February Garden 2

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

It gets light now soon after the alarm goes off and its not dark until suppertime, but the plants in the gardens have remained at the same stage of development where I left them two weeks ago, when I broke off writing the last entry and abandoned my postings. So I’m going back to where we were.

Here is the growing tip of Heuchera maxima

This plant is as hardy as a weed, tolerating deep shade in front of the house and direct sun in back, no water or plenty of water, as when it grows under redwoods. One of its common names is Alum root. And yet it’s delicate as these velvety hairs on its leaf tips and stems, and therefore it’s also called, Coral Bells, for the lily-0f-the-valley-like blossoms that will spring from these buds.

The flowering time of Umbellularia californica has passed since this picture was taken; some of the tiny blossoms in the inflorescence were already dry then. That lilting scientific appelation is almost as melodious as “Bay Laurel,” its vernacular name, linked with the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which recalls something I wrote twenty three years ago:

Pursuing a youth
made lovelier yet by flight
through woods he runs
imploring recognition.
Outdistanced and breathless
she prays for escape
then stands.
Her heart still beats against his touch
as bark encloses the soft breast,
arms twist into branches
hair flattens to leaves,
and swift feet root underground.
They are crowned
With laurel.

Three bay laurels have been growing in the front for four or five years. They prefer sun and water–you can see them as the lighter-colored foliage in riparian corridors on the hillsides–but here on the north slope they are dry and shaded. One grows under a large liquidambar tree. It’s intended to replace that beautiful non-native if ever it gets tall enough, but that wont happen in my lifetime.

The old Fremontodendron grows dense and low on the steep bank above the wall in front. It turns into a burning bush of gold flowers from April to July. The one I planted recently with the early orange bud needs continuous pruning to keep the path clear.

The one with the large heart shaped yellow bud grows at the top of the hill in back.

These Flannelbush are showy and indestructible, perfect California natives for the garden. I like looking across the valley to Poly Mountain and seeing the clumps of Flannelbush growing there wild. But Flannel is a misnomer. Rather than stroked, their leaves, flowers and stems should be handled with gloves to protect you from their tiny hairs which want to embed themselves in skin.

Creeping mountain lilac or Ceonothus Joyce Coulter is another prolific bloomer, here just about to burst into a rich purple quilt. After the blossoms drop, the leaves remain almost as deep green and shiny all year round as they do here at first emergence.

The same is true for the other five or six other Ceonothuses that thrive in the yard, each different in leaf and growth.

Only one Red twigged Dogwood, Cornus sericea, grows here, cramped between the path and the wall in front. It seems to be capable of putting out new leaves all year long, whenever it rains. When it’s dry, the leaves, which are neither waxy, leathery nor hairy, go papery and fall off, exposing deep wine-colored stems.

The flowers remain packed in tight white bud-buttons during December and January and then burst into bloom lasting only a week or two.

Just uphill from the Dogwood stands a Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis. Unusual for California plants, this one is winter deciduous, losing its leaves in early fall, blooming and regaining them in Spring. The dying leaves, slightly rubbery in texture, take on a touch of
Autumn coloring that reveals a veined and capillaried web on their circular surfaces.

Two weeks ago, when this picture was taken, I hadnt seen traces of regeneration on this tree for months, but since then tiny leaf and bright pink flower buds have started to pop all over the gray bark.

More dramatic suspense was created by the grapevine in the backyard, now about 12 years old and the centerpiece of the arbor on the mid-hill terrace that creates an elegant shady bower in summer and a rich harvest of grapes and raisins. I cut the canes back to old wood to promote new growth and fruiting in November, hesitantly following some website instructions. But when no buds appeared, well after the native California grape along the eastern wall in front had started to leaf, I thought I’d have to pull out the whole venerable stock. I checked and poked everyday for a month, and then the day of the last entry, February 2, I found, two tiny sprouts.

Now two weeks later, I still wait for more.

There’s no new growth yet on the old oaks, the ones I planted seventeen years ago. But several recent volunteer Quercus agrifolia have come into leaf. I marvel at the fragility and tenderness of these infants, knowing that within the next four months they will expand and curl into thick, hard, thorny surfaces. These are the only volunteer natives that have cropped up since I started cultivating natives, testimony I think, to the fact that this north facing slope wants only to be an oak woodland.

Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathecea, has been blooming here since January, almost as early as the Red Currant. I love the delicious pink, magenta and purple colors of its flowers springing modestly, just a few at a time, from teardrop shaped sheaths of its bud clusters.

I love the sticky clear residue it leaves on the fingers when touched, smelling tart and sweet as grape soda. I love its velvety green foliage that returns every year and spreads by rhizomes, overwhelming the dark brittle remaining stalks of last year’s growth. And I love the way it draws the hummingbirds low to the ground under the oaks, where it hides in the shade.

April Sunrise

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

When I opened the curtain at 5:45 there was already a blue-gray glow in the western sky. We’re a third of the way to the solstice. I wont wake up in the dark anymore till August.

I sit in the green plastic Adirondack chair with the big camera beside me waiting for the sunrise over Cuesta Ridge. I’ve come back to it after noticing that the older plant photos on my screensaver have much more depth and brilliance than the ones I’ve taken recently with the point-and-shoot, even though it has higher resolution. It’s the lens stupid.

My perch is a new seat in the garden, three quarters of the way up the bank above the grape arbor at a switchback in the south trail. I decided to carve it out of the adobe clay on Saturday while sprucing up the yard to prepare for our big party this weekend.

Two rock doves clean up spilled seeds under the bird feeder, a hummingbird visits the hummingbird sage, a bee sips at the holly-leaf cherry flowers.

Week 4 of classes, Spring mind bursting with things to say and write and plan and execute.

I’ll be returning to this spot nestled between a Channel Island Ironwood and a Sugarbush.

A temperate dawn soothed by a wisp of breeze, disturbed by the barking dog next door and the hubbub of traffic.

Now the sun paints the east face of Caballo Peak, and now touches the grapevine and the belly of the goldfinch in the pine branch overhead. Now it casts shadows on the path. Now it’s 7:00 o’clock and time to get to work.

But first just a few more pictures.

Native Plants in the Garden

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

  1. Bracken Fern, Pteridium aquilinum pubescens
  2. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  3. Golden Current, Ribes aureum aureum
  4. Clustered Field Sedge, Carex praegracilis
  5. Lemonade berry, Rhus integrifolia
  6. Pink flowered currant, Ribes sanguineum glutinosum
  7. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  8. Manzanita, Arctostophylus morroensis
  9. Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica
  10. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  11. Fuchsia flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum
  12. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  13. Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis
  14. Point Reyes Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Point Reyes’
  15. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  16. Deergrass, Muhlenbergia rigens
  17. Manzanita, Arctostophylus morroensis
  18. Foothill Penstemon, Penstemon heterophyllus
  19. Calfiornia Fuchsia, Zeuschneria

22. Creeping Mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Joyce Coulter

  1. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  2. Coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica
  3. Shagbark Manzanita, Arctostophuylus rutis,
  4. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  5. California Sagebrush, Artemesia californica
  6. Scarlet Bugler, Penstemon centranifolius
  7. Hoary leaf ceanothus, Ceanothus crassifolius
  8. Manzanita, Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’
  9. Black Sage, Salvia mellifera
  10. Black Sage, Salvia mellifera
  11. Holly leaved California Mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Mills Glory
  12. Calfornia Goldenrod, Solidago californica
  13. Leather Oak, Quercus durata
  14. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  15. Manzanita, Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’
  16. California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum
  17. Coyote Mint, Monardella villosa obispoenis
  18. Clustered Field Sedge, Carex praegracilis
  19. Western Alpine Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana platypetala
  20. Douglas Iris, Iris douglasiana
  21. Western Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
  22. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus il15icifolia
  23. Deergrass, Muhlenbergia rigens
  24. Clustered Field Sedge, Carex praegracilis
  25. Purple Sage, Salvia leucophylla
  26. Coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica
  27. Foothill Penstemon, Penstemon heterophyllus
  28. Santa Susana Monkey flower, Diplacus rutilus
  29. Mountain Mahogony, Cercocarpus betuloides
  30. Big Leaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum
  31. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  32. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  33. California Grape, Vitus californica
  34. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  35. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  36. Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica
  37. Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
  38. Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium
  39. California Mountain Lilac Ceanothus Concha
  40. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  41. California Strawberry, Fragaria californica
  42. Douglas Iris, Iris Douglasiana
  43. Snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus laevigatus
  44. Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens
  45. Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
  46. Blueblossom Ceanothus, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus
  47. Black Sage, Salvia mellifera
  48. California Pitcher Plant, Lepechinia calycina
  49. Creeping Black Sage, Salvia mellifera ripens
  50. Hummingbird Sage, Salvia spathacea
  51. Coral Bells or Alum Root, Heuchera rubescens
  52. Western Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
  53. Purple Sage, Salvia leucophylla
  54. Purple Nightshade, Solanum xanti
  55. Yerba Buena, Satureja douglasii
  56. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium californica
  57. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  58. Small leaf mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Julia Phelps
  59. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  60. Blue Oak, Quercus Douglasii
  61. Purple Needlegrass, Stipa pulchra
  62. California Mountain Lilac Ceanothus Concha
  63. Shagbark Manzanita, Arctostophuylus rutis
  64. Woolly Bluecurls, Trichostema lanatum
  65. Mugwort—Artemisia douglassiana
  66. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus Caerulea
  67. Catalina Ironwood, Leonusthamnus floribundus
  68. Small leaf mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Julia Phelps
  69. Spanish dagger/Our Lord’s Candle, Yucca whipplei
  70. Calfornia Buckeye, Aesculus californica


The Wild Braid

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

At the Sierra Club ExCom meeting in March, Cal began with a reading, as is our custom. It was from a new book by and about Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid, A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden.

The garden is a domestication of the wild, taking what can be random, and, to a degree, ordering it so that it is not merely a transference from thewild, but still retains the elements that make each plant shine in its natural habitat.

In the beginning, a garden holds infinite possibilities. What sense of its nature, or its kingdom, is it going to convey? It represents a selection, not only of whatever individual plants we consider to be beautiful, but also a synthesis that creates a new kind of beauty, that of a complex and multiple world. What you plant in your garden reflects your own sensibility, your concept of beauty, your sense of form. Every true garden is an imaginative construct, after all.

I’m not sure if this is the actual passage he read, I was so struck both by the cover image of a bent-over hundred year old man gazing like a lover at his plants and by the recollection that Jan and I first set eyes on each other at a poetry seminar about Stanley Kunitz in 1966. Also distracted back then, I hadn’t paid attention to his writings since. But that book cover brought it together: the passage of time that we were planning to mark in our upcoming 40th anniversary celebration, not yet bent over, but transformed from children into grandparents. I mentioned the coincidence, there were appreciative murmurs, then on we went to discuss the budget.

While Jan made the guest list, mailed invitations, shopped for food, and spruced up the house, I prepared for the party by working in the garden, carving a new path in the adobe clay, trimming lower limbs of the pygmy oaks, transplanting bunch grasses. We were wedded in a garden in our backyard. Now this garden had turned into a setting I wanted to share for a while, just as I wanted to share the private space of marriage. When we arrived here nineteen years ago I knew this was a place I would transform and be transformed in. The change had come to pass.

The invitation to our celebration said “No gifts, but donations welcome to Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club or Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo (ECOSLO).” In the midst of the crowd at the drinks table, Cal handed me a package and said he was sorry to be violating the rule, but please would I open it. It was The Wild Braid.

Three days after the party I was missing classes, in bed with a sinus infection. Between naps, I wandered around in the book, finding poems about gardening and other outdoor experiences, memoirs about circumstances of their composition, prose reflections on their themes“bucolic retreat, cultivation, composting, decay, renewal, and the connections between horticulture and writing. They recalled my first scholarly article, “˜Fortunate Senex’: The Pastoral of Old Age.” Arranged like beds and terraces, I came upon photographs of the ancient sage among the trees and flowers and conversations that took place between him and Genine Lentine, his friend and caretaker during the time between partial recovery from a massive stroke and his death in 2004.
This morning I woke up at 5:15, still not healthy but eager to walk my trails at daybreak. Greeting the yucca, the hummingbird sage, the blue oak, seeing new blooms on the Columbine, I thought again of The Wild Braid. I’d only taken the first stroll through its garden. I’ll return to find paths I’ve missed and revisit familiar spots in changing seasons. Looking ahead, I knew I’d found a guide.

Post script–June 5

Last weekend, Jan made her pilgrimage to Tassajara, the Zen mountain retreat she’s visited every spring for the last 27 years. She was enrolled in a seminar which required her to bring along some poems. With my permission she took The Wild Braid. Upon her return she gave the book back and told me to look at the title page. On it was inscribed “For Jan and Steven–friends in the garden. With bright wishes, Genine.”