Friday, December 23, 2011

Sustainable Landscaping: 1830s La Huerta Style

Jerry Sortomme has done more to promote sustainable landscaping in the Santa Barbara area than anyone I can think of. As the chair for the Environmental Horticulture Department at Santa Barbara City College for twenty-two years, Jerry taught, mentored, and regaled thousands of students. Many of "Jerry's Kids," as some affectionately call themselves, have moved on to careers in environmental science, horticulture, contracting, design, and other green professions.

I met Jerry not long after I started working for Parks and Rec in ‘87. From the start, I knew he was a force to be reckoned with. Aside from his bottomless storehouse of horticultural and environmental knowledge, his sense of advocacy for his horticulture program made him and his students frequent partners on City projects, with a double bonus of having his classes get their hands dirty in real- world projects while doing a good turn for their town.

Well, Jerry might have retired from SBCC in 2003, but he's still eyebrow-deep in very historic, very local dirt. He stepped out the door of room A-162 and right into a volunteer position as project manager and consultant for La Huerta Historic Garden at the Old Mission Santa Barbara. The goal of this unique project is to "exhibit era-specific plant materials, revealing horticulture art forms, techniques, and the science of the Spanish mission-era."

Huatza Huerta?

Simply put, La Huerta (Spanish for ‘orchard') is an extension of the Old Mission's museum (under the direction of Tina Foss) but moved outdoors. This project, begun in 2003, is literally bringing back to life a side of California's Mission era many people don't know about, especially visiting third- and fourth-graders studying California history. (This is the year when their parents pull an all-nighter, finishing the Mission San Juan Capistrano model - complete with a holographic projection of returning swallows - that's due tomorrow.)

Travel back in time via

2011 Santa Barbara Not So Beautiful Awards

Well, plant lovers, it's time to take a slug from your pretty, pink, Pepto-Bismol pitcher and turn your attention to this year's installment of all things awful in the local garden world.

Last weekend the generous, good-doing folks at Santa Barbara Beautiful bestowed their annual honors on designers, property owners, and big-hearted community members. The recipients are locals who lend their talent, time, and support to making our area a place of horticultural and artistic beauty.

But now it's time to turn our attention to The Dark Side, and share the goofy, "What were they thinking?" examples that have earned their own 15 minutes of shame. It's not my intent to just point a finger and say, "Ewwwwwwwwwwww". My hope is that by tossing these perpetrators into my Cuisineart of criticism, I can prevent readers from committing their own crimes against horticulture, and quite possibly become proud honorees at future award events.

This time around I'm sharing tales of bondage, cartoon character simulations, math-challenged manglers, and will explain why I think the City of Santa Barbara has some ‘splainin' to do.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (with apologies to Pedro Almodovar)

One of my favorite go-to plants is Myer's Asparagus (Asparagus densiflora ‘Myers'). I love its soft texture, cheery chartreuse color, and eerie resemblance to Sideshow Bob's hair. It grows in partial shade or full sun, and en masse, creates a softly sculptural effect. Place it near dark, broadleaf foliage, like this pairing with bear's breech (Acanthus mollis), below, at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, and you've got a study in subtle contrasting foliage.

So what were they thinking over at Ahi Restaurant on upper State Street? Who came up with the clever idea of using the nylon string the delivery guy uses to keep the LA Times from scattering to put these plants in kinky S&M restraints? Kudos to Ahi for trying to enhance a boring white wall, but do they think we wouldn't notice the passive restraints? I'm sad to announce that the horsetail reed (Equisetum hyemale) that played a central role in this threesome has since passed on (probably forgot the safe word). Dudes, if some of the frilly fronds are in your way, it's a simple snip to cut them at soil level and let the rest of this delightful plant dance its graceful dance.

Brace yourself. There's plenty more at my blog...

Groovy Zoo Gardens

If you love gardening, want to discover some new plants, and make new friends who understand why you have dirt under your fingernails, how about volunteering at your local zoo? More about tapping this mother lode of horticultural fun in a second, but first, a quick detour...

I was always grateful my former neighbor Janie, the elephant tender at the Santa Barbara Zoo, didn't bring her work home with her. The steps to her second story apartment were not up to her "co-workers" popping in for an after-hours beer.

I was thinking about Janie - who has since moved up the food chain to the San Diego Wild Animal Park - the other day while researching a story on zoo landscaping. I was admiring the Santa Barbara Zoo's Asian elephants as they reached for stalks of bamboo and giant bird of paradise leaves, suspended from a towering umbrella-covered support system. Their meal hadn't traveled far. Called "browse" in zoo parlance, these munchies were harvested from landscaped areas around the grounds, doing double duty not only as a staple in the diets of zoo inhabitants (gorillas and giraffes get second "dibs"), but also as ornamental plants simulating of each animal's native habitat.

Wanna see penguins and palm trees? Follow this link...

Gift Idea? Give the Hippest Garden Photos on the Planet

Last time I posted here, I spilled the beans regarding all the green and not-so-green options for Christmas trees. So I thought it might be a good idea to forge ahead with an idea for a gift to put under the tree for the garden lover in your life. No, you can't dig holes and plant bulbs with it, but you can make some magical moments when you combine a new iPhone with the hippest photography app on the planet.

I saw my first Hipstamatic image a couple of years ago, posted at a Flickr page for aficionados. The image that caught my eye was a fairly mundane composition - the exterior of a 1930s era office building. But it looked like someone had dug it out of an old shoebox in the attic: grainy, tired colors, and lighting irregularities that gave it a dreamy feeling.

To my delight, I found out that Hipstamatic is an app created for iPhones, and for $1.99, I thought I'd splurge. (Biff the Wonder Spaniel can go a day without a rawhide chew.)

Hipstamatic is photo enhancement software that digitally simulates different types of lenses, films, and flashes to create an almost endless array of sometimes hauntingly unpredictable effects. Launch the app and you'll see what appears to be an old pocket camera, complete with textured, matte black case, a small view window, and a big yellow button that triggers the shutter.

See lots more cool pics at

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stay Classy Santa Barbara

I'm posting this upbeat, gushing article about the beauty of Santa Barbara as an advanced karmic vaccination for the likely effect of my next post, two weeks hence. That will be my annual Santa Barbara Not So Beautiful Awards, where I shine a snarky, searing light on the boneheaded things people do in the name of horticulture.

I always catch some heat from the "look for the good and praise it" crowd. Yes, I've heard the old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," but I don't live in Smurfville, and I DO get a lot of entertainment and educational mileage out of looking for bad examples and poking at them.

In the meantime, I'm posting this gallery of enchanting imagery to prove that I don't just walk around looking for warts and blemishes, when it's obvious that we're blessed with a bounty of beauty that is Santa Barbara. Perhaps by shining a golden light on the vignettes that thrill me, you'll see that I'm not just a one- dimensional curmudgeon flailing his shillaly in the darkness.

Enjoy the beauty of Santa Barbara with one quick click.

Christmas Trees Should Smell Good

The headline pretty much sums up my argument. But my boss would not be happy with a five-word blog post, so allow me to share a few more reasons why I'd never let an artificial Christmas tree through my front door.

I make no claims of being a Christmas tree maven, a Yiddish word meaning expert, or connoisseur (a French word meaning maven). I'm from a middle-class Jewish upbringing and I only knew Christmas trees from the homes of my non-gefilte-fish-eating buddies. I remember Jay's metallic silver contraption with the rotating multicolor floodlight. Better, but still pretty bizarre, was Terry's cut tree encrusted in robin's egg blue flocking -- but at least it smelled like a plant.

Christmas trees started appearing in my living room after moving out of my folks' place and setting up housekeeping with a girlfriend from a more Norman Rockwell upbringing. Over the years, I've refined my criteria for the perfect tree:

• Douglas Fir, because it has more space between the branches for ornaments than the Michelin Man morphology of Noble Firs.
• A strong leader to hold the cone-shaped, copper wire-haired, red pipe-cleaner winged angel my son made when he was little.
• The enlivening, fresh aroma of resinous conifer needles (overpowered for a day or two by the lingering fragrance of volatilized peanut oil, potatoes, and onions from our annual Potato Latke Gorging Night).

It's only in recent years that I've thought about where these trees come from and how they arrive in tree lots around the country. I've wondered whether cutting down live trees for a few weeks of tradition is at odds with my professed stance regarding sustainable living.

So I did a little sleuthing and, for me, I can emphatically state that real trees win the enviro-battle, hands down.

Holey Crocs, Batman!

Regular size people recognize me by my hat. But really teeny tiny people know me for my distinctive, perforated footwear. I'm a Crocs kinda guy. My shoe rack is stippled with chubby pairs of size tens - red, brown, green, orange, and when I wear a tux, black.

My wife, Lin, and I are die-hard What Not To Wear fans, so I get it when she admonishes me that, "But they're really comfortable!" is no excuse for a grown-up wearing what Stacy and Clinton revile as "clown shoes." She's right, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. As Dr. Scholl taught me, when my feet are happy my brain is happy. And when my brain is happy I can write fascinating garden blogs about my shoes.

I pretty much live in my Crocs, so I wear through them regularly. So then what? Landfill? Not for a guy who's so sustainable he can work the same piece of dental floss for a month. So rather than cast off these loyal friends who've served me so well, I tap my inner Martha, transforming them into long-lasting, self-draining, artsy-fartsy wall planters.

I had a burst of creative energy this week. Instead of buying the usual box of floral gift cards as a thank you for the landscape architects who share their work with my class, I decided to make something for them. I could solve my shoe disposal conundrum and add a personal touch.

Do you wear shoes? Do you like easy, wacky projects? Here's what I did.

Plant Tags: So Much to Say, So Little Space

I know just what Mark Twain meant when he apologetically explained, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Writing is tough enough, but sometimes editing my first draft down to a tight, lively, informative read feels like medieval dental surgery. So imagine what it's like to compose a plant tag, those skinny little plastic strips we see poking out of containers at the garden center.

You've probably done this hundreds of times: A spectacular looking flower beckons you from across the nursery, so you sprint over, pull out the tag, read a few dozen words, and decide whether that cute little darlin' will be coming home with you.

It's not much to go on, but sometimes it's all the information we have when the "ME NEED PLANT" neurons in the primal core of your brain commence to firing. So, what if you could take an extra minute, fire up your smart phone, scan a QR code, and tap a deep mine of information?

We're starting to see QR (Quick Response) codes popping up everywhere. They're small printed squares filled with a unique pattern of black and white pixels, like a petri dish experiment gone wild. Download one of many free apps to your smart phone (I like QRReader), hold it in front of the square, and the next thing you know, you're at the product's website.

Read how QR codes can make your garden shopping a lot more fun...

Owen Dell Wants To SLAP Your Garden Around

Abraham Maslow probably wasn't aware of it, but when he wrote his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, he was talking about sustainable landscaping.

Now hold on a second. He didn't SPECIFICALLY mention murdering your lawn, setting an egg timer when you turn on the sprinklers, unleashing badass carnivorous bugs in your pumpkin plot, or luring slugs to a drunken death in a saucer of Rolling Rock. He didn't have to. It's obvious.

Starting from the bottom of his triangle, he describes the human animal's needs. I'll connect the green dots.

Level 1: Food, water, warmth, and rest: If he'd planned ahead (and left more room at the bottom of his chart) he would have also included "plucking fresh-laid eggs from your Double Breasted Pin Striped Bantam Appenzeller's coop, keeping toxic lawn sprays out of groundwater, planting deciduous trees to invite morning sunlight into the breakfast nook, and stringing an authentic Guatemalan Kaqchikel hammock between your Quercus agrifolia trunks.

Pick up the trail at

Exquisite Little Jewel Boxes

Two very talented landscape designers invited me to Eye of the Day Garden Design Center in Carpinteria last week - something about "new demonstration gardens." I smelled a story. Gas prices and carbon footprint be damned, I drove the 12.8 miles from my downtown SB pad and liked what I saw.

If you're yearning for inspiration for your own garden, or in the market for a focal point to nestle in a flowerbed, you might want to pop down to Eye of the Day, too.

Shining in a chain-link fenced, jumbled storage yard chock full of owner Brent Frietas's garden wares, sit four exquisite little jewel boxes - mini-gardens created from a seemingly limitless selection of pots, statuary, fountains, and garden ornaments.

And, oh, the plants! Santa Barbara landscape designers Arianna Jansma and Jennifer Voss, each with an impressive background in botany and art, have a gift for combining form, flowers, foliage, and texture to create stunning compositions.

Since the earliest manifestation of Eye of the Day in Santa Ynez, Brent has been a fusion reactor of design and marketing ideas. He told me years ago about his vision for an outdoor showroom that would display his merchandise "in real garden situations" while offering a local designer an opportunity to strut their stuff. After a long gestation period, the idea has hatched.

Continued at

Imagine: No Lawns (but maybe a free book?)

If you've been lounging in the Garden of Ed(en) for any time, you know that I'm vehemently anti-lawn (Keywords: wasteful, boring, destructive, sterile). So, this week I'm sharing a great book that like-minded, lawn-averse California gardeners should find inspirational and instructive. But first, let me take you back to this morning, when my button got pushed in a big way.

:: :: :: :: :: ::

I learned in design school that it's good form to start by saying something positive when critiquing a classmate's design. It makes them more amenable to the pending evisceration, so here goes…

The Encina Lodge and Suites, near Cottage Hospital, is to be commended for having their gardeners sweep the pavement with palm fronds instead of gas-powered blowers.


Today isn't the first time this otherwise lovely guest lodge put my boxers in a bunch. The identical scenario caught my attention two years ago, leading to a water conservation diatribe (It's Like Road Rage, Only Wetter) at my Fine Gardening blog. Sadly, not much has improved. No, I take that back: They've replaced the 1950s-era sprinklers with a shiny new, but just-as-poorly designed system: sprinklers showering me and Biff as we waded up the sidewalk; streams of water smacking into shrubs, then overflowing the beds; over-pressurized pop-ups sending clouds of mist drifting far from their intended target.

Now I can share the anger and frustration I felt this morning, triggered by the sight of a fast-moving stream of water coursing down the gutter on, ironically, Bath Street. The only thing missing was a Tidy Bowl man rafting the surge. This gusher's source was the motel's irresponsibly designed, poorly managed sprinklers sheeting off the grassy parkways three blocks upstream.

Read on at

Time Machine Tales Part II: Long Strange Trip To The Garden

Back in July, I blogged about finding an old drawing from my first landscape design class and the memories it triggered. From summers in the mountains to discovering I had a sense of rhythm, it didn't look much like a gardening column. I said it was "Part One in what will likely be a sporadic series." Well, I'm done "sporadickling" and ready to pick up the trail where I left off.

Some kids obsess about sports or rock collecting or astronomy or hedge fund trading. For me it was "all drumming, all the time." Bongos were the start, then a pair of drumsticks banging on anything that made noise. I studied jazz, Dixieland, classical, big band, bebop, surf, rock. I even played a polka gig dressed in lederhosen. (Thankfully, no photos survive)

Here's my high school rock band, A Little Bit of Sound. We not only won the biggest battle of the bands in LA, but we ended up opening for The Doors in San Diego.

I stayed with music into my twenties, doing studio recordings, nightclubs, and clocked thousands of cross-country miles on the road. One year I toured with the opening act for the Jackson 5. (Don't get too impressed. We were the band everyone wished would get off the state so Michael would come out.)

What's this have to do with gardens? Here's the rest of the story...

Surprise at the Indianapolis Museum of Art: A Paved Paradise

The last time I visited Indianapolis was the early 70s. My one-week stay didn't start out so hot. Perhaps it had something to do with the paranoia of being a longhaired hippy musician in Middle America, coupled with my first (and only) tequila hangover. Did I mention it was Easter Sunday?

This year was different. I was back in Indy for the annual Garden Writers Association symposium, and aside from my soulful karaoke rendition of Joe Cocker's You Can Leave Your Hat On, there were no reportable shenanigans.

This was my fourth GWA event and I have to say that each trip is better than the last. There was a big turnout: We were dubbed the Indy 500, attending sessions covering everything from publishing e-books to the benefits of beneficial insects. The exhibit hall was packed with vendor booths sharing hot new products and services you'll be reading about soon. And these annual meet-ups always provide opportunities for "the tribe" to reinvigorate old friendships and germinate some new ones.

Lest you think we spend all our time indoors, the host committee for each city always organizes tours of private gardens and estates, public spaces, and educational facilities. That way we have stuff to write about and share with our readers - sort of like this article.

One of our obscenely early morning tours took us to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, housing over 50,000 works representing a variety of cultures and 5000 years of art history. But I'll have to take their word for it, since I spent my time trying to make a dent in the horticultural offerings contained in 152 acres of gardens, woodlands, wetlands, lake shore, meadows, and even their parking lot.

Loads of luscious pictures and reading ahead...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I'll Give Myself a C+

Did you ever find something in a long-forgotten box that zaps you back in time? My trigger was an old landscape plan I ran across last week, from my early school days. Like the goat herder at the Qumran Caves, I knew I held a piece of history in my hands. Gingerly, and with reverence, I liberated the scroll from a crusty, desiccated rubber band, carefully unfurling it.

The title block said 1975, so imagine my relief as I scanned this barely familiar drawing and did not wince.

In the early 70s, I wasn't sure what I would do with an ornamental horticulture education, but the music industry's flake factor had claimed another victim, and I realized I'd better find something new to do. I thought about my hobbies and passions.

I had become enchanted by the exquisite art of bonsai (gateway drug to Japanese gardens and culture), fascinated by the way nature's forces and raw beauty could be captured and stylized at a human scale. My crush on chlorophyll didn't stop there. Like a Days of Our Lives junkie, I found myself deeply and emotionally invested in the turbulent lives of my 50 houseplants.

Off to school I skipped, and after two years of study, earned my associate's degree from Pierce College in LA, memorizing hundreds of multisyllabic botanical names and deciphering the mysterious sand-silt-clay triangle. I learned how to flocculate, which has nothing to do with bodily functions or puberty.

Click over to for the rest of the story...

Taking On Lawn Alternatives With The Garden Designers Roundtable

Here in my sleepy little beach town of Santa Barbara (where Kim Kardashian had a sleepy little multimillion dollar wedding last weekend) I write a bi-weekly blog for It's a great website known for alternative community news, contests, trivia, mailbag, and quirky essays. (I do some of the quirking.)

So it makes sense that I reviewed Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs there a few weeks ago, stimulating lots of enthusiastic comments from green-minded readers.

But here at my Fine Gardening blog, where most readers don't wear flip-flops and pick fresh lemons from their kitchen window in January, it wouldn't have occurred to me to bring this regionally important book to national attention. It's not like loyal readers in Platteville, Wisconsin, are going to grow Bougainvillea ‘California Gold' on a patio trellis, then take the sprawling, spiny monster indoors to overwinter it on a sunny window sill. But here I am, writing about the book anyway.

The Rationale

I was invited to guest-post at this month's mass blog hosted by the Garden Designers Roundtable, a panel of professional landscape and garden designers blogging monthly on topics related to design. And this month the topic is one near and dear to my heart (and other internal organs): lawn alternatives.

Sure, Reimagining's plant recommendations might be specific to California gardeners (and probably crosses over to bordering states), but what it says about the reasons for reimagining the role of lawns in our landscapes should be food for thought for anyone concerned about the uncertainty of changing global weather patterns. Droughts this summer have been catastrophic. Texas has received only 6.5 of its usual 34 inches of rain; in 2008 the news was filled with stories about Atlanta's municipal drinking water supply drying up. Who's next?

This is a story that will grow on you. Read more at Fine Gardening

Chardonnay and Herbs Meet in Sonoma Wine County

My fellow bloggers recommend that my posts should to be like quick jabs—get in, score your point, and get out. A few words and a picture.

[Dang! I just used 109 characters telling you that I shouldn't take so long getting to the point. Shoot!! That was another 79! Yipes!!! Another 22.]

So, here's the point: On Wednesday, August 31, award-winning, landscape-loving, nicest-guy-you'd-ever-want-to-meet garden photographer Saxon Holt will be holding a book party at the coolest, most beautiful, all-sustainable vineyard and winery, smack in the middle of Sonoma wine country.

Saxon will be joined by author and herbalist Tammi Hartung to talk about their book, Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using and Enjoying More Than 100 Herbs (Storey Publishing, $19.95). The talented twosome will be appearing from 2 to 4 p.m. at Lynmar Estate at 3909 Frei Road in Sebastopol. Attendance is free but limited to the first 60 guests. For more information, call 707-829-3374, ext. 102, or email

As blog posts go, that was efficient, but not much fun. I like fun.

I promise I'll circle back to tell you more about the impressively sustainable vineyard and winery run by husband and wife team Anisya and Lynn Fritz, located in the rolling hills of California's Russian River Valley. Meantime, promise me you'll keep reading while I detour for "a few" paragraphs. If you do, you'll see luscious images and perhaps take away some inspiration for your own garden.

More luscious reading at Fine Gardening...

Healthy Skepticism for a Healthy Garden

"Why, yes, I do have a confessional in my office," Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott replied. I was calling her to seek absolution for my horticultural transgressions.

"It has paisley curtains," she continued.

I just finished reading her book, The Informed Gardener (University of Washington Press, 2008). In this authoritatively written, sorely needed dose of science and skepticism, Chalker-Scott reveals the truth behind many of the dearly held myths surrounding gardening practices and products.

I worried: Would she pardon years of advising customers to "throw a little bone meal in the backfill. Helps the roots get started"? What about telling clients to tip-prune transplants "to keep the roots and foliage in balance"?

Hogwash! Clearly, I was guilty of unconsciously passing along what one of Chalker-Scott's colleagues calls "faith-based horticulture."

Chalker-Scott didn't set out to be a matador, hell-bent on goring gardening's sacred cows. Her first two degrees put her on a steady course toward a career in marine biology. In the 1980s, deciding instead to chase her passion for gardening, she completed her doctorate in ornamental horticulture at Oregon State University, focusing on the stresses affecting landscape plants in urban environments.

The contest is over, but there's lots more to read at Fine Gardening...

Plants I'll Never Use, Redux

I'm sure the Pulitzer Prize committee frowns on cheating, but what can I do? It's noon Wednesday, my deadline is noon Thursday, and I'm sitting at a tiny table at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, shoving an overly mustardy ham sandwich into my yap, downloading photos, and praying Ed forgets he's already published this story. This is my week to post, but the conference is all consuming and there's no way I can write a new article worthy of you fine, loyal readers. So I'm dusting off one of my favorite stories from a 2008 (with a few edits, cuz I cringed rereading it) and adding new pictures. Enjoy my thoughts about plants I'd never, ever, ever use in anyone's garden.

That's just the start of it. Read the rest at

Insidious Tendrils of Crimes Against Horticulture

Santa Barbara is an incubator. We're the home of many important firsts: Motel 6, Herb Peterson's Egg McMuffin, Deckers sandals, and Seymour Duncan's sublime guitar pick-ups. We've been a launch pad in entertainment, offering the world Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dishwalla, and the bearded dude with the dead bongos on State Street. And where would the sports world be without legendary spiker Karch Kirali, wavemeister Rennie Yater, and concrete commandos, George Powell and Stacy Peralta?

So it doesn't surprise me that what started locally as my Santa Barbara Not-So-Beautiful-Awards has found fertile roots beyond our crappy adobe and sandstone-riddled soil. What was borne of my dark delight - posting pictures and taking cheap shots at the stupid, ugly things people do in the name of gardening - has found fertile fields beyond this sleepy beach town. I'm talking about Crimes Against Horticulture (CAH), a collection of images intended to awe, amuse, and elucidate. It's an expression of my teaching philosophy: "A poke in the eye with a silly stick gets people's attention."

It just gets weirder at Read on...

Gloomy Days, Cheery Gardens

It seemed like a fun play on words - riff on the Bermuda Triangle by writing about the "Carpinteria Pentangle." I'd simply plot the locations of five fun gardening destinations, connect to dots, and voila - a five-pointed geometric shape!

‘Cept it looks pretty weird, and I'm probably the only person on the planet who can make out the form.

Come to think of it, it looks more like an egret sleeping off a night of beer bonging. Despite my artistic shortcomings, I can still write about the garden adventures that beckon along the laid-back coastline just south of Santa Barbara.

Logic dictates that I start at an end and work my way across. So we'll begin in the middle, along Santa Claus-less Lane, ‘cuz that's where I'll be giving a talk next weekend, and I never pass up a chance for shameless self-promotion.

Lots more to read at

Time Machine Found in Old Box: Connecting the Dots

Last week I was rummaging through an old box and found a time machine. To anyone else I'm sure it looked like an old, primitively drawn landscape plan. But for me, it was like taking Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine to 1975, when my love affair with gardens was sending up its first shoots.

1975 might have been one significant garden milestone in my life, but I realize now that plants have been poking at me since I was just a punk kid. So let's go back to where it all started as I attempt to connect the dots and share a few lessons along the way...

I was born at a very early age in Brooklyn, NY. We lived in a four-story brick apartment building and I don't recall there being any trees on our block. I vaguely remember a low hedge behind a dangerously pointy iron fence, but my first truly personal connection with plants was getting a pussy willow bud stuck in my ear, and my mom discovering it weeks later.

Read more at Fine Gardening...

Protect Your Pets from Poisonous Plants: Biff's Ordeal

As I came up the steps, Lin's voice was urgent. "We need to take Biff to the vet, right away."

It was early evening and we'd been out for a bite. While we were away, Biff found and ate a small box of raisins that was in a bag, that was in another bag, that was under a stack of newspapers, that were on the kitchen table, that was surrounded by chairs (that lived in the house ... never mind - this is serious). It doesn't matter how he did it. Maybe aside from me lovingly calling him Biff the Wonder Spaniel, he also has radically major ninja skills.

Dogs (and cats) and raisins don't get along. Kidney failure.

Ten minutes later we were at Santa Barbara's CARE Hospital, grateful that the 24-hour emergency and critical care facility had reopened under new ownership just a few months earlier.

Biff spent two nights in their loving, attentive care, in a cage (he's used to hogging the bed, testing if his stubby sausage tail fits inside my nostril), front leg shaved to take the IV tube, probably wondering why his humans had misplaced him, and missing his Wi-Fi access. (I'm kidding about the Wi-Fi; his iPhone was in the shop.)

For Lin and I, it was days of worry and deep pangs of guilt. We had an ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) brochure in a drawer somewhere listing all the toxic stuff our opposably-thumbed species should be more vigilant about: medicines, fertilizer, anti-freeze, cleaning products.

And plants.

Read more at Fine Gardening...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When Software Meets Sorrel: Brave New Garden?

I think it would be cool to have my name spoken in the same breath as brilliant futurists like Stephen Hawking, Alvin Toffler, and Buckminster Fuller.

Futurists predict global trends, emerging markets, and plausible scenarios that will affect everyone on the planet. They show up on cool PBS science shows, and school kids write reports about them. If they're smart, they make predictions with 200-year lead times, so their critics can't beat up on them for getting it bass-ackward.

I might well be a futurist too! Consider this exchange with my soul brother, Owen Dell. We were talking about the fabulous food exchange networks sprouting up around Santa Barbara, like pre-germinated radish seeds.

The idea is simple: People who grow food at home exchange their surplus with neighbors, sharing eggs, fruits, veggies, flowers, herbs, recipes, seeds, seedlings and secret potions. At the same time, they build community by meeting their neighbors. There are twelve exchanges in our area, under the umbrella of Santa Barbara Food Not Lawns.

What does this have to do with me becoming a legend? Well, as Owen and I were praising the value of food exchanges, I wondered aloud what would happen to them if there were no surplus. "What if everyone's garden provided exactly the amount of produce they needed, exactly when they wanted it?"

A good question to ponder, don'tcha think? Well, let's see how this ends up at my blog, shall we?

Me, Version 2.0

It's close to my two-year anniversary of being laid off by the City of Santa Barbara. Good time to reflect and look forward. I reread my May 11, 2009 blog post, Laid Off: the big career opportunity. It was one of those "one door closes and another opens" meets "glass half-full" essays where I went light on the jokes and heavy on philosophication. I mentioned that I usually don't write about my life here at Edhat, and I don't, so please indulge me in this bi-annual puff piece.

(And being the kind of guy who never misses an opportunity to pimp his stuff, be on the alert for specks of shameless self-promotion.)


When I run into people I worked with at the city, they always ask, "So how's retirement?"

My retort: "Define retirement. If it includes any of the following: sleeping past sunrise, whacking the snot out of a little white ball, impaling red wigglers, Macarena lessons, making goat cheese (I'm sure that's a euphemism for something nasty), tapping my inner goddess in a sweat lodge (oooo, that could be even nastier), or eating bon-bons while watching Ellen, you've got the wrong guy."

There's plenty more of this at my blog.

Cornerstone Sonoma: Where Art, Imagination, and Plants Come to Play

Forgive me for thinking Toto and I had crossed into Kansas. But how to explain what appeared dead ahead in my windshield – a massive white picket fence, painfully twisting like so much tormented fusilli pasta, rising into a drizzly March sky. I checked my GPS: Sonoma, in the heart of northern California wine country. Perhaps this aberration was my destination.

I had heard so many wondrous things about Cornerstone: Festival of Gardens. It was one of those breathlessly spoken, Oh, you have to go there, places my designer friends insisted I visit. They portrayed the nine-acre complex as a pilgrimage required of every garden designer, that they might experience the melding of art, landscape architecture, horticulture, sense of place, playful imagination, and drama. The flying fence was this play’s opening act.

Cornerstone Sonoma was conceived and nurtured by the husband and wife team Teresa Raffo (pictured at right) and Chris Hougie. Their inspiration for this ambitious venture arose during their 1996 honeymoon visit to Frances’s Loire Valley, where the Festival Gardens of Chaumont cast a spell on their imaginations. Eight years later, in collaboration with world-renowned landscape architect Peter Walker, they opened the doors and gates to a twenty-two garden wonderland.

Lots of great pictures and descriptions continue at my Fine Gardening blog.

Airplanes In The Garden -- Kids, Butterflies, and Summer Fun

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and camp counselors! We haven’t hit the solstice yet, but Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. Time to think about what the kids will be up to for the next few months. Would you like to divert them away from mind-numbing, thumb-mashing video games and get them into the garden for some good clean dirty fun? Then flip open a copy of Joan Z. Calder’s book, Airplanes In The Garden: Monarch Butterflies Take Flight, and get ready for action.

I can’t think of a more rewarding, long-lasting summer strategy for entertaining (and stealthily educating) youngsters than reading this fancifully illustrated, engagingly written, instructional book. It’s about Sergio and Stanley, a couple of monarch caterpillars who appear one day in a young girl’s garden.

The story opens with pigtailed Bonnie delighting in a small squadron of graceful monarchs wafting through her family’s garden. When her mom asks her what she’s up to, Bonnie replies, “Mom, there are airplanes in the garden!” Her fertile imagination sees the flowers as airports, where butterflies pick up “babies and moms and dads to take them on a trip.”

Read more about this delightful book, click over to my blog at Fine Gardening.

Another Definition of Vertical Gardening - Marcia Donahue

Unless you're Rip Van Winkle, or you've been spelunking the Vrtoglavica Caves of Slovenia for the past few years, you couldn't miss the garden world's clamor about vertical gardening: succulents packed into honeycombs mounted on walls, Patrick Blanc's Chia-Pet-on-steroids flights of fantasy, and at a slightly less grand but far more practical scale, Susan Morrison's and Rebecca Sweet's new book, Garden Up!

But it was Marcia Donahue's garden that made my eyes and imagination reach skyward. It seemed that everywhere I looked around her garden something was pointing up: the gables of her two-story Victorian, bamboo and vines slathered on fences, and a series of cylindrical and round "beads" threaded over poles and slinking into trees.

Marcia has managed to pack a bundle of charm, whimsy, and wonderment into her garden, while also cultivating an abundantly productive urban farm. Amid the art and horticultural thrills, chickens roam, veggies overflow planters, and hives buzz with honeybees.

Read the rest at Fine Gardening

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I'm Beating Up On Lawns, Again

As I read Susan Harris' blog post at Garden Rant, I couldn't help but think about how successful the big lawn-care chemical companies have been at brainwashing the masses. It's no wonder they succeeded, what with the millions of advertising dollars they throw into their multi-billion dollar business.

Dandelions get a bad rap because once the suburban migration started after World War II, these corporate merchants of everything toxic launched campaigns to convince homeowners that the only way to be a responsible member of society (and avoid the disdain of their neighbors) was to aspire to that monotonous, imagination-free dead zone called the perfect lawn.

They convinced almost everyone that dandelions - those little grantors of kids' wishes that send hundreds of seed-bearing parasols drifting on the breeze - were the enemy. Actually, it's mostly dudes who can't leave their Hot Wheels obsession on the third grade playground, so they get their testosterone fix wheeling about on big-kid mowers - watch the commercials and tell me I'm wrong.

This rant ain't over yet... read more.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sprechen sie San Luis Obispo?

Sometimes I think Ed is just out to make me feel guilty. It's not enough that every two weeks since 2008 I've had to come up with a thousand Pulitzer-worthy words and images to educate, entertain and transform the lives of my Santa Barbara readers. (Note to award committee - I've had my mantle reinforced, so there's no need to put off your decision for 2011.)
To add to my burden, Ed the Intrepid recently expanded his cyber-reach into new territories, where denizens practice their mysterious rituals. So now I feel pressured to investigate topics that Santa Lewis Obispites and Venturinians will find interesting.

So a few weeks ago, after finding a handy English to SLO phrase book and suffering through the battery of inoculations, I set off to points north on a sunny Friday morning, slowed only by the occasional border crossing check point. Two days later, I'd put on a few hundred miles (I made it to where the Bering Strait land bridge once connected Cambria with Asia), and crammed my notebook and camera with lots o' groovy stuff. I'll write about all of my adventures, eventually, but for now, let me tell you about Transitions Mental Health Association and the great work they're doing for folks in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

As described at their website, Transitions is "a non-profit organization committed to reducing the stigma of mental illnesses, maximizing personal potential and providing innovative mental health services to individuals and families in need."

There's lots more to see at the rest of this article...

Lotusland: All Those Smarts (And Pretty, Too!)

You probably went to high school with someone like her: Cover girl looks, aced every exam with her frontal lobe tied behind her back, and tales of her "interesting" past.

That's a lot like what I found when I visited the Ganna Walska Lotusland new and improved website - beauty, smarts, and a tantalizing back-story. Just in time for spring, their on-line makeover has a snappy fresh look, alluring garden scenes, easy-to-drive navigation, and is bubbling over with sustainable landscaping ideas you can use in your own garden.

Lotusland, a non-profit foundation established after Madame Ganna Walska's 1984 death, at age 97, is must-see bucket-list material, so don't make any excuses for denying yourself another season without a visit. The docents are charming and well informed, sometimes entertaining visitors with Madame Ganna Walskas's intriguing biography - a Polish opera singer with larger-than-life garden ambitions, and who married well and often.

See what Lotusland's website has in store...

SJKRAIGYTAQ: AKA Botanic Where Is It

Ed's got WWII (Wednesday Where Is It?), his weekly schtick, posting brain-baffling photos for readers to locate and identify. And as the month draws to a close, we congratulate the two-time winner of the 2011 March Edness: Holazola did it again, with Penelope805 and Camster receiving honorable mention. [Esoteric Factoid: My wife, Lin, took first place in 2007, and I finished a close second!]

I thought it would be fun to have my own contest, stealing the format that Ed uses. So I'm posting obscure photos from a botanical perspective, then having y'all try to guess where the photo was taken. ‘Cept Ed has mastered the bits, bytes and blops of web programming needed to pull this seemingly simple formatting together, and I don't know squat. What to do?

So instead, behold my simplified, slightly less challenging version, SJKRAIGYTAQ (Sunday Just Keep Reading And I'll Give You The Answers Quiz). The tricky thing is that all the answers are at the end, printed upside down, just like in a kid's puzzle book. You'll have your choice of hanging upside down from a trapeze and reading the answer, or flipping your monitor upside down.

Nine photos to entice and mystify at the rest of this article, at

Alice By Morning Light: Rays of Optimism

Predawn, Tuesday, April 12, 2011: Eyes open, pulse elevates. Fifty-two hours until I'll click the SEND button.

Topic. I need something to write about. I summon my muse; crickets. Evel Knievel couldn't jump a fresh story idea across my synaptic chasms. Last resort - grab the camera, run over to Alice and write something informative about plants. People like that.

But before I entertain, edify, and enthrall you with the charms of Alice Keck Park's lovely legacy, fast-forward a few hours. Just as I finish my photo-shoot, in comes a text message from Nancy Rapp, my former boss and Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department Director: "We confirmed for this morning?" Crap! That's right.

8:45 AM, Tuesday, April 12, 20011: Peet's downtown back patio, trusty Biff the Wonder Spaniel in tow, decaf (don't wanna fool with that restraining order). Nancy and I get caught up on personal and P&R stuff, then get down to the morning's agenda...

As you might imagine, I figured out what to write about, or I wouldn't be posting this. Lots of gorgeous pictures and enticing plant info lies ahead...

Before You Dig, Get "Fit To Garden"

Riddle: What do you get when you cross an enthusiastic vegetable-growing Master Gardener with a passionately energetic, camera-ready physical therapist?

Answer: None other than Stacy Walters, the creative force behind Fit to Garden, a program designed to help gardeners stay in the garden, not flat on their backs under a mountain of ice packs.

I was inspired to write about Stacy after reading this Facebook post by my dear friend, Stephanie: "Last of my seeds arrived today. Will get my seeds started in their trays this weekend. Will be ready after the last frost date."
Stephanie lives just outside of Boulder, CO. Now, I don't want to gloat, but out here in Santa Barbara, "last frost date" makes about as much sense as "beginning of breathing season." I forget that most of you have recently experienced that season they call winter. For months your "gardening" has consisted of rereading the tattered pages of last summer's Fine Gardening issue for the hundredth time, ordering this year's horticultural adventures from seed catalogs, and gapping the spark plugs in your trusty Fiskar's PowerGear Bypass Pruners.

See what Stacy's Fit to Garden website can do for you at

Lessons From Legendary Flora Grubb Gardens

Apologies for being a year late with this post. Good intentions and all that, but I'm here to redeem myself.

Last year, while attending the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, a Bay Area friend lured me to Flora Grubb Gardens. "You HAVE to go. You'll go nuts!" she'd breathlessly implored me for years.

On my 2010 trip, Mara and I hooked up at Flora's. The place just knocked me out (which might explain why I spaced for a year and didn't blog a word about my visit).

It's about time I paid homage to The Divine Ms. Grubb and her matchless approach to horticulture, gardens, and the educational value of inspiring displays.

More luscious pictures and useful design lessons at my Fine Gardening blog...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sunset Magazine Likes My Clients' Parkway!

I was curious when I checked my e-mail in-box last month and saw a message from Sharon Cohoon, senior garden writer for Sunset Magazine and their Fresh Dirt blog.
Hi, Billy. I’m coming up to Santa Barbara the weekend of March 11-12. Mostly to evaluate a hotel for a travel story. Tough assignment, huh? But I was wondering if you had a favorite garden or two you’d want to show off either day? If so, give me a call.
Guess how long it took me to pick up the phone and call Sharon back? A few weeks later I was picking Sharon up at her posh downtown hotel and ferrying her around to some of my favorite designs. When we got to the home of Nicole and Bill, Sharon was nearly breathless upon seeing this parkway erupting with brilliant, twisty, pink flowers floating over dark green foliage -- Grevillea lanigera 'Coastal Gem'.

"This is definitely blogworthy," she said as we drove away. She wasn't kidding. Read her blog post at Fresh Dirt.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Really Fine On-Line Garden Design

I'm not sure I should be sharing this with you. Besides writing, I earn some my income designing residential gardens. And here I am, about to hand you a great, free tool for doing it yourself. But I'm also a teacher and a generous kinda guy, so what the hell?

The local water agencies have shelled out some pretty serious coin to fund a goodie-filled website with lots of water conservation ideas. Follow their advice and you'll save money while helping preserve the planet's most essential natural resource - clean drinking water. You've read my rants ripping folks who let water run down the gutter, or squander it washing sidewalks. (If you want your concrete clean enough to eat off of, toss it in the dishwasher.)

Smart water use in the garden has two key components: Wise water management is important, but putting the right plant in the right placeis where sustainable landscaping begins. Growing conditions can vary widely on a small residential lot: The same plant that thrives in cool morning sun on the east side of your place turns into oven-roasted ‘tater skins when subjected to the summer scorch of afternoon sun. A mounded bed in one part of your yard might provide ideal drainage for natives, while clay deposits in the parkway usually mean the same plant's kiss of death.

With thousands of plants to choose from, how do you decide what to plant? I've got nothing against everyone's go-to garden encyclopedia, the Sunset Western Garden Book (actually, I do… check the link at the end of this article), but what if you could take an on-line tour of LOCAL gardens, click on plants that turn you on, then read everything you'd ever want to know about how to use each one flawlessly, and print out a shopping list?

Then step right up, ladies and gents, for the rip-roaringest, easy-peasy, life-changing garden design website in the whole world. (I'm holding off on giving you the link, cowgirls and stud-muffins, so hold your horses and don't scroll down just yet.)

Get the rest of the scoop at

Make Room On Your Garden Bookshelf

I slid into the soon-to-be-shuttered State Street Border's store a few weeks ago looking for sweet close-out deals on garden books. What was I thinking? I've never purchased a garden book at Border's. Apparently, their buyer thought we garden in the Pisgah National Forest, or have an insatiable urge to provide habitat for double-breasted pinstriped warblers.

Regardless, I optimistically raked through the dregs, recalling that my own garden library is a mess. (When I'm working, books fly off the shelves like startled bats.) I didn't reshelve everything - I wanted to let you in on a few of my faves. Spring is just around the corner - be prepared.

If You Only Buy One Garden Book…

Back at my office, while struggling to impose a little discipline on the teetering stacks threatening my desk, I ran across my very first copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book. Nostalgia welled up. This was the book I bought after deciding to hang up my drumming career in the early 70s, having been seduced by bonsai and all things chlorophyll.

This book is old, I tell you, OLD! I thumbed through tattered pages with outdated plant lists like "Pterydon-proof Plants" and "Primordial Ferns That Will Eventually Be Refined Into High Octane Fossil Fuel."

My newest edition of Sunset is already showing signs of abuse, and for good reason. "Sunset", as it's expediently called by its loyal readers, features the most comprehensive encyclopedia of plants for western gardens (over 8000 listings), informative explanations of 29 climate zones, and a massive encyclopedia filled with practical gardening information - a book unto itself. (Not sure whether your lawn is infested with cutworms, or about to burst open, spewing forth monsters from the bowels of Hell? It's probably in there.)

Mooooooooooore Booooooooks at!!!!

I'm Branching Out Into Archaeology: Blame the Wisteria

We have cable. That’s why I’m such an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I have at my fingertips access to in-depth research tools like the Hallmark Channel where I learn about what makes women tick (something to do with automatic air fresheners, from what I can tell), the Speed Network for the latest developments in dirt bike oil filters, and the History Channel (it’s not just about pawnshops).

But I’ve yet to see a documentary on the ancient migratory trail of the Wisterians, who evidently passed through Santa Barbara, leaving barely a trace. Without a reliable body of research I can only conjecture that they appeared about 14,000 years ago but were out-completed by the Clovis civilization (purveyors of fine stone spear points). Or the Clovis folks just had better PR.

But back to the Wisterians. They must have been a gentle people as evidenced by their love of sweet smelling, pastel colored plants.

“Why Professor Goodnick,” you challenge incredulously, “with what evidence do you support your hypothesis?”

Fair question. You know how in the first Indiana Jones movie he finds that metal thingy, puts on top of a stick and on just the right day at just the right time the sun shines through and illuminates the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant? It’s like that, except instead of calculating sun angles and seasons, the math-phobic Wisterians planted wisteria vines along their migratory route to mark their path.

How else do you explain the sprawling purple wisteria vines that are at this moment bursting forth along Highway 101, the coastal route through my fair state. They’re scampering up tangled trees, showering them in luscious lavender-colored, perfumed vines. Like a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs, those clever Wisterians turned their love of plants and into a pre-GPS way-finding technology. Of course, if they came back at any other time of the year, they’d be righteously screwed, dude.

It just continues getting sillier and sillier... Will you join me at Fine Gardening?

Hot Tubbing with Jeffrey Gordon Smith?

Aside from my new Design Workshop column in Fine Gardening magazine and this blog, I write about gardens for a few Southern California magazines and blogs. Feeling a need to expand my horizons beyond my Santa Barbara borders, I planned a road trip to the San Luis Obispo area (SLO), about 100 miles north of my home.

I studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly SLO in the 80s, but haven't really kept up with the area's garden design scene, so I asked everyone I knew for advice. Just about everybody said, "You've GOT to meet Jeffrey Gordon Smith and see his designs."

Smith (a landscape architect based in the small, beachside town of Los Osos, and executing beautiful projects from the Bay Area to the southernmost reaches of the Golden State) and I hammered out the details for a visit, but a super deluge in December wiped out my plans. Later, as I perused the program at the SF Flower and Garden Show, I noticed that Jeffrey was not only going to be speaking about his new book (Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture), but also constructing an exhibit garden at the show.

I thought he'd be an interesting subject for a pre-show blog post, and phoned him for an interview to find out what visitors to the SFFGS might find inspirational. Our conversation kept detouring into all kinds of topics, and when I got off the phone 45 minutes later, I still wasn't sure what I'd write about. I had asked all the right questions: "What's your big idea?" "How would they be inspired for their own gardens?"

I do know one thing: If you visit his garden at show, you're going to have a fabulous time and walk away with a huge smile on your face. "I'm all about having fun. Why do it if it ain't fun?"

The discussion continues at Fine Gardening...

Foliage Foundations and Gnasty Gnomes (the Gs are silent)

[Author's note: I'm making this first part up.]

Imagine this late night scene: You've finished flossing, folded down the quilt, fluffed the pillows, flipped open F is for Fugitive, felt it fall flat on your face, and flipped off the fluorescent.

That's their signal. I'm not condoning their behavior, mind you, but as you sail off to The Land of Nod, your garden gnomes begin their nightly escapades. Imagine a job like theirs -- standing immobile while the summer sun bakes off your paint, or winter winds whip you with sleet. And what's with the sprinkler bidet?

So when late night falls and their shift ends, the gnomes need to blow off some steam. Off to the all-night pub, they belly up to the brass foot rail and get down to serious business.

The night isn't over yet. Stumbling home, their little concrete eyes gleaming, the merry pranksters repeat their pre-dawn ritual: Picking off all the flower buds waiting to open, so the garden never blooms.

The moral of this story: Design your garden as though these mischievous, misanthropic (or is that mis-flor-opic?), buggers live in your garden. Don't use flowers as the sole visual interest in your garden. Instead, concentrate on creating year-round interest by exploiting your plants' shapes, density, leaf patterns, and foliage colors, so your garden looks great, flowers or not.

Allow me to share one of the most elegantly sophisticated little corners of landscaping I've ever seen. What knocks me out so much is the use of two key visual design principles - harmony (elements with similarities) and contrast (elements with differences). This vignette sits a few blocks from my house, adorning the Sansum Diabetes Research Center in Santa Barbara.

More photos and astute analysis at Fine Gardening

Add Nan Sterman's Great Book To Your Library!

Nan Sterman's California Gardener's Guide, Volume II, (Cool Springs Press) fills in much of the info that the Sunset Western Garden Book sometimes leaves me guessing about.

Although Sunset includes more than 8000 plants in their encyclopedia, the specific information about each plant is sometimes inconsistent. I can look up one plant and find out everything I need to know (including its SSN and high school transcripts), while another plant's listing leaves out something critical, like how wide the plant gets at maturity.

Filling In The Gaps
That's why I always happy when a plant I need to know more about is listed in Sterman's book. California Gardener's Guide takes a "less is more" and a "more is more" approach: It lists only 186 plants, but packs each entry with well-researched, vital information that helps me make intelligent plant selection decisions.

The book starts with inspiring and informative introductory chapters explaining California's enviable Mediterranean climate and its affect on the garden. Sterman explains the pronounced differences in growing conditions throughout this diverse state, including easy-to-understand tables showing typical rainfall and high/low temperatures in major five regions.

Sterman's advice about planning, installing, and caring for a garden is steeped in the most fundamental concepts of sustainable landscaping: Know your site and the growing conditions each plant will face; apply the principles of water-efficient gardening; and take the time to intelligently match the right plant to the right place.

More to read about Nan Sterman's must-have book at Fine Gardening...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Washing Machines and Art Collide in a Santa Barbara Garden

"Honey, I'm so proud of you turning off the tube and taking a sculpture class at the community college. And I'm sure there's a perfect spot near the hose bibb where that thing be very happy."

Unfortunately, that's how a lot of "art" winds up in the garden, along with the accumulation of stuff you just couldn't pass up at the swap meet. Some people have a knack for "eclectic", but for the rest of us, there's another way to personalize your garden.

Take the approach my clients John and Constance Thayer used, for example. Their new garden was something they'd been waiting years to design and build. When it came time to put the finishing touches on the garden, Jonstance (that's how they sign their e-mails; I think it's cute.) took their time and saw the importance of marrying the ideal pieces with each garden room.

If you were the Thayer's letter carrier, you'd know right away that these folks know how to have fun.

See more fun art and a perfect bench at my Cool Green Gardens blog at Fine Gardening.

Get Thee To A Garden Show

This is the time of year when all my writing pals blog about New Years resolutions for the garden. Since I've never kept a resolution longer than the time it takes to pass across my well-intentioned lips, I'm not gonna even attempt that feat. Instead, I'll ask YOU to make -- and keep -- a garden resolution.

Repeat after me: "THIS is the year I'll go to a garden show!" And what more appropriate time to dream about spring and working in your own garden than the icy grasp of winter?

At this very moment some of the most imaginative garden designers are hunkered down at their drawing boards putting the finishing touches on displays that'll knock your socks off. Most shows have dozens of seminars presented by experts in every gardening niche - container gardening, vertical gardening, succulents, tropical displays, outdoor living spaces, preserving your harvest, off-planet terraforming -- you can't miss.

[Health precaution: Before you step into the show's vendor section, have a full check-up from your physician - some of the luscious plants that debut at the shows will make even a seasoned gardener palpitate.]

To Which Show Shall You Go?

No matter what region you live in, there's a garden show -- too many for me to write about here. So I posted a note at Facebook asking some of my hort homies which ones they'd recommend. It didn't take long to get some rave endorsements. Here's what my peeps say you gotta go see...

San Francisco Flower & Garden Show - Wed. Mar. 23 - Tue. Mar. 29; San Mateo Events Center

Laura Livengood Schaub (Schaub Designs), perhaps a bit prejudiced, since she's social media manager for the show, told me "The SFGS is not to be missed, since you're speaking!"

That's right, Laura. My readers can meet me at the show. I'll be speaking on Thursday, March 24 (check the schedule when we get closer to the date). My seminar is titled, "How To Create Any Style Garden Using Mediterranean Plants." (If you live in snow country and can't grow a silver-leaf princess flower to save your life, come anyway, if only for the jokes.)

In the first hour, I'll teach you the same design principles I use in my own garden designs. Once you're brains are filled with cool design ideas, I'll release you to the vendor's hall to hunt for killer plant combos for your own garden. When you've shopped until you drop, come back for a bit of show-and-tell and personalized design advice from yours truly.

Check out the rest of the top shows around the country at my Fine Gardening blog.

A Full Order of Plump, Juicy Succulents

I throw my head back as sinister rumbles of laughter well up from the dank caverns of my black heart. I rub my scaly hands while the rest of the nation cowers under the wrath of the WINTER WEATHER BOMB burying the rest of the country.

I just finished watering Lin's collection of potted succulents, the ultimate symbol our benign Mediterranean climate. Oh, and I was wearing shorts. Eat your hearts out!

I mean it's not like spring is sproinging throughout the 805 just yet. Most of the showy garden plants are biding their time, waiting for longer days and consistent warm temperatures. But that doesn't mean there isn't anything going on in the garden right now.

A few weeks ago, dear reader Mitzie suggested I write about "succulent gardens in winter," a topic I haven't covered. So that's where we're going, folks.

"Succulents" is a catch-all term for any plant that stores water in its roots, stems and leaves. They're not all desert plants - some Sempervivum species grow in rocky crags in the Alps, though many will turn to mush in a heavy frost.

I started my fact finding at Ganna Walska Lotusland, world renowned for its exotic collection of rare specimens and eclectic plantings. When Virginia Hayes, Curator of the Living Collection and deep-knowledge columnist for the Independent, met me in front of the main house, the first things that caught my eye were succulents in bondage - like a scene from Gulliver's Travels.

Lots more yummy photos and the rest of this story at

Friday, January 7, 2011

Did Vertical Gardening Start During the Gold Rush?

I'm no garden history expert, but I'd be willing to bet that vertical gardening, the current rage, started in San Francisco in the middle of the 19th century. At least it looked that way from where I was standing.

Little did the Gold Rush-era sailors know that the stone they were blasting and hauling off as ballast for their ships would someday support a rich tapestry of lush plants smothering the sheer, stony cliffside of Telegraph Hill.

Before all those tons of rock were removed, water lapped at the base of a gently sloping hillside inhabited by grazing goats (good name for a band). It's taken a century and a half to revegetate the barren, jagged rock face, but the results are impressive, as I witnessed on a recent trip to The City (that's what cool people call it).

Lin and I were in San Francisco taking in the Post-Impressionist show at the DeYoung Museum, and visiting our son, Cosmo, who's living the life of a poet, cooking on a gourmet Vietnamese lunch truck and finishing college.

We rose early, ate a power breakfast with the kid and headed for the waterfront. "Oh heart, be still!" I gasped. "I've found unexpected free parking on a side street in the commercial depths of the Embarcadero, just a few blocks from our destination, Filbert Steps." (I tend to talk that way when I'm excited.)

The eastern face of Telegraph Hill looked wild and inaccessible, like El Capitan rising from the floor of Yosemite Valley. The rock face cascaded with ribbons of green, framed by the shimmering golden foliage of poplar trees. Fortunately, we weren't going to need a Sherpa or oxygen masks to mount our assault - we'd hoof it a couple of blocks to the Filbert Steps and take the more civilized route.

Lots of great photos and plants at Fine Gardening