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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Living Walls are Growing

Last week I attended an event hosted by Armstrong Growers promoting their collaboration with ELT Living Walls to contract grow modular live wall and green roof systems. I had a chance to handle the goods, which I always appreciate, and also had a chance sighting of a fellow designer whose work I admire very much (more on that below).

Armstrong is just one of a few wholesale growers offering contract growing in modular roof or wall trays (Native Sons growers in California's central coast area uses the LiveRoof system) and testing a range of plants for tolerance of the ELT mounting system's shallow cells. In addition to the commonly used Sedum (and other favorite succulents), test pods contained Viola, Ajuga, Heuchera, Begonia and Sanservia. Ferns, grasses, herbs, vegetables and tropical standbys were also included.

Living walls, like murals, are an artistic treatment for a vertical space but the similarity stops there. Some colleagues in attendance seemed put off by the news that irrigation and maintenance, though not extremely complicated, are just as necessary in a vertical landscape as in a landscape at grade. Perhaps you, too, hoped that vertical gardens are maintenance free?

A true living wall needs more than the bi-weekly dusting you give your favorite painting. These installations, intended to be as permanent as any garden or architectural trend, vary in maintenance needs depending on plants used and design executed -- just as our at-grade plantings do. More vigorous plants can grow to shade tighter growers, monocarpic Sempervivum can eventually bloom and die out, and plants may suffer during the first three weeks while irrigation is fine-tuned to suite the microclimate in which the vertical garden has been installed. At a cost of about $125-$150 per square foot, a living wall is a significant addition to both architecture and landscape. In a small space, such as an urban courtyard or backyard, the expense of this single feature can be well worth it. And, while an entire wall is stunning, a smaller feature such as the now infamous, and absolutely perfect design by Flora Grubb (below) can be just right.

Ok, so if you admire art and design you, too, may have a few favorite people whose design and the character that emanates from it gives you a little feeling of glee each time you see it. That's how I feel about the work of Los Angeles designer Ketti Kupper. She and her team produce wonderfully artful work that, I think, projects a glow of happiness high into the cosmos. So, naturally, I was delighted to see Ketti Kupper's name at the registration table for the green walls event, and equally as delighted to meet her in person. (It's not stalking if I signed up for the event without knowing she would be there, right?) Not everyone takes well to the gushing of a perfect stranger but, fortunately for me, Ketti and (daughter and collaborator) Ashley Ford were every bit as gracious and good humored as their work.

Those of you allergic to anything non-native should avert your eyes from this final bit of eye-candy. Large-scale growers don't put all of their eggs in one basket, and Armstrong wholesale supplies many of the plants used in the seasonal displays dreamed up for Las Vegas casinos such as the Venetian, the Bellagio, Wynn and others. As a promo for that side of their work, the grower ushered our group through the poinsettia houses where the colors were striking. Unlike others among us, I'm not afraid to say I admire the occasional pink poinsettia for the holidays. Right plant, right place after all!

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Friday, August 28, 2009

November Showers Bring May Flowers

Although it runs contrary to our ingrained understanding of the seasons, spring and summer are not really the best time to plant in California. While spring generally marks the beginning of longer days, more light and warmer temperatures (conditions that encourage above-ground plant growth) those warmer temperatures can be extreme in California and the rest of the Southwest.

In the nursery, even drought-tolerant plants receive significant amounts of water to maintain growth. Often, plants are fed heavily to encourage bloom and faster growth, making them more appealing to homeowners who start shopping for garden bling early in the year.

Keep in mind that plants installed during the heat of summer will require heavy irrigation to survive. The increased heat and light cause plants to use more water as they respond to the seasonal need for growth. But, roots are not yet established and depend on your irrigation system to provide what the plant needs. In Southern California, with no summer rain and extreme heat, this can be a lot of water. Even in cooler areas along the coast, where morning fog and a higher dew point provide a source of moisture for plants, heat and wind can still dry a garden quickly.

When to Plant: The old adage 'April showers bring May flowers' is true. If you must plant in the spring, doing so before the last rainfall of the season is helpful. There is no denying that picking up a flat of Violas or other brightly blooming annual in the spring feeds a deep-seated seasonal craving. Go ahead and prepare your seasonal pots or a dooryard planting area.

But for large-scale planting of perennials, shrubs or trees, fall is the time to plant -- especially for very exposed areas. The weather cools, the days shorten, and the rains (eventually) come. It is these November showers that can lower water bills next summer. Under these optimum conditions, plants aren't doing much growing above ground but can afford to send roots deeper in search of damper soil. Establishing a deeper root system ensures plants will survive with less supplemental irrigation when the temperatures shoot up again.

For trees and shrubs, this deep root system is very important. Trees trained to depend on surface-level irrigation often don't send roots very deep, so aren't well anchored and could topple. A good way to provide for deep healthy roots is to install deep watering irrigation along with new trees.

Meanwhile, to satisfy the craving for summer puttering in the garden, nurture seasonally planted pots. And, nurture your dreams. Summer is a great time to design a landscape. Garden tours are plentiful and are an inspiring way to visit the established gardens of other great gardeners. Take note of what you see as a starting point for discussion with a landscape designer. Working out design plans through the summer means you'll be ready for installation in the fall, when the time is right. Fall planting, along with the use of drip and deep watering irrigation, and a plant palette that harmonizes with your site's specific environmental factors, are the ingredients for a healthy garden.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

The Magical Power of Street Trees

Perhaps you've seen me driving in your neighborhood, slowly weaving down the tree-lined block, breezing through stop signs with Magoo-like bravado. If so, you've surely assumed my cellphone distracts me but, actually, it's the trees.

Street trees engross me. Old trees lining the sidewalk with grandeur let me share the vision of planners working over 60 years ago, and newly planted trees tell me that someone somewhere, be it resident or community council, has a vision for the next fifty years. I'm interested in which species have been planted, how they are taking the sun or wind exposure, if they are healthy or afflicted, if they fit their new home or show signs of becoming a neighborhood nuisance...

It's often the trees that set the tone of a neighborhood, adding to the character and identity of the place. Chances are you don't actually notice them unless they are dramatic in some way -- reaching for eachother's branch tips far above the center of the street, creating a shower of blossoms in spring, standing tall above all other trees to mark a neighborhood from a distance or, unfortunately, lifting the sidewalk with needy roots. But the right tree in the right place, providing seasonal shade and clean air, color and living presence, not the mention the all important design element of scale, is truly priceless to a neighborhood and its residents.

That's precisely why, had you been passing through my neighborhood three evenings ago, you might have seen me jumping for absolute joy right there on the sidewalk in front of four young street trees newly planted less than a block from my own home. Blessed with a large, prominent corner lot in our modest neighborhood, my Now-Favorite-Neighbors recently dug the dried grass from their sidewalk strip and contacted the City of Los Angeles to plant street trees. Not just any street tree, mind you, but the incredibly gorgeous and coveted Jacaranda (see photo above). And not just one weak little 15 gallon tree, but four healthy, well-spaced, well-staked boxed trees complete with sizeable watering wells! I am deliriously happy!

Jacaranda mimosifolia. The lacy, airy, royal princess of flowering Southern California street trees. Yes, some find the blossom drop a drag. But, casting their delicate purple cloud over the block each spring, I'm certain these trees will be so enchanting that no one will think to complain. In fact, I predict a seasonal spike in neighborliness, an increase in 'Hello' and 'Nice Day We're Having', more 'Here Let Me' and less 'Hey What The?!' Inspired, others along the block might plant trees. Homegrown fruit might be traded over walls. Gates left open to invite casual visitors... loud dogs hushed and stray cats fed... Doubtful? It could happen. Plant one for yourself and see. Such is the magical power of street trees...

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Banished From the Garden (and well worth it) Chocolate Cake

While I have been known to stay in the garden long enough to merit a search party, when I do make my way back to the house it's often to stir up delicious trouble in the kitchen. Friends, for your next garden party, you are welcome to use my personal recipe for Banished From the Garden (And Well Worth It) Chocolate Cake. While it's tempting to say that this was a recipe carried close to the bosom of generations of pleasure-seeking, garden-loving matrons, I think the first ingredient would give me away...

Banished From the Garden (But Well Worth It) Chocolate Cake

1 box Chocolate Cake mix (your favorite, any sort)
Vegetable oil and eggs

Mix will call for approx 1-1/3 cups of water -- Substitute entirely with brandy and stir together with remaining ingredients as directed on box.
Bake in greased standard loaf pan (approx 9"x5"x3") until knife inserted through top comes out clean -- this will be much longer than you think it should be; (approx. 60 minutes), leaving plenty of time to gather a table arrangement, put away your gardening shoes, re-pin your hair, and mix up the toppings below.

Simple But Essential Brandy Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 Tblspn butter
1/2 Tblspn vanilla extract
1/4 cup brandy

In a saucepan, combine sugar with 1/4 cup water. Stir constantly over med-high heat, gradually bringing to a boil. Keep boiling until sugar is dissolved (up to 5 mins). Remove from heat and stir in butter, vanilla and brandy. Done!
Note: I sometimes double or triple the recipe and keep it in a glass container in the refrigerator. Easy enough to warm up in the microwave when needed & lasts forever.

'Well, I'll Be Whipped' Cream Filling
1 container non-dairy whipped topping
+/- 4 Tblspns (to taste) Amaretto
1 Tspn Angostura bitters
Whip together until well blended

Slice cool cake horizontally into 4 layers (top will be oddly shaped crusty cap).
Brush brandy sauce liberally onto both sides of each layer.
Place bottom layer on serving plate, spread 1" of whipped topping over it, top with next layer and repeat until finished. Tumble seasonal berries on top and around base of cake, drizzle with brandy sauce for effect, and serve in the garden.

I love the simplicity of this cake; and, using whatever berries or fruits are in season, whether they are from the farmer's market or my own garden, makes it a special treat for your guests every time. Enjoy!


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Spring Dreaming

Along with my Spring Cleaning inevitably comes Spring Dreaming. It's the time of year I'm superhumanly attuned to any conversation including the words "renovation", "designer", "project" or "groundbreaking." It's the point in the season when whatever potted arrangement I've put together to brighten up the front door in late Winter can no longer draw my eye from the persistently dissatisfying and dysfunctional parts of the landscape around my home.

This turns out to be a great time to make a list. I break mine into two columns: "Things to Address Now" and "Future Projects." The more specific the list, the easier it is to determine potential costs.

Short-term projects might be anything from adding a color au currant to the patio, to turning an entire planting bed over to local natives or some other theme. Longer term projects might be creating a graceful path between sidewalk and home, or adding seat walls and a barbecue patio to the underused space just outside of the kitchen.

It's all around you. Window displays of local shops are a favorite source of color inspiration. Inquiring about a plant in a neighbor's garden often sparks an inspiring and ongoing conversation. Cutting and posting photos from home and garden magazines lets you "live" with an idea for a while before making any changes.

Buying Time:
From garden mentors, to designers providing consultation time, to contractors with the knowledge to assess just how much of an undertaking your project may be, paying a flat fee or session rate for valuable time with a professional is a smart start to projects. To get the most out of a session, be prepared with a list of questions, be ready to take good notes, and be sure you have a clear understanding of what the consultation entails. Follow up, such as developing a design concept sketch or a project cost estimate may be billed at an additional fee.

Bottom Line:
It's truly essential to establish not only your project goals but what funds are available for both short- and long-term projects. Good designers and contractors will work with you to set and achieve reasonable goals within your stated budget so you can finish planning your projects and start planning how to enjoy your new outdoor places.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

5 Reasons I Choose Succulents

1. What other plants pair both seafoam green and pink in one tidy, charming package?

2. $200 spent on the water bill vs $200 spent at my favorite local boutique...need I say more?

3. I'm a pushover for rosettes of all sizes.

4. I like to make my neighbors look twice.

5. Impatiens only look good in tropical gardens and (hard truth) tropical gardens rarely look great outside of the tropics. [Note: Prevalence of palms aside, California is really not a tropical region.]

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