Tag Archives: hardscape

what’s eating you

No garden project seems to ever be complete, but we did put the finish on the bog bench we’ve spent a lot of time working on.

We used this stuff, Superdeck. It took already good-looking wood and turned it into something almost like a nice finish on furniture. Over the last few years we’ve tried various ways to finish ipe used outdoors and this stuff seems to give it the most durable and attractive finish. They haven’t paid me a cent to say this. I like the stuff.

Twenty feet from the bog bench Stapelia gettleffii has opened its first flowers of the season. I’ve mentioned before how this plant is one of an informal group of carrion-scented plants that are pollinated by flies.

Back at the bog bench this Sarracenia alata, veinless form, is having a hard time hiding the fact that it’s had a lot of bugs–most of them flies–as meals this season. Just look at how the pitchers suddenly turn dark as you go down the tube. Dead bugs inside. Lots of them.

Midsummer’s edible highlight is the ripening of the figs, and this one is about thirty, forty feet from the bog bench..

One of the annoying nemeses of fig growers is this shiny little guy below, the fig beetle. It has the unpleasant habit of breaking the fig’s skin and then feeding off the succulence inside. I can’t say that I blame them, but I want the figs all to myself.

For some reason they seem captivated with this one plant in the bog, the “green” form of Sarracenia leucophylla, a form that lacks the ability to make the reddish anthocyanin pigments. I’ve noticed that the pitchers of this plant have a distinct damask-rose aroma. Maybe the scent reminds the beetles of the floral notes of figs?

Whatever the case, at least one of the beetles got a little too interested in this pitcher and fell in. It was gruesome to watch as it tried to fight its way back out of the pitcher, struggling so hard it kicked a big hole in the side of this tube. It took at least three days to die.

There’s a certain streak in many carnivorous plant aficionados that seems to delight in the bug killing aspect of these plants. I’m not one of them. My father spent much of his life as a Buddhist, and I’m sure some of its tenets of non-violence against the universe rubbed off on me. I found it unsettling to walk by the pitcher and watch this happening. A slow death by starvation and dehydration, head-down into a pile of dead bugs–not the way I want to leave this earth.

So I put on my rosy goggles of denial and look at the plants in the bog. This is one of the more spectacular ones right now, named ‘W.C.,’ it’s a polygamous hybrid involving S. leucophylla, S. rubra and S. psittacina.

Still, I’m reminded of the oblivious pet-owner’s line: “He’s a cute puppy isn’t he? Why, no, it doesn’t bite.”

Yah right. Pretty, evil things…

the big project

It’s done at last, the project from Hades.

The ugly backside of the outdoor fireplace, a week into the demolition

What started out as this ugly outdoor fireplace with attached bench…

The finished bench, from the end.

…has now morphed effortlessly (yah right) into this new garden feature: part bench, part deck, part raised bog/planter. It’s about four by sixteen feet in size.

For the last two years my bog plants were hogging up the sunny spot in the middle of the patio. Totally in the way. The new bench needed to have a raised bog/planter detail, returning some of the hardscape to garden.

With a general plan in place we got going.


Some scenes from the project:

This act of creation began with an act of destruction. The decrepit and not earthquake-safe chimney came down a brick at a time over several weekends. We saved 350 bricks that came off in pretty good condition and hand-chiseled the mortar off of most of them. Inside the fireplace was the reason the whole thing hadn’t collapsed already: 200 pounds of reinforcing steel. At current metal recycling rates we got almost 30 dollars for the scrap metal.

The rustic Japanese tiles that I loved 15 years ago and still appreciate now

I had some moments of nostalgia and renewed appreciation for the little Japanese tiles that I picked out fifteen years ago to try to ornament what at the time was already a marginally attractive garden feature. The didn’t come off the fireplace easily, and the shards and even the good bits were dispatched to the dump. As much as we tried to recycle, this project is not going to get a Platinum LEED rating.

The super-story bricks removed, we were left with a long concrete bench. I like plain concrete as a material, but this bench had been formed around a wood fence that had rotted away a decade ago. We shimmed over the ugliness and covered it all with wood.

A shimmed corner with support for the decking about to be installed
The whole bench with shims in place


The bench with black paint to keep the white from showing through between the slats
Before adding suppot battens for the planter we checked to see how it would look with them outside. Ugh. Way too rustic, too Country Home, too NASCAR. The battens are now hidden inside.


With the fireplace gone, it opens up the patio to the rest of the back yard.I liked how the zones were distinct before, but the bench still serves as a gentle separator between garden zones.


The bench was poured with this Greco-Roman column for support. Were they pining for some lost ancestors? Or were they postmodern ten years before the movement caught on with architects? Whatever the case, we decided to paint it black to de-emphasize it. No way were we going to take on taking it out!
The planter nearly complete, ready for the pond liner
Pond liner being put into place. This is to protect the wood and allow the bog plants to sit in water. This could also be repurposed in the future as a raised pond, or--after punching some drain holes--a normal planter box.
...and here it is with the bog plants in place.

A final “after” picture:

We’re going to relax some before starting the next garden project, maybe in these two old butterfly chairs John got second-hand 30 years ago, with our feet up on the new bench…

distractions, distractions

I’ve been MIA from reading my favorite garden blogs, and I’ve been AWOL from posting. You know the story…life happens.

At least the first distractions was garden-related.

I posted this photo months ago. It’s of the backside of an outdoor fireplace after we removed a rotted wooden fence that the previous owners poured concrete around to form a garden bench. The world has only a certain amount of abject ugliness and a big pile of it sat in the back yard. So…what to do with it?

We thought about cladding it in something, maybe some cement panel pieces leftover from a previous house project. Or maybe grow a vine. Ryan suggested stuccoing the ugly mound.

We ended up with one of the more radical solutions: Make the whole mess go away.

Well, actually, it’s been several weeks of chiseling out the old bricks, one at a time, trying to save them for some something. But hopefully not another house project using brick. I’m coming to hate the stuff. This house 25 years ago came with brick walkways, brick walls, brick patios, brick everything. Enough already! There may be a Craigslist ad in our future.

And after the brick there were a few hundred little tiles that had to be chipped off the bench. I can blame the ugly mortar mess on the back of the fireplace on the previous owner, but the tile was my own bit of youthful excess, trying to prettify a seriously imperfect slab of concrete. Paint is easy to undo. Tile is not.

So that’s been distraction #1.

Distraction #2 hasn’t got much to do with the garden. Recently I got it in mind that I wanted to learn a new piece of music, the piano part for John Adams’ wild Road Movies, for violin and piano. Here’s a YouTube video of a nice performance of the last movement, particularly of the swinging piano part. (Ignore the screaming child near the conclusion.)

The garden project should be done before too too too long–more to follow for sure. But this music is going to take a while longer. It almost makes you pine for living in a climate where the garden shuts down for six months, leaving you with little to do but indoor stuff…like baking and art and music.

long, winding path

Sunday we went up to LA for a family birthday. While we were up there we stopped by Los Angeles Modern Auctions, which was having a preview for an upcoming sale that includes some really cool items by Ettore Sottsass, one of my favorite 20th Century designers. Paintings, sculpture, furniture, general stuff: you can see it for years in books and magazines but the experience of coming face to face with it can be pretty different.

Once of the not-by-Sottsass lots in the sale is this immense garden path designed by California ceramic artist Stan Bitters, a student of Peter Voulkos. Like Voulkos his work is inspired by the material of clay itself–And how can you get more earthy, more primal than clay? Ceramics, gardening, it all can come from the same place.

The path can be assembled in several configurations, and in this configuration coils more than forty feet long. The piece comes from the later 1960s, at a time when Bitters was working with a ceramics manufacturer that basically gave him 20 tons of clay to see what he could make out of it.

When someone gives you 20 tons of clay you make big things, and this is just one of many examples of the really really big artworks he started to create. Most of his works of that era grew out of collaborations with architects–Big work works really well outdoors.

His work is all over public spaces up in the Fresno area. In recent years he’s been doing public and private commissions in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs areas.

The garden path looked a tad cramped and out of place on display in a warehouse full of polished modern and postmodern furniture and art, but just imagine this snaking its way through a landscape. Very cool.

This was a path he made for his own home and garden, and it has a gentle casualness, a welcome lack of striving, that you can see in the private pieces artists make for themselves and friends. You can make out the casual, earthy surface details and glaze in this detail.

So if your garden needs a casual but still pretty stunning focal point here’s your chance. You’ll probably need to rent a very large truck to bring it home.

after the rain delay

The rain last weekend cleared out long enough for us to install the shade panel we’d constructed.

The fence you see faces north by northwest. Anything growing in the bed is in total shade for several months. About this time of year, though, the sun swings north, and things start to get sun exposure in the later parts of the day. We removed the termite-munched patio cover that shaded the delicate plants last fall–it had to go–but suddenly time was of the essence in restoring shade.

This is where a few shade denizens live in the bed…

…along with John’s collection of orchid cactus, Epiphyllum, that he’s amassed over the years. We also have a small assortment of hanging tillandsias and some tropicals, including a few surviving orchids from my rabid orchid-growing days two decades ago.

This weekend has turned rainy again, filling many of the holes in the shade screen with water. It’s slowed down moving the plants to their new home, but I won’t complain about the water we’re getting.

We’re already two inches ahead of the entire rainfall for last season (July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009). And last month’s rain accumulation alone, 5.4 inches, came close to the 5.5 total for all of 2009. Still we have a couple inches to go before we can even claim an average rainfall year.

This season’s rain is filling up vernal pools after several years of disappointments. Friday I stopped by some pools with a biologist to scope out a potential field trip for the local native plant society. Vernal pools are among the most threatened habitats locally. The occur on our mesa tops, areas that prove irresistible to developers because they’re flat and require less soil preparation than canyon bottoms or slopes.

Young plants were everywhere, including those of San Diego mesa mint (Pogogyne abramsii), a plant on several endangered species lists. If the rains keep up, it looks like it’s going to be a great year for them.

framing the garden view

Here are just a few more photos left over from my post yesterday on the Huntington’s recently-opened Chinese Garden.

I mentioned how there were many layers to the spaces there. The following are some of the doors and windows in the garden that help to frame the views and contribute to the sense of layering.

Leaf-shaped window near the Studio of Pure Scents.

Stacked portals of the Terrace of the Jade Mirror.

These last two windows in the outside wall, the Wall of the Colorful Clouds, are interesting in that they’re not perfect squares. The top, left and right sides form part of a square, but their bottom sides parallel the contours of rolling ground where the wall is sited. Even though you’re looking at an element in the human-created hardscape, this technique acknowledges the earth where the wall stands.

Yet to come: posts on the Huntington’s Japanese Garden, Conservatory and Desert Garden.

new huntington chinese garden

On the way up to Los Angeles we had a chance to make a quick stop at the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Their Chinese garden, Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, opened to the public just last year. Fund-raising is ongoing for a second phase of construction, and the plants that are there are still on the young side. Still, it’s not too early to take a look at what’s being billed as the largest garden of its kind outside of China.

Two stone lions guard one of the alternate entrances into the garden.

Hand-carved stonework and elaborate hardscape details figure prominently in the garden’s design. It’s worth taking your time to appreciate the details close up.

This walkway resolves to the adjacent planting in swooping tiled edges.

Patterns made from pebbles fixed in cement take several forms. Here’s one design.

…And a detail of another designs…

…And an overview of yet another of the patterns using pebbles.

These hardscape details are dense and busy. Plantings are also fairly dense, with many kinds of plants used in a small space. Move a few feet in any direction and your view of the garden changes radically.

The overall effect is kaleidoscopic, and the garden encourages active engagement with the space.
Continue reading new huntington chinese garden

dilemma: that ugly garden wall

Ugly Garden Wall

One of the bits of ugliness that we uncovered as part of our current household projects is this wall in the garden that we’re trying to figure out what to do with. When we look out the dining room, kitchen and bedroom windows this is what we see, and it has the potential for being a cool accent wall for the garden in front of it.

Ugly Garden Wall detail

You shake your head in disbelief at how some things get constructed backwards and this was one of them. Apparently there was a low retaining wall with a fence on it to begin with. Then the previous owner wanted a nice concrete bench and outdoor fireplace on the other side. Instead of taking down the wall, they just cast the concrete bench around the wood. And then they stapled chicken wire to the fence and used it as scaffolding for the fireplace.

Wood being wood rots away after a few decades. After we moved into the house we basically replaced some of the problem spots and called it good enough, but twenty years later there was no salvaging it. Time to fix it and fix it right. But you know me: Whatever we do has to look really cool. What to do?

Leaving it alone is one option. It does have a certain warehouse chic look to it, although nothing else in the house has anything else to do with that look.

Cornerstone Topher Delaney overall view

This wall detail in the Topher Delaney garden that I’ve written about recently serves as one inspiration. I wouldn’t recreate it literally, but it shows how something bold and dynamic can animate the garden space. It would be easy enough to chip off the mortar and detach the chicken wire from my wall and tile something geometric and bold.

I do wonder, though if it might dominate the space a bit too much. And how well would something so bold would wear after a few decades? Would a simple background divider, a foil for plants, be a better option?

It’ll be several months before I’ll be able to take on this part of the project, so I’ll have some time to come up with a plan. What would you do with a problem wall like this?

providing shelter

It’s one of the saddest things to see: A house undergoes a remodel or even minor revision like a new paintjob, and in the course of of the project the landscaping gets run over by equipment or trampled by workers oblivious to established plants that may be as old as the house.

How it begins

We’ve just started a project of our own on a little detached studio room behind the house. It began innocently enough with thoughts about replacing the patio cover that was starting its slow descent to the ground. (No piece of wood is safe in the land of termites.) Maybe two or three weekends of hard work to replace it. Yah, right.

As long as we were removing the patio that was attached to the room, we thought it would be a good time to redo the siding that has some spots that are failing. And as long as the walls were open, we really should insulate. And as long as we had things partly dissembled it made sense to replace the old single glazed windows and doors with better insulating ones. (The local power company provides rebates towards insulation, and one of the federal stimulus packages features 30% rebates on super-insulated replacement windows.) Now that the walls are starting to be opened, it’s clear that some of them are so gone that we’re having to re-frame them completely. So the little two weekend project has grown to two months or more. If it doesn’t rain.


Right: Just some of the spots we’re having to reframe.

With a fairly long-term project like this, we didn’t want to damage the plants in the middle of it. John’s assortment of epiphyllum cactus plants in pots needed shelter, and less portable plants planted in the raised shade bed around the pond wouldn’t be able to take much sun. The waterlilies in the pond would do okay with full sun, but the extra sun causes algae to grow and we didn’t want to have to battle pond scum as another house project.

Sheltered plants after the demolition

So the weekend we took down the sheltering patio cover, up went these little portable cabanas and beach umbrellas. It looks like we’re having a big garden party, but it’s going to be a lot less relaxing the next couple of months.

My workstation during this remodel

This is my main workstation where I do my blogging, layered over by protective sheeting and open to the great outdoors. I suspect my blogging is going to take a big hit for a while as all my waking hours start to be consumed with the project.

And all this is happening during the prime planting season in Southern California. I have seeds to sow and plants to plant. I’m stressed. But with my university job being one of those impacted by state furloughs, I’ll be having lots of time to work on the project. I suppose that’s seeing the silver lining to the dark cloud that’s about to send lightning bolts in my general direction…

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.