Paeonia cambessedesii

Last March I was lucky enough to get a Paeonia cambessedesii from Annie’s Annuals. When I received an email that they were available I knew I had to act fast so I placed an order immediately. I was surprised to find out the next day that Annie had sold out of them in just 14 hours, or something crazy like that, but happily I got in my order in time.

Most herbaceous peonies need winter chill to bloom but this one is from Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea. I potted it up into a one gallon pot and put it on a drip line in my plant ghetto and mostly forgot about it. Every once in a while I would check it out to make sure it was OK.

A few weeks ago I noticed that new purple-red leaves were pushing their way up and I had three flower buds! A bit of a surprise and even more of a surprise is they started opening when the plants were less than six inches tall. I’m hoping that is just because of the weird dry and hot weather we have had so far this winter, or the fact that it is being grown in a container, and once the plant is older and I find a nice home for it in the ground, it will get at least a foot taller.

But for now I am enjoying the beautiful magenta flowers. Much nicer fragrance than typical herbaceous peonies too in my opinion (I find them nice in small doses but otherwise a bit overwhelming and headache inducing).

Do you think I should let them fruit and go to seed or should I let the young plant build up more strength?

Does anyone else who was lucky enough to get one of these peonies have blooms yet? And if you like what you see be sure to put this one on your Annie’s wish list and order it the moment it becomes available! Don’t dawdle or you will miss your chance.

Who says California doesn’t have seasons?

One of the characteristics of a mediterranean climate is a cool wet winter and a hot dry summer. On the central coast of California the rainy and dry seasons of California each take up about half of the year. The rains come to an end in April or May and usually resume again in October or November. The landscape changes dramatically during this time and it happens very quickly. Shortly after the rains begin in fall seasonal grasses (many of which are invasive exotics from Europe) burst into life and dormant plants leaf out. The hills turn such a bright green they almost seems fluorescent against the bright blue sky.

And then a short time after the last drops of rain have fallen in late winter or early spring the annual grasses die off and many plants start to go dormant and the hills turn from lush green to golds and browns.

I’ve been told that California is called “the golden state” not because of the gold rush in the 1800’s but because of the color of the hills in the summer. Some people hate how parched and dry California is during the dry season but I love it.  To me it is no different from the leaves changing and falling from the trees back east in fall and winter.

Improv Medit Garden

As a result of the sewer lateral I had to create a little improv garden for many of the plants in my mediterranean garden.  They were just going to die if I left them out of the ground while I waited for the work to finish. I potted up what I could but some of them were too large for one gallon pots and too small for five gallon pots. Luckily last year I created a garden bed in my back yard that failed. I had to do a lot of traveling last summer during the hottest, driest part of the year and what was mean to be a garden full of Salvia and other hummingbird attracting plants died.  The only survivors were a Kniphofia Flamenco, a Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ and a Grevillea ‘Penola’. There was a lot of empty space.  So I threw together a quick design and planted what I could. It isn’t perfect but I just had to get the plants in the ground quickly.

The picture above is what it looked like back in mid March.

And this is what it looks like now. Not bad considering the horrible dry and hot weather we have had since they were planted. I’ve actually dispensed with my usual hand watering and used a sprinkler to get this garden established.

Altogether about a quarter of the plants in my mediterranean garden got to stay where they were, a quarter were moved to this new bed, a quarter died or were, and a quarter went into pots where they await a future garden.

I used to hate the chain link fence around this part of the yard but now I am relieved it is there. My new neighbor has a dog that always escapes her confinement while he is at work and runs amuck through the garden. This is the one part of my yard that I know is safe from her.  Eccremocarpus and Cobaea are hard at work covering the fence so I can live with it.

Glaucium grandiflorum is a Mediterranean poppy and was the plant I was most worried about losing but it started blooming this week and you would never know that it had been moved.

Kniphofia Flamenco is a seed strain of South African red hot poker. It can be quite variable so it is best to only buy it when the flowers are in bloom so you are sure you like what you are getting. This soft orange and yellow is just what I wanted. Most Kniphofia grow near streams and moist areas and some are from summer rainfall areas of eastern South Africa so they do usually need some summer water to perform at their best but they do really well in California. Surprisingly this is one of the few plants that had survived in this spot from my former attempt at making a garden here.

Astericus maritimus from the Canary Islands and Mediterranean is a great plant if you want quick results.

I actually prefer these Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ in this spot than I did in their old home. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that they had to be moved.

This Lavandula pinnata var. buchii was enormous and in full bloom when it had to be moved and it wad dug up by some random construction guy who “helped” me. It had very little roots left and I thought it was toast. I got it back into the ground as quickly as I could but the entire thing just wilted and flopped over.  I pruned it back almost all the way to the ground and in less than two months it has bounced back really nicely and started blooming again.  Behind it is Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’, which was also a survivor of the originally planned hummingbird garden in this spot, is already getting ready to bloom.

Salvia ‘Aromas’ sulked for a while but has perked up now and started to bloom. I considered moving it back to the front garden but decided not to push my luck. There are only so many times you can move plants this time of year before they give up.

Phlomis purpurea is another sulker that didn’t like being moved. Interestingly I read recently that one of the adaptations of some species of Phlomis, in the hot, dry summers of the Mediterranean areas they come from, is seasonal dimorphism of their leaves. Their winter leaves are thicker and better adapted to photosynthesize and the summer leaves are thinner, smaller, and even hairier and better adapted to retain moisture. I noticed with the shock of the move and the onset of hotter drier weather that these plants lost their leaves and regrew smaller leaves and have now stopped wilting.

Curious about how the newly planted old bed is doing?

The above picture is how it looked in early March. The center strip is mostly California natives. Salvia melifera, Arctostaphylos ‘Sentinel’, three types of Eriogonum, Erigeron ‘Wayne Roderick’, and purple and white California poppies. They looked so tiny back then it was definitely a bit depressing starting from scratch just when the garden had been ready to take off.

Two months later I have to admit I am kind of shocked at how quickly they have grown. I think by next year this garden will be fully filled out and looking great. Despite the fact that they are now in pure sand and it has bee so hot and dry they are thriving on just weekly watering. In fact they are showing no signs of stress at all so I may start moving them to a twelve day watering cycle and see how they do.

Of course I wish the construction had never happened but I think the garden is coming along nicely.

More Mediterranean

I’ve finished this round of planting in the medit garden.

Remember that ugly lawn? I’m so glad it is gone. Of course I still have to weed out sneaky clumps of Kikuyu grass but the worst of it seems to be over.

The new panorama feature on my iPhone is great for getting a full view of the garden. Try not to notice any ugly bits.

Chamelaucium uncinatum ‘Purple Pride’, from western Australia, has replaced the purple-leaved plum.

I’m hoping that Phylica plumosa, from South Africa, will make a nice mounding specimen in the center of the bed.

Dudleya pulverulenta has doubled in size since last spring.

I’m really fond of the South African heaths like this Erica Baueri. I love any Ericaceous plants that have waxy or plastic-like flowers.

I’m really proud of this Erica diaphana that I grew from seed.  It is about six inches tall now and looks like a miniature Christmas tree. The seed was like dust and I left them in a plastic bag under grow lights for ages until I felt like they were large enough to be potted up and safely brought outdoors. They were less than an inch tall when I pricked them out and I never thought they would survive the process. Even though I have grown tons of plant from seed this is the first woody shrub I have ever attempted. Next step is getting it to bloom!

Now obviously the plan for this garden is to grow plants from all the mediterranean climates of the world. Much of California, central Chile, western South Africa, southwestern and southern Australia and of course the Mediterranean region itself are all considered to be mediterranean climates with dry summers and mild rainy winters. Other dry regions of the world with drought tolerant plants are acceptable as well such as parts of the southern US and Mexico and the Canary Islands.  Whatever it takes to make beautiful garden with plants that will need very little water in the summer.

Of course sometimes I will make mistakes.

When I saw a six-pack of Craspedia globosa (actually Pcynosorus globosa) last summer I couldn’t resist.  It is normally a really ugly container plant and I couldn’t bring myself to pay even wholesale prices for a one gallon plant.  But a six-pack of tiny plants was cheap and seemed worthwhile. It is an Australian plant and I kept finding references that mention that it is drought tolerant. The common name is Billy Buttons and the flowers are little yellow spheres that make great cut flowers.  Sadly it is native to eastern Australia and my experience has been that it really wants very regular water. If I let it go dry it wilts dramatically.  It seems to be happiest in moist heavy clay which won’t do at all. I am willing to spot water thirsty plants when they are getting established but in the long run I really want plants to be able to fend for themselves for long stretches in the summer. I don’t plan on adding drip irrigation to this garden. So at some point they are all going to be removed. I may try to relocate them but I am not sure I want a plant that needs a lot of water to be happy.

I may replace them with Nepeta tuberosa. This is an unusual Nepeta with upright spires of blooms rather like a Stachys. It is from Spain and Portugal and should be much happier in dry conditions. In fact I am not sure why it didn’t get planted in the medit garden in the first place.  Luckily the three clumps I planted last year in the other border had about a dozen little seedlings all around them so I potted those up today. Once they are large enough I may use them to replace the Billy Buttons. The picture below is from June and I think this plant will add just the right amount of architectural drama that I want.

England Trip: Eden Project

First view of the Eden Project domes as you enter.Interior of the mediterranean climate dome.Protea sp.Cute educational signageCalifornia wildflower meadowSculptures depicting Bacchus
Closeup of one of the partying Bacchus revelers.Close up of Calocephalus browniiGiant Alliums (A. gigantea or a culitvar) with the tropical domes as a backdrop.Dome ceilingEnglish robinAmorphophallus titanum
Tropical DomeView of the tropical dome from above.Lavender display.I think a Lavandula angustifolia cultivar.I've amassed quite a collection of lavenders in my new garden.  I think I have most of the species represented here.WEEE man sculpture (kind of like a big scary dinosaur).
Bog garden with domes in the background.Rosa moyesiiBog plantsA red themed borderOne of the large mixed borders.Me with my siblings.  I tricked them into smiling.

England Trip: Eden Project, a set on Flickr.

I have sort of mixed feelings about our visit to Eden Project last year. My initial memories before preparing the pictures for this post that it was rather theme park like and perhaps we would have enjoyed visiting a historic or more intimate garden. At this point I was also full blown sick, with a fever and headaches, which was worsened by the stress of having to drive all around England.

Once I looked through the photos my feelings toward Eden softened a bit. Yes it is a bit of a big theme park and if you really hate that sort of thing you might not enjoy it. But it also was a nice break seeing a garden that was only ten years old after looking at so many gardens that were over a hundred years old.

Eden Project is in a converted quarry and the main attraction is two massive biomes. One featuring tropicals and the other with plants from the mediterranean climates of the world (you can guess which one I preferred). It definitely has an educational, environmental, botanical garden bent but there are large borders outside of the domes that are actually really nicely designed and while we were there the beds around the domes were full of hundreds of huge Alliums.

If you would like to go for a tour of the insides of the domes you can type “Eden Project” into Google Maps and then use street view to navigate the interior paths. Of course then you might not feel the need to visit the real Eden Project. But if you are ever in Cornwall and have some free time I would say it is worth checking out.

What is your favorite lavender?

Right now Lavandula stoechas is my favorite.  It is medium-sized (generally 2-3′ high and across) and has large showy flowers with four sterile bracts on top of the flower spike that sort of look like bunny ears.  Other lavender flowers can be a bit subtle unless you have them planted in large quantities but L. stoechas is pretty bold and showy.

I haven’t really had that much experience growing lavender.  People do grow it in the northeast but a lot of them aren’t hardy there and the ones that can grow in the northeast are not impressed with the freezing winters, hot and humid summers, and year round moisture.  Like many California and Mediterranean natives water in summer tends to shorten the life of lavenders.  Once they are established water should be reduced or altogether withdrawn in summer.

At Kew I worked in the Duke’s Garden which housed their lavender collection but the only thing I really learned was that working with the fragrant lavender plants makes you sleepy and all I wanted to do was curl up in a sunny spot and take a nap.

Of course they are very happy in California’s mediterranean climate so they are a commonly used garden staple here.  I’ve found it a bit frustrating trying to find good pictures of all the many different cultivars that are available so from now on I am going to try and take my own and catalog them.

Starting with a few L. stoechas.  One design trick I like to use with lavenders is planting a few different species or cultivars together.  Even if they are just slightly different in shape or color it can be more interesting to mix them than plant them in blocks of the same type (unless you have a huge area and can plant big sweeping rows of L. X intermedia). It creates a sort of tapestry effect with different but similar flower colors and shapes.

Lavandula stoechas ‘Otto Quast’

This is a favorite of mine because the dark purple corolla and the large light purple sterile bracts are very showy together. It is definitely one of my staples if I am planning a garden with lavenders.

L. stoechas ‘Anouk’

There is also a cultivar of ‘Anouk’ with silver foliage called appropriately enough ‘Silver Anouk’

L. stoechas ‘Willow Vale’

This one has slightly taller sterile bracts.

L. stoechas ‘Boysenberry Ruffles’

Besides being pink ‘Boysenberry Ruffles’ is also smaller than typical L. stoechas cultivars, generally maxing out at 18-24″ tall and wide. The flower spikes are also shorter and fatter.

L. stoechas ‘Marshwood’

At the other end of the spectrum ‘Marshwood’ is larger than is typical at 3-4′ high and wide.

As the season progresses I’ll continue to take pictures of more L. stoechas cultivars and of other species of lavenders as well.

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 3 – Mediterranean Bed

I got tired of being sick and lounging about so yesterday I jumped into action and started planting one of my new gardens beds.  It is a large island bed that is home to a purple leaf plum.  I was going to get rid of the plum but it was one of the few plants that my landlady has an emotional attachment to. I considered moving it but she was too worried it wouldn’t survive so I had to modify my plans.  Not a huge set back in the scheme of things.  I’ve wanted a mediterranean garden (lowercase m for describing the garden style. upperclass M for describing the region of the world) for a while now.  It didn’t really matter where on the property it was.

OK I know it doesn’t look like much.  You have to remember that even though I live in California it is still February!

Just try and imagine what the plants will look like three months from now at the start of spring after months of cool weather and winter rains.

Come on!  I know you can do it!  Stop laughing.  Picture the plants all big and in bloom and imagine that I have put down some nice mulch.

Gardens always look a bit sad in photos when they are first installed and for a few moments I always despair a bit.  But I have a mind that imagines gardens and I just walk around the bed picturing what each plant will look like once it is full sized and bursting with flowers.

This isn’t just a garden for fun. Mediterranean style gardens are perfect for California so are a big share of the type of gardens I design.  It was important to me to be able to grow and experiment with some of the plants that I use in designs.  You can be an OK designer reading about a plants growing habits and dimensions and looking at pictures but I to be really good I think you need to grow the plants you work with.  Most of the plants in this bed are from Native Sons, a wholesaler that specializes in plants for our mediterranean climate here in California.  By growing their plants at home I can get a better idea of how these plants will look in future designs and play around with some nice combinations.

Eryngium ‘Sapphire Blue’ is a plant I have coveted since it first came on the scene about ten years ago.

Eryngium planum ‘Jade Frost’ has beautiful variegated foliage that will really set off the metallic blue flowers once they color up.

Dorycnium hirsutum is a small fuzzy leaved shrub with pale pinkish white pea flowers.  At the bottom of the plant you can see a bit of the chicken wire sticking out that I used to cage the root balls of my plants.  It was kind of a pain but worth the extra planting time protecting my plants from gophers rather than crying months from now when an established plant is devoured from under ground.  The only plants I won’t cage and am confident won’t be eaten are Euphorbias.  I also didn’t cage a rosemary, Salvia, and Nepeta as an experiment to see if the things that make them unpalatable to rabbits and deer will work against gophers.

Plecostachys serpyfolia forms beautiful silver mounds about a foot tall and four feet across.

Have you ever seen a plant in a book or magazine and coveted it for years before you could grow it? Maybe it isn’t something that will grow where you live.  Maybe it is something that is so rare in the trade it took you forever to track one down. I still remember the first time I saw Helianthemum ‘Fire Dragon’. It was back when I was in school almost ten years ago and I was on a bus from NYC headed to my dads house for the weekend. I was reading an article about a Colorado rock garden in a magazine that had just arrived and this plant caught my eye.  I memorized the name and lamented the fact that I lived on the east coast where Helianthemums don’t do particularly well.  Well when going over the list of plants available at Native Sons last week this name jumped out at me and I knew I had to have it for my garden!  Just imagine in a few months it will be covered in tons of little reddish-orange flowers.

I am really looking forward to seeing how this garden turns out.  Aside from the plants pictured above the garden will feature Rosmarinus ‘Tuscan Blue’, Salvia ‘Aromas’, Nepeta X faassenii, Eschscholzia ‘Moonglow’ and ‘Buttermilk’, Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’, Epilobium ‘Marin Pink’, Stipa gigantea ‘Pixie’, and Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’.  There are still a few spots left for Lavenders (I’m still trying to decide which species and cultivars I want to grow) and some other choice plants.

Remember I complained about birds attacking my mesembs and seedlings the other day?  This is what a Conophytum that has been attacked by a birds beak looks like.

And a Lithops.  I might have thought they had burst from too much water if it wasn’t for the fact that other small plants were completely torn out of their pots and my nearby seedlings were also nibbled on and torn up.

Now my precious little year old Mitrophyllum dissitum seedlings are protected with bird netting.  I’m so relieved the bird didn’t find these plants.

In fact all my seedlings are protected with bird netting now.  Hopefully by next year I’ll have a greenhouse.