2010-04-26

April Showers

Herbaceous borders became popular in the late nineteenth century partly as a reaction against formal beds of annuals that in various forms, had been in favor since the middle ages. Their apotheosis appears in the work of Gertrude Jekyll who, although half blind, had an intensely painterly approach to these plantings . The appeal of her work has helped ensure that, along with the mixed border (that includes shrubs along with perennials), it has continued as a dominant trope in garden design.

In the Surrey of my youth, herbaceous borders were certainly popular amongst the gentry - set against, perhaps, drifts of exotic rhododendrons and other woodland plantings. Often, another feature of note in these gardens was the rockery. This was an aggregation of rocks (or, at a pinch, broken concrete) inter-planted with succulents, alpine plants or heaths.

These two major thematic elements in the upper-middle class mid-twentieth century English garden canon, along with the more recent trend popularized by Piet Oudolf of the perennial meadow , and a swath of gravel (which arguably has its roots in the french parterre tradition), define the formal composition of our chaparral garden. Much of this has occurred without deliberate intention. At work is the miasmic zeitgeist and the happenstance of the site.

Last weekend we visited the garden of our neighbors Stephen and Clarissa Cornwell. Clarissa is responsible for the perennial borders of irises, lavendars, echium and sages. Here too are gravel terraces, lawn, rock walls and I suspect, somewhere a rockery. There is even a folly - the slab and foundation of a burnt-out house which has been artfully transformed into a terrace. This recent ruin has been imbued with an almost classical grace. Aeonium, kalanchoe, aloe and agave flourish in west facing beds. Beyond the garden to the south a tangle of oaks rises up to Sulphur Mountain ridge. To the north, majestic views of the Topa Topas, the foothills and valley and to the east Santa Paula Peak frame the predominantly blue and blue/grey plantings.

The horticultural conditions of our respective gardens are fundamentally different. The south facing slope of the Upper Ojai valley is drier, vegetated with chaparral and coastal sage brush while oak meadowland flourishes on the damper and cooler north facing slope. Rocks from the pre-historic spalling of the Topa Topas litter the south facing slope but, defeated by gravity, they populate only the lowest reaches of the north slope now splashed with oil seeps.

The siting of our respective houses means that we enjoy views to the south, north and west, with limited vistas to the east; their views are similarly expansive but are restricted to the west. Our houses face one another across the valley more or less at the same elevation and equadistant from the 150 which snakes through the valley floor alongside the creek.

Clarissa has embraced mediterranean and English plantings, along with a broad range of succulents while we have eschewed all non-natives, but both gardens draw from the same well of formal traditions. The structure of our garden has only slowly begun to emerge and it has been in a week of damp weeding afternoons that I have begun to fully appreciate its bones.

There are to my mind, five salient features: the tilted plain or front lawn; the spine to the west that is developing as both a mixed border and a rockery; the bowl to the north; the gravel pool terrace and the rocky clumping of oaks just above the north east corner of the house which was the anchor for the original siting of the house.

All these elements have been shaped by the underlying topography and successive waves of grading that have spanned the last decade. Rocks have been piled at the margins and now the spine that runs north south between the east and west meadows is a tumble of large rocks - and it is on the east facing slope of this feature that we have, by virtue of cutting back the rampant chaparral hard last spring, something resembling a mixed border with perennial flowers like phacelia (Phacelia douglasii?), bush sunflower (Encelia californica), california everlasting (Gnaphalium californicum), great stands of mimulus (sp. brevipes) and perezia (Acourtia microcephala), shrubby trees such as (the usual suspects) holly-leaved cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), walnut (Juglans californica) mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) and in between the sage brush stalwarts artemesia (sp. californica) and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis). Smaller dots of color are provided by blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) and purple owl's head clover (Castilleja exserta). Coulters lupine (Lupinus sparsiflorus) is underfoot while tarweed (Hemizonia fasciculata) is preparing to bloom; entwined throughout are wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) and morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia).

The spine transitions into the bowl (cut into dry, rocky and sandy soil) where deer weed (Lotus scoparius) predominates despite being hydro-seeded with the same mix that has provided a very different outcome on the front lawn (which is fill from Grimes Canyon). The deer weed provides some color and its massing segues into the chaparral beyond. At the west termination of the bowl three oaks rise out of the rocks with an under-story of holly leaved cherry, walnuts, poison oak and chaparral currants.

One straggly and disassociated oak to the north of this group has been marked as a source for firewood - its absence will open up a view to the 2000' high-point of the site which sits atop a sensual mound that marks the northern termination of the east ridge which, at the southern end, wraps to the west and provides the site with its unique sense of enfoldment.

Those damp afternoons of epiphany were devoted to weeding the mixed border and the bowl. Great drifts of clover have taken over in the spaces between established shrubs and its removal is critical to the survival of the needle grasses that have survived beneath the trifolium canopy. Amidst the clover, particularly in areas of dampness, our old friend erodium was ripe for the plucking. Occasionally, star thistle and italian thistle provide easy targets for annihilation.

On Saturday Lorrie and Griffin joined me in a final assault on the weedy edges of the gravel pool terrace. Work remains to be done and the promise of rain this week will greatly facilitate the task. Griffin is (understandably) an unwilling weeder. He will begin the vast work of weed-wacking along the drive next weekend.

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