Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Archive for July, 2009

Hitting the Trail


Pulaski with duct tape and firehose sheath

The laying of a trail…becomes not only a pleasure in itself, but an inducement to plan a better way of life, to construct worth-while things, or to weave a better product in the loom of our being. Earle Amos Brooks, A Handbook of the Outdoors quoted in Lightly on the Land: The SCA Trail-Building and Maintenance Manual

Don’t cut your foot with the axe. It will not add to the pleasures of camp life. Jeanette Marks Vacation Camping for Girls quoted in Lightly on the Land

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the ways I got started doing stone was by leading trail crews for the Student Conservation Association. Trail work turned out to be a good way to learn about stone; trail structures need to be strong — everything gets kicked by horses and mules — and they are supposed to look natural and unobtrusive in the landscape — no one is there to look at your pretty rockwork, they’re there to look at El Capitan — and there’s a deep interest in building things to last, much more so than I generally find in froncountry construction. I haven’t done a crew in five years, but I’m doing one for the next month in the Inyo National Forest out of Red’s Meadow near Mammoth Lakes in California.

If you’ve never heard of the SCA, the homepage explains that “members protect and restore national parks, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks and community green spaces in all 50 states,” most commonly in the form of trail crews made up of high school or college kids with adult crew leaders. The SCA has a blog that features cheerful, muddy people in hard hats building trails and doing various conservation-type things.

I thought I might post some more about trail work, but it’s been hectic trying to finish all my work before I go. I’ll be in and out of the backcountry for the next month, but posts will continue to appear through the magic of the interweb. Comments will still go through, but I won’t be replying here or on anyone’s blog until I get back at the end of the month. If anyone is hiking from the Red’s Meadow trailhead in August, look me up and bring ice cream. Happy Trails.

Wild Grape Gone Wild

Wild Wild Grape, Vitis californica

A Feral Wild Grape, Vitis californica

A friend of ours has a Wild Grape (Vitis californica) that is truly wild. It’s also entertaining in a “Don’t try this at home, kids!” kind of way, so it has managed to hold onto its spot in the garden. I’ve never planted one and gotta say I’m now a bit skeptical. Not for a small garden, anyways. The foliage is nice, but… 

Ceanothus Dark Star, Manzanita, and dormant Wild Grape

Ceanothus Dark Star, Manzanita, dormant Wild Grape

The planting looks quite nice when the grape is dormant.

Sweet Pea Cuts

Sweet Peas and Garden Pleasure Lily

Sweet Peas and Garden Pleasure Lily

I’ve mentioned before that we like cut flowers to have in the house and also give away. We don’t have enough space for a cutting garden, so we grow sweet peas, which earn their keep by fixing nitrogen and producing a lot of flowers in a small space. We had a white vine which finished months ago, but our purple vine is over ten feet tall and still going upwards, still in full bloom. For a while we could stand on a chair to cut them, but now the bulk of the flowers are too high even for that. It’s not even particularly ornamental any more; it’s more like an actual pea vine when the bottom of the plant is in decline, but the top is still too productive to take out of the garden. I’m not sure what happened to make it so vigorous.

sweet peas

sweet peas

Sweet peas in a few combinations are below. (more…)

Cactus Incognito


Hello Neighbor!

For three years, there’s been a fifteen foot tall cactus in our neighbor’s yard, six feet away from our back door, but Anita and I never noticed until it bloomed. To be fair, most of the plant is behind a garden shed and fence, and we have to stand in rather contorted positions to view or photograph it, but I would have expected us to notice it before now. Though, this is a phenomenon I’ve observed before; some plants just are low-profile until they bloom. Hellebores, for instance, usually manage to stay below the radar and avoid detection until they finally bloom. I didn’t expect the same thing to happen with a fifteen foot tall cactus.

the view through our fence

the view through our fence

Black Magic, Stream Orchids, and a Wet Monkey in a Tub

Mimulus cardinalis

Mimulus cardinalis

Our wet monkey, Mimulus cardinalis, has started blooming. There are two kinds of monkey flowers, ones that like wet soil and ones that like dry soil. The dry monkeys (also sometimes called sticky monkeys, preferably with a faux-British accent) are starting to get listed as Diplacus, instead of Mimulus, which makes some sense to me, even though the switch also causes some confusion. There’s not really anything similar about the wet and dry types — not the foliage, the form, the habitat, the cultural needs, and not the flowers — so I’m not sure how they got grouped together in the first place. Las Pilitas has a page devoted to the various monkey flowers that talks about the differences. I’ve grown a few different types of wet monkey flowers, but the only one in our garden now is the scarlet monkey flower in our bog planting.

Colocasia Black Magic and Mimulus cardinalis

Colocasia Black Magic and Mimulus cardinalis

Our bog planting is set inside an old cast-iron bathtub dug into the ground and covered over with mulch. The idea is that the water drains more slowly than it would in open ground, so we don’t have to irrigate these water-loving plants as often as we would otherwise, a way to keep our garden low-water without excluding all the plants we’re interested in growing. We filled it with 2/3 soil and 1/3 compost, which is a ton of amendment by our standards. The only outlet from the tub is the open drain at the bottom and we water it the same amount and on the same irrigation zone as the moderate-water section of the yard where we have the blueberries, the mock orange, the heucheras, the astilbes, and our young citrus tree, plants that you wouldn’t normally expect to share an irrigation zone with a colocasia, which is often grown directly in ponds and fountains.

Black Magic stems

Black Magic stems

Colocasia “Black Magic,” aka Elephant Ears for its big leaves, is a very cool plant. It’s in the low part of our yard, so we don’t have a good view of the black stems, though the stems are my favorite feature of the plant, even more so than the leaves. We also have Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii) and Yellow-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium californicum) hanging out under the colocasia, and a canna growing behind it. This is the third summer for the planting, and the colocasia has steadily increased, while the canna seems to be fading.

Stream Orchid, Epipactis gigantea

Stream Orchid, Epipactis gigantea

Last month the Stream Orchid, (Epipactis gigantea) was the main bloomer in the tub. It still has a few blooms, but it’s mostly finished now. Not a showy flower, but interesting up close.

Stream Orchid, Epipactis gigantea

Stream Orchid, Epipactis gigantea

Epipactis gigntea and Mimulus cardinalis

Epipactis gigntea and Mimulus cardinalis

I feel like the scarlet monkey flower doesn’t even have the same color tone as most California natives. It’s more like the nasturtiums which come up as volunteers in our yard. A yellow one recently came up in the bamboo behind the bathtub, so we’re hoping it will ramble out into the monkey flower patch before the monkeys stop blooming. It’s a little surprising to me that a California native would combine so well with colocasias and nasturtiums, but I guess I should know better by now. Photos of wet and dry monkey flower buds (the one similarity I find between the two kinds), the yellow nasturtium, and a raunchy close up of the stream orchid are below. (more…)

Front Yard Vegi Gardens Are Okay (in Richmond, CA)

dodge vegematic with winter squash

Rumors have been circulating that fruits and vegetables might be illegal to grow in the front yards and hellstrips of some Bay Area cities, but the city of Richmond investigated and found that there are no ordinances against them. The investigation came from the top, from our mayor, Gayle Mclaughlin.

‘“If it is indeed a Richmond law, I would like to ask the city attorney’s office to change/cancel this ordinance and bring it to council for a vote ASAP. I would be happy to sponsor such an ordinance change.” 

Assistant City Attorney Mary J. Renfro came up with the definitive answer, reached after consulting the city’s Health, Public Safety and Welfare and Zoning codes. 

While some legal provisions require yard maintenance and “prohibit nuisance conditions that might attract trespassers and vermin,” none of them suggests that it is impermissible to grow fruit or other edible plants in the front yard.

It’s good that the mayor checked on vegi gardens and established that they’re okay, because there has been a front yard vegi garden movement in my Richmond Annex neighborhood for the last couple of years. Six gardens within a block of each other grow vegetables (these are small blocks with 2-5 houses per block, so that’s a high percentage) and, a couple of blocks away from them, another one converted their lawn to vegetables three months ago. 


onions and juniper

The first of the gardens, the one that began the trend, is a front yard of veggies grown in raised beds of mortared stonework from the juniper/ivy era of California landscaping. It is far and away the tidiest of the gardens, and it produces an impressive quantity of food throughout the year. Even when large sections are only bare dirt and small seedlings or when the plants get raggedy at the end of their harvest period, the walls and the orderly planting style and to some extent the pom-pommed junipers always make it clear that this is a well-maintained garden.

carrots and juniper

Photos of more gardens are below.


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