Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Cycling Italy and Switzerland

I have a garden again! After two years splitting time between the Bay Area and the foothills, I’m now back in the Bay Area full time. The foothills were nice but ultimately an impractical place for me to live, and I spent way too much time driving. Also the cows rampaged every time we tried to start a garden, which frustrated me after a while. So now I’m back in Berkeley, and my new place has a garden. It’s not terribly interesting at the moment, but it has a lot of potential. There are a half dozen vegetable beds, a shady area with some natives, and a large area that was recently reclaimed from blackberry and now patiently waits for fresh new plantings. At some point I will start posting about it, but for now I am just taking ‘before’ photos and developing ideas.

At the moment I have other things to blog about: I spent the last six weeks riding a bicycle in Italy and Switzerland! It was fantastic, of course. Hotter and sometimes steeper than I might have chosen, but awesome cycling and fantastic landscapes. Lots of stonework of course, plus art, architecture, plenty of gardens. I took about 1500 photos and made a stack of drawings. I’ll probably post my drawings next and then some posts focused on specific places, but first, here’s a rather self-indulgent selection of photos from the road. Read the rest of this entry »

Castro Valley Lawn Conversion

I try to do one or two posts about lawn-to-garden conversions every spring, sort of an annual contribution to the anti-lawn propaganda movement. So far this is the only one I’ve photographed this year. I don’t have a lot to say about it, just that it seems clear to me how much better the planting looks than the lawn. I guess the previous owner kept the lawn so it would be possible to drive a camper van to the backyard. You can’t drive into the backyard anymore.

During the drought the new owner let the lawn dry out, then we replaced it with this simple little planting — mostly evergreen, some purple flowers and purple foliage, a bit of eye-catching yellow when the Kniphofia blooms, low-water, relatively low-maintenance, plants that are long-lived and can survive the unskilled ministrations of the mow-and-blow gardeners. Like many lawn conversion projects, it needed a low-cost path through the planting and, in this case, a couple of steps made with granite curbstones. Pretty straightforward, and such a huge improvement. These are the kind of ‘before and after’ images that I think about when I get pushback against the idea of removing front yard lawns. I really struggle to understand why people cling to their lawns.


We sheet mulched over the dead lawn, but more to smother weeds than the grass. The grass was pretty well dead by the time I first saw it, and to me the planting brought the space back to life.

Read the rest of this entry »

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf documentary trailer from Thomas Piper on Vimeo.

The Piet Oudolf movie, Five Seasons, is coming to the Bay Area this week, with showings in Berkeley, San Rafael, and San Francisco. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve been anticipating it for quite a while now. Oudolf is probably the single biggest figure in the plant world and I’m excited to see his work up on the big screen. It’s not to be missed. There are details about the showings at the movie’s website.

Nyssa sylvatica

Along with the Hawthorn, another underappreciated tree in the Bay Area is Nyssa sylvatica, Tupelo. It’s not a flashy tree for much of the year, so it’s not well known around here. It’s slow growing, but in return it is long-lived, has strong branches that rarely need pruning, and its roots rarely cause damage. It handles drought and poor drainage. The regular species (the photo below) is a little nondescript but the cultivar ‘Wildfire’ (above) has red in its new spring growth. Both species and cultivar have beautiful fall color. Supposedly they can drop dried fruit, but I’ve never seen that happen. An added bonus is that whenever I see one I hear Tupelo in my head, one of my favorite Nick Cave songs.

The three in the photo above are in their third year. The one below is about ten years old. It’s the first one I ever planted, in a garden that was at one time known as the garden of death. Twelve years ago during a major remodeling one of the workers parked his Hummer in the front yard all winter long and compacted the soil so badly it became the type of clay you’d use to make a pot rather than grow plants, the heaviest clay I’ve ever seen. Almost everything died when they first planted. When we were hired, we found standing water would form anywhere we dug a hole. But the Nyssa never seemed to mind. It has grown slowly but steadily in the spot where a plum tree had been unable to survive. It looks after itself better than almost any tree I know.

Flowering Hawthorn

My parents front garden has a Hawthorn tree that makes a beautiful show of flowers every year. It almost flowers too well; I like to see the green leaves along with the white flowers but the leaves can be nearly completely covered.

I don’t know a whole lot about Hawthorns, though I grew up with this one. They seem underappreciated and under planted in the Bay Area. I guess they can be prone to fire blight. Gophers like the roots and ate the only one I’ve personally planted. But my parents’ one has grown without trouble for over thirty years. It’s my favorite element in the entire garden, ahead of the plants I chose and planted, the various ceramic sculptures, or the wall and patio I built.

A few more photos from the front garden are below. Read the rest of this entry »

Needlegrass versus Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass

I often pass by a spot in Lafayette where two neighboring buildings have ornamental grass plantings that almost feel like they are in dialogue with each other. One features the beautiful-but-frowned-upon Mexican Feather Grass, Nasella tenuissima, while the other sports the beloved-by-the-native-plant-community Purple Needlegrass, Nasella pulchra. It’s a distinctive side by side comparison. The plants are related but their overall effect is different and their usage shows different priorities. The Feathergrass is prettier, but the Needlegrass has deeper connections with the natural environment.

Purple Needlegrass

Feather Grass

Mexican Feather Grass is beautiful but it’s a nuisance plant, reseeding all over people’s gardens and spreading into wild areas where it supplants native species. Environmental groups and plant societies promote alternatives for it, and at one point there was an effort to raise money to buy out and destroy all of the nursery stock in the state so that it wouldn’t be planted any more. I’m not sure how successful that effort was. It hasn’t disappeared from nurseries and I still see it in landscapes fairly often, but its heyday seems to have passed. Clients sometimes request it but less often than in the past and only if they have never grown it; if they have grown it they usually want to get rid of it.

African Daisy and Feather Grass

California Poppies and Needlegrass

Needlegrass often features on lists of substitute plants to use. Objectively, it is not as pretty and refined, but it has advantages that go beyond the merely visual. Famously, its roots can extend as deep as twenty feet underground, and that fact also reflects its deeper connections with the larger California landscape. It’s the official state grass, it evolved here in this place, it’s one of the key plants of our native grasslands and it’s a good habitat plant, attracting small birds and butterflies to the garden. This might be slightly early for it to look its most ornamental — the plants are only just starting to send up their golden flower stalks — but the California Poppies are blooming, and one of the best reasons to grow Needlegrass is as a companion for native wildflowers. This planting doesn’t look dramatically different from the mix of Lupine and weed grasses that naturally happen around my house, and for me that’s the point. The Needlegrass makes me feel like the planting is a part of the wider landscape around it; it suggests that the building was inserted into the existing natural landscape and, rather than everything getting redone with a bulldozer, that there is a connection between what is here now and what was here in the past.


The biggest difference is how Needlegrass fits into the landscape. For some people that’s a disadvantage; they want everyone to recognize that their landscape is cultivated and maintained. Mexican Feather Grass and this nice patch of Osteospermum look like plants purchased from a nursery, while the Needlegrass could have easily spread by seed from the surrounding hills. But for me t