Sunday, January 27, 2013

Over the Garden Gate

A couple of weeks ago we moved into our new house, a detached property in a gated community called Mountain Gate, not far from the Palm Springs tramway. This is a leased property but really ticks most of the boxes in our wanted list. Most important of all to me, it has a rear garden that is a blank canvas - not huge but big enough, about 10m x 15m (30ft x 45ft) of potential space to cultivate. Nearer to the house is a huge concrete patio so plenty of space for pots!

Calliandra haematocephala - powder puff plant growing over the neighbour's wall - great!

Our blank yard - horrible at the moment but lots of useful aggregate to re-use

So far no plans on paper but I'm thinking of a background planting of colourful desert tropicals, Bougainvillea, Tecoma, Caesalpinia, Hibiscus, Lantana and so on. A bit indulgent as they do need more water. Then I'll balance this with a central bed of true desert planting, succulents and cacti with lots of spiky agave and so on. I'd like a queen palm, a Bismarckia and maybe the silvery Chamaerops humilis 'Argentea'. The only other trees we are planning are three citrus, a 'Rio Red' grapefruit, an 'Improved Meyer' lemon and  a 'Fairchild' mandarin orange. To my delight I have just purchased all three this afternoon at $23 (about £15) each at Home Depot (B&Q to UK readers). I shall plant these before I leave and rig a temporary irrrigation system. They'll then hopefully get a season's growth before I come back in the autumn, when I plan to do the main work. Should be fun!

Newly purchased citrus trees

The community where we now live is in general beautifully landscaped, with some good open spaces and public planting.  The estate was built from 2004 but plants grow fast here, so already the landscape looks quite mature. Being near the mountains, there is always the risk of flash flooding when there is heavy rain and drainage water crashes down,  so the development is bisected by a small 'wash' which for most of the year is just a dry riverbed with grass and other vegetation establishing. There is also a series of deep grassy bowls, one of which is next to our house, presumably to act as holding ponds until the water drains away. Anyway it's lovely to have a green open space next to us. Overall there is a good mix of lush oasis style planting and the more eco-friendly, low water, desert planting.

One of the public garden areas
The drainage wash - can you just see the windmills in the distance?
Another public open space with the tennis courts
A typical tree-lined street
The drainage bowl alongside our house

One of three public pools on the site

Early morning view from our den
There is the inevitable usual mix of front gardens from good to average, very few poor ones, although a few with the usual harsh pruning and tree massacres.

Typical desert style front garden

More lush planting with some nice dasylirion

Great sago palms in this one

Good specimen opuntias here - can you see where I photo-shopped out the utilities box?
Not sure about this - rather odd mix of cheap and nasty and pseudo National Trust!

Planting is in many ways very similar throughout the estate. The palette of desert plants available in this area is nowhere near as diverse as those we can plant in the temperate UK climate but there are still some good plants. Sadly also some butchered, ill-treated trees.

Euphorbia of some kind I think?

Opuntia infected with the scale insect that was traditionally used to produce cochineal food colouring

Agave macroacantha - black spined agave - anyone confirm or correct?

Euphorbia 'Sticks of Fire' - love this for winter colour

So sad and unnecessary - no windows to block or anything. Why do people do this? And it will probably have cost $65-95 per tree!

By the way, we don't mean to boast! We are just two ordinary guys, one retired and one still working in nursing. We fell in love with Palm Springs many years ago and had a dream to live and work in the USA. We are not wealthy but we made the dream come true and hope you enjoy reading about our interests and lives.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Missed it

With all the excitement of moving house, I realise that I have missed the 1st anniversary of this blog? At least there isn't a thwarted partner to take a huff! Whatever, I guess it's worth noting that after twelve months, I am still writing it and you are still reading it, whoever you are.  Statistics show that nearly 24,000 people have visited the blog and just last month the hits passed the 3000 mark - sounds impressive but are you all actually reading this or is it just by chance that google dropped you here, when you really wanted holiday information? Well if you did, Palm Springs is a great place for a winter vacation!

Did any of you read the first one - Germination? Anyway many thanks to my faithful readers and those who comment on what I write. In particular I must mention the tireless two, Mark and Gaz from Alternative Eden who started me on this and almost never fail to leave a comment - thanks guys! Then there's dusty David from The Desert Edge who also responds to my writings - appreciated! And 'Anonymous' Chad who has on many occasions corrected my shaky nomenclature - carry on! Shall I drop in a deliberate mistake to see if he's still reading?

Incidentally if you don't normally comment on blogs please start! We bloggers lead sad, solitary lives and love to get some human response, even if its to disagree with us! If you want to comment on here, you don't have to join, become a follower or recognise any annoying gibberish to prove you are real! Just write a comment!

Over the year there have been 101 posts. When I started this I promised you gardening topics from two climates and I guess I've fulfilled that. I've certainly posted lots of pictures and know that many have been appreciated. Sunny desert landscapes and dripping UK gardens - lots of the latter last summer. I've enthused about the Huntington Garden, The Eden Project, The Van Dusen Botanical GardenThe High Line Park, Will Giles' Exotic Garden and some wonderful small gardens.

My favourite plants have featured; tulips, aroids, Cercis, Agave, Ricinus, Fremontedendron, Euphorbia,  Sinocalycanthus and the oh so unfashionable bedding plants. Although who could really dislike the flower beds at Tatton featured in the Best Butt Award!

I've probably bored you with the occasional accounts of my running - incidentally over a year, I've probably run around 780 miles and got nowhere - isn't that pointless! But I've seen some interesting gardens and plants in passing. We shared with you our wonderful trip on the Queen Mary and our marriage in New York. And despite my barbed comments about my partner Philip, we are still happily together after 17 years, also celebrated last week.

I've certainly had a few rants; bad pruning, noisy machines, poor design and I feel another coming on when I see the tree pruning in this area. The inclusion of some cooking hasn't really happened. My failure to get an audition for 'The Great British Bake Off' and Philip's inability to eat cheesecake every week, rather dampened that. My new passion for watercolour painting took a debut a few weeks ago and maybe you'll hear or rather see more of that in future weeks.

So as we enter the second year, I have to face the return to the UK in chilly February, followed by a busy season judging at Chelsea and several other shows, followed by East Midlands in Bloom in late summer. Tell you all as it happens! My next blog will introduce you to our new home here and my new garden, although landscaping that will have to wait till I get back next October - a fun filled year ahead! Just to whet your curiosity and hope you'll read on, the following  pic is just a corner of the beautiful development we have just moved into - more next time!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Totally off topic

Don't you just love the logic of traffic engineers! I remember years ago, when I lived in Reading in the UK, a new traffic engineer installed a rash of mini roundabouts, (lovingly nicknamed cowpats), one way roads and traffic calming measures. The city's traffic crawled to a snail's pace while tempers rose. Over a period of time, many of the expensive alterations were quietly removed.

Here in the USA walking is not a favorite pastime and traffic does not always favour the pedestrian. On major junctions there are pedestrian lights but the traffic does not entirely stop to allow safe crossing. Because it is legally possible for vehicles to make a right turn on a red light, it means that vehicles can cross the pedestrian route even if it says 'Walk'. I guess its just safer to cross at that point!

Now finally getting to the point, there is one wonderful spot I frequently run past with the most  amazing pattern of crossings. Its a fairly minor road but wide and so traffic is faster than most residential roads. At this crossroads, there are three roads bisected by pedestrian crossings. Great, although American drivers seem to ignore them anyway. But the fourth road has short barriers, maybe a couple of metres long directing pedestrians to use the other three crossings.

Now are pedestrians really going to walk three sides of this junction to cross one? What's the logic? Can you imagine the traffic committee debating this long and hard and deciding on this amazing logic! Did the budget run out? And really is a short stretch of railing really going to deter anyone? Its a nonsense but it always makes me smile when I run past.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sunnylands - new landscape

A couple of weeks after our initial rainy visit to Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate, I returned to see the garden on  a better day. The low winter sunshine was good for pictures, but the surrounding mountains were wreathed in cloud, later to become snow. Arrival at Sunnylands is via an impressive drive, surrounded by the new landscape and ribboned by huge drifts of Agave desmettiana complete with towering flower spikes. All very dramatic! The new gardens created around the Visitor Centre extend to some nine acres and contain an impressive 53,000 plants in 50 desert species.

Agave desmettiana in dramatic full scale bloom

Aerial View of the new gardens with the original estate above

The entrance to the Visitor centre - pic doesn't do it justice

The design was by the landscape architect James Burnett and is said to have been inspired by the Annenberg collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings. In particular Van Gogh's Olive Trees is quoted, although he actually painted eighteen different studies of olive trees using different combinations of colour and expressions of light. Surprisingly, despite this statement there are no olive trees in the new landscape, although this tree grows well in this area - an odd exclusion. But before I make any more negative comments, I will in true RHS judging style, tell you about the positives before the negatives - sorry but I can't resist being analytical or is it critical?

Van Gogh's Olive trees - the inspiration

This is a beautiful new garden with an extensive collection of well grown plants. The quality of landscape construction is excellent using some lovely materials and it is properly maintained. Unlike so many desert gardens, it is not  heavily pruned, so the natural shape and flowering of plants is allowed. That is excellent and shows that it is possible!

On one side of the driveway is the Botanic Walk with gently curving paths that meander through huge swathes of succulents and beneath palo verde trees (Parkinsonia x 'Desert Museum'). It's reminiscent of the Huntington Desert Garden but so much newer. There are many groups of different Agave species, aloes, barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) and vertical spires of Echinopsis pachanoi emerging from lower planting.

View across the Botanic Walk
Hesperaloe funifera - love those filaments

Another view across the Botanic Walk

Shadows on a winters afternoon
Still the Botanic Walk

Barrel Cactus - Echinocactus grusonii  in the Botanic Walk - plant spacings inspired from the Van Gogh

Graceful paths in the Botanic Walk

On the other side of the driveway and bordered by the car park, is a huge informal area called the wildflower field. At the point of my visit and with little rain this winter, there was virtually no sign of growth and no colour - just last years dead skeletons. Sand verbena, salt bush, desert marigold, California poppy and a host of grasses are said to be present. Another botanic walk with desert plantings surrounds the meadow.

Across the wildflower field in a dry winter
Opuntia microdasys - the Botanic Walk around the wildflower field

More of the second Botanic Walk

Agave parryi in - you guessed it - The Botanic Walk

Behind the visitor centre and visible from its huge glazed atrium is the Great Lawn, an impressive, circular close mown grass area, fringed with a formal planting of more palo verde trees. During flowering time in late spring these will be spectacular. Between the building and the lawn, there is an area of formal gardens with beds of specimen cacti, succulents and more agave. The second following picture is from the internet showing part of this area in later spring.
The Great Lawn surrounded by palo verde trees
Palo verde  trees in full spring bloom (internet pic)

The Specimen Bed

Stretching across the garden in both directions, there are two long beautifully designed  reflecting pools. Both are infinity pools with the water gently spilling over the edges all round the perimeter. The pools are shallow with black cobbles lining the base.  Depending on where you stand, there is a changing pattern of reflections from the surrounding vegetation, the sky overhead and annoying people that walk by!

The reflecting pool
More reflections
The pool base

Exploring the rest of this garden, I found yet more plantings of the same succulents in the same style. (Do you detect a hint of criticism coming?) A small circular space, called the performance garden is surrounded by similar arid planting. On the opposite side to this is a small labyrinth clothed in a grey leaved plant I did not recognise. In total, it is a beautiful garden with an environmentally friendly low water requirement. Planting is said to attract a range of wildlife, although I'm not sure whether the gardeners will welcome the quoted jackrabbits said to be present! Ladybirds are introduced for pest control.

The performance circle

The labyrinth
Another Botanic Walk and more agave

Yet more...................

Ocotillo - Fouqueria splendens

Those of you that have read my other blogs will know that I am not reticent with my comments. If it's good I'll tell you but if there are things I don't like, well why not say so! I like to think of it as constructive criticism! Whilst most visitors, including many gardeners will enjoy the garden, there are weaknesses in its design, so I will move on to the negatives.

The many and extensive areas of arid planting lack distinctive character. One Botanic Walk is very like another throughout the garden and the planting becomes repetitious. Various devices are used such as the introduction of strong vertical succulents amongst low species in key points and on footpath junctions. Whilst effective, the same device used throughout the garden loses its impact and becomes tedious. The quoted inspiration of the Olive Trees without the inclusion of any is decidedly odd. The planting of succulents in formal lines or curving drifts could be said to be linked to Van Gogh's brush strokes but again the device is repeatedly used throughout the garden.

Echinopsis pachanoi

Err - have we seen this before?
Must have been a good price on a job lot of these1

Same device - different plant - wooly torch - Espostoa melanostele - wonderful in the sun

Although there are four species of trees quoted as in use in the garden, I only observed two of which palo verde seemed to comprise about 90% of the tree cover - great in spring but again overkill and lack of interest. There were no palms at all in this garden, but maybe this can be forgiven as it was known that the Annenbergs did not favour them.

The meadow walk was disappointing. There was an irrigation system present which could  be used to simulate winter rain. This is after all a garden, not a nature preserve and visitors would love to see what Californian wildflowers should look like after winter rain. There also appeared to be no paths through the meadow, meaning that the flowers if present, could only be viewed at a distance - such a pity!

I also feel the concentration on arid plantings and omission of  desert 'tropicals' is a lost opportunity. The brief speaks of colour but the garden was decidedly monochromatic on my visit. Undoubtedly there would be more colour in spring and early summer. However, whilst there  are seven species of Leucophyllum used, (lots of blue in spring)  there are no Bougainvillea, Cassia, Caesalpinia or  Lantana. The inclusion of more species such as these would enable the creation of different styled areas. The discussion of  water usage for such areas would provide an educational opportunity.

The infinity pond is a triumph, but if you visit James Burnett's website, you will see pictures of his other impressive landscapes, several of which feature infinity ponds.  Whilst many designers will have signature plantings and features, it is a pity that this was not a bit more original for this unique commission.

So have I been harsh? Is such criticism justified? It is after all subjective. However a garden such as this has been built with a vast budget, is in a world renowned location and linked to the amazing Annenburg Foundation. Such a garden should be exceptional, not just good and to my mind that's where it stands.

Will I return? Yes certainly! I've already told Philip that he must visit when the palo verdes are in bloom to get some pictures for me, as I will be back in the UK by then. When I return to the desert next autumn, I'll make another visit and see how this garden has matured - after all it is only about a year old and great gardens are never finished!