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Archive for December, 2009

Malcolm Wells…

Underground Architecture by Malcolm Wells

Underground Architecture by Malcolm Wells

‘In 1964, after 10 years spent spreading corporate asphalt on America in the name of architecture, I woke up one day to the fact that the earth’s surface was made for living plants, not industrial plants. I’ve been an underground architect ever since.’ Malcolm Wells

I didn’t notice until I saw mention at veg.itecture, but Malcolm Wells passed away last month at 83. Wells was the author of Underground Designs, one of the earliest books to advocate for underground buildings, green roofs, and what he called “gentle architecture,” architecture that would leave the land no worse than the architect found it. It was probably the first book I ever saw on green building, and one of the first, I’m sure, for many other people. As happens so often, his passing got me looking at his work again, and there’s a lot there, including some great water colors, drawings, cartoons, and quotes on his website. Highlights are an illustrated glossary of passive solar concepts and suggestions on how to celebrate the holiday he created, Underground America Day (think about moles, eat a parsnip or a radish, stay home from work and put some dirt on the roof…).

The Wells website has links to over a dozen obituaries, including the one he wrote himself. He clearly had a good time writing it, showing off a black eye in the photo and mostly talking about the people in his life. He ends with instructions that his last words should ‘tail off into a string of dots.’

‘But wait: don’t cut me off here. I haven’t told you about my two years in the Marine Corps – World War II – studying engineering at Georgia Tech and carrying a wooden rifle, of working with the Seneca’s, or doing a World’s Fair building, or designing a quilt, or never having touched a computer or a cell phone, or having done dozens, probably hundreds, of incredible designs and…

The Unicycle Basketball Revolution

‘You take and put a unicycle into the picture and in a way it turns the world into a playground.’ Kris Holm

Random disclosure: six or seven years ago I used to sometimes play unicycle basketball with some riders here in Berkeley. I only played for about a year before I stopped, but it was a lot of fun, especially at first when I had that ‘wow, basketball on a unicycle’ sense of wonder and ludicrousness.

For those unfamiliar with unicycle basketball, (are you living in a cave?) the rules are the same as regular basketball and you do all the same things — dribble, pass, shoot — the subtle difference being that you do everything while riding a unicycle. It works pretty well, and is not as hard as you might think; if you can play basketball and you can ride a unicycle, you can play unicycle basketball. And, actually, I proved that you can still play even if you are questionable at the unicycle part. I was pretty much a flounder on the unicycle, really, and always the worst rider on the court, but the fact that I had played basketball in high school helped to make up for that. I would fall off immediately after every shot, but falling off didn’t matter if I sometimes got the ball to go in. Other players never fell off and could literally ride circles around me, but might struggle to make a simple lay up. Only one player was good at both basketball and unicycling. Games were chaotic and unicycles would crash and fly all over the place, but the moments of gracefulness and actual basketball were very sweet. Few people walked past a game without stopping to watch for a while.

Watching the video (featuring the world’s first known unicycle basketball helmet-cam, stay with it until the end when they score), you’ll see that uni-basketball is not a gentle game. When I played, there were lots of multiple-unicycle pile-ups, there was always someone bleeding after a game, and one guy broke his wrist a little after I stopped. Personally, I never really wanted to treat the game so competitively; it was just unicycle basketball, after all, so who cares about the score? But, to give the other players credit, some of them stuck with it and kept playing, kept improving, and have now formed into a genuine team, the mighty Berkeley Revolution, with a coach and uniforms and plays and everything. Next week, they are competing at the unicycle basketball world championship at UNICON XV in New Zealand. Rock on.

Apparently, they should be the favorites to win. The defending world champion is (of course?) Puerto Rico, though I’m not completely sure about that, so don’t wager any money the next time you are doing uni-basketball trivia. I do know that Puerto Rico has for years been head and shoulders above everyone else, but the press hasn’t always covered the unicycle basketball world as closely as I might like (though the Revolution is generating a buzz these days, with a feature in the East Bay Express and now a segment on the California Report, listen here, a surprise to me when it came on the radio), and so some other team might have pulled off an upset at the last championship without me realizing. Puerto Rico won’t be in New Zealand, so the Berkeley team feels very confident. I’ll update this post with the results when I have them.

— Update —

The Berkeley Revolution came up just short, finishing in second place.

Uni-basketball is just one of the events at the unicon and just one aspect of modern unicycling. Photos and descriptions of various types of riding — Artistic Freestyle, MUni (mountain-unicycling), Street, Track and Field, Unicycle Hockey and Basketball, Road Racing — are on the unicon site. Below the fold, I go a little youtube crazy with videos of the Puerto Rico All Stars, MUni hot shot Kris Holm, street rider Dan Heaton, defending freestyle world champion Matt Sindelar, and legendary Bay Area unicycle superhero Pink Man. (more…)

Mr. Manzanita’s Favorite Manzanita

Arctostaphylos pajaroensis Paradise flowers

Flowers of Paradise

Happy Solstice! (9:47 AM for Berkeley, CA.) Here is the last of my photos from the botanic garden, a collection of manzanita photos. I tried to estimate how many of the manzanita varieties in the garden were blooming, and decided about one fifth or one quarter. If I were Mr. Manzanita I would declare that manzanita season has begun.

Paradise with Moss Rock

Paradise with Moss Rocks

But, sadly, I am not Mr. Manzanita. That name belongs to one of the staff at Tilden who, rather tongue in cheek-ly, wears a sign with that title during the plant sale every spring and answers all the questions about all the different manzanitas for sale. I had a question, ‘Which one is the best?’ Well, manzanitas cover quite a range, from ground covers to trees, all with their own subtle merits and attributes, and you generally need to know the site conditions before you can choose the right manzanita, so it’s rather ridiculous to ask someone to just pick one and say, ‘This is the best one.’ But I asked Mr. Manzanita to do that, to choose his favorite, all-purpose, reliable, not-too-fussy-about-soil, not-too-fussy-about-water, interesting, consistently beautiful, generic-recommendation manzanita. And he humored me and made a choice, choosing ‘Paradise,’ an A. pajaroensis selection introduced by, not too surprisingly, the botanic garden at Tilden.

Arctostaphylos pajaroensis Paradise

Arctostaphylos pajaroensis Paradise

There are several different specimens in the garden, all in bloom now, generally growing to about shoulder height, wider than tall, with an interesting zigzag branching pattern. Brad at RootedinCalifornia has photos of the bronzy-red new growth they get in the spring, almost like floral bracts. On the strength of Mr. Manzanita’s recommendation, I sold it to him while I was volunteering at the sale last year, and so far he seems satisfied. Whew.

Arctostaphylos pajaroensis Paradise Trunk

Arctostaphylos pajaroensis Paradise

Cactus Jungle has a photo of the berries and calls it a favorite, and Las Pilitas is bullish on it, too. More manzanita photos are below. (more…)

More Photos of Tilden in December

Coastal Bluff Section

Coastal Bluff Section at Tilden

More photos of winter at the bot garden below.. (more…)

Bloom Day, Wet December Straggler Edition

New Zealand Wind Grass and Salmon Beauty Yarrow

New Zealand Wind Grass and Salmon Beauty Yarrow

There’s a quotation I can’t quite remember, something about a bear riding a bicycle, that the impressive thing is not how well he rides, but rather that he rides at all. That’s my motto for appreciating the garden today. Nothing looks especially prime, but there are a surprising number of things in bloom, more than I thought before I started prowling with a camera and started compiling a list.

Woolly Blue Curls, Trichostema lanatum

Woolly Blue Curls, Trichostema lanatum, this week

Woolly Blue Curls, Trichostema lanatum

Woolly Blue Curls, Trichostema lanatum, last week

The recent storm knocked the last of the curls off the woolly blue curls. It’s my favorite of the plants blooming in the garden this month. I should probably give more respect to the rosemary plants, which pretty closely resemble the woolly blue curls, but it’s harder to get excited over them, even though the creeping rosemary is in full bloom and is probably the best habitat plant in the garden right now. I probably judge it by the company it keeps.

Rosemary with the Trashcan

Rosemary and the Trashcan

Salvia spathacea, Hummingbird Sage

Salvia spathacea, Hummingbird Sage

I’ve noticed that most California garden bloggers seem to have at least one species of salvia blooming for this month’s bloom day. We have Salvia spathacea, hummingbird sage, bearing a single bloom stalk which fell over during the last storm. So far I’ve never had more than one bloom at a time from these guys, but I’m not complaining about anything that blooms in December; our other salvias — S. chamedryoides, S. mellifera, S. mellifera ‘Green Carpet,’ and ‘Hot Lips’ — don’t have flowers right now.

Woodland Strawberry, Fragaria vesca

Woodland Strawberry, Fragaria vesca

Mexican Primrose

Mexican Evening Primrose

The list of everything in bloom is below. Today being in December, I’m not fussy about the quality or quantity. If the plant has a flower, it makes it onto the list. (more…)

Tilden in December

Aspens with California Poppy

Aspens with California Poppy

Aspens in the Bay Area? Somewhat in keeping with snow on Mt. Diablo, not really the popular image of our area, but there they are. According to Sunset, P. tremuloides ‘generally performs poorly or grows slowly in lowlands; usually short lived in warmer climates.” The ones at the Tilden botanic garden seem to be doing well, though it’s true they aren’t large and did probably grow slowly. They were definitely one of the most beautiful things in the garden when I stopped off on my way home the other day. We get asked about aspens sometimes and have always advised people to plant birches instead, but clearly aspens can work, so maybe we need to modify that advice. The bot garden is in a cool micro-climate (small valley surrounded by hills) and there was ice on the lawn and on a few of the plants, so that might be helping these aspens. Next year I need to remember to stop off and see their fall color. This has been a good year for fall color in the Bay Area, so they were probably beautiful.

Redtwig Dogwoods with Aspens

Sunset also says aspens make a ‘good background tree for native shrubs and wildflowers.’ Indeed. I like how the redtwig dogwood and the aspens are both somewhat see-through, and how the colors are so strongly contrasting even as the upright forms are so similar. We’ve planted redtwigs against a light-colored wall a few times, and last week we planted a yellowtwig dogwood against a brick chimney. The line of aspens is just as architectural and works just as well for a backdrop.

Redtwig Dogwoods and Aspens

Redtwig Dogwoods and Aspens

Manzanita with Manzanita Backdrop

Specimen Manzanita with Manzanita Backdrop

One of my reasons for stopping at Tilden was to look at native plants in the winter and see what was blooming in December (Answer: not much, a few late blooms amongst the deadheads on some buckwheat and erigeron species, two raggedy grindelias still blooming, a few stray off-season blooms, and about one fifth or one quarter of the manzanita species.). We talk to a lot of people who think natives only look good for about half of the year and sometimes I find myself believing that a bit, too, so it was good to walk around and see which plantings looked good and which ones would look ratty to that percentage of the population out there who are skeptical of natives. A lot of the garden and a lot of the plants were looking really beautiful, even though it was a gray day right after a cold storm. The rainforest section was looking great (though it was too dark under the canopy to take photos) but I don’t think there’s much debate about how great the woodland natives can look. Probably the biggest problem for northern California natives is just that many people don’t think of them as California natives, instead mentally classifying them as Washington/Oregon natives.

California Fuchsia Planting

California Fuchsia Planting

I think that when many people say they don’t like natives, they have a mental image of California fuchsia in winter, and when other people say they love natives, they have an image of Cal fuchsia in summer. This is a successful planting to my eyes, but this look seems like an example of what makes some people hostile to natives, a wild-looking plant in a rather wild-looking planting. It also seems to reflect the established popular image of a ‘native planting,’ even though natives can be used in so many other ways and to create so many different looks. I’ll try to return and take a photo from this same spot when the Cal fuchsias are blooming, because they are really pretty in bloom.

Coastal Bluff Planting

Coastal Bluff Planting

The buckwheats, another species not known to shine in the winter, looked good in some plantings and not so good in others. The Coastal Bluff section has a strong design, so the prominent buckwheat in the planting also looked fine and the planting would still look fine even if the buckwheat were replaced with a dying-back Cal fuchsia.

Cold Frame at Tilden

Cold Frame at Tilden

Hello Dudleya

Hello Dudleya

The desert section had some cold-frames out in the southern California desert sections. There’s no question about Agave shawii looking good in the winter. They’re really a Baja native that had a few populations on our side of the border, but those populations have been displaced and now might only exist as revegetation plantings. San Marcos Growers says they’re growing it, so it might start showing up in nurseries more often. Apparently, it’s really slow from seed.

Agave shawii

Agave shawii

Agave shawii

Agave shawii

a lovely thicket

Ninebark Thicket

The ninebark thicket (Physocarpus capitatus) reminds me of a crustacean, either a limpet or maybe a barnacle. I doubt this is going to inspire many people to plant ninebarks or shear them into a limpet shape, but it’s actually being used pretty well here, an effective way to make a certain type of habitat plant look intentional and not too wild. And I bet the birds love it. It looks better than the Salvia leucophylla, which is generally considered more garden worthy but was looking just as deciduous and thickety as the ninebark. In fairness, the S. leucophylla is planted in a tough spot, up against a bridge on a steep slope leading down into a creek.

Salvia leucophylla, Purple Sage

Salvia leucophylla, Purple Sage

Sugarbush, Rhus ovata

Sugarbush, Rhus ovata

I just planted Rhus ovata (Sugarbush, an evergreen sumac) for the first time, three of them at my parents’ house. The Watershed Nursery has had a supply recently, one of the first times I’ve seen them available. ( — edit — my bad, I realized that I planted the other evergreen sumac, Rhus integrifolia.) Hopefully the ones I planted will look as good as they do here. I like the flower buds as much as I like their little white flowers. This one here looks ready to do a huge bloom in February or March, that time of year when even the native skeptics agree that California natives look beautiful.

Sugarbush, Rhus ovata

Sugarbush, Rhus ovata

Update — And here is a March photo of that ninebark thicket in leaf. Still not the most ornamental plant in the garden, but not too bad.

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