the most recent water bill

We’ve taken a lot of measures to try to conserve water. Each water bill we receive gives us a chance to look at how well we’re doing. Compared to last year, this last bill showed a 40.1% drop for the two-month period of mid-May to mid-July.

40 percent decrease

To get to this point we’ve installed drip irrigation for most of the remaining thirsty plants, reduced the number of times a week the outdoor sprinkler runs, recycled water from the shower, mulched many garden spaces, and replaced some water-intensive plants with low-water or no-water selections. It’s helped that this has been a fairly cool spring and early summer.

Still, 112 gallons a day average total for a household of two people–one of us working 40 hours a week, the other mainly working out of the house–still seems a little on the high side. That’s enough water to flush a 1.6 gallon low-flow toilet 70 times per day. But compared to an American per capita average of something around 60-70 gallons for just indoor usage, I guess that’s not too awful for both indoor and outdoor use.

Hmmm, I wonder if we can get the usage down to less than 100 total gallons a day for the two of us. It might be a little tricky over the summer. But it should be totally doable once the weather cools.

a hanging screen


Here’s a hanging screen in the garden, a project from a decade or more ago that I still like. It helps separate two levels of the garden: a lower level that has black bamboo planted in a corner, and an upper one where there’s a long tiled bench and outdoor fireplace.


The screen hangs in an opening that’s five feet high and six wide, and features opaque white polycarbonate in the frame that allows the shadows of the bamboo to provide interesting shadows on long, sunny afternoons.

The style of the screen is a little more overtly Japanese than where I’m in my life stylistically right now, and comes from a time when I was exploring Asian influenced craftsman designs as I was trying to improve my woodworking skills. (There’s a whole bedroom in the house that features similar woodwork.)

The materials are redwood for the frame and polycarbonate for the “windows.” The whole assembly was made with no tools more specialized than a hand-held circular saw and router. Everything is held together with screws, pegs, caulk and an unspeakable amount of waterproof glue.

gardens from lands with little water

My thanks to James Golden of View from Federal Twist for bringing to my attention a book that he thought would speak to this Californian’s attempts to garden in a land with little water. Penelope Hobhouse’s The Gardens of Persia traces the development of gardens in the rainfall-challenged area, beginning with the the earliest known garden for which we have an archaeological record, Cyrus the Great’s gardens at Pasargadae, which date to the 6th century, BCE.

That earliest garden featured a rectangular space divided symmetrically into smaller rectangles by two water courses that intersected at a 90 degree angle. It’s a basic formula that would develop through the centuries into the Islamic, Mughal and Moorish gardens which, in turn, went on to influence garden-making in Europe and beyond.

Cyrus’s garden used water in a way that treated it as a precious resource in a desert land but also showed off the fact that water was available to the owner of the garden, reinforcing the prestige and power of the ruler. Subsequent gardens in Persia continued to strike this balance. They used water in careful, strategic ways, treating it as the rare resource it was, often in narrow channels where evaporation would have been minized under the desert sun. At the same time they highlighted the power of the owner of the garden, and perhaps helped to conflate water’s life-giving powers with legitimacy of the ruler.


Here in San Diego, you can see an interpretation of a Persian-influenced Moorish garden in Balboa Park’s Alcazar Garden. Purportedly “patterned after the gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain,” the garden is a 1935 design by local architect Richard Requa, built for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.

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Although I’ve never been to the Alcázar in Seville, a quick trip to the satellite overview of the original Alcázar gardens on Google Maps reveals the California garden to be a fairly loose interpretation of what you’ll find in Spain. But it retains strong overtones of traditional Persian gardens in its strong symmetry and thrifty use of water. (Garden sightseeing via Google Maps works really well for overviews of large gardens with strong structure. Take a look at Versailles or Isola Bella.)



In the Balboa Park garden each of the intersections of the main central axis and two perpendicular axes is celebrated by a small tiled fountain, six to eight feet across. Neither fountain throws water more than a few inches away from the fountainhead.

With San Diego’s current water restrictions, homeowners can’t have any sort of fountain that shoots water into the air. So even fountains that are as measured in their use of water as these are wouldn’t be permitted. But evaporation and water waste on this style of fountain is so different from what you’d have with civic fountains that are more like unplugged fire hydrants. (Think of the fountains in Las Vegas at Bellagio.) These little Moorish fountains celebrate water, they don’t waste it.



The garden features borders of clipped boxwood that outline the rectangles of the garden beds. Seasonal plantings rotate in an out of these bordered areas. Lavender, cosmos, and Shasta daisies were filling in the central rectangles on this July afternoon, with rudbeckia, penstemon, iresene, cannas, sunflowers and other warm-weather plants on the margins.

Are these plantings historically accurate? With the exception of the lavender, not at all. But chances are that if the Persian rulers were around today, they would used whatever materials were available to them, especially if they were plants that spoke to power and conquest over distant lands. Plants from all over the globe and modern hybrids would only serve to reinforce the viewer’s sense of the ruler’s power.

Penelope Hobhouse makes a similar observation about choice of plant materials in the Persian-influenced gardens at the Generalife in Grenada: “Archaeologists discovered that the garden must originally have been planted with low-growing flowers requiring little soil, although there were some deeper pits obviously made for shrubs, such as myrtle, and orange trees which had been described as growing there in the 16th century. After the excavations the soil was returned to the Acequia Court, and today modern annuals with no historical authenticity give a colorful display.”

If you were wanting to make a historically-correct Persian garden Hobhouse’s text list many other options throughout, including various roses, tulips, and several trees including white poplar, plane trees, plums, apricots, and apples.

Another resource for historical plants would be Ali Akbar Husain’s Scent in the Islamic Garden: A Study of Deccani Urdu Literary Sources, a study that I knew nothing about until I happened to see it sitting on the shelf next to the Hobhouse book in the library. This fairly academic but quite readable book concentrates on Mhugal gardens and provides a long appendix of specifically fragrant plants mentioned in garden texts. Although the focus is on texts from India, plants of of European origin make up a big part of the list.

Many of the selections don’t come as any surprise: several rose species, narcissus, violets, lavender, jasmine, mint, crinum, crocus, lilies, iris. But a couple would be surprising selections for gardens today: one of the stinking corpse flower species (Amorphophallus camanulatus) and cannabis (yes, that cannabis).

more waterlily photos to share

Here in Southern California summer slips into the doldrums as the weather heats up and the land dries out. If only we had shallow lakes everywhere we might have acres of waterlilies blooming their heads off. Things might look a little bit like this…

Jenny was at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania recently and sent me these photos of their water gardens. (Thanks, Jenny!) She was struck by their flowers, but was really drawn to the foliage. It’s easy to love the variegated ones, but the crinkled edges on the other varieties are awfully cool too. These are all waterlilies but for one, the plant without blooms. I’ll try to get the name of the from her, but if any of the rest of you know what it is, just drop a note.

Of course, having a body of water in a warm climate is no guarantee that water plants will thrive. Last year, up in Los Angeles, the Echo Park Lotus Festival took place. But after celebrating the blooming of the water lotuses every year since 1972, there were no lotus blooms to show. Earlier this month they went ahead and held the annual celebration, but this time it was re-branded the Echo Park Community Festival. No lotuses. Sad.

in the pond

When we purchased the house it came with a nice, deep pond that was perfect for waterlilies. It also came with an upper pond with a waterfall into the lily pond, and two other small ponds. Two decades later, one of the small ponds has now been converted into a planter, and another into my bog garden. Remaining are the two largest ponds, the lily pond and the upper pond, which we reduced in size by half.


We’ve had waterlilies blooming since the end of April. I have no idea what variety this one is–It came with the pond that came with the house. But it’s a tough and reliable plant.


The ponds are mostly John’s territory, but I’ve sneaked a couple California native species into them. The first is a cattail (Typha sp.), one of my favorite water plants.


If you’ve ever grown these, you realize quickly that there’s a certain amount of maintenance that goes with them, mainly in dealing with their spreading rhizomes. If the plant is potted, it’ll soon escape and will require frequent trimming when growing actively. Here are a couple of shoots that have escaped into the fertile pond scum. In the past the shoots got tossed, but I just read in an excerpt from Steve Brill and Evelyn Brin’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places how they’re totally edible and are nicknamed “Cossack’s asparagus.” The next trimmings will be going into the skillet.


A new native to the pond is California bulrush (Scirpus californicus), a replacement for a giant papyrus that finally succumbed after two decades. Although the new scirpus is called a rush, it’s actually a sedge. Two months ago it was a one-gallon plant. Now it’s easily twice the size.


Its little flowers aren’t spectacular, but a mass of these little bloom clusters could be a nice effect once it gets a little larger.

The closest canyon is about an eighth of a mile away, but various critters find their way to the water. Raccoons, opossums and tracks from a cat larger than a house cat, smaller than a cougar have been sighted over the years. During the first years a couple of visits from a great blue heron finally discouraged John from trying to raise koi in the lower pond after they ended turning in expensive birdfeed.


These days the main visitors are sparrows, which blend so well with pond scum and the surrounding rocks that they’re hard to see…


…and these days we’re seeing a lot of these lesser goldfinches.

Now that our daytime temperatures have finally been climbing into what you’d expect during the summer, I think I might be frolicking in the water if I were one of these birds.

two reasons to mulch


One of the weekend garden projects was to put down some mulch around a couple of the fruit trees. I’d resisted doing it earlier because I’d been using the bare ground at the edge of the little orchard as a place to sow various annual wildflower seeds–clarkia, baby blue eyes, poppies, fun things like that. Mulch would have prevented the seed from germinating.

A little garden of annual wildflowers sounds really cool, but it’s a lot of work to keep going. Bare ground during the wet winter and spring weather is an open invitation for all the dormant weed seeds to set up house, and keeping the bed weeded was a several-day-a-week chore.

Add to that that we’re re trying to do more to conserve water. Mulching around the trees to conserve water was making too much sense to not do. Come winter I’ll be glad for the reduced weeding.


The raised bed with the fruit trees still contains some ornamentals near the edges, and I mulched up to near the edges of most of them. This is the local Dudleya edulis, combined with blue chalk fingers, Senecio mandraliscae, from South Africa.


Some of the other plants in the bed were so low-growing that mulching would have covered them entirely. I left a couple little patches of the native Dichondra occidentalis with mulch only at the edges. Hopefully the plant will be able to grow up through the mulch a bit.


This little San Miguel Island buckwheat seedling was large enough to not bury, but a couple seedlings nearby were specks in the dirt that would have never seen the light of day.


For these tiniest seedlings, I left the ground bare. In addition I erected a couple little goalposts to mark the location so I wouldn’t stomped on when I walk through or pull them out thinking they’re a weed. It’s a technique I use whenever I plant some seeds in the open ground. The little upright twigs usually stay around long enough for the seeds to germinate and get to a safe size.

I’ll miss the little meadow in the spring months, but not the weeding. And I feel better that the fig and plum will be able to get by with a little less water. Come fall, if I decide I’d still like some annuals to liven up a garden spot with the bare branches of the trees overhead, there really wouldn’t be anything stopping me from clearing little patches of dirt through the mulch, sowing some wildflowers, and erecting little goalposts to protect the plants from marauding gardeners.

Hmm. I’m not sure why it took me so long to do this…

lettuce make art


A woman in my office brought in a couple flats of lettuces that her father had grown. Every few months the father’s garden gets to that exuberant point where there’s no way you can begin to eat everything it produces. What better thing to do with it than share?


I brought home a couple heads that are making their way into salads. People rave about the difference between home-grown and store-bought tomatoes, but lettuce can show similar differences. The thick outer stems in the salads had a delicate crunch without the bitterness that you often encounter.

Talking to my coworker she was saying how her father was getting distressed with the new watering restrictions. Apparently he was used to watering his vegetables every day. She was trying to assure him that cutting back to every other day probably wouldn’t make much difference, even in midsummer.


In addition to salad I made this abstraction using another closeup of the lettuce as a source. This employs the much-overused Find Edges filter in Photoshop, in combination with a couple of other controls. I tried to keep just a hint of the lettuce to credit the biological source of the image. It’s a desktop doodle at this point, and I’m not sure I’ll do anything with it.

So, is this what they call playing with your food?

friday garden roundup

After finishing my coffee and reading some of the newspaper this morning I took a quick survey around the yard.


Honey bush (Melianthus major) is a South African species that I’ve had for a couple years now. Although it responds to watering with a lot of spunky growth, it’s also good with minimal additional watering. I have two sprinkler heads in the garden, and this plant gets by on the overspray from one of the heads after it’s made the sages and tangerine tree happy.

The maroon flowers unfurl from the branch tips in spring and dry to these brown spikes. I’ve left them on the plant to help me decide if I like the way they look or not. The bed they’re in in has a lot of mounding plants, so the spikes give some vertical interest.



The leaves are heavily serrated and are the main reason for growing the plant. Here they are, with shadows, and backlit by the morning sun. They look a little fierce, but they’re actually soft, like rubber. They do have a bit of an unpleasant odor if you brush by them. Combine that fact with the plant’s eventual size–six to twelve feet–and you’ll see that it has “dramatic background plant” written all over it.


The melianthus grows next to a bromeliad that truly is nasty and spiny. (I’ve mentioned this plant before…) Pretty though, even when it’s not flowering. And it takes next to no water when grown in mostly shade.


Next to the honey bush and bromeliad, in a planting that spans two or three continents, is a young manzanita, Actostaphylos Dr. Hurd, shown here in a detail highlighting its exfoliating bark. Although one of the faster growing manzanitas–it’s grown eight inches since February–this still isn’t a plant for the impatient. Currently it’s exactly one meter tall, and will hopefully hit its design height of ten feet before I’m back diapers. Eventually it’ll make it to fifteen feet or more.


In the front of the same bed, next to a sprinkler head, are some basil cuttings that I’ve posted on before. Six weeks after planting out, the largest plant is maybe eight by eight inches and is big enough for me to consider taking an occasional snip for the dinner table. In a month I should be ready to make batches of pesto.


The final photo isn’t my garden, but looking across the street, where they’re installing plastic turf. The neighbors are responding to our new water restrictions by mixing synthetic grass with palm trees. The look will be something like the wet Hawaiian paradise they had before.

But I do worry that synthetic grass, even if it looks something like the real thing, does nothing to address people’s fundamental expectations of what a garden should look like in a fiercely dry climate. And in my most uncharitable moments I think that installing plastic grass is like treating heroin addiction with methadone. And to this gardener, installing something as dead as plastic grass lands with a thud as loud as the one created by the infamous 1978 remodel of a Sunset Boulevard mansion by a Saudi sheik that featured planters full of plastic flowers.

But hey, they’re doing what makes sense to them, and they will be reducing their water use.

july bloom day

For this month’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day I have some closeup photos of some of what’s blooming in the garden. I’ve done a couple posts on using backgrounds behind plants (Background check / One way to photogrpah a tree). Inspired, all but one of these shots uses a white sheet of matboard placed behind the plants. Each color of background presents a different end result. Using white accentuates dark flowers and stems, and some of these photos are a busy network of dark lines against the light background.

There are some newcomers just coming into bloom, but many plants have been in bloom for several months. When life gives you more of the same flowers…well, I was thinking I’d try to photograph them a little differently.

I suspect the neighbors think I’m odd enough taking pictures of everything in the garden, and I thought it’d be extra-distressing if I were to be walking around the garden with a big white board as well as the camera. As a result all of these are from the quiet privacy of the back yard, with the exception of the one plant without a white background.



Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.



Lion’s tail, Leonotis leonorus; Desert mallow, Sphaeralcea



Peruvian daffodil, Hymenocallis festalis; Freeway daisy, Osteospermum sp.



Verbena bonariensis; Juncus patens (with fallen leaf caught in the plant).

Some salvias:


Salvia nemerosa ‘Snow Hills’; Ivy-leaved sage (Salvia cacaliaefolia).



On the left is Andean sage (Salvia discolor with its almost black flowers set in light green calyces; on the right is Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips.’

Some California buckwheats:


Flat-topped buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)


San Miguel Island buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens)


St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)



Butterfly bush (Clero- dendrum ugan- dense); seed pod of whitetop pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla).



Pink and white double bougainvillea (unknown variety); Agastache aurantiaca ‘Apricot Sprite.’



Pink double bougainvillea (another unknown variety); toloache (Datura wrightii).

Thanks again the Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. It’s a terrific way to build community among garden bloggers wanting to share the flowers in their gardens. Check out this month’s offerings!

some missing words

The current issue of Orion, one of my favorite magazines, features “World Without Violets,” a scary little essay by Robert Michael Pyle.

A mother in Britain discovered that the editors of the current Oxford Junior Dictionary, in their zeal to bring this little dictionary for children up to date, had removed a long list of words dealing with nature in order to make room for words like “broadband,” “bungee jumping” and “chat room.”

Pyle writes about the universe the editors of the Dictionary have created for the current generation of children who would use it:

It is a world without violets. Spring comes unannounced by catkins and proceeds without benefit of crocuses, cowslips, or tulips. Summer brings no lavender, melons, or nectarines, and autumn is absent of acorns, almonds, and hazelnuts. Winter must be endured without the holly and the ivy, the wren or the mistletoe.

So, suddenly bungee jumping–how retro-80s is that concept?–is more important than tulips, broadband more necessary for children to know about than melons, and chat rooms more of our real world than holly.

If someone decides that we don’t need a word for something, does that something cease to exist? Not really. But what kind of mindset decides that children don’t need to know about their natural world anymore? I was disturbed.