Posts tagged gardening

Our backyard, from about a year and a half ago, lush after the autumn rain. Photo: Gregory Han

The concept of the garden has loomed heavily on my mind lately. This is in no small part because my wife and I have been working diligently in reshaping and remediating our minute slice of Los Angeles land from the serpentine invasion of ivy, grasses, and the unabating appearance of Ailanthus altissima (anything but a tree of heaven in my book). Dreams of reconstructing an interpretation of something closer to the original landscape that once blanketed Mt. Washington guides every swing of the mattock, advises each planting, directs every placement of rock. We’ve collected a small library dedicated to gardening respectful of the existing environment and ecosystem, attempting to learn how to work with the land instead of against it. It’s a humbling process of perpetual attempt and failure…heavy on the failure.

Every stone and rock pulled from our backyard is reused to create paths or protect erosion. Photo: Gregory Han

Musings about the garden also weave in and out of my daily thoughts in due part to a healthy dose of online series like the Nowness Great Gardens videos, NHK’s At Home with Venetia in Kyoto, and books like Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher’s Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. Even my playlist has been seeded to provoke botanical action. If all those fail to tempt, the views from my home office glimpsing out toward our side and backyard hillside are always enough to remind me there’s work to be done.

Gardening in our hillside section of Mt. Washington is regularly an archeological affair, with remnants of previous generations revealed within the dirt.

With sandstone and rock and embedded like nuts in nougat, our steep clay soil hillside provides a difficult challenge, the stingy canyon sunlight even more so. Erosion is perpetually a concern, the invasive species relentless, and the sunlight passes with a speed that results in tall plants with supermodel stalks. Even so, work in the backyard is always satisfying, constantly educating. Where navigating a mouse and pecking at a keyboard barely registers as activity, swinging a pick axe, shoveling dirt, shouldering rocks, and arranging plants with hand in soil feels like a sort of homecoming, an earthly pleasure satiating the innate desires to shape, nurture, and move.

Our greatest successes reveal themselves when our efforts result in the appearance of more life local to Los Angeles. Native and migrating insects, birds, the occasional foraging mammals, and even rarer amphibian all play a part as friends or foes to our plans. Connections between flora and fauna unfold at every corner, more exciting than any Game of Thrones episode (with equal likelihood of sex and violence to witness).

“We have increasingly less and less control of what is going on out there, and in our gardens we can make the sort of world we that we wished lived in.” – Anna Pavord, author of The Tulip.

A path along the Cedars Sinai Plaza Healing Gardens designed by AHBE Landscape Architects. Photo: ©Heliphoto.net

In Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust: A History of Walking“,  architects Charles W. Moore (who worked on my favorite residential stretch of California coast, Sea Ranch (1963) with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin), William J. Mitchell, and William Turnbull’s express a poetic affinity for the garden path: “a thread of a plot, connecting moments and incidents into a narrative. The narrative structure might be a simple chain of events with a beginning, middle, and end. It might be embellished with diversions, digressions, and picaresque twists, be accompanied by parallel ways (subplots), or deceptively fork into blind alleys like the althernative scenerios explored in a detective novel.”

It’s a comforting thought, one I try to remember as I wipe away the sweat while extracting yet another large sandstone from the clay soil – a barbaric dentist armed with gardening tools. Slowly a garden path is forming, this personal novel of our backyard being written. But where writing an article, poem, or novel eventually concludes with the final page punctuated with a period, the pages of a garden disappear quickly to be rewritten again with every passing season…a lifetime of writing chapters, with unimaginable pages and stories to spring forth, most we’ll never be around to ever read.

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About a year ago I began a post with this photo, accompanied with plans for growing a “lush, overflowing garden of kitchen ingredients” intended for backyard backyard fêtes. All photos: Jennifer Salazar.

Ah, yes…summer officially arrived a week ago on June 20th at 9:24pm. It was at that exact moment the sun reached its most northern apex from the equator. Given the passing of the season into the next, alongside the extreme temperatures torching across the entire southwest United States recently, I found myself inspired to offer an update about my kitchen garden.

Sadly, I begin with a bit of disappointment: some of the strawberries have not survived, and I have yet to see any fruit. The sugar snap peas and sunflowers sprouted without any problems from seed, while my tomatoes – old standbys like Early Girl – are thriving as well, and filling up the bottoms of their cages. Thyme and fennel continue to thrive, while the hot colored marigolds bloom and dry out in a continuous floral cycle of bloom and bust (the flower even coordinate with my orange gardening Crocs!).


Surprisingly, the basil plants which I always have trouble keeping alive are doing ok. The hot pepper bush, cilantro, and a couple Italian parsleys are withstanding the heat, continuing to grow.


A couple of squash plants are spreading their vines out confidently, my fave being this watermelon’s variegated and highly articulated leaves – its expanse creating a pleasing flat carpet of green over one of the beds.


The large pomegranate shrub at the back of the beds continues to set fruit, so I hope that will produce a bounty of pomegranates to enjoy this autumn.

Another favorite is the Geranium (though not the botanically correct Pelargonium species) – a favorite because their constant bright blooms appear even during drought conditions, and also because of the everlasting memories connected with my grandparents’ Inland Empire backyard growing up.


Unfortunately I had to install a set of plastic green stakes with fencing to keep our 2 dogs from digging up the beds before we planted. It was the least visually obtrusive solution, though I cannot say I am a fan of it.

Who knows, there may still yet be a chance my backyard will one day produce a summer harvest to meet my goals of this ideal backyard feast!

As landscape architects we are kept perpetually busy with creating drawings, coordinating with other disciplines, and seeking out vendors for products for our projects. It is all too easy to forget what is at the core of why enjoy about our profession: the utter beauty of the natural world and how it changes throughout the seasons.

Photo: Jennifer Salazar

Spring officially arrived in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago on Monday, March 20th, at 3:29am PST to be exact. Springtime’s arrival in Los Angeles is announced by a characteristic and ever-present perfume: the sweet smells of citrus blossom and the aroma of jasmine wafting on the light breezes of warmer days and evenings. “Springing forward” with daylight savings has affords us extra daylight to enjoy these blooms into the early evening in our neighborhood when their presence is at their most palpable.

We were fortunate to finally have enough rain this past winter. Because so, many plants have had proliferate blooms in the last month, inducing the stunning displays of native flowers exploding across the Anza-Borrega Valley and other wildflower regions. Another consequence of the heavy rains was a proliferation of weeds as well. They’ve covered our backyard kitchen beds, as shown below.
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All photos by Jennifer Salazar

All photos by Jennifer Salazar

I cannot speak for all landscape architects, but I think many of us found our way to the profession initially through a shared passion for plants. Large trees with their huge trunks and long branches are inspiring for their longevity – beyond so many human lifetimes. Tiny, dainty pansies, mere inches tall are so beautiful with their lively colors. And then there are all the plants in between: flowering vines with lovely smells, colorful orchids with stunning shapes, and my favorite – the ones that provide us culinary spoils – herbs, seeds, and produce.

Back in January, I posted about our backyard kitchen garden. Well, I am back with an update. As they say, it’s the cobbler’s children who don’t have shoes! My dreams were of a lush, overflowing garden of kitchen ingredients that I could use as an endless pantry all summer and autumn for backyard fêtes, like those seen in magazines.

Rosemary with sunflowers

My garden has since offered  a few culinary treats thus far. My biggest challenge is keeping everything watered after planting while the roots are getting established. In the usual morning rush, I often leave the house without watering newly planted plants and seeds, causing them to prematurely perish during warm or hot days.

I remember joking one time with others in my profession that it’s not that landscape architects are superior plant people. Instead we tend to know which varieties are lower maintenance because we spend so much time at the office working on OTHER people’s plants and gardens instead of our own.

Meyer Lemon panoramic

Since January the sugar snap peas have grown up the cages. I left them on the vine beyond their time to enjoy the shells too – shelled and frozen for a lovely, fresh, and crisp side dish for Easter supper with the family. After the peas, I planted tomato seeds on two different cage enclosures, caging two “wild” tomatoes that began to grow in another kitchen bed. I think some of the tomato seeds died because they were not watered, OR perhaps they were picked up by the small resident birds in our neighborhood that we see every morning foraging for food in our backyard.

Single sunflower

Eaten sunflower leafThere is also one wild sunflower that miraculously continues to grow upward. I say “miraculously” because the smallest birds perch on the plant’s lowest stems and eat the leaves! When I witnessed this behavior last year, I believed an aggressive worm or family of worms were eating the plant’s leaves. But, lo and behold, one day I caught sight of the little brown birds perched on the swaying leaf petiole, each picking away at the green leaf. I feel okay that these plants are being eaten by another creature that truly needs them if I do not get to them first. Thus, my culinary kitchen has doubled up into a wildlife food source, and it’s really not so bad (at least I am not feeding pigeons!).

There have also been so many other successes since January: more Meyer Lemons continue to ripen, fantastic for making fresh squeezed lemonade, whole lemon bars (recipe from the Smitten Kitchen), and generous amount for homemade lemoncello. A new single sprig of Mexican Tarragon survives amongst my other French specimens. A whole row of sunflowers have – despite bird nibbles – continued to reach upward to the sky, with a single pumpkin growing larger and establishing a couple of heavy leaves. We’ll always have the perennial rosemary, attracting the happy buzzing song of industrious bees, and oregano and mint contained in their containers, thank goodness. And the pomegranate has many promising blooms and flowers now, promising another autumn batch of homemade grenadine.

In thinking about my garden in part and in its entirety I am reminded of Alexander Pope’s famous poem, Essay on Man:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; 
Man never Is, but always To be blest. 
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home, 
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”

Eastern beds

From ground level Missing or dead tom seeds Only-surviving-pumpkin-sprout Tom seedlings with sunflowers Toms_sunflowers plan

Like the unending cycle of the seasons, so too do my hopes and dreams of edible plants continue to evolve every year as I look forward to the coming seasons, aware that Mother Nature’s cycles do not wait for anyone. Not even a very busy landscape architect.

Kitchen-beds

As a child of Southern California, I used to envy those Americans who were able to spent cold, snowy winters inside by a fire, thoughtfully combing through seed catalogs and planning for their spring season planting. Our family would also wait to plant in spring, but in typical temperate climate Southern California fashion, we’d seed our garden with our usual tomatoes and strawberries that always provided plentiful summer harvests.

Seed-catalog-pages

I find it comforting seed companies still print and mail out their catalogs via the old fashioned United States Postal Service. I enjoy the color catalogs filled with photos of beautiful vegetables and herbs. These days, I imagine the recipes we could make using the fresh bounty of produce promised within these seed catalog pages.

Meyer-lemon-trees-closeup

Currently growing in our four raised kitchen beds: 3 puny French tarragon and thyme plants, a healthy low shrub of rosemary, and some seedling snap peas I have on hacked supports (i.e. an inverted tomato cage with a right-side up tomato cage). The herbs are perennials, while the snap peas are what I imagine as the flavorful embodiment of spring – fresh, crunchy, earthy. My large pomegranate shrub stands bare (see: grenadine recipe), while our Dwarf Meyer Lemon tree –shown on the right – is laden with fruit, perfect for making homemade limoncello!

Our ten-year old daughter voiced a request for us to plant artichokes, one of her favorite vegetables. As glad as I am for her affinity for veggies, artichokes are large plant that result in only a few edible pieces. I decided this was an unsound choice for our kitchen garden, considering the limited real estate of our four 3’ x 8’ raised bed gardens. My goal is for high yield, small footprint plants so we can grow many plants of produce that we really enjoy eating, including zucchini, tomatoes, and peas. Decorative plants such as sunflowers and pumpkins are also welcome, but they really need to have high aesthetic or nostalgic value to go in with the edibles.

After combing through this year’s seed catalogs, I am inspired to plant the following plants: jack-o-lanterns of different sizes for a varied Halloween display; small cucumbers for pickling; crimson, magenta, and gold sunflowers for their floral beauty and the food they provide for both our family and the local wildlife ( last year a dozen birthday party guests witnessed a squirrel scampering up some large sunflowers we had grown to eat through the stalk and cart off the seed head!); hot colored zinnias for their lovely hues; garlic and shallots for menu flavoring; zucchini for pancakes (see recipe below) and old fashioned zucchini quick bread; kale for green juices; and as many different types of tomatoes that will fit for a variety of tasty treats in late summer!

Garden-Vertical_kitchen-beds

Depending upon the success of our spring plantings, we’re hoping to enjoy the bounties of our garden with the following recipes in a few months:

BX0214_zucchini-pancakes_s4x3Ina Garten’s Zucchini cakes: an easy recipe which only takes 20 minutes from start to finish, requiring only 4 minutes cooking per pancake (the recipe yields ten 3-inch pancakes).

Tomatoes with salt

  • Pick warm, ripe tomatoes off vine on a hot summer afternoon.
  • Rinse off with a small amount of water from the garden hose.
  • Slice tomato and sprinkle cut surface with salt.
  • Devour. Lick up juices from chin and try not to grin.

Sugar snap peas

  • Remove ripe seed pods with stem from vine.
  • Rinse off with small amount of water from the garden hose.
  • Devour pod and peas. Savor the taste of spring!