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The Strybing Native Meadow and Stone Circle

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After checking out the Drew School green wall, I went by Strybing to hang out in the native meadow. It’s one of my favorite spots in the city, and this is pretty much its best time of year. It was designed in 1988 by Ron Lutsko, who recently designed the new planting around the Julia Morgan building at the UC Botanical Garden. It’s one of the nicest meadow plantings I know; you hear a little bit of traffic but you can’t see any sign of the city that’s just beyond the trees.

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Give me some bunch grasses, some rocks, and a manzanita and I’ve got pretty much all I need to be happy.

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But what puts the meadow over the top is the stone council ring made with some of William Randolph Hearst’s peripatetic monastery stones. I love the simplicity of the circle. The stone ring is for the most part only a single course high, but with enough double-stacked stone to qualify as a wall. The garden has other, more elaborate walls built with these monastery stones, but this is the one I head to on a sunny spring morning.

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Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden Revisited

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Along with Joshua Tree, I also went back to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. It was great to see it in more springlike conditions, after my only previous visit in January. I said at the time that I would like to see this Heuchera patch in bloom, and it didn’t disappoint. The thick haze of pink flowers was visible a long ways down the trail. The day was rather sunny for photos, but I have a few more below. (more…)

SF Flower and Garden Show 2015

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I went down to the flower and garden show this week, saw the display gardens and other curiosities. This year’s gardens are individually all quite nice and as a group noticeably scaled down from last year. There was no submarine party car or bamboo water wheel, and I think the gardens occupied less square footage than last year, too. But I liked just about every garden. This egg-shaped water feature/sculpture by Mariposa Gardening and Design is a good example. It’s pretty neat, a lot of work went into it, and it’s somewhat similar to their egg-shaped sculpture in the 2013 show. But there’s nothing wrong with doing variations on a theme and I was glad to check it out up close and see how it was made.

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The diagonal walling is pretty much a Mariposa signature at this point. I’ve seen it before, but I’ve seen a hell of a lot of horizontal walls too, so I still like it.

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The little planting of native grasses with non-native flowering accents was pretty. There wasn’t a ton of plant interest overall in the display gardens this year, but I think people say that almost every year. It’s hard to get interesting plants for the show.

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The most interesting stone elements at the show are these three sculptures by Edwin Hamilton.

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My favorite is this third one. The assemblage/walling aspect adds a lot of interest.

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The other highlight of the show was the gourd art, artist Betty Finch’s amazing gourd creations. The horse is uncanny, her heron marionette has an internal life of its own, and her gourd mask is distinctly creepy. When she put it over her face and cradled a little gourd baby in her arms, I compulsively stepped back as if I’d suddenly found myself in a town with way too small a gene population.

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Treebeard was at the show last year. Pretty great.

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I always look at the bonsai display. I sometimes feel bad for the trees, but this California Buckeye really is a condensed little manifestation of the awesomeness of buckeye trees. Some more photos of the display gardens are below. (more…)

UC Botanical Garden

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The UC moved a 100-year-old Julia Morgan building from campus up to the botanical garden. Apparently it was in the way of the latest Haas Business School expansion. There’s a video of the moving process here and an article about it at SF Gate with some nice photos. It’s a great little building. From the outside it’s not showy, but the interior makes you appreciate good architecture, with wonderful reveals in the woodwork, a great old brick fireplace, and windows overlooking the garden. I’ve liked Julia Morgan buildings all the way back to when I was kid with no interest in architecture.

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The building sits quite nicely in the landscape when you consider that it was built for a different site and then adapted to a hillside. The garden has plans to use the building for events, including renting it out for weddings and parties, so this seems likely to be it’s final home.

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The new plantings around the building have an interesting concept. Because the garden features plants of ‘documented wild origin’, there are very few cultivars in the garden — almost everything is a true species with records kept of the provenance and genetics of each plant — and yet a lot of cultivars have been selected from the garden’s plants. Roger Raiche, in particular, selected a ton of California natives that have become mainstays in the nursery trade, Roger’s Red Wild Grape and Ceanothus ‘Kurt Zadnick’ being just two that I know offhand. For the new planting around the building, the garden decided to make an exception to the ‘documented wild origin’ policy, and instead do the planting with California native cultivars introduced from the garden.

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Landscape architect Ron Lutsko gave a pro-bono planting plan. It should turn out nice enough but I didn’t find it quite as interesting as I expected. It seemed a bit ho-hum, with some Manzanitas and Ceanothus against the building and much of the planting looking like his office just hatched a big area and labeled it ‘perennial mix’. I understand why plantings are so often done this way, why so few prominent LA’s place the plants themselves and instead just hand off the drawings to a contractor to implement, but it does seem like a missed opportunity for a planting in a botanical garden, especially when probably half the garden’s staff have horticulture degrees. But I don’t know the politics of the garden and how these things get decided, and I shouldn’t complain about someone’s pro-bono work. It will compliment the building nicely.

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Much of the new planting will probably resemble this mix of natives near the entrance to the garden, a nice enough green patch and very pretty when things are blooming, but not a high point of the garden. I’ll try to take some pictures of the new planting after it has had a few years to grow in. I’d also like to find a plant list to see which cultivars are from the garden.

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I wandered around the rest of the garden and in particular the South African section which was looking terrific. Lots of bold colors. By April the native section will rival it, but in February it is the unquestioned star of the garden.

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A new plant for me was this Leucadendron eucalyptifolium. Apparently this is only a five or six year old specimen to reach this size, twelve or fifteen feet tall. I’ve never seen it available in the trade, so perhaps a selection should be made; it could be planted years from now when the next building gets sent up from campus.

The Keller and Lovejoy Fountains

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‘Finally these places were for the first time designed to be used to be participatory – NOT just to look at – they say COME IN, not stay off.’ Lawrence Halprin

It’s probably become apparent over the years on this blog that I am a big fan of Lawrence Halprin’s work. So along with the Portland Japanese Garden, Halprin’s famous Portland fountains were at the top of my list of things to see in Portland.

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I loved the Keller Fountain, a tremendous space with the unmistakeable character of a Halprin landscape. My first impression was, ‘wow, how did they let this get built?’ It seems shockingly unsafe that the city lets people wade into the pools, wander along the top edge, and generally treat it like the world’s quirkiest public pool; at one point there were two dozen people scattered throughout the pools, including kids who had showed up with swimming suits and towels. I give Halprin credit: it’s hard to imagine this was ever approved by the city’s lawyers, but I’ve heard that it actually has a pretty good safety record. Like an adventure playground, it looks so obviously dangerous that people treat it with the proper respect and avoid hurting themselves. I saw one woman absolutely traumatized by the sight of her young daughter venturing close to the edge, but, after screaming at her kid to get back, she didn’t actually make the girl get out, just stay away from the danger zone. It’s too bad that things like this are so rare in our built landscapes.

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One of Halprin’s design sketches (the actual forms were designed by an architect on his staff, Angela Danadjieva, working with clay) shows a granite cliff, though the forms remind me much more of a city skyline, like a bunch of high rises pushed up against each other. But even though the forms feel human-built and urban, the overall effect is impressively evocative of a natural waterfall. Pumping 13,000 gallons of water per minute, with the resulting roar of water and spray of mist, will obviously go a long way towards creating the feel of a waterfall, but the effect was also created by the way people were scattered throughout the space, sitting at the edge of the water and wading around in the pools above the cascade.

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In the post for the Japanese Garden, I said I sometimes felt as if I were an actor hitting my marks, feeling that all of my movements had been designed or choreographed; the Keller Fountain has a few places that feel like that, such as the plinth in the photo above, clearly designed as a place for people to pose in photos (a lot like the row of statues designed for visitors at Halprin’s Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC to pose as the next statue in line, a nice participatory element in that memorial). But most of the fountain felt like a ‘choose your own adventure’ kind of space, and if you look on google images, it’s amazing the way everyone is doing something different in every photo. There’s an impressive variety of poses and images for such a small urban space.

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I’ve heard this can look rather brutalist on an overcast winter day with the fountain turned off, but actually it looks pretty good in photos and the bare articulation of the masses really appeals to the stone guy in me.

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I also walked Halprin’s Open Space Sequence to the nearby Lovejoy Fountain and to Pettygrove Park. Both of them are nice enough, but I wasn’t as impressed as with the Keller. A couple of images for the Lovejoy are below. (more…)

Portland Japanese Garden

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Before I set off on my bicycle, I hit up some of the landscape sites of Portland. The Japanese garden was at the top of my agenda, and it’s every bit as great as I had heard. Of all the Japanese gardens I’ve visited, Portland’s is the exemplar, filled with the carefully composed naturalism that Japanese gardens are famous for, plants carefully layered, views carefully framed, everything harmonious, suffused with careful deliberate subtlety. After a while, sitting on the benches, strolling the paths, pausing at the pausing spots, I did begin to feel somewhat like an actor hitting my marks, that everywhere I paused had been predetermined by the garden’s designers and that every view I looked at had been carefully composed to take my eye to a predetermined focal point. But the effect was genuine; I felt calm and harmonious. It’s the most expansive Japanese garden I’ve ever been to, the most subtle, and the most discretely meticulous.

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The above Japanese Maple might be one of the most photographed specimens in the country. It’s perfectly pruned and sited on a slight rise so that you feel yourself invited to look up into its canopy.

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All the paths were great. I like the way these contrasting stones are combined, with the larger, brighter granite pieces like stepping stones within the overall path. This path led into a tea garden with all of the classic elements, but it was closed to the public while I was there, so I wasn’t able to do the tea garden journey.

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A wonderfully austere bench vignette.

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Another nice pathway. A warmer piece of stone subtly marks the threshold.

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Everything in the garden felt distinctly un-coincidental, like the way the herringbone pattern of the bamboo fencing echoed the herringbone of the bamboo leaves growing in front of it.

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It was nice to get a bird’s eye view of the obligatory zen garden. There’s a much more interesting gravel and moss garden in another part of the garden but shadows made it not worth photographing.

It was great to see everything after years of knowing this garden only from photos. I’d love to see the garden at another time of year with better light, and I’m pretty sure I’ll manage another visit within the next couple of years. To see the garden in foggy, fall-color glory, check out this post from RhoneStreetGardens last October.

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