From our recent plant-scouting excursions

Photo from scouting out plants at Classic Nursery, in the San Fernando Valley
Photo from scouting out plants at Classic Nursery, in the San Fernando Valley

Snapped this photo when we were out scouting out plants for our lawn-to-garden project in Glendale, CA. One of the challenges of sourcing plants in Southern California is that by and large nothing is labeled, so a Cistus plant is just a Cistus, and a Phlomis is just a Phlomis, even though there are so many varieties of each. As such, it is hard to know what you are getting and what form the plant will ultimately take – not to mention how big it will get. In any case, we really enjoyed going to this Nursery, Classic Nursery, in the San Fernando Valley. Lots of healthy, happy drought-tolerant plants tended to by helpful people. And an amazing view to boot.

-John Kamp

Weekend viewing

Quick post today: watch and marvel at Babylonstoren. While portions of the video are a bit hokey, no big deal, as the history and scale and design and plants and animals of the place are something to behold. After watching, plan a visit your local botanical garden or arboretum. In any season, there is always something to see, discover, and learn. And getting outside never did anyone any harm.

John Kamp

Botanical wonders of Alcatraz

One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz
One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz

Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.

When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.

To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.

Visit this park

Grand Park, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Pure Wow.

There are few public spaces we have been to in recent years that have left such an impression on us as Grand Park in Los Angeles. We knew the space when it was eyesore parking lot and drab civic plaza halfheartedly connecting City Hall to the Music Center on Bunker Hill. If these spaces of yore symbolized anything about the city and its vision, they symbolized a city with little vision. The new incarnation of these spaces, however, signals a true step forward, and a look ahead.

The park’s design is confident and playful, with a color and plant palette that tells the story of Los Angeles circa now, not circa 1855. It contains a combination of bold, plant-heavy spaces filled with groovy future-forward plants (re: waterwise but not drab); swaths of lawn for seating, lounging and gathering; simple architectural structures that sit perfectly within the space; hot pink tables and chairs that are both movable and serve as eye-catching sculpture dotting the space; and interpretive signs that tell the story of both the plants one finds in the space and their provenance.

Above all what is so refreshing about this park is its confidence and what that confidence says about an emerging new city. This is a city that tried (and has tried) for so long to pretend it was something it wasn’t, that it was a sleepy town or one large suburb, or that it was 24-7 New York, that it was tropical, rainsoaked Hawaii, or that it was just one huge disposable movie set. Grand Park in all its confidence and quirkiness seems to say, This is Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is wacky, and weird, and endlessly multifaceted, and that is what makes it both singular and lovable. For more info, check out Rios Clementi Hale (the studio responsible for the design and site planning), and Grand Park LA.

The park site before is shown below:

Plant provenance reveals much

eremurus, iran, drought-tolerant, bulbs, xeric, native habitat
Eremurus sp. growing in their native habitat. Courtesy of D. Lofti-Azad.

Success with a plant is inextricably linked to knowledge of that plant’s provenance. If you know what the conditions of plant in its native habitat are, you will have a good gauge of whether or not you have or can effectively create the right growing conditions for it in your own landscape. Beth Chatto is perhaps the pioneer of this approach, of using plants whose natural growing conditions match the growing conditions of your site. And on the surface this sounds like such old news and so completely obvious that why should we care? Because more often than not information on the specific provenance of a plant and the particular climactic, geological, and topographic conditions of that place of origin are not immediately available. Rather, we are given a generic set of guidelines by which to care for the plant: average water needs, keep evenly moist, plant in fertile soil, fertilize annually.

We take the various Eremurus / foxtail lily species as a case in point. Some entries may make vague reference to the plants being from places such as Iran, Afghanistan, and the Hindu Kush, but the buck generally stops here. Without any information on their native growing conditions, we are then offered up generic advice on care of these plants, particularly with regards to water. In the case of Eremurus bungei, this site says that the soil should never be allowed to dry out once they are planted. This one doesn’t mention water at all. And this says “Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater”. We are left with the impression that Eremurus bungei / foxtail lily must be from an environment that is neither too wet nor too dry and that is never affected by drought. And none could be further from the truth. Their native growing conditions are intensely dry, including in winter (which are somewhat cold), and rocky. The plants shoot out leaves during the brief time when moisture is available in the soil and must gather up enough energy as quickly as possible before the heat and drought of summer set in and they go dormant once again. In short they are the prototypical dry-landscape/high-desert bulb.

allium, Iran, native growing conditions, xeric, water conservation
Allium growing in Iran. Courtesy of D. Lofti-Azad.

This is not common knowledge in part because nurseries are thinking about sales and would like to sell more Eremurus than fewer, and thus if they are advertised as needing average this and average that, then the average person in average anyplace USA can purchase and grow them, regardless of whether this is true or not (and, yes, it is somewhat true: you can prep your soil in various ways to make certain species of Eremurus grow in Minneapolis or North Dakota, albeit a bit tenuously). The other reason for the lack of information on native growing conditions of landscape plants is that species plants (as opposed to cultivars) are relatively new to the gardening scene. Heretofore the provenance of most plants was the nursery, end of story. And many plants have been in cultivation for so long that common knowledge of their origins has all but disappeared (did anyone know, for example, that geraniums are actually native to very dry regions in South Africa?).

We have nothing against cultivars at all and use them when need be, but our hope is that as interest in species plants grows, so too will access to detailed information on these species plants’ native growing conditions. The result can not only be increased knowledge of and interest in protecting the native habitats of these plants, but also in more sophisticated, climate-specific plant palettes that truly mesh with the ebbs and flows of the places they are located in.