Leveling a pot and potting it up

Sunny and 65 degrees F, yesterday was flat-out perfect gardening weather, and I puttered, planted, and potted nearly all day. One of my last projects before I collapsed indoors involved a bit of rearranging and ground prep in order to pot up a ‘Sharkskin’ agave that’s been too shaded for its liking. Some agaves, I’ve found, just do better in pots, where you can give them excellent drainage, especially in winter when they risk rotting in chilly, damp soil. Aside from that, placing a pot in a garden bed creates an instant focal point and elevates a plant so you can appreciate its finer details. Also, potting the ‘Sharkskin’, a lethally spiny agave, would make the garden safer for our dog, Cosmo. I’d been snipping the tips off the lower spines, but I still worried he’d get poked in the eye.

Looking for a hot, sunny spot to keep my ‘Sharkskin’ happy, I decided on this corner between the deck and the hillside-garden path. A few years ago, I’d recognized the need for a focal point here and plopped a birdbath filled with green glass “water,” moved from my former cottage garden. In summer this space is livelier with fragrant sweet almond verbena (Aloysia virgata), Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), and wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys). At this time of year only the globemallow and wall germander are green.

Looking up the path, it’s a late-winter, straw-bleached scene of bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa), butterfly vine (Mascagnia macroptera), and gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida). Oh yeah — plus the sad, shaded, little ‘Sharkskin’ agave.

After moving the birdbath out of the way, I got my tools and supplies together. That’s right: I don’t just plop a pot in a garden bed. If you do that, you’ll soon see your pot leaning to one side, sinking into the soft soil, and you’ll forever be futzing with it. But if you lay a compacted, level base for your pot to sit on, you won’t have to fiddle with it later.

I bought a bag of paver base (crushed gravel), a bag of paver sand, and a couple of 16-inch square concrete pavers from Home Depot. With a tamper (a heavy, metal plate with a wooden handle) at the ready, I grabbed my shovel and dug an 18-inch square 3 or 4 inches deep.

I poured the bag of paver base into the hole and used the tamper to pack it down firmly. Then I spread a few inches of paver sand and laid the first concrete paver, checking with a level and moving sand as necessary to ensure that the paver wasn’t sloping to one side. The first paver sat flush with the soil, which was fine, but I wanted a little more height, so I placed the second paver on top. Then I filled and tamped around the edges with the soil I’d dug out.

Next I heaved my beautiful new pot from Barton Springs Nursery (bought on sale just after Christmas) onto the pavers and checked one more time with the level. Perfect.

I put some chunky rock for drainage in the bottom of the pot, and then I filled it with a mix of gravelly pebbles (leftover from another project), decomposed granite, and Hill Country Garden Mix from The Natural Gardener. I dug up the ‘Sharkskin’, taking care not to impale myself, and potted it up. A mulch of decomposed granite finished it nicely. I hope it’ll be much happier here. I’m enjoying my new focal point.

Cosmo photobomb!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Mementoes and memories in the garden of Rebecca Sweet: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling

Our 4th stop on the 2nd day of the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling was the Los Altos garden of designer, author, and blogger Rebecca Sweet. I’ve admired her garden not only on her blog, Gossip in the Garden, but in magazines like Sunset, so I already had an idea of the treat we were in for.

Although most of our conversations have been on Facebook and in the comments of our respective blogs, I count Rebecca as a friend. We met in person last fall at the Garden Writers Association symposium, and I found her to be as sunny as her blog persona and surname suggest, but with a hilariously snarky sense of humor thrown in to surprise you now and then. She greeted us with her trademark smile as we stepped off the bus.

Rebecca grew up in this house, and in 2000 she and her husband, Tom, bought the property from her parents. As she explains on the Fling website, she’s spent the past decade and a half “re-inventing the garden…[t]o create a secluded, private and deeply personal garden where one can lose themselves for hours….Consisting of several private spaces, infused with childhood mementos from both my own past as well as my daughter’s, my garden is less of a designer showpiece and more like a diary. It’s a place to play, experiment and show my personality — and I love it with all my heart.”

The first thing you see is a small, circular front lawn enclosed by a scrim of lush plants, which gives privacy to the cottagey ranch house.

With plenty of windows overlooking the garden, Rebecca and her family enjoy beautiful views.

Classic hydrangeas mingle with funky grevillea in the front garden, introducing you to the fun variety of plants Rebecca grows. Like most gardeners, she enjoys shaking things up and confided that she plans to rip out the small front lawn and replace it with a mix of agaves and other spiny, water-thrifty plants. A bold move — I approve! Nothing wrong with that lawnette though; it makes a lovely negative space in the center of a full garden.

While there was plenty to enjoy out front, Rebecca invited us into the back garden for refreshments on this surprisingly hot day. Strolling through the narrow side yard, I noticed the vertical gardening she’s doing, including this charming windowbox, and I recognized certain vignettes from her book Garden Up!

Although narrow, the side garden is as inviting as the main garden thanks to a brick path, eye-level succulent wreaths and windowboxes, and this umbrella-shaded patio set. A glimpse of the back garden, half hidden by shrubbery, beckons you forward.

You enter the back garden under a wooden arbor shading a gorgeous, sea-green, tile-top table.

Antique brick laid in a herringbone pattern makes a classic floor for a comfortable seating area near the back door.

Gazing out on her garden, I was immediately captivated by a mint-green aviary alive with chirping canaries and finches. An enormous, fuchsia bougainvillea clinging to the corner of the house tried its best to steal the show.

At its feet, along a narrow, gently curving brick path, a line of blue-green echeverias makes a stunning border.

A variegated euphorbia and other yellow-tinged plants harmonize sweetly with the echeverias.

And just look at this vignette: such wonderful texture and color contrasts. And I love the metal gate accent and the succulent wreath on the wall.

Looking across the rectangular lawn, you see a pair of steamer chairs on a circular paver patio. Intimate seating areas like this abound in Rebecca’s garden.

Following that path with your eyes to the far end of the garden, you spy another small patio, even more inviting than the first. The privacy fence here and throughout the garden is completely obscured by shrubs, vertical trees, and vines, making for a green backdrop that psychologically enlarges the garden. Rebecca’s daughter’s old play set is just visible to the right; Rebecca plans to remove the swing portion and garden up this section.

Continuing on the path by the aviary, you come to an outdoor sink and countertop, adorned with a mix of succulent planters.

An arbor along the path offers entrance to the back of the garden, largely screened off by shrubs. Passing through the arbor you enter a surprisingly generous patio space anchored by this shed-turned-design-studio. With husband Tom’s carpentry expertise, Rebecca transformed her parents’ old, slant-roof shed into a dreamy work space that doubles as a “chick shack” for relaxing with friends. (Here’s Rebecca’s post about the shed remodel.)

By the door, potted ivy and other plants hug the foundation and brighten the scene.

Along the side, recycled windows that open outward add even more charm.

Inside, pale yellow walls and a peaked roof give a sense of airy spaciousness to the tiny room. A cushy sofa, a couple of wicker chairs, and a coffee table provide a place to put your feet up.

Along the back of the room, a long countertop offers work and display space, with curtained storage beneath.

A small desk provides space for Rebecca to draw garden designs for her clients. I don’t know how she keeps this room so uncluttered since it serves as a work area. I could take a lesson there.

Windowsills serve as artful display space for Rebecca’s collections and mementoes, like these tiny crocks filled with tillandsias.

On the wall hang charms and pretty cards, along with framed copies of her magazine articles. Rebecca has an eye for display. You could spend hours discovering all the charming details amid the vignettes she’s created.

The brick path leads around back of the shed/office, where you find this potting bench all dressed up with more of Rebecca’s pretty decor.

On the back wall of the shed hangs a collection of old tools, some of which belonged to her father, others to her grandfather. What a great display idea and one that can keep a loved one’s memory alive. I carry a small measuring tape that belonged to my grandfather, and whenever I pull it out and see his initials on it, I’m reminded of him, though he’s been gone for 17 years. So I love that Rebecca has saved her grandfather’s tools to remember him by.

This vignette really grabs me, especially since it’s tucked away in the back of the garden, where you have to explore to find it. Rebecca found an old mantel, dressed it up with seashells, and anchored it against the back fence. A plantable head adds gravitas, while potted ivies spill from the mantel shelf. Where the fire would be, were it indoors, Rebecca cleverly planted flame-shaped sanseveria. You can’t help exclaiming with delight when you discover it.

I like this: filling a too-large plant holder with pinecones.

My friend and fellow Austin blogger Diana with Rebecca’s cute dog

Following the brick path back toward the house, I stopped to admire the steamer chair seating area.

I think this is a variegated octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) underplanted with echeveria — fabulous!

A golden-leaved plant in front picks up the golden stripes of the agave.

Tiny succulent pots mingle with telephone glass insulators on the side-garden patio table.

A last look back at Rebecca’s garden reveals another beautiful surprise: a jacaranda in full purple bloom. I saw lots of these tropical trees in Santa Barbara earlier this summer, but they’re not often found, Rebecca told us, in the Bay Area.

We saw many lovely gardens on the Fling tours, with beautiful plant combinations in every one, but Rebecca’s garden is one of my favorites thanks to her talent with vignettes and the personality she’s infused into every corner of her garden. Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your garden with us!

Up next: The Testa-Vought Garden, designed by Bernard Trainor, perfectly designed for outdoor living and entertainment. For a look back at the grand estate garden of Filoli, click here.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Virtual book tour for Indoor Plant Decor, plus a Bonsai Tool Set Giveaway

My friends Kylee Baumle (Our Little Acre) and Jenny Peterson (J Peterson Garden Design) have co-authored a brand-new book called Indoor Plant Decor: The Design Stylebook for Houseplants. To celebrate and help publicize its release, I’m participating in their cyber book party. And you know what a party means: prizes! But before you jump to the giveaway listing at the end of this post, I hope you’ll stick around for my review of their book.

First a confession. I have to admit that while I was happy for my friends for writing a book, I wasn’t initially all that interested in the topic. Regular readers know I’m not a houseplant gardener. I have one spindly dracena in the living room and a small aloe on the kitchen windowsill, and that’s it. In general I feel that plants, like animals, belong outdoors. (And yet I have an indoor dog too. What gives?)

But while reading Indoor Plant Decor, I began to have a change of heart. Jenny and Kylee show a variety of ways to showcase commonplace houseplants. With chapters organized by decorating style — Cheap Chic, Peaceful Zen, World Beat, and Vintage Vibe, to name a few — the book shows how to complement your interiors by choosing appropriate plants and containers or other methods of display. Simply changing out a ho-hum pot for something different, like the wood planter pictured above, groomed with moss and raked sand on top, can make an ordinary plant into a standout accessory for your home.

Based on their chapter descriptions, I’d say my style is modern eclectic. But I was particularly drawn to the plant displays shown in their Haberdashery chapter — houseplant style especially for men. I imagine it’s partly because they show bold-foliage plants here, but I also admire the earthy and striking, no-fuss display methods, like this clear glass bowl filled with pebbles and topped with succulents. I love this!

The book is small, gift-book sized, and packed with appealing photos, and would make a nice housewarming or college graduate gift. You won’t find a lot of how-to info on growing houseplants — there are other books on the market that fill that niche — but if you’re looking for a book of ideas and images to get you thinking about new ways to display your plants and update your decor, this book is for you.

And now for the giveaway! My prize offering is a handsome Bonsai Tool Set from DeWit Tools. Here’s the description from the company website:

This Bonsai tool set (really more of a small garden tool set) is just the right size for maintenance of your Bonsais or other small plantings. Don’t let the size fool you, these tools are made with the same quality materials as the larger DeWit tools. All four tools have blade made of Swedish boron steel and fitted with an Ash hardwood handles from FSC Certified forests. Comes with wood storage case and Guaranteed a Lifetime! All tools are 6-7 inches long. Total value: $75.00

How to enter:
Leave a comment on this post to enter my giveaway of the bonsai tool set (FYI, another blogger is giving away a 2nd set). The giveaway runs through Sunday, May 12, at 11:59 pm. I’ll announce the winner on Monday the 13th. Please note that this giveaway is open to U.S. residents only. Update 5/13/13: The winner, selected by a random number generator, is Danny! Congratulations, Danny, and my thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

Ten Eleven bloggers are participating in this fun virtual book tour, each offering a prize related to houseplant gardening. Visit each blog and leave a comment on the giveaway post for a chance to win that specific prize. The more blogs you visit, the more chances to win! Good luck!

Carolyn Binder – Cowlick Cottage Farm
Shawna Coronado – Shawna Coronado
Charlotte Germane – Dirt Du Jour
Stacy Risenmay – Not Just a Housewife
Erin Schanen – The Impatient Gardener
Rebecca Sweet – Gossip in the Garden
Christina Salwitz – Personal Garden Coach
Steve Asbell – The Rainforest Garden
Debra Lee Baldwin – Gardening Gone Wild
Robin Horton – Urban Gardens
Pam Penick – Digging

Disclosure: St. Lynn’s Press sent me a copy of Indoor Plant Decor for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion. The giveaway prize has been donated by DeWit Tools.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.