Debra Prinzing

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Southern California’s horticultural wonders

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

1. Wisteria sinensis

Wistaria, known as Wisteria chinensis

My week began with a very special botanical field trip to Sierra Madre, a hamlet near Pasadena that each year celebrates its hometown hero on the second Sunday of March.

That hero is a 116-year-old plant. Isn’t that cool?

Invited by Paula Panich, who enticed me with promises that I would see “one of the seven horticultural wonders of the world” (seriously, who could resist that offer!?), I drove 60 miles east to Sierra Madre and joined Paula’s entourage.

The Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival, a full-blown, main-street celebration, was under way to celebrate what the Guinness Book of World Records has named the world’s largest blooming plant – a Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis).

A cloud of pale, purple blooms create a one-acre floral canopy

Said wisteria, which the locals more accurately call Wistaria*, was planted in 1894 by Alice Brugman. She rode by horse and buggy to the R.H. Wilson Pioneer Nursery in nearby Monrovia to purchase the vine in a one gallon pot, spending 75-cents.

It now covers nearly one acre, weighs over 250 tons, and produces more than 1.5 million blossoms during a glorious, five-week run each spring. The festival occurs for one day only, when the property’s owners (aka the “flower stewards”) open up their gardens for thousands of visitors.

We were in attendance a little early in the vine’s bloom cycle, as you can see. But still, it was a sight to behold!

 The vine covers two private residential gardens and is supported by a sturdy matrix of metal arbors. We walked underneath the canopy formed by lightly-scented, pale purple clusters that looked gorgeous against the intense-blue sky.

A festive day indeed! 


As pretty as Victorian wallpaper, the vines and blossoms trace the sky

*Wisteria or Wistaria?

According to a brochure distributed at the festival, experts at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden have always used the correct spelling with “a” rather than “e.”

“The plant was named to honor Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), an American physician and University of Pennsylvania teacher. Among his accomplishments, he wrote the first text book on anatomy. When the name of the genus Wisteria was recorded, it was incorrectly spelled. So, one could say that all along, Sierra Madre has correctly spelled Wistaria.”

 Now you know.

2. Eschscholtzia californica 

Spring is here! The poppies are in bloom!

This being perhaps my last spring as a full-time resident of Southern California, I was eager to squeeze in a visit to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. My goal was to see the valley’s meadows and rolling hills awash in vibrant orange – a celebration of the California Poppy, the State Flower since 1903.

While poppies grow in many areas, along the edges of highways and in surprising pockets both urban and rural, the only remaining large fields are in the western Antelope Valley. This area is part of northern Los Angeles Co., about 90 minutes northeast of my home in Thousand Oaks.

My parents were en route to visit this weekend (from the Phoenix area) and so I convinced them to take the detour north off of Hwy. 14 to meet me for a Friday morning Poppy Adventure.

Anita and Fred Prinzing, my wildflower-hunting companions (Mom and Dad)

We arrived at the 1,800-acre reserve located about 15 miles west of the town of Lancaster. As with my wisteria visit, we were definitely too early for the peak poppy bloom.

Despite plenty of spring precipitation, the temperatures here had not warmed up enough to prompt massive blooms. There were beautiful patches of orange poppies, intermixed with other lovely wildflowers – including blue lupines. We took joy in what we saw and promised ourselves to return in the future.

I wish I could go back in two week’s time – that’s when the display will be the showiest!

3. Yucca brevifolia 

Magnificent Joshua Tree - in bloom

On our way out of the Antelope Valley, we discovered an obscure state park called the Ripley Desert Woodland. This 560-acre “virgin forest” is populated with Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) and California junipers (Juniperus californica). According to the brochure we picked up:

“This is how the western part of the Mojave Desert must have appeared to early explorers as they came through the area” in the late 18th and early 19th century. . . .”

The park is named for Arthur Ripley, a farmer who willed the acreage to California when he died in 1988. He farmed a large amount of land in Antelope Valley, but he also was concerned enough about the Joshua/juniper woodlands to preserve a pristine area.

I was quite moved by this wild place. Walking through this desert woodland was pretty awe-inspiring. To find it, drive on Lancaster Road, heading west, about 5 miles beyond the Poppy Reserve.

Meet a beautiful – and sustainable – landscape

Friday, August 28th, 2009
Mike Mcdonald, a Green Builder and Visionary

Mike Mcdonald, a Green Builder and Visionary

gardendesign004Garden Design magazine asked me to profile one of its “Green Awards” winners for the September-October issue, which is out on newsstands this week.

The story is about a lovely, sustainable landscape designed to complement the cutting-edge, eco-architecture of Margarido House in Oakland.

Margarido House is the creation of builder-owner Mike McDonald of McDonald Construction & Development, and his architect-brother Tim McDonald of Philadelphia-based Plumbob.  The brothers and their multiple collaborators have created a stunning residence that earned the highest (Platinum) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It is the first home in Northern California to obtain the LEED-H Platinum Award (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

gardendesign005What makes this garden and its home sustainable?

1. It’s Permeable : The patio, roof and driveway surfaces are designed to capture all of the property’s storm water runoff. The driveway’s decorative design uses recycled and perforated Pavestone concrete tiles. Water percolates into a 4,000-gallon cistern hidden under the driveway and, when needed, circulates through the property for irrigation and flowing through the Zen garden’s piped fountain. “We’ve created a self-contained water loop,” Mike points out.

 2. It’s Durable: Garden designer Lauren Schneider of  Wonderland Garden and Landscape in Oakland, chose a diverse, drought-tolerant plant palette. She worked closely with local growers to specify California native varieties, as well as plants from many Mediterranean regions, including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, South America and Mexico. She closely observed the garden during its first year to evaluate whether each plant was durable enough to survive Oakland’s dry summer conditions with infrequent water.

 3. It’s Reusable: Recycled concrete is the basis for Margarido House’s über-modern S-curve chaises, tabletops and sleek urns, which contain succulents, bamboo, and New Zealand flax. Created by Bay Area Concreteworks Studio, which also fabricated interior concrete counters, the products satisfy LEED’s “local” and “reusable” criteria. Other outdoor furniture also has recycled content, including Room & Board’s  “Emmet” Adirondack-inspired chairs, by Loll Designs, made with 100 percent recycled high density polyethylene (plastic).

Margarido House, enhanced by a soft, sustainable garden

Margarido House, enhanced by a soft, sustainable garden

One of the key scoring factors in earning this ranking is Lauren’s sustainable landscape design.

Dreamy and naturalistic, the garden is an organic counterpoint to the geometric architecture.

Lauren actually created three distinct gardens – one on the ground; one in the air; and one that climbs an incredible vertical retaining wall and has multiple sections for planting (not to mention a melodic water feature to attract birds).

Photographs of the Margarido’s rooftop garden weren’t included in the Garden Design layout, due to space constraints. I wanted to make sure and show some here. The rooftop is pretty stunning, and not just because it has killer views of San Francisco Bay. It is installed on top of a capillary mat and layer of geo-textile material; over this base are “three inches of horticultural pumice as a drainage medium and five inches of lightweight planting mix,” Lauren explains.

Garden designer Lauren Schneider gave me a personal tour of Margarido House's exterior spaces

Garden designer Lauren Schneider gave me a personal tour of Margarido House's exterior spaces

The dramatic design includes sedums and sempervivums, golden barrel cactus, lewisia, Cleveland sage, lavender, deer grass, and Libertia peregrinans, a New Zealand iris relative valued for its bronzy-orange blades.

This garden provides top-down insular qualities that cool or warm the home, depending on the season. Flowers and stems of Cleveland sage, silhouetted against the sky, can even be seen through the skylight that illuminates the master bath. The roof garden invites its viewers to look close and study the interplay of plant colors and forms. In an abstract way, they echo the distant scenery where treetops and buildings form an irregular city skyline.

You can read the full story here. And enjoy this gallery of photos that I shot when visiting this past May. You’ll see details that caught my eye and get a fuller sense of this amazing landscape and home.

Now That We’ve Ripped Out The Grass . . .

Saturday, June 6th, 2009
We turned off the irrigation and tried to "choke" out the grass. This technique is fairly effective...until winter rains arrive!

We turned off the irrigation and tried to "choke" out the grass. This technique is fairly effective...until winter rains arrive!

The traditional lawn-centric backyard is changing – for the better.

After a brutal buffalo grass removal process (that stuff refuses to die!), we’ve begun the transition to create my “dream” garden.

Gone are a dozen pygmy date palms and two gangly buddleia shrubs that never looked happy, even when they were blooming. Gone is 800 square feet of grass. Now we’re ready to install a low-water, Mediterranean and California native landscape in several border areas, planting beds and center “islands.”

In place of the turf, we’re spreading California Gold gravel. The material is about 3/8ths inch in size and has a mid-tone sandy gold color.

In the Pacific Northwest, if you were going to do a gravel garden, you’d use “quarter-minus crushed gravel,” but it would be from basalt; thus, it would be grey. Grey works under grey skies. Gold works under sunny skies.

Here’s how it arrived, yesterday:


The thing I like about the California Gold (or any crushed rock medium) is that rain and moisture percolate through to the ground rather than running off into the storm water system. Plus, you can plant right into it, thereby softening the hard look of too much stone. It’s compact-able; thus, it’s not uncomfortable to walk on. I’m not sure how my dog, Zanny, is going to enjoy it, but luckily, we’ve left a few places around the side of the house for her to do her business.

I’ll keep posting more photos as we continue the journey!