Friday, February 29, 2008

Okay, okay - Color AND Foliage

There've been some provocative comments regarding my little February 23 posting about form and foliage trumping floral color. I hope I didn't mislead anyone into thinking that good garden design totally eschews the use of flowers. I just tend to view them as the ephemeral icing on the cupcake.

When you run into a plant like this luscious Cercis occidentalis (Western Redbud) as it's tiny sweet pea-like flowers mature and the crisp kidney-shaped leaves emerge, perfection is the result. It's my harbinger of spring in a climate where one season just sort of slides into the next.

This lovely California native is just emerging from winter dormancy in Santa Barbara this month. Look for them behind the entry kiosk at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. There are even a few on the right side of the northbound 101 freeway, just before the Bath Street off-ramp. But I think the Highway Patrol would prefer you not pull over to appreciate their delicate beauty.

Nuff said - soak it up.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A book for every Santa Barbara Gardener

Well, not just Santa Barbara. Let's make that California, because that's the name of the book - California Gardener's Guide (Volume II). But it's perfect for locals. I met Nan a few years ago when we were both presenting for a symposium at the L.A. Arboretum, and we've stayed in touch ever since. The following is a review of her book that I wrote and posted at I was going to say "this is one you'll want to have on your bookshelf", but that's not quite right. You'll want to have it on your lap, at the breakfast table, on the patio and in the garden.

Here goes...

We all know that the Sunset Western Garden Book is "the bible" when it comes to horticulture on the Left Coast. But after reading Sterman's fabulous book, it was plain to see what was missing from the other tome. Nan takes us through the rationale for what makes a California garden such a rewarding and unique setting.

As great as her encyclopedic listing of plants is, an equally valuable part of the book is the first 27 pages that help us understand the climate, soil, resources of our diverse California setting, and the design process. This introduction is worth the price of the entire book and is a must read. Her approach to sustainable practices will resonate with readers, and creates an easy to understand framework for how we can have a beautiful garden while remaining good stewards of the environment.

Though there are only 186 plants featured (far less than Sunset presents), they represent a good cross section of the many categories of plants that play a role in any garden. And the plants are conveniently grouped by category of use.

The information offered for each plant is thorough, and unlike Sunset, gives the same essential information for each plant - Sunset tends to be inconsistent from plant to plant. By breaking each description into four mini-essays we learn: "When Where, and How to Plant" (about soil type, sun requirements, etc); "Growing Tips" that help us get the plant off to a good start; "Companion Planting and Design" helping the reader to imagine how the plant fits in with an overall composition; and "Try These" which introduces us to other cultivars and varieties of the species plants. The photograph on each page is clear, though two images (one long shot for overall character and another for flower detail) would be even more helpful. Lastly, the array of cartooned icons helps the reader quickly understand opportunities and constraints, like water and solar requirements, habitat value, adaptation to various micro-climates, etc.

I have taught landscape design to homeowners for nearly 20 years and always recommended the Sunset W. G. Book as a necessary reference. Now there's one more book my students will be needing.

Nan's website is PlantSoup. It's a fun read.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Who Needs Flowers?

I’ll admit it. I’m a freak for form and foliage (and using the letter ‘f’ many times). Flowers are great. It’s like the rush you feel from infatuation – a quickening of the pulse and flush of the cheeks, then a slow fade to normalcy. It doesn’t have the staying power of a long-term relationship based on a strong foundation. Sure, the bright colors of a Better Homes and Gardens-style perennial border stimulate they eye, but once that burst of color peaks, it’s downhill.

My highest admiration is reserved for designs that exploit the infinite range of visual combinations that come from the more permanent characteristics of plants – their overall form (or architecture), foliage color, the fineness or boldness of the leaves, their surface texture.

This is not to say that I avoid flowering plants in my designs. Far from it. The designs just don’t depend on it. I’ve realized after a few decades that when the flowers fade, the dead-heading is done, and there’s no bone structure left to provide interest, you might as well plow the whole thing under, cover the ground with mulch and wait for the next planting season. But if there’s an underlying composition that continues to contribute interest throughout the year, then you’ve really got something.

Try this comparison.

The first garden on the right has no flowers. Its composition emphasizes the contrasting elements of bright yellow-green Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ in the mid-ground, the somber Eugenia hedge and lighter Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ grass at the back, and the dark green filaments of Juncus patens (California Rush) in the foreground. Oh yes, there’s a sandstone boulder that’s to die for! The garden looks like this pretty much every day of the year with minimal maintenance. `

This garden is what many people strive for – bright, colorful flowers (two varieties of begonia), a simple color scheme of pink and white, and a crisp edge of dwarf Agapanthus. I’ll be the first to tell you that this creates a charming entry bed that sets off the base of the statue. But what happens when the flowers subside? The foliage color and texture of both begonias are identical, and the leaf color of the Agapanthus merges with the others. The only interest comes from the textural differences between the two species.

These black and white comparisons tell it all.

Imagine we had no color vision. Which garden would hold your interest? The complexity of the first composition blows the second out of the water.

Now imagine the first garden WITH a great palette of colorful, tastefully combined flowers and you have it all. Not to take anything away from people who create stunning floral borders, but the type of design I’m endorsing takes a lot more effort and deeper knowledge of plants.

Thanks for reading. I hope this stimulates some discussion and helps you with your own garden.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Color Purple (Variations on a Theme)

Well, not quite purple, but who would pay $8.00 to sit in a dark theater and watch "The Color Mauve"? I'm feeling downright professorial tonight, so I'll expound for a few paragraphs. I reshot this series today in front of my house. I actually have a better slide of it somewhere, using a lens that brought the background lantana a bit closer, but this will do. 

As I gain a bit more knowledge about color and how we perceive it, I try to pass the info on to my adult education students so they have a broader knowledge of how to use color in their gardens. This is little series is a perfect example of how the same color can play completely different roles in a garden composition. 

The iceplant in the foreground (Lampranthus spectabilis) has an eye-popping intensity, but the same color of lantana (Lantana montedvidensis) pales in comparison.  As we look closer, we see that the surface of the iceplant is extremely glossy and reflects a lot of light. 

If you look at the lantana from a distance, it has a much more subtle impact. It would blend well with pastel shades, whereas the iceplant would need an equally intense partner to keep it from dominating a color scheme. 

Zooming in, we see that the texture of the flowers is soft, like well-worn fabric, preventing the sun's rays from bouncing off as vigorously. 

I think this is important to keep in mind when we develop flower compositions. In the parlance of color theory, what we're dealing with here is "color value." The easiest way for me to explain it is to imagine that there is a bit of mist in the air, which would absorb some of the color coming off the flower. The more mist, the lower the value. Which means, on a clear day

If all the plants you use are of a similar value (regardless of the color), the scheme will be more harmonious. On the other hand, if you intentionally combine a flower of high value with others of lower value, you can achieve a very dramatic impact. There's no right or wrong way to combine colors. Just be aware of how all the variables come into play and use them as you will. 
Now for something completely different. Real purple playing with chartreuse green. Behold, Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' (Golden Moneywort) sprinkled with petals of Tibouchina heteromala (Silver-leaf Princess Flower).  


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"A Tomato Grows In Commerce" - LA Times essay

I read this today in the L.A. Times, and, pardon the pun, but it's a delicious piece of writing. I'm posting it verbatim. Thanks to Karin Klein who wrote the piece, and to the L.A. Times for printing it...

Remarkably, a plant survives on an inhospitable patch of Interstate 5.
February 5, 2008

The morning commute north on Interstate 5, through the landscape of billboards and warehouses, is generally slow enough for me to take in more scenery than I'd like. The kitschy giant giraffe statue at the sculpture store. The overhead freeway sign that informs me it will take 50 minutes to cover the next 12 miles. Lately, though, I've been entranced by the tomato plant.

You have to drive in the so-called fast lane toward downtown to see it, and at first I doubted my eyes. It's a straggly thing sprouting from the asphalt along the median barrier, within easy sight of the Commerce Casino. The spot is so inhospitable, even the weeds are stunted. Every week, nevertheless, the plant's once-green berries grew visibly larger and redder. There it sprawls, its species now unquestionable, at the wrong time of the year, with full eastern exposure, bearing a prolific load of red fruit.

Its abundance is all the more amazing to me because my own tomato crop last summer was such a bust. I gave my baby plants as much southern sun as my suburban garden could muster. I tenderly spooned organic fertilizer around their stems. All I got for this was a collection of lackluster sandwich toppings.

Most likely, this plant is itself the offspring of a drive-through hamburger, the leftovers carelessly tossed out a driver-side window. A sort of circle of tomato life. In any case, catching a glimpse of it always brings on an irrational rush of delight. It's such a hardy, colorful individual, thriving in gray surroundings as the cars grind by, neglected but for the winter rains.

Psychologists understand why children who grow up in impoverished, danger-filled urban environments are at greater risk of failing in school and getting into trouble. What they can't fully figure out is how some children emerge from the most hostile, neglectful backgrounds as happy, well-adjusted adults. The experts are rightly impressed by these inherently sturdy souls and think we all have something to learn from them.

At last sighting, the tomato plant had crept practically into the traffic lane. Yet no one had picked the crop, and there are times on that virtual parking lot called the Santa Ana Freeway when it would be easy. No one had run over it out of indifference, by accident or just for the fun of seeing the fruit squashed. It's encouraging to imagine that even we cynical, road-weary commuters still have the capacity for awe for such a feat of survival, and can't bring ourselves to harm the tough little character.

Karin Klein

Saturday, February 2, 2008

State Street Islands

State Street Islands
Originally uploaded by gardenwiseguy

I designed this median about 18 years ago. It comprised 12 islands along 6 blocks of Santa Barbara's main street. Prior to this project, these were filled with turf and were hand mowed on a regular basis. Talk about unsustainable! A local organization called Santa Barbara Beautiful funded the rehab and this is what it looked like a year later.

Since that time the landscaping has severely declined and I find the project to be an embarassment; especially given its prominent location. It's filled with weeds, most of the important plants have died out without being replaced, and no one seems to care in my own Parks and Recreation Department. Short-sighted and short-funded. There don't seem to be any rabid landscape preservationists in our midst. No bitching / no moaning / no attention.

The plants in the foreground are Senecio mandraliscae (gray foliage) and Aloe striata. The background is Agave 'Nova' and Lantana montevidensis.