Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June's End...

My neighborhood gets very quiet during the summer. The road past my house is a main thoroughfare for a high school AND a middle school, so a steady stream of cars each morning and afternoon is the norm. I like it, especially hearing footsteps in fallen leaves and catching snippets of conversation.

But by mid-June it's mighty quiet out there, and that's an interesting combination with the energy of the longer days. Things are more concentrated now, the gardens are settled for the season and I'm staying out of the mid-day sun. Shades are half drawn and the ceiling fan is on during the hottest days. The garden is more concentrated now too. The rains appear to have stopped, and we will have little if any more until October. I irrigate regularly, but at rather long intervals. Wimpy plants won't make it. Lush spring foliage is fading.

There will be more surprises in store later on, but for now these are the little gems catching my eye, starting with my wonderful Moroccan Poppy (Papaver atlanticum 'Flore Pleno') catching a Solstice sunrise...

The Meyer Lemon is enormously happy this year. It is going into a second round of blooms. This awesome little tree now has lots of ripe fruit, loads of green fruit, and bunches of fragrant flowers. If you can grow lemons this is a lovely one to have in a front yard.

Priscilla, Queen of the Redbuds (Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy') has outdone herself this year; now we're starting to see hints of her more modest summer coloration. She has easily doubled in size, must be getting what she needs.

OK, so I'm a little jealous of my friends who have chickens; one day I will have them too, but for now I will make due with succulents. Hens & Chicks have the most wonderful symmetry in their rosettes and their blooms; they remind me of fractals (and are so well behaved!)

First light is lovely on the New Zealand Wind Grass (Stipa Arundinacea) and Green Senecio (S. vitalis).

Almost done, the artichokes give me one last harvest of purple-thistleness. Then the once mighty beasts will be down to a few sprouts that will lay low until the fall rains come (cue the backup dancers!)

This combination is killing me right now; Bronze Fennel flanked by two Slender Veldt Grass (Pennisetum spatheolatum) with a chubby Blue Fescue (Festuca Glauca 'Elijah Blue') at its feet. All three difficult to photograph, but really happy together.

The first blooms of California Fuschia (Zauschneria californica) a snazzy little native that naturalizes well in dry areas like unirrigated park strips. The gray-green leaves are the perfect combination with that deep orange, nice!

On the other side of the tracks (in the shady courtyard) we have a first bloom on my Ghost Fuchsia (F. magellanica 'Sharpitor'). So delicate and lovely!

Mantis mania continues in the front yard; it seems like very plant has one or two! They're almost 2 inches long now, still no wings, and appear to be mostly females (so watch out, fellas!)

 Here's an interesting camouflage posture, "Can't see me, I'm a STICK!"

Uh-oh, this looks like the one that attacked the camera last time, better move along while I'm ahead! Thanks for visiting, see you in July... Happy Canada Day and Independence Day!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Native Treasures on the Urban Fringe

I went to my favorite hiking place today, a visit long overdue (as my knees are reminding me tonight!) The Fremont Older Open Space Preserve in the Saratoga/Cupertino CA foothills overlooks the valley that has been home for most of my life. From the top of Hunter's Point I can see most of the places where my family has worked and lived, from Moffett Field where Dad was stationed in 1964 to the converted prune factory where I experienced the boom more than 30 years later. To come here isn't to get away from it all, but rather to see the bigger picture. Wild places like these, made safe and accessible to everyone, are resources to be treasured (and supported!)

Fremont Older was a well-known newspaper editor in San Francisco at the turn of the last century. In 1914 he built his home, Woodhills, on this land, catching the train at the bottom of the hill each morning to his office in the city. His wife, Cora Baggerly Older, was a writer, and oversaw the building of the extensive gardens around Woodhills.

The preserve includes Woodhills and its lands, and truly does exist at the urban fringe; one end borders a golf course, and luxury homes dot the skyline. Within its 739 acres you won't necessarily find nature untouched; the land was previously cultivated and is surrounded by roads, neighborhoods, vineyards, a reservoir, a quarry, stables, and mansions, which all have an impact. What you will find is a beautiful example of wild land restoration, and a great place to meet our lovely native plants growing among reminders of previous generations.

Here's a little tour of this unique corner of the world, where California natives and California history make for an interesting walk in the woods!

Everywhere this time of year is the unfortunately named Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) which is my second favorite native flower (first will always be California Poppy)! Our cool, wet spring has it looking particularly lush for late June; lovely as it is now, Mimulus starts looking less than fresh when the dust of summer settles on its sticky leaves. In my garden it gets morning sun and the dry afternoon shade it seems to prefer (given a choice!)

I'm pretty sure this is Clarkia rubicunda, but not certain, since the flower wasn't open. So graceful (and once again I capture a previously unseen stowaway!)

Sigh. It would be nice if poison oak was this conspicuous color year-round (it is in fall, but this time of year it's mostly lush and oily and green, just waiting to cause misery). Seriously, I hope I didn't get too close just taking this picture!

Our native Blue Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), was a big weed around my house near the coast many years ago; it loves the moist coastal woodlands, and is happiest here on a north slope with access to water. We treated it like buddleia; cutting to the ground in winter kept it 8'-12' tall each year. I never did anything with the berries or flowers (although I was curious about elderberry wine) and the birds appreciated that.

Yellow plums! Not sure if this tree is wild or a naturalized Prunus domestica; it is near the Ranger's house. Because of these and the fruits of California Bay (Umbellularia californica) you find lots of seed-filled scat along the trails. I was not quick enough to catch the deer, rabbits and family of foxes that I saw, but wildlife is everywhere here. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, and mountain lions (and an incredible assortment of birds, rodents and reptiles) also make this land home.

The first part of the trail is the road to Woodhills. Nearing the house, you'll see some of the original stonework done by the Quintero family, Italian stonemasons that Cora Older hired to build her gardens. Their touch is everywhere; this is but a small part.

Stone steps lead to what was once a large, formal garden where some of the most well-known writers, politicians, lawyers and artists of the time attended parties, sometimes with music provided by the San Francisco Symphony from a stone (of course!) grandstand.

I've always loved this adobe cottage located downhill from the main house; I think it would be a great studio! It must be where the caretaker lived, with stables nearby.

Signs of cultivation tell us a garden is nearby, like this Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis fruticosa) which, because of its Mediterranean heritage is right at home here.

This venerable Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) is one of my favorite plants; watching it grow even more magnificent over the last ten years has been a pleasure. I'm not sure of the variety, might be Dr. Hurd. Its large gray-green crown provides a backdrop to the house gardens above it. And those smooth, peeling trunks, well, you can see the appeal. Click the picture for a closer look.

OK, so when was the last time you came across a grotto built by Italian masons on a hike? I'm not sure if all of this work was done at the same time the house was built, but it definitely says Roaring Twenties more than Depression era to me. There are several such fancies around Woodhills, reminders of what must have been a magnificent woodland garden. As someone who enjoys designing hardscape, I wonder how many people will be looking at structures I designed in 100 years...

I'm pretty sure this is St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum) the largest of our native Buckwheats, getting ready to bloom. This is a great 'at the fringes' plant that needs no summer water and blends well with other 'fringers.' I need to come back soon and catch the bloom to be sure.

Come around the bend, and there is Woodhills. Surprisingly modern looking for a house built in 1914, it has been painstakingly restored by a retired Cupertino newspaperman and his family. It is open several times a year for docent tours; the guest book signed by famous San Franciscans like William Randolph Hearst is a must-see for local history buffs.

The gardens around Woodhills are full of choice natives and compatible imports. A beautiful bank of Salvia clevelandii, (commonly known as Blue, Musk, Chaparral or Cleveland Sage, depending on who you talk to) brightens a dry slope near the drive. It is one of the most aromatic of our native sages and a huge favorite of hummingbirds.

Yes, the current residents of Woodhills love Salvias! Their daughter works for a landscaping firm specializing in low-water native gardens, so you can be sure that they have been well supplied with choice selections, like Germander Sage (Salvia chamaedryoides). This Mexican native is a wonderful combination of true blue flowers and soft silver foliage that combines well with anything.

Canary Island Sage (Salvia canariensis candidissimum) is a robust plant, and its dusky rose color goes so well with the Cleveland Sage behind. And there's the top of my favorite Manzanita in the background! The combination of these three plants in any garden would make it a hummers paradise.

Not all is native, which is fine with me. I love an eclectic group that plays well together, with occasional scene-stealers, like this cute Tree Euphorbia (Euphorbia lambii) next to the pond.

Or this KILLER combination of Honey Bush (Melianthus major) and Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) which do well in dry sun, and even some shade. Melianthus is from South Africa, another Mediterranean source of plants that love our climate and thrive here.

 This, my friends, is why they call it a 'Smoke Bush!'

A beautiful specimen of Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) in a sheltered spot; the soft leaves are so graceful, and turn incredible colors in the fall. A great native alternative to a Japanese Maple.

Wonderful together: Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) and Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii) an aromatic creeping herb. Both are very happy dry shade dwellers.

Leaving Woodhills behind, step through a stile and out into the hayfields that mark the center of the preserve and the crossroads for all its trails. If California has a color palette, these golds and greens are on it.

Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) is one of the first evergreen plants to return to an area that has been disturbed, so it's not surprising to find it growing lush next to the trails and the fire roads. This is the plant I recently found sprouted in my front garden that I'm going to let stay for awhile.

Ha, this was hilarious. Just as I was considering the 'urban fringe' angle of this post, I look up to see the Farmers Insurance blimp, flying over the valley, practically at eye level! I definitely wasn't lost in the wilderness...

A classic California Chaparral trio; Mimulus and Baccharis combined with silvery California Sagebrush (Artemisa californica).

A gorgeous California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) showing off its huge, fragrant flowers. This beautiful tree has the unfortunate habit of going alarmingly brown and dormant by midsummer. So we enjoy it while we can, and look forward to collecting the huge shiny seeds in winter.

Skeletal reminders that a portion of the preserve was at one time a walnut orchard. In fact, most of the valley below was orchard when the Olders built Woodhills. Before it was 'Silicon Valley' it was 'The Valley of Heart's Delight,' a huge producer of apricots, cherries and plums.

As I was shooting this last Mimulus, growing so happily with poison oak, I realized that I prefer to see these native treasures in their natural habitat (even growing with the poison oak!) rather than in a garden; unless, of course, the garden is an oak woodland. So while my cultivated gardens will always have some natives tucked into appropriate spots, I think I will head to the hills to see my wild ones, and support places that make that possible.

The Fremont Older Open Space Preserve is part of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. It is dog, bike, and even stroller friendly in parts. They do a great job. Happy Trails!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Garden Designers Roundtable: Expanding Small Spaces

This month the Bloggers of the Garden Designers Roundtable have some big ideas about working with small spaces!

In California the trend has been toward larger houses on smaller lots, and there are many condominium communities with charming but small outdoor living areas that serve multiple needs year-round. Being able to squeeze a lot out of small spaces is an important skill for designers, and can often be more challenging than designing something larger.

I think one of the most important aspects of working with small spaces is thinking about them three dimensionally. My 12' x 13' courtyard was created when the previous owner added two matching wings to the house. It has two sliding doors that enter at different heights, and two small windows.

Imagine this space as a solid cube and consider the area that would be carved out for a person to move comfortably through it. Whatever is left is potential garden, and much of it will NOT be at ground level! A well-thought out design will add the ceiling and soften the walls and add dimension and functionality to every layer in between. Here a work/storage bench, comfy seating, festive outdoor lighting, and bubbling water feature combine under a sturdy arbor with several dozen pots in all sizes, making this a cozy, sheltered spot year-round.

A small space design solution doesn't have to be lavish to be effective. In this courtyard we didn't have the luxury of digging up new beds, and needed to direct the flow diagonally from the gate to the front door. The simple loveseat is placed in the most private, sheltered spot and flanked by pots of perennials. A vine reaching for the arbor and a rustic wall planter bring the design up from ground level.

Same house, from the gate. The planted bed would actually have been sufficient to protect the entrance without hiding it from visitors, but the addition of the two red pots and the antique bell raise the whole arrangement to a new level, giving it style that transcends the modest setting and utilitarian hardscape materials.

This brick courtyard uses these same principles to add privacy without shutting the world away. An open lattice-work fence on top of the existing brick wall, planted with exuberant Cecil Brunner roses frames the semi-circular planting bed. In this garden a limited color palette keyed to the hardscape gives an elegant, restful feel that's enhanced by the sound of the small fountain.

This narrow garden designed by John Black maximizes plantable space by floating the stone steps, then ups the design ante with elegant black pebbles as mulch; it's both garden and path, and as the bamboo and other plants grow the edges will be blurred even more. The horizontal boards that cover the existing fence and the slight meander of the steps also help make the garden feel wider.

Small spaces already feel more intimate, and can be made more so with personal touches like a favorite sculpture (or, um, two!) and choice specimen trees that might be lost in a larger setting.

And of course, one should never be afraid to resort to all-out trickery if necessary. Wondering what's through that gated opening in the bamboo grove? Nothing but a mirrored aluminum closet door, built into the fence!

Combining two of our previous Roundtable topics, Containers make great Focal Points in small gardens! Planting a tree in a pot is one way to make sure it doesn't get too big, and adds just that much more color and style!

Speaking of containers, one of my clients had these enormous terra cotta pots that didn't work in her new contemporary landscape. But arranged in her sunny side yard they make a stylish AND functional edibles garden in a very small space.

Even a 6' x 6' bed tucked in a corner becomes a lovely (and lively) spot with the addition of a bubbling birdbath fountain and a faux creekbed surrounded by small shade garden gems like ferns, hellebores and variegated liriope.

This central atrium was full of plants, none very tall. I introduced a delicate Japanese Maple and a graceful Azara microphylla for height, and added the Asian-style mobile between them. A colorful pot will anchor the corner, but already you can see how much more of the space is being activated.

When working with small spaces one tendency is to use tiny furniture to avoid taking up too much room. But when you think about it, these areas are often used by only one or two people at a time. Some comfortable seating invites you right into the center of things, which is much more functional than leaving your active living space empty while you perch on a plastic chair!

Go ahead, tuck a loveseat or club chair in your designs and watch it become a favorite relaxing spot. Working small gives a designer's abilities the close-up test, and there isn't much room for error. But when the pieces all come together, virtually any corner can be a charming garden that has everything it needs to thrive.

Thanks for joining me today, but don't stop here! The other Knights and Ladies of the Roundtable are also writing on this topic, and who knows WHAT they've come up with. Let's find out, shall we?

Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago IL
Jenny Petersen: J Petersen Garden Design : Austin TX
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA
Susan Schlenger : Landscape Design Advice : Hampton, NJ
Tara Dillard : : Atlanta, GA