Friday, July 25, 2008


It's hot and dry. The spring flowers are long gone. The poppies were showy for several months. At first, their floating orange petals held up on lush green foliage. Toward the beginning of June, several heat spells later (and no more rain), the orange still blazingly bright, but the foliage darker, browner, wiry.

Where seedheads were allowed to mature and disperse, there will be seeds waiting for the next winter rains...

In May, as the Childs box had peaked, I went by with a pair of trimmers and cut the plants close to the ground.

In the next weeks, a heat wave arrived. The window box began to flower anew, but in a more sedate and mature sort of way. 

As I sat at my desk, occasionally, I was startled by small black pellets raining down on me. Living in an old house is constant work. Things are constantly falling apart, paint peeling, water dripping, bugs eating.... I asked my family whether they knew what was falling from the ceiling. We saw no leaks, no chipping paint, no wierd bugs... 

Then it occurred to me that the small black pellets were simply poppy seeds--seedheads I had saved from the Childs window box were literally exploding as the temperature rose. The curved shape that the seedheads twist into as they dry turns each one into a coiled up spring. When it's just dry enough, the spring shoots tens of little black pellets bouncing off the walls with incredible energy. They would make the sound of tens of little pins dropped to the ground-- but more exuberant.

I packaged up some of these seeds, and distributed them at the Farmlab talk. 

"These seeds are from first generation urban poppies grown in the planter of Child's Moving Company on York Boulevard. According to Judith Larner Lowry, chronicler of native plant gardening, one botanist counted 70 different subspecies of California poppies existing in the wild. At one time, it's possible that there were even more subspecies than that: each type adapted to locally specific conditions of water, soil, etc.

"Right now, we can only guess at what the subspecies that grew near your own neighborhood was like. Plant these seeds, and allow the poppies to reseed year after year. Before you move on, pass on the love of wildflowers to a trusted neighborhood to look after the plot. Make sure that before they pass on, they find another neighborhood to tend the plot. In several hundred years, maybe a new locally specific subspecies might start to develop... one perfectly adapted to the urban soil and cultural milieu you have chosen for it..."

Monday, May 5, 2008

Wildflower hotline: May News


It's been two and a half months since the last drop of rain, and two months since the first blooms appeared in South facing window boxes on York Boulevard in Highland Park. The window boxes that provided non-stop cascades of blooms for so long are getting dry and asking to be trimmed down.

In many unirrigated places where I did not see poppy foliage even a month ago, there are now flowers in full bloom. The largest of these sites include the traffic island at the Southeast corner of Figueroa and York (most notably the traffic island off to the side of Jack in the Box, where they sell Christmas trees) and at the front edge of a large vacant lot in South Pasadena, directly across from the Nature Park. Most of the dramatic field of poppies at the entrance of the Nature Park has been razed. Graciously, however, the weed removal folks left a few sizable clumps of flowers.

Poppies are still looking great by the tattoo parlor and weaving store: this is to Nana's credit. Nana from the weaving store splashes them as she hoses down the street.


Oak woodland is just one of the main plant communities that once made up this region. South Pasadena might now seem to be an entirely new "plant community". This new plant community is made up of craftsman bungalows, sprinklers, ivy, shrubs and green lawns. Yet, I wonder, Does an oak woodland ever really stop being an oak woodland? How much of this first plant community would come back if humans stopped the weekly watering and trimming of lawns, ivy, and hedges?

While cutting back ivy in South Pasadena to make room for poppies more than six months ago, I uncovered a lone native oak sapling. Though this seemed reason for optimism, it was surrounded by four or five saplings of the ubiquitous exotic, Mexican Fan Palm, which is extremely difficult to eradicate.

Meanwhile, in a nearby San Marino botanical garden, every single hedge seems to have an exuberant oak sapling shooting out of it. When the hardworking gardener removes them, shoots simply sprout up elsewhere. The work is never-ending. Up above, oblivious to this struggle, the mighty oaks continue to do their slow seasonal work of dropping acorns. The scrubjays continue their work as well: distributing, stashing, and forgetting those same acorns.  (Judith Larner Lowry talks about the process of collaborating with local wildlife in designing her garden, in the book, The Landscaping Ideas of Jays. Go read this book!)

Breaking news from the world of plants: in South Pasadena and San Marino, the oaks are trying to gain back the landscape! They just need a little help. Clear the ivy. Pull out the Mexican Fan Palms. Don't cut the oaks down. Marc Herbst has urged us to tune into plants for the news. It's true. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Wildflower hotline: Urban wildflower tour scheduled

Sunday April 6, 10:30 am

In the California tradition of "going flowering" in the spring, please join us for an urban flora tour through Highland Park, South Pasadena, and San Marino. We will look at places poppies are blooming, and places they were removed. We can gossip about wildflowers and weeds, as we compare the public spaces of these diverse communities.

Starting point:
parking lot of York Boulevard Post Office
5132 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90042

The tour should last just over an hour. We'll start out with a bit of walking, so remember to wear comfortable shoes.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Wildflower hotline: The poppies are talking

The poppies are talking to us. Their petals open wide as the day begins. They curl tightly shut as the day ends. Contrary to what people say, California poppies make great (but delicate) cut flowers, and will continue to open and shut even when indoors. Mark time with the poppies.

Warm weather has brought out more flowers. Most of the South-facing sites planted in Highland Park are now blooming (on the North side of the street). A couple full-sun sites on the South side (North-facing) are blooming as well.

Good spots for urban poppy viewing are the North side of York between 55 and Nolden, and the entrance to South Pasadena Nature Park, just east of the 110. I've been told these poppies will become larger and more floriferous over the years, if they are allowed to remain in place, like the jaw-dropping poppies on the Southbound entrance of the 110 at York, which are growing out of cement cracks.
Not all the sites I tended are blooming. This artists' studio below was one of the first sites prepared and planted. Despite that many seeds germinated, and that it was one of the sites were I spent the most weeding hours, including reseeding and even transplanting from other sites, no poppies grew. I wonder if this local bird can tell us why? He was having a great time pecking at the ground.

As I was checking on the flowers, I met this group of girls, who were making themselves comfortable on this incredibly well manicured landscape in front of Super A. (A landscape which was too well maintained for poppy growth).
I complimented them on making good use of a very nice lawn in a neighborhood where the nearest park is.... Hey, come to think of it, there is no nearby park.

A couple locations in South Pasadena are blooming, though the majority of sites will bloom much later, if they survive at all. Generally, the sun in this area is filtered through the many non-native sycamores lining the street. (Hot and dry York Boulevard, in contrast, is planted with the sparsely canopied native sycamores, which were once an indicator of intermittent water sources, but are now used as an abuse-tolerant street tree.) 

This ivy-covered yard was the very first site planted. This is one of the few instances where there is clear communication between the very kind property owners and their gardener. Though it's in full sun and is well-tended by the gardener, only a few flowers are showing. So far.

The large plot which promised to become my most impressive show of poppies in South Pasadena was mowed in February, due to a communication mishap with the gardener. Will the poppies recover?

When I first sought permission to plant most of these sites, almost half a year ago, countless property owners told me, in the very same words, "Don't worry. No one will weed out the poppy shoots. The gardener is too lazy. He doesn't do a thing!" In fact, in most of these sites, I had to reseed the poppies when the "lazy gardeners" turned out actually to be very  on top of things. It is surprising how common it is to have so little communication between property owners and their "help"-- this happened in both Highland Park and South Pasadena.

This super wonderful property owner arranged the rocks like this just for the poppies.

For an even bigger show, involving California poppies among myriad compatriot California plants, look around the corner on Milan Avenue!

Next time: A report from a local governmental branch, which is gradually morphing into a guerilla community garden; and words from an underground oak woodland.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Wildflower Hotline: Stray blooms

The first stray blooms appeared about ten days ago in Highland Park, appropriately, in a cactus planter outside an artists' studio. This week more locations are showing poppy action--Child's moving company, The Rock Church-- all south facing sites on York Boulevard in Highland Park. 

In the several weeks since the last rains, the weather has warmed up dramatically. Though it's been relatively dry, the poppies have been growing exponentially faster than before. Unfortunately it's not just the poppies growing. Dave Pisley told me today, that in his own garden, weeds have been appearing by the "thousand-fold." Gotta get out and put in some more weeding hours this weekend...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Alone together

Commuting is the most communal and solitary thing I do on a daily basis. I get up in the morning and secretly hope to myself that everyone will have decided to stay home that day. Yet I am always predictably crushed to see you on the road.
OK, I am not always crushed...I guess there are some great moments you and I have out there. Like the time when we cooperated and you let me cut in front of you so I could merge onto the 110 South from the 5 freeway during rush hour? Or when you try to communicate with me by honking your horn (are my lights off?), waving your fist out of your car window (??), or pulling up beside me to look me straight in the eye (Oh).

One of my favorite moments is when we hear an ambulance siren far off and we decide to pull over together and let the ambulance go by. I love waiting with you alone in my car on the side of the street.
Most of the time, though, I want to just be able to ignore you-get out of my way, just move faster, why are you turning left right NOW?, fuck, asshole, you almost hit me!!!

Why, when I start my engine, do all of you out there suddenly become my competition, my pest, my co-dependent and sometimes, my savior?

Friday, February 15, 2008

South Pasadena Wildflower Update

This is one of the sites that was planted earliest, and where the poppies had been doing well. The owner is supportive of the poppies, but it's not clear how well the gardener understands the project. It looks like the poppies have been mowed! They are surviving, but shorter.... I'll need to call to find out what happened.....

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Highland Park Wildflower Update

The poppies are utterly on their own now. I only pitch in with a little weeding every once in a while.

Next week, look out for the South Pasadena Wildflower Update.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Elana's trip to Ecology Auto Wrecking

From my trip to the car grave-yard. Can't believe how sad I felt, thinking that my car would eventually end up at one of these places.

Monday, January 28, 2008

January Rains

It's been two months since the first seeds were sown. 
Some poppy shoots took off immediately, unimpeded by hard soil, harsh exposure, lack of care, weeds. In the easiest sites, the sprouts are lush and green, vegetal looking. I haven't touched them since they germinated, except to thin them out. In plots of the densest ground, the sprouts are lean and tiny by comparison, often bluish-green. Sprouts that germinated under the shade of larger weeds are pale, long, and stringy.

I've lost a couple plots of well-developed plants to diligent (but invisible!) maintenance people. I've also gained a couple plots just in time for this recent deluge. Several plots have been razed and then replanted. (Some of the folks who allowed me to plant were not aware of how diligent their gardeners can be. I also learned that the people who maintain the parkways are not necessarily in communication with the formal "owner"...)

People ask; "Why are you doing this?" Are you from the city?" "Then, who is paying you to do this?" "Oh, I see, it's a hobby! Your own yard must be very neat!"

The skeptical nod politely when I explain how to recognize the poppy shoots, how the first hair-like leaves pave the way for larger lacy poppy leaves.

The first month, watching for new shoots was exhilarating. After a day of tending the shoots, my subconscious would blossom with kaleidoscopic lacy foliage all night long.

In a couple of the largest Highland Park plots, however, the rains brought waves of weeds as well as poppies. First, there was the filaree. After I'd labored to save some poppies from filaree, mustard suddenly appeared, denser in some cases than the filaree had been! I attempt to battle the mustard, but cannot fight the oxalis, which also appeared with no warning. The poppies' delicate shoots and their roots are so easily damaged by weeding. Now all night long, images of tiny poppy shoots overwhelmed by the steroidal growth of hefty annuals flash through my mind.

Yesterday, I was astonished to come across this scene, which I sketched above, which reminded me of huge trees, fallen from storms or winds, which begin to grow again, with new main trunks ascending skyward from the downed trunk. The entire scene was not more than an inch and a half high. I'm drawing from memory here, so the forms of the leaf of the sprout might not be botanically accurate...

Monday, January 7, 2008

shadowy impressions on sunset

For my atob, I will be making a series of pinhole images, each exposure lasting the entire length of my commute, both from a to b and returning from b to a. Though taken regularly along generally the same route, these long exposure pinhole images will change as the time of day, amount of traffic, season, sun location, speed, and unexpected route changes alter what the light sensitive paper records.

I began the experiments this week, setting up the pinhole camera in the back window of my car. The darkroom is not yet ready, so the irregularly cut paper negatives (done with scissors in the closet!) have jammed a bit in the 4x5 holders. Today the camera slid, then flipped, as I took the big curve down Sunset heading up to Westwood. Though I'm interested to see those results, I have remedied this erratic variable with two strong strips of velcro. It has made my own commute more interesting certainly, as I study the drivers behind me, wondering if they imagine me a tool of the surveillance environment; if they know split-second traces of their faces, headlights, hood reflections will reappear in some form in chinatown. Tomorrow I will process the first four tests and hope the rain allowed for an initial phase of shadowy impressions on sunset.