Plants and Stone for California Gardens


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Plants are Smart

“It’s pretty spectacular what plants do. The more I work on them, the more I’m amazed.” Ted Farmer, University of Lausanne

I’d already heard about a lot of the research referenced in this video, but it was nice to see the concepts illustrated with sharpies. There’s also an article at Wired about essentially the same thing and a longer article by Michael Pollan in the New Yorker Magazine giving the research his unique pop science treatment. Also, when the article came out, he was on Science Friday for those who prefer more of a podcast format. A lot of this research seems like confirmation of things that gardeners intuitively know, but it’s great to see science giving evidence of the some of latent genius of the plant world.

Bloom Day, Early for the Show

Happy Bloom Day. This is an unusual bloom day for me because I have mixed feelings about seeing my plants in bloom. I haven’t mentioned it on this blog before, but I’m doing a display garden in the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show next month and a lot of the plants in bloom are things I want to still have in bloom four weeks from now for the show. A few are long-bloomers that I expect to keep going, but a couple are in danger of finishing too early. The biggest question is probably my two native annuals, Meadowfoam and Tidy Tips. Both of them began blooming a month ago, so I have been pinching off all of the flowers as soon as they appear. So far it seems to be working, but two months is a long time to suppress their bloom.

These are a couple of meadowfoam plants that I have given up on and am letting bloom unchecked. I have other meadowfoam plants that aren’t as far along, and the slowest ones are probably going to be the best at show time. My biggest concern is to make sure they also keep producing foliage as well as flowers.

The Tidy Tips is actually looking a lot better because of all the pinching. I decided to let this leggy specimen bloom, but most of the others are nice bushy little plants that will bloom as soon as I let them. I think the flowers will be smaller from all of the pinching, but there should be a lot of them. I keep telling them to wait; hopefully they won’t give up on me.

Other plants in the garden are doing well. Sidalcea is blooming nicely; I think it will keep going until show time. I deadheaded a Solanum today, the first time I’ve ever bothered to deadhead one of them; it should be prime in another month. Asarum caudatum is blooming, but with all respect to them, there is no way their brownish flowers will show up under the strange garden show lighting, so it doesn’t matter if they bloom or not. Mahonia repens will probably finish too early, but they’re left over from a project rather than something I intended for the show. Non-natives like the Hellebore and the Daffodils aren’t earmarked for the show, so I have no mixed feelings about seeing them in bloom. I’m not deliberately trying to exclude non-natives from the display garden, but I do want to make sure that the natives are well represented and that’s mostly what I’m growing for the show. Back in the fall when I agreed to do the show, I looked back at several years of March bloom day posts from here and from other California bloggers like Town Mouse and Country Mouse. Natives always look really good in March; even when they aren’t blooming yet, their foliage is usually at its best. This has been such a strange year, though, that I’m not confident that I know what will be happening a month from now. It feels a little ridiculous to worry about plants finishing before mid-March, but it’s better than the usual problem of speeding them up to get them ready for the show. Strange year.

I’m not sure what I have to say about doing the garden show itself. Anita and I did it once before, in 2008, though at the time we had never actually been to the show and really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves in for. We got plenty of work afterwards, so in that respect it was a success, but we finished with the feeling that we could have been smarter about it if we’d had a better idea what to expect. It’s such a strange artificial creation, and we could have done it more smoothly and efficiently if we had understood the differences between show gardens and real ones. We’ll see in another month if I actually manage to be smarter, smoother, and more efficient, but so far I’d say I’m having more fun this time. I’ve also lined up final homes for most of the plants and materials we’re using in the show, so there shouldn’t be much waste involved, though a few things like the annuals will get discarded after the show and some of the bulbs won’t be usable until next year.

The show has new owners this year who want to shift the focus of the show more towards sustainability. Partly as a result of that, we decided to conceive of the garden as a lawn conversion project. Lawn conversions are something we do pretty often, and with the crazy drought this year, a lawn to garden display seems even more appropriate than ever. It’s a little contrived to make a garden that is supposedly built on top of a lawn that never existed, but we’re going to have a sheet-mulch demonstration that should be interesting. People are often confused and intrigued when they see us covering a lawn with newspaper mulch as if we’re doing some sort of crazy landscape paper maché, so it should be fun to talk about.

The garden plan shows the concept we submitted to the jury, though the final design will end up somewhat different. I created the original concept with a partner who decided to drop out due to time constraints. I’m now doing it with a different partner, Sha-Khan Starks of Deep Rootz Design, so some of the elements designed with my initial partner are going to change as Sha-Khan and I move forward and actually build the garden. Essentially, the yoga/meditation deck and the walk-thru reflecting pool were the domain of my first partner, so now that he is out of the picture, we’re changing the big water feature into a smaller stone/water element that is more water-conserving and closer to what we personally tend to do in gardens. There are also a few other stone elements that I’m fabricating on my weekends. I’ll probably post about them fairly soon. I don’t know how interesting the garden show is to people, but it will be dominating a lot of my attention and probably this blog as well for the next month or so. In the meantime, check out May Dreams Gardens for lots of proper bloom day posts full of flowers. I have a list of what’s in bloom in my garden below.


John Greenlee Interview at Land8

Greenlee/Mariposa Display Garden from the 2013 SF Garden Show

‘Most true meadow ecologies are where you want to live… light-filled openings near trees and water. If it is too wet, it is a swamp; too many trees, it is dark and dank… For me, the draw of the meadow has to do with how meadows capture light and movement. No other group of plants can do what grasses and grass ecologies do.’ John Greenlee

Land8 has a great interview with grass guru John Greenlee, who I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog. He collaborated on my favorite display gardens from the last two SF garden shows, but, more significantly, he’s the author of The American Meadow Garden, one of the handful of books that I consider essential for designing gardens in California. I recommend the interview, as well as the book, for anyone interested in meadows, grasses, or general plant design. Check it out.

Carlson Grasses

Mid April 2012

Last year in April I posted a few photos of the median strip on Carlson Avenue near my house. The city had regraded the street and put in a median strip planted with native and non-native annual wildflowers. It looked great, but after a couple weeks of it blooming, there was a car wreck because a driver couldn’t see over the flowers. The city immediately mowed the wildflowers.

Late April 2012

A year and a half later, October 2013

After a few months the city put in the more permanent planting. This being Richmond, a significant number of plants were promptly stolen. It was kind of sad, a few new empty holes appeared every morning as if plundered by urban gophers. But eventually the thieves had enough plants for their gardens and everything was allowed to grow in. A year later, it’s looking great.


Muhlenbergia capillaris, Pink Muhly

I like most of the plants used: Rubus pentalobus “Green Carpet’ at the ends of the median so no one can complain about trouble seeing over the plants, Hesperaloe, Lavender, Chondropetalum, Leucadendron ‘Jester,’ and Bulbine, a plant I recently started using. Two grasses are the stars right now. The Pink Muhly looks kind of scruffy when you’re a pedestrian and absolutely terrific when you drive past at thirty five miles an hour, blurring into the most vivid pink mass anyone could wish for. My favorite, though, is the Sesleria autumnalis, Autumn Moor grass. Green and gold, and nicely complementing the pink muhly. Maybe not quite as flashy as the native wildflowers of last spring, but just about the next best thing.

Sesleria autumnalis, Autumn Moor Grass

Bloom Day and Recent Garden Projects

Alyssum, Viola, and Zuchini in the Veggie Garden

Happy Bloom Day. Our garden is in a little bit of a transition phase. There are a number of things blooming, but none of the showier plants. A lot them need deadheading, frankly, but I’ve been working on other types of projects in the garden. So this is a bloom day post, but also a ‘state of the garden’ post.

Alyssum and Zuchini

One project happening is the upgrade of the roof over our front porch. It was made sheets of corrugated metal. The seams between the sheets would leak and the sheets weren’t quite as wide as the porch, so rain would run off and splash everything, making it pretty much a failure as a roof. Also, it blocked light from our living room. Anita convinced our landlord to replaced the corrugated metal with some kind of clear material that would cover the entire porch. There are also plans to collect the stormwater in a basin and use it in the garden somehow. I’m not entirely sure what they are planning, but our living room is much brighter and more pleasant without the porch. Instead of that project, I’ve been involved with a number of smaller tasks throughout the garden.

The Porch Roof

Western Bleeding Heart and Tasmanian Tree Fern

The fronds on the Tasmanian Tree Fern got sunburned without the roof, but it’s already putting out new fronds. The Oxalis oregana started looking ragged too, and it was time to repot them, so I divided them and moved the containers to another part of the garden. The Bleeding Heart seems happy with the extra sunshine.

Vine Maple, Acer circinatum

The Vine Maple is happy, too, though it recently drew the attention of leafcutter bees. I think some of the cut leaves look cool.

Mimulus cardinalis

The Mimulus cardinalis is blooming in the bathtub planting, but somewhat raggedly. We moved the bathtub when we built the garden shed. The tub was set deep in the ground in the last spot, but I didn’t feel like digging another large hole, so instead I’m covering the edges of the tub with scrap pieces of flagstone. I’ll probably tidy it up at some point, but for now I’m fine with just leaning the stone against the tub and letting the plants cover most of it. I recently added a pipe to carry the stormwater from the new garden shed down into the tub planting. Though if we have more winters like this past one, that won’t amount to much stormwater.

Colocasia Black Magic and Mimulus cardinalis

Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ used to be have a stronger presence in the tub, but the Mimulus has taken over in the new location. There is still some stream orchid beneath the Mimulus, but I need to pull that out and plant it somewhere else, which is a shame because they coexisted nicely for several years. The Mimulus is reseeding in all of the pots around the tub, not hard to control, but I don’t have a use for such a water-loving plant.

White Clarkia amoena

Clarkia amoena is the last of the native annuals from the seed mix I scattered last fall. We had masses of Clarkia unguiculata. I had never grown it before and realized as soon as it bloomed that I don’t really like it. I like C. amoena a little better, but they’re both too pink for me; Clarkia bottae is my favorite of the Clarkias.

Pink Clarkia amoena


In the planting bed in front of the garden shed/office, the Clarkia was mixed in with Agastache and Calendula, which looked a lot better. I took a couple of photos of that last month, but never did a bloom day post. Now the Clarkia needs to be pulled before it reseeds and the Calendula is ready to be cut back.

Dudleya pulverulenta

Dudleya farinosa

Last fall I posted a photo of this little container I made out of stone scrap, which has very little space for roots. I considered trying to bonsai something in it, but instead I ended up putting a Dudleya farinosa in it. It’s doing well, though the container is getting a little smudgy. We have a lot of Dudleyas these days, enough that I’ve lost track of what some of them are.

Garden Shed/Office Paving Area

Last weekend I made a landing step for the office/garden shed and putting in path fines and stepping stones leading to it. The triangles of stone are from a project almost five years ago. They’ve wandered around the garden, but have probably found their permanent home, though I see that one of the Arizona flagstone pieces needs to be moved an inch or two now that I’ve swept everything off. I also made a low, wide planter beside the step, planted with Agave utahensis, Sedum spathulifolium, and Monardella macrantha. I might show it more clearly when the Sedum has recovered from transplanting; it looks a little ragged from being handled. And I have one more area where I edged the path fines with yet more scrap stone. The stones are laid out but not set in the path fines yet. When they are set, I will have used up almost every stray bit of stone knocking around the garden.

Off Duty

I don’t know if that sounds like a lot of work, but it feels like I’ve crossed a lot of things off my to-do list. Next bloom day post I’ll focus more on flowers. For a bigger bloom day flower fix, check out May Dreams Gardens where Carol has a lot of nice photos of her flowers and there are over a hundred links to bloom day posts by other bloggers. My thanks to Carol for hosting.

Lukens Lake Shooting Stars

Lukens Lake Meadow

I just got back from my first Yosemite/Tuolumne trip of the year, including a hike to Lukens Lake to see the wildflowers. This is late June, rather than the late July of my visit last year, so most of the wildflowers were not in bloom yet. But it was still great. Instead of the multitude of species I found last year, this year I found multitudes of a single species, Shooting Stars, the most I’ve ever seen. They followed the flow of water through the meadow in a graceful drift that gathered into a pool of flowers near the lake, really beautiful.

Shooting Stars and Corn Lily

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