The Trip to the Nursery

A busy day - collage by Helen Cain

Tree of Life nursery has a beautiful adobe bookshop

A budget was alloted for the plants. I was elated. True, it could only buy tiny 1-gallon containers of twigs, but give these a year or two – and viola! A lush habitat awaits in thin plastic pots. The problem was – out of so many choices, what to get finally? Sure, I had a planting plan (see first post).

But I had redone it several times. In a small space (not even 700 sq feet), it is very difficult to choose the right plant or the right spot. My garden faces north, and part of it lies in the shadow of the house. So, the chosen plants would have to function in dry conditions, be native, do well in part-shade conditions, provide habitat for winged creatures, be non-poisoinous, be showy, and look presentable in a small front-yard (read – not grow into 10 ft tall monsters when your back is turned). Let’s see how many plants you come up with. I had dozens on my list.

Habitat awaits

Nettle Lupine

I could only plant 10-12 reasonably without choking them all out of air and soil – hence, the redoing of the plan. One day, cheery Mimulus auranticus would be on my list. Next day, sturdy Epilobium californica would have knocked it off, only to be replaced by the glamorous Ribes indecorum. If you have a big yard, then your planting dreams will be easier to accomodate. In a small space, the mistakes show easily, and faults of an experimental gardener are more difficult to hide. Greed is mine. I had to really put a leash on my dreams and with a pounding heart slay plants off my list. Adieu, my sweet Salvia apiana. We shall meet again in another garden….

Cart-wheel rests against the adobe house

On a sunny, hot Californian winter’s day we set off (the day before New Years eve) to the nursery. I had gone over the list several times already, and was ready with my final one. We sat in the parking lot for a few minutes to drink water for the hot dry sun can really sap the energy, plus my heart was fluttering with nervousness. This was it. My final selection. I sought the help of one of the nursery staffers to locate the plants. The staffer read my list and said nonchalantly – “We don’t have a lot of these in stock”.

A path leads to further delights

I should have had a heart-attack, a list I had edited and redited for months – the list was no-good. I quelled by bad feelings, and said with a half-hearted smile – “No problem”. I could work with alternatives. So, even with the final plan, there were some very last minute changes. The experimental gardener takes change in stride. In fact, the element of surprise was nice, because I added a couple of things that were recommended by the nursery people, which were not on my list. And removed one because I realized it was poisonous, a big no-no with the baby and dog around (I took off Solanum hindisianum as the berries are poisonous).

Overhead net provided for the shade-needy plants

So, in a way, the change of the ‘list’ worked out really well. Plus, my husband added a plant to the cart that I had overlooked in my list – Manzanita ‘Lester Rowntree’. One was planted by the adobe house and was blooming with clusters of pink flowers, it’s deep red boughs sculpted by the wind and sun. Now, it holds primo real-estate in the front garden. Manzanitas can be fussy divas – they need good drainage, and just-so sun and water. We placed some gravel at the bottom of the hole we dug for the Manzanita in hopes it would provide good drainage. It’s in part-shade. We promise not to over-water it.

Manzanita 'Lester Rowntree'

All in all, a very nice day. Tree of Life nursery is located in the town of San Juan Capistrano (on the way to San Diego) – with its beautiful mission and lovely brass bell (I’ve rung it once). Definitely merits a separate trip by itself. But that day, we ate a quick lunch, and hurried off home with the bounty. I may return to the nursery in spring. They were out of Trichostema lanatum (wooly blue curls) – such a popular item with gardners that they have to limit 2 per customer. If you have seen these grow when in flower – you will understand the strong passion it commands in the beating breasts of hot-blooded gardeners. I have saved a spot for one of these already….

Trichostema lanatum (wooly blue curls)

My cart is brimming...


Top 5 “Hello Breeze” Grasses

Fountain grass - Neighborhood garden

After planning my parkway for the grasses, I have come up with the top 5 grasses that nod in the breeze, plus change color to luscious burgundy/red/copper. Check out the must-have list, in no order of preference:

Nassella tenuissima – silverish panicle on a soft green stalk. I have planted these before – word of caution, they have a propensity to self sow – which is a great quality for an experimental gardener ūüôā

Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’ – I lost my heart to these whilst taking evening walks on Manhattan Beach with my husband and baby. It was late summer, and an ocean-front home had planted these in a row. They flamed magenta in the setting sun, and caught the gentle evening breeze. I vowed to plant these in our home as well. Definitely to be placed in the direction of the twilight, i.e west. More effective in mass planting.

Pennisetum setacum ‘Fireworks’ – I have seen these pop up recently in a our neighborhood as they are being offered in our local nursery – H&H. Quite the du jour flavor, haven’t seen how they perform long-term (if they lose their color or form). But am planting a couple in the parkway to see how they do in comparison to other grasses.

Miscanthus sinensis – copperish hues, long soft panicles waving in the wind – what’s not to like?

California Natives Gardening – Turning the front-yard into a habitat oasis

While we tackle on the larger front yard, we realized what an eye-sore the brick front-bed was.¬† It wasn’t so much as a realization, but a frank remark by our friendly neighbor.

In all honesty our brick bed is a hodge-podge of sun-starved roses, anemic succulents, aggressive jupiter beards, straggly nasturtiums, and a forgotten daffodil or two Рall making their exhausted way out of the confined space of a damp brick bed, enfeebled under the chilly shadow of the beloved-tract house.

The pandemonium resides under the cold¬†wooden face of the beloved tract-house, which¬†gently dusts the leaves with the flakes of the¬†blue paint-dust, so that¬†the end result is¬†a bed of bluish-ethereal fairy plants – too¬†coddled to die, but too miserable to bloom as they should.¬†Hence our kindly neighbor suggested we move the roses, and to plant something else instead.¬† So, if our front yard project wasn’t enough, we¬†are¬†now also thinking about planting a narrow strip of a brick bed with something appropriate.

Front brick bed
Rose hips look beautiful in the dreary winter
East facing¬†brick bed –¬†¬†Zephrin Drouhan rose which never blooms, wild mint, weeds, and woody purple hibiscus

Let¬†me tell you, the smaller the space – the more difficult it is to plant ‘something appropriate’.¬† We also had to consider our future projects – putting in a big window on the stern wooden face of our beloved tract-house and¬†re-painting¬†it.¬†¬†At a later date, when we can gather a pot of money….

As we were digging out the roses last evening,¬†my husband remarked that¬†I always ended up planting¬†too many plants in¬†too little a space.¬† Since it’s true – there was no refuting the truth.¬† But then I said it was the same thing with his tools – they are all over the¬†house.¬† Every drawer or cabinet¬†houses a drill bit or¬†two.¬† ¬†As we worked away in silence, ruminating the other’s weakness for¬†certain possessions ¬†– the truth dawned that it was all for a good cause.

‘Tis better to invest in the house than a new pair of boots.¬† In the age of marching global consumerism, let us remember that in the end that it’s not the ‘thing’ that will make us better, but a new bloom or new coat of paint on the cabinets – basically, the work that we do and the happiness we find in it.¬† Investing in and working on our garden and our beloved tract-house¬†gives us and our families much pleasure.

Step 1 – How it began

We moved to Long Beach from the lovely city of Encino (San Fernando Valley) in March 2010.¬† We bought our not-so-charming-at-first-look, fixer-upper ranch style, built-in-1950’s-tract house to be closer¬†to¬†our families.¬†¬†Sitting for¬†two hours on the 405 traffic to pop over from Encino to Long Beach¬†for¬†dinner with family and friends was getting to be exhausting.¬† We still miss Encino – the awesome Sepulveda Dam Basin Recreation Center (with its Lake Balboa and recently restored Bull Creek), weekly sojourns at our favorite Taiwanese food (Mandarin deli), our favorite Salsa and Beer… Long Beach –¬†where are your good restaurants, ye of corporate chain food joints?¬†

But, Long Beach has a wonderful upside of being gritty and lovely at the same time.  We love driving around for errands and coming upon old Arts and Crafts homes and bungalows.  I was pleased to find out that this is another area where India has had a direct influence on architecture.  Bungalows are from the Bengali word bangla, a dwelling for the bourgeois Indians, the style of which was copied extensively for the Arts and Crafts style bungalows here in the United States. 

Me and my husband¬†covet the Arts and Crafts style for our unassuming ranch style house, which was placed like most homes in California en masse and very cheaply post WWII.¬† Coming from India, where the houses are made of solid brick and have 20′ ceilings, we were initially perplexed by the tiny rooms, lack of electrical outlets, ceilings which we could reach up and touch and slip-shod aluminium frame windows, which leaked in outside elements.¬† In fact, I had come to America ten years ago¬†to study architecture, but soon changed my mind.¬† What can the Americans possibly¬†teach me about architecture, I thought?¬† I chose to study finance instead –¬†a game that Americans excel at (but perhaps¬†not so much even that – looking at the past few years Wall Street debacle).

I¬†slaved 60-plus hours a week at a Beverly Hills Hedge Fund for four years, but hated it so much that I decided to change my career path entirely (thanks to my ex-boss who unintentionally¬†made me quit a field entirely usuitable to me).¬† American universities are amazing and wonderful – they have so much knowledge¬†to offer and the libraries and the professors are brilliant.¬† After poring through catalogues, talking to friends and family – I decided to apply¬†to the renowned¬†Cal Poly Pomona’s Master in Landscape Architecture program.¬† That was one of the best decisions of my life.¬†

The MLA program is rated in the top 10 in the US, teaches about design, environmental ethics, sustainability, cultural awareness, california natives, water sustainability, watershed awareness, wetlands and creek restorations etc.  РI got so much out of it, plus it changed the way I perceive the external world.  It taught me to perceive the world in multiple layers, rather than think in a uni-dimensional way.

One of my favorites class was the California natives class.  70% of the native plants in California are endemic to it Рthat is, they are not found anywhere else in the world.  Coastal California is mediterranean in nature, its plants are uniquely adapted to the soil and climate. 

Mediterranean climate is generally described as having a hot, dry summer and a mild, wet winter.  Although California has a vast array of unique habitats, within a few hours you can drive from the coast Р to the desert Рto the sierras and to the redwoods, it is still described as being Mediterranean.  Other Mediterranean climate countries are Spain, Italy, Greece, South Africa, Southwest Australia and Central Chile.  They cover 5% of the land mass of the earth, but have 20% of the plant species in it.  Mediterranean plants are aromatic and xeric.
City of Long Beach has a wonderful program called “Lawn to Garden” program.¬† Their website describes it: “The Long Beach Water Department will rebate $2.50 per square foot of lawn removed from front yards and parkways and replaced with California friendly landscaping, up to 1,000 square feet to qualified customers.”

My husband and I discussed the option of taking out our turf entirely.  We finally agreed that although  it was a lot of work, we really wanted a native garden, instead of boring grass, which was guzzling precious water and producing nothing in return. 

Our gardener, a grumpy man,¬†comes in weekly with a loud lawn-mower (I can’t stand them) and then an equally loud leaf blower to keep the grass trimmed, while we pour gallons of water on it to make it grow.¬† The¬†weekly see-saw between growing and cutting, growing and cutting¬†– the crazy dance had to be stopped.¬† We wanted the leisure of growing a tiny patch of a productive, aromatic habitat – that we could sit in and enjoy.¬† The lawn was of no use to either of us (we couldn’t roll around¬†on it) or the butterflies, bees¬†and birds.¬† It had to go.¬† Sorry, Mr. Gardener.¬† We are going to¬†offer¬†him to stay on¬†for the back-yard.¬† We still have lawn there (but are taking part of it out to install a herb garden).¬† Last week, we had the front-yard turf removed.¬† See attached picture of the turf all gone.¬† The two straggly plants are the ‘trees’ we had planted the year before – Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and Chilopsis linearis.


¬†We may deviate only slightly from the approved plan (there are some last minute plants I want to add – it’s easy to be greedy with so many lovely choices).¬† I will post the final plan later, changes et al, when everything has been installed.¬†We are keeping the sprinkler in the parkway, but are installing drip irrigation for the main front natives garden.¬† Wish us luck!