casual vegetable gardening

Some things I put in the ground exactly where I want them. Other things I put in once and let nature take care of the rest. Way back in the Paleozoic era I’d bought some red romaine lettuce plants. There were more than we could eat, and a few went to seed. They looked a little unkempt, but the little yellow finches loved the seeds and made a ruckus in the yard as they fed on them.

After the next rains, tiny lettuce plants began to sprout all over. The plants that were in reasonable spots I let grow, and the baby greens from them were as tasty as the red leaves were great to look at. I let a few of those go to seed again, and the cycle started all over. Here are a few plants from the current crop, providing a nice red counterpoint around a green rosemary:


Vegetable gardens so often seem to be disciplined, military spaces with their perfectly aligned rows of exactly the same plant, one after another. Instead of that, why not plant the veggies like they’re an extension of the garden? And why not let some of them go to seed and repopulate themselves?

blue dicks

Dichelostemma capitatum, in bloom in the garden now:bluedicksclose.jpgbluedicksplant.jpg

My plants come from a native plant sale ten years ago, and they’ve multiplied in the front yard, through both division of the bulbs and self-sowing. In a wet year the flowering stems may rise up two feet, and little clusters of lavender blossoms for a couple of weeks. Though mostly stems, the plants in bloom are surprisingly striking. Out of bloom, there’s so little to the plants that they almost vanish out of sight.

I haven’t been out to the local canyons this season, but I’m sure the blue dicks (really, that’s what they call them!) are making their presence known. Even if you don’t devote your whole yard to natives, having some exemplary ones around connects you to your environment. You know that if something is blooming in your yard it’s blooming in the wild lands around you. You feel a part of something much larger than your own garden. On the other hand, with things like hybrid petunias or modern roses, well, they might look pretty, but they don’t root you in the same way. They don’t give you that same sense of place and belonging.

scorched earth gardening

After my last post I did more research on controlling English ivy. Beyond the commonly-quoted advice to spray with herbicides, or to attempt the mechanical removal that is occupying me these days, I saw an interesting idea for a new but as-yet-untested biological control Nothing immediately useful, unfortunately. And then I started to see techniques that could only be dreamed up by people like me who’ve been spending too much time fighting off Hedera helix.

From the folks at the University of California, in a discussion of ivy, comes:

Prescribed burning: An extreme method that has been used with some success is to burn ivy plants and resprouts with a blow torch at regular intervals; the energy used by the plant to regrow will eventually be depleted. Obviously, this approach requires considerable caution.

And from Organic Land comes:

Another more drastic method has been to use a blow-torch to repeatedly blast the plant with a hot flame. By repeatedly exposing the plant to high heat, this method is intended to exhaust the H. helix of its energy so that it is unable to multiply or produce berries for reproduction (Reichard, 2000).

So…fatigued of doing things the old-fashioned way, I went to the garage and got the blowtorch. After aiming the flame at some ivy leaves they began to writhe and smoke in a most satisfying way. Soon the leaves started to burn, which surprised me since ivy is one of the plants that shows up occasionally as a recommended plant for firescaping. As the leaves burned, some of the dead grasses around them started to catch fire. Just a little more heat and I’d have had a little brushfire started. Hmmmm. Maybe it’s not such a good idea, I started to think, looking up at a wood fence not more than two feet away. Damn, it felt good, but I ended the experiment right then and there–it probably wasn’t a good idea to burn down the neighborhood!

vegetable plutonium

In my more active anti-nuke activist days one of the more compelling arguments against nuclear power was that some of its byproducts were so long-lived that they would remain lethal for longer than human civilization has existed. Plutonium-239, for example, has a half-life of something like 24,000 years, and even a tiny particle of it could prove dangerous to a person.

I was thinking about that during my weeding exercise this weekend, dealing with a neglected corner of the garden where the neighbor’s English ivy had crossed over and under the fence and set up a stand that had spread 20 feet or more into my yard. In the course of its invasion, it had contributed to a low brick retaining wall being pushed over.
The wall the ivy helped push over

I hate to use stuff like Roundup in the yard, but I tried it on the ivy a couple weeks ago. Some of the weeds around it shriveled to brown ghosts of themselves, but at best the ivy showed a little burning around the edges of the leaves. I’d tried Roundupping the ivy before, with similar minimal results. Ivy really seems like the thing that wouldn’t die. Some online sites have guidelines on how to get rid of the stuff, but none of them seem to guarantee easy control. (A couple of the sites I looked at: Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council Invasive Plant Manual and the Plant Conservation Alliance’s “Least wanted” pages.)

I wasn’t looking forward to the alternative of digging it out by hand, but digging it out by hand was the chore that ate my weekend. And it’s a chore that’ll be occupying at least a couple more. The job is extra-awful in that even a little piece of ivy runner left in the ground could grow roots and set up a whole new colony. You have to be sure to dig down the foot or so that the runners can travel at, and you need to be sure that you’ve rid the patch of all the alien ivy life forms before you move on to the next spadefull. It’s like vegetable plutonium in that any little bit left in the ground could prove dangerous for future generations. Nasty, evil stuff.

Here you can see the proportion of dirt to ivy roots…

If my mantra of my teen years was “No nukes!” the mantra of my current gardening life has to be “No Ivy!” Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his quote that went something like, “Doctor’s can always bury their mistakes. Architects can only plant ivy.” Well, friends, doing that would be the greatest mistake of all.

keep out

Problem: You have a seaside estate, but between your back yard and the ocean is a busy public path traveled by all sorts of unpleasant undesirables. You want to keep out the riffraff, but you don’t want to spoil the view to the ocean with an unsightly fence. What do you do?

Solution: Here’s something I saw along the Cliff Walk in Newport last week. Basically it’s a lawn that drops off dramatically at the edge. And hidden inside the dropoff area is this unfriendly fence. It probably looks gorgeous from the house, with the lawn seeming to stretch to the edge of the rocky shore. But it looks hostile as hell from the public trail.

Haha in Newport

It’s not exactly a classical ha-ha, but close. The original ha-has were basically retaining walls that were sunk in a trench, giving the impression that your estate extended to the horizon. Credited to the seventeenth-century British garden designer Charles Brdgeman, it was used extensively and most famously by Capability Brown in his expansive English countryside garden designs.
Photo taken at Castle Ashby, Northants by R Neil Marshman under GNU license. The ha-ha is just on the other side of the near tree.

It also is a Western take on borrowed scenery, the Japanese notion of shakkei, “landscape which is captured alive,” a technique of garden planning where you incorporate the view into your garden design. So…the British gentry, the Japanese nobles, the gilded Americans, they’re pretty similar in at least this regard: They all want you to think they have even more than they have.

last Newport post: cameras/semi-mysterious tower

Walking around town when I get breaks between meetings I’ve dragged along one of two cameras. One is a trusty roll film camera that I’ve been using for years, and the other is this embarrassment of a digital camera, the first digital camera I bought John when digital cameras were just coming out. I haven’t gone shopping to Toys R’ Us lately but I’d guess that it has the same megapixel capacity as a My Little Pony digital camera today, if they make such a thing. At least it’s not pink. Maybe I should say that it has 1,300 kilopixels–certianly lots more impressive than 1.3 megapixels. And on top of the low resolution it eats batteries like crazy. Seriously I thought it had died and gone to digital camera purgatory until I dropped into the gift shop downstairs and fed the camera five bucks in batteries. Might have been a good excuse to finally get myself a real digital camera.

Since most of the pictures I took were with the film camera I’ll have to forgo the immediate gratification and wait to see the pictures until I get them developed. But here’s one of the random digital shots of a structure located just above the downtown tourist district. Though it’s called many things, it appears on the map I have as the Old Stone Mill, though it’s doubtful that it was ever attached to any operation like a mill. In fact, it’s apparently a bit of a mystery what it is exactly, and a bit of a mystery who built it. Apparently carbon dating of the mortar dates it to various dates, some as late as the late seventeenth century, some to the early 1400s.

Old Mill Tower

Call me a skeptic, but just like people who claim their hotel is haunted, what mystery there might be well could be overblown and might have nothing to do with reality, though it’d certianly be good for business. There are a lots of web pages where it’s discussed: wikipedia of course; Curt F. Waidmann’s nicely researched The Newport Tower: a Medieval Ruin in America; the Redwood Library and Athenaeum’s page on it; and the more scandal-/mystery-driven page on UnexplainedEarth. If any of those pages have any authority, Wikipedia points to the Redwood Library’s pages, and I might go with that evaluation: The library is located just across the street.

how many seasons?

I’m still visiting Newport R.I. where it seems like things are on hold. The lawns are mostly brown, the trees largely bare. Some evergreens seem like they’re waiting, like they’ve been waiting. A few rhododendrons or azaleas probably could be spectacular, but they’re not going to fulfill that promise anytime soon. It’s winter.

Newport Manse in Winter

On the plane here I was reading the introduction to a scholarly edition of the Sukateiki, the Japanese eleventh-century gardening treatise that’s possibly the oldest book on gardening in existence in any language. In a chapter on geomancy, the authors discuss how the five geomantic elements–wood, fire, earth, metal, water–correspond to the seasons. Metal is autumn, water is winter, wood is spring, fire is summer, and earth the season that follows, doyo (pretend that there’s a macron–a long line–over the concluding “o”). So…five elements, five seasons? That got me thinking.

I spent some of my childhood in Burma, a tropical country with weather and seasons governed by the monsoons off the Indian Ocean. (An aside: To see what you can do to stay informed on the awful political mess there, as well as what you can do to help, click here.) There we had a cold dry season, then a hot dry season, followed by the rainy season. Three seasons. When my mother would talk about life in Ohio, with its four seasons, with its seasons of cold and snow, it all seemed awfully exotic and incomprehensible.

Now, living in Southern California, it’s impossible not to run into someone nostalgic for what they call four real seasons. Except for the occasional deciduous tree things stay pretty green. Things bloom in January. So some complain that it’s really just one very long season. Of course, anyone who’s lived there a while can feel the changes: You really shouldn’t plant lettuce in July, just as you’d probably not want to leave your doors and windows open most days in January. Every place has its cycles, only some are more subtle than others. Or do some people never go out of their houses?

And here in Newport, with the bare trees, the brown lawns, and–just overnight–a covering of fresh snow, there’s no doubt. It’s winter.

Day for a Guinness

how to have an important newport garden

I’m on a little work trip to Newport, Rhode Island, and I’m just back from a long self-guided tour that included the Cliff Walk, 3 1/2 miles of a fairly good oceanside trail (and a little boulder-scrambling) that takes you on the private, ocean-view sides of a number of the town’s larger ocean-front mansions. Famous among them are The Breakers, the little summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the Astor’s Beechwood. The homes are definitely on steroids, and the gardens are as well. After looking at a number of the outdoor spaces, I’ve come up with a simple guide that anyone could follow to have their very own deluxe Newport-style mansion grounds. It’s surprisingly simple.

1. Begin with a lot. Something about the size of Rhode Island would be a good start.

2. Place the house on the side of the property farthest away from the view so that you’ll see your domain stretching out towards the view.

3. Plant lawn over everything. If seaside rocks get in the way, leave them in place, but plant lawn right up to them.

4. Plant a long hedge on the sides along the property lines with you neighbord. If this hedge closes in on your view, then your lot is likely too small. Return to step 1. A hedgerow along the edge of the property with the view must be considered carefully. Don’t plant one if it would substantially interfere with the view. Reinforce your hedges with chain link fences. Although often paired with trailers and other low architecture in the South and elsewhere, these fences will enhance privacy and be virtually invisible behind the hedges and from several hundred feet away.

The Breakers

Above: The Breakers, as illustrated in an article in New England Antiques.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. To add interest you can try out some of the advanced techniques below:

AT1. Plant trees, preferably deciduous ones, in small, naturalistic clumps towards the edges of your proerty line. Don’t let the trees encroach too much on either your view or the view that people will have of you. Smaller trees–no more than 20-25 feet tall–can make you property appear even larger, while at the same time giving it the sense that it’s emerging from some dark wood.

AT2. Inserting a formal, symmetrical garden is optional. However, it should never be the majority of your property, and it is best to place it towards the side of your property. Placing it in the center will make it the focus of the garden and detract from the view beyond, a technique that should only be used when your view is not as desirable as that of those around you. Remember that there must be more space devoted to a lawn than to a formal garden. Always.

AT3. Smaller shrubs in the 3-6 foot size may be employed symmetrically to accentuate the formal architecture of the house or to provide variety by being planted next to a straight-line planting of hedgerow. Be sure to have your gardeners form them into rounded shapes. Letting the shrubs grow naturally is not an option.
Some random mansion with shrubs employed to accentuate the formal architecture.

AT4. Permanent garden furniture generally should be avoided. However, a single piece, perhaps one small bench may be place far back into the garden, enhancing the sense of distance and space.

AT5. Smaller-scale garden art may be added, particularly to a formal garden. Stone urns, cherubs, and veiled goddess-ey characters are good choices. Human figures must be life-sized or preferably smaller. Naked figures are to be frowned upon in a Newport garden, though the exposure of a single female breast may be employed if done in impeccable taste. Save the less tasteful sculptures for the back yard of your Malibu estate.

some japanese gardens

I just ran across this cool site, a picture gallery page off of Bowdoin College’s Japanese gardens home page. Though my garden, with its patches of heavily assorted plantings, generally doesn’t have much of a Japanese garden feel, I have a real fondness for the studied natural simplicity of the Japanese garden aesthetic. This site has some amazing gardens, particularly around Kyoto, and includes the iconic Ryoan-ji raked sand garden, plus 28 others. Each has several pictures, a map, and introduction and a brief bit of history.

One of the artists whose photographs got me interested in photography again in the 1980s was David Hockney. I’m not sure of his level of infatuation with Japanese gardens, but he did do this striking piece in 1983, a big photocollage of the dry garden at Ryoan-ji. It’s a little hard to see in this reduced picture, but he’s pieced together bits of the garden, pieces of the surrounding temple, pilgrims to the site and the black plastic containers of the film he was using to shoot the scene. And if you look close you can also see his socks.

When he was doing these photocollages, the story goes that Hockney dropped off his film at the neighborhood quickie photo place. In this photocollage you can see the mismatched printing the place did, particularly obvious in the central sand area. After Hockney made the originals, these collages were then editioned, using Hockney’s negatives. The people making the edition tried to replicate Hockney’s originals, which in this case meant going through the headaches of doing an intentionally “bad” job of printing the negatives, trying to match the job the local photo place did for Hockney.

These works don’t have the same vivid colors that Hockney’s paintings do, but they for sure share some of the same sense of space and time. Inspired by cubism, things don’t fit together perfectly, but your mind pieces the scenes together in a sensible way anyway. For me these works are almost like sculpture in that regard: You can’t see them all at once. Instead of traversing the space around an object, though, your eye moves around the image, giving you a sense of space. Viewing the work–a collage of images captured over a certain timespan–engages time in a way a single photograph typically doesn’t.


I did a little nursery hopping with John in North County yesterday. Inland North County is still in large part avocado country, and in fact they call that stretch of I-15 the “Avocado Highway.” And mixed in with the avocados are various plant nurseries, some wholesale, some open to the public.

The first of two stops was Las Pilitas Nursery, a large cleared lot surrounded by sycamores, the southern outpost in Escondido of a larger concern up in San Luis Obispo. Most garden centers you go to seem to be packed with easy-to-grow stuff in bloom, plants that whore themselves at you with seductive blooms and intoxicating scents. If you head to Las Pilitas expecting that kind of experience, you’ll be seriously let down, particularly in off-season.

A lot of the plants this trip were on the smaller side since it was still later winter and their stock was living outdoors, not in a greenhouse. And the place isn’t not afraid to have big blocks of dormant things mixed in with the other stock. Some of the dormant things are leafless pots of scrappy looking twigs. Other dormant pots just look like pots of dirt where the twigs have died back entirely. Okay… you do have to take it a bit on faith that you’re really buying a plant and not some nice potting mix. But stick the root mass in the ground and you’ll hopefully have a plant before you know it. Think of it like you’re planting bulbs.

And the plants in their inventory themselves live up to different expectations. Most natives aren’t the high-strung prima donna garden plants at the garden centers. Some take their cues from the dry summers and go dormant in when it’s hot. Other are winter-deciduous. These are plants you take with all their characteristics, and you’d probably not want to put them where you’d expect to have lush foliage and flowers all year round. But there are lots of things that look respectable year-round, along with a few that really are pretty extravagant all the time. I ended up with a pot of dormant twigs–Spiraea douglasii (western spiraea)–three Heucera maxima (island alum root), and one Carpenteria californica (bush anenome).

All that said, the owner, Valerie, is knowledgeable, committed and passionate about her plants. Below are pictures of these three plants from the website. Bear in mind that the plants I bought were little 1 galloners, though 1 galloners that I fully expect to start looking more like their pictures before too long…

The other stop on the trip was Buena Creek Gardens, in San Marcos, a totally different sort of experience. Located on several acres that have been planted like a small botanical garden, the feel of the place is calm and playful, lush and relaxed, where Las Pilitas was more serious and matter-of-fact.

buenairis.jpgThis is one of their demonstration gardens, with some blooming iris and alstromeria, with a cordyline in the background.

buenabamboo.jpgConnecting a couple of their demonstration gardens is this path through a bamboo thicket.

…and in bloom over one of their sales area was this Prunus species, a Taiwanese flowering cherry, I think she called it. The original plant was a shrub, not a tree. So the cool flowering cherry plant was grafted onto a tree to give this great effect. Unfortunately the picture doesn’t do the plant justice.

Some of the cool plants in the ground were available for sale, but, darn!, many were not. Still we came home with six or so more plants. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to resist some splashy plants, even if you’re trying to go with a greater proportion of natives.

Okay, plants. You’ve been in the ground for at least six hours. Isn’t that enough time for the yard to look just like the demonstration gardens?

an artist loosed in a garden