Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ruth Bancroft Garden July 2017 private garden tour, part 1

On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a tour of four private gardens in the Walnut Creek area organized by the Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG). It doesn't come as a surprise that the focus was on water-wise landscaping--and that succulents featured prominently in all gardens.

The first garden I want to show you belongs to Carol Le Page and her husband. Carol is the Communication and Event Coordinator at the RBG. Their front garden is the result of the very first lawn transformation workshop offered by the RBG a few years ago. Under the direction of Australian plantsman extraordinaire Troy McGregor, at the time the nursery manager at the RBG and now a professional landscape designer with his own company, Gondwana Flora, the workshop participants converted what was a typical lawn-centered front yard into the stunning focal point it is today. The global plant palette combines succulents from the Southwest, Mexico and South Africa with Mediterrean natives and treasures from Australia and New Zealand. The result is a colorful tapestry rich in texture and contrast.

Carol's magazine-worthy front yard

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Europe 2017: Reykyavík, Iceland

After two weeks in Germany, we've arrived in Iceland for a 4-day stay. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time, and it's finally happening (Icelandair allows you to make a free stopover of up to 7 days on any transatlantic flight).

On our first day (Sunday), we explored Reykjavík, Iceland's capital and biggest population center (two thirds of Iceland's 332,000 people live there). Reykjavík means "Smoky Bay" in Icelandic, alluding to the mist often rising over the ocean. It was the first settlement in Iceland (874 CE) but there was no urban development here until the 19th century.

Today, Reykjavík is a modern city with a relaxed, easy-going vibe with all the conveniences you could ask for--and surprisingly little traffic. After all the crazy driving we'd encountered in Germany, that in itself was a huge boon.

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík


We started out at Reykjavík's best-known landmark: Hallgrímskirkja, the Church of Hallgrímur. You can see the church from pretty much anywhere in the city center, and if you park close to it (like we did), you'll always know where your car is. The church is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), a beloved poet and hymn writer, and was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, Iceland's state architect at the time. Samúelsson created a uniquely Icelandic style of architecture that mirrored the geology of the country. His design for Hallgrímskirkja was inspired by the basalt columns that are form when lava cools. Construction of the church started in 1945 and the signature tower was completed fairly quickly. However, it took another 41 years before the rest of the church was finished: the nave wasn't consecrated until 1986.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Europe 2017: Salzburg, Austria

The final stop on our 4-day jaunt to the Bavarian Alps was a quick side trip to Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and the original home of the Sound of Music's von Trapp family. I had never been to Salzburg but based on what others had told me, I had high expectations.

But before we do Salzburg, I want to take you to Hallein, Austria, a town about 10 miles southwest of Salzburg and an equal distance northeast of Berchtesgaden, Germany. We spent the first night of our trip at the Kolpinghaus in Hallein. It is run by the Kolpingwerk Foundation, one of the largest social organizations of the Catholic church, and provides hostel-type accommodations for students. In the summer (July and August) it operates as a reasonably priced hotel (and no, you don't have to be Catholic or religious to stay there). The Kolpinghaus in Hallein consists of seven multi-story patrician houses originally built in the 1600s. Completely renovated about 10 years ago, the accommodations were unexpectedly spacious and comfortable. Our room was on the 5th floor and offered stunning views of the square in front of the hotel and beyond.

View from our window at the Kolpinghaus Hotel in Hallein, Austria

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Europe 2017: German Alps, day 3

Day 3 of our stay in the Bavarian Alps was spent in the Berchtesgaden area. As is the case with so many exceptionally beautiful places in the world, Berchtesgaden is overloved and overrun, especially in the summer, leading to heavy traffic and disgruntled drivers looking for parking. Still, I can't blame anybody coming here to enjoy this slice of paradise. After all, we were part of that crowd.

Bergfriedhof Church in the town of Schönau which borders Berchtesgaden to the south

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Europe 2017: German Alps, day 2

Day 2 of our stay in the Bavarian Alps was all about the Königssee. This fjord-like lake in Berchtesgaden National Park is surrounded by mountains rising steeply to 2,700 m (8,900 ft), including the Watzmann, Germany's third highest peak. The setting is drop-dead gorgeous.

St Bartholomew's Church on the Hirschau peninsula of the Königssee
The easiest way to see the lake is by boat. A fleet of electric boats provide service to St Bartholomew's Church about half way up the lake and to Salet, the terminus at the far end. The trip takes about two hours, there and back. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Europe 2017: German Alps, day 1

We spent the last four days in the Bavarian Alps, mostly in the Berchtesgaden area. On our last day, we made a quick side trip to Salzburg, Austria. I took a lot of photos and will show you my favorites over the next four days.

Day 1 started out relatively cool, with often dramatic clouds and an occasional drizzle. Our first stop was the village of Ramsau, best known for its beautiful church:


Church in the village of Ramsau

Friday, July 14, 2017

Europe 2017: Picture postcards from Nuremberg, Germany

With a population of 510,000, Nuremberg (German: Nürnberg) is Germany's 14th largest city. It's about 20 miles from my hometown, a quick-and-easy 16 minutes by train. It's always been my favorite "big city" in Germany, not only because it's the one I know best, but because the historic city center is so picturesque.

View from Nuremberg Castle


As the site of the Nazi Party's Nuremberg Rallies, the city was a major target for Allied forces in WWII and sustained extensive damage. Many structures were rebuilt, including the main churches in the city center. Today, Nuremberg is an important economic powerhouse, both in industrial production and advanced technologies. In addition, Nuremberg has always been a center of the arts and sciences and is home to major museums such as the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Germany's largest museum of cultural history, and the Spielzeugmuseum, one of the best-known toy museums in the world.

My favorite thing to do in Nuremberg is to take a leisurely stroll through the city center, taking in the sights, sounds and smells (many stalls sell the famous Nuremberg Rostbratwurst). That's exactly what my family and I did the other day. Here is my photography booty.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Europe 2017: Sanspareil Rock Garden, Germany

We're in Germany visiting family and are trying to squeeze in as many tourist activities possible, weather permitting. The first couple of days were hot and muggy, with little relief overnight. Nobody has air conditioning, so there's no escaping the oppressive stickiness. Fortunately, a series of rainstorms on night 2 took the edge off, and day 3 was a lot more pleasant, albeit very wet at times.



Our destination for the day was the Sanspareil Rock Garden near the city of Bayreuth in Northern Bavaria. It's definitely not what you might think when you hear the word "rock garden." Instead, it's a 35-acre (14 hectare) beech grove which during 1744-1748 was transformed into a woodland fantasy at the behest of Margrave Frederick of Bayreuth and his wife, Margravine Wilhelmina, the rulers of the principality of Bayreuth. As was typical of that age, the ruling nobility had seemingly unlimited funds to build whatever their imagination (or that of their court architects) could dream up.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Tucson Botanical Gardens: Frida Kahlo & more

It's 111°F (44°C) in Tucson, AZ as I'm writing this on July 7, 2017. Quite a difference from December 28, 2016 when I visited the Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG). That day the high was only 68°F (20°C)--right in what I consider the perfect temperature range (68 to 72°F). Balmy days like that are the reason why I love to visit Arizona in the winter!

This is was the second time I had been to the TBG. The core of the garden was pretty much the same as during my 2013 visit, but other things were different, the main change being the relocation of the garden entrance to the back of the parking lot. In addition, the TBG was hosting the New York Botanical Garden’s exhibit: Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life. More on that a little later.

Like so many public gardens, the TBG started out as a private property. Built in 1928, the main residence (now housing the offices) was the home of Rutger and Bernice Porter and their family. When Bernice died in 1964, she wanted the property to become a public garden and donated it to the City of Tucson. It took another ten years, but in 1974 the Tucson City Council finally passed a resolution that allowed the entity known as Tucson Botanical Gardens, founded in 1964 by horticulturist and plant collector Harrison Yocum in a different spot in town, to move to the location at 2150 N Alvernon Way. Click here to read more about the Porters and the early history of the garden.



During my visit last December, I parked in the parking lot but first walked out onto the sidewalk to photograph the wall separating the TBG property from busy Alvernon Way. The wall is now a stunning blood red and forms a perfect backdrop for a recently planted row of Mexican fencepost cactus (Pachycereus marginatus). You cannot get more Southwest than that!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Succulent shapshots from our garden

Instead of complaing about yet another mini heatwave knocking on the door, I decided to ignore it and focus on the many pockets of beauty that are everywhere in the garden.

There's no overarching theme to this post, just a random collection of vignettes that were calling out to be photographed. I hope you'll enjoy them!

Ferocactus emoryi

Monday, July 3, 2017

50,000 acres of sunflowers

Yolo County, the agricultural area surrounding the cities of West Sacramento, Davis, Winters, Woodland and a few smaller communities, is a world hub for sunflower research and development. This year, sunflower cultivation in Yolo Country is said to be 50,000 acres, double what it was in 2015. Most of the sunflowers are hybrids, bred to exacting standards. They're grown for seeds, which are shipped all over the world and planted primarily for sunflower oil production.

Sunflower fields have been a common sight in our 20 years of living in Davis. However, their location changes from year to year so the uninformed public (i.e. folks like me) never knows where the best spots will be. This year, the Yolo County Visitor’s Bureau has published an official Sunflower Map; that must mean that sunflower peeping is on the rise, and efforts are being made to attract visitors.

I did some sunflower hunting myself on Saturday, and here are some of the images I brought home.


This spot was my favorite. Sunflowers are awesome on their own, but when they're combined with palm trees, a stately old farm house and agaves, the excitement meter hits the red zone.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Blooming chaste tree: perfect foil for agaves and aloes

In our backyard, there is a beautiful tree that is visible from the dining room window and from the sidewalk on the south side of the house. People invariably ask what it is, and when we tell them it’s a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), they get a blank look on their face—either because they have never heard of it before, or they can’t quite figure out what chastity has to do with it. I had no idea either so I did some research. I love what I found on Wikipedia:
In ancient times it was believed to be an anaphrodisiac, hence the name chaste tree. Pliny, in his Historia Naturalis, reports the use of stems and leaves of this plant by women as bedding "to cool the heat of lust" during the time of the Thesmophoria, when Athenian women left their husband's beds to remain ritually chaste. […] Chaucer, in "The Flower and the Leaf," refers to it as an attribute of the chaste Diana, and in the 16th century the English herbalist William Turner reports the same anaphrodisiac properties of the seed, both fried and not fried. More recently, this plant has been called monk's pepper in the thought that it was used as anti-libido medicine by monks to aid their attempts to remain chaste. There are disputed accounts regarding its actual action on libido, with some claims that it is anaphrodisiac and others that it is aphrodisiac. Because of the complex mechanism of action it can be probably both, depending on concentration of the extract and physiologic variables (see below).
A few years ago somebody posted a note on our local Freecycle site looking for chaste-tree berries, and she did come by and collect some from our tree. I wonder what she was using them for?


We bought our chaste tree as a tiny plant in a four-inch pot, and in the 15 years it’s been in the ground it has grown into compact 15 ft. tree that provides beautiful filtered shade.