Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book review: The Drought-Defying California Garden

The longer you garden, the more you learn. That goes without saying. But with that experience sometimes comes a certain arrogance. Usually you’re not even aware of it. It may express itself in rolling your eyes when you hear or read something that you think is obvious. Occasionally, you may also have an overinflated sense of how much you actually know. In truth, you most likely know less than you think. A reality check is not a bad thing.

I had my own reality check recently when I read The Drought-Defying Garden: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren (Timber Press Inc., 2016). I live in California and have been gardening in drought conditions for years. Plus I have a good knowledge of California natives.

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At least that’s what I thought.

When I received the book, I thought I’d get a nice refresher of what I already know without learning much else. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Front yard succulents aglow at sunset

I haven’t done much actual gardening this summer. Instead, I’ve been enjoying the fruit of our previous labor. The fact that it’s been in the high 90s every day for more weeks than I care to count also has something to do with it.

With work keeping me extra busy this year, all I often get are a few glimpses of the front yard in the golden light just minutes before sunset. Here are some of those moments captured with my camera.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

South African splendor at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum (summer 2016 edition)

Noël Coward once suggested than only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Something similar could be said for plant geeks who visit botanical gardens at the height of summer. I'm definitely one of them. And I'm not even slightly bothered by the fact that some people might consider us crazy.

Case in point: Last Saturday I left Davis before 7:00 a.m. to make the 2 hr. 15 min. drive to Santa Cruz, one of my favorite places on the California coast. My destination wasn't the beach though, it was the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Arboretum. I hadn't been there since November 2012—almost four years ago—and I felt the urge to find out what might be in bloom in the middle of the summer.

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Protea repens ‘Rubens’

In their own words, the UCSC Arboretum “has the largest collection of Australian and South African plants outside of their native countries” as well as “the most diverse collection of eucalyptus and their relatives to be found in one easy-to-access area, an unmatched collection of conifers and other trees, and extensive representatives of New Zealand and native California flora.” In particular, I was looking forward to seeing what their many Proteacea (proteas, leucadendrons, leucospermums, grevilleas, banksias, etc.) would be like at a time of year when many gardens struggle under the heat and lack of water.

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Protea repens ‘Rubens’

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Pacific Horticulture Summit 2016, Sonoma County, CA, Oct 15-16, 2016

I don’t often promote third-party events but this one is so interesting (and a good value as well) that I want to bring it to the attention of all my readers. Sonoma County is one of the crown jewels of Northern California, so bring your significant other and make a mini vacation out of it! I plan on being there.

WHAT: Pacific Horticulture’s weekend-long Summit 2016, part of its Changing Times, Changing Gardens series, will explore how gardens are evolving in the face of climate change, with inspiration coming from our natural surroundings as well as from innovations in water conservation and land management. Of interest to avid home gardeners, landscape industry professionals, and anyone excited about the power of gardens to enrich life and inspire environmental stewardship. Inspiring illustrated talks by nationally renowned speakers from across the horticultural horizon followed by tours of historic gardens and visits to Sonoma County private gardens, nurseries, wineries, and public conservation projects.

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© Saxon Holt, PhotoBotanic.com. Used with permission.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

First wave of summer casualties

Crispy may be a good thing when it comes to fried chicken. Not so much for plants. It’s the one thing you don’t ever want your plants to be. Unfortunately, it’s something that happens every summer around here. Usually it’s in spite of my best efforts; sometimes it’s because I didn’t try hard enough.  But survival isn’t for the weak in a climate where daytime temperatures in the summer routine climb above the 100° mark, there is no rain at all for a good four or five months, and any water plants receive is doled out by me. What’s more, I like to push the limits of what plants should even be tried here, which in itself ups the odds of failure. But taking these calculated risks is half the fun, even if I lose a few here and there.

So without further ado let’s look the poor suckers who have earned their RIP this summer. We’ll start in the backyard with the casualty that hurts the most: my bird’s nest banksia (Banksia baxteri). I bought it at the Ruth Bancroft Garden’s 2014 Black Friday Sale and it had been in the ground since December 2014. I’m not 100% sure what ultimately did it in, but I suspect it didn’t get enough water. As you can see, I made the rookie mistake of not mulching it properly.

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Banksia baxteri

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mediterranean Delight…with lots of succulents

At the Garden Conservancy’s East Bay Open Day on July 30, I visited two gardens. The first one, Casa de Sueños, was a tropicalesque fantasy on a 1-acre lot in the Oakland Hills. The second one, only 15 minutes away in Piedmont, was very different both in size and style.

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Dubbed Mediterranean Delight in the Open Days Directory, this garden:

displays the owners' sense of whimsical design with a beautiful variety of plant color and texture in a layout that invites exploration. […] The front and rear laws were removed many years ago. Now, with rustic stone work, gravel paths, large pots and an interesting water feature, the beautiful Mediterranean style house looks at home. Plantings range from a large collection of succulents, kangaroo paws, salvias and woodland plants. With its open spaces and private nooks the garden is truly a creative endeavor. The owners collaborated with Sherry Merciari, a local landscape designer to develop the garden. (1)

Sherry Merciari, coincidentally, is the owner of and creative mind behind Casa de Sueños.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Wednesday Vignette: funny fungus at the Ruth Bancroft Garden

I recently took two friends from San Francisco to the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, my favorite public garden in Northern California. I only snapped a handful of photos since I was too busy talking, but the most interesting pictures were … of fungi. Not just any fungi, the most fantastical fungi I had every seen:

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Summer evening

We spent last weekend with my mother-in-law in the town of Mount Shasta in far northern California (about 45 minutes south of the Oregon border). Saturday morning was magical, as chronicled in this post. By late afternoon, billowy clouds had begun to build up in the sky, and we decided to head to the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden for sunset.

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Spectacular evening clouds

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Looking northwest from Highway 97

The Living Memorial Sculpture Garden is located 13 miles northeast of Weed, California. Yes, there is a town named Weed (its motto is “Weed like to welcome you”), and in spite of the wealth of marijuana-related souvenirs being sold in local shops, it has nothing to do with pot. Instead, it gets its name from an early developer named Abner Weed. in 1897, he established the Siskiyou Lumber and Mercantile Mill, which by 1940 became the world’s largest sawmill.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer morning

We’re at the height of summer: two months down, two to go. I’ve been so busy with work this year that the first half of summer has zoomed by in a blur. The four days we spent in the mountains of the Eastern Sierra with our Australian friends? It feels like that was a year ago. Before I know it, fall will be here with shorter days, cooler temperatures, and ideal conditions for planting.

But this morning, something completely unexpected and fairly magical happened. We’re spending the weekend with my mother-in-law in Mount Shasta, 3½ hours north of Davis, and since I had forgotten to bring coffee, I drove downtown to get a cup of joe. As is usually the case, my eyes were on the mountain. At 14,179 feet (4,322 m), Mount Shasta is always an arresting sight.

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But what made me stop the car was a profusion of small yellow flowers growing right next to the sidewalk on the edge of a grassy lot:

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Their small yellow-and-brown discs encapsulated the essence of summer.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Exotic paradise in the Oakland Hills: Casa de Sueños

Last Saturday, July 30, was another Garden Conservancy East Bay Open Day. I enjoy visiting private gardens I would otherwise not get to see, and I’m glad the Garden Conservancy returned for the second time this year to the Berkeley/Oakland area. Due to time constraints I was able to visit only two of the five gardens on tour, but that’s better than nothing.

The first garden I visited was a 1-acre property in the Oakland Hills. As I was approaching, I caught tantalizing glimpses of Oakland, the San Francisco Bay, and San Francisco beyond. That is one reason real estate here is off-the-charts pricey. But my first destination wasn’t about the views, it was all about the plants.

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Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata ssp. aztecorum) and orange clock vine (Thunbergia gregorii) behind the gate at the bottom of the driveway

In the Garden Conservancy Open Day Directory, this property is listed as Casa de Sueños (Spanish for “house of dreams”) and described as follows:

In the beginning…a full acre covered with giant eucalyptus, juniper, and ivy has been transformed into a garden paradise. As a landscape designer, my son and our crew have worked continually building stone walls, patios, and pathways, a large koi pond, arbors, a shade house, and a nursery. My travels have inspired me to create lush and interesting plantings…graced with many friends art including Keeyla Meadows, Marcia Donahue, and Vickie Jo Sowell.

I was one of the first visitors of the day, and since she wasn’t busy, I had a chance to speak with the homeowner, garden designer Sherry Merciari. She said they removed most of the vegetation that was there when they bought the property 18 years ago, primarily eucalyptus and ivy. Other than a few native oak trees, they started with a blank canvas. And what a masterpiece she painted on that canvas! With exotic plantings so lush and tall they seemed to swallow you up, I felt transported to a tropical locale thousands of miles away. You will see what I mean.

But let’s start at the start, in this case at the bottom of the long driveway. There are several leucadendrons outside the gate, with a stunning juvenile Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata) growing between them. The contrast was beautiful, especially since the leucadendrons were backlit.

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Just inside the gate, this steely blue agave growing amidst a veritable tapestry of small shrubs and grasses caught my eye:

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Now we get the first glimpse of the house. It is completely engulfed by plants on all sides.

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Yucca linearifolia

Here is the Garden Conservancy sign-in table at the top of the driveway. It gives you an idea of how long the driveway is.

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Looking towards the house from the top of the driveway:

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The variety of plants in pots and in the ground is staggering. There is everything from succulents to proteas to bromeliads to bamboos.

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Banksia blechnifolia, a groundcover protea from Australia

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Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’ and Beaucarnea recurvata

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Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’ from the other side

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Small koi pond

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Vickie Jo Sowell sculpture behind the koi pond

Now I’m flush with the house, looking towards the driveway. The koi pond is off to the left.

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Plantings and ornaments next to the house:

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I loved the deep overhang of the roof and the Aloidendron ‘Hercules’ on the right

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Seen along the lower path to the pool house: Is this a pot cemetery?

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Lovely bamboos near the pool house

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Pool house

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Bamboo and sempervivum

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OK, I’ll admit it: I couldn’t get enough of the bamboo. It was meticulously maintained.

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Agave victoria-reginae and Agave attenuata on the flagstone deck next to the pool

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Not your run-of-the-mill flagstone deck

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Sitting area on the other side of the pool

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Hardy manihot (Manihot grahamii)

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Beads in the manihot tree

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Swimming pool and house

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Rice paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer)

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Rice paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifer)

Vignettes from the short path that leads from the sitting area above through a small grove of exotic plantings:

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Now we’re backtracking a little to the edge of the koi pond…

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…and from there to a lath house filled with more plants than my brain could process:

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Once upon a time, the driveway wrapped around the house and terminated at the garage. Today the driveway ends near the palm tree you saw in the photo of the Garden Conservancy sign-up table. The rest of it, while still paved, has been converted to garden space and is filled with planters, pots, tables, etc..

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Massive yucca behind the house (left), plantings in the middle of what once was the driveway (right)

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NOID cycad

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In the upper left you get a glimpse of the garage:

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Of all the seating areas, this was my favorite. I could see myself sitting at the table, writing my blog posts…

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If you look at the photo above, you’ll see a tall iron fence to the right of the house.Behind it is a “hidden” courtyard that is filled to the brim with tropical plants. I thought I was in a resort in Hawaii!

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The house may seem modest, especially since it’s so well hidden by all the plants, but it’s quite a jewel in its own right. Not every house has an outdoor fireplace and built in shelves!

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In the inner courtyard

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Canna ‘Stuttgart’ and Ensete lasiocarpum (right). The path leads out to the driveway and my favorite seating area mentioned above.

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Golden lotus banana (Ensete lasiocarpum, previously Musella lasiocarpa)

Back on what used to be the driveway, I spotted this shrine. I don’t know what kind of shrine it was, but there was something so peaceful (and powerful) about it, I stood there for 5 minutes—entranced.

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The offerings were Asian pear and castor bean flowers

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Upright elephant ear (Alocasia macrorrhiza) in flower

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Back at the top of the driveway

Casa de Sueños was a truly spectacular place to visit. The gentle climate of the Oakland Hills—virtually no frost, and none of the extreme summer temperatures the inland areas get—makes it possible to grow a lush paradise like this. Watering hundreds upon hundreds of pots must be a time-consuming undertaking, but Sherry enjoys it as a way of staying connected with her plants.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. As it turns out, Sherry leases the 1-acre undeveloped lot next door and uses it as a small backyard nursery (she has public plant sales several times a year). What you see on the right in the next photo are some of the nursery plants:

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And here are more:

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And even more:

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Beyond the nursery tables I came across this massive Agave salmiana. I think it scared the other two visitors but I thought it looked majestic.

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The top half of the leased parcel (on the left in the photo above) is home to more than a dozen fruit trees, with the bounty shared between Sherry and her neighbor. What a perfect arrangement!