I heard what sounded like a cross between a bird and a dog barking so went outside to have a look around.

Turned out it was some California quail visiting the neighborhood!

This pair went running by and scrounged a bit in the weeds in my side yard.

The “barking” was coming from this male quail who found a high vantage point where he could keep watch. He was calling to several other “watchmen” quail down the block.  I’ve heard this noise in the distance before but didn’t realize it was quail.  I’ve only heard them make a sort of cooing little bloop noise as they run around in the underbrush.

I’m pretty psyched because quail are awesomely cute and also California’s state bird.  The coolest thing about them is when they have their babies the little chicks look like walnuts with feet running along behind their parents.  The mortality rate is pretty high on these guys so they usually lay a dozen or more eggs. I’m glad to have them in the neighborhood and hope to see them some more.

In other news the first of the California poppies I planted opened today.  This color selection is called ‘Moonglow’ and is a nice creamy white.  I stuck with white poppies in the mediterranean bed and oranges and reds in the other beds.

Another lovely little cream-colored native is Platystemon californicus or cream cups.  These have been blooming for a few weeks now and not only are they adorable but they are also fragrant if you get down on the ground and stick your nose right into them.

We had a nice heavy drizzle this morning.  I’m sure a lot of non gardeners and folks with 9-5 weekday jobs are not too happy that the past 3 weekends have been rainy but I’m not complaining. I actually hope we have a late rainy season that continues right through April this year.

Varian Ranch Finale!

A few weeks I posted an update as work progressed on a garden I designed last summer: Varian Ranch.  Well today was the last day of work on the garden so I stopped by to see how it turned out.

Here is that mediterranean border all planted and mulched.

Look how nice the new decomposed granite path looks!  Hmm…maybe I want one of these in my yard.

As we move down the path toward the front entrance the plants change from mediterranean style to natives.

Now that the mulch is down those sycamores stand out even more!

I thought this was Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ but Gabe says it is ‘Concha’.  It was originally supposed to be C. ‘Joyce Coulter’.  One of the problems with installing a garden eight months after you design it is some of the plants you specced are no longer available so you have to adapt.  Which is fine but when the project is finished I am always confused as to what we ended up finally using.  C. ‘Dark Star’ has darker flowers and foliage.

A group of four Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’ flank the front door.  They were just bare twigs a week and a half ago when they were planted but they suddenly burst into bloom.

I wanted running water in the garden to attract more birds so we got this little fountain.

Over the winter a large oak died in the backyard and really opened up the view and the space.  The back garden around the lawn needed some sprucing up so I drew up a quick plan.  Some plants were removed, some were divided, some were spread out, and of course we added a bunch of new ones to compliment the original design.  I’ve added lavender to replace some old ones, Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Grey Tuft’, Verbena bonariensis and V. lilacina, Geum ‘Mango Lassi’, Gaillardia ‘Oranges & Lemons’, Cistus, and Halimium to name a few.

Four raised beds for vegetables were also added as well as some fruit trees.

One last view of those Sycamores and my work here is complete!  I look forward to visiting in six months or a year to see how the garden has filled in.


Weird Plant Tricks

One of the things I love about plant seeds is how remarkably resilient and interesting they are.  Some of them have complex requirements that must be met before they will germinate and start to grow.  They have evolved to give the plants the greatest chance of successfully surviving “birth” and reaching adulthood.  Many seeds have the ability to remain dormant in the soil until the perfect conditions are met that will increase their odds. This might be something as simple as moisture or as complex as double dormancy where two cold winters are required, the first breaks dormancy in the roots and the second in the shoots.

In mediterranean climates some plants have evolved to respond to fire and smoke.  I suppose the simplest explanation for this is that seedlings might have a better chance of surviving if all competing vegetation has been burnt away by dry season fires that sweep through California’s chaparral or South Africa’s fynbos.  The combination of heat to break tough seed coatings or the chemical compounds in smoke plus the first rains of winter start the new cycle of life.  In a year without fire those seeds might remain dormant in the soil patiently waiting for optimal conditions.

I have sown some seed from South Africa that is stubbornly refusing to germinate.  It is possible that the seed just isn’t any good but my success rate has been about 90% with succulents and 5% with herbaceous and woody South African plants.  Since I am not keen on starting even a small controlled fire in my house or garage I found another trick that seems simpler.

It seems kind of silly, no?  But apparently the smoke compounds in the liquid smoke used to flavor barbecue is enough to trigger germination in some seeds.  So I applied it at a rate of one tablespoon of liquid smoke to nine tablespoons of water to all my stubborn seeds.  Perhaps nothing will happen and the seed are just no good.  In the meantime my mudroom (where I have grow lights) and garage (where I have my largest heat mat) have a pleasant smokey barbecued scent now (I like it and I don’t even eat meat).

It all seems like a bit of a practical joke so I’ll let you know if I get any results.

Building My Garden Part 5 – Flower Gardens

Sorry it has taken me so long to share this part of the garden.  I actually debated waiting even longer because, to be honest, the garden still doesn’t look like much in photographs.  The plants are small (most of the plants were 4″ pots or gallons), I still haven’t mulched, and there isn’t too much in bloom yet. There are also a lot of finishing touches I need to apply to make the garden look like it was done by a professional.  But then I figured it would be more rewarding when the garden is all full and nice to have shared the garden at this infantile stage.

So everyone remembers the before picture from December right?  That was right after I moved in. Yuck. Look at all that stupid lawn.

This is the garden five weeks ago as I was laying out the initial plants.  To be honest I didn’t really have time to do a design for this garden.  Not the best way for a supposed garden designer to create his own garden but I suspect it is common.  I really wanted to get the plants in quickly to take advantage of winter rains (Ha!).  Especially since I planted a lot of native annuals.   So the design was a bit random. The way I normally work is to pick a few specimen plants and build a garden around them but it didn’t really pan out in my own garden.

Above is a shot of the entire garden last week.  The mediterranean garden is on the right and was the first garden I installed (though I keep adding to it and am going to enlarge the two beds next week). Between the two houses in the fenced area in front of the lawn there is a long bed that is going to be a shrub border.  That is currently still in limbo because I decided to remove part of the lawn behind the fence so the shrub border can be expanded.  That is also where I had my gopher problem so one of the reasons I am doing this is to get rid of all the yellow lawn daisies that the gophers seem to love.  When that project is finished the only lawn remaining will be above the septic field in the back. Anyway you can see the shrubs in their big pots waiting patiently to be planted.

The gardens to the left of the mailbox is what we will be talking about today.

Here is the garden today. First up is the “Big Border”.  The long bed between my driveway and the “Path Garden”.  It measures Forty feet long by nineteen feet wide and is made up of two berms with a little valley in the center.

The large plant anchors that I tried to build the  beds around are a Grevillea rhyolitica in the front and a Cantua buxifolia in the back portion. I said tried because I really didn’t shape the design around those plants and instead it is more of a cottage garden look (at least it will be when the plants fill in). The house faces north so the portion closest to the house will be shadier most of the year. That will have a separate drip system so I can include more moisture loving shade plants. Toward the street I think I will eventually shift that part of the garden to include more mediterranean themed, drought tolerant  plants.

The beds on the right are divided by a path that leads to the shrub border and mediterranean garden.  The back bed around the palm is shadier so is made up of several species and cultivars of Fuchsia and Cuphea.  I decided to do a bit of a color themed garden here and so that is the “Red, Orange, Purple Garden”.  Since that bed is most visible from my large living room window I thought it would be fun to have a garden that attract hummingbirds right in front of it.

The front bed I am currently calling the “Chaos Garden”.  Even more so than the other beds this one has no theme or strong anchors.  It was basically the bed where I threw all the leftover plants. More than half of it is California native annuals so this bed will probably dramatically change later in the season. It will likely just become part of the mediterranean garden.

By the way the “Path Garden” is filling in nicely.  Aside from one Dianthus that suddenly dropped dead the other day the rest of the plants are blooming quite a big and slowly creeping outward. The Chamomile in the front smells divine.

So there you have it.  Now you’ve seen the flower garden in early stages.  There is nowhere to go but up. If all goes well I will put in irrigation, mulch, and add some finishing touches (gravel and mulch for paths, more rocks to cover and pretty up the drainage ditches, shrub border finished) in the next few weeks.

Now a few of the plants that are in bloom and my thoughts on them.

Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’

I grew this back east and found it to be short lived and Gabe said it is the same here.  So I probably won’t use it in clients gardens unless they are OK with something that may potentially act as an annual.  They are very impressive though and will hopefully self sow. They are in the front of the “Red, Orange, Purple Garden”.

Cuphea ‘Strybing Sunset’

I have five different varieties of Cuphea because I think they are adorable and they bloom pretty much year round.  This one is in the back of the “Red, Orange, Purple Garden”.

Cuphea cyanea

This Cuphea is so cute I want to eat its little face. It is in the back of the “Big Border”.

Fuchsia splendens

This is kind of a weird Fuchsia.  The flowers are sort of waxy and lumpy.  Strange thing.  It is sort of salmon which counts as orange or red as far as I am concerned so it is living in the “Red, Orange, Purple Garden”.

Uncinea uncinata ‘Rubra’

This was not a plant I had any intention of buying until I saw it in person.  At Annie’s Annuals at about a hundred feet away I saw something glowing, beckoning to me, it was lit up from within and said “Come close so I can jump in your cart”.  Of course you know which bed it is in without me telling you.

Eupatorium sordidum (syn Ageratum corymbosum)

This guy is like a really sturdy Ageratum and is at the back of the Big Border in the shade.  Supposed to get three feet across which is really exciting.

Lupinus hartwegii ssp. cruickshankii – sunrise lupine

I’m having a little love affair with lupines.  They are one of the first plants I grew from seed in my first New Jersey garden and there are so many delightful species that grow well in California.  So I sort of want all of them.  I think I currently have six different types growing in the garden.  I have three of this annual species growing in the “Big Border”.

Lupinus albifrons – silver bush lupine

This one is from Annie’s.  It should become a fairly large woody stemmed shrub with very low water needs. It is so tiny now I wasn’t sure I should even let it flower but I will deadhead it before it sets seed so it can put more energy into growing big and strong.

Lupinus succulentus – arroyo lupine

This is another annual from Annie’s.  The leaves really are quite succulent and juicy. I kind  of wish I had bought a few more of them so I could have planted them in a group because the annuals around it aren’t really filling in as much as I thought they would.  I also wish I had planted it closer to the path so I could easily squish its leaves. Hopefully it will self sow.

Ursinia anthemoides ‘Solar Fire’

A great South African annual from Annie’s. I bought these because I love them but didn’t really have a place in mind for them and somehow they were left over and forgotten at the end. In retrospect they would have been great for the “Red, Orange, Purple Garden” but I sort of randomly stuck them here and there at the front of the “Big Border”.  Perhaps not my best design choice as they are far ahead of the other annuals there but at least they are pretty.

Nemophila menziesii – baby blue eyes

In the future I’ll plant these earlier (beginning of February instead of the end of February) and I’ll plant them closer together.  I tried to be really good about spacing things appropriately but I think in the case of annuals smooshing them together a bit just looks way cooler.  I’m hoping these will keep growing a bit bigger even though they are all in full bloom already because some of them are really doinky. They are currently planted across the front of the “Big Border” and the “Chaos Garden”.

Heliophila longifolia

South Africa has the best annuals.  This has been a favorite since I first saw them in Mendocino and those were stunted plants that were in their nursery pots for way too long.  If you plant them at the appropriate time of year they became large plants covered in wands of these cheerful little tricolor flowers.  These are in the “Red, Orange, Purple Garden” just because I reserve the right to plant whatever I want wherever I want even if it doesn’t fit into the prescribed theme.  They look really nice with Geum Maggelanicum and Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’.

Anyway that is it for now.  Hopefully in a few months there will be so much blooming you won’t even recognize these beds.  Next installment should be the shrub border but who knows when I will get around to finishing it.

You know as I am tagging this post it occurs to me that “Red, Orange, Purple Garden” is a monumentally stupid name for a garden.  From this point on it will be known as the “Hummingbird Garden”.

Will the real Catherine de la Mare please stand up?

I posted pictures of Penstemon ‘Catherine de la Mare’ last year, and based on the photo, I’m sure you will understand why this plant name stuck in my head and went on my “Plants I NEED” list.

Penstemon ‘Catherine de la Mare’

The photo is from Wakehurst Place in England back when I interned at Kew in 2004 and all these years I have hoped to find Miss Catherine here in the states.

Here she is in all her glory planted with a Ballota pseudodictamnus. Incidentally the walled garden at Wakehurst Place remains one of my top favorite gardens to this day.  I hope to get back there for another visit some day.

Penstemons are hugely popular in England and from what little I could find about this cultivar I am assuming it is a P. heterophyllus sport or hybrid selected in England.  It has an Award of Garden Merit from The Royal Horticulture Society and was apparently named after the daughter-in-law of English poet Walter de la Mare (This should also clear up any confusion of the spelling of the cultivar name. I have seen the last part of the name listed as Mare, Mere, Mar, and Mer.)  I wasn’t even sure I would be able to find it here in the states.

I was very happy back in 2010 when I found plants labeled as P. ‘Catherine de la Mare’ at Grow Native Nursery in Westwood and bought three one gallon plants for my friends garden that I was designing in West Los Angeles.  I was a bit suspicious though.  Would this in fact be the same plant I saw at Wakehurst?

Well, you be the judge.  Here is the plant in bloom about six months after being planted.

What do you think?  I was a little uncertain because I thought it was supposed to be a P. heterophyllus cultivar and it seemed pretty beefy.  Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the leaves of the English plant but I remembered them being a bit more oblong and strappy in shape and the flower color isn’t really right.

Of course for all I know this could just be because of the wildly different growing conditions between southern England and Los Angeles.  The quality of light is quite different between England and California too though I did see each plant in person and the colors were as different in person as they appear in the photos.

Even if it didn’t look exactly the same I was thrilled with the way the plants behaved.  They are in poor compacted soil and after an extremely wet winter they went through various stages of over and under watering over the course of the next year and all grew like gangbusters.  The above picture is of one of the one gallon plants after being in the ground for a year.  But as you could see from the six month blooming photo they were already huge.

I thought of taking cuttings for when I moved up to Los Osos for my own garden but I just never had time.  So I continued to keep a lookout for plants going under the name of ‘Catherine de la Mare’.

Well I found two!  But they are a teeny bit different from each other.

The first one I picked up at a local hardware store and it is from wholesaler Growing Grounds.  It reminds me of the plant from Grow Native that I planted at my friend’s place in Los Angeles.  In fact it is entirely possible Grow Native got their plants from Growing Grounds.

The second is a smaller plant that I mail ordered from Dancing Oaks Nursery in Oregon (great selection and quality by the way, and they sent me a few free plants which is always awesome and much appreciated).  It has the more lance like leaves that I remember the one in England having, with red margins and red stems.  I guess it is possible it will beef up once it is older but it seems like a distinctly different plant to me.

What do you think?  I am really curious to see how they will turn out when they bloom and will be posting pictures as soon as they do.  And maybe if I see P. ‘Catherine de la Mare’ from other sources I’ll buy those too.  You can’t really go wrong with purple Penstemons though so I’m sure they will both be beautiful.

Cool Plant of the Week!

Caulophyllum thalictroides fruit – blue cohosh

C. thalictroides is native to woodlands of eastern North America.  It has fern-like compound leaves similar to the genus Thalictrum which is where it gets the specific epithet thalictroides (Thalictrum like).  The flowers are sort of insignificant little yellowish-green affairs but they are followed by the beautiful blue berries pictured above. (ETA: I remembered today that they are not actually berries but are in fact seeds.  They push through the thin membranous fruit early in their development and ripen exposed to the elements.)

Caulophyllum thalictroides flower