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...

Are all lawns rubbish?

“Are all lawns rubbish?”

And, my answer is:
Of course not

Lawns are good in their place. If you have plenty of water and no run-off issue, can devote time to keeping them healthy (please, no chemicals) – maintain them.

They are good for picnicking on, sunbathing, playing, sitting, kicking around a ball, reading, al fresco meals… the list goes on.

Aah yeah

But, if it’s just a dead space in front of your house, where you cannot imagine sitting down with a plate of kebabs and chilled beer, barefoot and in your burry Sunday sweats, then by all means – take the turf out. And replace with plants that either attract local butterflies, bees and birds or plants that you can eat – in-season vegetables and fruit trees (or perhaps, a mix of both the habitat plants and veggies). Some plants do the function of both – create habitat and are edible to boot.

Use the space. Dead space is a waste. It could’ve been of use to someone else.

All work and no play - take a break humans, and nap on the lawn

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?

A Hiatus for Holidays!

Even though our gravel is in, we will take a break this week for Christmas. Next week, a trip to the native plant nursery. All we have done this week is to plant Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’ in the parkway.

Though not a Californian native, Muhlenbergia capillaris is native to the Southeast region of the US. For the parkway, we chose a pallette of grasses, based on their wind-waving qualities and color interest, and have selected from a variety of regions (rather than just California natives). My husband and I staggered the placement of the Muhlys – shifting each pot an inch here and an inch there till they were just so. We smiled in satisfaction as the grasses settled in their new home. They are placed in the westernmost corner of the parkway bed, sure to catch the last ray’s of the sun – the reason being that the panicles flame a deep maroon in late summer. Right now, near Christmas, the panicles glow golden, and shimmer in the slightest of breezes. The grasses and I are content on this sunny day in Long Beach.

Tackling another problem at the same time, the front brick beds now host burgundy Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax) and Cordyline australis – we successfully transplanted the unhappy roses into a sunnier spot in the back-yard. In a sharp contrast to the gentle Muhlys, the Phormium and Cordylines are rigid and military-like – painted a deep burgundy which blends them into the shadows, perfect for the back-ground. Phormiums will notice you before you do.

I have a gripe with how things are named in the Western world. Cordyline australis is mostly found in South Asia – but it’s somehow a better sell to name it Australian (Cordyline australis). Just as the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is mostly found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but named Russian for some reason known only to the marketers. Better to call it Russian than Pashtun Sage? Naming sometimes has little to do with region of origin than with the preferences of the customer buying it. Farmer’s Market is overflowing with “English Peas” – which makes me want to tear someone’s hair out. Peas are native to northwestern India, the Punjab region. But are they called Punjabi Peas? Even though I love the alliteration of Punjabi Peas, sellers have chosen to call peas English. Is the Queen is a better sell than Slumdog? Does teh former bestow a veneer of respectability, the delicate whiff of crumpets than the fiery smell of naan?

Check out the very beautiful Pink Cordyline below (this one is definitely in the Mata Hari league):

We haven’t decided yet where this lovely Pink Cordy will reside- maybe in a large earthenware (painted/unpainted, ceramic/clay, style?), ready to welcome guests.

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.