This is my favorite mural in my hometown of Long Beach, Calif. To me, it’s a bird perched on an agave bloom (obviously!), painted in a very graphic style reminiscent of a woodcut. I often suspect many people of being plant blind, oblivious to the plant world around them, but I’ve got plenty of blindnesses of my own — for instance, to murals. This mural appeared, I have no idea why or when, and whenever I see it, I feel soothed. End of story of the extent of my appreciation. Except a few weeks ago, as I walked by I photographed the artist’s signature: “Gail Werner.” And then forgot about doing so for another couple weeks. A few days ago I found the image on my phone and looked into the artist and discovered that the mural was painted in 2016 in a city-wide mural painting project that was part of a larger global effort known as Pow! Wow!:
“My work reflects the landscape and cultural imagery related to my Native American background. I am part Cupeño, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay (three tribes located in San Diego County). Native American stories and songs, especially the Cupeño creation stories and traditional “bird songs,” play an important role in how I see the natural world. These stories and songs, in which plants and animals are the characters, tell about how the world came to be and how the people came to be where they are. The “bird songs” tell about the journey of the people, which is said to parallel the migration of the birds. The songs tell about what the birds/people see on their journey: the mountains, deserts, night sky, and other landmarks. For me, they reflect a dreamlike, evolving world, a world I hope to create in my paintings.
‘I often incorporate abstract pictograph (Native American rock art) designs found throughout the region: dot patterns, chevrons, diamond patterns, spirals, and helixes. Designs from Southern California Indian basketry and clay vessels used for food and water storage often make their way into my work. Southern California Indians are known for their beautiful, intricately woven baskets, which often use flower, snake, and geometric shapes. My great-grandmother, Salvadora Valenzuela, was a noted basket maker.
‘I work in oil on wood panel, sometimes incorporating pencil and Prismacolor. I also work with the painterly printmaking process called monotype, as well as the pigmented wax process, encaustic. I usually begin by laying down thin layers of color, and the work evolves from there. Images emerge, some more loosely painted or outlined and some more fully rendered. Landscape, color, light and imagery, abstract designs, stories and songs—all of these elements merge together for me to evoke a sense of journey and place.”
I haven’t found confirmation that the image is that of a bird perched specifically on an agave bloom, but I love it nonetheless. On her website you can find this image and more in this style under Monotype Prints. A video of the mural in progress in 2016, accompanied by “Tango Milonga Sensual” and “Electronic Tango for Two” by Ariel Sanchez, can be found here.
More notes on micro-moves in my small back garden, mostly having to do with a succulent-forward mindset for fall/winter here in zone 10. If you scroll down to the previous post, where I mention having to move an aloe because Agave kerchovei was encroaching, here’s what actually transpired:
I moved the agave instead, giving a formerly potted Mangave ‘Mission to Mars’ its sunny spot in the garden.
The agave was moved to the base of the slipper plants, where the mangave, fabulous in its beehive pot, was holding court. I was very loath to move this agave for a couple reasons, not least of which was taking a chance with marring its slowly acquired beauty. But overriding even aesthetics, another crucial consideration was that of all my agaves, kerchovei has the meanest defenses. I get poked and scratched by plants all day long, but it is only with this agave that I’ve learned to drop what I’m doing, bathe the site with hydrogen peroxide and then hold it under running water for a minute or so, apply neosporin (the pain formulation), bandaid, and only then resume whatever I was doing. Otherwise, a welt quickly appears and with it a very unique, insistent pain that is impossible to ignore. If I act fast, there will be no welt or pain, but the site will still be sensitive and sore for a day or so.
All the low pots around the agave’s periphery were placed to keep those terminal spines well away from us as we walk by to do the laundry, sit under the pergola, etc. I did think about saying goodbye to the agave entirely (gulp!), but the move went without incident so it gets a reprieve for now. These soft-leaved mangaves that also make big architectural rosettes are going to be giving agaves a run for their money in the warmer zones, especially in small gardens where agave spine strikes can be a recurring problem.
And that nice big beehive pot that was home to the purple mangave? It came to the rescue of Mangave ‘Kaleidoscope’ that was being shaded by Salvia mexicana.
This mangave is supposed to live up to its name with eye-wateringly gawdy, red-streaked and flecked coloration in full sun, whereas mine is merely subdued variegation. I don’t mind losing all the color but that increasing shade will ultimately become a health problem for any succulent. I’ve also relocated Aloes scobinifolia, classenii, and gerstneri. Aloe classenii is known for its deep red leaf coloration in sun, and gerstneri’s blooms come encased in brown bracts that eventually drop to reveal the vibrant color beneath, a performance I’ve yet to see and am hopeful might happen next year in its new, sunnier location.
The salvia and Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ are the main shade instigators, along with Passiflora ‘Flying V’ clambering over them too. Late winter/early spring I plan to cut the salvia and passiflora back hard.
Agave ‘Snowglow’ is another refugee from increasing shade as the grevillea has gained garage-roof height. The agave was moved out over a year ago and has been slowly recovering, but it doesn’t have the perfect spherical geometry of one grown consistently in good light.
The birdbath’s temporary staging of silver dyckia has been removed and the dyckia will need a home to grow roots — pot or garden? Undecided. I thought I was done with rapidly increasing clumps of very scratchy terrestrial bromeliads so I’m still mulling this over. I would think the little Aloe ‘Rooikappie’ would be a favorite in colder gardens for overwintering indoors. Reblooms, smallish, lots of offsets if the mother plant gets too large.
Another variegated Euphorbia ammak was added to the mix of potted succulents. This one was dug up from a narrow strip along the east fence that will be renovated this year.
Need a little more distraction and plant talk? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a broken tooth, the VP debates are tonight, and Marty is out of town — I’ll hang out here a little bit longer if that’s okay. I was looking up the provenance of bicolored Aloe ‘David Verity,’ first seen at the Huntington’s new entrance garden and bought at one of their plant sales, and San Marcos Growers’ entry says it originates with “Boyd Walker, who grew out some of Dave Verity’s hybrids at his Pacific Palisades garden.” Now, I’ve read that entry many times, but this time I was intrigued enough by Mr. Walker and his Pacific Palisades garden, about 30 miles north of me near Santa Monica, to do some investigating. Was the garden still there? Unknown. Mr. Walker died in 2001, and his UCLA memoriam doesn’t even mention the aloe work of this Battle of the Bulge survivor, famed ichthyologist, grunion expert, and authority on Zuni fetishes. A single life is a wondrous thing. I did find an article Robert Smaus wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 1990, back in the newspaper’s horticultural heyday, that gives a glimpse of his garden in words with some specific advice on caring for echeverias:
“To ensure that all energy goes to producing the leaves, Walker pinches back the echeverias’ flowers, and every year he cuts rosettes from the stems, lets them dry out in the air for a few days, then re-roots them in empty pots. Once roots appear, he transplants them into soil. He picks a pot that is as big in diameter as the rosette; when the leaves overhang the sides by 2 inches, he moves it into a larger pot. His soil mix is simplicity itself: 1 part garden soil, 1 part sand, 1 part perlite and 1 part compost from his own pile. He fertilizes the plants several times a year. Old stems, by the way, are saved. Little plantlets sprout along the lengths of the old stems, and these are eventually severed off and rooted.” — “A Winter Palette : Succulents Provide Brilliant Color During the Coldest Months, Usually the Dreariest Time in the Garden” by Robert Smaus, Los Angeles Times, 1/14/90
Somehow, what the low angled light of October does to grasses always catches me by surprise. I caught this peripheral shimmer on the way to the office yesterday morning, turned to find the source and gasped. Of course it’s one of the reasons I love these big grasses, but it’s been hot and weird lately and expecting revelatory moments from the garden in the morning is not top of mind as I head to the office to check the news. But with the sun sweeping low, these fountains of light are once again enthralling.
This is the first year I’ve had Muhlenbergia lindheimeri flowering in the garden, and I’m completely infatuated with its slim spikes of bloom beginning in September. To its left is Miscanthus ‘Silver Sceptre’ which begins bloom in early summer. The early morning dew acts as a pomade on the miscanthus and slicks down the frizzy, months’ old blooms, but as the day progresses they fuzz out again. Kind of a charming performance, and more attractive on a plant than my big mop of hair that hasn’t had a haircut since lockdown.
From the back wall of the garden looking east, past the Aloe ferox hybrid, at the dessicated state of the tetrapanax, a state of dishevelment it’s always in by end of summer. In colder zones the rice paper plants are gloriously lush by summer’s end right up to the first frost. In autumn in my zone 10, the tetrapanax will shake off the summer doldrums and throw antler-like blooms in November/December. Melianthus is another “foliage” plant that’s almost leafless by September and just showing new growth in October. Ditto for the sonchus tribe. Bocconia never loses its cool and looks good all summer but does drop more leaves on hot days. Melianthus ‘Purple Haze’ strikes me as even less capable than the species of gracefully tolerating summer’s stress test.
With the laundry shed doors wide open — nice! — another look at the trunks of the tetrapanax and its wizened leaves. I doubt I’ll ever see a Yucca rostrata form a trunk in my lifetime — they are sooo slooow in low rainfall climates, but this stage is gorgeous enough.* Alcantarea imperialis to its left. Heuchera maxima to the right of the brom was added earlier this year, a ‘Tara’ hedychium was moved back here with castor beans, and there’s generally been a lot more planting in this corner under the acacia now that a hose easily reaches. Yesterday Ageratum corymbosum was planted, part of an order from Annie’s Annuals, and Lobelia tupa is getting another tryout here too. There’s strong morning sun here with bright cool sun the rest of the day in summer. Lobelia tupa fried in full sun in previous attempts.*
A big surprise has been the fortitude of umbellifer Peucedanum verticillare, the celery-like leaves mid photo above. Not known as a zone 10 plant, its health and lust for life at the end of summer bodes well for possible bloom next spring. Also here is the summer-dormant giant fennel, Ferula communis, which showed uncharacteristic leafy growth in August. I’m not sure what to make of this performance but have decided to give it a little more water to reward the effort. At this point it’s all guesswork. (Dan Pearson wrote an account of it in bloom this year in his English garden for those unfamiliar with this giant umbellifer from Greece.)
The self-sown castor beans under the acacia have been really good this summer. I finally “got religion” about pinching and cutting off the flower buds that always form before the plants get a chance to make some leafy structure, and they are obviously much better for it. Tall, well branched, big leaves.
The seed report, summer 2020. The many varieties of cosmos sown in late June did not readily take to life in pots. I must not be throwing on enough seaweed fertilizer because there are plenty of anecdotal accounts online of cosmos loving containers. I won’t be trying that again, but it was fun to mother hen the seedlings during lockdown. Zinnias were not easy in pots either. And I think I’m done with Rudbeckia triloba now that I’ve found Cosmos sulphureus, much longer blooming and more tolerant of drier conditions among the succulents.
Celosia ‘Cramer’s Amazon’ planted from 4-inch pots in August is flourishing in one of the hottest parts of the garden. The same celosia planted in dappled sun is a pitiful thing, so handling the hot months of September and October here is definitely in this celosia’s wheelhouse. Wednesday this past week snuck up to 105. Forecast was high 90’s, but by 10 a.m. the heat was increasing with a speed I can only liken to a heat storm, if there is such a phenomenon. The sarracenia/pitcher plants were toasted before I could move them to shade, and by 10 a.m. it was apparent that the succulents in pots against the house that have been staged there all summer would not survive the day if left in place. (The pitcher plants will recover but the blooms were fried.)
The LA Times has a list of native plant sales going forward this fall here — where you might be able to find Muhlenbergia lindheimeri if you’re interested or that flannel bush you’ve been dying to grow. If we ever get the wooden fence torn down and the new one up, I’m going to be needing a flannel bush myself. They grow as espaliers, right? The side gate has finally been finished, and no termite will ever feast on it again because it’s metal. So there. More on that soon.
I know it’s been a rough week, but don’t let the bastards get you down! Stay safe and for the best revenge, have a great weekend.
(Edited 10/19/20: Lobelia tupa 2020 shriveled up in the recent heat wave, and in dappled sun! I think that’s a definitive trial. The last of three to survive, a Verbascum bombyciferum also crumpled and melted from the heat. One of the lemon cypresses was removed over the weekend, and the first cut came crashing down on aforementioned, very slow-growing Yucca rostrata. Marty jumped in and removed the branch within seconds, and no further debris came down on the garden. There was some crimping of the yucca’s leaves but it seems to be shaking off the assault. The light sweeping in from the east with the third cypress gone is revelatory. Pondering a post on planting for privacy in a very small garden, at the property lines, and how we all make a hash out of it. My neighbor is afraid of my cypresses, I’m afraid of their pepper tree, etc., but so far we’re all dealing with it amiably.)
Remember that mythical place, Vacationland? Sure, you do. Lock up the house, leave instructions for friends to care for the pets and garden, and set off for the airport or a road trip to shed the ever-tightening skin that forms with the unavoidable accumulation of daily habits. I’m the first to admit my daily habits are extremely comfortable. All the coffee I want and berries and Greek yogurt every morning. But no matter how luxurious your circumstances, from time to time we can all profit from the happily disorienting effects of a change of scene to blow wide open again the creaky doors of perception and get them banging on their hinges. And that’s the one thing that lots of us have been unable to do these past months. And if all we’re pining for is a vacation, we’re the lucky ones.
Like most of our experiences of late, I can only offer a virtual change of scene, vicarious participation in Mitch’s recent vacation to Glacier National Park and a side trip to Yellowstone, both illustrious destinations in the Vacationland roster. His day job brings him in constant (masked) contact with the public, so he’s been self-testing weekly at a site set up at Dodger Stadium here in Los Angeles. He and a friend flew to Bozeman, Montana, then rented a car to reach their glamping digs in Glacier National Park and eventually a brief sojourn in Yellowstone. Mitch has already tested negative on his return. So weird to include all these details, but unfortunately that’s where we are.
Vacationland. One couple kicking the tires of an old concept in these very new times. And just to ease the pangs of envy somewhat, let it be known that like all forays into Vacationland there were drawbacks to report: slightly too cold in the tent at night unless you woke up at 3 a.m. to tend the fire, temporary closure of road travel deeper into GNP due to an early snowstorm, a very odd and uneasy visit to a private hot spring, and the access to the wonders of Yellowstone felt to be too programmatic and Disneyfied. But it wouldn’t be a trip to Vacationland without a few grumbles, would it? That’s just how the mythology works.
On with the slideshow…
Mitch writes: “The herd had been edging toward the road over the last few minutes, but now one of the bulls straddled the double-yellow with purpose and indicated exactly what was going to happen. The level of clear communication was breathtaking. ‘Get all these pickup trucks out of here, I’m bringing the family across the highway.’
“And the bison got in single-file formation to bring everyone across the highway. Which I’d read about but never seen — somewhere in the 8th grade curriculum the teacher would conjure an image of bison walking through a storm in single-file with the lead animal bearing the brunt of winds and frost and the rest of the herd shielded one behind the other until the lead bison dies of exposure, falls out of the way, and the number two bison takes his place in front. No other animals are known to do this, the teacher explained, further burnishing the myth of the plains buffalo. And here they were, really doing it.”
“The real magic was watching them march straight to the river — a strategic mistake! I thought as I assumed the river would be an issue for them, and that they would end up with their backs to the water and a phalanx of humans pinning them against the riverbanks. No hesitation, no slowing down. They kept up speed into the water and forded the river as a team. Never seen anything like it.”
“On the opposite side, the biggest bull shook the water off his coat like a dog after a bath and then stood and regarded me in a challenge and a guarantee that I would stay on my side.”
It helps to remember that Vacationland is out there, waiting for us when we’re ready!
I grabbed some stuff to read from the piles stacked on the “sunroom” floor, a small, heavily windowed room with a western exposure just off the kitchen that we use as a reading room. Heading back outside in 100 degree heat, everything got tossed up into the garden lookout over the laundry shed, where I spent a good portion of the Labor Day weekend heatwave. I clambered up the ladder and opened The Rock Garden Quarterly from Fall 2019 to the first article “Sand Plunges at RHS Wisley” by Chloe Wells. Hmmm, something very familiar here…so I climbed back down and ran into the “computer shed” to check the blog, search string “Wisley.”
Thanks to that article, I now fully understand what I was looking at on a trip to England and the RHS Wisley in 2017…sand plunges! Not being familiar with the concept, I thought it was all about display techniques when I visited the Alpine Display House. Not so!
“In winter or dormant periods, we keep our plunges dry. Containers have a perched water table, the volume of soil which will always be moist in the bottom of any pot. The plunge mitigates this effect, acting as a kind of sponge, aiding drainage by providing a continuous movement of water down through the pot so the roots don’t sit wet. The sand also buffers extreme temperatures and keeps roots from freezing.”
“In hot weather, the sand around the pots is kept moist, providing a cool root environment. At times when many alpines are in a slower growth rate (between the natural spring and autumn rains, for exampe), this means we don’t need to water heavily directly into the pot and risk over watering. However, the terracotta’s porosity allows some water movement back into the pots, helping to prevent complete dessication. Roots can use the water in the sand below as an extension of their compost. In a busy department with unpredictabe weather, this type of buffer is essential!“
The “heat dome” over the weekend brought us up to 100 degrees by our home temperature gauges here in Long Beach a mile from the ocean. At 8 p.m. Saturday night the temp was 90, which is incredibly unusual for it to remain that hot near the coast, but by Sunday morning it had dropped to low 70s. Sunday’s temp didn’t seem to fully hit 100 for us and then cooled quickly by nightfall. Much higher temps were of course recorded elsewhere throughout Los Angeles County and varied considerably. Labor Day itself on Monday barely broke into the 80s here. No light penetrates through today’s grey sky, and ash covers the cars from the fires north and south of us. A Pompeiian-like feeling of gloom and doom is unshakeably pervasive today.
On building a sand plunge bench: “Sufficient depth is important, as the deeper the sand, the further away the water table will be from your pot. Line the bottom with polythene or horticultural permeable liner (usually sold as landscape fabric in the U.S.) and drill drainage holes through the wood and liner. Untreated wood will rot fairly quickly, and be sure it is strong enough to hold the weight of wet sand.” Cinder block is also used for building the benches, as photos in the article depict.
I joined the North American Rock Garden Society after the garden bloggers trip to Denver in 2019, where the rock gardens dazzled, and have since found the journal a very good read, highly recommended. (Some rock garden photos from that trip here.)
I seem to have reached that point in the life of a garden and plant obsessive where what I read often touches on something I’ve seen or read in the past, like the sand plunges at Wisley. Or today, reading the blog Prairiebreak by Panayoti Kelaidis, Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at the DBG (who I met and whose garden I visited in 2019), I find he’s explored Greece with a gentleman I’ve just placed a seed order with, Lefteri Dariotis “(better known on social media as ‘Liberto Dario’).” Liberto’s seed list offers an incredible range of sideritis and a silene that coincidentally just germinated in one of my seed trays, Silene fabaria ssp. domokina, “A fantastic Greek native biennial or short-lived perennial with exquisite green and gray leaves with marble like markings during the first year before the upright stems of dropping green flowers form.” I’ve also seen this silene described as a “poor man’s Bukiniczia cabulica.” My seed came from Derry Watkin’s Special Plants. I find that sowing seeds helps get one out of the sticky tar pit of the present and into a lighter, future-leaning frame of mind.
More recent reading of note: In The New Yorker, Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Disturbances of the Garden,” in which she delineates an interesting distinction between the Trees of Life and Knowledge: “I have since come to see that in the garden itself, throughout human association with it, the Edenic plan works in the same way: the Tree of Life is agriculture and the Tree of Knowledge is horticulture. We cultivate food, and when there is a surplus of it, producing wealth, we cultivate the spaces of contemplation, a garden of plants not necessary for physical survival. The awareness of that fact is what gives the garden its special, powerful place in our lives and our imaginations.”
And a documentary very much worth your while, no matter where you garden or what style you subscribe to, is The Gardener, an exquisitely beautiful film of Frank Cabot’s garden Les Quatre Vents in Quebec, which just opened to the public in 2009. Mr. Cabot may be familiar to you for his founding of the Garden Conservancy after visiting the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California, and wondering how such gardens can be saved. But you really need to see what he was up to with his own garden, drawing on his travels including wartime experience in Japan and the gardens of Kyoto and plant expeditions in the Himalayas, all filtered through an inquisitive, restless intellect matched by an unerring, gentle taste. There was lots of money in the family for anything he imagined, and thank goodness his imaginings were sublime. The fact that he knew precisely what he was doing in the garden (“I am just a plagiarist”) and what influences he was drawing upon made the interviews with him utterly absorbing for me, even though we are zones, pocketbooks, and worlds apart. Obsessions I totally get in whatever form they arrive.
After they no longer had any use for it, my parakeets’ bird cage was moved into the driveway, staged near the trash bins for removal. A neighbor sorta admired it there and mused about taking it home then lost interest. I’ve always loved its shape, how it flares at the top — indeed, I brought it home before I had any parakeets, who basically strayed into our lives and, voila, I happened to have a bird cage for them. (Semper paratus!) It was really just a token birdcage, because in the bath house they flew freely in and out of its bars.
On one of these recent restless, housebound mornings, in a fit of sentiment I reclaimed it from the trash area and hung it under the pergola. At least it’s see-through, I reasoned, and won’t block the view of the garden…(as if reason had anything to do with it). A couple days later I decided that this clutch of agave pups that are often neglected on the potting bench would have a better chance of survival if placed more prominently. But to be honest, that’s giving a veneer of practicality to this little tableaux that it doesn’t deserve. It’s just a case of the lockdown fidgets. I carefully slipped the agaves inside the cage like ships in a bottle, and I think Marty added the eggs made of stone. I’d rather fill the cage with tillandsias but don’t have a shady spot to hang it at the moment.
And the tillandsias have lots of other options now. Last year a rusty mattress found curbside was cut up and a few panels of six springs slid under the pergola beams so I could admire the spirals. One recent aimless day it struck me as an ideal tillandsia perch, so I collected some tillys from around the garden and inserted them into the spirals.
Some days the effect strikes me as sublime, other days a little on the junky side. It’s a constant push/pull, this hating the clutter but loving to play with it. Last year quite a few of the individual rusty spirals were stripped and painted black, possibly to fabricate individual lights, but electrical work is beyond my bandwidth at the moment. I’ll see if I can rope Marty into that project 😉
I’ve been congregating tillandsias in vessels under the pergola for some time. It’s ideally suited for their lightweight requirements — bright light, good air circulation, easy access for frequent misting.
A few do blush deep pink when they bloom. Curtains of rhipsalis, epiphytic cactus, just seem to make natural accompaniments for tillandsias.
And it’s not like I haven’t mixed up rusted metal with tillandsias before. This one has cactus on top, tillandsias underneath.
As a practical note, I do have to say that keeping the tillandsias grouped together makes caring for them that much easier, and looking up into their silvery scrolls and arabesques is a delight. I’m much more inclined to mist them every morning now. A little practicality, a little madness…
I was stretching my legs at a local nursery last week, not looking for anything in particular, just keeping track of what plants are up for sale in late August. Cosmos, zinnias, and dahlias have all showed up this week. Are they always this late? Attempting to grow some cosmos and zinnias myself this year has got me heavily invested in issues of timing for sowing and growing these summer annuals in zone 10. Among the salvias for sale there were a couple plants covered in incredibly fat brushes of dusky red bracts. These were no salvias!
Even before checking the tag, I knew it was a so-called shrimp plant, but I’d never seen one in these colors before. The tag simply noted Justicia brandegeana ‘Red.’ A tropical from Mexico and Guatemala, I’ve never really wanted to grow the more familiar species with rust-colored bracts. But seeing it obviously enjoying a very hot August, with sensational bracts surpassing those of Salvia involucrata, which is always miserable in my garden, a three-gallon needed to come home with me for closer study. Those tough, corrugated leaves and prolific show of flowers had “easy” written all over them. We’ll see. I tipped it out of the pot that was only half filled with soil and added about a third more soil, then slipped it back into its nursery pot.
Justicias are apparently hugely popular in Florida where they’ve naturalized. I see them very occasionally locally here in Southern California. To avoid the blare of mid-day sun, I placed mine at the west end under the pergola, but I can move it again if it sulks. The colors seem to have intensified since I brought it home.
This might be just a summer fling with the red justicia. I can’t think of a place in the garden for it, not just for lack of space (to 6′) but because it strikes me as slightly out of character with the rest of my garden. It seems designed as a pick-me-up for late summer. It reminds me slightly of another Acanthaceae family member, Brillantaisia, the Giant Sage from Africa. Hummingbirds and butterflies adore it, and I’ve always been a sucker for anything with showy bracts. It’s reputed to have a very long season of bloom. I wonder how I’ll feel about it in December! Stems can be brittle and benefit from pinching and constant trimming. For now, injecting something happy and flourishing into the garden is the perfect antidote to a very hot, steamy August.
“When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility,” Sue Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and psychotherapist and wife of garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, writes in her new book, “The Well-Gardened Mind.” (The New Yorker 8/24/20 “The Therapeutic Power of Gardening“).
Taking that quote probably further than necessary, I’ve got so many narratives going in multiple seed trays, that I wasn’t sure I could keep their stories straight and feared the high temps would close the book on some of them. Some are more precious to me than others, e.g. I’d be a wreck if I lost all the tiny seedlings of Verbascum epixanthinum, which might be the chartreuse-leaved verbascum I grew many years ago. So far, with strict labeling and moving the trays into the shade in the hottest part of the day, we’re doing OK. It’s all very exciting, but I much prefer it when the plants handle this on their own, this question of when and where to set down roots. Writing their own stories, so to speak, without my ghostwriting help, like this glaucium that seeded into the bricks this spring. I really should have edited it out because the pathway has shrunk by a foot, but look at it this morning. What a storytelller!
It’s nice to have around some plants that really seem to enjoy this hot, muggy, steamy August, like amaranthus and a celosia I ordered from Annie’s Annuals a couple weeks ago.
Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ blooms are fabulously presentable for a long period of time, even into the dog days of August. They remind me slightly of eremurus, the foxtail lilies, though of course short and squat versions. From the New Yorker article quoted above, I can sympathize with writer Rebecca Mead’s dazzled reaction on seeing eremurus for the first time in Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden: “In the dense bed of plants before us, thin stems topped with clinging bursts of delicate pastel flowers—orange, pink, yellow—had grown to twice the height of their neighbors, looking like slender sticks of licorice dipped in sherbet. “They are foxtail lilies,” Tom explained. “They are from Kazakhstan. Aren’t they great?” Yes, they are! But not suitable for zone 10, unfortunately, whereas eucomis seem fairly happy here. I need to decide whether to keep them in containers or try again planting in the ground. I think it will be containers because past experiments in the ground produced flabby, miserable specimens.
With the cosmos, gomphrena, and now Autumn sage hybrids in bloom, I’ve got a garden fantasy going this August that I’m calling Wildflowers in the Desert. I had a couple rooted branches of Peruvian Apple Cactus, Cereus repandus, one in a pipe, and slipped them into the garden to expand on the theme. I love the heft and thick line that they add to the sesleria grass and rosette-shaped succulents. This cactus grows much too large to plant in the ground but it’s fun to play around with, and I notice flower buds are forming on the branches.
Have a great weekend and stay safe out there, especially friends near the wildfires in Northern California.
Emotionally, this summer feels like summers when I was 12 or 13 — when I stuck close to home because I wasn’t allowed yet to get in trouble with friends with cars. I’m regressing to the point that I’ve even started wearing cutoff jeans again. And for the first time in many many years, I’m spending lazy afternoons again at the beach. (I actually like social distancing at the beach. Unlike in my teens, nobody can suddenly loom over you while sunbathing and ask, So what’s your name?) While my pysche is living through Proustian flashbacks of housebound summers past, my beachside reading material is very much an outgrowth of recent events, personally and globally, a book on chance called The Biggest Bluff: “That’s the thing about life: You can do what you do but in the end, some things remain stubbornly outside your control. You can’t calculate for dumb bad luck. As they say, man plans, God laughs. I could definitely detect a slight cackle.”
The Cosmos sulphureus I grew from seed has been so good that I decided to bring in Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ again to see how these deep saturated colors play with the grasses and succulents for August and beyond. The ‘Fireworks’ gomphrena, as opposed to the familiar annual varieties, is a tender perennial species that comes from the grasslands/pampas of Argentina and was a sensation when it was introduced several years ago. It’s like having alliums for months that tolerate very dry, full sun conditions. Perennial here in zone 10, I removed my old ‘Fireworks’ to make way for a clump of Lindheimeri muhly grass. I assumed the nurseries this August would be inundated with it, as they were last year — except inexplicably my local nursery had not a one on their plant tables. On the way out I noted one 3-gallon container against the fence with the familiar shocking pink bobbles. The tag read ‘Truffala Pink.’ Already there’s spinoffs of ‘Fireworks’? Checking my phone at the nursery, the scuttlebutt is ‘Truffula’ is a more compact form. Fine, I’ll give it a go, even in a huge size I can’t use. I took it home and cut the 3-gallon into three clumps.
Landcraft Enviroments in Long Island, New York, pictured above, which I visited with a bunch of garden friends in June 2013, has even come up with a chartreuse-leaved gomphrena called ‘Cosmic Flare.‘ This just might be the Next Big Thing in Plants for 2021 if production is ramped up and it makes its way to the West Coast.
The other Cosmos bipinnatus plants won’t be in flower for a couple more weeks at least, if they make it through the ongoing heat wave. Sowing seeds and nurturing them through summer is not for the fainthearted! But it is a huge amount of fun nonetheless. Just keep a spray bottle handy at all times. For cosmos, you have to figure three months to bloom from seed, and I started most of mine in late June. I’ve been checking Jimi Blake’s Instagram feed religiously now, because he often posts videos almost an hour long, touring the amazing planting he’s playing with at his garden in County Wicklow, Ireland. Despite the difference in climate, there’s a lot to learn from his enthusiasm, fearlessness, and his emphasis on succession planting, not to mention his mean propagation skills. This summer he’s taken to propagating cuttings in pure sand, without stripping the cutting of its upper leaves, multiples in a pot, and having good success rates. I’m very tempted to start his online courses too. It’s especially fun to watch his excitement as he experiments with mixing in cacti and other succulents now. And I’ve since found out that Cosmos sulphureus is a favorite of Jimi too and was a big part of his garden in 2019. Jimi first saw this cosmos at the RHS Wisley cosmos trials in 2016, when more than 80 varieties of Cosmos bipinnatus and sulphureus were planted to compare newer varieties to the old stalwarts like the ‘Sonata’ series. Newer varieties are indeed beating out the older strains, including a new series called ‘Apollo.’ The ‘Cupcake’ strain, developed by Thompson & Morgan from plants found by a Santa Rosa, CA woman several years ago, was the public’s favorite. The petals are uniquely fused to form a chalice. I finally got around to buying Jimi’s book this week, A Beautiful Obsession…highly recommended, full of inspo as well as practical information on planting and zone pushing. And for cosmos seed, check out Floret Flowers’ incredible selection.
And this is precisely why I don’t blog more frequently, because when I start I can’t shut up. Hope you’re well and having more good days than bad days…
More garden chit-chat. Let’s see, where to begin? I never know what bits of info will be useful so I’ll just meander. Working from most recent, last night I moved the potted Cussonia natalensis into this corner made by the bathhouse and laundry shed that gets morning sun. The cussonia was flourishing in the dappled light under the Chinese Fringe tree, so this move might be regretted, but the corner shows off the lush growth it’s put on this year after I tip-pruned the branches. Other pots were shifted out of the corner, including an Agave ‘Northern Lights,’ a San Diego, backyard-bred, mystery designer agave whose heritage still remains unclear to me. I’ll get a better photo, but for now it’s been moved just around the corner beyond that stressed Medusa Aloe in the black pot, Aloe tongaensis. The Medusa Aloe had to be dug up and repotted because of new fence construction and also because it was miserable in a very dry narrow strip against the east fence. I was waffling over planting it in the back garden, but even though its future size will be less than the huge Aloe bainseii, I opted to plant the smaller French Aloe instead, Aloe pluridens, another tree aloe that will allegedly mature to no more than 8ish feet. I’ll get a better photo at some point, but this one below shows where the French aloe has been planted, to the left of the wire cage:
Behind the tiny Aloe pluridens is a new-to-me salvia that appeared in local nurseries last week, and I was so excited by its theoretical potential that I bought and planted four one-gallons. As usual, excitement overcame reason in deciding to plant mid-summer, albeit a very mild summer so far, but better than holding them in gallons until fall, months away. ‘Savannah Blue‘ is a hybrid of two South African sages, Salvia namaensis and Salvia repens, that has a calamint-like effect in bloom. The leaves are extraordinary for a salvia, branching from low basal growth — small, leathery leaves dissected like a scented geranium. It has the sturdy look of a plant that will laugh at heat while flowering for months — I’ve been wrong before, but it’s just the kind of plant I want to grow with big succulents for summer. The sterile Calamintha ‘Montrose White’ is of course just such a plant too, and if I had more room I’d have drifts of it within hand’s reach to release its pungent scent.
I can’t find the post, but I’m fairly sure I blogged about the transformation the letter “A” was having on the garden: agapanthus, aloes, anigozanthos as flowering mainstays throughout the year, working well in a semi-dry garden with agaves and other succulents.
To that group I’d add another “A” for annuals like this Cosmos sulphureus. I don’t need wall-to-wall flowers, but summer means procreation, right? Floral sex in the garden is a hallmark of summer, along with the color, scent, and wildlife flowers bring. Finding stuff to bloom in July and August has been a challenge. Dahlias need a rich soil and lots of water, which would devastate the succulents, and it can’t be anything too beamy with a large footprint. Annuals in zone 10 generally flower longer and tolerate heat much better than perennials I’ve tried, and space doesn’t need to be permanently allocated for them as for perennials. I like how it keeps the garden light on its feet, changing year to year.
The Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Tiger Stripes’ was cut back a couple weeks ago and is growing new leaves and already new flower buds. I put in another (!) order to Annie’s Annuals and may pull the coreopsis to give Echium ‘Tajinaste’ a home here. This corner gets full sun all day and is the spot that ‘Tajinaste’ was most happy when previously grown.
I also ordered more Ursinia anthemoides and Alonsoa meridonalis ‘Apricot,’ two annuals that could almost be considered signature plants of Annie’s that I have yet to grow. The ursinia has wonderful ferny leaves and floating flowers on gooseneck stems, a total charmer.
Ursinia’s ring of fire is revealed when the flowers open in the morning.
So I’m all about the annuals now, and have loads of named Cosmos bipinnatus seedlings to nurse through warmer days, but there are good “tender perennials” that flower as hard as annuals to continually consider for summer. This Phygelius ‘Colorburst Orange’ I bought back in March has cycled around into bloom again, and it’s the same stature and habit of growth as when bought. Often growth hormones and growing techniques play tricks and present a vision of perfection that isn’t sustained for long in the garden. This Colorburst series does seem to have a compact habit of growth and uniform bloom built into it. I’m inclined to leave it in to see what it does next year too.
Another big project was thinning the enormous, congested clump of Eryngium pandanifolium. I irrigated the clump deeply after removing several rosettes. Looking at Internet photos, I don’t think this eryngo throws many blooms even in good times, but I hope to get more than two stalks next year now that it can be given a little more water and compost at its base.
And another big project! This giant rosette of Agave ‘Kara’s Stripes’ represents some crazy tomfoolery even by my standards. It had been encroaching on the front garden path for years, and at some point pivoted like a radar dish and took over the path completely. After cutting it off, Marty indulged me and carried it to the back garden. I dug a not very deep hole and winced as Marty dropped it in, fearing it would fall over and smash everything around it. As I hoped, the weight of the rosette has kept it steady, and for the first time in its life it’s upright. It’s been plopped directly over a struggling patch of Alstroemeria ‘Third Harmonic’ (so long, Peruvian lilies!) and after a few weeks still looks none the worse for wear. And it’s supporting the bronze fennel — a twofer!
Ever since a hose was hooked up to reach back here, this far corner has seen a lot of planting. The unrooted agave rosette is on the left of a Red Lantern Banksia, B. caleyi. The dark-leaved crinum is just behind, with a sphaeralcea to its right.
With all the shuffling of pots, somehow the mangaves all ended up in the same spot so they get a group portrait. Big one on the right is ‘Mission to Mars,’ foreground is probably ‘Lavender Lady,’ and left rear in the ground is probably ‘Silver Fox.’ (Most of the mangaves anyway, except for ‘Tooth Fairy’ and ‘Kaleidoscope.’) And that leafy sprig with ‘Lavender Lady’ is a bit of Amorphophallus impressus that is showing up in quite a few pots this summer. The tubers are flat, beige, and impossible to tell right side up from upside down. Obviously, I’ve become less and less careful with them!
I’ll finish up with a portrait of Agave pygmaea ‘Dragon Toes’ from the back side, an angle I don’t often get of this agave.