Saturday, December 29, 2007

Succulent Stew for Green Thumbs Sunday Dinner

Succulent Xmas detail
Originally uploaded by gardenwiseguy

After a last minute decision to engage in a holiday gift exchange with the immediate family (thought we'd be away, but that changed), I ran out to create a dish of succulents for my Spousal Support Unit (isn't that endearing?). She's recently begun collecting more of these critters and I thought I'd put my bold, professional design sense into this planting.

Thematically, I tried to use the same form a few times (the rosette) and also repeat some foliage colors between the various forms. So the burgundy shade repeats in the Sedum spurium 'Dragon's Blood' and the Echevaria, and the silvery-grey has a few appearances. The one big shift is the charteuse-colored Sedum.

She loved the gift and especially the book on succulents. Hope you all enjoyed your Christmas time and that your new year is joyful, peaceful and filled with chlorophyll.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bustin’ My Ash on the West Side – Cleaning Up After Another Ash Storm

Across the nation, Christmas means snowflakes on the trees and snow blowers for finding your driveway. This year in Santa Barbara, it means dusty, stinking brown ash and grit on everything. Humbug!

This summer’s Zaca Fire (240,000 acres and a $120 million price tag) has been out for months, but when the weather conditions are right (okay, wrong) winds from the inland areas pick up the months-old ash and carry it over the mountains to the coast. We literally had a taste of it a few months ago, and now we’ve had two dust storms in one week.

I just got in from sweeping my driveway. It’s about 65 ft. by 25 ft. and using an 18” wide broom, I estimate that was about 1.5443 billion strokes (always show your work: 1625 square feet times the square root of my shoe size, allowing for a 4 mph head wind, minus 27 for Celsius = 1.5 billion rounded up).

I think I performed the most environmentally sensitive sweeping that is within my means. I was motivated after watching the maintenance person this morning at La Arcada downtown. For the second time this week, he washed down every square inch of surface in that exquisite (though a bit kitche for my taste) urban shopping paradise with a hose. Water everywhere, eventually running over the sidewalk and into the gutter

On Monday, I watched in brooding silence as he performed his task. I had a great speech going in my head on all the reasons why what he was doing was a terrible thing. Foremost, we don’t have any freakin’ water to spare! 6 inches last “rainy season” and not much to speak of yet this year. Second, all the ash, leaves and who-knows-what would eventually find its way to a storm drain, then into Mission Creek. Huge environmental no-no. Oh yeah, it’s also against the law.

So today, I put on my smiley face, mustered up my assertiveness and we had a civil talk. I already knew his defense, which is the same as most of you dealing with this at your homes. If you sweep, it raises a cloud of dust, which not only chokes you, but most of what you’re trying to get rid of rises into the air, only to resettle again. Blowers are definitely out, and most people don’t have yard vacuums (though they are the coming thing and you might want to investigate them). He listened politely as I spun my tale of environmentally friendly ash kicking. Behold…Here’s what I ended up doing over the weekend and again today.

Step one – grab a hose and an adjustable nozzle and set it on “mist.” Tut, tut, tut – we’re not going to use more than a few gallons.

Step two – make a quick pass over a section of the driveway, barely moistening the surface without creating anything resembling a puddle.

Step three – grab a Stiff Quickie. No, really! (Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s a push broom I bought a few weeks ago at Home Improvement Center. When I read the register receipt I almost lost it. Some brainiac at the broom company named this model the Stiff Quickie, so get back to reading this brilliant set of instructions.)

Step four - start sweeping in short strokes. The barely moist dirt stays on the ground, no dust, no muss, no fuss!!! If you have a planted area nearby, push everything into the bed. It won’t harm your plants as it works into the soil. If you don’t have a bed to sweep into make a pile, pick it up, bag and seal it, and put it in the trash can – don’t want to choke the guys who dump the container, ‘cause this stuff is going to dry out.

If you absolutely have to wash some areas down, wash into a planted area to keep this toxic soup from reaching our water ways. If that’s impossible, try laying out a bundle of straw or an old pair of jeans to intercept as much of the water-borne debris as you can before it reaches the gutter.

So, I got a little exercise, my green credentials are reinforced, my conscience is clear, and my driveway is clean. Ash or not, we are often tempted to wash down surfaces around our homes. Maybe you can keep this in mind next time. I hope so.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Silvery “Green Thumb Sunday”

Silver Spear
Originally uploaded by gardenwiseguy

I’ve been using this plant more and more in my repertoire. It seems to grow exceptionally well wherever I use it and the impact of the spikey silver foliage can’t be beat.

Astelia chamathia (Silver Spear) is the botanical name, and this gorgeous New Zealand native (actually, the Chatham Islands) is certainly welcome on our shores. Give it good drainage, sun or bright shade around here (Santa Barbara, CA) and can take the coldest nights we get around here (good to about 20 deg. F).

If you’ve got heavy clay soil, you might want to keep it out of the ground and grow it in a pot. For real drama surround it with some purple foliage (maybe Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’) and splash a little yellow-green nearby (I’m a fool for the chartreuse sweet potato – Ipomea).

So this week we’ll call it “Silver Thumb Sunday.”

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Great Design Example from Carpinteria

It’s still pretty toasty in Santa Barbara, though in some areas we’re dipping into the low 30s and some plants need to be covered. So to warm things up, I picked some plants with toasty-warm golden tones. You might be tempted to take off your bunny slippers and hold your feet up to your monitor – your choice, but it’s hard explain footprints on your screen.

Here’s a second installment on my little design symposium. Let’s continue with the topic of contrast and harmony, but this time it’s two, two, two compositions in one.

I frequently rant about removing lawns that don’t serve a needed recreational purpose, approaching the topic from an environmental / sustainability mindset. But for completely aesthetically selfish reasons, another great reason is to give yourself more real estate in which to play with fun plant compositions. As you’ll see below, when you allow enough space to create “Uber-beds” you can really play.

Here’s how the “twofer bed” idea works. If you have a planting area that can be seen from more than one angle, consider placing a “ridge line” of taller plants through the middle of your bed so that it blocks the view of plants on each side of the ridge. The ridge plants now offer a backdrop for experimenting with more than one composition, using the same backdrop twice.

Since a picture is worth oh so many words, these photos, taken at Seaside Gardens, just north of Carpinteria, CA. will tell the tale. Seaside is a truly unique nursery in that they’ve given over a substantial bit of acreage to invite local designers to create a series of theme gardens. Even better, the plants are well maintained AND set out to allow them to reach their full size without any hacking or pruning, so you really know the character of the plants your buying.

This stunning combination of Gold Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare 'Isla Gold') and Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple') is the type of bold “killer combo” I encourage my students and clients to explore as a bit of design risk-taking. Who needs flowers when you can almost pop an eye out with the pairing like this?

Now let’s hike over the ridge of Tansy. Behold!

On the reverse side is a silvery planting of Silver Rye (Leymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince'). Whether paired with the boldness of Smoke Bush or the subtler textural shift of the rye grass, Tansy is a force to be reckoned with.

So find a plant that can play two roles in your garden and consider placing a surprising pairing on each side.

Nuff for now…gotta go see Golden Compass.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Bit of Garden Design Theory

Canna and Society Garlic
Originally uploaded by gardenwiseguy

Here's something to chew on. I was just looking over a few of my pictures and spotted this one that I use when I teach my garden design classes. It's an image from the project I designed for the Goleta Water District a few years back. I think it exemplifies a "Santa Barbara-style" composition, if there is such a thing. Perhaps it can be a starting point for a conversation about designing not only in our Mediterranean climate, but has implications anywhere. In this example, so fairly common plants are combined to create a killer combo.

One of the simplest concepts for bringing interest to a garden is the impact that can be created by working with contrast and harmony. Here's a crash course...

Starting with the pinkish canna lily (Canna eribus) in this photo, we see that its visual character is comprised of its architecture (the overall form of the plant) which in this case is as follows: a vertical "posture" and broad, upright, spearhead-shaped leaves. The stems will easily reach 5 to 6 feet high. The flowers are large and in proportion to the rest of the plant.

The colors are a greyish-green leaf and coral flowers. Coral is the "tint" of a slightly orangy red. If you were mixing paint you'd take a good amount of red, add barely a dot of yellow (moving it toward orange) then dilute the whole thing with a heapin' helpin' of white. White makes a basic "hue" become a "tint." O.K., let's keep it simple - pink is the tint of red.

Now for the Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) in the back. Its architecture is fine textured and grassy, but is similar to the canna due to the predominantly vertical direction of the leaves and flower stems. The plant is small, growing only to about 12" (18" when flowering). The flowers are small and, again, in scale with the plant.

The flower color is also a tint, in this case, its as if we took a big dollop of purple and mixed in some white. The foliage is a medium green, with a little yellow.

Time to wrap up.

Contrast: The contrast is created by three features: fine texture (Tulbaghia) against coarse texture (Canna); contrasting flower color; and small plant / large plant.

Harmony: Both plants are vertical in their stance; both are within a range of green foliage (as opposed to pairing silver and purple foliage); both have flowers that are the tint of their base hue.

So what does all this mean to you?

Grab a visual concept before you begin putting a plant palette together. Look at not just the flowers, but the totality of the grouping. Better yet, when you look at a planting design you like, see if you can "reverse engineer" what's going on. It might give you a clue to what excites you and you'll have a better chance of creating something great for your own garden.

One last observation - the plants were used in distinct groups, not intermixed. That makes for a much stronger overall statement.

Later, skater...

A thought after posting this article: I've been reading some early reactions to this post and readers seem to appreciate these design tips. I'd be glad to continue this as a series - just let me know some design topics you'd be interested in. GWG

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Green Thumb Sunday, with a bold hand

Tradescantia and Silver Agave
Originally uploaded by gardenwiseguy

It's such fun to have clients who are risk takers. Here's what ya get. He's a brilliant architectural and fine art photographer; she's an interior designer. This west facing slope was covered with mostly dead Bermuda grass (the scourge of the west). The concept we mutually developed was large panels of ground cover, each with its own contrasting central element. In this case, it's Agave americana and Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Heart.' It stops traffic....really

Monday, December 3, 2007

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas???

How is it that the typical weather of the northern Europe and the USA's midwest and northeast became the icon for Christmas? "Let it snow" (repeat twice more). I guess it's similar to the hypothesis that if our country had been settled by Juan de Anza coming out of Mexico, people in the forests of New Hampshire would be trying to grow Saguaro cactus, instead of us trying to grow lawns. The aesthetic traveled along with settlement patterns.

So the winter holidays come with the ubiquitous snow and conifer trees and holly berries, while out here in So. Cal. it still looks like a floral paradise. I've been spending some time looking at a lot of garden blogs this week, having joined up with Green Thumb Sunday (see my December 2 post). Part of the requirement of being a member is to click over and say "howdy" to some of the other bloggers. And wouldn't you know it, many of them have said "ta ta for now" to their little Edens as they have gradually receded under a blanket of snow.

As I was walking in the late morning clear sunshine at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden on Sunday, I was mentally composing this blog post along the lines of "we've still got flowers and you don't." Not very nice to rub it in like that. Then I received a comment last night from another blogger who thanked me for allowing them to vicariously enjoy some floral color when the view outside their window was nothing but bare trees and white.

So, in the spirit of sharing the wealth (rather than flaunting it) I give you my December gallery of images from Alice. Enjoy.

Well, since the season is often about berries (Holly, Cran, Dingle, etc.) this image kinda combines traditional and subtropical. Pyracantha gives us the saturated red and the fruits of the Butia (Pindo Palm) drop us on the other side of the equator.

Speaking of South America, this white variety of Floss Silk Tree (Chorisia) paired up with an Asian variety of Magnolia (M. soulangeana) makes a great geographic irony, but they sure look great together.

Here's a close-up of the white flowering variety of Chorisia filling the skyline along Santa Barbara St. right now. Its pink cousin has peaked, so now it's this guy's turn. Love the shiny fruits.

That same Magnolia viewed from up close sort of makes me want to take a big bite out of it. I'm thinking that with this saturated color it should either taste like cotton candy or fresh strawberries.

Not to cause visual whiplash or anything, here's a complete switch in terms of climate preferences. This translucent, but succulent Kalanchoe carnea 'Modoc' (named for the local street, I'm told) had just the right light to make it look like a wax model.

Staying with the Mediterranean climate plants, this yellow Aloe, from southern Africa, is a reliable winter bloomer, but somehow, it just doesn't shout 'Ho, ho, ho' like a spruce tree might.

Now we're getting closer to traditional Christmas colors. Aloe arborescens is my harbinger of the holiday season.

Might as well keep on with the aloes. This one, Aloe bainesii, becomes a tree and shows off these luscious coral colored blooms up high.

It's hard to beat the Princess Flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) for pure, saturated color.

If you can handle a bit more subtropical color, this Hong Kong Orchid Tree should turn a few heads. Even when it's not blooming, the kidney-shaped leaves create an unusual texture in a planting composition.

But this was my favorite shot of the day (already posted for Green Thumbs Sunday). Fall color in the background and screaming golden yellow of Mexican Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii) catching the sun.

I hope that if you're reading this while snow falls outside your window, this brings you a bit of warmth.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Green Thumb Sunday

Mexican Marigold - Sweet Gum background
Originally uploaded by gardenwiseguy

I'm taking part in a mass blogging effort to try to bump up the hits on all the contributing web sites. We're all garden bloggers from around the country (and then some) and the idea is to post a nice garden shot, then visit the blogs of some other members.

So this is the product of a morning stroll through Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens in Santa Barbara. I'll have a more extensive post with more photos later this week, so if you need another fix, come on back.

This is Mexican Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii) with a backdrop of Toona (Cedrela sinensis), and Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Pictures can be magical

Agave attenuata (Fox Tail Agave)
Originally uploaded by gardenwiseguy

I just took this photo today. It's an Agave attenuata at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. As part of a monthly discipline and as a way to create some content for this blog I've been visiting this great botanical park in downtown Santa Barbara. It's a few blocks from my house and I generally wait for the late afternoon light to soften a bit.

Aside from the SLR camera I owned a few decades ago, I haven't really attempted to be artistic with my camera. It's more about documenting the landscapes I've create for clients and the occasional family shot.

But when I downloaded this shot I was quite stunned at the product. I know I was consciously "composing" something that might turn out nice, but I don't have the imagination or experience to predict what the camera will produce.

How is it that despite all the visual information that was streaming in, I was able to frame and compose just this information?

I love how the human brain works. This truly feels like an act of magic.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Was Ernie Hemingway ever photographed with rubber duckies?

So, I'm a published writer. Not that blogging isn't writing, but we're talking about becoming a real live, bona fide, ink on paper columnist! As of the November 2007 issue, I'm the GARDEN COLUMNIST for Coastal Woman magazine, a quarterly publication aimed at local women.

As their website says, "Women today are more interesting than ever as they seek ways to balance traditional roles and unconventional choices. Coastal Woman explores the ways we each make it work living in Santa Barbara, juggling nature and nurture, family and career, personal time and community care."

Needless to say, I'm stoked (that doesn't sound very literary - let's try that again). Needless to say, this is like soooooooo cool (that's better). See, I'm already rising to the occasion.

If you can't find it at one of the local outlets, you can click this link to download a copy and read it on-line (page 44).

I first came across Coastal Woman when my Garden Wise Guys TV show co-host, Owen Dell, and I were interviewed about our show. I asked the writer, Nancy Shobe, to check out my blog and give me a writing critique, and to my delight, she suggested I get CW publisher Barbara Lantz-Mateo to take a look. Well, Barbara checked out my blog and I guess she liked what she read and offered me a page in each issue.

I knew this was going to be fun when I met with the art director and photographer for the photo shoot. There I was in a yellow rain slicker, sitting in the middle of the lawn, giant red and white umbrella in hand with Barbara off to my side spraying me with a hose. Intrigued? Just download a copy or if you're local, pick one up from the newsrack.

I'm honored to be given this opportunity to reach a wider audience and having Barbara's support in spreading a pro-environmental, pro-sustainability message. Let's raise our glasses and toast to a long relationship!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Yipes!!! Been Meme'd again!

Having been "tagged" with a meme once before, I played along, not quite sure what it was all about. Well, it happened again today when I opened a message from the Bare Bones Gardener blog.

So, right to Google go I and found this from Chris Garret's blog: "In science, a Meme (pronounced to rhyme with “theme”) is a self-propagating unit of thought that is spread from one host to another. Richard Dawkins invented the term as a kind of idea-gene. Like genes, as Memes spread they mutate or die."

Chris continues: "For bloggers Memes have become synonymous with internet quizzes, surveys, and novelties that people link to and pass around on their blogs, forums and via email, things like the “which superhero are you most like” test." The real reason for a meme, though, is to proliferate one's blog and connect with lots of other bloggers. We LIVE to know we're being read, so it's a lot of ego gratification. Never one to turn down a few good connections, here we go.

Bare Bones meme asks recipients to list 8 (why 8?) things we're happy about, then link to 8 other bloggers... (in no particular order)

8) We'll have a new president soon.

7) My wife and son are healthy and love me back.

6) I live in Santa Barbara CA, and though I can't afford to own a home in this high priced paradise, life is good.

5) I'm seriously thinking of retiring and starting a new career - it's very exciting after 20 years at the same job.

4) I'm still actively playing drums with an incredible band (King Bee)and getting my rocks off in the process.

3) The gardens I've designed change peoples' lives

2) My car works

1) I'm happy with who I am and the people I have in my life

So here are the great eight...please help keep this in motion.

Growing a Garden In Davis



A Study In Contrasts

Gardening While Intoxicated

Golden Gecko in the Sierras

The Diva Tales

Craig Smith's Blog

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Not All Grass is Evil - Alice’s Fall Beauties

Where do you go to hear someone rant about grass? Everybody…shout it out… “The Garden Wise Guy’s blog! He wrote that article about Murdering Your Lawn and another on how to rid yourself of the corpse.”

Trick question – I don’t hate grass; I’m just maniacally opposed lawns that serve no purpose other than looking green and sucking up precious resources.

But don’t get me started about my love of all the other grasses! Tall grasses from the prairies of North America that used to feed herds of buffalo. Exotic striped Maidengrass species from Africa and Asia that dance on the slightest breeze. Blue Oat Grass with its stiff silver stems, like a 70s Rod Stewart hair cut.

I don’t use grasses in every design, but they are the “go to” plant for creating informal naturalistic compositions or for inserting a strong vertical burst in a bed. Also, if you have breezes that frequently pass through your garden, the tall grasses will jump to life as the air movement animates their tall flowering stems.

Looks like I got myself started.

Alice has a nice menu of grasses, but it’s by no means exhaustive. All of them will grow in just about any Santa Barbara garden and fit perfectly within the parameters of sustainable gardening. Many ornamental grasses need little supplemental water, are virtually pest and disease free, and don’t require fertilization. That’s what I can sustainable.

Here are a few I spotted on my photo tour at the beginning of November. I’m also throwing in a few non-grasses that provide a similar impact. Let’s just go at it alphabetically…

A is for Arrhenatherum elatius bulbosum 'Variegatum', but you can just call it Bulbous Oat Grass. This particular plant is growing in a bed close to the northwest quadrant of Alice. It’s in a somewhat shady bed so the white stripes (‘variegation’ is the term we use) brighten up the composition. It spreads slowly and only gets about eight inches tall.

Along the Santa Barbara St. side of the park is a dried stream bed with a pretty nice variety of grasses and grass-like plants. There are four silvery leaf players and one of my favorite tall grasses. When I look at this area, it’s like little fireworks are going off – all the leaves and flowering tassels heading skyward create a burst of animation that contrasts nicely with the various ground covers.

Could there be a cooler name for a plant than Silver Spears? Astelia chathamica isn’t a grass. It’s from New Zealand and in the Lily family, so it’s not even closely related to any grasses. But it’s sharing a mostly-grass bed and with its wide, brilliant leaves, adds just enough textural variation to add a bit of life to the bed. This close-up shows the chalky coating that gives the plant its common name.

Nearby is Blue Oat Grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens – looking a little tan this time of year) set among a very similar grass named Blue Fescue (Festuca ovina glauca). They have almost the same color, but the Oat Grass looks like you took the Fescue and resized it by 200% on a copier. I like that effect – a very subtle play of contrasting sizes with all other visual elements (form, color, texture) remaining the same. That big guy in the background is another form of Miscanthus.

There’s one other very silvery grass here. Canyon Prince Giant Rye (Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’) is a Channel Islands native selected, propagated and introduced by Dara Emery and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. It stands about one to two feet high, has a beautiful flowering tassel in the summer, and reflects sun in the late afternoon. At Alice, it’s been gradually spreading by underground stems (rhizomes) and has filled in nicely among the boulders.

But the big kid on this block is Miscanthus ‘Morning Light.’ It stand about shoulder high and when it flowers in the summer, only a pro basketball player could reach the tops of the flowers. This is one of those plants you want to have when the breezes kick up. It’s also a plant that should be cut to the ground before spring so it can completely regenerate as the weather warms. I don’t see that as a problem but something to look forward to. Imagine this giant mass just disappearing for a few months, leaving the garden open and revealing whatever was growing behind it. Then, in a few months, it’s back and booming! Kinda like removing a big piece of furniture from the living room for a while.

One more grass-like treat and I’ll let you go…Fairy Lily (Zephyranthes candida) – the name says it all. It’s native to Argentina and Uruguay and creates a great meadow of dainty white flowers. It’s a little more thirsty than some plants, but it is a bulb, so if you cut back on the water, it tends to just show up again after a good soaking. I like it mixed with some low grasses and ground covers.

Here’s what some of these dudes look like all put together. Maybe this will encourage you to explore the world of grasses. The west coast’s most active proponent of these and other grasses is John Greenlee. Pop over to his web site for a little more propaganda!

And hats off again to Grant Castleberg, the original designer of Alice and a landscape architect who continues to remain active in the design of this gem. His wife, Ann-Marie wrote a fabulous book that's available at our local Chaucer's Books and also on-line (but please shop locally!). It's beautifully printed with photos by Ralph A. Clevenger (another Santa Barbarian).

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Don't Lean Against That Tree

I’ve been thinking about what to write about. I tried writing about what I want to think about, but that doesn’t really get me anywhere, since I have to think in order to write (I know it doesn’t always look like that to my readers). At the same time, I’ve been working on building my photo collection so I can put together nice presentations for my clients, showing them what the plants I want to use look like, and to enhance my lectures.

In a parallel universe, a few blocks away…I recently installed a feature in this blog and my web site that allows me to see who’s reading this tome, how long they stay around, how many pages they click on and (here’s the fun part) where they’re reading from. It’s a free service from Google Analytics and I highly recommended it to any bloggers reading this. I just added the feature a few days ago and have noticed readers from all sorts of exotic places like Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Finland, France, Thailand and Lompoc.

Back to the photos…Today it occurred to me that since I live only a few blocks from Santa Barbara’s botanic masterpiece, Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, I’d walk over there with my trusty Nikon CoolPix S10 and shoot Alice once a month to capture what’s looking good at various times of the year. Hence, I build my photo collection!

[Brief historical aside] If you’re not familiar with ‘Alice’, it is without a doubt the jewel in the crown of the Santa Barbara park system. Named for it’s benefactor, Alice Keck Park (yes, her last name was Park, so it could have been called Alice Keck Park Park, but cooler heads prevailed), it was the site of the El Mirasol estate of the Herter family in the early 1900s, then became the El Mirasol (sunflower, en espaƱol) Hotel.

There was actually a proposal from a local real estate developer (who shall remain nameless, for now) to erect two 9-story condo towers on the site in about 1969!

“Alas,” thought I, entering the garden in late afternoon. “November is not exactly the time of year for great floral displays and sumptuous photography.” But off I went to give it a try. As I was lining up a shot of a soft shell-pink Canna Lily, I thought about those folks in Germany and the Finland and what November probably looks like in their gardens. So I checked. Berlin – High 48 F / low 33 F. Helsinki – high 35 F / low 27 F. I’ve also got some regular readers in the northern US where evening temps are dipping into the low 30s and upper 20s.

“Hmmmm…How, under the guise of horticultural education, could I rub it in that here in our Mediterranean climate, where most of us are just now thinking about donning a sweater in the evening or switching from flip-flops to shoes with socks, we have a lot for which to be thankful. I know – I’ll put my Alice photos on the blog! ”

So here are a few bits of eye candy to get the ball rolling. I’ll try this for a few months and see what comes of it. Leave a message if you want more articles like this one.

The first thing that caught my eye arriving at the park from the intersection of Arrellaga and Santa Barbara Streets were the shimmering pink blossoms of the Floss Silk Tree (Chorisia speciosa).

These are truly exotic looking trees originating from Brazil and Argentina, and are related to the African Baobab, though the trunks aren’t as distinctively “bloated.” Most stunning right now are the five-petaled pink flowers with tiny brown-on-ivory leopard spots.

There’s also a white flowering variety at Alice. But perhaps the most distinctive trait is the massively thorny trunk that some (but not all) of the trees develop. I can’t imagine even a rhinoceros with poison oak rubbing up to one of these bad boys.

Later in the year I’ll catch a photo of the floss-like fuzz that bursts from the seed pods, giving the plant it’s common name.

Just a hop and skip from these spiky beauties is a display of giant tree dahlias (Dahlia imperialis) that I await every fall. There are dahlias and then there THESE dahlias. This perennial appears to be on steroids, growing from little stubs that were cut back to the ground the previous year, into 12-foot high 3” diameter stems that rival some timber bamboos.

And in the fall, beautiful sparsely distributed lavender flowers with yellow centers appear.

It’s a marvel what nature can program a plant to do. Kids go nuts keeping track of the growth. If nurturing a 400 lb. pumpkin is out of the question, this is one plant that will get everyone’s attention.

Got time for one more? Good…Here’s a little oddity. Many folks, regardless of whether you live in the land of winter sandals or snow shoes, know the Aloe plant. The most familiar of these South African succulents is Aloe vera, used to treat burns and other skin inflammations. But have you seen an Aloe that can scamper up palm tree?

Climbing Aloe (Aloe ciliaris) has orange flowers almost year round, stems about the diameter of a pencil and short white cilia (barbs) that protrude from leaves and stems to trap neighboring upright branches and bark, allowing it to lean against trunks and continue to mound up on itself. Unlike vines that actually spiral around branches, climbing Aloe holds on more like Velcro. It’s growing up a Date Palm near the pond if you want to check it out.

I’m about Aliced out, but look for more articles this month. I have quite a few more pictures and a few woe-filled stories to unload. Comments would be greatly welcome, especially from those of you whimpering inside your igloos.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gardens and Fire

Smoke from the Sedgewick Fire at Sunrise

The Zaca fire had Santa Barbara packed and ready to move. The environmental, health and financial impacts will reverberate for a very long time. Yet how fortunate were we to have favorable weather and tireless efforts from local and faraway firefighters?

Seeing what’s going on in the Southland this week, we can hardly complain. As of this writing, there are over 500 structures destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people displaced and lives turned on their heads. On NPR this morning was the story of a single dad with 8-year old twin girls (one of them asthmatic) who were awoken in the middle of the night and told to get out. Left behind where pets (three goldfish named Larry, Moe and Curly, plus a cat), cell phone, credit cards - you get the point. The apartment complex burned to the ground – how do you console your daughters and start over? I can’t even begin to imagine.

So this morning, I drove to Santa Barbara’s Firescape Demonstration Garden at Mission Ridge and Stanwood Drive (right across from the fire station near the Sheffield Reservoir). Earlier this year Owen Dell (the other Garden Wise Guy) and I redesigned this invaluable resource co-managed by the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department and the Water Conservation program.
SB's Finest

The purpose of the Firescape Garden is to educate homeowners in fire prone areas about the best way to create defensible space around their homes. For more information about how to create a more firesafe landscape, read the City of Santa Barbara guidelines for landscaping.

The demonstration garden was given a complete face-lift after almost 25 years of service. Lots of plant material was removed, attractive plants were arranged as they would be used in a home garden, and the principles of protecting your home from wildfire were implemented.

The purpose of this blog post isn’t to explain those principles in detail, but to encourage readers to take proactive steps to give fire fighters a fighting chance to protect you and your neighbors. It’s actually quite simple – manage the potential fuel around your home and break the “fuel ladder.”

Bulbine and boulders

If you live in an area that would even remotely be vulnerable to wildfire (remember – the Paint fire crossed Highway 101 and jumped into Hope Ranch before the weather miraculously turned the fire back on itself) promise yourself that you’ll visit the Firescape Garden, read the material posted on the kiosks, have someone from the fire department visit your home for an assessment, and be prepared to make some changes to your landscape.

The following photos show the garden today, just a few months after its June 2007 installation. It might not make the cover of Sunset Magazine just yet, but it’s heading that way. There are many styles of plants (not just succulents and rocks) for many situations. No excuse; you can do this. What would you rather do – sift through the ashes or make a few compromises in your garden?

Sorry for the lack of pithy humor that is my trademark. This is deadly serious stuff.

Entrance to Firescape Garden

Info kiosk - here's how it works

Could you live with this?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Santa Barbara Beauty In The Eyes of This Beholder

O.K. - I recently cleansed my system by ranting about the ugly stuff, the butt-ugly stuff and the fugly stuff that pervades this otherwise beautiful city. It's way too easy to find good examples of really bad stuff, then rip a few hundred words on the keyboard. Now I'm not saying I feel any guilt about it, but I've challenged myself to find something nice to say, because there truly are some stunning plantings, buildings and garden artifacts to be grateful for.

So on the heels of the real Santa Barbara Beautiful Awards bestowed last week at the Lobero Theater, here is my version of what floats my boat. I laid out some simple ground rules: grab my trusty little Nikon CoolPics camera, leave for work on foot a few minutes early, and find those special places and things that just seem to get my endorphins pumping. Oddly, many of the same images that caught my eye have been featured at the Edhat website over the years. Guess that great artists think alike.

The Fountain at Micheltorena and State:

How fortunate are we to have such a prominent piece of private property preserved for the public? I don't know the history of this space, but the generosity of its original owner is, for me, like having our own Andrew Carnegie bestowing his philanthropy on the city. But in this case it's a glorious fountain, a graceful canopy of Coral Trees and the immaculate grounds below.

A few steps down the State Street and just being kissed by golden morning rays is one of my favorite facades.

There's something about the simplicity of the pattern on the diamond-shaped medallions that thrills me. It's the same restraint I often unsuccessfully seek in designing a garden - the willingness to totally commit to one simple idea and to state it boldly.

My favorite Agave sets down roots at the local mortuary parking lot--State and Sola.

Not quite sure who the designer was, but I know that local landscape contractor Debbie Shaw was involved in the installation a few years back. The plant combinations work very nicely, but the ultimate pairing is Agave vilmoriniana (Octopus Agave) and Sencecio mandraliscae (Blue Chalk Fingers). They kind of make me wonder if Georgia O'Keefe was also doing genetic engineering on desert succulents.

Three great finds in just a few blocks - then is was slim pickins until I hit the area around the main post office. But I knew where my next quarry lay. Down a lesser known alley (Presidio Avenue) is Jake's Fountain. At least that's what Lin (my spousal support unit) and I dubbed it years ago. Long story, but I had a structural engineering professor who loved all things pachydermian.

Nestled under spreading Tipu trees and flanked by stately Queen palms, the original grace of this fountain is now marred by some pretty fugly netting designed to keep hungry herons and egrets from chomping down the fish that swim in the main pool (not visible in this shot). This is like covering the Mona Lisa with razor wire to prevent it from being stolen, but blocking the beauty of the art. For my money, I'd adopt out the fish and restore the fountain to its unfettered glory.

Last on this list is a well-known architectural gem - the Meridian Studios, designed by none other than George Washington Smith and Carleton Winslow. This complex of offices and artist studio were added to the historic Lugo adobe in the mid-twenties.

The scale of the buildings and the distinctive coloration is a well-known landmark downtown. There's nothing like it that I've seen in my travels, and is just one of those places you bring out-of-town guests to show them how much cooler SB is than wherever they came from. I'll never pass up a chance to walk down this block of De la Guerra St. to take a quick peek at the narrow courtyard, worn bricks and brilliant wrought iron work.

Nuff for now...just wanted to show that I can be counted on to see not only the incredible absurdity of what some people do in the name of design, but also show proper respect for those special places that make Santa Barbara such a unique place to live.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dawn of the Carnivorous Babies of Lotusland!

One of the most sustainable things that can happen to your garden sounds a little like a zombie movie. I’m talking about little babies eating grown-ups. As they say in Hollywood, here’s the story treatment. Santa Barbara being so close to Hollywood, I’ll give it my best shot.

Just before dawn, as an waning moon sets over the gnarled and twisted trees, a barely visible white oval, perched on a slender filament, slowly splits open, revealing the hideous baby within. (Pretty spooky so far, eh?). Barely newborn and craving its first meal, this grotesque creature prowls for a living prey. (O.K., now I’M getting creeped out.) The sun breaks the horizon and the creature’s neighbor begins to stir. Suddenly aware that a terrible fate is about to befall it, the neighbor, disoriented, attempts to escape, but it’s too late. It becomes baby’s first meal and the taste of living flesh is forever imprinted in its young mind. Sorry. Not flesh; make that “chitinous exoskeleton.”

Gotcha! You were picturing something like the Gerber baby, but with a hideous misshapen mouth. Nope. Just our friend the lacewing larva, out for a quick snack, biting through the luscious, crunchy surface of a destructive mealybug.

I’ve known for a long time that beneficial insects beat out toxic pesticide sprays any day. That’s why it’s usually rare to hear anyone complain about ladybugs in their gardens. But my visit to Lotusland yesterday helped fill in the blanks. Owen Dell and I were taping a new segment for our TV show, Garden Wise Guys, at Ganna Walska’s Lotusland insectary and butterfly garden. Lotusland has been pesticide-free for years, and their insectary gardens are strategically placed to offer good habitat for good guys.

Virginia Hayes joined us on camera on very short notice and shared some very cool information with us. Virginia is not only Lotusland’s curator, but also writes a delightful weekly column for the Santa Barbara’s weekly Independent chock full of great garden info.

We stumbled through a few hours of taping and will probably end up with about 5 minutes of information and madness. No, not fair--I stumbled, Owen nailed it, and Virginia was as smooth as silk. But what I learned in those few hours should be shared with all of you.

Here’s a quick preview of what you’ll learn when this segment airs in mid-fall. We hope to add one more good reason for you to abandon the use of toxic chemicals in your landscape and adopt a more sustainable model for your maintenance.

First, beneficial insects come in all shapes and sizes, but what most have in common is that they are first attracted to your garden by a source of food (generally nectar-bearing flowers), then take up residence to lay eggs. When the babies hatch out, they’re the ones that eat the larva and adult pests in your garden. If you get this part right, you have an endless supply of garden helpers.

Next, the more diverse your offerings, the more diverse will be the range of beneficial insects. The tiny good guys generally seek out small flat flowers that have their sweet nectar within easy reach (native Buckwheat, parsley, carrots), whereas the dudes and dudettes with long “drinking straw” feeding tubes can slurp nectar out of deeper tubular flowers, like the plants in the mint family (sage, lavender, Lamb’s ear).

To be sure they will set up housekeeping and hang around to feast, be sure there’s some dense cover. Planting a few of the big ornamental grasses works well and they look great year round.

I continually extol the virtues of mulch as a way to keep down weeds and conserve soil moisture, but it’s got an equally important role. The insects that inhabit your decomposing mulch can also act as a food source during certain parts of an insect’s life cycle. So keep that mulch layer nice and thick and you’ll get even more benefit!

For more information about Lotusland's Best Management Practicices, click over to their site.

With all the big Hollywood film industry folks that live around here, maybe this blog will get me my first horror flick screenwriting job. Hey, I guy can hope!