Friday, March 28, 2014

Things I saw in Carmel

A couple of days I showed you some of the plant-rich sights of Monterey. But that pales in comparison to what I saw in the nearby village of Carmel-by-the-Sea.


Founded in 1902 as an artists’ colony, Carmel-by-the-Sea has long been synonymous with scenic beauty and understated wealth. Today, Carmel, population 3,700, is full of art galleries, upscale boutiques, and gourmet restaurants. You’re almost as likely to see a Jaguar drive by as a Toyota Prius. And yet, in spite of the trappings of monetary excess, there is a charm that cannot be denied. Life seems slower paced here, and many residents take the time to talk to the visitors that flock to this idyllic paradise on the edge of the Monterey Peninsula. Maybe it was all in my head, but I felt genuine friendliness from the people I had interactions with.


Monterey Bay Aquarium

Today’s post is going to be a little different. It won’t be about plants per se, although you’ll see some. Instead, it will be about the seductive beauty of creatures who live beneath the sea. Sounds mysterious? Read on!

Located on fabled Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) is one of the world’s leading institutions of its kind. Unlike most other aquariums, it focuses on one specific habitat: Monterey Bay and its shoreline. Such an approach might be too restrictive elsewhere, but Monterey Bay is home to an abundance of sea life that includes everything from marine mammals like sea otters, sea lions, dolphins and elephant seals to fish, sharks, mollusks and sea turtles.


One of my favorite exhibits at the MBA is the Kelp Forest. 28-foot windows allow you to experience the sun-drenched kelp forest almost as intimately as if you were a diver—and you don’t have to get wet! The leopard sharks (2nd photo down) are particularly popular with visitors.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Things I saw in Monterey

Monterey may be small, with a population of less than 30,000, but it ranks near the very top of must-see places in California. Its location on the southern edge of Monterey Bay is truly stunning. Once the capital of California under the flags of Spain and Mexico (1777 to 1846), Monterey still has a number of well-preserved historical buildings that can be explored on the Path of History.


Cannery Row

My personal history with Monterey began in the mid-1980s. I spent two formative years there working on my graduate degree, met the girl who would become my wife, and made friendships that have lasted to this day. Monterey has been a constant in my life for almost 30 years, and every visit feels a bit like coming home.


Cheery annuals blooming on Cannery Row

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spring break on the Monterey Peninsula

The Monterey Peninsula is one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in California. It has been one of my favorite places in the world ever since I went to graduate school here 25+ years ago. While it’s not exactly around the corner from where I live now, it’s still a relatively easy 3½ hour drive—perfect for a long weekend or, in our case, part of our spring break vacation.


The Monterey Peninsula consists of the towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel, as well as the gated community of Pebble Beach, one of the most exclusive enclaves for the wealthy in California. I’ll have several posts later on about Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel; today I just want to show you some teaser photos to whet your appetite.

The climate on the Monterey Peninsula is mild year round. It virtually never freezes, and it virtually never gets hot—perfect for succulents like aeoniums, which seem to be planted in front of every other house and commercial enterprise.

Enjoy these photos and look for more very soon!


Ice plants in bloom along Ocean View Boulevard in Pacific Grove

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hypertufa and clay pot update

At the end of February I tried my hand at making hypertufa pots. Even though I’d never done it before, I was very happy with the results. The four pots I made have been drying for a month now and are noticeably lighter, both in color and in weight:


In quite a few spots the nylon fibers I had added to make the pots stronger were sticking out. That was the one thing that bothered me about my creations. Several readers suggested burning them off with a kitchen blowtorch—and that’s exactly what I did. I don’t think my crême brûlée torch had seen any outdoor action since I tried it on some pesky oxalis in December 2010!


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Relocating Agave ‘Blue Flame’

A week ago Monday we had 10 cubic yards of soil delivered for our desert garden project. This was more than we needed for the 6 x 48 ft. planting strip on the side of the house so we hauled quite a bit of dirt to the backyard. As a result, we now have several additional planting mounds that need to be populated. Exactly the kind of chore I love!

The first new resident of the mound adjacent to the backyard lawn is an Agave ‘Blue Flame’ that had been in a container on the front porch for a number of years. It is 32” in diameter—fairly close to the 3 ft. adult size that San Marcos Growers gives.


Agave ‘Blue Flame’ in early June 2013—the dried up leaf tips were frost damage


Agave ‘Blue Flame’ in January 2014—perfect foliage without any frost damage

I hadn’t moved this agave in a long time and was surprised by how heavy it was.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

First look at planted desert garden

This post continues the coverage of our front yard desert garden project.

Yesterday (Saturday) our high was 87°F. I’m sure this broke all kinds of records. Only a few places in California—like Death Valley and Palms Springs—were hotter than Davis. It looks like our weird winter is morphing into a weird spring.

Undeterred by the unseasonal heat, albeit somewhat affected by it, we set out to plant our new “desert garden.” I felt pressured to get the plants in the ground as quickly as possible. The larger plants were doing OK in their nursery pots, but it was getting increasingly difficult to keep the 4-inch plants I’d purchased from Annie’s Annuals and Morningsun Herb Farm hydrated.


We started out placing the three large anchor plants I’d bought from Village Nurseries (15-gallon containers): Aloe ferox, Aloe ‘Hercules’ and Parkisonia ‘Sonoran Emerald’ (aka ‘Sonoran Emerald’ palo verde). This was followed by the plants in 5-gallon containers and so forth.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Poor Parry’s penstemon

In an effort to “desertify” our yard, I’ve been planting more Southwest natives. One of them is Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi). It hails from southern Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora where it grows along washes and in canyons. It’s a popular landscaping plant in Arizona but, for some unfathomable reason, quite difficult to find here in Northern California. Here you have an easy-to-grow plant that’s drop-dead gorgeous when in bloom, you’d think California nurseries would be eager to sell it—especially as we’re being told by the powers that be to abandon our lawns and switch to drought-tolerant plants.

Unfortunately, availability remains problematic in our neck of the woods. I bought my specimen at a UC Davis Arboretum plant sale; the plant list for their upcoming sale tomorrow (Saturday, March 15) shows that they still carry it and I will pick one another one.

However, there is one problem with Penstemon parryi. It became very obvious this week when we had two solid days of high winds.

140305_Penstemon-parryi_001  140313_Penstemon-parryi_005

LEFT: Upright flower stalks 10 days ago as the flowers were just beginning to open
RIGHT: Flattened stalks after high winds

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The soil has arrived

This post continues the coverage of our front yard desert garden project.

After the pittosporum hedge was removed the 6x48 ft, planting strip outside the fence was ready for the next step: arrival of the soil. I wanted the area to be raised by a foot to ensure good drainage in the winter—not that this dreadfully dry winter posed much of a challenge in that respect. Based on my calculations, I ordered a total of 10 cubic yards of soil. I chose a mixture of screened topsoil, amended garden soil, and coarse paver sand (5 : 3 : 2 cubic yards). Since this strip bakes in the sun pretty much all day, I didn’t want to the soil to dry out too quickly so I opted for a somewhat richer mix (the screened top soil has clay in it). The goal was to find a good balance between drainage and water retention: If the mix dries out too quickly, the plants won’t thrive, but if it’s too heavy, they might rot in the winter. I’m fairly confident I’ve got the balance right, but time will tell.

While I was hoping to have some extra soil to transfer to the back yard for other projects, I was still surprised by much 10 cubic yards are! The truck driver did a good job depositing most of the soil on the planting strip, but a fair amount ended up on the sidewalk.


10 cubic yards of soil

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Acacias in bloom at UC Davis Arboretum

One local spectacle I made a point of not missing this year is the acacia bloom at the Eric E. Conn Acacia Grove at the UC Davis Arboretum. From the Arboretum website:

The Eric E. Conn Acacia Grove displays over 50 species of acacias from Australia, Africa, and the Americas. In early spring, visitors can walk through clouds of fragrant yellow blossoms amid meadows of native California bunchgrasses. We are testing these attractive heat- and drought-tolerant plants, which range from prostrate, low-growing species to tall shade trees, for use in Central Valley gardens. The grove is named for Dr. Eric E. Conn, professor emeritus of biochemistry at UC Davis and an internationally-recognized expert on acacias.

Apparently many tender species from the Americas and Africa have died over the years so today the collection is heaviest on Australian species (see taxonomical note at the bottom).


Eric E. Conn Acacia Grove in early March


Ovens wattle (Acacia pravissima)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Artichoke monster

Just about exactly a year ago I planted a small globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) outside the front yard fence—not because I wanted to harvest artichokes for food but because I think it’s a highly ornamental plant.


November 3, 2013

Throughout 2013 it grew slowly but steadily and wasn’t fazed by the cold snap in December. It handled the dry winter with aplomb and never looked droopy or ratty.

And then came the rain. While the four storms we’ve had in recent weeks have done little to ameliorate the drought, they delivered enough water to turn my meek artichoke into the Hulk himself. I bet if I had set up a chair on the sidewalk, I could have watched it grow.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Temperamental tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii)

I love tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii). It’s a biennial, i.e. it flowers in its second year of life, sets copious amounts of seeds and then dies. I have four of these Canary Island natives planted in the ground. Two of my plants are adults that will bloom this spring, and two are juveniles that will bloom next year.

Except now I only have one juvenile because the other one has croaked. Until very recently it looked like this:


Now it looks like this:


What happened?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The pittosporum hedge is gone

Yesterday was the big day: The guys at Alliance Tree Service took out at the hedge along the street. The result is both startling and exciting:


This is what it had looked like just hours before:


All of this is part of a major overhaul of this side of our property. Instead of the hedge—too large for this spot, too difficult and time-consuming to maintain, and plain ugly—there will be a palo verde tree, succulents and flowering companion plants. All of them will be low maintenance and, above all, use little water. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is, considering that even with the recent rains we’re still only at 30% of normal for the current water year.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The plants are here!

Whenever I watch a landscaping show on TV*, my favorite part is when the nursery truck rolls up and the crew starts to unload the plants. It’s a bit like Christmas even though the presents are for the lucky homeowners and not for me.

Today was a bit like that, except the truck was our 13-year old minivan and the crew was just yours truly, with my long-suffering wife lending a helping hand. But for once the lucky homeowner was me!

My plant haul came from Village Nurseries in Sacramento, the wholesale nursery where I’d previously bought two palo verde trees. What I picked up today will be the anchor plants for the new space I’m preparing next to the house (technically on the outside of the backyard fence).


A minivan full of plants: trunk…

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Camellias in Sacramento

The Sacramento Camellia Show is the largest and oldest of its kind in the country. This past weekend marked the 90th anniversary of the show. I checked it out on Sunday with a friend who loves camellias. Personally, I don’t know much about them but I enjoyed looking at the flowers—and I was surprised by how many different types and varieties there are!

I can’t tell you much about what you’ll see in the photos below, but I thought those of you living in colder climates might be cheered by the pretty flowers.


The Sacramento Memorial Auditorium was filled with thousands of camellia flowers


A few dozen chosen entries were displayed on round tables…

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Rainy visit to Annie’s Annuals

Yesterday I met an old friend from San Francisco and took him to Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA. Annie’s is one of my favorite nurseries. Their selection is vast and quirky; check out their plant list to get a taste. The retail nursery also carries plants that either aren’t on the website or are listed as unavailable and the prices are lower than online, so a personal visit is the way to go.

The weather was fine when we arrived—overcast but bright. However, half way through our visit the sky opened up and the rain ultimately cut our visit short. Still, here are some photos to give you idea of what wonders await at Annie’s. Also check out my previous posts: 1 | 2 | 3.