Monday, May 31, 2010

A Gallon of Stain and a Truckload of Gravel

It may surprise you to learn what a 'fair weather' gardener I am. The only time of year I really get my hands in the dirt is a narrow window in the spring, usually April-May. That's when new plants are introduced, old ones removed or relocated, and any major projects done. Whatever hasn't been checked off my list by June simply has to wait; my creative energy must shift firmly and fully to my clients, and apart from a flurry of fall cleanup, won't be back again that season.

I have learned to accept this about myself, but it is kind of a frustrating phenomenon. I mean, when you're a gardener you're a gardener all the way, from your first window box 'till your last dying day, right? Nope. I'll tidy, weed, harvest and prune a bit year-round, but everything you see in my garden that is creative or designer-ly was done in the Spring.

As I've said before, I want to LIVE in a garden, photograph it, write about it, but not work in it! I'm grateful that I don't have a lawn that needs weekly mowing, and that most of my regular gardening chores can be done in my typical drive-by fashion. I simply don't have the energy for anything more, although I am continually making mental wish-lists of changes I'd make (don't YOU wish you could move plants with your mind? There must be an app for that, right?)

So I really appreciate garden-centric 'happenings' that encourage me to get out of my head, into the dirt, and cross a few more things off that wish-list. This past weekend was one such event, the visit of my friend Michelle Gervais, who is an editor at Fine Gardening Magazine.

Preparing my home and garden for Michelle's visit (and the small gathering of local garden writers and designers that I hosted for her) was exactly the impetus I needed to prepare my creation for its closeup. But with a busy work schedule and limited resources, how much could be done? Well, thanks to my terrific parents who love helping their kids with projects, quite a lot!

It started with a new side gate. My old one had disintegrated over the winter, and was a sorry, sorry sight. Dad and I designed a new one, and he built it with his usual attention to detail. Dad does structure, Mom does color; she helped pick the stain, and then stained it herself. (BTW that's Behr semi-transparent wood stain in 'Chestnut' and it's perfect!)

Actually, it started with this gate. Finished a year ago, and waiting all this time for a decision on stain color; a perfect example of my "if not done by June" thing. Same with the three porch posts; primed, but not painted. Thank goodness the blue fence made it under the wire last year! The three of us took care of these tasks in an afternoon.

Then Dad got a truckload of my favorite gravel to topdress the paths. I had been experimenting with loose gravel vs. gold fines in different areas, and decided after a year that I prefer the look of the gravel (even though it's fussier) and it felt wonderful to have all the paths brought up to the proper level. My vintage colored step stone 'hopscotch' path looks especially nice.

My main focus was the garden itself. I removed armloads of California Poppy plants which had started to straggle and overwhelm their neighbors. Their progeny will return with the fall rains, but for now I finally had room to plant some of the patient inhabitants of my nursery; another relief.

Two last touches (completed yesterday) were particularly satisfying. The first was this small succulent bed in the sunny spot in front of the porch; another couple dozen nursery dwellers finally have homes! This has been my catch-all spot since the garden was built, nice to finally finish it off with some style.

My last task for the season (seriously, this is probably it!) was to rebuild the catch-basin for my rain chain. I had used an upside-down plastic pot with a slit cut in the bottom to firmly anchor the chain and fill up the volume of the pot while keeping the drainage hole clear (there is a drain directly underneath the pot itself.) That pot collapsed on itself last fall, so I made it stronger by using pavers and drain rock for the main filler.

On top goes a circular screen (this is actually a spatter screen meant to be used with a frying pan; I removed the center handle to make a hole for the chain.) This will keep fine debris from the roof out of the drain. It's then covered with half an inch or so of decorative pebbles.

All finished and ready for the next rainy season! None of these tasks took more than a few hours, but together they added so much. And I realize with some bemusement that I probably THOUGHT about each of these projects longer than it took to actually do them. Oh well. Creativity takes what it takes; and sometimes its not the doing but the deciding how and what to do that simply takes time.

So, I really WOULD like to get those parkway beds done, and the corps yard cleaned up, add proper irrigation to the nursery and clean out the shed. Perhaps my upcoming Summer Solstice Garden Party will inspire the completion of those tasks, but until then, there's always next year!

Thanks again to my folks Phil and Judy for coming to my aid. Once again their skills and energy helped me accomplish more than I ever could alone. I am, as always, so grateful.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Garden Designers Roundtable: The Garden Contained

Welcome to Container Day at the Garden Designers Roundtable. What a huge topic! I could approach this in so many ways, like taking you to my favorite pottery resource, Pottery Planet; but I've done that already.

I could show you lots of pretty pictures of containers I've designed professionally, and tell you things like how long it took to find just the right bonsai-clay bowls for this terrace.

Or how I prefer container plantings to have one main plant (like this Chamaecyparis) with soft underplantings that change periodically. But I think instead I'd rather show you how I use containers myself.

I have a close, personal, long-term relationship with container planting. When I was about 8, a little boy at school gave me a white petunia in a small pot. I don't remember his name, but I can still see that little plant and feel the unexpected delight that this perfect, living thing was mine to hold. During my teen years my obsession turned to houseplants; I had dozens of them, displayed in a stunning array of macramé plant hangers.

My outdoor gardening began during my stay-at-home mom years; I started with annuals and planted them everywhere. I did this corner just before my daughter was born. She turns 20 today.

Planting something in a container gives a gardener more responsibility for and ownership of a plant. Like capturing a bright butterfly or a tadpole and putting it in a jar, a plant in a pot is like a pet or an infant; it relies upon you for everything. So who are my current infants, and how do I use containers now? Read on.

I use containers for growing plants that need different conditions than my garden beds can easily provide, like the acid soil that blueberries prefer (they won't find that next to a new foundation, but a red glazed pot filled with azalea mix does the job).

My tomatoes get deep, rich soil and dedicated irrigation in the raised kitchen garden beds. Even when the vines spill over the top of their cages, the fruit is held safely off the ground. A small garden contained in this way is neat, easy to clean, and protected (somewhat) from pests.

Raised beds give herbs the warm soil and good drainage they require to come back year after year, like this combination of marjoram and sage. The bed also provides an architectural element to my overall landscape, as it loops around to provide an informal divider between the patio and the kitchen garden.

I use containers to nurture new plants in a more controlled environment, like this cutting of Corylus 'Rote Zeller' given to me by garden writer Alice Joyce, from her garden. Eventually it will be large, but for now it's having a 'nursery year' in the courtyard (next to gnarly Uncle Harry!)

Or this fragile-looking Fuchsia magellanica I got from Annie's Annuals; it will also become a sturdy shrub in time, but for now, I'm keeping a close eye on it.

Containers allow me to keep plants with me that otherwise might be lost when a beloved garden is left behind. I bought this Fatsia japonica the day I officially started my new career as a garden designer 9 years ago. It has weathered some storms, but planted in this large turquoise pot with regular water it is as graceful as can be.

Plants that might get out of hand planted in the garden grow with more restraint when contained. I have an 8 year old deciduous trumpet vine (Campsis radicans 'Mme Galen') that really minds its manners in a pot. In the ground? It might have eaten the house by now.

Some plants will live for years in a pot, and I treat them like bonsai, shaping them over time. I love a plant that has grown old in captivity; natural, yet refined. I think training plants is one of the most skilled things gardeners do.

Speaking of taking things with you, containers aren't just for plants you know; this bubbling blue water pot is another long-time friend that I've had running practically 24x7 for at least 8 years. The soft splashing sound is as much a part of the experience of my garden as anything else, and the nice little microclimate it creates is much appreciated by the locals, like this Nandina 'Firepower.'

When my neighbor-the-gardener became ill and had to leave her house and her garden, she gave me her stacks of small clay pots. What a treasure. Having these and lots of generous plants means that I will never be without a way to give from my garden. Which makes me realize that one of the best ways I use containers is to give plants to other people.

But mainly I use containers so I can put plants wherever I want! I tend to be a 'one plant, one pot, arrange the pots' type of gal. I also like stand-alone gems that coordinate nicely with their pots, like this succulent in a graceful little two-toned number.

Succulents are particularly wonderful in pots because of their low water needs; they aren't confined to areas where the drip irrigation can reach them, and can be arranged freely, like offerings on an altar. And yes, if you have this many nice containers and an irresponsible streak when it comes to regular watering, an automatic drip system is a wonderful thing. Everyone gets watered every 3 days for 8 minutes. If they want a little more, they let me know.

Thanks to containers, we can have plants wherever we are, tucked into any modest or fancy piece we like and changed or rearranged at will. (Don't you love the mini chiminea? I use it to burn sprigs of dried sage; it works great!) Needless to say a balcony gardener would be lost without containers of all kinds. The biggest mistake I see is too many small containers. It's nice to have a few big pots in the mix, don't limit your design to what you can lift by yourself!

So I ask you, what is more satisfying than taking a handful of succulent cuttings and making them into a work of art? I think, in the end, that is what I appreciate most about containers. Like a frame around a painting they allow us to combine craftsmanship and plantsmanship into something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Thanks for visiting, and don't stop here, for I have only scratched the surface of this topic! Please visit the other knights and ladies of the Roundtable who are writing about containers today:

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Jenny Petersen: J Petersen Garden Design : Austin TX

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio “G” : Boston, MA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Blue Sky Day

Blustery weather meant unusually clear blue skies over San Jose today, and everyone wanted to get their picture taken with it, including the artichokes. Side shoots continue to come; I'm tempted to let a few of them bloom again this year, just for fun!

Priscilla the Forest Pansy Redbud is very full-figured in her second spring, wearing rich purple hearts all over her sleeves!

The impressive spreading flower spikes of the Silver Sage (Salvia argentea) look positively regal against the blue sky. (click this one!)

Althought the White Sage (Salvia apiana) tops it by several feet!

The coral 'Flower Carpet' roses are sending up fat vertical flower spikes, which I would trim back if I wanted to keep them low, but I don't, so I won't!

Looks like the wind was blowing from the north today, no wonder it was chilly!

The newest bamboo culms are unfurling for the first time; the tallest ones are almost kissing the clouds!

The view from under the Red Umbrella...

The lush new leaves of the Manihots are the size of dinner plates; they have appreciated the extra rain this spring, although they are surprisingly undemanding for such an exotic-looking plant. A shapely 15' tree in 2 years from seed? Yes, please!

Even my neighbor's shrub rose wanted to play the blue-sky game today.

Thanks for spending time sky-gazing with me; now it's time to come back to earth. Work to be done. Until next time!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Collector's Garden in San Francisco

Many of you may know Kay Hamilton Estey as the producer of the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show. What you may NOT know is that she is a marvelous gardener and avid plant collector. I took advantage of a planning meeting yesterday to visit her small urban garden for the first time, and this is what I saw.

Kay has lived here for more than 20 years. Her garden began as slanted sea of concrete that almost filled the triangular space; needless to say, not a very hospitable place for a garden. She worked with a designer to create the bones of the meandering space you see today, tucked into her hilly Glen Park neighborhood.

I spend so much time in 'new' gardens (including my own) that I really appreciate one that has grown into maturity under a knowledgeable hand. Tucked into the corner between her house and her neighbor is this lush bed of Phormium, Leucadendron, Euphorbia, Alstroemeria and Hakonechloa, planted between a mature Purple Hopseed (Dodonea viscosa purpurea) and a Lady Banks Rose (Rosa Banksia) against the wall. I love her theme of varied greens punctuated by reds and dark pinks.

Wood and stone steps curve down to a small upper patio. The flowering cherry (Prunus yedoensis) perfectly placed near the center of the garden (NOT tucked in a border near the fence) is an anchor around which the garden swirls. I particularly appreciated the placement of the up-ended brown pot as a strong but low-key focal point.

Since the garden is also viewed from above, both from Kay's house and her neighbor's, the wide-spreading cherry provides both privacy and the ideal spot for a quiet, shady garden. Geranium cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' is a wonderful groundcover; here it provides a restful sweep of green that keeps the center of the garden open. Who needs a lawn?

The stone path continues to wander down the garden; you really can't tell how far it goes. It was designed well; wide enough to allow for plenty of plant spill without restricting access. The different textures and shades of green guide you along.

This was a particularly charming corner: Aeonium, Dicentra, Iris, Heuchera, Euphorbia and assorted grasses and sedges blend beautifully as the path steps down to...

...surprise! This is as far you go! I was not kidding that Kay's garden is triangular; she is considering a cozy chair in this spot, maybe blue...

Moving back up to the upper terrace, which gets a little more sun and hosts an amazing variety of plants. I loved this Abutilon 'Sunset' which Kay has had for many years. The purple Persicaria microcephala 'Red Dragon' is an aggressive resident that tends to overstep its bounds; you'll see it lurking in most of my remaining pictures.

A closeup of 'Sunset.' Oh, by the way, did I mention it was raining?

Another nice vignette: a charming Fuchsia flanked by larger-leafed Cestrum 'Newellii.' This must be a popular spot for hummingbirds!

Kay introduced me to Ixia, a South African bulb I've not grown; nice to meet you!

Another striking Abutilon; in this climate they bloom nearly year-round.

Looking back up the steps toward the house. Kay described her garden as 'rather overgrown' but I didn't see neglect, I saw harmony (except, perhaps, for that Persicaria, who is intent on engulfing that chair!)

A closer look at the blue pot at the top of the steps. I love the combination of Aeonium, Senecio mandraliscae, and Hakonechloa macra aureola, which glows in the partial shade.

Holy Giant Asparagus, Batman! Actually, it's a mature Agave parryi that is getting ready to bloom...and die. Sorry Persicaria, you'll need to find someone else to climb on!

Clematis 'Niobe' is a reliable performer in Kay's garden (and so presumably can hold its own against encroaching Persicaria!)

There are lots of reseeders in Kay's garden, including Centranthus ruber and Euphorbia characias 'Wulfenii.' Lurking Persicaria doesn't frighten them one bit!

A beautiful foliage combination centered around Pelargonium 'Vancouver Centennial.'

And one last combination; soft blue Borage and the luminous new growth of Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria).

And in case you forget this garden is in the middle of a big city, here's the view from the back stairs, looking towards India Basin and Hunter's Point on the San Francisco Bay. Thanks for joining me on this garden visit, and thanks to Kay for the tour!