The Ruth Bancroft Garden

The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek was the first garden we visited on the third day of the Fling. I found it exciting, surprising, and sometimes entertaining (largely due to the sculptures). I don’t see gardens built around succulents as beautiful, though, and this was not an exception to that rule. I realize there are others who feel strongly otherwise.

agave spike
Agave flower spike.

For me, a beautiful garden is lush, warm, exuberant, colorful. I find succulent gardens to be rather cold, ironically enough. And succulent gardens in arid, forbidding settings even more so. It’s kind of like the difference between a pet cat and a pet lizard. I find cats far more appealing and cuddly. However, I would fight to the death for your right to have a pet lizard.

big aloes

Even so, I enjoyed our visit to this garden, and I’m very glad I got to see it.

The visit was enhanced because it occurred during their annual sculpture exhibit and sale. And speaking of cats, we were tempted to take these home with us, but they were out of our price range.

cat sculpture

At this point I had pretty much given up on trying to remember plant names. I do know that’s a barrel cactus below. If they had given all the plants names this obvious, I might have had a better chance to remember them.

Barrel cactus.

I appreciated the many big, dramatic plants. I’m a sucker for big plants.

weird barrel trees


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The mix of plant textures we found was very intriguing.

russian sage aloe

cactus and tree


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There were some things that were just a bit odd looking.

weird red flower


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You can see we weren’t the only ones taken aback.

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It’s a good thing we did the Ruth Bancroft garden first thing in the morning – it was already hot when we got there. An odd thing about the Bay Area is the vast differences in climate in such a small area. That day it was 105F in Walnut Creek. In San Francisco, less than an hour’s drive away, it was 75F.

Fortunately, this cow was able to stay cool by hitting the surf. Springs made her look like she was rolling with the waves.

surfing cow

The Ruth Bancroft Garden was once farmland where the owners grew apples and walnuts. Ms. Bancroft took a part of the land for her very extensive collection of succulent plants. The farm was eventually rezoned for residential development, but a non-profit organization was given the garden to be maintained and kept open to the public.

weird leaves plant

This is not a native plant garden. Ms. Bancroft travelled far and wide to arid and desert regions in order to obtain specimen plants. A number of plants require protection from the occasional frosts that occur in Walnut Creek.

Delusions of Grandeur?

What’s your reaction when you see fake plantation-style columns in front of a fairly modest home, or a circular driveway in front of a house on a quarter acre lot? Do a bit of eye-rolling, perhaps? Then I must tell you that when I saw the grand sweep of Salvia (known as the River of Salvia) at Chicago’s Lurie garden, I was seized by the absurd desire to imitate this vision.

Lurie Garden Salvia
Lurie Garden’s River of Salvia.

Absurd because I garden on a slightly larger than average city lot. What I did was pull out the Wild Geranium (G. maculatum) that grew in a roughly 3’x8′ sweep along my sidewalk border, and replace it with a mix of Salvia xsylvestris ‘Blue Hill’ and ‘May Night’. This was last spring, and the first summer it looked like this. I like to refer to it as my Puddle of Salvia.

My Puddle of Salvia, 2012.

I knew I needed some perennials planted behind the Salvias, and settled on Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’. These really came into their own this year, making this part of the border look like this.

Puddle of Salvia with Penstemon.
Puddle of Salvia with Penstemon, 2013

This makes for a nice contrast I think, in habit and foliage color, as well as flower shape and color. However, no one would mistake it for Lurie’s River of Salvia.

So is this the horticultural equivalent of fake plantation columns on a Chicago bungalow? I don’t think so. We can be inspired by an element of a garden far grander than our own, then translate that inspiration into something beautiful, genuine, and appropriate to place. In this case, a much smaller mass of Salvia is still beautiful in a city lot garden, especially if it is integrated into the whole and the scale is proportional.


One practical matter I should mention, though. I’ve been bothered the tendency ‘May Night’ has (and ‘Blue Hill’ as well, to a lesser extent) to sprawl and open up in the middle. It happened last year and as a result I cut back both Salvias in early May – but they sprawled again anyway. I’ve resorted to placing 9″ sticks in an X formation along the sidewalk to prop the plants up. This has worked OK without being visible.

Salvia 'Caradonna'
Salvia ‘Caradonna’

To echo the Puddle of Salvia, I’ve put clumps of Salvia in some other beds near the sidewalk. However, I am using mostly Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’, which is purple but also seems more upright.

Have you ever tried to translate something you saw at a famous garden in your own, successfully or not?


So when I got home from work today, I decided I would check on the Cardinal’s nest I wrote about in my last post. As I walked up to the nest, I inadvertently flushed out a female cardinal who exploded out of the tangle of vines. In her absence, I tried to get a look at the nest. Could it be?

Northern Cardinal Eggs

I think so …

Northern Cardinal Eggs

Yes, definitely! At least two cardinal eggs, sky blue with speckles.

Northern Cardinal Eggs

I’m excited! Are you excited? Of course you are!

Here are a few interesting facts about cardinal nests and eggs that I gleaned off of and other sites. First off, it is common for Cardinals to leave the nest for up to six days after it is completed, which explains the “abandonment” I wrote about.

According to “A week or two before the female starts building, she starts to visit possible nest sites with the male following along.” This sounds a lot like what happens when our family moves into a new house. I wonder if they use a realtor.

The female chews on twigs to make them pliable, then bends them around herself to make a cup-shaped nest. The nest has four layers: coarse twigs, a leafy mat, grape-vine bark, and finally grasses and other fine materials. The eggs incubate for one to two weeks, with the female egg-sitting and the male bringing her food.

As for the chipmunk, after discovering the eggs I immediately found my container of rodent repellent and sprayed it liberally on the ground and on the lower parts of the vines. The whole area smells like bear piss right now, but I’m sure that will fade. I also have to hope that the mama cardinal will repel Alvin the Terrible if he is not deterred by the smell. I think I’ll look into chipmunk traps.

In any case, congratulate me! If all goes well, we’re going to have baby birds!

Have you discovered any nests or baby critters in your garden?

The Cardinal’s Nest And The Evil Chipmunk

The prairie rose (Rosa setigera) and the trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) are collaborating nicely to create a viney (not really a word, so sue me) tangle against the back brick wall of our attached garage. The kind of tangle, I hope, that will tempt birds to build nests.

Trumpet Honeysuckles
A tangle of rose canes and trumpet honeysuckle vines.

So we were very happy when we noticed a cardinal flying back and forth to where the tangle was thickest. When I looked there, lo and behold, I did find a nest – no sign of any eggs, though.

Northern Cardinal nest
Cardinal nest nestled among the vines.

A day or two after this discovery, I noticed leaves shaking and wiggling in that spot. Could there already be a juvenile bird?

Sadly,  no. It was a chipmunk. I scared him off by shaking a vine, causing him to leap to the ground right in front of me from a height of about 5′. Kind of impressive, for a chipmunk.


Subsequent checking online revealed a disturbing fact: chipmunks eat eggs. They even eat baby songbirds. That’s what the little creep was looking for.

I always thought there was something sinister under that too cute “Oh, look at me, aren’t I adorable” chipmunk act. Under all that saccharine posing, Alvin and his friends engage in the devouring of helpless baby songbirds.

Alvin the Terrible
Alvin the Terrible. What’s behind that smile?

They are also much better at climbing than I would have ever thought. Apparently the tangles in my garden need to get bigger and thornier before they can be considered safe.

One other thing, though. It seems the Cardinal nest has been abandoned. There is no traffic back and forth. And there are no broken egg shells or anything of the kind.

Available: One nest, never used.
Available: one nest, never used.
Where is your nest now, Mr. Cardinal?
Where is your nest now, Mr. Cardinal?

Has the nest really been abandoned? It seems a shame, and yet perhaps it is for the best, given the presence of Alvin the Terrible.

Have you ever seen nests abandoned before being used – or chipmunk atrocities – in your garden?

Is There A Rosarian In The House?

My ‘Westerland’ rose is not well. This rose grows up one side of the arbor leading into our back garden. I’ve read you can train it as a climber, even though it is not normally considered one.

'Westerland' Rose
‘Westerland’ Rose
nepeta allium arbor back garden may 19 2013
Rose arbor on May 19th.

I ordered this rose from Heirloom Roses in Oregon because I loved the apricot color of the blooms.

However, many of the leaves are discolored  between the veins. Gradually the leaves curl and die from the edges inwards.

'Westerland' rose disease

Also, while some of the flowers and buds look healthy, others seem stunted.

stunted Westerland flower rose diseases

Even the stems seem abnormal in places, with narrow, elongated thorns.

westerland rose diseases

I tried using What’s Wrong With My Plant, by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth to make a diagnosis. I’ve found this book helpful in some other situations, but it didn’t really clarify things regarding ‘Westerland’.

I am particularly concerned because I have a healthy ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ growing on the other side of this arbor. I do not want ‘Westerland’s’ illness to infect DE.

Can any rose experts out there tell me if this ‘Westerland’ can be saved?  I would be very appreciative.

A Sweet Garden

So here’s another garden we saw in the Bay Area during the Fling. This one belonged to garden designer Rebecca Sweet of the blog Gossip In The Garden. This was a garden that conveyed comfort and a green coziness, especially compared to some of the starker California gardens.

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First, the front yard. I loved this front yard. Particularly how the plantings and brick hardscape were used to define the small, round lawn. This turns upside down the usual practice of using brick or pavers to define walks or flower beds. At the same time, I found the use of soft plantings to create a sense of enclosure in the front yard (again, a departure from the usual) very appealing.

Most of the garden was in the back yard. We were still in California, so there have to be succulents. However, the succulents were massed and combined with other types of plants to create more of a sense of abundance.


Toward the back of the garden, there is a sort of one room garden cottage.

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A look inside reveals a one room space that is far more orderly and tasteful than my own house has ever been.


The fences are used to grow various vertical and climbing plants, including roses and oleander.

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There was a very fine fountain.

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The overall backyard is organized around a rectangular lawn, which is surrounded by mixed borders and spaces for family and friends.

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There are nooks where one or two people can relax.

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And a really nice pergola-covered patio adjoining the house. A perfect place for family meals.

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This was a garden I could really feel at home in. However, we all had to return to the coach for the drive back to San Francisco.

My next post: a cry for help from my ‘Westerland’ rose.

Nice Lilies, Dumb Location

My Asiatic Lilies are blooming. Mostly bright orange, some yellow, and a couple of magenta. These are the descendants of a naturalizing lily mix I bought from White Flower Farm about eight years ago.

Asiatic Lilies

The hybrid and variety names are long forgotten.

Asiatic Lilies
I privately refer to this one as “Mr. Magenta”.

I like these lilies. The exciting colors grab my attention. Plus orange is one of my favorites. Their height gives them a certain dignity.

asiatic lily july 13

The only thing is, I planted these lilies in a really dumb place. Specifically, around the drip line of my ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple. When I planted them, the crabapple had not yet replaced the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) we used to have. Originally, the lilies were planted inside the drip line of the eastern red cedar, which is an even dumber place.

Asiatic Lilies
Asiatic lilies with crabapple, seen from sidewalk.

You don’t need to be told why this is dumb, right? Of course you don’t, but I’ll do it anyway. The biggest reason is that the lilies make it much harder to access the tree for pruning, etc. Lilies are unforgiving if you step on them before they bloom.

Also, it makes the ground under the tree a sort of wasted space, at least for part of the year. Finally, the tops of the lilies tend to get mixed up with the branches of the crab.

Why did I do it? Clearly I was suffering from ADHD (Absolutely Demented Horticultural Design) syndrome, but that condition is now controlled with medication.

I would move these lilies, but a) I don’t think I have available space , and b) as a general policy Judy doesn’t like it when I move things, and this is not the sort of thing I can move without her noticing.

Have you ever been unable to fix your mistake after planting something in a laughably inappropriate spot?

The Wave Garden In Richmond Point

The Wave is a private garden overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco Bay

The homeowners bought the lot between their house and the water and turned it into a garden. A great idea, if you have the cash.

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 Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog.

We Flingers got there late in the afternoon. We staggered out of the coaches, hot and tired, yet this extraordinary garden got our adrenaline going. “Can’t give up now,” we gasped. “We must appreciate and photograph this garden to uphold the honor of the Fling.”

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Our sense of mission revived, we set to work.

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The garden features curving concrete walls and walks fit to the contours of the lot. The beds themselves are also terraced.

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There was custom made ironwork for the railings.

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The garden is full of drought tolerant plants adapted to a Mediterranean climate. As I noted in a previous post, I am not familiar with most of the plants found in California gardens, especially the succulents. Helpful Flingers told me some of the names, after which I could remember them for as much as five to ten minutes. Anyhow, here are some of the plants at The Wave Garden.

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I believe that's Verbena bonariensis in the foreground.
I believe that’s Verbena bonariensis in the foreground.

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Oh, I know this one! It’s an Aeonium!

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There were a number of bronze sculptures.

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This is a drought tolerant garden, but also one that requires considerable attention – including some irrigation. Kellee Adams, the landscape designer, told us that there was an ongoing process of editing, as plants were faded away under the harsh conditions or thrived too well.

If I remember right, we were told that a professional gardener devotes about eight hours a week to The Wave, an amount of time that was described as “not enough”. On the other hand, I easily spend more than eight hours a week on my own much smaller garden, so perhaps the wave could be described as “low maintenance”.

From this garden we headed back to the hotel to rest before our Friday evening gathering.

Climbing To New Heights

Many exciting developments in the Garden In A City since returning from San Francisco, hard to know which to write about first. Perhaps the most dramatic involves plants that climb and ramble: My Clematis ‘Jackmanii’, Illinois Rose (Rosa setigera), and Rosa ‘Darlow’s Enigma’. (Alberto – no snide comments, please.)

Clematis 'Jackmanii'
Clematis ‘Jackmanii’

First, Clematis ‘Jackmanii’. I realize there are many other Clematis species and varieties out there that are more uncommon and perhaps more interesting. But still, this is a beautiful plant when it is happy. And ours, planted six or seven years ago, is pretty happy.

In fact, I just had to tie the trellis to the iron railing because the Clematis is threatening to pull the whole thing down. Without the Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) that used to grow in front of it, the Clematis has now covered the whole west-facing wall against which it is planted, and is expressing some interest in taking over the iron railing as well.

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Note the artistically arranged hose at the base.

This Clematis does get plenty of afternoon sun, which is intensified by the white brick wall. The roots are shaded by a Vinca ground cover. I do give it extra helpings of compost and extra drinks of water, which is easy as it is located right next to the outdoor faucet. Otherwise, it gets no special treatment.

Prairie Rose seen from the roof of the back porch
Prairie Rose seen from the roof of the back porch

I planted Illinois Rose (Rosa setigera – also called Praire Rose) three years ago in a southwest facing corner. It is mingling nicely with a Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Illinois Rose is a native wild rose that will climb, and ours has climbed the water spout almost to the roof of our back porch.

Illinois Rose
Illinois Rose from ground level.

This is the first year our Illinois Rose is flowering freely. The show has just begun, as there are many unopened buds. But I can already see how the flowers open a dark pink, then fade almost to white. This gives the plant a multi-colored effect.

Illinois Rose
Illinois Rose, again from above.

Illinois Rose is a very vigorous plant, and I have read plenty of warnings that it will demand a lot of space. However, I always take such warnings as a challenge to be overcome. So go ahead, Illinois Rose, make my day.

‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is considered a rambling rose. I have no idea what the difference is between a rambler and a climber, but then I also don’t really care. What I do care about is that ‘Darlow’s Enigma’ is filling in nicely on its side of the arbor near the entrance to the back garden.

Darlow's Enigma
‘Darlow’s Enigma’

‘Darlow’s Enigma’ has sprays of small semi-double white flowers. It is a robust plant. It hasn’t shown any sign of disease and I haven’t sprayed it. Unlike most roses, it is tolerant of some shade.

'Darlow's Enigma' blooming on our arbor, seen from the back porch roof.
‘Darlow’s Enigma’ blooming on our arbor, seen from the back porch roof.

The flowers are fragrant, and you can smell their sweet scent as you walk under the arbor.

Do you have ramblers or climbers in your garden?

There Should Be More Places Like This

We got back from the Garden Bloggers’ Fling last night, and found that our own garden has been progressing at breakneck speed: flowers blooming, buds swelling, vines twining, berries ripening, seeds sprouting. I’ll post about these developments shortly, as soon as Judy is able to get out with her camera and take some pictures.

Annie's Annuals
The entrance to Annie’s Annuals and Perennials

In the meantime, I really have to mention that the organizers of the 2013 Fling did an outstanding job, particularly Kelly Kilpatrick and Andrea Fox. Remarkable that such a quality event was organized entirely by volunteer labor.

Annie's Annuals
Plants, lots of plants …

For now I’m going to post about another highlight of the Fling: a visit to Annie’s Annuals and Perennials. Annie’s is a grower and seller of herbaceous garden plants, and I have to say I wish there were more nurseries and garden centers like them.

For starters, the wide selection of plants. Wandering the aisles of Annie’s is like going on a plant-finding expedition in a new country. They have standard favorites, sure. But they also have many lots of unusual California natives, heirloom, and cottage garden plants.

Annie Hayes on the cover of the Annie's catalog.
Annie Hayes on the cover of the Annie’s catalog.

Plus, Annie’s has a real focus on offering good quality plants without marketing gimmicks. For example, Annie’s founder Annie Hayes explained to us that she does not use growth regulators. Growth regulators can induce early blooming – they are the reason you see so many plants at the Home Depot in flower weeks or even months before the normal bloom period. The reason: flowering plants sell, especially to inexperienced gardeners.

Annie's Annuals
Nice flamingos

But that early flowering can mean that the overall plant is actually weaker and will not perform as well once in the ground. Annie Hayes told us that if you find flowering plants for sale at Annie’s, it probably means they planted too many of them. They aim to sell plants that are healthy and ready to put down roots in customers’ flower beds.

This doesn’t mean, though, that there is a lack of color at Annie’s. There are all kinds of blooming flowers in displays throughout the center.

Annie's Annuals

Annie’s is a no frills operation. Located where land was cheaper, in an economically struggling area, it has been referred to as “the garden in the hood”. The bathrooms are port-o-potties. No cappuccino is available. And while they do have some interesting garden art for sale, there is a general shortage of cutesy stuff.

Annie's Annuals

Annie’s has a mail order operation as well as a retail center. If you live in California or a California-type climate, you might want to check out their website.

Annie's Annuals

As for me, it is probably good that Annie’s does not have a branch in Chicago. I spend enough money on the garden as it is.

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