Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Archive for March, 2009

Stone Bistro Table

Cold Springs Slab Table

Big Springs Stone Table

It’s not quite April, but we already feel safe to move our cushions outside and get our front porch ready for summer. The table on our porch is new for us this year, assembled from a slab and a block of granite. The stone’s called Big Springs, from somewhere in Utah, boulders cut into slices that are perfect for tables and benches. The stone has a beautiful grain, as if it were wood, and the sides have bluish and yellowish lichen. This table didn’t take any skill to assemble; I just put the flat stone on the flat-topped granite block. It didn’t need mortar or even a shim. The slabs aren’t particularly expensive, so I don’t understand why they aren’t more common. Doesn’t everyone want a three-hundred pound bistro table?

There’s another photo showing the grain of the stone below. (more…)

The True Future of Garden Design

Design Improvisation with Sand and Succulents

Sproutopia Display Garden

I’ve noticed that mainstream media articles like to describe flower and garden shows as a sneak peak at the future of outdoor garden design. Personally, I think it’s more of a sneak peak at what will be showing up in garden shows, rather than the overwhelming majority of actual gardens.  For instance, I read two articles talking about how all the colors at the northwest show were hot colors, especially oranges and yellows, and that there were no blues, and that this signals a move towards bold hot colors in the future, but I remember reading the same articles last year and I think it just represents that the designers have an understanding of what looks good at the garden show. I can say from experience that orange and yellow are the two colors which show up best in the indoor lighting at the shows, and that blues completely disappear. Last year we had some Nemophillas (Baby Blue Eyes) in full bloom, but they were invisible in our garden, while a rather garish red Alonsoa meridionalis suddenly became the plant that everyone wanted to have, once the plants were indoors and the lighting had dialed down the colors several notches. Anita and I’d never attended a garden show before, or we’d have used more oranges and yellows and hot reds and pinks ourselves, and if I ever do one again you’ll see a a lack of blues, even though they include many of my favorite flowers. It’s a testament to how much influence site will always have on a design, even when the site is a complete blank slate like in a garden show.

In any case, my skepticism aside, in the spirit of offering a sneak peak at the true future of garden design, I present several design improvisations from Sproutopia, the garden show playland where tomorrow’s garden designers explore their design ideas today. As you will see, the best of the displays show an acute sensitivity towards site and material, a love for mixing different hardscape elements including stone, an interest in the architectural forms of succulents and conifers, and that the concept of “outdoor rooms” seems to have caught on with the next generation of designers. My apologies to the designers for not doing a better job of photographing their work, and a salute to whoever at the garden show is responsible for Sproutopia. The kids I saw were having a really good time. Enjoy.


San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

Sing! by Mariposa Gardening and Design

Sing! by Mariposa Gardening and Design

We went to the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show (San Mateo Flower and Garden Show?) yesterday. This freestanding dry stone wall, by Mariposa Gardening and Design and John Shaw-Rimmington of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada, was the coolest feature in the show in my rather stone-oriented opinion. There’s something very cool about walking under a dry-stacked stone arch. They said about thirty people gathered around to watch them remove the form from underneath the arch during setup, and I saw a ton of people pose for for photos underneath it during the show.

Cool Living by Fiddleleaf Fine Gardening and Design

Cool Living by Fiddleleaf Fine Gardening and Design

I also really liked the living wall by Fiddleleaf Fine Gardening and Design. The other green walls looked to me like they were grown horizontally and then put vertical for the garden show, but you could tell the Fiddleleaf wall was grown vertically from the way the plants oriented themselves. The construction details made me confident that it would actually be sustainable in the effort and resources to maintain it, and that it could evolve over time instead of being static. Green walls certainly seem to be the newest latest greatest; there were three of them in the garden show this year and it’s obviously an intriguing interesting idea, so I want to do some research into them. A lot of them seem to trade on the same novelty that makes Home Depot customers want to try growing a tomato plant hanging upside down in a bag, but I thought the Fiddleleaf living wall was the real deal, a beautiful sustainable feature for a small urban space.

Sky's the Limit by Rebecca Cole Designs

Sky's the Limit by Rebecca Cole

“Look at this!” a woman beside me exclaimed when she saw the green walls in Sky’s the Limit, by Rebecca Cole, and I thought that captured the effect of seeing the tidy geometric mats of living wallpaper. Tons of novelty value, plants growing in a different way than you normally see. It’s impressive how well the shape in the painting matched the shape on the curtains, which matched the custom cushions, which matched the custom tiles. The garden swept most of the awards in the show, and it is the exemplar of a certain type of garden, the all-at-once garden, everything designed simultaneously so that everything matches, a perfect garden for the client who wants to write a check and then never change a thing.

The Return of Paradiso by Quite Contrary Garden Design

The Return of Paradiso by Quite Contrary Garden Design

Similarly or in contrast to that garden, I’m not sure which, Quite Contrary Garden Design used found materials to make a cohesive whole. The materials all matched, but with the more casual roughness of flagstone, rather than tile. You could see that the designer collected the items, rather than designed them. I didn’t get to try out the wooden lounger, but I really liked how it looked.

There are photos already up on many of the designers’ websites, found through the garden show’s list of garden creators. BayAreaTendrils has photos, and I’m sure there’ll be more on other Bay Area blogger sites.

The show goes on for one more day, and the word at the show was that this won’t be the last year after all, that there’s a contract for five more years. Duane Kelly, the apparently-soon-to-be-former owner, has an interview at NestInStyle, talking about how the show needs to attract a new generation of visitors. It’ll be interesting to see what the new owners do to try to accomplish that.

ryan 3/21

Ninebark vs. Ribes

ribes sanguineum & physocarpus capitatus

ribes sanguineum & physocarpus capitatus

I didn’t get the greatest photo, but I find this juxtaposition pretty funny. First off, it’s a mistake on several levels. It’s in a planting outside a sub-development, and I’m sure that a landscape architect designed the planting with all Ribes sanguineum (flowering currant), but the contractor accidentally installed one Physocarpus capitatus (Pacific ninebark). There’s only one ninebark in the whole planting, and the two plants look similar when young so it would be an easy enough mistake to make, and there’s no way someone would intentionally plant this–it looks like Two-Face from the Batman series. There’s also no way anyone should have hedged these plants, but for some reason people seem to think it’s appropriate.

The mistake does make for an interesting, if slightly unfair, comparison. When they are not hedged, ninebarks have beautiful new foliage in the spring; the new leaves have almost the same effect as flowers, and the flowers are nice when they come later in the year. The plants are fast and tough and a good native habitat plant. I like them; we have one in our own garden. But they are not for every garden. The form is kind of rangy and thickety if you don’t prune it frequently, the bloom should be deadheaded, and the leaves can get tired and yellow by mid-summer with no fall color before they drop.

And ninebarks just can’t compete head to head with a Ribes; few things can. Ribes sanguineum is beautiful and native and fast and tough and a great habitat plant, and it will thrive in virtually any spot where you’d put a ninebark. It’s good for habitat and genetic diversity reasons to plant the ninebark (most Ribes in retail nurseries are from just a few cultivars), but most people, and most clients, will prefer the Ribes. We do plant ninebarks- like I said, we’ve got one in our own garden (along with two Ribes)–but we’ve probably installed six or eight Ribes for every one ninebark. I’m sympathetic to the native plant enthusiasts who want as much diversity and habitat value as possible in gardens, but sometimes it comes down to just looking at two plants side by side and picking. Fortunately, we don’t always have to pick between the two, and we do sometimes find gardens for ninebarks. Ninebarks are nice, they just aren’t awesome.

I put a few photos of the hedged ribes mound that the landscape architect was intending. I don’t really understand the urge to turn two perfectly nice Ribes shrubs into a single Ribes shrub mound. (more…)

Mâche, My Favorite Green

mache, corn salad

mache, corn salad

Tiny little mâche. The plant in the photo is approaching harvest size, and it’s still dwarfed by the trowel. I added the trowel for scale, but it reminds me of Spinal Tap, “Our Stonehenge monument was in danger of being trampled by DWARVES!”

I find mâche is really easy (although slow) to grow and a pain in the neck to harvest and totally worth it. You have to pick and clean a bunch of little plants to make one single salad, but it has the best flavor of any single green, it’s supposed to be really healthy, and the ease of growing it completely makes up for the effort of harvesting. Our plants are all volunteers from the first batch I grew a few years ago, the only effort with growing them has actually been to keep them properly thinned so they can reach a decent size; I’ve thinned ours at least four times this year. They can apparently be a bit invasive–one of the common names, corn salad, comes from it’s tendency to naturalize in agricultural fields–though I don’t think they are a problem in the Bay Area.

Last Christmas, the organic market near our house was selling 4 ounce packages for $13. That was early in the season and unusually high, but even at half that price, it’s gonna be on the list of things I have to grow for myself. It kind of fascinates me to think that someone could charge so much money for something that is so easy to grow.

FromSeedToTable has a post about golden corn salad, which I’ve never grown, but sounds worth trying.

ryan 3/14

Most Plants Are Not Tomatoes…



But it feels like most people plant them as if they were. We see tons and tons of sick, unhealthy plants, especially trees and shrubs, that have been planted by well-meaning, and sometimes even professional, gardeners who bury the root crowns of the plants. It’s reached the point that we automatically check if the crowns are buried whenever we look at someone’s garden. Nine out of ten times, if a tree is sick, the crown is buried. I’m not sure why people plant that way. I probably did it years ago, too, but I don’t remember the thinking behind it. I guess the plants seem more solid when their trunks have a lot of dirt holding them in place. Also, I think it might be because people’s first gardening experience is with a tomato.

Tomatoes are one of the few plants that actually benefits from having the root crown and stem buried. If you bury the root crown (the spot where the stem or trunk meets the soil and starts to put out roots) and the stem of a tomato plant, the branch nodes will form new roots and you’ll get a more vigorous plant. If you bury the root crown or stem of most other plants, the stem will slowly rot and the plant will die. It can take a long time, sometimes years, for a plant to die from a buried crown, so a well-intentioned gardener might never learn why their plants tend to mysteriously kick the bucket. It’s the most common cause of problems when we consult on sick plants, and I have a theory that it’s one of the most common causes of black thumbs. I know at least one black thumb gardener who was losing plants for that reason.

A few plants, like tomatoes, benefit from being planted a bit deep. I have a short list, which I hope to add to over time, of those plants below. Let me know of any I should add to the list. (more…)

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