Princesses of the prairie…

There are over 250 species of penstemon with precious few commonly available in American retail garden centers. Although growing in popularity due to their somewhat xeric nature, most are still only available through specialty growers. Commonly called beard tongue in reference to their bell shaped, lipped flowers their native habitats range from Canada to Mexico and through all types of terrain. A number of species are native to the American midwest and thus the characterization of prairie perennials has stuck with me. Most species have narrow, pointed leaves which are larger at the basal clump and smaller on the flowers stems.  The need for fast drainage spans the genus–heavy wet soils will shorten their lives considerably.

A struggling clump of Penstemon digitalis ‘Red Husker’ was my introduction to the genus in the early 2000s. I had read about the cultivar being named the 1996 Perennial Plant of the Year and was easily able to find it at my local nursery. The heavy, almost always wet soil of my Georgia garden was not the best fit for its cultural needs and although I got lots of leaves and flowers, the bloom bearing stalks always laid on the ground! And so I wandered away from the penstemon world, my interest being rekindled when the intrinsic nature of my more alkaline, less humid garden canvas seemed to be an environment more friendly to this diverse group.

Penstemon x mexicali ‘Red Rocks’ was the first addition to my current garden. The original colony has waxed and waned over its 7 years, having been progressively shaded out by a large Raywood ash tree. The mexicali hybrids have some of the finer foliage and smaller flowers of the genus but are prolific bloomers.


Many of the penstemon hybrids, commonly called border penstemon or garden penstemon, have large exuberantly marked flowers. Hybrids in this group are tall, quite upright and bushy plants, often 3 feet or more tall and wide.


This clump of  Penstemon ‘ Midnight’ was  cut to the ground a couple of months ago and  is now coming into it own again. The flower stalks exceed 40″ tall and the individual blooms are heavily marked with white.

Penstemon Midnight

I don’t know who Bev Jensen was but she must have been one flirty girl to have this gorgeous raspberry penstemon named after her! Wide, heavily marked blooms and ramrod straight stems make her a standout in my garden. Be cautious with fertilizer–penstemons like to live a lean life and excess fertilizer will produce lush growth but minimal blooms.

Penstemon ‘Bev Jensen’

Another favorite is ‘Apple Blossom’. Mature clumps can reach 3 feet by 3 feet and will provide a show all summer long.

Penstemon ‘Apple Blossom’

The pink flower sports a clear white throat and they are especially charming just before they open.


This clump of Penstemon ‘Garnet’ has been a standout in my garden since 2010. I regularly cut it to the ground midsummer, encouraging it to bloom well into fall. The flowers are plentiful although a bit smaller than the last two cultivars.


It does dual duty acting as both a support for gladiolus planted behind it and camouflage for the bare base of a climbing rose.

Penstemon ‘Garnet’

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Above is P. x mexicali ‘Carillo Pink’. It is a little more pale lavender than pink and has taken a couple of years to develop into a strong upright clump.


Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’ above is a current favorite of  California native plant aficionados. It is more adaptable to heavy or clay soils than many of the more showy cultivars. Its name comes from Santa Margarita where the Las Pilitas Nursery is located and the acronym BOP for “Back of Porch” where the chance seedling was discovered growing. Yellow tinged buds open to bright blue flowers tinged a rose-purple color that eventually ages to purple. A more relaxed grower making a tidy mound 18″ by 18″, this cultivar has proven to be both heat and drought tolerant.



My most recent addition is Penstemon hartwegii  ‘Arabesque Violet’. I understand it is part of a series which includes a red and a pink also–keeping my eye out for those! Although penstemons can be less long lived than many perennials they offer great beauty and diversity as additions, even if temporary, to mixed beds and borders. As a group they fall right in line for me with hardy geraniums, veronicas and salvias–I am always excited to find one I don’t have and I can always find room for a new one!

LA dreaming…

There’s not much rest for gardeners in spring! If we’re not working in our own gardens, we are out and about seeing what new design ideas, plants or structures other gardeners have brought to life in their spaces. The gardening community is open and generous and likes nothing more than to share successes and commiserate with other gardeners over failures.

GBFF Judi and I are on the road again in Southern California–this day to Los Angeles for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program.

Those of you who read my series of Mendocino madness posts (June 2016) have all ready been introduced to the Garden Conservancy. For anyone new to the blog or who just can’t remember what it was all about here’s a quick summary straight from this year’s Open Days Directory: “Since 1989, preservation has been at the core of the Garden Conservancy’s mission to save and share outstanding American gardens for the education and inspiration of the public. We have helped dozens of gardens across the country make the transition from private paradise to public garden. We also help to rescue gardens after natural disasters and to rehabilitate public gardens so that they preserve their cultural relevance and where possible, recover the brilliance of their historic designs.”

California has nine Open Days this year with eight taking place in April and May and one in September. Across the United States there are over 250 gardens involved in an Open Days programs in 18 states. The areas in California featured are Mendocino County (2), Pasadena, Los Angeles/Santa Monica, San Fransisco Peninsula (2), Marin County and San Jose. The number of gardens to see on each day varies from 4-7 and you can see all or just one as tickets are purchased for each garden. Funds raised benefit the Garden Conservancy’s preservation projects. Check out the website for more information or go to for dates and locations.

Last year’s Mendocino trip was worthy of a road warrior–the county is quite large (and the gardens were too!) and it was all I could do to even make it to them all on a very tight time schedule. Six of the seven gardens on today’s route are very close to each other, with three on the same street. Six of the seven are very small gardens on small city lots. The one outlier is less than 5 miles north so Judi and I may even get to SIT DOWN for lunch rather than eating on the run!


An amazing 200 year old Quercus lobata, common name valley oak, was both the focus and inspiration for an new drought resistant California native landscape installed to replace a more traditional front garden in 2015-16.


It was not possible to back up far enough within the walled estate to get the entire tree in the photo! We met the the garden’s designer who gave us a little insight into this transformation from broad lawns, camellias, azaleas and seasonal color to the new landscape which, to me, looks exactly like what belongs in front of this home. In addition to the designer, the job had dedicated professionals for the riverbed, lighting, and the permeable decomposed granite driveway.


The hardscape front walkway takes us to a pedestrian bridge crossing a recirculating water feature designed to mimic a stream spilling into a small pond.



I’ll admit to grimacing when I read the garden description of a front yard putting green but I would not have found it had I not been looking for it. It is hidden behind a berm to the right of the pedestrian bridge and almost invisible.


There is a dry stream bed running down into the putting green to soften the look of the artificial turf when it is viewed from the house.



Even the front porch pots, with a variety of succulent and desert plants, reflect the garden’s theme.


Care has been taken to offer a beautiful vista from the home to the street. The driveway blends seamlessly into the landscape.


Santa Monica is filled with interesting small older homes with architectural styles ranging from Spanish bungalows to redwood, glass and corrugated metal modern cottages worthy of the cover of Sunset magazine. The homeowners of our next garden stop purchased an all ready remodeled home in an older established neighborhood. The home’s modern architecture feels upbeat and young. They set about to add garden spaces that would extend their living areas outside, be drought tolerant and very child friendly. Our first glimpse curbside reveals a modern raised bed veggie garden accented by blooming California friendly plant material.


Enclosure for the garden area is provided by a minimalistic low wall streetside and Pittosporum tenuifolium. Australian natives such as the Kangaroo Paws seen in the foreground are becoming very frequently seen in dry California gardens.


I loved seeing a mature specimen of Phlomis purpurea among a group of shrubs in the narrow bit of yard on the driveway side. The varieties with yellow flowers are much more common in the retail nursery trade. I have this variety in my holding area waiting to find a home in the dryer parts of my garden and now have a much better understanding of its ultimate size and form.


Entering the lawn free back garden there is a comfy spot to sit among colorful perennials and dwarf fruit trees. The dark purple blooms of Salvia guaranitica soften the wall of the backyard studio. In the foreground left Penstemon ‘Margarita BOP’ is in full flower. A dark red Anigozanthos, possibly the cultivar ‘Bush Sunset’ draws you into the outdoor living space beyond.


What a great space to host family and friends–plentiful seating and a built in fire pit make this the space to gather on a cool evening!


A unique irrigation system incorporating low volume drip equipment and a weather based irrigation controller  keeps this garden of California, South African and Australian natives in fine form. The urns and rain chains flanking the front door are part of a rainwater catchment storage and reuse system adding to the efficiency of the design.



A small Forest Pansy redbud tree anchors the corner of the front garden. Plants bordering the decomposed granite path include Erigonum grande var. rubescens (red buckwheat), Cistus salviifolius (sage leafed rockrose), Verbena lilacea ‘De La Mina’ and Salvia clevelandii ‘Winnifred Gilman’.


The narrow side yard path to the back garden greets you with a burst of color from Heterotheca sessiliflora ‘San Bruno Mt.’, commonly called beach aster.


A petite patio area accessable from the home or the side path provides a private place of respite. The small scale tree is a Senna splendida or golden wonder senna. My references list this as an evergreen shrub which bears bright yellow flowers. I don’t know if this has been grafted to be a standard or limbed up from its mature shrub form. The low narrow window behind the seating gives the home’s canine inhabitant a view to the garden!


The walled back garden is softened by unthirsty shrubs and trees including the Australian willow myrtle, Agonis flexuosa, in the upper left.

IMG_2435Espaliered Ceanothus ‘Julia Phelps’ will provide bright blue flowers behind the raised veggie beds–check out that monster artichoke!

Bloom of Grevillea ‘Pink Midget’


A diminutive home surrounded by colorful courtyards aptly describes where garden designer Nancy Goslee Power makes magic for her clients and hangs up her own gardening gloves. Known for her work at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the outdoor learning environment at LA Kidspace and many other public and private gardens, we found Nancy to be charming, approachable and very at home in her (at the same time) formal, chaotic, lavish, discreet and quirky garden. Her New Orleans style cottage sits high above the street and  bears the bold colors of her travels to foreign lands.


After a short climb we reach the door to the lower courtyard–barn red with an opening just large enough to get a little peek.


The lower courtyard is lushly green with more plants than I could ever identify growing just about however and wherever they desire. A romantic balcony overlooks the garden and its twin water features. We were invited to enter the back courtyard via her cozy home. I was excited to be able to purchase her 2009 book Power of Gardens and have her inscribe it for me. I have her first book, The Gardens of California, published in 1995 and it is a classic in the garden design field.


From the open front door you can see straight through the cottage to the focal point of the back garden courtyard–this charming pond and fountain. They are built against the side wall of the back cottage which was originally her college age son’s quarters and now is used as a studio. Pots overflow with annuals, perennials and houseplants needing a respite outside. A seating area nestled up against the home is a perfect vantage point to wind down after a day’s work, cooled by the breeze and climbed by the water.


A shady path leads to the small back cottage which also has a view back into the courtyard.


Even the VERY narrow side yard has style! River stones set in a herringbone pattern lead us back to the front courtyard. Meeting Nancy in the setting of her own charming garden was the highlight of today’s tour.


Landscape Architect Tom Rau, who specializes in waterwise, environmentally friendly and sustainable landscapes, had a hand in all of the last three gardens. His own garden features a sedge meadow inspired by the “American Meadow” designs by John Greenlee and installed in 2011.



Many of the garden’s existing mature plants were kept and a variety of California native and climate appropriate perennials, ferns, bulbs and grasses were added.


Salvia clevelandii has it own way with the back garden, sharing space on several levels with other large scale unthirsty plants. The plant diversity and cover attracts many birds and other wildlife.


Green layers in many forms, textures and colors rise right up to the horizon !


This front garden was redesigned and installed in 2015, removing the turf and replacing it with a colorful assortment of Mediterranean plants, succulents and California natives.


As with the first garden of our day I found this garden to be in totally harmony with the modern architecture and palette of its home. It was visually very pleasing and felt as cohesive up close as it did from the curbside.


This broken concrete serpentine seat wall creates a buffer between the garden and the street.


Between the seat wall and the street, retention basins for two rain gardens have been constructed. The plant materials in these gardens benefit from the runoff from the roof and side yard (both prone to flooding) and filter out pollutants .


Stunning purple Pacific Coast Iris provide contrast to the predominantly warm color palette.


We end our day just across the street from the two previous gardens. In contrast to those lots, this garden was steeply sloped both in front and back. The back garden was the highlight for me.


This slope was previously overwhelmed with colonies of Pride of Madeira and Matilija poppies. Both colonies were thinned in 2014 and the slope was replanted with drought-tolerant plants including lavender, agave, salvia, ceanothus and Santa Barbara daisy. A winding staircase was installed to allow access to the hillside–I am sure the view is fabulous! The turf was replaced with native sedge, Carex praegracilis.


This large agave anchors a raised succulent area at the base of the retaining wall.


A water feature flanked by two Cercis occidentalis (native redbuds) was added to complete the transformation.

It was on this calming note, Judi and I ended our whirlwind weekend garden hopping and headed back home to Orange County. We successful out ran the rain both days and did not get really lost even once–and yes, you can still do that with GPS.

Soon I’ll head back to my own garden dreaming of plants I’d like to try and ideas for new gates and trellis work. While the gardener still lives, a garden is never done!

Cruising to the finish line…

We’ve had a late lunch on the run and are climbing high into the hills as we wind our way toward the last three stops on our 2017 adventure on the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour. Many years of garden road trips have taught us to start with the stop farthest from home, doing the longest driving BEFORE the gardens open. The obvious bonus is that when we are dog tired at the end of the day it is a faster trip home to put our feet up!


This multi-level garden sits on about an acre and a half on a north facing hill. The homeowners have been gardening this plot for over 30 years and have developed distinct areas to meet their specific needs and desires.

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You can see from this glimpse of the front steps that these gardeners have encountered and met many challenges on this very steeply sloped lot.

The enclosed garden we reach at the top of these steps is filled with succulents, roses and perennials. It is a very mature garden as witnessed by a very tall Brugmansia or angel’s trumpet. The palette is muted and the garden seems to meld with the hill at points. The plant on the right is labeled ‘European swamp iris’. The foliage and form is more like the Dietes genus in which we find the so-called Moraea iris but I can’t find anything in that group either that has this type of flower. This is where botanical names can really be of benefit–if I would like to add this to my garden I need to know what it really is if I am to have any chance of finding it!

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A steep set of homeowner built stairs leads up to a yet another level. Conifers and evergreens give this area lovely dappled shade and add to the sense of the garden rising to the clouds.

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This Queen Anne style gazebo was built to taken advantage of the view of the foothills. Also on this level is a small greenhouse where the homeowners propagate cuttings of native plants destined for Peters Canyon Regional Park.

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A second waterfall drops into a large pond which offers refuge and sustenance for local wildlife.

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A grouping of recreated Old West buildings serves as a fun play space for the grandchildren.  There is nothing manicured about any of these garden spaces but it is obvious that this garden is loved and has been developed as a restful haven for its owners and their family and friends.


The expansive nature of this garden is not readily apparent from our first glimpses. A spot at the end of a cul-de-sac results in multiple, private garden spaces on three sides of the large home.


Leaning heavily on tropicals and blooming shrubbery to fill its massive beds, this garden feels very ‘green’, cool and restful. This beautiful stonework is carried through both the front and back gardens acting as a tie that binds the various garden spaces together.


The homeowners graciously invited garden visitors to approach the open front doors and feel the ambiance of the garden as it is seen from the main living areas. Soothing sounds of water greeted us at the front porch.


One of several mature carob trees, Ceratonia siliqua, stands in place as a sentinel at the side gate. This architectural tree reinforces the tropical feel and provides a bit of softening of the long block wall.


This great potting area was secluded enough to make a mess when you need to and had  running water, too!


This is the first of many entertaining areas. The symmetry of the pergola and long center water feature is classic. The beautiful stonework is flanked by deep beds of Agapanthus just starting to send up budded stalks. So sad not to see this in full bloom. This area would stand alone as a lovely back garden!


A wide stone path winds into the main part of the back garden. On the right there is a diminutive privacy garden visible from the master bath.



This bright white Bougainvillea will eventually cover the wall, further softening the stucco.


The flagstone path opens out into the expansive lawn area central to the back garden. The perimeter has been landscaped using large scale shrubs and trees, offering a true sense of enclosure and privacy. A very tall shade structure shelters a dining area removed from the home’s main patio space.


Tall palms define the patio area attached to the home. Ample seating and a full outdoor kitchen complete this entertaining space.


A flagstone path mirroring that on the other side of the grassy space carries us along the side of the home toward the street. A manicured golf practice area is set up, ready for its next duffer! A bench from Taos, New Mexico, offers a spot to sit under the shade of a coral flowered bougainvillea and watch the play.

Although very large, these gardeners have reduced needed maintenance by selecting carefree plant material known to thrive in the mild Orange County weather. This is truly an entertainer’s garden with numerous places to relax, eat and play.


These gardeners recently removed a more conventional front garden and replanted the space with California friendly plants and a petite dry riverbed.



A climbing rose, ‘Polka’, secretes a cosy front courtyard from street view.

A narrow side path leads to a small back patio from which the gardeners can enjoy their garden. The steep slope beyond their fence expands the feels of this compact garden space exponentially.



This garden boasts a riot of color. The path you can catch a glimpse of is a reflexology path and meant to be walked barefoot. I fell in love with this beautiful lavender poppy!



The exuberance of this garden was charming and the space was a great example of gardeners just making their gardens feel good to them as they happily dig in the dirt!

So ends another year for the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour. I have many happy memories of finding an interesting new plant or just the right bit of garden art–going to Heard’s Country Gardens was an eagerly anticipated event in the 1990s for me and my gardening girls. The nursery is gone but Mary Lou is in our hearts forever.

Mary Lou #2…

Still road tripping on the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour 2017!



This front garden is a riot of color, scent and wildlife and is designated a WWF Monarch Way Station. The nasturtiums weave their way through, up and over star jasmine used as ground cover. A punch of purple is provided by Durant erecta (or D. repens depending on your references material) whose inflorescence is seen below.


A secondary path spans the front allowing you more opportunities to watch the birds and butterflies partake in all this garden has to offer.


The side yard has been used equally  well with a variety of vines, perennials, ferns and lots of interesting art and artifacts. Layers of plant material give you a sense of enclosure and privacy in the back garden which features a calming Koi pond. The gardens are completely self constructed, including the pond and hardscape.




The homeowner’s legacy as an art teacher is seen throughout with her own work and pieces from her former students. I was really taken by this series of little sculpted heads used as a border! As we exited the back garden she invited us to do a little chalk art on her wall by drawing our favorite flower.



Father and son worked together over a number of years to create a backyard haven for their turtles and Koi. They designed and built multiple ponds, large and small, and even chronicled their progress on Instagram. The ponds wind through a myriad of plant materials with a decidedly tropical flavor.




Bravo to working together to create something beautiful and sharing it with all of us!


Calandrinia grandiflora



Garden rooms filled with roses, hydrangeas and other colorful perennials flow from front to back offering many places to relax, dine and entertain. This gardener sought to blur the lines between indoor and outdoor living spaces as well as provide feelings of enclosure and privacy while indulging her love of all things flowering.




Sculpture graces many of the gathering spaces. The soothing sounds of moving water are everywhere.


I’ll feature our last three MLH garden stops in my next post. After a fortifying meal and a good night’s rest, Judi and I hopped back in her car the very next day to take in seven gardens showcased at The Garden Conservancy’s Los Angeles Open Day, May 7. Stay tuned!

Remembering Mary Lou…

In 1993, Westminster nursery owner Mary Lou Heard dreamed of a garden tour by real gardeners and for real gardeners–a tour “for the rest of us”–and so this annual self-guided tour began. Mary Lou’s store, Heard’s Country Gardens, had become a much beloved place where plant people worked, laughed, shopped or just stopped by to say hello since its opening in 1985.

There were no tickets, only free will offerings to benefit Mary Lou’s chosen charity, Sheepfold, which provides hope and safe refuge for mothers in crisis and their children. After the closing of the nursery in 2002 due to Mary Lou’s illness and her death shortly thereafter, the fate of the tour seemed uncertain. But those who loved Mary Lou were determined to celebrate her life and her contributions to the gardeners, moms and kids of Orange County and refused to let her legacy be lost–and so, the tour goes on! You can visit the tour’s website at to find out more about Mary Lou’s life and see photos of previous years’ tours.

The forecast was rain, wind and possible thunderstorms for the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour 2017. These dire predictions did not deter my gardening BFF, Judi, and I from pouring over the online and print guides detailing this year’s 42 open gardens, sorting out those we both had seen in previous years and finally arriving at our short list of 7 from which to map our route. There are Saturday only, Sunday only and open both days locations. We only have Saturday to tour so it was crucial to plan our time wisely. Seven stops were soon ready for the GPS!


To give every garden its due, I’ll split our day into three posts starting with a wonderful garden filled with plants, animals and artistic garden inspiration.


The addition of four young dogs kept this verdant and tranquil garden off the tour for the last two years. GBFF Judi said it was not to be missed and she was so right! In the owner’s words “California water-wise and drought tolerant plants were once the focus of  our yard but now dog-wise and dog tolerant plants are a definite must.”

The garden is a spectacular example of the garden design principles of unity, order and rhythm. The owners have chosen to use massed groupings of harmonious plant materials which flow through the space and carry your eye and interest along for a restful ride. Foliage plants which form the foundation for the garden include many species of Japanese maples, both planted in the ground and in interesting troughs and bowls; cultivars of Pittosporum tenuifolium; Duranta repens (or erecta depending on your references) ‘Variegata’ and ‘Gold Mound’; Philadelphus, commonly called mock orange; boxwood and many more. Walk with me through this lovely outdoor space, home to gardeners, Koi, pups, a ‘take no prisoners’ turtle, brother and sister rabbits, lovely song birds, garden art and inspiration.

An attractive, undulating brick road takes us from the street in to the garden
The lime foliage of Duranta repens ‘Gold Mound’ weaves throughout the garden 
An organic path from brick walkway back into the front yard—love this!
The bright white flowers of many mock oranges seem to light a path through the dappled shade


One of many exquisite potted Japanese maple specimens
The first of several spots to relax or entertain
A beautifully done Koi pond wanders down the side yard
Charming vignettes abound at every turn
Home to two lucky BIG bunnies


A little way station for new additions to the garden
Bold foliage in contrast to the finer variegated leaves of Duranta ‘Variegata’–I think the round ones are ligularia
Soothing water feature made with organic materials
From the sunnier side 
The aviary
Two more places to relax and enjoy the surroundings
A second river rock Koi pond 
Just right for your morning coffee
This pergola adds height to this side of the central patio space 
Pale greens light up the side of the house–small raised beds offer opportunities to add seasonal color
Geranium ‘Miss Heidi’ (pink flowers) and golden oregano fill in around the permanent plantings
We’ve come full circle back to the front sidewalk

It was so difficult to pare my photos of this garden down to just these–I did not want to leave any of them out! This beautifully designed and maintained garden was a joy to see and so full of inspiration, from the art and artifacts to the restrained palette and mass plantings. It is very pleasing to the eye and, according to the resident gardeners, will continue to grow and evolve as they do.

A Year in the Garden…Filoli in May

It was well past 80 degrees at 10:10 am when I pulled into the lot at the Filoli Visitor Center–an abrupt change in weather from previous class days. It was forecasted to be in the mid 90s at my home some 4 hours away so the 80s looked pretty good to me! California has had a very long, cool, wet spring this year but every gardener I know has been waiting for the other shoe to drop and I think they both hit the floor today!

We decided to flip flop our classroom/garden walk time today in an effort to stay cool but had to do a bit of prep work to get started on our outdoor topic today–Seed Collecting. Instructor Mimi Clarke had pulled together a few materials to walk us through some collecting basics before we headed to the garden. Filoli’s formal gardens have 2  displays of annual flowers each year. All the annuals grown at Filoli are grown from seed by staff gardeners in the greenhouse area and transplanted into the beds en masse. The baby blue eyes and forget-me-nots grown as companions for the spring daffodils and tulips are repeated throughout the garden to connect the various beds as thread connects the squares on a quilt. Additional annuals such as wallflowers, silene and aubretia are used as foreground fillers. All these spring annuals are sown in fall, thinned and potted up in cell paks and are all ready in the ground and blooming when the garden reopens in February each year. Just now the staff gardeners are watching their decline and will collect their seed at the optimal time, pull out the plants and replace the display areas with summer blooming annuals.

A refrigerator kept at 40 degrees in our potting shed classroom is the repository for the seed wealth of Filoli’s gardens. Envelopes of collected seed are labeled and stored in plastic bins. Any purchased seed is stored here also.

Mimi demonstrates an easy way to germinate seeds at home using styrofoam seed starter sets which wick up water. These styrofoam sets have been used at Filoli for decades and many garden catalogs have similar sets for sale.


We do a quick review of the two types of seed dispersal mechanisms we learned in Basic Botany–dehiscent and indehiscent. Dehiscent seeds are ones whose seed coating (called the testa) splits along the seam when the seeds are mature and shatters, releasing the seeds.  The testa on indehiscent seeds remains intact and the seed collector must physically separate the seeds from the chaff when dry. Knowing which type of seed dispersal is associated with the plant you want to propagate is crucial for timing seed collection. Once the dehiscent seed’s testa has split, the seeds may be lost. You must collect these BEFORE the split and then let them ripen in paper bags until the seeds are released. Armed with paper envelopes and bags, we are off!


Remember Viola cornuta ‘Jersey Jem’? Filoli’s signature viola is unavailable commercially. We comb through the leggy and declining plants filling our bags with seed heads. Mimi told us the staff gardeners will remove the entire plant within the next couple of weeks, bag them in large grocery sacks then store them in the potting shed’s dark closets until the herbaceous material has dried and the seed cases have popped, releasing the tiny seeds to the bottom of the bag.


We search for mature seed cases of the Nemophila menziesii, baby blue eyes. This annual was not quite ready yet–another week or two will result in many more mature seed heads.


The seed pods for Erysimum (the purple and yellow beneath the tree roses) are very long and slender much like the seed pods for California poppies. We were also able to collect from Aubretia deltoidea, forget-me-nots, and several  columbine and foxglove hybrids. Booty bagged and ready for ripening we headed back for lunch via the rose and cutting gardens.




Garden Design was our afternoon topic. Mimi’s approach was threefold. Good garden design results from order, unity and rhythm.

Order is the backbone or framework of your design and includes establishing a good balance of plants and hardscape/structure, determining the theme and staying true to elements which are consistent with it, and thoughtful choices regarding scale, texture and color.

Unity when achieved is a sense of interconnectedness of the different parts of the garden. Repetition of larger masses of a limited variety of plant material throughout the overall design leaves the viewer with a sense that each vignette relates to another.

Rhythm is also created with the repetition of color, shape or texture throughout a single bed which then relates to the overall design. Consistent, repeated elements allow your eye to move along the vista taking you from one end to the other.


This vista is along the path between the perennial garden and the knot garden above. You can see the repetition of the color of the copper beech tree’s leaves (background) in  the leaves of the nine bark shrub (middle left) and then again in the adjacent knot garden. The trees you see at the horizon are actually quite a distance away and are being used as a ‘borrowed view’ in conjunction with the more recent layered plantings. This vista has order, unity and rhythm!

We spent some time discussing the design process, looking at the factors which will influence the final garden design. I was interested the Mimi had place the architectural style of the house 5th on the list. I think I would have put it at #1 but as we reviewed the list I realized I have been putting the cart before the horse for many years! First up was BUDGET with the caveat to be realistic and not underestimate was is needed for major renovation or redesign and to be sure to allow for the behind the scenes necessities of hardscape, irrigation and lighting. In other words, don’t buy the sofa before you have the floors refinished.

Now determine the INTENDED USE OF THE GARDEN: plant collecting, children’s play, dining, quiet contemplation, etc. Children will have a hard time with a ball and bat in a formal rose garden delineated by boxwood hedges.

#3 INTENDED LEVEL OF INVOLVEMENT IN THE GARDEN: my M.O. has been to create a beautiful but high maintenance garden and then not understand why gardening has become WORK  all of a sudden. Ask yourself if you want to spend every weekend doing routine deadheading, etc. , hand watering in dry times or regular pest/weed management tasks. Asses your life priorities. Be brutal. Be realistic.

Plant choices are crucial in determining HOW LONG TIL THE GARDEN MATURES. Is this your forever house? Are you near retirement? Mimi asks the question, “Do you want to have a stunning garden in five years or a lower maintenance one in twenty years?”

Now we FINALLY get to the style of the home! The garden and home need to work together harmoniously. A desert landscape replete with cacti and bleached out skulls is not such a good fit for a columned colonial manse.

#6 TURF NO TURF? Check back in with the intended uses of your garden and think out of the box to turf alternatives.

Lastly, APPROPRIATE DENSITY: think about your garden’s mature look down the road and use appropriate spacing for plant material. Can you live with some open space now as plants grow into their mature forms in exchange for not having to pull out half of what you planted 10 years down the road?

We finished our discussion with a walk over to the house and had the opportunity of viewing some historical garden plan renderings. Filoli is over 100 years old and as gardens are not stagnant but living, breathing and ever changing there have been numerous plans put forward over its lifetime!

Mimi also introduced us to the Library with its extensive collection of horticulture, botany and landscaping references which are available to be check out by class participants–what a bonus for us.

I’ll close by letting you know I was able to identify the dogwood like tree/shrub included in the pics of the Santa Rita bonus garden in the Gamble Garden post earlier this week. GG17SRbonus8 As I was leaving the house after class I took a quick stroll through the plants available for sale at the gift shop and it was right there. It is Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’, common name Himalayan strawberry tree or evergreen dogwood. Apparently only trees grown from cuttings bloom early in their lives. Seed grown trees  are 8-10 years to bloom. Reference material tells me they are not reliably evergreen but I would imagine there would be little leaf drop in Palo Alto’s temperate climate.

Next up I will be taking in the Garden Conservancy Open Day in Los Angeles and the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour in Orange County–then I will sleep for a week at least!

Gather in the garden…

This was a most appropriate theme for the Gamble Garden Spring Tour, held yearly to benefit the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden in Palo Alto, CA! It was a beautiful spring day as my three garden road trip girls and I strolled the five private gardens and the grounds of Miss Gamble’s 1902 home. This beautiful historic property is open to the public daily and exists solely on gifts and membership, receiving no funds from the city, state or other government entity. A small staff and large cadre of volunteers work diligently to keep the garden in peak form for the enjoyment of all. You can find out more about the Gamble Garden and all they have to offer at or check them out on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.

The Gamble Garden is only a short walk to the Stanford campus and sits on a major road flanked by vibrant residential neighborhoods. Every year I have attended this exceptional tour I leave with the same two lasting impressions: what a diverse architectural and horticultural heritage the neighborhoods represent and how welcoming everyone I encounter is as I walk from garden to garden. 2017 was no exception. It is clear that the neighborhoods embrace and appreciate the Garden in their midst.

Even though only 5 gardens are officially on the tour the walkability of the event gives garden oglers the chance to see many more. I will include pics of my favorites in between the garden descriptions noting them as ON THE WAY.

As our drive was uneventful we arrive about 10 minutes before the gardens opened and decided to walk to the farthest from our parking spot and then work our way back, giving us a chance to see these:


Best front yard veggie garden ever
One of many Spanish bungalows with interesting architectural details



The approach to this garden tells you right up front that there will be a lot to see here! I’ll take help from anyone out there to identify these stately trees bearing huge coral pink inflorescences. As I saw them street side in several places I am sure they are not uncommon to the South Bay area but I could not find anyone who knew even their common name. The detailed stone columns, fence and gate were representative of the attention to detail through the garden.


The charming entrance led us to a diminutive formal front garden. Low boxwood hedging with taller elements at the corners provides year around structure within which seasonal plant materials are featured. The beds are awash with the soft pastels of roses, delphiniums, clematis, gaura and nicotiana. Lush roses climb every available support!

Even the property line fencing was treated as a design element with Ficus benjamina in training along wires highlighting the fence’s cross pieces.


The subtlety of this garden’s palette gives the overall impression of a green and white garden–really reminiscent of many Southern formal gardens.

A narrow side path led us into the expansive back garden which offers multiple areas to relax, entertain and dine.


The garden’s designer, Katsy Swan, softened a very long garage wall by adding a pergola covered with the muted colors of Sally Holmes and Alfred Carriere roses. Little Gem magnolias add height, flanking another spot to relax.


More climbing roses smother a nicely detailed pergola that anchors a corner of the home’s back patio and provides an affirmation of the garden’s aesthetic as you exit through it to the driveway.


My take away from the Santa Rita Avenue garden–the use of consistent plant materials front and back to establish a year around green infrastructure allows you to play with your bed’s contents to your heart’s desire and gives the garden interest in every season. Pay as much attention to the details as you do to the big picture!


The walled garden of the home directly across the street was created by the same designer and the owners were gracious enough to allow tour goers to walk through their beautiful landscape. The continuity of plant material throughout was very pleasing. This garden also had a well thought out green infrastructure around which a succession of seasonal bloom evolved. The palette was muted and very pleasing with the creamy stucco of the home.



The street side of the wall sported predominantly green and white plants. I loved the interplay of the alliums with their round heads and the spiky foxgloves.


The front porch was flanked by these gorgeous Viburnum plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ ,whose natural form creates this layered look. Background right you see Magnolia ‘Little Gem’. Foreground shaped boxwood and some left n a rounder, more natural form and a hydrangea yet to bloom. Take a look at the viburnum’s bloom in more detail below.


This tree was a single specimen anchoring the home’s corner as you exited the walled garden onto the driveway. The flowers look similar to a dogwood but the foliage seems wrong to me–I am really not sure. I took several photos of the bloom in various stages and will check it out with my Filoli teacher later this week. Thoughts anyone?


My take away from this bonus garden–you cannot go wrong with green and white!


A lot going on but it all worked together–great bold fence
Beautiful entrance


This formal garden was inspired by Colonial Williamsburg and includes traditional Southern elements throughout. The small front formal garden is a study in green and white and so heavily shaded by mature crape myrtle trees that it was a challenge to photograph.

GG17 Tennyson1

The VERY narrow side path leading to the back garden was full of interesting plants including Hydrangea petiolaris (climbing hydrangea) rambling up the chimney. Enclosure was provided by ivy carefully trained on a wood and wire structure and there were eye catching elements all along the walk.

The back garden entrance took us through a formal boxwood parterre of Japanese boxwood with English boxwood corner elements. The boxwood were quite tall and enclosed beds of Iceberg roses and camellias. While I liked the concept of this formal area leading you to the more open lawn area I found the paths to be uncomfortably narrow and imagined that pruning the roses closely surrounded by thigh high boxwood would be a challenge!


I can totally see myself sitting on this petite patio enjoying the summer afternoon as the scent of the wisteria envelopes me!

My take away from the Tennyson Avenue garden–think twice about scale and always allow enough room to move around your garden so you and your visitors can enjoy every element.


Who doesn’t look a great looking gable? I know there must have been an incredible garden behind this beautiful gabled gate.

Not enough words to describe this lovely home and garden




Fun and flowers characterize this 1926 Spanish bungalow. The front lawn has been replaced with a Mediterranean feel paver sidewalk and an interesting collection of perennials and small scale shrubs. An sculptured olive tree anchors the corner and along the walk you will find Geranium ‘Rozanne’, echinacea, penstemon, euphorbia and Shasta daisy. Behind the violet flowers of ‘Rozanne’ you can see an young ‘Wonderful’ pomegranate which provides both flowers and fruit.


The tiny back garden had a wide variety of plants, large and small, and lots of found and upcycled garden art. I love this weather vane made from a garden rake!

My take away from the Castilleja Avenue garden–it’s your garden so have a good time with it! While I love the cool serenity of the green and white gardens with touches of muted pastels, this garden probably suits my plant collector style more.


This ultra modern home provides contrast and diversity–the minimal landscape is perfectly suited


Beautiful details on a compact facade


So many interesting thing to tell about this home and garden. Melville Avenue is part of the Professorville Historic District, one of four historic districts in Palo Alto. The homes in this district were built by Stanford faculty starting in the 1890s on lots which were originally part of Leyland Stanford’s farm. You can find out more about this unique district on the Palo Alto Stanford Heritage webpage This stately Victorian was purchased by the current owners in 2011 and was moved 100 feet forward in an extensive remodel to provide space for more back gardens, a guesthouse and a pool.


There are both formal and informal spaces, private and public spaces. The formal areas are characterized by classic bluestone paths and boxwood hedges. A working area for potting up and storage is adjacent to an area devoted to the family chickens. Raised beds and espaliered fruit trees are tended by the owner’s daughter. As you leave these service areas you pass this unique espaliered ginkgo.


As you emerge from the path into the more open space of the back yard, the sense of enclosure and borrowed landscape is tremendous. Groupings of mature conifers, evergreens and hardwoods form a backdrop for the new guesthouse and pool.


The deep side beds which flow the entire depth of the lot are massed with mature trees and large scale shrubs. This is not a garden packed with color but it a very livable garden for both adults and children and a garden that would not have to be meticulously tended everyday to retain its naturalized beauty.

GG17Melville 7

Extensive patio space at the home’s rear (right off the kitchen) is clearly the heart of this yard and is a fabulous entertaining space for family and friends–great wedding location, too!


Everywhere you look there are places to gather in this garden! I could sit on this side front porch all day long and just let the world pass by.


My take away from the Melville Avenue garden–use a large garden space to suit your own needs incorporating features for both children and adults. Keep it simple by layering masses of large scale evergreen and deciduous shrubs. Not all gardens have to overflow with color. Even though very large, I would call this the most low maintenance garden seen today.


Gambrel roofed stone cottage–one of several still blooming cherry trees we saw today


These homeowners have spent 40 years getting their estate garden just right. A series of four garden rooms, each unique in feel, take you all the way around the home.


The completely walled garden is entered under this very large scale wisteria covered arbor. The arbor’s shape is repeated in smaller scale in other parts of the garden. The brick front walk is lined with 80 year old rhododendrons, towering camellias and mature azaleas.


A quick right turn at the front door brings us to the first garden room, an English style garden with a profusion of flowers inside boxwood borders. A red leafed Forest Pansy redbud offers dappled shade and roses climb all the walls. Each season will bring new blooms to life and this area is used extensively for cutting.

Rose ‘Polka’

A short walk on the side path ends in a secluded terrace which the family uses for casual dining.  A marvelous sense of enclosure is created by layers of mature trees on both sides of the back property line.


A  Pieris japonica over 15 tall drips with white blooms and there is a small koi pond.

The third garden room sits behind the garage which is more charming than many English cottages! The grassy area is shaded by dogwoods and Japanese maples. A prized tri-color beech, Fagus ‘Tri-color’, was the inspiration for the redesign of this area. You can see its foliage in the upper right of the photo.


Rounding the garage (which is equally wonderful from the new viewpoint) we enter the pool garden which was formerly an orchard. I realize that having made a full circle, we are actually now back in the front yard! This perfect sunny pool spot with narrow perimeter beds and a single original grapefruit tree can be seen from the home’s French doors. An amazing bright yellow vine covered by bees masses one section of wall.

New to me–the tag reads Macfadyena unguis-cati, common names cat’s claw and yellow trumpet vine. This climber can reach 25-40 feet quickly by hooked, clawlike, forked tendrils. The Sunset Western Garden Book calls it a good choice for erosion control on slopes as it puts down roots wherever stems touch the ground.

My take away from the Coleridge Avenue garden–think out of the box and use all your garden space as private space. A walled garden offers you the opportunity to put your pool where the spot is sunniest–in this case, the front yard!

Whew! I am walked out–how about you? It’s a great time to call your friends and set a date to gather in your garden, big or small, formal or informal, perfectly designed and maintained or in need of a bit of TLC. Gardens are for sharing.