly, that pretty much describes it year-round. You’ll have to narrow your focus (and expectations!) just a bit for a gander at the offbeat odds and ends blooming in my zone 10 Southern Californian garden this February.
The pot of winter-flowering Cactus Geranium that’s at least as old as the blog keeps company this year with rhipsalis and other trailing succulents and small bromeliads in pots lined up atop the eastern edge of the laundry shed.
The genera I’m currently relying on most for tall, architectural blooms all happen to begin with the letter A: aloe, agapanthus, anigozanthos. They have similar water needs, with aloes being the most dry-tolerant, and they all appreciate generous spacing with good air flow at their bases. All three generally are low, clumpish growers that won’t obscure other plants when out of bloom — but you have to choose carefully with aloes as many can get quite large and shrublike. All three together can provide blooms year-round in zone 10. (And I’d love to add in another letter A plant, Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ too — somewhere.)
Even though a lifelong So. Californian, I’ve only recently become a convert to the agapanthus camp. (Unbearably omnipresent bordering on municipal, I reasoned, why include them in a personal garden? Because (1) they add excitement to that difficult time in summer when new growth in the garden mostly shuts down except for the big grasses; and (2) I want to see if they can mix it up on the drier side with agaves, aloes, kangaroo paws, grasses. I’m betting they can. We’ll see…) I’m hoping the clumps will be big enough to become a presence this summer. But overall, what the garden lacks in traditional floral ambitions it makes up for with fascinating structural intricacies that keep the pollinators satiated and me continually intrigued.
(Some garden blogs follow the tradition of showing what’s in bloom on the 15th of every month, established by May Dreams Gardens. Some of us are irregular contributors and/or occasionally a day late — ahem!)