Friday, December 28, 2012

Lush or loners?

I am aware how landscapes here in the desert differ in so many ways from those in temperate gardens. Obviously the palette of plants available is totally unique. But back home in the UK we place great emphasis on plant associations - putting together plants that look good alongside each other, or even growing intimately together. Such plants must have a similar display time and compliment or contrast each other in various ways to create little 'plant pictures' that contribute to the overall border or garden. Flower show designers are great at this - artists with plants, creating perfect partners for these horticultural showcases. The effect is nearly always lush and profuse - not surprisingly when we consider the UK weather!

Familiar herbaceous perennials but in close proximity and harmony

An intimate mixture of foliage and flowers


Echinacea purpurea and Kniphofia - prairie style
One of my favourite combinations of foliage, Berberis ' Orange Rocket' with Weigela loymansii 'Aurea' and W. 'Foliis Purpureis'

Iris and Eschscholtzia growing freely in a countryside verge
Humulus lululus 'Aureus' amazingly looking good against a pink rose - a daring mix - pink and yellow!

Anchusa 'Loddon Royalist' and Gaillardia - the effect relies on similar flowering times

Rhododendron 'Roseum Elegans' and Digitalis 'Pam's Split' - very Chelsea!

However here in the desert, designers more often emphasise the shape of the individual plants. So many arid plants are spiky or have other distinct shapes and the desert style landscape allows for generous spacing to exhibit each plant's unique shape. Colour is less important but shape, shadows and highlights become quite important in the brilliant sunshine.

I run past this front garden regularly and it always pleases me.

Specimen Ecinocactus lining a footpath (What numbskull put the irrigation controller there?)

Euphorbia millii - perfect buns!
Agave and Penstemon parryi - the latter a surprising desert plant

Anyone ID this for me - a Ferocactus maybe gracilis or cylindricus?
Russelia equisetiformis - the firecracker plant - great with space to spread

Muhlenbergia rigens widely spaced for shape and shadows - I love the patterns

Opuntia basilaris - a must for my new yard!
Only rarely are desert plants grouped close together and when this is done, the effect is quite different but can be quite dramatic. One of the most heavily planted but spectacular desert gardens is that at the Huntington Library - check back to my blog last year to read more and see all the pictures.

Desert Garden at the Huntington Museum

Agave geminiflora block planted
Tightly packed barrel cactus - they absolutely glow in the sun!

Aloe aristata - such crisp outlines

A window box overflowing with succulents - not very sustainable but striking colours and shapes


Monday, December 24, 2012

Bah Humbug to you all!

Well it's Christmas but being distant relatives of a certain Dickensian character and life members of the Bah Humbug Club, we don't particularly celebrate with the razzamatazz that many do. Out here in the desert it all seems rather odd - there's no holly and ivy, although you can buy it in a plastic version. Mistletoe does grow here but it's a different species to the one back home in the UK. I wonder if kissing under it is as effective? Must try! That other ubiquitous symbol of modern Christmas, the poinsettia is very much in evidence in the local supermarkets. And have you seen all the scarily surreal colours that are now possible?



We certainly won't have a white Christmas, although as explained recently, there is snow on the surrounding mountains and I guess if you go up the tramway you could play snowballs. Christmas trees are available but there are far more artificial ones than real and I can't quite grasp the trend for upside down trees suspended from the  ceiling. And how do you put presents under it?



And of course there's Christmas music everywhere! I've never quite understood why annoying seasonal jingles have to be played from early December onwards. Our local supermarket, charmingly called a grocery store, has been playing a particularly annoying version of Frosty the Snowman since late November and I could cheerfully attack his frozen personage with a blowtorch.  To my my mind a couple of days before Christmas would be quite enough for carols and the like. Amazingly the traditional Carols from Kings was relayed live this morning via our local classical music station KUSC - isn't technology marvelous.


But we will celebrate. We'll have turkey and I've made a cheesecake - too late to conjure up a traditional plum pudding. And I guess we'll pop a couple of bottles of bubbly. Has anyone else discovered Barefoot Bubbly? It may not be available in the UK but is a great low cost alternative to overpriced champagne and over here it is sold as champagne, as the USA doesn't have the rigid EEC rulings. Amazingly we also have a piece of Stilton made in Long Clawson, a small village near our UK home in Nottingham. I was astonished to find it shopping locally.

Well that's about it.  I might finish with a triumphant 'Bah Humbug' but I'll be a little more charitable and wish you all a 'Happy Christmas' - whoops no mustn't say that these days - must be politically correct - 'Happy Holidays' to you all!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jack Frost on vacation

Those of you living in the UK and in colder parts of the USA may well recognise the significance of the rather bland monochromatic photo below but to those of us in Palm Springs, this is a rare occurrence - yes it's a touch of frost! My morning run today was a very chilly experience despite double layers of everything!


Apologies for talking weather but as a gardener, one has a license for this!  This last week we have had rain, a very windy night and the temperatures have really dropped - yes - lots of weather! Daytimes have barely touched 16C (60F), meaning I have been forced to eat lunch indoors, unless I wear a coat which rather negates the point. Nights have been chilly too and last night it obviously dipped to the point of a frost. This does happen here occasionally, although the last severe frost that really damaged plants was about five years ago and the last real snowfall in 1979.  However we constantly have a reminder of snow with the white caps on the surrounding mountains in winter. Our local aerial tramway would take us from the desert floor to the snow laden pine trees in 15 minutes but snow has no attraction for us!

Just love this picture - such a contrast - apologies if you've seen it before!

One brief update to those of you that patiently follow my rants and ramblings. You may recall my ongoing annoyance at the regular and pointless hedgetrimmer hacking of the bougainvilleas around this complex. Well finally they have been left to grow and surprise - we have some flower at last! Did someone actually read what I wrote and respond or maybe the hedgetrimmers are away for repair? I guess we'll see if freedom lasts for these colourful South American immigrants!



Sunday, December 16, 2012

Robo Christmas in the desert

If you good reader and gardener, had a huge garden with mature palms, a small lake, swimming pool and tennis court, I wonder how you would treat it? Quite possibly lots of spiky arid planting or maybe some tropical exotics, bougainvillea and so on. But gardens are not the same for all of us and our space outside usually reflects our personal interests. Near to where we currently live, there is a two acre property owned by Kenny Irwin Jr, an internationally known sculptor. You can't miss this plot as his huge colourful sculptures are visible from the end of the road. For the last four years, I have jogged past this garden many times and wanted to see more. Firstly this is what you can see from the road.

First views of Kenny's yard


Robo nativity

Kenny's house is somewhere amongst all this!

Santa's sleigh

The lake and bridge



Finally I have had the opportunity to assuage my curiosity and see it all, as Kenny has opened his garden and sculpture collection for a winter viewing during December. 'Robolights and Beyond' as the exhibition is called, is a fantasy of  sculptured aliens, robots and santas, mostly made of recycled materials welded or fused together and painted brilliant colors. The many sculptures are set in the landscaped grounds, interspersed with huge inflated santas and snowmen. The whole garden  is festooned with thousands, maybe millions of tiny lights which together with the fans for the inflatables, lead to a monthly electricity charge of $12,000. Apparently this Christmas opening used to be a regular event but the neighbours complained (spoilsports!) so there has been a break for a number of years. Apologies for the quality of the next pics taken at night with a strange camera.




New use for shopping trolleys?




Is it art? Is it a garden? You decide!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Moving on swiftly

In case you've noticed, I've been rather quiet this week, although here in the USA life has been less than relaxing! After 4.5 very peaceful years living in our rented condo, we have to move. Our landlord, of venerable years, wishes to sell so its time to go!

From this.................

So there has been a flurry of activity in the Cooke-Daly household as we've searched for a new home. Whilst we cannot sell up in the UK, (visas, gay marriage and all that - don't start me!) we do not have the cash to buy so it's rental again. Palm Springs has no shortage of rental property but being a tourist destination it's mostly short-term.

We've visited a string of properties - mostly useless! There was one beautiful condo that Philip fell in love with  but it had no yard so you can imagine my reaction. Another extensive property, far bigger than we needed, was filled with Indian artifacts - like a museum. Screens jostled with ivory tusks, huge sculpted elephants, enormous chandeliers and a grand piano. There was a yard but overhung with electricity cables. A clear 'No thanks!' Another had been trashed by previous tenants and still smelt of cats and dogs.

Finally we've found a place! What relief. Not only does it have all the space we need but it's unfurnished so we can create our own minimalist style. Note to Philip - we DO need some furniture! And it has a yard! The back yard is a blank canvas with some concrete patio areas and a matrix of loose gravel. The front is partially landscaped and the grounds within the whole development are beautiful. We are currently awaiting approval from the letting agent but it looks as if this will be our new home and my new garden. And I'll be able to tell you all about it as I landscape it.

.................to this - the virgin back yard
and the front yard which can no doubt be improved!
And one other bonus is that it's further out of town so bicycle transport becomes a bit stretched for this oldie. Time for a second car and all those plants I can get in the back!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Doom and gloom

In Vancouver the other week I saw a strange but colourful sight - a bed of Impatiens in full bloom! UK gardeners will know that a particularly devastating form of downy mildew started hitting Busy Lizzies a few years ago, to the extent that they have almost disappeared from UK gardens. From top of the bedding charts a few years ago to almost obscurity! I was pleased to see these in Vancouver, thinking that the disease hadn't traveled that far but in a corner of one bed there were clear signs of defoliation and wilt - so sad! And there are no chemicals that effectively control this disease, although the New Guinea Impatiens seem more resistant.

Colourful but why do they put red and pink in the same mix - ugh!

Impatiens downy mildew

Makes me think of the other diseases that have changed the face of both gardens and the countryside. Back in the late 1960's and 70's a particularly virulent form of Dutch elm disease swept across the UK destroying virtually all the English elms. At the time I was teaching at a small horticultural college in west London and I recall the optimism with which we watched technicians injecting local elm trees with fungicide. It didn't work and elm trees have almost disappeared from gardens and the English countryside. Some elms remain in the areas around Brighton but most elms in landscapes now are resistant cultivars such as 'Sapphoro Gold'. Dutch elm disease has also affected trees in the USA, Canada and other parts of Europe.

Ulmus 'Sapphoro Gold' on the University of Nottingham campus (my previous patch) - the largest specimen of this in the UK and so classed as a Champion tree.

Anyone who reads the news will know of the current threat to ash trees by ash die-back disease. Then there is sudden oak death, a particular form of Phytophthora that affects not only oak but several other key woody species such as Rhododendron and Camellia. Gardens that specialise in these plants are very watchful for any signs of this devastating disease. Observant gardeners will have also seen the unsightly blotches on the leaves of horse chestnuts caused by a harmless leaf blotch fungus.  Then there's bleeding canker which also attacks horse chestnut causing unsightly  seepage down the trunk and is far more serious and usually fatal.


At a personal level, the virus which has swept through stocks of cannas in recent years nearly bankrupted me! At the time, I ran a small nursery, Brockings Exotics and had the National Collection of Canna, some 500 cultivars from all over the world. I sold the surplus by mail order to keen collectors in the UK and Europe. When virus first appeared from some imported stocks, neither the Plant Health Inspectors, nor the RHS could identify the problem, so infection spread. By the time we had identified the issue and implemented plant hygiene procedures, the damage had been done. Eventually the collection had to be burnt and my business closed. I have clear memories of sending back dozens of refunds with notes of apology!


Out here in California oleander leaf scorch disease is sweeping through landscape plantings leaving swathes of dead and dying plants where there should be lush foliage and colourful flowers. Even more serious is the threat by Asian citrus psyllid which is a risk not only to the many citrus trees in landscapes but also to the many commercial plantations of citrus. Strict import procedures exist and inspections of trees even at a domestic level occur to try and keep this pest at bay!


Oh dear - this really is a story of doom and gloom but let's be positive! At the moment the citrus around our development are strong and healthy. Just recently we have started picking the grapefruit which we eat for breakfast every day. Just look at the colourings on these fruit. Strangely each of the pink patches coincide with where a leaf was touching the fruit - just beautiful! The flesh is red and juicy and the flavour is wonderful!