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...