Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Not So Mysterious Afterall...

I'm always so grateful for having a wide circle of friends who are also experts in related fields. Virginia Hayes is the Curator of the Living Collection at Ganna Walska's Lotusland. If you're not familiar with this astounding horticultural collection in Montecito, CA. click on this link for more. It is perhaps one of the greatest gardens in the world, the vision of a most wonderful and unusual lady.

Anyway, as soon as I had the photo of Sunday's strange cactus uploaded to my Flickr site I wrote to Virginia and Randy Baldwin - my "know every plant in the world" experts. Randy is the general manager of San Marcos Growers, one of the top nurseries on the west coast specializing in Mediterranean-climate plants.

Randy was unfamiliar with the strange manifestion that I interpreted as either a French braid or the neck and head of a buzzard, awaiting a tasty meal of carrion. Turns out the explanation from Virginia was a bit more simple and makes perfect sense...

Hi Billy,

This is just how those large cactus flowers curl up after being open. If you want physiological reasons, I'd guess loss of turgor pressure in both the petals (pale color) and the sepals (greenish, narrow structures) and probably lost unevenly so that the infolding and twisting happens.

Have a great day,

So, no need to call out Sherlock and Watson. Just nature doing it's usual thing.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Just Plain Bizarre!

I was walking my pooch, Biff, a couple of days ago, carrying my trusty camera in case something cool popped into view. I'm carrying it more and more these days, as I've just been asked to write a bi-weekly garden column for an amazingly fun local website. Edhat.com is hard to describe, but it perfectly suits Santa Barbara's Left Coast mindset. It features everything from contests to guess the average price of a turkey sandwich, to local news and links to photo galleries. 

Anyway, Biff and I happened by this one garden we've walked past a number of times. Nothing outstanding; in fact, it might be one of the "this is what not to do" examples I show my classes. But popping out the side of a vertical "organ pipe" type cactus was this bizarre flower. Right off the bat, the most primitive core of my brain saw a buzzard's head, waiting patiently for its next meal. It was right out of a Gary Larsen Far Side cartoon. 

On closer inspection, I noticed these odd structures that appeared to be a French Braid, like a bride might have done for that special event. 

I can write no more. If someone can tell me what's going on here, I'd love to be filled in. 

Bizarrest of Sundays to you. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nice Of You To Notice

I received one of those "gotta throw your chest out and brag" comments at my blog today. I've been a fan and reader of "Ewa In the Garden" (English pronounciation is Eva), a garden blogger in Poland (one of my grandfathers was from there). She sent me this "I Love Your Blog" icon. That's a cause for celebration, if there ever was one.

Ewa and I have been communicating for a while now and have formed a mutual admiration society. What's so cool about blogging is that there are no physical or geographic boundaries and if I ever have the opportunity to travel anywhere I'd like, I've got the seeds of a frienship already planted.

Thanks Ewa!

Friday, May 9, 2008

It's the Genetics, Stupid!

I’m not a geneticist. I don’t even play one on TV. I did pass my high school biology class (C-minus counts) and retained a pretty impressive archive of knowledge on the subject. As I recall, years before the dinosaurs arrived, ferocious Nucleotides stalked the primeval forests, warred with and eventually wiped out the friendly, but passive Peptides and became the dominant life form on the planet. One thing led to another and pretty soon, humans started buying plants at nurseries, paying no attention to the label in the container. That’s when the inexorable slip into stupid gardens started.

Sorry, didn’t mean to flaunt my expertise, but there’s a lesson lurking somewhere in this muck. Let me don my hip waders and see if I can pull out something worthwhile. Back to genetics…

Giving credit where credit is due, my TV partner, Owen Dell, reminds us that every plant has its “genetic destiny” (hereinafter abbreviated at GD) . Think about it…contained in the seed of a spreading chestnut tree are instructions to grow a certain way – height, width, branch structure, leaf shape, (ask the kids to leave the room – ready?) reproductive structures, you get the idea. So if we ignore the GD of the loverly Castanea dentata, plant it in a window box and try to talk it into behaving like a Petunia… Well, you get the point.

Thesis statement – “Ignore a plant’s genetic destiny and you will be a sorely disappointed, hard working gardener.”

I’m a label reader. I was an avid reader of cereal box labels when I was a kid. Mayhap it was because the sight of my dad eating soft-boiled eggs made me want to wretch, so I’d build a wall adorned with the Trix rabbit, or Cocoa-Puffs toucan. Anyway, when I go to a nursery and pick up a plant I’m not familiar with, I read the label. Of course the skeptic in me cross-checks with other references, but hey, it’s a start. I want to know how tall and wide the plants gets, what kind of cultural conditions it needs, whether it snores. I want to be an informed consumer.

So how do you explain the following images without assuming that either a) the label was written in Arabic; b) the person read the label but thought they could sweet talk the plants into growing contrary to its GD; C) they looked forward to endless weekends of pruning, resulting in a hideous green box flanked with dead brown branches; or D) they ignored the label?

These delightful specimens are both in the genus Juniper – hearty evergreens (conifers) that will grow just about anywhere. The lower, mounding one is genetically programmed to achieve a height of 18 inches and a spread of about 8 feet across. “Cool, I think I’ll plant it a foot from my driveway and three feet from the next juniper! I’m sure if I talk to it nicely, it will behave as I instruct it. Maybe enroll it in plant obedience school.”

Dude – the bed is three freakin feet wide! Do you think there might be, oh, I don’t know, a few hundred attractive plants out there that will thrive in your climate with little or no care, look drop-dead-gorgeous, and grow to be a couple of feet tall and three feet wide?

Better yet, here’s its big cousin, Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (Hollywood Twisted Juniper).

My book says, “15 feet tall by at least 8 feet wide. Attractive, twisted form; give plenty of room.”

“Sounds like a great plant. I have a two-foot wide bed under the eaves, next to a narrow walkway. Let’s take it home!”

Continuing my rant: Just as we have societal rules about what constitutes public decency, can’t we make some effort to end horticultural blight? Can I be deputized to arrest the perpetrators and initiate the gardening equivalent of the Darwin Awards? Can't these people be put out of my misery? It's ugly, it's wasteful, it hurts the plants.

So do us all a favor. Read the label, ask a knowledgeable nursery employee (yes, there are many) for more information about the plant. Realize that short of taking night school classes in genetic engineering and messing with the DNA, the plant’s gonna do what the plant’s gonna do. Life would be SOOOOOOOOOOO much better for all of us if you’d pay attention to the genetic forces that are completely in command.

Gotta take some Tylenol. Later, skaters.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Passion in the Beds - Unleash the Red!

Need another dose of color theory as planting season progresses? How about playing around with RED! Hot, energetic, bloody, angry, sinful, passionate RED! Like a piece of raw meat thrown into the garden, I watch the energy amp up.

Many of my students and clients get a little nervous when I bring up this touchy subject.

“I don’t like red. It’s too intense. I read somewhere that it could make my kids disobedient,” says the timid gardener.

“Huh? What have you been reading in the check-out line? Really, it’s good for you. It warms things up and creates a little emotionally punch,” says the daring designer.

“What if it scares my neighbors?” she asked, plaintively.

“Okay, let’s compromise. We’ll start with a splotch of red, but we’ll bring in some tints and shades to downplay it a bit.

“Tints and shades!?! Why didn’t you say so. Boogie down witcha bad ole red!,” shouts my now-emboldened client!

Red: Add white and it’s “Hello Kitty” time. Pink, like little girls’ jammies and Easter hats. How can THAT do any harm? How about we darken it with a bit of black and take the palette toward burgundy? Seems logical – Burgundy, France, is known for its wine, wine is served at garden parties, garden parties are fun, so let’s have some fun.

Now we’ve got an array of the primary hue, the tint and the shade. Let’s see how it looks when we throw ‘em together.

The maroon bougainvillea in the back is visible from a block away. Framed in the foreground by two spectacular, intertwined varieties of roses (one is variegated from maroon through light pink and white) and the combination is a study in variations on red.

Just around the block from the bougie/rose composition is a great little object lesson repeated with Pelargoniums. The fading red turns to maroon, with a gradation from red through pink.

The Chinese Saucer Magnolia takes care of itself, gently blending from maroon through pink on the same petal. Makes my job easy.

And this Lantana camara 'Christine' takes us through ranges of pink with a touch of lemon thrown in.

If, for some reason, you want to mix it up a bit more, but still want that connecting thread that makes these colors so easy to work with, how about stepping over one notch on the color wheel to orange? Add the tint to the palette and you’ve got apricot; add the shade and you have rust. Warmth and diversity without too much heat.

A red pelargonium acts as the anchor that moves the composition from red to orange, then off to lighter tints.

It doesn't take much more than a mixed seed packet of nasturtiums to bring a bed to life. Warm colors and their close relatives.

Hat's off to lantana again for taking care of the blend all in one plant. Use this shrub as the foundation of a warm color scheme and we can venture out into yellows and back to reds effortlessly.

Gotta go. Hope this fills in some gaps for readers.

[Red grid public domain image from Wikipedia]