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.

I’m a little bit in love with

The Santolina moment that is happening in my garden right now.

This is Santolina neopolitana ‘Lemon Queen’ and it is just about the coolest thing ever. The slightly brighter yellow you can see in the background is Santolina virens and the silvery blobs are Santolina chamaecyparisis ‘Nana’ which will have even more intense flowers. All the species of Santolina hail from the Mediterranean and are very drought resistant.  In fact summer water will shorten their lives.  So I have let them go about three weeks between watering and they seem fine.  When they are established next year I’ll try to give them no water at all for 4 or 5 months.

I’m so happy with them that I plan on expanding the mediterranean garden this fall and including more of the plants that did work and removing the ones that didn’t and making it look more like a designed garden rather than the current hodge podge of a  plant collection.

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.


When I am designing a garden I usually try to find a few photos for inspiration. It might be a photo of a garden I admire or even just a particular plant that I am currently excited about and want to add as a featured specimen.

My latest design for Gardens by Gabriel is a corner house just a few blocks from the bay in Morro Bay.  The homeowners saw a beautiful garden that Gabe had designed for one of their neighbors and decided they wanted their yard to look that nice as well.  The directive was simple.  They want it to have a “Wow factor!” and wanted to have a bit of a Protea/South African theme.

Proteaceae is one of Gabe’s favorite plant families so they are in good hands.  He is familiar with all the different genera and knows how to care for them (they have some tricky soil requirements but are right at home in the cool fog of the California coast).  But as the designer for the project I had my work cut out for me.  Since I learned gardening on the east coast and Protea were not mentioned in a single horticulture class I took I had a bit of homework to do.  I knew enough about them to look at a plant and say “Hey I bet that is in the Protea family”.  But that was about it.  Fortunately Gabe had recently picked up a bunch of plants at Monterey Bay Nursery so at least I had a partial plant list.

For inspiration I turned to some photos I took over a year ago at Seaside Gardens in Carpinteria.  If you are a garden lover and are visiting the Santa Barbara area you definitely want to check out this nursery.  Not only do they have a nice selection of plants but they have several acres of “botanical gardens” designed by local garden designers.  I actually think they are among the nicest gardens I have seen in California and every time I am in the area I bring my camera with me and spend a little time walking around.  They have nine display gardens but my favorites are the South African and Succulent gardens.

This particular photo was my main inspiration and the one I kept going back to while I worked on this project. The South African garden at Seaside Gardens designed by Laurence Nicklin of Ojai.

The homeowner has been to South Africa and sadly he doesn't like Aloe ferox! I guess I can understand that since in the wild they can look rather unkempt with their old dead leaves skirting the plants and they do get rather gigantic. I think they are great architectural plants though so I was a bit sad that I had to leave them out. One of these days I'll get a project where the client just loves everything.

This combination of Leucadendron, Kniphofia, and Chondropetalum is stunning and I am not embarrassed to say I stole it for my design.

I loved the pale purple heaths behind this Leucadendron 'Jester'. The right backdrop can really make a beautiful plant pop so my design features a backdrop of Erica caniculata, Chamelaucium uncinatum 'Purple Pride,' and other purple and pink flowered plants.

Leucadedron salignum 'Safari Sunset'. Most plants in the protea family need excellent drainage, a cool mediterranean climate, acidic soil and don't like to be fertilized with phosphorous.Protea 'Susara'

Aside from the Proteas the design also features other Mediterranean and native plants, succulents, and a bocce court! I hope the homeowners love the design because I had a lot of fun creating it and learned a lot.  It is in a rather prominent spot so it would be very exciting to drive past it and know that I had a hand in creating it.

A bit of the design. I think hand drawn designs have a certain charm to them but I am taking a class in AutoCAD this winter.