Category Archives: rambles

plants in high places

A few weeks ago, walking on the UCSD campus, I noticed an interesting bit of agriculture taking place:

High-rise corn
High-rise corn

Why let a lack of soil and a third-floor location deter you from having a nice crop of sweet corn?

My brain, short-circuited and junk-stuffed as it is, quickly made the association to an illustration in an architecture magazine I’d looked at in the 1980s. The project was the Atlantis, a condominium tower by the Miami-based firm Architectonica. Aside from vibrating with Memphis-inspired early-80s colors, the condominium complex featured this amazing architectural gesture, a swimming pool and a single, large palm tree planted in a cube cut out of the center of the building, a hundred feet up.

Aerial palm at the atlantis, Miami
Aerial palm at the atlantis, Miami
Architectonica. The Atlantis, 1982. [ source ]

Pretty wild, I thought at the time. And the photo still looks cool today. How would it hold up to a petite category-1 hurricane visiting town? I wonder. But hey, this is art. Who cares if the fabulous car with triangular wheels can drive you to the mall?

odds and ends

Most of the time I have to devote to creative things like photography or blogging is Friday, Saturday and Sunday so I can be a little slow catching up to what’s happened during the week. Here are a few of the dishes I have standing in the sink:

Flowering teasel
Flowering teasel

Greg was wondering about a plant I’d generically called a thistle earlier, and how it looked unlike what he was calling a thistle in his own garden. Thanks to a chain of weird coincidences of the sort that some might interpreted as miraculous enough to have founded a modern religion, I learned that my thistle is actually Dipsacus fullonum, a teasel. Both are in the asterid group of plants and unplesantly spiny, but this is a distant relative.

Fun facts about teasel (from Wikipedia):

  • The individual florets that make up this larger flowering head start blooming about half-way up, then move both up and down, as you see in this picture.
  • The dried flowers were used to comb impurities out of wool.

Brillante Weblog Premio 2008
Brillante Weblog Premio 2008
Thanks to Greg (again!) this blog has been awarded the prestigious 2008 Brillante Award. If I don’t end up having to hock it to pay for fuel for my Lear jet, you’ll see it on my side panel at some point in the future.

One of my recent posts had a quote that within it held another quote, one by Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a few other volumes. Mary Ann had a post with a link to a video of him presenting some of his ideas. He’s an engaging speaker and has things to say. I worry that some of them work towards validating a human-centric world view that I try not to hold, but he’ll get you thinking.

matters of taste

Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for Extreme Horticulture,* a book by photographer John Pfahl who was the subject of one of this blog’s first posts. I bumped into the essay again as I was skimming through an anthology I’d read last year, Solnit’s Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Here’s a fragment that I found really interesting, part of her essay, “The Botanical Circus.”

There is a whole language of class in the garden–when they returned to the garden, flowers were redeemed with the tasteful monochromatic schemes of the likes of Gertrude Jekyll; and, as gardening essayist Michael Pollan points out, there is a whole class war of the roses, in which old roses–more fragrant, more softly shaped, less abundant in their bloom, more limited in the palette–are the exiled aristocracy. Good taste is about renunciation: you must have enough to restrain in order to value restraint, enough abundance to prize austerity. After all, it was only after aniline dyes made bright clothing universally available that the privileged stopped dressing like peacocks; spareness is often the public face of excess…Moderation, the Greek philosopher said, is pleasant to the wise, but it’s not necessarily fun. Eleanor Perényi writes in her book Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,

Looking at my dahlias one summer day, a friend whose taste runs to the small and impeccable said sadly, “You do like big conspicuous flowers, don’t you?” She meant vulgar, and I am used to that. It hasn’t escaped me that mine is the only WASP garden in town to contain dahlias, and not the discreet little singles either. Some are as blowsy as half-dressed Renoir girls; others are like spiky sea-creatures, water lilies, or the spirals in a crystal paperweight; and they do shoot up to prodigious heights. But to me they are sumptuous, not vulgar.

I’ve gone on in some posts about the necessity to rein in color choices to achieve some sort of harmony. But then I’ve written about wonderfully vulgar, er…sumptuous, plants like toloache and Echium wildprettii. I really do like a certain amount of order, but at the same I do appreciate these flaming agents of chaos. I may achieve pockets of “good taste” in the yard, but these are tempered by the bawdy and outrageous.

So what’s your garden like? Carefully coordinated and muted like a wardrobe from J. Crew or Land’s End? Or sassy and outrageous like Martha Stewart in hot pants and five-inch cha-cha heels?

A note on my links to books: The book links in all of my posts (with only one exception that I can think of) take you to, a site made up of hundreds of booksellers around the world, a good many of them the little brick and mortar operations that are dying out too quickly as giants like Amazon take over publishing.

tomato sculpture

I was browsing the web for recipes for caprese salad, the classic salad of Capri using plum tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil salt and pepper. I didn’t encounter any revelations as far as ingredients or proportions, but I found several images of a presentation method where the tomato was sliced and then reassembled with slices of the cheese and basil interfiled.

Caprese salad tomato tower
Caprese salad tomato tower
Cool, I thought. But what if you use two tomatoes of different colors? Here’s a first draft of this idea, using Mr. Stripey with the first fruit from Cherokee Purple.

Before I add this to the menu at Spago, I’d try to be sure the tomatoes were more similar in both size and shape. Also, cleaner, more uniform cuts through the buffalo mozzarella would have made for a neater presentation.

i've been tagged!

Thanks to Mary Ann at Urban Garden Journal, this blog has been tagged. Actually, it’s the second time I’ve been tagged. (Thanks, In the Garden!) But I was swamped at the time and didn’t get a chance to respond. Also, I was even newer to blogging than I am now, and wasn’t familiar with the game of blog tag. In my occasionally over-cynical mind I mistook it to be some sort of suspect blogger’s pyramid scheme. But in the meantime I’ve realized it’s actually a fun game and a terrific way to get to know more about your fellow bloggers.

The rules as passed down to me from the two taggers are simple, though the two sets of rules vary a bit. If I’ve tagged you, you can pick whichever version you like, or make up something along these lines:

  1. Once you have been tagged, in your blog you must list six (or ten) weird things, random facts, or habits about yourself.
  2. In that same post, tag five (or six) other bloggers, by linking to their blogs and writing a little about why you’re tagging that blog.
  3. Once you’ve done the above, you should leave a note on the blog of the person who tagged you. (That would be me.)
  4. The person that is tagged can’t tag back the person who just tagged them.

So…some randomness about me:

  1. “Mulch” is one of my favorite words–not to garden with it, necessarily, just the sound of of the word.
  2. My shoe size is 11.
  3. When other children were wanting to be firemen or police officers I was thinking that I wanted to be a college professor. I didn’t grow out of it until I was three years into a graduate program in music.
  4. Though I enjoy novels, I read mostly non-fiction books.
  5. The Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah is probably my favorite place on earth.
  6. I love good chocolate.
  7. In my teen years I appeared as an extra in Paul Bartel’s film, Death Race 2000.
  8. I appreciate order, but I seem to attract chaos at least as much.
  9. I have a big yellow ocean kayak in the side yard that I haven’t taken out on the water in at least four years.
  10. I don’t consider myself particularly interested in popular culture–I wouldn’t know a Britney Spears if one jumped up from the sidewalk and bit me on the butt–but I do enjoy Bravo TV’s Project Runway and Top Chef reality shows, as well as the Daily Show.

And now for the bloggers I’m tagging:

Garden History Girl: Excellent insights into gardens today, informed by gardens past, as well as notes on cultural influences that can influence garden-making.

The Midnight Garden: A blogger on Cape Cod enjoying his garden and its seasons–as well as his morning cups of coffee.

Garden Wise Guy: Always informative, usually funny, sometimes even a little snide–and coming from me that’s a compliment! You might not want your garden to appear on his blog…sometimes like a 10 worst-dressed list…

Landscape + Urbanism: A great roundup of things in the outdoor urbanism realm. Lots of fun ideas to steal and down-size for your own garden.

Pacha Mona: What’s it like to live and garden and cook with interesting ingredients in Costa Rica? This blog captures the textures and flavors of a place that’s on my “visit someday” list.

Garden Porn: With a name like that what’s not to like? A fun read and some great spaces to boot.

There are more–lots more–that I enjoy and would have loved to have tagged. But I need to keep some in store for the next time I’m tagged. And if I haven’t tagged you but you’d like to play, please do! I’ll add you to my list here.

garden color

Color of course needs to be an important consideration in planning the garden. You may be familiar with Gertrude Jekyll’s important book devoted just to the subject, Colour Scheme in the Flower Garden. If you don’t know it—or if you your copy is falling apart—you can read it for free online via Google Books. Her selections of plants won’t apply to many locations since she lived in England, but her thought processes about choosing colors and staging processions of colors throughout the year colors are instructive and worth the read.

You can find plenty of other garden books online through Google books. If they’re out of copyright you can see the entire text. Even if they’re still under copyright control, you can skim through many others–usually enough to let you decide if you want to buy the book, and often enough to answer a specific question that might be your only reason for wanting to look at the book.

When Google started their massive project to digitize items in many of the world’s major libraries they raised more than a few eyebrows. What were they up to? What were they doing scanning all these books and potentially releasing for free the hard work of the world’s authors?

I’ve just finished The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr. It’s definitely a work of journalism and not poetry, but a paragraph on page 223 made my jaw drop and just by itself made reading the book worthwhile:

George Dyson, a historian of technology…was invited to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, in October 2005 to give a speech… After his talk, Dyson found himself chatting with a Google engineer about the company’s controversial plant to scan the contents of the world’s libraries into its database. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” the engineer told him. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI [Artificial Intelligence].”

Creepy. But at least in the end, when Google’s computers take over the world, they’ll at least be able to put together a color-coordinated English cottage garden.

more thoughts about gardens

I quoted recently from Robert Pogue Harrison’s recent Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Here are a couple more passages that I liked.

…[I]n the final analysis we must always remember that nature has its own order and that human gardens do not, as one hears so often, bring order to nature; rather, they give order to our relation to nature.

…[T]here is in the Versailles gardens an aesthetic drive to tame, and even humiliate, nature into submission…

While we long ago ceased to credit doctrines regarding the divine right of kings, and while few among us believe we are living in an age of enlightenment, we still have not sufficiently dismantled the doctrine of humanity’s divine right, which in many ways still reigns supreme in contemporary Western societies, in practice if not in theory. For all its perverse beauty and wondrous transfiguration of pride, Versailles will not be of much help to us when it comes to finding a less presumptuous relationship to nature than the one bestowed upon us by that era.

In the interest of full self-disclosure I’ve never visited the massive formal gardens of Louis XIV at Versailles, but I think I’d feel awestruck and spiritually injured at the same time. The author captures my squeamishness perfectly.

humility 101

Most of [Czech author Karel] Čapek’s commentators consider The Gardener’s Year a minor work, but as Verlyn Klinkenborg remarks in the introduction to the Modern Library English edition of 2002, “most students of Čapek believe gardening is a subset of life, whereas gardeners, including Čapek, understand that life is a subset of gardening.”
–Robert Pogue Harrison

My first meaningful exposure to the work of Čapek came through Leoš Janáček’s amazing 1925 opera, The Makropulos Affair, which is based on Čapek’s play of the same name. I suppose you could call it a science fiction opera: a young woman becomes the laboratory rat of her alchemist father, who is tasked by Emporer Rudolf II to devise a formula that will extend his life by three centuries. When given the potion, the daughter at first drops into a coma. However, when she wakes up, she truly has been transformed into being able to live another 300 years. In living through those extra years she becomes increasingly detached from her original humanity as she is forced to leave one mortal husband after another and loved ones fade around her. At the end of the opera, even though she is in possession of her father’s formula for the elixir that would allow her to keep extending her life, she refuses to concoct the drink and chooses humanity–and death.

It’s a powerful tale with echoes all the way back to the Odyssey, where Odysseus declines eternal life in favor of his known, mortal one, back in Ithaca with the family and friends he knows and loves. Also, Čapek, ever rooted in the earth and distrustful of the quick, shallow pleasures of “progress,” uses the play to express his dis-ease with where unthinking application of the technologies that were exploding around him would lead the human race.

I bring all this up because I’ve been reading Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. One of the chapters is devoted to Čapek and his work, The Gardener’s Year. The quote at the beginning of this post comes from that chapter, as does this second by Čapek himself, in an extended quote:

I tell you, to tame a couple of rods of soil is a great victory… And if you have no appreciation for this strange beauty, let fate bestow upon you a couple of rods of clay–clay like lead, squelching and primeval clay out of which coldness oozes; which yields under the spade like chewing-gum, which bakes in the sun and gets sour in the shade; ill-tempered, unmalleable, greasy, and sticky like plasters of Paris, slippery like a snake, and dry like a brick, impermeable like tin, and heavy like lead. And now smash it with a pick-axe, cut it with a spade, break it with a hammer, turn it over and labour, cursing aloud and lamenting.

Then you will understand the animosity and callousness of dead and sterile matter which ever did defend itself, and still does, against becoming a soil of life; and you will realize what a terrible fight life must have undergone, inch by inch, to root in the soil of the earth, whether that life be called vegetation or man.

All this may sound a little dense and difficult going, but others of Harrison’s quotes from Čapek’s work show it to be incredibly funny at the same time. I have plenty of books lined up that I need to read, but this one is moving to the front of the queue.

barbie's excellent garden adventure

Realtors have their location, location, location mantra that they recite as the factor that contributes most to a property’s value. A similar thing could be said for predicting how well a plant will do in the garden. Even if you follow the basic instructions on a plant’s requirements–basic information about its preferences for sun or shade, for instance, or its preferences for more or less water–lots of other variables can figure in the equation for how well the plant will do for you.

Here are a couple pairs of pictures of Barbie posing by plants in the garden so you can get a sense of scale. In each pairing, the plants next to Barbie went into the ground on the same day. But you can see how much difference the location of the transplants made in how much they liked their new homes.

First is Barbie next to plants of Rudbeckia hirta ‘Green Eyes’ that were planted last Fall:

Barbie and Rudbeckia #1 Barbie and Rudbeckia #2

In the first location, in the front yard, the plant is hanging on but not happy. It gets sun virtually all day and gets watered infrequently. The soil is fairly dense clay with minimal amendments, and the location has no mulch. With multi-year-old plantings nearby, much of the water is sucked up by roots of the more established plants.

In the second location, the plants are doing much better. The exposure is East-Northeast, meaning the plants get sun in the morning, with some additional boost reflected off the house. Watering is generally about once a week. The soil is clay, similar to the first location, but it received a few amendments at the time of planting. A layer of dark pebbles serves as mulch. Though the plants are next to a shrub, the shrub was planted at the same time and the rudbeckis, meaning the roots from the shrub weren’t running through the area and didn’t interfere with these plants getting established.

My conclusion? Though frequently considered a fairly drought-tolerant plant, rudbeckias do appreciate some moisture. Competition from nearby plantings can have a dramatic effect on how well a newly-introduced will do. Increasing the watering of the little front-yard plant could give it a better chance, and doing a little root-pruning with a shovel about a foot away from the base of the plant would help reduce competition from its thirsty neighbors. Some sort of mulch could help preserve soil moisture in this very exposed location.

Next we see Barbie posed next to plants of the tomato, Cherokee Purple:

Barbie and Cherokee Purple #1 Barbie and Cherokee Purple #2

Both locations face West-Southwest, assuring strong sun from before noon into late afternoon. Both locations receive light-to-moderate watering. The soil in the first spot is moderately heavy garden soil amended with organics. The location is part of a retired fishpond where the concrete on the bottom had holes drilled into for drainage, making this in essence a large container set into the ground. The soil is probably less than one foot deep, and the spot isn’t mulched.

The second plant is in a raised bed with deep, sandy soil that wasn’t amended before the plant went in. The plant benefits from a light layer of wood-chip mulch.

The tomato appears to appreciate a deep soil that would encourage a strong root system. Since I can’t do anything now to increase the depth of the soil in the first situation or to improve its makeup, some mulching could help keep the moisture level more uniform. Also, since the plant is essentially containerized, applications of low-nitrogen fertilizer would help equalize its chances for success with the plant that can set its roots deep and wider in search of nutrients. For next year’s plantings, replacing the current soil with a mix more appropriate for containers could also let the plantings fare better.

After this photo shoot in the garden Barbie had to come back inside for a rest. It’s tough being a supermodel.

a cool idea for garden shade

Maybe a year ago I was reading about a parking lot in town, at the local Kyocera corporate headquarters, where they’d installed what they were calling “Solar Trees.” (They actually trademarked the name, but really aren’t all trees solar?) The Kyocera species of trees were steel poles that supported big canopies made up of solar panels. They provided shade to the cars below, and at the same time they generated power. By the corporation’s estimate, one 30 by 40 foot solar tree would reduce as much greenhouse gases as a small grove of real trees.

Solar trees in parking lot

Installations like this are starting to appear in various places, including a couple of parking structures at UCSD where they’re installing rooftop arrays over this summer.

I’ve thought about doing more with active solar devices, but where to put the panels was always an issue since the house has some pretty wacked roof angles, most of which don’t face south. Some sort of solar structure in the garden might be an interesting solution, maybe something combining a patio cover function with power generation.

The Kyocera trees seem to be slanted more to corporate environments, and besides I find them more than a little monolithic and overwhelming. Would you want these in your garden? But something along these lines could be practical, good for the environment and attractive. Sounds like a job for an artist or designer instead of an engineer…

That these trees sprouted here in town left me wondering if there was any sort of link between them and Jim Bell, a local self-proclaimed “environmental designer” who, among other things, has run for mayor (unsuccessfully) twice, and once for City Council (also unsuccessfully). I met him at a book signing circa 2003, and he was hot on the idea of covering all the roofs and parking lots with solar panels. His web site has an interesting statistic:

In the San Diego/Tijuana region, where I live, 20 percent coverage of our buildings and parking lots with solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, coupled with efficiency improvements, would generate enough electricity to replace all forms of energy (electricity, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel) currently used in the region.

That idea was probably not his originally, either. But it speaks to a movement that’s in the air. Maybe the movement could begin right at home, in our back yards…