It looks like California’s stay-at-home orders might soon be eased a bit, not that I’ll be venturing too far afield just yet. So just when I really need to step into the exotic, the unfamiliar for half a minute, a fascinating approach to florals by the Absolute Flower shop appeared on design blogs like World Architecture and designboom this week, which is where I grabbed these photos. Simultaneously denatured and hypernatured, I couldn’t stop looking at the very sophisticated selection of leaves and flowers, the use of staghorn ferns, bromeliads, driftwood — even branches of ricinus! There’s a very knowing plants person at workat play here. Located in the former French Concession neighborhood of Shanghai. I predict that lots of future travel plans are going to be based on a backlash to the overly familiar, and I won’t be the only one craving to wander in neighborhoods very different from my own…
The owner of the shop is Ms. Jing, who opened it in 2012 — I wish there was more background information available on her!
Busy week, weather-wise, democracy-wise. There was a sweet piney scent to the air the morning of the 19th, which meant the wind had shifted and was coming from the east. I smelled it before checking the weather vane, which confirmed it, and instantly knew the Santa Anas were back in town. I’ve never been a fan of fierce winds, but it seemed right in character for Tuesday, that sweeping change was literally in the air.
Instigating the strong winds and wildfires was a wave of low pressure scooting down the Golden State coastline and intensifying offshore. Counterclockwise winds around the area of low pressure channeled cool air southwestward over the crest of the Sierra Nevada, accelerating it downhill with gusts in spots topping hurricane force, or 74 mph. Reinforcing it was high pressure over the Great Basin of Nevada, which provided a pressure gradient — or change of air pressure with distance — that boosted winds blowing from land to sea, or offshore. —
The battering wind smacked doors shut in the house. Instead of my usual Santa Ana wind jitters, the sound of doors slamming was oddly reassuring on Tuesday…
This morning the sky is rich with portents of rain. And a fairly good chance of rain too, according to forecasts.
I’ve been tinkering with the new rocky area plantings that went in on Election Day and tightening up associations. Agave geminiflora ‘Leaping Lizards’ was planted yesterday to strengthen the theme of linear and grassy leaves, hoping to avoid the plant rummage sale look (if that’s even possible for me!) I like how the thread-leaf variegated agave and Agave bracteosa ‘Monterrey Frost’ can hold a conversation on the thickness and thinness of leaves, on variegated back lighting, in a similar rosette form.
My eye immediately wants to compare and contrast how the two agaves differ, so there’s a discerning link made with a continuity of shape — but obviously I’m making the effort to find some coherence!
Agave geminiflora was moved to the tall cylindrical pot and brought in close to strengthen associations with other spiky outlines like the two Yucca rostrata. The variegated Carex ‘Feather Falls‘ are meant to echo the variegated squid agaves. At ground level (other than calamint), I’m trying to avoid anything deciduous or winter-dormant — the newly planted and deciduous Euphorbia cotinifolia tree is another exception. Instead of winter-dormant grasses I’m planting restios and carex. But it’s all very young and frustratingly theoretical at the moment!
I just might be able to get the myrtillocactus in the ground before the rain arrives, but first must find the thickest pair of gloves we own. I don’t know about you, but I find it so invigorating to take even a brief break from doomscrolling that I’m restless to tackle something like these “floral-inspired fossils,” using bits from my own garden.
I doubt I’ll ever be able to get my arms entirely around this name-changing, shape-shifting succulent genus. Its riches of flower and leaf can make winnowing out selections for a small garden woefully dependent on serendipity — on what’s available locally, what was last seen in bloom, which aloe was last extolled in a book or article you read or botanical garden visited. Forget about approaching this genus systemically. With a genus so vast in size, habit, color, season of bloom, it’s kind of liberating to know that any choice you make will be based on whatever information you had available at the moment and will always be subject to constant reappraisal. Be warned, this is a very intoxicating group of plants from select geographic areas of the globe like South Africa and Madagascar.
Probably because of my enthusiasm for agaves, some of the first aloes I grew were selected based on their leaves, like the impossible-to-make-happy spiral aloe. But when the door on the aloe kingdom gets cracked open, even a casual grower soon becomes snared and then spoiled by choice; the spotted aloes, the stemless aloes, the shrubby aloes, the tree aloes, the hybrids grown for flowers, the hybrids grown for bizarro foliar effects, the solitary types, the clumpers.
Armed with a good reference book like Jeff Moore’s Aloes & Agaves In Cultivation, it’s possible to dial in preferences based on size, flower style and season of bloom, e.g., winter-blooming, non-clumping, small rosettes with multibranched flowers. The Institute For Aloe Studies is another good source of information, as is San Marcos Growers. For seeing aloes in person, in Los Angeles it’s the Huntington, the LA Arboretum, and not too far north near Santa Barbara, Aloes in Wonderland — tickets need to be purchased in advance for all three online.
Mid-winter in Southern California is as good a time as any to deepen an acquaintance with this seductive genus.
I may miss these reports throughout the year, but no way I’m going to skip the inaugural Bloom Day of 2021!
If you’re looking for something to stream to get through this next week, I just finished and can recommend Pretend It’s A City — possibly because I’m a native, suburb-bred Angelino, I’ve always been a big city girl in spirit, which is why I found Martin Scorsese’s conversations with Fran Lebovitz so enjoyable as they rambled around New York. No one does contrarian/curmudgeon like Fran, our modern-day Oscar Wilde in jeans. And who knew anyone could talk faster than Scorsese?! Hoping you have a fabulous weekend…
I’ve been following Pacific Northwest gardens and nurseries for decades and often fantasize about having a garden in a modified-mediterranean, 40 inches-of-rain-a-year zone 8. There’s lots of plants I’d be able to grow for the first time, but there’d have to be some sacrifices too, I assumed (agaves!). What would that mythical garden look like? The answer came sometime around 2010, when a blog was launched that chronicled the making of a desert plant lover’s paradise in Portland, Oregon (thedangergarden.com). I was immediately hooked on Loree’s fierce determination to make a garden that conformed to her vision no matter what the conventional horticultural wisdom or her climate seemingly otherwise insisted. This was hugely reassuring news to me, that the architectural plants I loved could thrive in the PNW. My daydream could live on!
Now that her garden has grown into a magazine-worthy success, Loree has written a book that details how she incorporated a mighty lust for spiky plants and a strong design sensibility into her winter-rainy, occasionally snowy Portland garden. And her single-mindedness in the pursuit of growing the plants she loves has resulted in a book that will be an invaluable primer, and not just for growing desert and tropical plants in less-than-ideal climates. The results of Loree’s investigations into soil, drainage, microclimates, cold and wet tolerances are universally applicable to gardens everywhere. And once you absorb these principles, her strong design eye will guide you past the potential pitfalls of being a kid let loose in a candy shop now that your choice of plants and garden style have been blown wide open.
Through Loree’s blog, and now clearly laid out in her book, I learned the trick of scouring genera for its hardiest members, even the most unlikely candidates like the palm family. To wit, the PNW’s beloved “trachys” (Trachycarpus fortunei and T. fortunei var. ‘Wagnerianus’) are palms that will sail through a Portland winter. I discovered that an agave I’ve absent-mindedly grown here in Los Angeles, Agave parryi, is a star on the short list of agaves that can be grown outdoors year-round in the PNW. Through extensive research and visiting local nurseries and gardens, Loree has unearthed hardy alternatives in the spiky genera she loves. And through careful, thoughtful siting, some triumphant successes can be had with the borderline hardy too; a crucial point she emphasizes is the importance of regional experimentation, that traditional garden zone data can be misleading and needlessly inhibiting.
But what of the outright tender agaves I grow here in Los Angeles? I’d have to give those up in my mythical PNW garden, right? Not necessarily. This is where Loree’s contributions on the subject of overwintering frost-tender plants are invaluable. These are the tips knowing gardeners exchange informally, passalong wisdom that rarely makes it into books but that is obtained through hard-won, painful trial and error. One of the big strengths of Fearless Gardening is how it systematically details techniques for overwintering tender and borderline hardy plants, whether in a greenhouse, cold garage, a heated basement, or protectively shrouded in the garden.
The influence of Loree’s photo-rich blog spills over into this wonderfully photo-heavy book. Its dynamic layout strikes me as a gorgeous hybrid of a high-end garden magazine and Loree’s personal, friendly blog, that takes your hand and enthuses, Courage! You can do this!
Loree doesn’t garden for flowers alone but for the entirety of the plant itself, and I know that this preference mystifies some of her garden visitors. Growing what you love won’t please everyone, she warns. This emphasis separates her book from the majority of garden books, with their intricate advice on staking, fertilizing, pinching, pairing heights, timing, and colors of flowering plants, planting in threes (the “garden commandments” as Loree calls them) and keeping the flowers coming all summer through succession planting. And because all gardens depend on regional differences, even if they share the same zone, often this advice only succeeds in a very narrow range of conditions and, as a practical guide, is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Instead of relying on the often unreliable performance of flowers, Loree builds her garden with the color and texture of leaves, bark, stems, trunks and berries, and deploys dramatic “vignettes” of containers with the same attention to detail that you’d bring to a book shelf or coffee table. (Indeed, Loree’s command of pots and containers deserves a book by itself.) By taking the focus off flowers, there’s no need to apologize to visitors, “Oh, you should have been here last week — the lupines and oriental poppies were fabulous!” And her preference for a clean, grid-like modernism bursting with exuberant planting brings to mind a temperament that combines both Ray Eames and one of her horticultural heroes, Ruth Bancroft.
You don’t need to know Loree’s blog to enjoy her book. In fact, the book gives her the room to really develop and then distill what she’s learned, and it’s a joy to hear her full voice come through in, say, an opera instead of individual songs — to use an analogy from another of her garden heroes, the opera singer Ganna Walska, who created Lotusland in Montecito, California.
But I have to admit it’s a lot of fun to trace the development of issues first explored on her blog and find them now addressed in her confident, authorial voice — like the ethics of whether or not to remove mature plantings you inherited with your house just because you want something different. And though we encourage and are thrilled by their use as habitat for all sorts of creatures, Loree, like Ganna Walska, intuitively understands that all gardens are artifice, fiction not nonfiction, and this grasp frees her to explore whatever direction her heart and mind dare to go. And from her deep admiration of Lotusland and The Ruth Bancroft Garden I sense the notion that if the garden is like any other art form it is the stage — and though her garden is beautiful year-round, I sense for Loree, emotionally, it’s a summer production, Portland’s dry season, with many of its players whisked off stage in October and safely ensconced in warm, dry digs for the rainy winter. This is especially true for her private back garden. And she challenges the reader to likewise be bold in their conception of what a garden can be, drawing on what they love to grow and then fearlessly exploring the often hidden possibilities of where they garden to make it happen.
Before I get into the details of the giveaway, I have one last story to share. In 2014 a group of Portland bloggers, including Loree, hosted a tour of gardens and nurseries for international garden bloggers. The tour is a result of months of planning, with the actual days of the tour itself akin to a marathon of herding butterflies, as bloggers are housed, kept on schedule, fed, entertained, loaded on and off buses. Utter exhaustion would seem to be what would engulf the planners at the tour’s end, but when I looked into Loree’s face as she said goodbye, she was in tears that it was over. From that moment I’ve been in awe of her devotion to the community of gardens and gardeners, which she has now poured into this wonderful book.
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And now the giveaway: Timber Press wants to put Loree’s book in your hands. And not only Loree’s book Fearless Gardening, but a book on one of her cherished mentors, Ruth Bancroft, entitled The Bold Dry Garden by Johanna Silver. (Both books to the same winner.) If you’re interested and living in the contiguous U.S., and unlike me haven’t been given a review copy already, leave a comment to be eligible for both books. I’m also going to include Instagram followers in Timber Press’ generous offer, so while you’re checking my IG feed, be sure to follow Timber Press as well — we’ll make a selection randomly from the comments through the month of January.
Happy New Year news: We’re waitlisted for a corgi puppy with an Oregon breeder! The arrangement seems nebulous at best, but it’s the closest we’ve come to envisioning life with another dog since Ein shared his life with us, our Cowboy Beeboppin’ friend, so I count that as progress. We’re already trying out names, and Max is at the top of the list, which works for both Maxine and Maxwell…
How is everyone? 2020 was one of those rare great leveler years, where no one escaped unscathed, and yet individual experiences and tolerances varied tremendously — from bereft to bankrupt. And despite a long-standing aversion to sharing too many personal details here, 2020 has convinced me that it’s important to make a record of how we all coped. I think Marty and I had it relatively easy with 2020’s isolation, because we needed the quiet to heal, so it didn’t feel like a deprivation. Those of you who have had family in nursing homes and were unable to visit and ease their last months have both our sympathy and heart-sore empathy. The circumstances of a loss like that cut very deep, and it’s taken us a while to process. And then the strangeness of having emergency surgery during a pandemic and seeing firsthand how hospitals are under siege, and this was in May! (TMI warning: weeks after the stitches should have been removed, I had to call and ask the overworked, deeply apologetic staff, Isn’t it time these came out? Due to pandemic pandemonium, I was “lost to followup” — face-to-face visits were not easy to arrange even then, in May. A minor quibble considering their life-saving services, and I mention this only to affirm that pushing hospitals to their breaking point is a very bad idea — and currently in LA we’re past the breaking point.)
But what I do miss is…conversation. Off-screen, rambling, riffing, free-form, grabbing-a-shoulder-in-emphasis conversation.
Back in Los Angeles, aloes are throwing blooms — including in my garden ‘Moonglow,’ ‘Tangerine,’ ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’
Plantings continue to be tweaked, raccoons continue their nocturnal digging, and daylight slowly lengthens again. Wishing you the most dazzling gardens in 2021 and endlessly rambunctious, face-to-face, side-splitting conversation!
I just got my renewed Huntington membership card in the mail. Woohoo! It’s always a relief to have that in my pocket for impromptu visits — or reserved visits, as is the case during the pandemic. (Which is an infectious disease, I might add, addressing the maskless clerk I bought cat food from yesterday in caseload-impacted Los Angeles County. WTF, people?)
So a visit to check out the winter-blooming aloes will be made soon after the New Year. For the holidays, though, it’s no surprise that the Huntington’s gift shop is also a curatorial delight, full of art prints and books and note cards and tasteful tchotchkes. And, of course, everyone can shop online.
But what really blew my mind this year were the plant collections on offer. (How long has this been going on?!) Here’s a quick list of some of the “Huntington Botanical Bundles” that caused a sharp intake of breath, but you really need to peruse the entire list yourself. There’s collections for Adult Beverages, Houseplants, Crassula Starters, Lush Shade Gardens, Soup Flavors, Cool Weather Edibles and on and on — and the selections in each bundle reflect the savvy and plant inventory of this world-class botanical garden.
Cactus Variety 4-pack (already sold out!) including Rebutia narvaecensis, Mammilloydia candida, Echinocactus grusonii, Eriosyce tatalensis ssp. Paucicostata $29
In Southern California, the cool-season annuals have arrived at local nurseries, the violas, stocks, snapdragons, sweet williams, nemesias, Iceland poppies, and lots more I’m forgetting at the moment. Some (or none) appeal to different garden temperaments. I’ve indulged in biennial Iceland poppies now and then and maybe some ranunculus a little closer to spring but often skip over this wintertime opportunity due to the flat-earth, “bedding out” vibe of annuals available locally in season. However….with 2020 seeming to constantly require massive amounts of distraction, I did proactively start some calendula and linaria from seed late summer, two cool-season annuals whose color intensity I love to set against all the surrounding leaves of silver, gold, and blue-grey . My seed-grown plants are still tiny and flowerless. The nursery professionals produced these plants that I potted up last week.
The pros’ timing for getting 4-inch pots of flowers to market is always impeccable. Livelihoods depend on it. I know they employ all kinds of growth stimulators/inhibitors and fertilizers and grow lights and climate control that I don’t. My little plants started from seed late summer may flower in March, or I might neglect to water them during this cursed rainless weather, in which case all the effort will be for naught. For now, thanks to the pros, Calendula ‘Touch of Red,’ a strain I’ve long wanted to grow, is blooming in three large clay bowls, maybe eight plants total. Amazingly cheap thrills even if only for a month.
In cool summer climates, calendulas planted in spring will stay with you right through to autumn, or so I’ve read. And that other classic winter annual for zone 10, sweet peas, can also be coaxed to bloom through summer in higher latitudes and cooler summer climates.
Whether these “pot marigolds” last through my winter is uncertain, and three months of bloom is a big ask of any annual in my experience in zone 10. Here near the coast calendulas can be prone to mildew. But for now I’m enjoying this new acquaintance with ‘Touch of Red’ — its richness and complexity of color.
With the ‘Enchantment’ linarias, they are like an ornately jeweled middle finger to the last month of this very fractious year.
I edit, thin, and prune the steady accumulation of curbside and flea market finds constantly, but there’s a few stalwarts that consistently defy the purges. This Los Angeles street lamp shade has been kicking around the garden for years and was recently brought into use again for the outdoor Thanksgiving dinner, lit from within by a camping lantern, the glass rim sitting directly on the gravel. One early morning not long after that dinner I lay awake in bed and had one of those drowsy, half-awake epiphanies, making the connection that an iron base, also in my collection of oddities, found years apart from the glass shade but also formerly part of an old Los Angeles streetlight, should fit like a glove as a proper pedestal. I bought the iron base at the local flea market from a gentleman who helped source Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation at LACMA and proceeded to use it decoratively to encircle potted agaves. It all had the magical feeling of inevitability that morning as I rushed outdoors at first light to tip out the potted agave and slip the glass shade into the iron boot, Cinderella style, but in truth the shade and base aren’t a true fit. The shade is more or less stable on the base but not sitting in the groove, so it is technically prone to toppling. But wouldn’t that have been fun if it worked out? Ultimately I’d love to make a mold of the base and cast it in concrete for a series of pots.
Fooling around with flea market stuff is a breeze compared to the drama and stress of moving established plants. I finally decided to move the young Yucca rostrata in the front garden that is subjected to less than full sun during the short days of winter to the now sunnier back garden. With the soil falling away from the roots, the transplanting attempt effectively devolved into a bare-root operation which may not be optimal for success. The yucca was planted high and water temporarily withheld while it settles and acclimates (and hopefully doesn’t rot) but even so may not survive the move.
But doesn’t it look grand here? In the front garden it had to contend with crowding from Agave ‘Jaws,’ which is as voracious for garden space as its namesake was for moonlight skinny-dippers. Fingers crossed and best of luck, little yucca! I’m fairly certain that this yucca is ‘Sapphire Skies’ unlike the straight species just a few feet away.
I’ve never grown Aloe marlothii, a bucket-list plant for sure. And with all the new planting space that opened up recently, I became consumed with the idea of growing it against the east fence. Happily, it was found locally at Green Touch Nursery, an excellent source for succulents and cactus. In the end, though, the yucca won the spot and the aloe was given the hottest spot in the garden near the back porch, in all-day sun and reflected heat from the house and pavement, to keep those spines the deepest red.
Another standby, what looks like a foundry basket, a gift from artist Reuben Munoz, has been used in the past as a bench, with cushions, as well as put to use like here, as a table. A potted Agave americana var. striata elevated on a makeshift pedestal had its terminal spines corked for safety. Always plenty of corks around for just such an occasion!
An assortment of concrete cores and odds and ends is indispensable for container displays — and easy to break down when the displays become tiresome or in the way.
My only other americana is the incredibly slow growing, nonoffsetting Agave americana var. medio-picta ‘Aurea’ — at least I think that’s what this is! The variegated shrub behind the agave is another garden standby grown off and on — Corokia virgata ‘Sunsplash.’ Very lightweight and graceful in its shrubby architecture, takes to pruning, and is always a bright spot for the dry garden.
I picked up the corokia and this Rhodocoma capensis at Roger’s Gardens, possibly the only person shopping for plants now that the nursery is geared toward winter holidays, when santa visits, gifts, and ornament shopping become most shoppers’ priorities. I’m just not there yet this year. I’ve never grown this restio or seen it available locally so had to give it a try. It will eventually have to be moved from this snug little spot because it’s one of the bigger restios.
Now I’d like some nice drizzly rain to gently water in the yucca — unfortunately, coping with lack of rain in December is an old standby too. Getting out cards, cookies, and gifts are next on the list (but, honestly, I’d rather be digging…)