gbbd: the garden and beyond



It’s spring, all right. The garden continues to bloom away manically, but the outdoor places around town have been no slouch, either, when it comes to flowers.

This Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day, hosted by May Dreams Gardens, features a gallery of some blooms from the garden mixed in with blooms from Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego.

In the top photo from Mission Trails you can see that the yellow-flowered deerweed, Lotus scoparius, has colonized many of the sunny areas that burned four and a half years ago. As the landscape recovers, other plants will come in and stake their claims. The second image from near the top of Fortuna Peak shows that other areas are also recovering from the fires, though slower than farther downslope.

You can hover over each image below for its name, or click it to see a larger photo. While you can probably tell what’s a wild plant and what’s in the garden, there’s an answer key at the end if you’re into quizzing yourself. (A few of thee are tricky in that they’re local native plants that have been incorporated into the garden.)

Wild, garden, garden;
garden, wild, wild;
wild, garden wild;
garden, garden, garden;
garden, wild, garden;
wild, garden, wild;
wild, wild, wild.

feed your guests before you eat them


Yesterday saw some of my pitcher plants opening up their springtime blooms. These are carnivorous plants that primarily dine on insects that slide into leaves which have evolved into elegant long tubes that contain a digestive juice at the bottom. (See the young Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Tarnok’ pitchers in the picture to the left.)


Almost all the species have evolved so that they flower, offering nectar to their guests, before they develop their mature pitchers–effectively helping assure their reproduction by not dining on their pollinators. These soft yellow flowers appear on Sarracenia alata, the pale or yellow trumpet.


Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Giant’ looks like it’s only a couple days behind in its flowering schedule. This bud is about to open to a dark red little mop of petals.


In the “eat-or-be-eaten” world of carnivorous plants, it’s interesting to see that it’s not the plants that always have the upper hand in their relationship with insects. Here the top of an emerging pitcher has been munched on by some insect.

This was my first pitcher plant, purchased in the flower aisle of the local Trader Joe’s store. (It must have been a special purchase because I’ve never seen them there again…) Like many plants sold for decoration, it came with no label. I want to know the name of everything, so this bothers me to no end. (It could be the common decorative hybrid Sarracenia Judith Hindle, or it might not…)


I’m still fairly new to pitcher plants, so I can’t offer much advice on growing them other than to keep them wet, and to use good-quality water. These are about as far from drought-tolerant plants as you’ll ever encounter. And to that I might add that when given an option to select between potting them in half-peat/half-sand or half-peat/half-perlite, choose the sand mixture, at least if you’re doing a little bog planting. Otherwise the perlite just floats to the top, looking like little styrofoam peanuts that have floated to the surface of a polluted lake. Not pretty. If I were ever to re-do the bog, that would be the first thing I’d do differently.

gonzo topiary


I posted a couple months ago about the presence here in town of an extreme topiary garden. At that point I hadn’t had a chance to visit it, but last week I finally made it.


The house responsible for the garden perches high above the street. The owner could have chosen to plant groundcover on the long slope, or to terrace it and garden the different levels. Instead they opted to populate the slope with several dozen crazy little topiaries. Some of them are geometric, but most are fanciful little figures. Bunnies, sea monsters, Texas gunslingers, you name it.



The plants making up all the figures appeared to be cape honeysuckle, Tecomaria capensis, a plant that isn’t one of the classic topiary selections. But it accepts shaping really well, and seems to be a good choice for topiary if you don’t mind a little bumpiness here and there. The plant can have spectacular tubular orange flowers, though don’t expect to see many if you’re sculpting a giant bunny out of it.


A spectacle like this doesn’t just happen, so it was no surprise that I found a gardener maintaining it. I was hoping to see someone shaping the topiaries. But instead he was using an electric hedge trimmer to keep the plants off the stairs that led up (and up and up) to the house. But I guess that’s gardening for you. There’s a certain amount of the really gratifying work of putting in new plants or admiring the flowers, but there’s a lot of basic maintenance that goes into it as well…

Speaking of things topiary, I finally had a chance to see A Man Named Pearl, the 2006 documentary on Pearl Fryar’s amazing topiary garden in Bishopville, South Carolina. The basic story is inspiring: a sharecropper’s son moves into a white neighborhood where his presence isn’t appreciated at first; over time he makes a garden that is awarded “Yard of the Month”; and then he goes on to shape a collection of some of the most original topiaries ever clipped. Some of you have seen the documentary already–particularly now that HGTV has broadcast it. But if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth a look.

western dichondra

My parents knew a good deal when they saw one. The house they purchased in the Southern California ‘burbs had the required number of bedrooms, fruit trees in the back, a lawn for the kids to play on, and was located half-way between their jobs. The front yards in the neighborhood were well maintained but not splashy.

Some of the houses on the other side of the nearby main boulevard, however, had immaculate high-maintenance gardens–and probably had gardeners to go with them. One of the groundcover choices that some of those houses sported was a dark green dichondra lawn, smooth and uniform as the felt on a pool table. These were lawns that didn’t tolerate much foot traffic, required lots of weeding, heavy summer water and were meant mainly for show. Compared to our lumpy, spiky lawn, these dichondra tableaux seemed like the stuff that dreams are made of. (We never would have considered that dichondra is considered a weed in many parts of the country.)


Jump ahead lots and lots of years to my current house. Every now and then in one of the raised beds I’d see a plant volunteer underneath some shrubs or around some bulbs. It sure looked like dichondra, but for a long time I thought I wasn’t IDing the plant correctly.

As it turns out the plant really is a dichondra, and it’s actually one of the uncommon native plants found in coastal sage scrub, chaparral and oak woodland habitats. The local species, Dichondra occidentalis, is distinct from the classic lawn plant–one of the subtle distinguishing characteristics being the silver or brown hairs on the stems. But it’s still a dichondra, and I thought its was pretty cool that one of the plants that I’d fetishized growing up somehow managed to find me as an adult.


The dichondra has self-sowed itself into a couple spots around the house. It now forms a welcome groundcover in this raised planter, where a few months ago the narcissus were breaking through the soil…


…and this is today, with white Chinese ground orchids, Bletilla striata alba, blooming away in their bed of soft dichondra.

If you don’t want to wait for the plant to show up on its own, several California native plant suppliers offer Dichondra occidentalis, though it’s definitely one of the less popular items. The plant seems best for me in part-shade. It can take the summer off if you don’t water it, but bi-weekly sprinklings have kept it around year-round for me, though in summer it’s a little sparse. But as much as I hate to admit it, I also have a hard time looking glamorous all the time, so I’m willing to give this plant a break…

trying to do the right thing

People often try to do the right thing, but along the way things somethings can go astray.


Saturday I was hiking one of our local urban canyons, San Clemente Canyon, with some other plant people. Like the rest of our local canyons, the plants you find there are a mix of native and introduced species. It’s not pristine, by any means, particularly when you consider that there’s a freeway a couple hundred feet behind where this photo was taken. But many of the really big plants are original to the canyon. You can get a good impression of what it was like two centuries ago, and hopefully that’ll motivate people to preserve what’s left.


During that walk everyone paused at a big clearing in the trees. It was a broad area that had been cleared of the invasive species and replanted with California plants. The project was financed by the city authority that maintains the sewer lines that run through the park. The maintenance roads eat into the native habitat, and for ever acre of road, the agency did an offset of five acres where they tried to mitigate the damage done by the bulldozed access routes. It’s a pretty reasonable way to deal with something a big city needs to operate–sewers–and at the same time improve the integrity of the semi-wild spaces.

After oohing and awing at the improvements, several of us noticed the poppies. California poppies, yes they were, but big, tall orange ones and not the petite yellow-to-gold ones that you typically find in the local environment.


A trip yesterday to Tecolote Canyon, another of the local urban canyons, revealed exactly the same thing in a restoration in progress there.

Technically, under current botanical systems, both versions of the poppy are considered the same species. But a quick look at them yells you that they’re as distinct from one another as cousins in a family, and they have genetics that evolved to making them appropriate for their different environments.

Take a look at their leaves, to start. The one on the left, below, is from the classic “California poppy” that people know (Escholzia californica). The one on the right is from the version found around here (at once classified as Escholzia californica maritima). The one on the left has less leaf surface, and to me looks like it’s evolved to deal with more drought.



Growing the two versions side-by side in the garden also reveals another difference. The regular California poppy develops powdery mildew this cool and humid time of year, whereas the local version seems to be close to unaffected.

So when you combine the plant size, flower size, flower color and the plants’ resistance to powdery mildew, you can see that the plants are quite different, and that the coastal version is probably better suited for living here. (In gardens the typical orange form is pretty rugged and no slouch, but its disease issues give it a disadvantage to being as spectacular as it might be in a drier region like the Antelpe Valley, the location of the California Poppy Preserve.)

Recon Native Plants, a San Diego wholesale native plant nursery that specializes in habitat restoration, takes extra pride in knowing exactly where their plants come from. Their site advertizes:

For example, an Artemisia californica from the Sierra Nevada and an Artemisia californica from coastal San Diego County are the same species, however they have evolved and adapted with different genetics for different environments. With the source identified, RECON Native Plants can tell our clients within 5 miles, the origin of each plant and the client can select the location most appropriate to their project.

It’s a good illustration of the difference between planting a garden and going the extra distance to effect a successful habitat restoration project. Many gardeners would prefer the splashier Antelope Valley version of the state flower, but that’s not the form that makes most sense for our local flora. Somewhere along the planning, implementation or sourcing of these two habitat restoration projects, something went a little astray. It’s a small detail, but it’s one that many people consider important as we try to keep our open spaces as wild as we can.

EDIT, April 7: Check out another post on two different poppy forms over at DryStoneGarden.

autopiary–in pink!

Earlier I’d shared my neighbor’s car-shaped hedge with you. A couple weeks ago John mentioned that the hedge was in bloom.


I hadn’t paid much attention to what the clipped plant was. But now that it’s blooming, it’s clear that the plant is Raphiolepis indica, the Indian hawthorn that’s turning every third yard in this part of town either pink or white with its flowers. There’s definitely something to be said for growing plants that nobody else grows, but there’s also something cool about having your plants participate in a city-wide explosion of color.

Well, there may be a few million of these plants blooming in town, but no one has one that’s shaped quite like my neighbor’s…

controlled chaos

I often have trouble mixing ornamentals and vegetables together in a garden bed that’s supposed to be “for company,” a bed that’s meant to be attractive as well as containing tasty-looking plants that you’d like to take to the dinner table.



Some parts of the garden where I’ve snuck veggies in with the other plants look a little chaotic, but here’s a patch that I really like the looks of. Earlier I showed part of this corner that the bedroom window overlooks. But new things are starting to bloom, and the colors are starting to really click for me.

When I was putting this bed together, I set myself the main rule of “nothing yellow.” In deciding what veggies to place there, I just stuck to that organizing principle. (Okay, can you tell that I work in libraries and organize information during the week?)

This bed features several edibles: red-stemmed chard, orange-stemmed chard, Red Winter red Russian kale, red beets, plus catmint for tea (and for the cat). The ornamentals include scarlet geum, purple heliotrope, violet blue-eyed grass, the salmon-colored bulb Homeria collina, two blue sages (Salvia sagittata and Salvia cacaliaefolia) plus a few other things not in bloom.

For sure, there’s a lot of red and blue and purple going on here. But several variations on green in the background green do wonders to pull together what might otherwise be chaos.

I’m going to hate cutting any of these veggies for dinner…

the view from the top

It’s spring, and the wildflowers wait for no one. I’ve been forsaking gardening and home projects and blogging (gasp!) a bit to check out some of the local open spaces. Here’s a panorama of part of the view from the top of Fortuna Mountian, at 1,243 feet the second highest “peak” in the San Diego city limits. (Click the image to enlarge.)


This peak burned on October 26, 2003 during the county’s big Cedar Fire. Revisiting the area is a great lesson to see how things recover from a major fire, either by resprouting from the roots or reestablishing themselves by seed. There are still plenty of dead branches poking up towards the sky, but there’s also a huge amount of green. And these big, gorgeous rocks didn’t hold on to their scorch marks for long. (Don’t you just love rocks in a landscape, either in the wilds or in a garden?)


Many of the plants and flowers aren’t ones you’ll find even in native plant gardens, but several have passed the “garden-worthy” test. In the second frame from the left above, you’ll see a bloom spike of the stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, sort of an awful name for a beautiful plant.

While I haven’t seen plants of this annual species offered for sale, several online sources do list seeds, including S&S Seeds, and Seedhunt.

Also on the summit were two other plants that are used fairly frequently in native gardens: laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) and mission manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor), both of them eventually forming large, interesting shrubs.

I’ll be sharing more bits and pieces of the trips as I get them more organized.

our front porch project

We began this project to redo our front porch surround last year. It’s not totally finished, but it’s at a point I thought I’d share it with you.

The house originally came with an enclosure around the little front porch/patio area that made it feel like you were behind bars, doing time for a crime you didn’t commit. We took a saw to the original porch cover and provided some breathing space in it, but it always felt like an uncomfortable retrofit. As the termites dealt a terminal blow to the first enclosure, I developed this completely reworked design, sort of a deconstructed patio cover, with openings through the front screening panel, as well as an open, incomplete canopy overhead.


This shows the shelter from the front of the house. The big window cut into the screen lets you see out into the neighborhood, while not making you feel caged.


Another front view, approaching from the side of the house…


And a last shot from the roof, showing the partial covering overhead. Many of days are overcast, and we really would prefer sun over shade most days. This reduced cover shelters the big main window and front door, but lets more light in than an edge-to-edge cover.

The new wood needs to season just a little bit before the final finishing, and the old wood will need to be scrubbed to clean it a bit. But once the finish is on, it should really look great. I’m pleased!

Main materials: pressure-treated lumber for the support structure (painted black, to fade into the background); ipe hardwood lumber for the slats; exposed stainless steel screws for fastening the slats. The ipe hardwood is potentially the least green component of this project. Although my local lumber supplier is assuring its users that their ipe “is harvested from professionally managed sustainable forests,” some of my research is now saying that the claim just may be a crock of greenwashing. Ugh.

Choosing sustainable materials for an outdoor project is challenging. There are interesting discussions you can wade into, including an introductory Sustainable Decking Solutions post that’s worth a look. If you must use ipe, a supplier like AltruWoods can supply FSC certified lumber for a project, and might have been the better choice for getting materials for this project.

Whatever you do, reducing the amount of materials you use is a beginning. The post above recommends that “[o]ne green building idea with a lot of merit is treating wood as a luxury. Trees help the planet the most when they’re alive and globally, the acreage per forest is dwindling rapidly. Using wood as a common structural and outdoor finish material is not a long-term sustainable practice.” Good advice.

How do you all approach trying to be greener in your outdoor projects? I suppose one excellent alternative to a patio cover would have been to plant a tree. It’s a concept our grandparents would have signed on to…