Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer's Bounty

Last month, while visiting in New York we came across a wonderful patch of Hollyhocks not far from the shores of Lake Ontario. The patch was about 50 feet of assorted hollyhocks and daylilies. Hollyhocks are plants either do great or wither and die before making a substantial contribution. These plants were magnificent! They stood about six to eight feet tall and were all in bloom. My friend RJ was trying to coax similar plants in his new garden in Rochester. His were only a few inches tall! Somewhere between Rochester and this spot near the Niagara Peninsula there was magic afoot. Looking slightly behind were even more wonderful plants in an even greater bounty: Queen Anne Cherries.

Three Cherry trees stood by the side of the road neighboring what was a residential area in the middle of farmland. These trees were ready to explode with fruits and were just ripe for eating. Upon closer inspection we came across the owner of the property stuck up in a latter harvesting his bounty. Quick to react to the tourist we were he offered to sell us some. Our host was an 86 year old gentleman farmer. Born and raised in the region and doing what he liked best: farming! Before too long we had shared some tales of travel and gardens and we were off with multiple bags of fresh perfectly grown and ripe Queen Anne Cherries.

The return trip home continued along the shores of Lake Ontario to Rochester's Ontario Beach Park to discover another of Philadelphia's Carousel playing its role for the Summer Season. As you can see few people were enjoying its dizzying magic of going round and round to an old fashioned calliope.

My greatest adventure was a quick visit to the George Eastman House (founder of Eastman Kodak). The visit was to be very fast as the rest of our visitors marched to the beat of their stomachs. Thankfully, my friend RJ, who knows of my love of great old house gardens, insisted we take a quick walk around the house. The results were as marvelous as they were short. As it was past 7 there was no one around and we literally had the site to ourselves. The house is (I dread to say it) a Colonial Revival house sitting on about ten acres that serves as a cultural center to Rochester. It is not a real colonial but the best that money could buy in its day! It is a major museum with all kinds of amenities. Check it out: The garden is formal English in nature with multiple walled in rooms, sunken gardens, pergolas, fountains, trellis rooms, rock gardens and you name it! Best of all, are the old trees on the property planted during the early days; they are quite spectacular.

I believe that we spent about 15 minutes touring the garden before running off to fuel the hungry. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful visit. Maybe, better in many ways because I did not have the time to linger and criticize or redesign parts of it in my mind.
By the way, I received an update from RJ that his hollyhocks are growing just fine. Given Rochester's growing season I hope they are well along by now for they will soon be history.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Other Gardens

My back has been on the fritz this week so I have spent quite a bit of time on my back reading. I have been re-reading The Tales of the City series of books from my youth by Armistead Maupin. I lived in San Francisco when Armistead was writing these as installments in the San Francisco Examiner. They are a commentary on the lives that many of us led at the time and it is all so much fun to regain entry into that past. Soon after Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated many of us felt that the dream was gone and we left San Francisco.

I returned to Los Angeles, where I had, mostly, grown up to re establish my life there as well as what was to be my first in-ground garden. My first garden, I had kept cymbidiums on the fire scape of my San Francisco apartment, no doubt against the law. These large orchid plants loved the cool evenings and the often sunny days in The City.

The return to Los Angeles was not easy or direct. I had tried, in vain, to reestablish a romance in Brussels where I spent better part of a year. The return to Los Angeles took me to my mother's large apartment in Atwater. This section of Los Angeles was known for its unusual Egyptian styled houses and as the home of the old Franciscan Pottery. The move home was a difficult one. I had to admit failure and regroup. Fortunately, my mother saw this as a great opportunity for us to be together. She and I became best of friends and developed the best relationship imaginable. I did not linger long in any depressive state. I was almost 30 and there were worlds to conquer and a house to buy.

I had given myself a deadline to buy my own house by saving what amounted to $300 a week until I raised $15,000 for a down payment. The sum would take almost a year. In Los Angeles you could still buy houses for a reasonable sum of money in the early 80's. I wanted everything and had very little to spend.

I spent weekends with various Realtors. They all showed me houses with questionable wall paper, carpeting and chandeliers but their pitch was always about how wonderful all these amenities were. The houses were shit but in their mind the wallpaper, carpeting and chandeliers made up for it. I realized that I would never get much so I would have to settle for location, character and possibilities and in March 1982 I saw such a house.

The ad in the paper described it perfectly "arty hill-top home." It was a mess! Did I say it was a mess! It sat on a small flat footprint at the top of Alvarado Street at the Corner of Cerro Gordo (fat hill in Spanish). It was a few blocks away from the silent movie era Hal Roach studios where the Laurel and Hardy and the Keystone Cops had chased pianos and each other in those incredibly steep hills. It had a view (on a clear smog-less day) of all of Los Angeles from the Hollywood sign down to Catalina Island.

Louise Martinez, the owner, was by any description a Bohemian. She had quite a flair and saw in me either as a sucker or someone to take over her hill-top kingdom. The house was in no condition for normal bank financing so she had managed to put together a package to finance it herself and live off the interest. I was young and crazy enough to find the deal and the finally agreed price acceptable - $75k. I gave my down payment and had a very little mortgage to pay off; although I had everything in the world to do, to make this house and its future garden mine.

The house had a few great panes of glass that once opened up would take in the views. There was a large Agave americana that took up two parking spaces. Huge patches of Opuntias that produce the cactus apple and the nopales favored by Mexicans clung to the dry hilltop rock hard clay terrain. The beautiful powder blue Plumbago was the groundcover. Masses or a very tenacious reed existed in on the slope where I later found out the sewer leaked. Three or four old Eucalyptus had been butchered and I thought they might recover. There was a massive overgrown patch of irises that smelled of salami. The piece de resistance was a hedge about 130 feet long of Jade Plant. It stood about 4 feet tall and mostly encircled the front of the property. When I first saw the house it had been in bloom and it looked like it had snowed in LA.
Everyone I knew thought I was crazy for taking this amount of work on. Yet, I did and I still get the same reaction from new friends when I propose new ideas or far flung projects. I have, by destiny and reality been given opportunities to have choices. I have tried to make lemonade out lemons. Sometimes the ade has been sweeter than others but while I have been trying it has been fun. I am not much into laying about and doing nothing.

As an aside which got me to Blog on this topic, I had mentioned re-reading the Tales of the City books. When that series was made into an American Playhouse PBS production it was filmed down the block from my old house. Sometimes in life you get a complete circle...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Say What?

Downpour in the Garden

On August 8, Michael Bruce and I were featured in an article in the Courier Post about two gentlemen who had “cut out their lawns”. The article entitled “Shaggy Gardens” by Renee Winkler (goodluck getting to website) is a term quoted from a conversation between the author and me, that describes part of my philosophy on gardening: Gardens look best when they are not manicured and have a leftover shaggy look. The article although flattering in nature did not mention much about why two plant professionals, a renowned florist and a landscape architect, might have chosen this approach. Having drinks with my friend Elena, she complained about missing context. Her mind, that of a lawyer, immediately went to the crux of the matter on what was missing from this article. The history of lawns and the statistics of lawncare: pesticide overuse, acreage allocation, energy utilized to maintain.

I understand why a local newspapers might not want to deal with hard facts instead of feel good stories: decline in circulation, apathetic public, etc, etc. I am not a professional writer, nor am I making a statement on the writers and editors of this article, but it makes you wonder why bother writing a meaningful story and then place it on the Saturday paper if you can’t give your writing public something more than fluff and pictures?

Lawns in America are the democratic response to a European leftover practice employed by farmers and nobles alike that started in the Middle Ages. The word lawn is an old English and Dutch derivative place name where animals went to graze. These naturally occurring Lawns were maintained by grazing animals (horses, sheep, cattle or other livestock) and were made up of multiple species of plants and grasses (like meadows). Nobles enlarged their domains by bringing the lawns close to their houses for the natural landscape effect and using animals as lawnmowers! With the invention of the push lawnmower in the early 1800’s the expanse of lawns grew from what was traditionally kept by animals and an army of serfs with scythes.

The lawnmower evolved from a mechanized blade to steam, to the gasoline powered engine to the electric quieter motors and some of the solar mowers we have today. Americans did not believe in serfs and we are an industrial power so our thinking brought about a multitude of practices that eventually included: a cheap lawnmower for everyone, specialized lawn seeds for specific applications, fertilizers to make these deficient lawns grown and herbicides to kill anything other than the few select grasses in lawn mixtures to thrive.

Statistics vary but I will give you a few that I have found. For some further insight check out:,content=381 . Regardless which statistics are correct, the numbers are impressive. Americans spend 40 billion dollars on lawncare and as the population ages more money will be spent.

  • 80% of all U.S. households have private lawns
  • Average American lawn is between 1/5 -1/3 acre
  • In the U.S, alone, it is estimated that there are more than 31 million acres of grass (An area equal to the New England states. Over 80% of this grass is found in residential lawns.)

Similarly, pesticides and fertilizers are a major concern to our environment and have been the panacea to the American Lawn. Concerns over the runoff of these chemicals from our lawns into our water worry many. Studies have been done linking algal blooms with too many fertilizers. Often, we turn a blind eye to many things we don’t want to understand or hear. Yet there are many concerned parents that are wondering the wisdom of bringing in a specialist lawn care provider with a chemical soup that is quickly applied to the benefit of having a rich green lawn so their children can go romping in it minutes later. As a child growing up in Cuba, we kids would wait for the moskito fog truck to come by so we could play soldiers in the mist! Wonder the chemical makeup of the fog and what effects it has left? It is no wonder that Canadian provinces and many European governments are banning the use of chemicals applications to lawns.

Finally, lawns cannot grow everywhere without major rainfall or irrigation. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where a lawn can exist naturally enjoy it while you can. With tightening water restrictions due to drought, population growth or other limitations we shall see the price of water continue to rise to levels not imagined.

I wanted to make a point about the Courier Post article that simplified my reasons for not having a lawn. I have not dealt with the time it takes for upkeep or that it is just a lawn and not more. Please note that I am not on a personal vendetta against lawns. They have a place, if a limited one. I recognize that golfers in wet Scotland invented a scenic sport around it; children, dogs, picnics and lovers need it for fun and frolic. I simply choose not to be a slave to one.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Meanwhile Back in the Garden

It is the first week of August and the garden seems a little spent and mainly green. We are having one of the best summers I can remember. The rain has come down in torrential buckets at times and has taken enough of a break to come back again when needed. This said, lately the rain has come a little more frequent, but given the heat the plants can sure use it. It is hard to consider but we are part of the Tropics during this season: humid, hot and sunny. Plants, for the most part love it.

A few weeks ago the garden was a lot more colorful with a sea of Daylilies towering about 4-5 feet above the ground. With a combination of Bee Balm and some straggling roses it created an opportunity artists to take advantage. The weather had been warm and dry and really wonderful for weeks on end. So outdoor lunches and visits to the garden to draw or read and relax were numerous. Often times, the only place that is comfortable in the garden in Summer is under the willow by the pond. Here, the tree canopy creates a magical breeze not found elsewhere. It was nice to regain the entire garden for outdoor activities during these weeks.

Vori installed himself on the walkway and in an afternoon cranked out a wonderful crayon-pastel rendering of the garden. Julia and I have been on his case about selling his art. He is immensely talented, but like many an artist he creates it for himself and is often unsure of how his product comes across. I can tell you he is good, very good at that. I may have to photograph some of his portfolio and put it on the blog.
Many years ago I visited a couple in the Washington DC area where I discovered a wonderful plant. The Japanese anemones grew in this magnificent wet garden near the Potomac River. Here banks of pink and white Anemones were floating, not unlike my Daylilies, on long stems with delicately shaped flowers that also resembled Japanese Irises with those floppy petals. The two ladies that called this garden home, immediately brought out a spade to split out a plant for me to take. I was thrilled and took the plant home to another garden that I shared.

The plants never grew very much in this garden because it was very sandy and they managed to grow but not like in Washington DC. Eventually, when I bought my house I dug up these puppies and moved them to a shady location but a dry one at that (see all the knowledge you think you have sometimes goes out the window!) The Anemones fared better than before but never really made a spectacular showing. Last season I dug them out, as many as I could find
and relocated them off the main bed in the back where it is sunny and wet. This year that plants have flourished and are showing many buds. With any luck it will be a good season for them as well. They should bloom later but to tell you the truth I have not cared for them closely where they were so I am not sure exactly when to expect them.

I am a glutton for work at times. I love Crotons (pictured above) but they don't like to overwinter in dark places. I grew up with them in Cuba where they were used as hedges ten feet tall. There, you could snap a branch and stick in the ground and it would grow! My Mother, in Los Angeles, had the ordinary ones you buy in grocery stores. She had bought this little ball shaped plant a foot tall and grown it to a monster of about five feet tall.

When my Mother died I brought her plants East. I felt a responsibility to continue growing something that she had cared for so lovingly for so many years. Her Malanga (a form of tropical ivy also sold in grocery stores) has managed to grow ten years after her passing. Other plants I brought from her balcony grew so large that I donated to conservatory gardens. Her Croton somehow, I managed to kill. Fortunately I managed to make enough cuttings that I handed to friends so I can at some point get a plant from the original back. Julia has one that has grown larger than my Mother's original plant. Last time I saw it it was almost 7 feet tall. I think this may have something to do with women and how they care or not for plants. I know it sounds sexist but what can you do?

So when I was visiting my cousins in Tampa I found this strange little Croton that I do not remember from the tropics. It has skinny leaves and maybe it will require less light to overwinter during our grey period. I will try and give this one a go before I lay claims to some of Julia's cuttings. I will tell you that upon close inspection it already seems to be providing home to mealy bugs so I have my work cut out.