Cousin Itt

I have two specimen trees that were planted right about when my house was built (1968).  They’re in absolutely primo spots in the front yard, visible to all, seen and felt multiple times daily by us and everyone who drives by.  They influence my gardening decisions and options very heavily in the front yard.  They are a Cornus florida (probably) ‘Cherokee Chief’ and Acer palmatum (probably) ‘Red Dragon’.

Unfortunately, I am not in love with either one of them.  But what I AM in love with is a challenge.  So rather than removing them, I’m determined to work with them.

In painting class you never start with a full palette.  That would be overwhelming to the first-year student.  No, you start with black and white and then introduce one color (usually something like yellow ochre or burnt sienna), and then gradually expand the palette until you have fluency with a full palette.  Some painters, myself included, actually prefer a limited palette, though the colors themselves may change from one painting to the next.

The Japanese maple especially is exactly this kind of limitation. It’s dark red. It wants to be a blob.  I call it “Cousin Itt” and you should have seen it when I first got here.  It was a horribly tangled mass of dead sticks and hair (those little leaves and twigs that sprout right out of branches – I call that “hair”).  I have been pruning away at this plant for three years now, and today I went at it again.  This post documents a more or less typical pruning experience for me most of the time.  It happens three or four times a year.

Japanese Maple Pruning Sensei says “a bird should be able to fly through it.”

Uhh, nerp.  This is what it looked like when we first moved in, September 2014. The dogwood is visible up and to the right.

Cousin Itt. The gumdrop. Blob.

By the way, I did not crop that photo on purpose, because I also wanted you to see the enormity of ridiculous dormant grass, which is no longer (keep scrolling/reading, we’ll get to that too).

Here it is from the other side in April of 2015, after I’d attacked it a couple of times.  It’s kinda better.  My goal with this plant is to encourage asymmetry, establish and maintain multiple tiers, prevent hair, and somehow make it likeable to prevent David from attacking it with a chainsaw (he hated it initially but I think he’s okay with it now).


Hair prevention is easy: I just rip them off.  The establishment of tiers is more tricky.  One thing about this maple is that because of decades of no pruning or bad pruning, almost all of its interior branches are overlapping and touching and have become grafted together.  This makes larger pruning cuts a bit of a challenge.  I have certainly made mistakes.

Here it is this morning. You can’t see the branch structure because of all the hair. A bird cannot fly through this. Not even a hummingbird!


So the first thing to do is just pull all these little twigs and leafies that are sprouting from larger interior branches.  I keep my pruners in my pocket but mostly I don’t need to use them.

Before (well actually, I had made a few edits already):


After, although this is a different angle.  Thanks Mr. Sun for the nice lighting effects!


For the tiers, since I’ve already decided where the tiers are (that got established the first time I pruned it, more or less), all I need to do is identify individual branches/shoots that originate in any given tier and descend down past their tier into the next one, and prune or remove them.  Or if it’s a lowest tier, those that touch the ground get pruned.  Depending on what’s going on, I might prune it part way or all the way.

The other thing these maples do is what I think of as “redundancy.” That’s when, say, it already has what I think is an adequate amount of growth in an area, and then it makes three new branchlets right in the same area, often going the same direction, right on top or underneath what’s already there.  In these situations I prune pretty carefully because hey! the new stuff might actually be more desirable than the original stuff.

Just like in painting you have to step back and look at your work from a distance, and frequently.  Nevermind the maple for a sec, just check out my neighbor’s Liriodendron! I like how the dogwood looks in front of it.  Fall colors have been spectacular this year, haven’t they?

Oh look, right at the bottom of this picture just to the right of the dogwood’s trunk you can *just* see the top of a little Cupressus glabra ‘Sulphurea’ I recently picked up from Xera Plants which is a very dangerously short drive from me.  I’ve been looking for something with either chartreuse or silver/blue foliage to plant right next to this maple and sort of mess with it a little, break it out of its blobbiness.  This awesome cypress has both of those colors! I don’t know if this plan will work, or it’ll just make it harder to prune the maple, but I’m gonna try it.

Ok here we go, I think I am done:

A pruned maple and end-of-season pepper mess

See all the other plants in pots? Not counting the gerberas down in front (they always live in pots), there are actually 8 in this photo, all of which will go in the ground this week.  That’s about 1/4 of the total I have collected in the last couple months – and that is what I mean by a dangerously short drive.  And now you also see what the grass has been replaced with, at least currently.  There are two rectangular 4 x 10′ beds here that I use for vegetables.  The bed to the left of the maple (we are looking east here) is the sunniest spot on the property so it’s really great for peppers and eggplants although I might do watermelon here next year, because it’s pretty.  And silvery.

And just so you don’t have to scroll back up:


I think it’s getting there.  The branch structure isn’t great on this one, but all of that was before my time.  I like thinking of this as an ongoing sculpture collaboration with the tree.  And I think a sparrow could certainly get through there.




Australia, June 2017

Years ago if you’d asked me, “What’s your favorite garden aesthetic?” I probably would have said something about lush, tropicalesque, big foliage, dramatic plants, etc.  Over the course of the last couple years that has all changed, in part because of lovely things I’ve seen on the internet, three years of experience and observation in my current garden, and then this trip down under.

I’d been to Australia twice before, both times to subtropical Sydney.  The first time I was maybe 11 or 12 and I was just floored by the fact that everyone had houseplants growing in their front yards.  Aside from that though, those trips weren’t particularly inspiring with regard to outdoor gardening.  I realize not everyone is like this but for me, plants I can never grow are only interesting to a point.  The practical gardener wins out over the curious botanist.

But this trip, we went up to the mountains and spent some time in Leura.  You can get there by train, takes 2 hours. My aunt Ann and her partner Ross have a house that is literally across the street from the Blue Mountains National Park.  And there are trails! Wonderful trails! But first:

Sandstone plateaus and the forested valleys between them.

Ross is an outdoorsman, although he might have a different title for himself, that’s my impression and it’s meant as an honorable term. He is really fun to talk with — he has great knowledge of history, botany, ecology, gardening, and more I am certain I have yet to discover.  He told me stories about people going missing in these mountains (happens all the time).  One guy who proved particularly elusive was finally found caught in a tree – he had fallen, presumably, off one of these sheer cliffs or into one of the numerous narrow slot canyons, and landed in the branches of a Eucalypt. *shudder*

Eucalyptus oreadea, E. piperita, E. sieberi, E. sclerophylla, and Angophora costata seemed to be the main Eucalypts here, comprising the highest canopy layer.

I think it’s interesting how similar the overall forest canopy color is to ours at home, when viewed from afar/above.  But these trees are not pointy conifers, so the texture is quite different.

One of the first things I saw when we got off the train was – what? – familiar plants.  Hydrangea, Bergenia, little jonquils, some kind of prostrate Juniper.  Where in the world AM I?

It was June, so akin to our December I suppose, and look who is flowering!


Oh-HO, how did YOU get here?!?

Garrya elliptica!

Well it turns out (depending on who you ask, really) European-descended Australians have this long-standing historical aversion to their native plants.  Until more recently, there has been an alignment toward European and North American plants, probably something to do with original white settlers being so incredibly distanced from anything familiar at all, and feeling a strong need for the comforts — and plants — of home.   Another story might say that there wasn’t contempt for the bush but rather a fascination, but at the same time an unfamiliarity, and an interest in finding out what plants from home (the UK) might survive in OZ.  I’m no anthropologist, so correct me if you have a better story.

All that said, in 2017, the 100th anniversary of my Nan’s birth (my stepfather is from Australia and Nan is his mum), walking through the neighborhoods of Leura I saw laurel hedges, camellias everywhere, Japanese maples, junipers and cypresses, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, azaleas, hellebores, English ivy even and OMG that Garrya elliptica! And a scant few native Australian plants.  You would hardly have known you weren’t in the Pacific Northwest but for everyone driving on the left side of the road.  I guess I get it – I mean part of the reason I feel so compelled to plant Australian plants in my garden is to remind myself of the place, and people I love there.

Side note: at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney  (to which I made three visits despite earlier proclamation of lack of interest in subtropical can’t-grow-em plants), there was a rather fascinating exhibit? planting? what do you call it? Section of the garden that included a lot of plants that Indigenous Australians used for various purposes such as food, medicine, material, shelter, etc., and some plantings that I can only describe as re-enactments of the first attempts at gardening by Europeans upon arrival.  I learned that they were so bereft of understanding and experience with Australian climate, weather, and soils, that they failed miserably in all aspects of food production and had to send ships to South Africa to bring food, at least until they started figuring it out.  Wow guys. But wait, what does this mean for PNW gardeners who like Australian plants? I’ll tell you.  The soil is basically 50% less fertile than our native volcanic mudflow loamy stuff.  FIFTY PERCENT LESS.  That’s what Proteaceae and Eucalyptus want.  Cheap dates, right? Nice work if you can get it…

Anyway back to Leura.

I picked up a book titled Native Plants of the Blue Mountains, which is a brief but fascinating handbook which covers about 220 plants and divides them into several habitat types, which were very apparent on our hikes.  We started with what is called “heath” – this is the habitat on the tops of the sandstone mesas, which has incredibly thin, almost nonexistent soil (it’s really just sandstone), and is dominated by Banksia and Hakea as the largest overstory.

Epacris pulchella, I think. After flowering, which would be midsummer-ish.

I took almost every single photo in portrait mode which I would not have done if I’d been planning on blogging … Sorry for the inevitable long scroll.

In this photo, see all the black stuff? Banksia branches and seed pods.  This area experienced a fire about 5 years ago.  Fire is necessary and rejuvenative and scary as hell for humans who live here in OZ.  Same as for us in the North American west. Also, Banksia seeds only open when burned, just like some of our pines.

Styphelia tubiflora. And do you see the brilliant color on the tip growth of that little Epacris shoot there? I think that’s just astonishing.



Baeckea utilis?

This little Baeckea was a fairly common sight.  Always sort of rangy, like so many Australian shrubs.  Look at all those Banksia serrata leaves on the ground. That’s the most common Banksia here.

By the way this is more or less the order in which I took these pics, so it’s kind of like you’re just taking a walk with me along this trail.

Caustis flexuosa, a very charming and brilliant green sedge.  I’d grow that, wouldn’t you?

As with any ecosystem where fire is part of the cycle, Australia has pioneer species, and this Pittosporum undulatum is one of them.  It’s actually a pretty nice shrub to small tree with the appearance and habit you’d expect from a fairly large Pittosporum (they pronounce it “pit-TOSS-prum” so now I do too because I like it that way).


Moss! Rock walls dripping with water! This was not uncommon at all.  I think yes, they do drip all year. This is not a summer-drought climate at all.  It is warm temperate eastern maritime (we are about 70 miles west of the Pacific Ocean), and rainfall is about 60 inches a year.


The first Banksia I saw is B. ericifolia. Difficult to photograph, so you get two pictures.  First, the flower in all its glory.

How big is it? Like a 12-oz beer can.

And here we see its typical open branching habit. This is a young plant, probably sprouted from seed right after that fire which would make it 5 years old.


Banksia serrata front-center and the blackened tree on left. Smooth lanceolate leaves are Acacia melanoxylon. Caustis flexuosa and Allocausarina nana knit the whole scene together.


Acacia terminalis, Allocausarina nana, and the blackened skeletons of Banksia serrata. I love this so, so much.


Dead old men! They have done their duty.


Pimelea linifolia subsp. linoides. The fine foliage belongs to Dillwynia retorta, I think.


Pimelea linifolia subsp. linoides again, this time with Allocausarina nana and this combination was significantly more stunning in person.


The trail.  Those gleaming stark white Eucalpytus branches in the distance…


Mmmm geology.  More of the trail.  Seeping cliffside.

Epacris reclinata grows out of the wall.

Oh hello, what are you? The thing on left I haven’t figured out.  The smaller on on the right is Dracophyllum secundum.


We came to a slot canyon.  Fortunately, there’s a bridge across it!

Those are not small trees down there. It goes down maybe 100 feet.


These next two photos are an attempt to get a sense of what this part feels like.  It is quite dense through here.


Eucalyptus sclerophylla I think, and Banksia spinulosa.

Here’s why they call it “scribbly gum”. Insect larvae do this.  The one on the left is the clearest example where you can see it start out narrower (down lower), and then the trail gets wider as the larvae continues burrowing and eating and growing.

This has got to be Angophora costata.

In here somewhere I decided to look at the soil.  It’s almost nothing but sandstone! Very gritty.  My hand looks very pink, probably because it was somewhat cold.


Look at this B. spinulosa flower.  I should say inflorescence.  This species tends to make a very handsome shrub with a denser habit than most Banksias, though this plant was growing in full shade so it had a much more open habit.  Those black hairpins just kill me.


Now in a wetter, closed forest, there was a bank of Blechnum wattsii along the trail.  This one frond in particular stood out.  Note the shreds of Eucalypt bark all over the place.

Tasmannia insipida here.  See how much darker, and wetter, and fernier it is down here? This is what it’s like in the bottom of those deep canyons.

Wish I had taken more photos down there.  I think my phone died.

Back up out of the canyon, next day, here’s one of my favorites! Lambertia formosa, the Mountain Devil.  I failed to photograph the seed pods, which look like little horned monster-heads, but I did bring a couple of them home (ssh!). It’s super-neato flowers start out hot pink with lighter pink ruffly bits at the ends, then they fade to this orange-ish color, then finally they dry out and turn a beautiful rusty burnt sienna color.

This can be none other than Xanthorrhoea media.  The mullein of the Blue Mountains, in so many ways.  They make a big tall flower spike like mullein, too, 7 or 8 feet tall.






Banksia serrata


Grevillea aspleniifolia, this would have been planted (it’s near an info center/restaurant/gift shop)


Bauera rubioides


I really love this plant.  Allocasuarina distyla? I’m not sure.


And this is .. I have no idea but isn’t it lovely?  There’s a Banksia out there in the distance, probably B. spinulosa by the habit, and that’s Ross over there on the trail with the hat.  I’ll let this be my parting shot.


If you got this far, I’m grateful and you’re a plant nerd.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Saintpaulia, Drainage, New Beginnings

How the hell do you actually start a blog? I’ve had various forms of blogs over the years, but nothing really for serious. Now I feel like I’m going to get serious, and I have been thinking for days about what my first post should be.

A before and after of my house? Well, the after isn’t all that great right now. But you love works in progress, right? I’ll definitely do some of this sort of thing.  An explanation of my experiences of gardening in my new to me house that I’ve lived in for three years? That’ll happen too, perhaps next post.

Tonight I was in my office room, and I decided to do something about an ailing Saintpaulia.  Earlier today in Facebook land, we had some great conversations about drainage – I was worrying about Manzanitas, Australian plants, and various others I’ve collected this summer and now need to put in the ground. And then here’s this little plant. It’s just an Orange Box Special (I rarely buy plants there but one day several months ago this one followed me home. It has been flowering for me quite regularly and even now, and its current state of distress.

But I want to explain to you why the Saintpaulia is important. As an introduction to me and my garden blog, I think it’s appropriate to explain that the very first plant that got me into gardening was of all things Saintpaulia.

When I was a kid, somehow I got entranced with them. I tried so hard to grow them, but the house that we lived in had wood stove heat and very bad light. You can imagine how that combination of very dismal humidity, rapidly changing temperatures, and crap light made it very difficult to grow these things.  I’ve since almost never been without one.  I’ve killed many, propagated many, but I would never consider myself any kind of expert with them.  I just like ’em, which is weird because I don’t really like anything else in that plant family.

Anyway here she is, this evening.  In this pic I have removed the plant from the pot it was in.  I suspect poor drainage and maybe overwatering caused crown rot.  Look at these droopy leaves.  Major drought stress.

I started to prick away at the root mass with my handy chopstick. These roots are looking possibly dessicated.

I pulled off a dessicated leaf stem that was attached pretty low, and look at this dark HOLE that was left!

Absolutely no question: this is evidence of crown rot and I have to cut that thing NOW.  So I did.

Oh you poor plant.  How long has this been goin’ on?  I cut until I got to something that looked alive.

Then I put the thing straight into a jar of plain water.  These guys don’t need rooting hormone.  I set it in a low-light area and will pot it up once it gets roots going.

I also pulled off all the flowers and some of the more wilty lower leaves.  It’s here in the very upper right of this pic, just out of reach of the direct gaze of my red/blue LED here.  Good luck, little Saintpaulia.

I did a similar dissection to another Saintpaulia several weeks ago: it had grown a double crown and then got crown rot.  I split it and put each clean crown into water and now both are growing lovely roots.  They will go into a more free-draining potting medium tomorrow in small pots.

Welcome to my blog and thanks for reading.  I hope you enjoy it.