Saturday, January 26, 2008

It NEVER rains in Southern California?

But it snows!

It’s almost Sunday and there’s supposed to be another “gully washer” on the way. So much for my prostheletizing about water conservation. When the local reservoirs are predicted to overflow with this next storm, everyone will forget that we live in a semi-desert for a few more years.

Not only did we receive almost 5 inches in 24 hours last week, but Momma Nature left a gorgeous dusting of snow on the Santa Ynez Mountains behind town. Unfortunately, the cloud level was pretty low and there wasn’t any direct sun, so this shot isn’t as spectacular as it could be.

But what I really love is seeing the juxtaposition of the snow on our native chaparral vegetation, the Spanish architecture of the Santa Barbara Mission, and a collection of palms, and South African aloes all in one view. Life’s beautiful.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Burgundy Ties It All Together...

This front yard that I designed a few years ago is really starting to come together. It's my favorite garden of my career, partly because of the challenge of a very small lot mixed with clients with adventurous taste and a lust for many plants. The key to taming a lot of variety is to have a harmonizing theme, in this case, burgundy foliage and "trim."

If you've read this blog before, you know that I'm all about balancing harmony and contrast. So here's the recipe.

Obviously, the dominant player in this section of the front yard is the Canadian Redbud (like Canada doesn't already rock!) with it's heart-shaped leaves, stunning tiny deep pink flowers before the leaves pop, and an "architecture" that creates horizontal planes of foliage. The big contrast is the yellow flowering Poker Plant (Kniphofia 'Malibu') with its strong upright form, grassy leaves and brilliant flowers. You have to admit that it's pretty much the antithesis of the Redbud.

But growing right under the Redbud is Cape Reed (Chondropetalum tectorum) which at a quick glance appears to be a stiff, tall grass. It's actually in the Restio family (South Africa), which commonly share a brownish sheath that drops off in summer to reveal a brown band at regular intervals along each leaf. The brown band, though subtle, closely resembles the burgundy foliage of the tree, so a harmonizing element is brought in, even though the forms of the two plants vary wildly.

Now for something to pick up the foliage color of the Redbud, but in a completely different form.

Behold the plum-colored Persicaria 'Red Dragon', a vigorous perennial related to Knotweed (Polygonum). It gets about 3' high, sprawls to about 5' wide, but takes well to being whacked back heavily at least once (and sometimes twice) a year. It's controllable, but give it space, because it's one of the most graceful plants when you let it do its thing. Persicaria even has a dainty white flower for most of the growing season.

This last shot shows the back side of the same bed, shot through the foliage of my favorite grass - Miscanthus 'Morning Light'.

The blue flower / silver foliage perennial is Germander Sage (Salvia chamaedryoides), with one of the two Redbuds in the background. Again, the silver provides a stark contrast, but it's all balanced out by the dominant burgundy foliage of the key players.

Perhaps you can't grow these exact plant combinations in your area, but use this as a template for combining a few of your local plants and you'll have a fun composition.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Have They No Shame? Erotica on the Streets of Santa Barbara

Well, I never! I’m minding my own business, walking the new dog home (Biff’s his name – cocker spaniel we adopted yesterday from a local shelter) from Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, and there they were – right out on the front lawn of a respectable business, like two feral dogs in heat. In a deep, intimate silence, unaware of gazing eyes, entwined in a frozen embrace. Cars whizzing by, people and dogs watching – have they no shame?

“Get a room!” I hollered. No response. Maybe I should turn a hose on them. Nah, they’d probably get some kinky thrill out of it. Although there are entire presidential campaigns trying build on moral issues, I’m really more of a live and let live guy, so I take a few voyeuristic shots and me and Biff are on our way. Who knows? People make a lot of money selling these kind of trashy pics on the Internet.

So let me share this little bit of horticultural erotica with you. The passionate embrace was being performed by none other than Ficus carica (Common Fig – Mulberry family) and Phoenix canariensis (Canary Island Date Palm - Palm family). This is right up there with the Capulets and the Montagues , for all you Shakespeare buffs.

But seriously, at the corner of Anacapa St. and Arrellaga St., right here in sleepy Santa Barbara, is this amaaaaazing pairing. As best I can tell, a fig seed sprouted at the base of a young palm tree, took a shine to it and asked “Why can’t we be friends?” The palm is about 40 ft. high and the fig tops off around 15 feet, with about a 20 foot spread. Each is growing fine, unencumbered by the presence of the other.

So there they are, another horticultural oddity to amuse and beguile you this Green Thumb Sunday.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Visualizing Your Next Garden - Green Thumb Sunday

What you're looking at is what I call a plant vignette. I use it as a way of studying how a finished design will look. Read on to see how this might help you as a designer and how to get 'er done.

This past week I completed a design for a great daring couple of clients. They provided a palette of plants as a starting point and I was very happy with their choices. Some fun, exciting plants. The front yard, including a secluded courtyard off the main bedroom, has an exotic flare with a few Australian chaps, and the back yard is more of a traditional cottage type palette.

After using the vignette technique to study the composition for myself (a quick and dirty process) I decided to go the extra yard for the client presentation (my treat) and dress up the "study" to help them understand the color scheme and character of the composition. If you have the time and some basic computer skills, you can do this for your own gardens as you try to develop your scheme and get a preview of how it all fits together. The idea is to get images off the internet, combine them on a page in the approximate proportions that they'll be used in the garden, and see how it all fits together.

The software I use is simple. On my iMac, running Safari as a browser, I go to Google Images and search for each plant I'm using in my palette. I've done the same thing on a PC using Internet Explorer, but I usually have to add a few steps. If you're not familiar with Google's Images search feature, just open Google and look for the tab. Then, when you type in Amaryllis, instead of getting text articles about the plant, you get lots of thumbnail photos of the plant (or of someone's cat they decided to name after the bulb).

Look for the photo with the higher number of pixel (at in the range of 200 x 200) and click on the thumbnail. That will take you to the site where that photo lives, then click of See Full Sized Image. Using my Mac, I can just click on the photo and drag it to my desktop. I have a folder waiting. It takes a while, but eventually I have a collection of photos of all my plants. Mind you, do not use these plants for any commercial purposes as you will be violating copyright laws.
Once I've collected all my plants, I open Microsoft PowerPoint. Yes, you can bring photos into Word, but it's a pain in the ass to move them around and rearrange them. If you have any PowerPoint skills, it's fairly easy to bring all the photos into one slide, crop and/or resize them, then arrange them as you see in the picture.

Here are a few hints to make this exercise valuable.

1) crop and size the photos to represent the character of the plants. If you are using Creeping Thyme as a groundcover, make a dozen tiny photos and group them together, proportionate to the other plants.

2) If you have a specimen shrub or tree you intend to use, have it dominate the slide.

3) Arrange the plants geographically on the slide - group them in masses similar to how you intend to group them in the garden.

This is only a start, not a master class, so you'll have to experiment. There are probably other programs that can do this, but I've found this set of techniques to work the best for me. Here are a few other slides.

Besides, what else to you have to do on a cold winter day?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fire and Rain (sure, but in the same forecast?)

Is it just me or did anyone notice the oxymoronic weather report we received on New Years day? During one weather broadcast, we heard about a “Red Flag Fire Warning” for the Ventura and Santa Barbara County areas, followed by admonitions to stock up on sand bags for an unusually heavy winter storm coming down the Pacific Coast. [If I had a better grasp on technology, I’d have a clickable link here that would make the Scooby Doo sound when he’s really confused. Oh well, use your imagination.]

Can things really change that fast? Red flag followed by flood? The answer, in weather terms, is a resounding “yes!” High pressure systems (hot and dry) are commonly followed by low pressure episodes (cool and wet). January 1 was the peak of high pressure, and now there’s low pressure steaming down the coast to take its place.

A quick amateur weather lesson: When there’s high pressure inland (say, northern Nevada, Utah, etc.), the pressure creates winds that spin out in a clock-wise direction, so winds move from dry inland areas, swoop around toward the west, then squeeze over the coastal range to bring low humidity and gusts up to 70 mph on the mountain tops (Laguna Peak near Point Mugu). All you need is a spark and it’s Red Flag Alert time.

Yes, it’s January, which even on the Left Coast should pass for winter. We don’t get to make snow angels along the coast, but it’s still winter. And we really can have brushfire season while there are still ornaments on the tree.

But today’s forecast is calling for a good drenching, with rain falling on and off for four days. Estimates vary from a high of 6” over the next few days to as little as 2”. Anything is welcome. So, if you still haven’t cleaned the Zaca dust from the last wind storm, it’s Momma Nature to the rescue.

Now for my main point. If the rain is going to fall (not just this weekend, but with good fortune, there are more storms to come) doesn’t it make sense to capture and retain all the free, clean, mineral-free water we can before it reaches the ocean? Yep, I knew you’d agree. I did a full-page article for Coastal Woman Magazine in November on this topic. I’m their new garden columnist. If you want the full story, find one in a free news rack (or Spudnuts!) or download it from the web site. There’s also lots of other great info in the mag, so it’s worth the read. You’ll also get a cute picture of me sitting under an umbrella surrounded by rubber duckies. Precious!

In a nutshell, here are a few things you can do…

1) Consider that irrigation-dependent lawn. If you don’t actually use it for some recreational purpose, maybe it could be converted to a rich bed of native plants or put into food production. If you can’t do away with it completely, maybe downsize? This will reduce your water consumption throughout the year and put that rain to work on a higher purpose.

2) Grading – it might be too late to pull off this winter, but how about creating some low areas in the garden that trap and allow water to seep back into the soil? Of course, you wouldn’t do this right in front of your patio where a giant puddle might find its way into the living room. But there are likely places around your home where you can hold some water until it soaks in.

3) As soon as the soil is dry enough to cultivate again, do a little work with a cultivator or hoe to break up the crusty surface. This will allow more water to soak in rather than run off. Then mulch the bejeebers out of it with some rich organic material. That will keep it from crusting up again and will prevent evaporation later.

4) Where you can, create a berm of soil around the edges of beds, especially on the downhill side. That was every drop gets trapped for your plants.

5) And if you want to be really ambitious, there are rain catchment and storage systems and a few contractors in town who can help you create a way to store all that free stuff. The up-front cost isn’t cheap, but it pays for itself over time.

Okay, I’m spent. Gotta get my rubber boots on and take my rubber duckies for a paddle.

Later, skaters.