Sunday, February 26, 2012

Random ramblings

My Sunday morning coffee was spoilt by the publication news of a book entitled 'The Heirloom Bean Grower's Guide'. Now I have nothing against Steve Sando, the author and I am sure this is a fascinating and thorough account but it does reinforce the mystery that surrounds the book world and in particular one publishing house that had better be nameless! For some while I have tried to get a contract for a new book on bedding plants and seasonal planting but with no success. Despite British gardeners spending £600 million on bedding plants each year and $3billion in the USA, this publisher tells me that bedding plants aren't popular and that there would be no market for such a book! Yet they publish a book on heirloom beans - its a mystery to me! Maybe its just sour grapes on my part but I just don't follow the logic of this!

In order to improve my mood I went running - yes its therapy! One route I sometimes run is the tram road which is the location for an annual race that I have twice missed due to being unwell. Its only a short run - just 3.7 miles but it rises well over 2000ft from the desert floor to the tram base station. I have finished it in past training runs with final half mile killer incline but today was just for fun so I just ran half way! The real pleasure comes when you turn round to see the desert floor, roads streets and palm trees spread over in the distance below! Its a magic moment and I steel myself not to turn round until I've got as far as I intend to run.

Actually the route UP which is deceptive as it dips at one point into a little gulley with a stream and lush vegetation that you can just see in the distance.
When I have done this in the past there has also been that wonderful perfect absence of noise when you actually HEAR the silence - so rare in our noisy world. Today wasn't quite as peaceful as I was a bit later and my solitude was broken by rather too many tourists driving up to the tram. The walk/jog down was more leisurely. Last time I did this in a previous spring, the roadside was speckled with wildflowers but after this dry winter there was little. A few brave yellow flowers from the brittle bushes, some chuparosa, a solitary datura and a pretty little mallow.

The view down to Palm Springs in the distance and the edge of the wind farm on the left
Encelia farinosa - brittlebush

Datura wrightii

Spaeralcea ambigua - desert mallow - this picture taken another year - not so much flower this morning!
Justicia californica - chuparosa

Home, a shower and then out for brunch. Sunday brunch seems to be an American tradition, unmatched in the UK. Breakfast with a twist and usually accompanied by alcohol! Our own favourite is Bongo Johny's where they offer champagne or Mimosas (Buck's Fizz) for a $1 a glass - that's about 60p at the moment. Of course the 'champagne' has never been any where near France but EU rules don't count out here, so anything alcoholic with bubbles is champagne! Whatever, it has the right effect! Another thing I love about American restaurants is their flexibility. I fancied an omelet with bacon, avocado and Swiss cheese but not on the menu - 'No problem  - you got it!' is the server's response! Good food and alcohol - both in moderation - solves a lot of problems! I'll pester the publishers another day!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Family favourites

When you look at families, it often amazes me how the various members are related but seem to be so very different. Now I am of course talking about plant families, although you can take the analogy further if you wish! This morning I was thinking about the spurges, all  various different members of Euphorbiaceae. Well  actually I was really concentrating on the genus Euphorbia.  Also within the family, there are some 300 other genera, including such diverse plants as the  food crop cassava and a highly poisonous Ricinus.  Now there's diversity for a start.

Manihot esculenta 'Variegata' - an ornamental cassava - my yard but sadly it died!

Ricinus growing wild in the Wash near Palm Springs

But just looking at the Euphorbias, we have both hardy and tender plants, shrubby plants, herbaceous perennials and succulents. The common name is spurge, which is said to date from the Middle Ages when the sap was used as a purgative. This sounds rather dubious as the sap is in fact highly irritant, causing painful skin disorders and even blindness if it comes into contact  with the eyes. There are stories of propagators in nurseries who have been taking cuttings and popped out for a quick visit to the boys room, only to become extremely uncomfortable somewhat later! The moral of the story is to always handle euphorbias with great care, using gloves and to wash any splashes of the white sap off your skin immediately. Out here in Palm Springs, there are a number of species that are common  landscape plants. Some of them are very succulent and can be easily confused with cacti.

Euphorbia tirucallii 'Sticks of Fire' and E. polygona 'Snowflake' plus an agave
Euphorbia millii
Euphorbia - not sure of the species - typical local landscape plant

One distinctly different  species that I have just planted in our yard here  is Euphorbia cotinidifolia which most people at a glance would easily confuse with the hardy shrub Cotinus,  commonly known as the smoke bush. In fact the name acknowledges the similarity between the two plants. Sadly its tender and inclined to be temperamental.

Euphorbia cotinifolia
Most of the succulent types come from South Africa and the two following pictures, courtesy of Flickr,  show the diversity of these plants and the amazing size that some can grow to.
Euphorbia ingens - South Africa

Euphorbia resinifera

Back home in the UK, hardy Euphorbias are valuable garden plants mostly for their yellowish bracts and some for their foliage. Some of the new variegated types have quite striking foliage. One of my own favourites is E. mellifera, an understated plant but with sweet honey scented flowers.

(Aside - when Philip first saw the plant below he commented 'That will be nice when it flowers!' Of course most Euphorbias have colourful bracts which mask the insignificant flowers. Philip - that's it! )

Euphorbia chracias subsp wulfenii - possibly 'Lambrook Gold'

Euphorbia mellifera and a variegated hybrid - forgotten its name!

Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow' - a new hybrid

Euphorbia - showing fasciation - not pretty but curious!
And finally what would Christmas be with poinsettias, yet another Euphorbia! And of course if you grow your own, you all know the trick in making them colour  - tell them a dirty story and they'll go red!

Euphorbia pulcherrima

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Over eight garden walls

Today was the day for the local Gardens Tour organised as part of Palm Springs Modernism Week, which needs a word of explanation to those of you in the UK. Mid Century Modern is a particular unique architectural style, developed between about 1933 to 1965 and localised enough to sometimes be called Californian Modern. Function is as important as form with huge windows linking indoors and  outdoor living spaces.

Now the gardens tour was the first event of its kind. Over a period of three hours we were able to visit eight private gardens and a rather disappointing and noisy hotel.  For one used to the rather genteel experience  of visiting gardens in the United Kingdom, the experience was very different and more about that later. No tea and cakes but very welcome champagne and cookies at one garden! I won’t try to describe each garden as this would be repetitive so I’ll pick out the highlights.

There were some startlingly dramatic plants; lots of cacti, succulents and spiky architectural plants. But as you will see there is very little colour and to someone like me who revels in colour, this was a disappointment.

Some of the settings for the gardens were wonderful with backdrops of the mountains and palm trees. Landscapes tucked amongst the natural boulders at the base of the mountains. Swimming pools are almost the norm in quite ordinary gardens – most people have one or have access to one in a gated community. 

Most of the gardens made full use of  sculpture, containers, garden furniture and ornamentation of one form or another. The use of pierced concrete walling illustrating again the importance of light, shade and shadow (see my post Sunshine)

The highlight of the afternoon for me was two beautiful front gardens both designed by William Krissel and both using a complex of overlapping shapes filled with grass, different coloured aggregates, rock and a matrix of planting. 

In all a pleasant afternoon but to my mind so many opportunities missed. Most of these gardens were contemporary gardens and not heritage gardens which rather missed the whole theme of the week. In Palm Springs there are many lush and colourful tropical style gardens, none of which were included in the tour. Just as some UK landscape architects have tunnel vision with regard to using British natives only, here there is a current prevalence for designers to produce desert only landscapes. Whilst I would wholeheartedly embrace the importance of water conservation, this strict narrow mindedness makes for some very dreary landscapes with a very limited palette of plants. Such colourful plants as Bougainvillea, Caesalpinia, Calliandra, Leucophyllum, Senna and Tecoma all have only low or moderate water needs. C'mon guys - use some imagination!

Whilst a pleasant afternoon, the event seemed rather more of a showcase for the work of local landscape designers, rather than a genuine sample of local gardens, new and old. Those of you that visit gardens in the UK under the National Garden Scheme may know that to reach the criteria for opening, a garden must have enough interest to sustain a visit of at least 30 minutes.  Sadly not one of these gardens today would reach that criteria. Let's hope a future event would include a wider spectrum of the gardens here and a closer link to the heritage theme of the week.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Right as rain!

It's been raining! To those of you in the UK this will hardly be an exceptional experience, but out here in the Californian desert, rain is a rare occurrence. Since I came out here five months ago, I think this is only the third rainy day and now by lunchtime the sun has come out again. When I first spoke of spending the winters out here, some years ago, friends asked if I would miss the seasons. The quick answer was and still is 'I most certainly do not miss the British autumn and winter!' However I do miss seeing some of the brave plants which flower during the toughest time of the year and you can see my post Bloomers on this a couple of weeks ago.

The seasons here don't seem so obvious, at least not in horticultural terms. There are relatively few deciduous plants so autumn (fall) colour really doesn't occur. Herbaceous perennials, apart from some grasses are also not common, so there isn't the familiar cycle of growth and die-back that we know in temperate climates.

Pyrus kawakami - strangely with the common name of evergreen pear!

However cycling to the gym this morning, I was aware that the mountains which surround this area were capped with snow for the first time this winter. The San Jacinto Mountain is the main range to the west of Palm Springs and rises to 8500 feet. An aerial tramway takes visitors to the top and you can go from cacti basking in the winter sunshine to pine trees covered in snow in just 20 minutes. The temperature at the top today is 24F (-4C) whereas down here in the desert it is 65F (18C). So actually in this little spot of California, I can experience winter and summer in the same day!

Winter is up there!
Rain is of course critical for many aspects of plant growth and particularly for wildflowers. As this has been such a dry winter here, it is unlikely that there will be much show of native flowers this spring at all. For this to occur there needs to be sufficient rain in December, to allow seeds to germinate and plants to grow for the spring flowering which is usually around March. Soon after that, temperatures start to rise dramatically, the ground dries out and growth is impossible without irrigation. In a good season every piece of empty land is carpeted with colourful wildflowers.

Typical wasteland in spring - good years!

Bermuda buttercup

Californian poppy

Desert Canterbury bells

Sand verbena

Although many of the desert landscape plants like Bougainvillea and Lantana bloom all year round, there are some that have specific seasons.  Pyrostegia venusta is a beautiful orange climber that is just starting to flower and Russelia equisetiformis a colourful ground cover plant. The latter didn't like my yard and refused to flower  but when its happy its spectacular. Both are looking quite colourful at the moment.
Pyrostegia venusta - fire vine

Russelia equisetiformis - this is a gas (petrol) station
Having to return to the UK each spring means that I do miss the flowering of some seasonal species here. Bauhinia was mentioned recently and two others that I particularly love and nearly always miss, are the blue flowered Jacaranda and lemon yellow Palo verde, both dramatically beautiful trees that flower around April.

Jacaranda mimosaefolia

Palo verde - a Californian native
Although I'm not a great lover of cacti, I would love to see more of the desert cacti flowering in spring and summer. This one is a common landscape plant used in many yards. 
Opuntia basilaris (corrected!)

I have to say I'm not looking forward to returning to the British weather in three weeks and leaving all this behind  but the gardens and all the many plants we can grow in the UK climate do soften the blow!