Monday, January 30, 2012


As gardeners I think we all know the importance of sunshine for plants and gardens! Light means photosynthesis and results in growth or as we were taught.

Enough of the science - I am thinking today about  light and shadows in garden design.

The intense light that we get here in Palm Springs gives the benefit of dramatic shadow patterns. But even when the sun shines in the UK, shadows are created. To really appreciate shadows in the garden, we need a clear uncluttered surface, whether vertical or horizontal to display them.  Try planting trees with bold leaf shapes as specimens in a lawn or against a south wall.  Even when the sun is low in the sky as these winter pictures demonstrate, shadows can be effective.

Although some plants may need shade for optimum growth, occasional sunshine brings simple foliage such as these ferns and crocosmia, alive with patterns of light and shade.


 In particular dark colours, that look so wonderful in plant catalogues, need bright sunshine to display to their best potential. In the shade, dark colours, whether flowers or foliage just look drab. Now whilst we can't make the sun shine, we can position plants so that they make the best use of the light. The following few pictures demonstrate the effect of back lighting dark foliage.

Canna 'Intrigue'

Begonia grandis evansiana
Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'

And finally night-time lighting can bring a garden alive in a totally different way with combinations of bold light and shade, plus dramatic shadows.

Agave geminiflora

I hadn't intended to make this piece all about foliage but there again I do like dramatic leaves so no apologies. Flowers will have their day!

Friday, January 27, 2012


When I used to run my small nursery some years back and attended plant fairs, the commonest question was always 'Is it hardy?' For those of us that dabble in exotic plants, this is a very real consideration. Dare we plant it? Will it need wrapping in the winter or must we transport it to a greenhouse? Will it still be alive next year? The thrill of growing something lush, leafy and exotic in a chilly climate will always be a gamble with the successes often heavily balanced with the disappointments! But we still do it! 'Never say a plant isn't hardy until you have killed it three times' was the maxim of one optimistic but now sadly departed, gardener I knew!

Tetrapanax papyrifer from Taiwan - one of my favourites but borderline hardiness in many areas and often cut back to the ground by hard winters, Fortunately it will regenerate from its roots.

Yesterday's newspaper included an article announcing a revision by USDA to the zone system used to divide up the USA into growing zones. This is the first revision since the system was developed in 1990. Most gardeners will have seen those little Z symbols in gardening books. Global warming has meant that the pattern of winters in many areas is not so cold as it used to be. The new map is based on data collected over the period 1976 to 2005. The Z ratings of plants remain the same but some geographical areas will have changed their zone, meaning that gardeners will be able to try species that in the past hadn't been recommended for their area.

The new zone map for California - Palm Springs can be seen towards the bottom right hand corner
Although this is most commonly used in the USA, Europe and various other countries have adopted the scheme to a certain extent with the UK sitting between zones 7 -10.  In the UK, Nottingham sits in Zone 8 whereas in California, my Palm Springs garden is still in Zone 9b.

This reminded me that the revered RHS debated hardiness last summer and in its own inimitable way, came up with its own hardiness scale. Confusingly, the RHS system bears no relevance to the accepted and well established USDA zone system. The RHS argued that the UK, being a small island needed a more precise system and has developed a scale from H1 to H7. Under the RHS scheme the UK sits between H3 to H7 which is three increments. Under the USDA system , Z7 - Z10, there are again three increments but when we consider that the USDA system regularly splits those into 'a' and 'b' subzones, we have six sub divisions - surely enough for our small island! But the RHS, knowing its world superiority, established its own system. (Said with tongue in cheek!) The following is my attempt to rationalise the various systems. Comments welcome!
Now I have been very good and not bored you with my running exploits so far but today I'm very pleased with myself, I've just completed a 12 mile training run and with just two weeks to the local half marathon, I'm right on course. I took a new route and enjoyed the fresh gardens, making a mental note to return later this weekend with my camera to capture a few things. The race here is quite amazing with lots of veteran runners such as myself. Last year I saw one amazing old guy, bravely plodding around with his walking stick! What a tough old bird - or does it once again come down to another sort of hardiness?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I don't really miss the British winter - well who would? But I do miss some the the beautiful plants, mainly shrubs that choose to flirt with their best displays in the winter. There are so many wonderful winter flowering species that I am always amazed that gardens aren't full of winter flowers. Most are very easy to grow, tolerate an amazing amount of cold and after a harsh frost will often re-bloom again as soon as the weather improves. Many also have a strong scent and some have interest at other times of the year. By comparison Palm Springs has relatively few winter flowering species. Now here are my top ten winter bloomers for the UK and similar temperate regions.

I have planted and grown many of these over the years and for those of you that visit University Park in Nottingham, most can be found in the winter garden next to the Millennium Garden.

Hamamelis mollis 'Pallida' - yellow witch hazel, a good reliable cultivar flowering in late winter with a bonus of fiery autumn colour.

Daphne bholua 'Janet Postil' - a good scented daphne that I only discovered in recent years. I bought one for the Uni before I left but don't know if it ever got planted
Jasminum nudiflorum - an old stock favourite - often badly pruned. Plant it at the top of a bank and let it grow naturally creating a cascade of bright green stems and yellow winter flowers.
Winter flowering heathers - cultivars of Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis.  Many named hybrids which bloom from late autumn to springs. And unlike their summer flowering relatives the winter ones are tolerant of alkaline soils.

Mahonia x media - many different cultivars such as the well know 'Charity' that are all quite similar. Flowers from late autumn through to spring and the bonus of a strong perfume
Garrya elliptica - great for a north wall and blooms the whole winter

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' - this is the male form so no berries but the main display is the bright red winter buds. In late spring, these open to white flowers, a little plain after the red berries.

Chimonanthus praecox - probably my favorite winter shrub. I recall discovering it many years ago as a student at Writtle and cutting a small sprig for my room. The claw-like flowers are curious but the sweet perfume is beautiful.

Viburnum x bodnantense - good winter standby for January colour and scent. Several cultivars such as 'Dawn' and 'Deben'.
The last - not a shrub - Iris unguicularis although some of you may remember it as Iris stylosa before being renamed. This is an evergreen herbaceous plant that likes to be really hot, dry and baked at the base of a south wall. Nothing to look at in summer but worth tolerating for its winter blooms. Pick when in bud if you want them indoors and they will last a couple of days.

Back in Palm Springs I am struggling to name many plants that choose the winter as their main display season. There are of course those such as Bougainvillea and Lantana that bloom virtually all the year round. Here are just a few good winter ones.

Pyrus kawakamii - the so called evergreen pear, which it isn't - well at least not here. It drops its leaves just before Christmas and flowers in January. Doesn't look at all desert-like - just a small scruffy pear tree rather like a badly shaped 'Chanticleer'

Euphorbia milii - one of the tender succulent spurges

Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks of Fire' which colours up for winter  so not really a winter bloomer as such but colourful. I presume that this and the species above are both short day plants like the related poinsettia and so respond to the short winter daylength.

Senna artemesioides - good easy free flowering shrub if its left alone and not pruned

Strelitzia regina - the bird of paradise  - not sure that this is particularly winter specific but our plant seems to always flower in the winter and rest in the heat of summer. Our plant currently has 22 beautiful flower spikes.

And so although I don't wish myself back to the UK winter I do miss some of its floral benefits.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Yes - wind and lots of it - but the meteorological type! Over twenty years ago I slept through the worst of the UK's hurricane,  which became known as the Great Storm of 87. Michael Fish TV meteorologist had announced on national TV that there would not be a hurricane! Has he ever lived it down? I awoke the following morning to find devastation. Over 50 major trees were on the ground plus thousands of branches at Reading University where I then worked. It took my staff over two years to complete the clear up.

Yesterday I was at the gym. the lights had been flickering but I wasn't aware of anything until I left and tried to stagger across the car park in a sand storm. As I drove home, I became aware of trees down across the roads, fences flattened,  and utility poles at crazy angles.  In just an hour or so, the wind had risen to  70mph gusts. I detoured around the blocked roads, dodging trashcans bowling along, arriving home to find a carpet of fruit all over the ground under our trees. (Marmalade time!)

This morning the storm  has blown over but its not quiet - the Sunday morning calm is broken with the angry buzz of chainsaws as home owners and the local authority clean up the debris. Trees are down everywhere and the nearby park is a mess. So sad and will there be funds to replant in a recession - somehow I doubt.

Palms are usually very resilient to winds and bend and waver with no issues, although they do readily drop all the dead fronds with distinct clatter.

Next door is a new development and several of the newly planted palms are flat on the ground. Not surprising as these are tall trees, transplanted with small rootballs.

More amazing are the mature palms that have succumbed for some reason like this date palm, laying across the road.

As I plod around the streets on my morning run, I see trees down everywhere but two particular points catch my eye. A large number of trees have suffered from root heave. The tree has just collapsed pulling up its rootball with it.  This was also a major observation in the 87 UK storm when the previous wet weather had softened the ground and loosened roots.

The other common factor noted this morning is that so many branches that had snapped were showing rot at the site of a previous pruning cut. All of this leads me to the conclusion that if trees here weren't so heavily and unnecessarily irrigated, they wouldn't grow so fast. In turn this would mean less need for continuous pruning. Hopefully tougher, more stable trees would be better equipped to deal with high winds.

Well I'm off outside to clear up the yard but after Friday's rant,  I'd better use a broom and not the blower!

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Colour is a very personal preference. Any of you that know the musical 'Barnum' will remember Phineas T. Barnum's preference for rainbow colours and his wife Charity's love of the colours of the earth.  I'm more like Barnum with a wardrobe full of reds, blues and orange, whereas Philip dresses in every shade of beige! People who have seen some of my gardens will also know that I love bright bold colours in my planting schemes. Well this blog is about none of that but about the use of colour in buildings.

Here in Palm Springs there is an accepted palette of colour often used in buildings - stone colours, browns and terracotta. It works well with the palm trees and blue skies.

A few years back we visited San Diego and I fell in love with a striking colour scheme of a small mall that we found by chance. Rather Disneyesque and I guess such colours will fall into the love or hate category but we liked it.

It reminds me of two strikingly coloured buildings back in Nottingham, UK. The second Phase of Jubilee Campus, part of the University of Nottingham included some dramatically shaped buildings clad in terracotta tiles in shades of red. it doesn't show much in this picture but the landscaping on this site was my last design project before I retired. the hedge in the picture was meant to be cut at an angle to mirror the building but it has never been done! One day I'll creep back with my shears!

Opposite University Park is another strikingly coloured building although not owned by the University. 

Which brings me to the main point of this blog. In Palm Springs there has been a Holiday Inn which has for years been clad in dirty green. Architecturally it is plain, although it includes some interesting metal panels depicting palm fronds but it's camouflage green gave it the look of wartime relic!

It has recently changed hands and has become the Sagaura Hotel. After much agonising, the local planners finally approved the new colour scheme for the hotel and this is the result although not totally completed. More pictures when its finished. We love it but I doubt it will be universally appreciated!

What do you think?

Friday, January 20, 2012


In my last job at Nottingham University,  I used to be very proud of my fleet of 200 pieces of machinery, my big butch tractors and the greasy workshop that maintained them all. As my staff left the workshop each morning, the roar of the engines was music to my ears - work being started, gardens being maintained, beauty created! On occasions we had phone calls from irate professors complaining about the noise disturbing their thoughts and tutorials. We always responded and during special times such as examinations we had to carefully schedule mowing and other operations to avoid disturbance. (Waking up students mid morning didn't count though!) But I don't think that in all my years of grounds maintenance I have ever been aware of the real disturbance of garden machines.

Now I am on the other side! Here in Palm Springs, we live in a rented condo set in lush green gardens that are very neatly maintained. Whatever their faults, and more about that on another occasion, the gardeners take great pride in trimming, mowing and sweeping but all with noisy machines! Here I am on a lovely sunny winter's day, sitting outdoors with my coffee when the machines start - first its the mowers. Everything is cut with a small rotary mower so it takes ages. This is followed by a strimmer with a steel blade to do the edges - the steel shrieks on the edge of the  concrete footpath like a banshee. No sooner has this passed than the the blower follows to corale all the loose clippings - well at least those that don't blow over the wall into our yard. When the lawns are tidy, they start on the borders - everything must be clipped - all the flowers must be removed from the bougainvilleas in case petals drop, so its the hedge trimmer to everything taller than grass and of course the blower has to follow again!

Now whilst I am normally a patient man, this has raised the red mist in my vision more than once and the gardeners have discovered that I am not just the quiet little man that sits reading! Why I ask, in a small area such as this can't edging shears be used, secateurs to prune or a broom to sweep the paths? Whilst I have never been one to disappear into my own world with headphones and an ipod, I have finally been converted!

Thursday, January 19, 2012


How very basic - concrete! In the UK we rarely use poured concrete for garden paths and patios. It's all natural stone, paving slabs or more commonly nowadays block paviers. But in the USA, at least here in California, poured concrete is by far the most popular. The sidewalks are poured concrete, as are the kerbstones, all punctuated with expansion joints to allow for the severe summer heat and also for movement during earthquakes which occur with some regularity.   The use of concrete for garden paths is sometimes quite original as some of these examples show.

I'm particularly watching the progress of this project in the last pic as this is work in progress, a garden that is being totally refurbished. I particularly like the way they positioned the rocks and then wound the concrete path between them. Palm Springs is also one of the few places where you can still see screen block walling but in its right context, as part of the mid century modern houses which are so typical here.