Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monet watch out!

For the last nine months I've been painting -  watercolours that is - not the kitchen ceiling! Its about time, as the paints and brushes were a leaving gift from my work colleagues when I retired some four years ago! (Thanks guys!) It all started when I was organising a 'Picnic in the Park' event at the University some years ago.  I had invited Rita Mitchell, a local watercolour artist to paint in the Millennium Garden as part of the afternoon's entertainment. I found myself enthralled as she spilled paint onto the paper, then swirled it around and allowed it to create flowers and leaves as it flowed and took its own shapes. It was fascinating watching the paint dry! I later went back to her studio and bought the finished painting which has been on my lounge wall for some years. I always though 'I'd like to do that' - hence the retirement painting kit.

Rita's original picture from the Millennium Garden

I also discovered the work of Shirley Trevena who paints with watercolours in an exuberant and flamboyant way - all bold colours and vivid contrasts - not the timid tints you'd expect! The following picture is one of Shirley's, followed by my own forgery. Hmm - maybe a new career? Works of the great artists to order!

Irises by Shirley Trevenna
Forgery by me!

Well - I'm a long way off in my own creations! I realise that after a lifetime of working with plants and flowers, I know what they should look like, so am rather bound by realism. I can draw reasonably well and make a dahlia look like a dahlia but that means I tend to do a sketch then fill in the shapes - sort of painting without numbers!  One thing I do love is colour! I realise that my planting schemes have always been very flamboyant and painting plants allows a sort of creativity that would be impossible with real plants. If a flower is not in the right place just paint one in! Think daffodils would look good next to sunflowers - paint them!

Its not actually my first venture into art as I took art A level - many years ago. I failed, lost my place at art college and because of that ended up in a career in horticulture. I've no regrets but its a curious pattern that takes me full circle to an interest I had 40+ years ago! Frustrated retired horticulturalist, artist or whatever, I'm thoroughly enjoying my new hobby. Anyway - click on the Watercolour tab at the top of the page and have a look at some of my pictures. Do PLEASE give me some feedback - tell me if you like them. Ooh and I'm open to offers if anyone wants to buy one!




Sunday, November 25, 2012

Is fall finally here?

Fall or autumn as we Brits insist on calling it, doesn't really happen in the Coachella Valley. No season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and almost no vivid autumn tints. Whilst the nights are cooling and temperatures have dropped, it just doesn't feel like autumn and plants likewise don't seem to sense it. Relatively few plants here are deciduous in the 'normal' winter/summer way. If they drop their leaves, it is often out of season and maybe just before the fresh flush of spring growth, so for example, Jacaranda seems to keep its foliage most of the winter and then drops it just before flowering in spring.

Evergreen pear - Prunus kawakamii

Anyway I'm struggling here to give you a sense of how the seasons are changing. One plant that does seem to colour up is the strangely called evergreen pear, Pyrus kawakamii, which isn't evergreen - at least not here. Its not a particularly shapely tree but grows well enough here with typical spring pear blossom, tiny hard inedible fruits and good late fall colour.  There is also a large mulberry tree that I cycle past which produces excellent butter yellow tints before leaf fall. Never having been here in summer, I have no idea of its fruiting capabilities.

mulberry autumn colour

There's not much by the way of berries, although pyracantha does grow easily enough.  When its left alone and not butchered by the hedge-trimmer boys, it does fruit freely although it just doesn't look right alongside bougainvillea and spiky agaves. Despite its red berries, it  looks like a rather dowdy, dusty poor cousin. There is a rather scruffy small tree with pinnate foliage which produces dirty white berries but so far I've been unable to identify - anyone help me here? (Chad are you reading? Update - thanks Chad for the ID - see below - a local native.)

My local mystery tree - identified by Chad as  Sapindus saponaria var drummondii (soap berries or soap nuts)

Probably the highlight for me of the autumn landscape is a small tree that I pass on my early morning running route. Each year it produces huge drooping trusses of vivid copper pink seedpods. The colour and effect against the blue sky is electric. If my identification is right, its Koelreuteria pinnata 'Rose Lantern'.

Koelreuteria paniculata 'Rose Lantern'

Wonderful and a good enough incentive to get up and run! And by the way, the skies are not photo-shopped - yes they really are that blue! I'm a very lucky guy to live here! And by the way Philip wants credit for today's title!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A penny for the plant and a pound for the hole

Some revered horticulturalist once commented 'a penny for the plant and a pound for the hole' to emphasise the importance of soil preparation before planting. (Was it the great Capability Brown?) Anyway over the years I have lectured and written many times about the importance of digging, drainage, soil enrichment and so on before establishing new plants. I have made students double dig stubborn clay, (or was it the students that were stubborn) sent surly contractors back to prepare borders again that had been merely tickled with a rotavator and thrown a complete hissy fit when I found a landscaper planting in a waterlogged soil with a post hole borer. It's all in the soil preparation!

New landscape - one landscaper is fitting the irrigation nozzles, the other is filling in the trenches.

Watching some landscapers today reminded me how different it seems to be over here in the desert! The soil is admittedly almost 100% fine sand but I have never seen the soil dug before planting - presumably it's never compacted enough to need this. I've also never seen the use of any organic matter or fertilisers. However what is so essential and always accompanies new planting is the installation of an irrigation system. Older plantings usually have sprinklers which throw copious amounts of water liberally across the beds (and the footpaths). Newer schemes such as the one I saw today have numerous outlets and small drippers or at the most bubblers which feed water to individual plants. Much more environmentally sound.


New irrigation pipes with risers ready for nozzles for each plant.

I have never seen landscapers fertilise any of the plantings here, except lawns, yet vegetation grows at an amazing rate. There is  copious water and year round warmth but no nutrition. Sands are notoriously lacking in natural nutrients. How it works I don't know but it seems to!

Apologies to desert dwellers who may find this very basic but to gardeners back in the UK who are more likely to be struggling with heavy waterlogged clay soils, this will seem very strange!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Poppies not from Iceland

Now - have I ever written about Iceland poppies before? Maybe, but if I can't remember, then you guys won't! But again I guess some of you have better memories than mine.   Amazingly Iceland poppies grow well here in the Californian desert - not in the wild but in gardens here in the winter. The cultivated poppies that go under this name are developed from Papaver nudicaule, a native of sub-polar regions of Europe, Asia and North America but not Iceland. And who said common names are simple? Anyway I just love these simple but exuberant flowers in soft but brilliant shades.



Out here, Iceland poppies are grown as winter bedding plants from October through till the spring. Sadly they are rarely planted en masse when they would look spectacular but usually sprinkled amongst other winter bedding as a sort of dot plant. As such, they are totally ineffective but the individual plants and flowers are wonderful. They are hardy from zone 3a to 10b, so logically they would be successful in the UK summer but I've rarely seen them back home. Maybe its because they are just biennials or short-term perennials. British gardeners do like value for money, so tender and short-lived plants don't always sell. Amazing - many people would readily spend £10 on a bunch of flowers, lasting maybe a week but won't spend the same or less on a tender plant that would give a summer's colour.

Typical Palm Springs bedding display - no colour scheme, no logic, no taste but its cheerful!
Over the past year I have taken to watercolour painting and I think I may experience some kleptomaniacal urges when these are in flower - they'd be just right to paint! Who knows - I may even share some of my attempts with you in the next few weeks!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fanfare for the trumpet vines

I love the many colourful plants that grow here in Palm Springs. One such group of plants, seen frequently, although not desert natives belong to the genus Tecoma. The various members of this genus are mainly colourful scrambling shrubs that flower freely and attract the humming birds and butterflies. They  belong to the family Bignoniaceae which includes such diverse plants as the large leaved Indian bean tree, Catalpa bignoniodes, the beautiful blue flowered Jacaranda  and hardy herbaceous Incarvillea. Tecomas generally come from South America and have a rather lax habit so are  often grown as wall shrubs.

Humming birds love Tecomas!

One of the most familiar here is Tecoma stans which if left alone will make a huge upright shrub covered in trusses of canary yellow flowers. It was not successful in our yard as I think the space was too restricted but does well in many gardens. A nearby garden has a wonderful tall hedge of it which was flowering prolifically a few weeks ago but in the inevitable pursuit of tidiness they trimmed it - yes cut all the flowers off - unbelievable!

Tecoma stans
Tecoma stans - my yard - no flowers - it had to go!
There is a compact form of it called  'Gold Star' which I grew successfully in a pot for several years. Then there are various hybrids generally within the yellow, orange, terracotta range. The closely related Tecomaria is a vivid tangerine in colour and Podranea which I have mentioned before, a bright sugar pink. All are tender and would be unlikely to survive the UK winter but just love the desert's heat, providing they are irrigated.


Tecoma 'Gold Star'

Tecoma 'Orange Jubilee'

Tecoma - probably 'Sunrise'

Close up of 'Sunrise'
Tecomaria capensis not surprisingly from South Africa



If you don't have the warm climate and are feeling a little envious, try growing the very similar and related Campsis which is much hardier. Plant it on a sheltered south or west facing wall. Mine back in my UK Midlands garden has been thriving and flowering for many years and survived the tough winter a couple of years ago. The red flowered 'Mme Galen' is the most familiar cultivar, freely available in garden centres. There is also a soft orange called 'Flava' which I haven't grown but appears to be similarly hardy.

Campsis taglibuana 'Mme Galen' - back in my Nottingham garden

Campsis radicans 'Flava' photographed in Paris
Hardy look-alike plants - that's often what exotic gardening is all about in a cool climate!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nicer than it really is?

I don't know whether there's such a thing as blogger's block but I seem to have run into a large chunk of it. After a busy garden visiting summer, all the excitement of our voyage over, the gardens of New York and then Vancouver, suddenly my mental storeroom of  topics to write about is bare! I haven't been anywhere this week, not seen any new gardens and am still waiting for my November copy of The Garden to arrive from the UK. No inspiration!

Our little Californian yard (Philip says the pic looks nicer than it really is!)
Nevertheless I'll take the horticultural famine as an opportunity to update you on my little yard here. Despite my earlier misgivings, its actually quite colourful at the moment. The potted bougainvilleas that are on their final warning seem to have heard my threats and are starting to produce some colour. At least one is reprieved and next year we'll prune it more regularly to try and get a bushier habit. The others may well be giveaways, so if any local gardener is reading this and fancies giving a home to some orphan bougainvilleas, do contact me.

The orange bougainvillea has a stay of execution!

Lantanas are great plants and flower almost continuously throughout the winter. The humming birds also feed on them regularly which is another great reason for growing them. The two-tone flowers have always fascinated me and it is only recently that I discovered that it is a device whereby the plant can indicate which flowers need pollinating.

Lantana 'Monike' and Dianella tasmanica 'Variegata'

Each year I plant up a large terracotta pot outside the front door for winter colour and it always seems strange that at this time of the year I can plant a selection of species that would normally be regarded as summer only in the UK. In the winter here it is necessary to avoid the most tender of plants such as Impatiens, Zinnias, Begonia and Coleus but with frost a very rare occurrence a wide range of plants is possible. The garden centres are full of petunias, snapdragons, pansies, pelargoniums and lots of patio plants.

Winter colour with the  Hamelia tucked into the centre

I am particularly pleased with the lemon yellow petunias which seem to be thriving, as does the orange Million Bells. I've never been very successful with these in the past. In the centre is a plant called Hamelia patens which I was particularly delighted to find available locally. It looks a bit a bit like that triphylla fuchsia called 'Thalia'. I saw it in Central Park, New York some weeks ago and had no idea what it was. Its a great addition as its also very attractive to humming birds.

Hamelia - the one I first saw a few weeks ago
Our pink trumpet vine, Podranea ricasoliana, which I have enthused about before, continues to flower and give pleasure to us and the humming birds. It also proved to be a great attraction to aphids again this year and as I was a little late spraying, it is rather a sticky mess this year. I prefer not to spray but aphids do seem to devastate this. Incidentally, the queen palm in the background of the following picture doesn't seem totally happy and is struggling to unfold the new fronds. The last frond refused to open completely and had to be removed.

Pink trumpet vine & our queen palm (top left). The taller palms are Washingtonia outside our yard.


Today has been different in that autumn has finally asserted itself with a cooler, slightly windy day and a shower of rain - the first for many months! The temperature is due to drop too. Earlier in the week in was 95F (35C)  and by Saturday its forecasted to plummet  to 67F (19C). Yes - its all relative but I'm sure you are all sympathetic at the thought of me suffering in such a chilly climate! S'cuse me - I'm off to put a blanket on the bed!

RAIN - a rarity here!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Only 3.7 miles but ...

Well folks - I know you've all been dying to hear another episode in the saga of my running life - all those sweatty T-shirts and grubby trainers - so now here it is!  I finally ran the Palm Springs  Tram Road Challenge along with 1400 other obsessive runners and walkers. Its only 3.7 miles - a mere doddle for any regular runner but it rises by 2600ft into the stratosphere at the base of Mount San Jacinto.


Somewhere in the distance is the base of the aerial tram that rises to the mountain top
The race begins - I'm one of those yellow T shirts at the back of the crowd

I've been training for this for some weeks now - well actually three years but this is the first year to actually run the race. Two years ago, I planned to run but had an infection and decided that running at an altitude with a hacking cough wasn't a wise move. Last year a bad tempered knee and the aftermath of my broken foot dissuaded me from running, so this year was 3rd time lucky! Training for the race has been challemging but a wonderful thrice weekly experience. In order to run before the heat of the day has meant starting at sunrise with a 2.5 mile cycle ride, then run up the hill, run down again and cycle home! Yes - I am totally mental but its a great excuse for a hearty breakfast!

As I run up, I refuse to  look down as this is the reward when exhausted, I finally stop at whatever point, turn round and look back. The desert is spread out beneath me with the stark white wind farm windmills turning to the north and the grid of palm lined roads radiating out to the south. I stand and listen to the silence - something we so rarely experience in the modern world. For a few moments this rough, rocky cleft in the mountain is all mine. A magic moment!

The reward for running!

No gardener can run without keeping an eye open for what's growing along the route, although the tram road is a little barren of horticultural interest! Despite being October, there has been no rain here for months so most vegetation is totally dead and brown, awaiting the winter storms. Surprisingly there is a scattering of  Datura stramonium growing lushly and flowering. Apparently the seeds of this annual can lie dormant for many years and germinate when the soil is disturbed, rather like poppies or foxgloves. Now whilst this makes sense, as this roadway and footpath was reconstructed earlier this summer, I cannot see how any seed found enough moisture to germinate in the fierce desert heat, let alone produce a leafy flowering plant. Incidentally new flowers are produced daily and shrivel by lunch-time.

Datura stramonium - highly poisonous but with a whole host of native medicinal uses.
The race itself was fun but tough. The winner, a local 30 year old Olympian, breezed in at 28.22 mins. I had set myself a target of finishing within an hour and managed a very presentable 52.26 and yes its only devoted runners who know to the second how long it took! I came in at 271 out of 1424 runners and 20/78 for my age group. There can't be many communities with a similar aging population, demonstrated by the 211 finishers over the age of 60! The oldest entrant, who completed the course in just over two hours is 89. I have a few years to go yet.

Not the most flattering of pictures but I did cross the finish line still running!

And as I started the long walk down again, I was rewarded by a flash of red at the side of the road, a small plant of Zauschneria californica a colorful native that is now sometimes confusingly classified with Epilobium, although the Plant Finder still lists it as a Zauschneria.

Apologies the pic wasn't taken on this occasion - I didn't run with my camera too!