Sunnylands

As previously mentioned, earlier this year your gad-about gardener was fortunate enough to be in Palm Springs. While there, I visited the excellently named Sunnylands Center & Gardens.

The view from the car park – not a bad way to start.

Sunnylands is in the Rancho Mirage area of town. Cruise down the palm tree lined Frank Sinatra Drive, turn left onto Bob Hope Drive and you’re there. In the movies. I mean, in Sunnylands.

Sunnylands was formally the winter home of the wealthy and influential Annenbergs – Walter and leonore (it’s alright for some!) The estate runs to 200 acres, including a golf course and various lakes. The guided tour of the Annenberg’s mid-century modern house was tempting, but at $48 a ticket, and with limited time available, I stuck with the gardens and the ‘center’ building, which is free (yes, that’s FREE) to enter.

The visitor centre (or center, in US English) is a stunning mid-century modern building, very bright, and with a relaxed atmosphere, with comfy sofas on which to rest (if you have the time). The are a few pieces from the Annenbergs’ illustrious art collection, including a small sculpture by Rodin that I would have liked to have taken away with me. There was a short video – interesting, good to look at, but somewhat cheesy – explaining the history, and an exhibition of stunning photographs of birds, taken on the estate.

The gardens were compact, but very beautiful, and very different to what we’re used to here in the UK. Desert plants – Golden Barrel cacti and Palo Verde trees – were marshalled into pristine garden symmetry. Immaculate twin reflecting pools hydrated the air, and provided the magic that made the whole scheme come alive. We sat outside the café, by one of the pools, and it was such a beautiful, calming place to spend some time drinking a coffee and eating a pastry. Both coffee and cake were good, and very reasonably priced too, particularly bearing in mind the amazing setting.

There are no plant labels, but that can be forgiven in a garden that is all about design, rather than showing individual plants.

For a spikey-leaved plant, aloe has flowers that are surprisingly colourful and romantic.

Many of the agaves were in flower, and there were a few hummingbirds taking advantage of their nectar. If only they’d keep still – they’re almost impossible to photograph.

Not the best image of a hummingbird you’ll ever see. Note the swathe of aloe flowers in the background.

Everything about Sunnylands is immaculately presented and very beautiful. Perhaps it needs to be in order to meet the approval of the world leaders that convene there. I’ll probably never share the company of presidents and ambassadors, but it was a privilege to share the beautiful gardens of Sunnylands for one glorious, sunny afternoon.

text & photographs ©Graham Wright 2019

RHS Malvern Flower Show

Last Friday I took a day off work (well, I’m actually calling it a work’s outing) to go to the RHS spring flower show at Malvern. It was the second day of the show, and while the weather might have been better than the first, it was still cold, with the odd shower. There was some sunshine too though.

Couldn’t get a prettier setting – the Malvern Hills, from the showground

The RHS flower shows seem to get ever more popular and hence, ever more crowded. There’s a lot of shuffling and jostling to get to see what you want, particularly the most popular areas, which are generally the floral marquee and the show gardens.

The floral marquee was as well turned out as ever, even if most of the stalls were familiar – immaculate and unfeasibly colourful displays of tulips, bougainvillea, chrysanthemums, streptocarpus and the like. I was taken with the stand by Grafton Nurseries, also known as Hardy Eucalyptus. They had so many varieties of eucalypts, including many hardy enough to be grown in UK gardens, and some that are even suitable for patio pots (not all eucalypts are giant trees). I particularly liked the narrow-leaved varieties, such as E. moorei (also known as ‘Little Sally’) and E. nicholii (‘Narrow-leaved black peppermint’) which has leaves that smell, as the name suggests, of peppermint.

I also saw this…

… a plant I’ve seen in photographs but without any captions, so I didn’t know what it was. I had assumed it was a form of Trachycarpus, but it is in fact called Brahea armata. So now you know. The combination of silver/grey foliage with that astonishingly spikey structural form is incredible. Unfortunately it’s native to Mexico, so I won’t be getting one for my garden any time soon. According to the RHS website its common name is ‘Big Blue Hesper Palm’, which sounds very Sesame Street.

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Palm Springs – Presidential Hospitality, and being scalped by Indians

The presidential hospitality came from the Annenbergs’ Sunnylands estate, which has hosted summits between American presidents and other world leaders. More of that later. The less than hospitable welcome came on our visit to reservation land on the edge of Palm Springs. OK, so we weren’t actually scalped – I was using poetic licence. Although our supply of cash took a significant haircut.

I was actually nervous about using the term ‘Indian’, as I’ve been told it isn’t politically correct. But it’s used on the website of the ‘Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians’, so I guess I shouldn’t get into hot water. Just as well, as the reference to all those old (politically incorrect) Westerns wouldn’t have worked as well with ‘Indigenous Americans’ or ‘First Nations people’.

So what’s my gripe with the indigenous peoples of the Palm Springs environs? Well, being keen walkers, when in Palm Springs last month we were keen to do a hike (as our American cousins call any walks that involve anything other than smooth tarmac). We selected a trail a short distance out of town, up Mount San Jacinto. Unfortunately, due to rain the previous night (how unlucky were we – it hardly ever rains in Palm Springs!) that trail was temporarily closed. We were directed to another, which was still open.

We parked the car, and then headed up to the start of the walk (hike), where we had to join a queue. For a walk! (I mean hike). I don’t think I’ve ever had to do that before. We queued for 20 minutes to get to the counter, where we had to pay a fee. To do a walk! (I mean hike). The fee for the one we’d planned to do was $8. For this one, it was $12.50 each. For a walk! (I mean hike). Eventually, we got to walk (I mean hike) the trail. All 1.5km of it (I believe that was there and back). It was a nice little walk, up to a nice little waterfall. Except, it was like Oxford Street on a Saturday morning. So we queued for 20 minutes, and payed 50 bucks, all for the privilege of a 30 minute walk (I mean hike!) through crowds of people.

Now, I have two problems with this. The first is the price. I understand that walking (I mean hiking… sorry – is this becoming annoying?) trails need to be maintained. But how much work is involved in cutting back a few branches or consolidating an eroded path now and then? For not too much more than what we paid, in the UK you can spend the whole day at Chatsworth, looking around the huge mansion, finely manicured gardens, and large areas of parkland. Imagine how much all that must cost to maintain – you can really see what your entry fee is paying for.

The second problem is more to do with freedom – the basic human right to exist. Centuries ago, in the UK, there was such a thing as common land. And then the enclosures began, and the wealthy annexed the land and denied access to the common people. Later, in the 20th century, we finally won the ‘right to roam’. It doesn’t get us in everywhere, and most of the land is still owned by a few wealthy individuals (apparently half of England is owned by 1% of the population), but there are large areas of what we call wild land (even though it isn’t truly wild) where we can pretty much roam freely.

There’s a principle here, espoused by people such as Marion Shoard, in her book ‘This Land is Our Land’; that the countryside shouldn’t be fenced off from the people. We shouldn’t be restricted to towns and cities, and to the narrow corridors of tarmac that join them, just because we aren’t fortunate enough to have been born into the right family, or to have made a fortune. We’re free-born animals, and we should have the freedom to move about freely in the natural environment. To quote Billy Bragg: ‘this land was made a common treasury for everyone to share’ (I take issue with the word’ made’, but I appreciate the sentiment). This land is our land!

You’ll say, of course, that I was only a visitor, that it isn’t actually my land, because I don’t live there. But those who do live there have to pay too. And in what kind of a land is it customary to fleece (or scalp – I’m mixing my metaphors) visitors, rather than offer them hospitality? And in any case, aren’t we all citizens of the world?

Now, I know that their ancestors were violently displaced by invading Europeans. But I’d say that what happened in the past, many generations ago between ancestors of different sets of people to whom I have no relation, isn’t my responsibility. I’m more interested in the here and now. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your ancestry, it’s the poor who are denied opportunity. Always. To me, it doesn’t make any difference who owns a tract of land. It might be someone who received it, down the line, from a distant bloodthirsty ancestor who invaded a country and took it by force (such as the Duke of Westminster). It might be owned by someone who made a fortune through their own business activities, or those of their ancestors, whether from coal, steel, or slavery, and who used it to take possession of the countryside. Or it might be a group who claim possession by virtue of the fact that their ancestors once lived there, before being displaced and treated most cruelly. Whoever they are, and however they came by the land, if they deny access to open countryside, or demand a fee for access (particularly such a high one) then they’re tyrants who are denying the common people a basic human right.

All that land sitting there doing nothing, and they only give us access to a few short trails, and charge us a fortune for the privilege! Reading between the lines, I get the impression that if you know your way around you can find trails to walk without having to pay. But in Donald Trump’s ‘we don’t dial 911’ USA, poking around where you might not be welcome could be a dangerous business. As a visitor, I suppose you could say it comes down to hospitality. The mean-spirited hospitality of the Agua Calientes can be contrasted with the generosity of the Annenberg family, who own the Sunnylands estate in Palm Springs. I’ll tell you about my visit there in my next post, for which I promise lots of beautiful photographs, and far fewer words…

The waterfall and pool – heavily cropped to avoid the large crowd of people gathered around the waters edge.

text and photographs © Graham Wright (although the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians will probably expect royalties)

Cactus Gardens

The Moorten Botanical Garden in Palm Springs, California was created by the film star, horticulturalist, and Palm Springs legend Chester Moorten, otherwise known as ‘Cactus Slim‘.

From the information on the gardens I’d seen on the internet, I didn’t have particularly high expectations of the Moorten Botanical Gardens. True, they were highly recommended, but most of the photographs were of a small and rather shabby greenhouse packed full of cacti. Satellite view in Google maps seemed to show a small site, without too much in the way of obvious plant life. It was a long walk too, in the opposite direction to the downtown area.

The entrance is at first sight slightly cranky: small scale and a little amateurish, but perhaps that’s unfair. Informal would be a better description. The gardens are indeed compact, but there are a lot of plants packed into that small site. A gravel trail winds its way through groupings of plants from different regions – Sonoran desert, Texan Desert, Central America region, etc. Labelling is not strictly along full botanical nomenclature lines (though the Latin names are given for many of the plants) but is clear and very creatively done; carved into pieces of sandstone, or painted onto driftwood.

The plants are set in the dusty sand and gravel of a desert landscape, with artfully arranged, sculptural dead branches, petrified logs, and rusting mining paraphernalia (Chester Moorten spent five years of his life as a miner). While the plants are closer together than they would be in the wild, the planting looks, as it is intended to look, natural.

There is a plant sales area with a good range of plants, both as mature specimens and very young, very reasonably priced plug plants, which means you could come away with an impressive collection of plants for very little money. It was hard to walk past all those lovely, healthy little plants, but as there was no way I would have been allowed to take them on the plane home, that’s what I had to do!

The greenhouse (or ‘the world’s first Cactarium’, as they endearingly called it) was small, and had definitely seen better days (one cactus had burst through the plastic canopy and was reaching for the sky) but it did have some very interesting plants inside.

Echinocereus brandegeei

All in all, I’d say the gardens were worth the walk, very good value for the $5.00 entry fee, and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Palm Springs.

Website: Moorten Botanical Gardens

Text and photographs © Graham Wright 2019

Slugs on the March

It’s easy to imagine that what’s left of the slug and snail population, having been decimated by the cold and the frost, is holed up somewhere, sitting it out until spring. It’s tempting to think we can sit back and relax for now, secure in the knowledge that our emerging plants are safe from attack. Tempting, but sadly mistaken. I don’t know how they do it, but the little blighters seem able to take anything the weather can throw at them. And on any mild night, while we stay indoors wallowing in complacency, an army of molluscs sets out to graze on our plants. The new shoots of perennials are particularly at risk. Now is the time to wage brutal war on slugs and snails, before they start breeding in earnest [1.]and the population gets out of control.

With this in mind, I put out slug traps the other day. I should have got out to do it earlier, because there’s quite a lot of damage. Sometimes slug and snails are so quick to eat the shoots of perennials that you never see them coming through. It gets later and later, and still a plant isn’t shooting. It’s then you realise the plant has been trying, but its shoots are being grazed off almost before they are visible. That kind of treatment can seriously set back or even kill a plant.

You can see from the photo that my beer traps have ensnared large quantities of slugs. At this time of year the really large slugs don’t seem to be very active, but the small ones can be equally damaging – below ground, where they munch on roots, as well as above. I use beer traps because it’s a safe, environmentally friendly method. Despite the brave talk of waging war, I actually don’t like killing these creatures. But it’s them or the plants, and as a gardener, the plants are my responsibility. At least the slugs die happy this way!

On a cheerier note, the hyacinths that had been over-wintering outside have now really come good. We put them into a slightly larger pot, with some fresh compost, in December. These were bought as forced bulbs, to be brought into flower indoors in Xmas 2017. I’ve decided they’re better grown outdoors. The flowers might not be quite as showy, but they’re still good. And it’s a lot less hassle than keeping them in a dark place for a prescribed time, taking them out and putting them somewhere cool, before moving them to where you actually want them… and finding the flower spikes flop about and need supporting… and they don’t last very long… and when they start to go off, that lovely fragrance starts to turn a bit nasty…

  1. …reminds me of the joke about the two worms, who were making love in dead Ernest.

Text and images © Graham Wright 2019

The Last Blooms of Summer…

…well, late autumn, perhaps!

These are Hesperantha coccinea, which until recently were called Schizostylis coccinea (thank you botanists!) Just a few, coaxed into flower by the mild weather. They’re accompanied by Australasian foliage – Eucalyptus gunnii, Callistemon citrinus ‘Splendens’ (bottlebrush) & Melaleuca squarrosa (scented paperbark) – all from our garden in plain old South Wales (rather than New South Wales). The Melaleuca was grown from seed. It’s nice to have a display inside at this time of year, even if it is a small one.

Text & Image © Graham Wright 2019

Singapore Memories

The cold, wet, grey, dark conditions at this time of year can be quite depressing. To cheer myself up, I’ve been looking through my photographs from a visit to Singapore earlier this year. Prepare for an image-heavy post!

This is the magnificent Torch Ginger (Etlingera Elatior) Some of you may think I’m sad, but for me, coming across these in the Singapore Botanic Gardens was akin to a religious experience.

The (relatively) new Gardens in the Bay are the star attraction, with enormous glasshouses containing a cloud forest and a flower dome, and ‘super trees’ lit up with a spectacular light show after dark. But for all their splendour, I got more out of the older, less showy, Botanic Gardens.

The ‘super trees’ in the Gardens in the Bay – very impressive, but as much about technology as plants.

The Bukit Timah gate of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Imagine you’ve just a had a tasty lunch, followed by a great coffee, in a nice café over the road, the weather is beautifully warm, and you’re about to spend the afternoon wandering through the Singapore Botanic Gardens…

Hymenocallis speciosa – Spider Lily

As you might expect, orchids were everywhere, in both gardens. Here’s a selection:

The above is one of my favourites, labelled as ‘Papillionanda Ernest Chew’. And below – not so pretty, but very eccentric…

And finally, this is another ginger – Hedychium coronarium (White Ginger Lily).

Gardening at this time of year is not always a pleasant experience. It can be cold, wet and miserable. Even with gloves on, hands get cold to the point where they hurt – particularly when you come inside. Everything gets covered in mud – tools, gloves, boots. It’s tempting to think that there’s nothing to be done in the garden, so as not to have to go outside, but it just isn’t true. I’ve been busy pruning deciduous trees, planting bare-rooted hedges and trees (especially fruit trees), clearing the rest of the leaves, digging over soil in preparation for planting and mulching. Even the weeds are still growing, though they shouldn’t grow so much as to be out of hand by the spring. So maybe we can leave those for now…

Words & images ©Graham Wright 2018

Stars of the Autumn Border

By this time of year, so many of our flowering plants have done their thing and are in various stages of decay – some more decorous than others. In autumn we rely on the turning leaves to provide colour and interest in our gardens. But there are some flowering plants that are at their peak now. One of these is the plant we know as sedum.[1.]
A dark-leaved sedum, sold as an unnamed variety, but which is probably ‘Xenox’).

A closer view, showing the intense colours of leaf and flower.

Another Autumn favourite is the aster, or Michaelmas daisy. The one below was actually taken last month at Picton Garden, near Malvern, which holds the national collection of autumn flowering Michaelmas daisies. Continue reading

Is it autumn already?

With leaves changing colour all around us there’s no chance of pretending autumn isn’t on its way. All we can do is to embrace the season and enjoy the show. What’s your favourite plant for autumn colour?

Parthenossisus cinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) is early to colour up.

It’s been an unusual growing year. It began with an apparently very early spring, which turned out not to be spring at all; just a mild spell in winter. The cold and the snow that followed was harsher than anyone would have expected and the winter, far from ending early, dragged on.
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Pruning a Rambling Rose

…in this case, Rosa ‘Francis E. Lester’; a beautiful single-flowered rambling rose with clusters of pink tinged white flowers. Like most ramblers, it delivers all of its blooms in one magnificent show of colour, in June. When the flower buds start to form and swell there’s a great sense of expectation. And when the first blooms begin to burst open, like bright stars in a lush green firmament, you know that summer has truly arrived.

RosaFrancis E. Lester’, late June 2018

Rambling roses epitomise the optimism of early summer, when the winter just passed is finally forgotten, and the one to come is so far from our minds as to seem improbable. For a few weeks in June they re-assure us that life is good, and that summer will last forever.

The flowers begin to fade all too quickly of course. Luckily, that’s when many perennials and annuals are coming towards their best, so it isn’t too difficult to distract attention away from the slightly messy, uninteresting background that the rambler has become. Even then, it does the job of covering a bare wall or a fence with foliage. And all the while, the faded flowers are gradually forming attractive rose hips that will give another, albeit more muted, burst of colour in the autumn.

The hips are swelling and beginning to colour up – due to the prolonged hot weather, they may well be early this year.

You don’t have to prune rambling roses. If you plant them under a medium to large sized tree they’ll happily clamber all over it and provide a fabulous show every year without your having to touch them. Alternatively, some of the more vigorous varieties are capable of colonising a large section of your garden. As you can see from the photos, this one is busy sending out long shoots in every direction. So now is the time to knock it into shape.

Francis Lester attempting a ‘land grab’!

The Basic Principle

… is to cut out some of the old shoots, and tie in new ones to replace them.
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