How to Garden With California Natives: Lessons from the 2016 Theodore Payne Garden Tour

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First, a rant. The good side of the drought and irregular weather we’re experiencing here in California is that it provides an opportunity to rethink our unimaginative “mow and blow” residential landscaping. On the bad side, opportunistic politicians have used residential watering as a red herring to divert attention from the real water problem here in California: industrial agriculture. The lawn rebate programs and constant messaging to reduce residential watering has resulted in thousands of dead trees and handouts to fly-by-night landscaping companies that installed gravel moonscapes and disappeared as soon as the rebate program ended. What we need is not calls to end landscape irrigation in our yards and parks. What we need is responsible and thoughtful irrigation. We can transition away from water hungry lawns and plantings and towards California natives and other climate-appropriate plants. But we will still need to irrigate to establish those new plantings. And we should continue to irrigate mature trees.

OK, enough with the rant. One of the great benefits of garden tours like the one Kelly and I went on this past weekend, sponsored by the Theodore Payne Foundation, is that they give examples to imitate for people like us who can’t afford the services of landscape architects. Perhaps most importantly, they show how a coastal California landscape can be lush without using much water. Coastal California is not a desert (at least not yet). No need for gravel.

I thought I’d look at some of the lessons I learned on the tour. Please excuse the less than optimal photography. Good garden photos are taken before the sun comes up and the tour was mid-day on an unseasonably warm and bright sunny day.

Massing

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Again, this may be the single most important message for amateurs planning a residential garden in California: natives look best when grouped and appropriately spaced into a mass that mimics the density of native chaparral. Spacing can be tricky. You have to pay attention to nursery labels and not plant too far apart or too close together. Not that plants always perform predictably. You have to go back and edit: fill gaps in or take stuff out. The best gardens on the tour got the massing right like the Hessing/Bonfigli garden in Altadena shown in the photo above.

Outdoor Rooms

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My favorite garden on the tour is the Loxton/Clark garden in Pasadena. It’s a series of seductive outdoor rooms and cute little sheds (she shacks?) built from recycled materials. It invites you to sit down, read a book, relax and maybe take a nap. All spaces are small and divided. These sorts of divided and protected spaces, I think, make us humanoids more comfortable. How inviting, after all, is it to sit in the middle of a football field? We prefer being under a tree, in an outdoor room or sheltered in a cave. One more example of an outdoor room from the same garden:

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Details
Most people, I think, at least unconsciously like gardens that hint at a human presence. That could take the form of some bells hanging from a tree as in the Sovich garden in Glendale:

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Or one of the alters in the Loxton/Clark garden:

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Or one of the many fantastic sheds in the Loxton/Clark garden:

IMG_7120Or this inventive bit of garden art from the Hessing/Bonfigli garden in Altadena:

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Kelly and I both have mixed feelings about using found materials in a garden. I think the focus is often too much on telling a kind of visual joke, like when you, say put googly eyes on a old muffler and paint it purple. What works about the found art examples below and above from the Hessing/Bonfigli garden is that they aren’t “one liners”.

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Places to sit are also important. It doesn’t take much to make a simple seat like this one from the Johnson/Goldman garden in Silver Lake:

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And it’s also important to provide habitat for our bird and insect friends such as this small water basin and perch at the Miller/Coon garden in Atwater:

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Edibles/Medicinals
Just because you have native plants does not meant that you can’t also have vegetables and fruit trees. In fact, edibles benefit from the insect habitat provided by native plants. Over the years we’ve increased our natives and decreased our vegetables. I think we might be getting more veggies now from a smaller space. We also need to remember that many native plants are edible and medicinal such as these strawberries from the LaPlant/D’Auria garden in Sierra Madre:

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And the white sage in the background of this garden behind the datura (careful with that stuff!):

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While we’re talking about white sage, the same weekend we attended a lecture by Nicholas Hummingbird who runs the fantastic new Hahamongna Nursery. Hummingbird, who is Native American, spoke of how deeply offended he is by the collection of white sage in sensitive habitats to sell smudge sticks. He described it as like breaking into a church and stealing holy water. Grow it in your garden and you can harvest responsibly. Yearly pruning will provide all the smudge sticks you’ll need.

Pots on pedestals

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Kelly observed, “potted plants look best when they’re on pedestals.” Sure enough, most of the gardens on the tour that had potted plants had them on some sort of platform. Chalk this up as one for the “honey do” list.

Speaking of Honey do’s

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The expression on Kelly’s face says: Erik you better build me a garden shed like this one at the Loxton/Clark garden. Duly noted.

Lastly, our neighbor Lora (who also went on the tour) came over yesterday and we had a spirited discussion of “neatness” in these gardens as well as how much labor a garden takes to maintain. Sometimes a garden tour brings up more questions than answers. How much gardening skill can we expect from the average homeowner? What is the roll of mow and blow crews? How best to communicate the value of gardens that benefit pollinators? How do we make gardens that appeal to a “neat” aesthetic? These are thorny, so to speak, topics that will have to be dealt with in many more blog posts. I’ll let Kelly tackle those subjects while I get going building that garden shed.

Top Climbing Rose Suggestions

Cecile Brunner rose. Image: Malcolm Manners.

Rosa ‘Cécile Brünner’. Image: Malcolm Manners.

My post last week on our two hardy if unimaginative climbing rose choices, ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Iceberg’, prompted several reader suggestions for other climbing roses. Some backed up both ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Iceberg’ for their reliability. But our readers had great ideas for other vigorous climbing roses:

Rosa ‘Cécile Brünner’
The top suggestion was Rosa ‘Cécile Brünner’. Reader Linda T. says, “The flower is tiny, like a mini rose, and soft pink fading to dusty pink. Ah. But the scent? Peppery-spice rose. Quite unique (my opinion). It flowers in giant clumps. Best feature? It makes divine rose hips for tea. It grows quickly and in my yard, tolerates some shade without loss of either bloom or scent.” Commentor P seconded Cécile Brünner, adding that they are, “nice 10ft tall screens between our yard and the neighbors, are evergreen, have handled numerous fierce windstorms without a hitch, and are currently blooming sweet little pink flowers everywhere.” Rachel adds, “It has the most beautiful little pink flowers (at least they’re little here in Phoenix) and when I open the back door I can smell them from across the yard.”

Rosa ‘Altissimo’ and ‘Mermaid’

Rosa Altissimo. Image: Wikimedia.

Rosa ‘Altissimo’. Image: Wikimedia.

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Rosa ‘Mermaid’. Image: Wikimedia.

Ivette S. says, “I have a thing for single roses, so my favorite climbers are Rosa ‘Altissimo’, a gorgeous true red with beautiful yellow stamens in the open center, and Rosa ‘The Mermaid’ – a huge rambling climber that will grow anywhere. Both have their major bloom in the spring, and then a sporadic showing through the year. Such gorgeous plants, with lovely leaves too.”

New Dawn

New Dawn climbing rose. Image: Wikimedia.

Rosa ‘New Dawn’. Image: Wikimedia.

Amanda asked for a suggestion for a rose that will tolerate the wet climate of the Pacific Northwest. Skye responded with Rosa ‘New Dawn’, “My parents live on Galveston Bay and they have a New Dawn climbing rose that is gorgeous and vigorous, it takes wet conditions, hurricane winds, salt spray, humidity and heat and still looks gorgeous.”

Responding to a request for a very long climbing rose, reader Lori B. suggests Rosa ‘Felicite et Perpetue’ but notes that they are hard to find in the U.S. If any reader knows a good source for ‘Felicite et Perpetue’ in the U.S., please leave a comment. And, lastly, in my post last week I forgot to mention that ‘Don Juan’ produces moderate sized hips while ‘Iceberg’ makes tiny ones.

Saturday Tweets: A Week of Strange Links

Los Angeles Announces Separated Bike Lanes on Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard is about to get a major makeover. Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell announced today the installation of fully separated bike lanes along the iconic boulevard. The project will connect Echo Park with Hollywood and make it safer for residents to bike to Metro Red line stations along this busy corridor. City planners estimate that the resulting switch from cars to bikes for short trips will cut everybody’s travel time, resulting in a win-win for both cyclists and motorists.

He also spoke of additional positive outcomes. “Finally our children will be able to safely ride their bikes to school, or to visit the local ice cream shop,” said O’Farrell.  Signalling the end of a hundred years of car-centric planning, O’Farrell’s links the new bike lanes with his goal to lessen the devastating impact of climate change and end the U.S’s dependence on fossil fuels.  He added, “It’s no coincidence we’re fighting wars in the Middle East.”

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Current bike lane conditions on Sunset: narrow and often blocked.

Funding will come from two unique sources: fines for owners of illegal billboards and film companies caught blocking bike lanes without a permit. “I’m happy to be killing two birds with one stone on this one,” said O’Farrell.

Announcing Our New Solar Cooking Initiative

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Last December, when the summer heat finally subsided, I decided that since Los Angeles has become the capital of the planet Arrakis, we may as well as make hay with the sunshine. I decided to learn how to cook in a solar oven, and more than that, I wanted to learn how to do it really well.

We have made and used and written about solar cookers here,  and here, which are reflective surrounds for a cooking pots, and which can be quite effective under the right circumstances, but we’d never played with a solar oven, which is, in its basic form, an insulated box with a clear lid. Solar ovens reach higher temperatures than cookers, and can be used in less ideal conditions. But we’d never invested in a solar oven because they are rather pricey, especially for an unknown quantity. Would they really work? Could we make good food in one? I certainly didn’t want to spend a couple of hundred bucks on an oversized rice cooker.

Wait! I almost forgot. We do have a solar oven in our garage! And if I don’t mention it, the Internet will make me a liar. Erik posted on it back in 2013. He was gifted a Sundiner, which is a 60’s era solar oven. We never use it because, being a product of the 60’s, it has a very small, shallow cooking box, suited only for cooking hot dogs and frozen dinners.

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So, anyway, being cheap and not fond of TV dinners, I decided to make a proper, box-style solar oven (there are a lot of DIY plans out there) and test it out come the equinox, when the days are longer and the sun a little higher. Then, just as I was about to start construction, the good folks at a sun oven company called Solavore contacted us and offered to loan us their oven, the Solavore Sport, for an extended trial period. It was one of those moments where the universe seemed to be conspiring to help us along, so I answered, “Funny you should offer…”

A few happy emails later, and now we have a shiny new Solavore Sport to explore. In the spirit of DIY, I will still make an oven later this summer and report back on that process, and I will also run a comparison between the commercial oven and the homemade oven and see how they stack up.

But my primary goal in this season of solar cooking is to figure out whether, if properly used, a solar cooker can create meals of the same quality as those I turn out with my kitchen stove. Not “It’s not bad for solar” but “Hey….this is scrumptious!” More than that, I want to figure out what solar ovens do better than real ovens. I want to master the vocabulary of solar cooking.

I figure the learning curve is going to be high–it’s like having to learn how to cook all over again–but I’m excited to have the Solavore Sport on hand for these experiments, because I can focus on the cooking itself instead troubleshooting my construction techniques.

Throughout this short winter I’ve been looking at fusty old solar cookbooks from the library and poking about on the Internet for inspiration, and frankly, most of what I found has been pretty bleak. A lot of the recipes seem outdated or just out of step with what Erik and I like to cook and eat. But, in all my looking somehow I never stumbled on the Solavore website. It turns out they have an attractivecollection of solar recipes, so that is where we will be starting out.

I’m calling this series Solar Oven Summer, and no, I do not find the acronym S.O.S. pessimistic. And yes, it is summer here now, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll tag all these posts so you can find them all at once. In our next post we’ll take a close look at the Solavore Sport, and then we’ll begin learning how to use it, one recipe at a time.

Are any of you solar chefs? Any advice? Horror stories? Favorite resources?