In the Galapagos: Change We Can Believe In

Just about everybody knows the strange Pacific Ocean islands of the Galapagos were the jumping off point for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.Those isolated bits of land seemingly adrift in the vastness of the Pacific offer a glimspe into the crucible of life and, literally, a textbook study of the concept of natural selection. The island birds, esp the finches (such as this cactus finch on Genovesa, aka Tower Island) and the mockingbirds, have evolved distinct species on different islands.

So, when we think of evolution, we tend to think of the animal kingdom, but the Galapagos also reveal a slower kind of evolution, the gradual transformation of barren volcanic rock to rich rainforest. Look how it all starts in these islands, which, like Hawaii, are the result of a hotspot, a leaky hole in the Earth's crust far below the surface of the sea. Lava oozes out of the hole and over the millennia forms massive mountains The tips gradually emerge from the sea to become islands, the Galapagos Islands.

Soon, the lava cools. Colonies of aptly named lava cactus appear. This rugged pioneer plant is one of the very first to grab a toehold on the forbidding, sun-baked lava flats. Gradually it spreads its roots into the lava, cracking it apart, and beginning the torturously long, slow process of turning stone into soil.

As eons pass, sea life washes up onto the lava shelfs to die and decompose, adding nutrients to the soil.

As the lava slowly breaks down to a sandy substance, the little, silvery whiskbrooms of tiquilia arrive.

Color arrives as soil is enriched by the decay of pioneer plants, animal matter and the like. The era of grasses dawns, along with thorny shrublets and mats of sesuvium, a succulent that turns fiery colors in the dry season. Land iguanas love to prowl through this stuff.

These amazing creatures look utterly prehistoric and exhibit amazing diversity, lumbering past in a paintbox set of hues comprised of yellows, reds, and oranges.
Trees rise. The Galapagos are parched during the dry season, when trees such as palo santo, the holy stick, drop their leaves. It leafs out and blooms around Christmas, with the return of the rains, Palo santo is related to frankincense, and its sap contains an aromatic resin burned in mainland Ecuador's churches as incense.

Along with the trees, a variety of cacti begin to reach for the sky.

Among them are various prickly pears, which here rise to exceptional heights. Their towering stature is due to another freakish characteristic of life forms that have evolved in island isolation over many thousands of years, gigantism. Think of Komodo dragons, the famed Galapagos tortoise (similarly sized tortoises can also be found in the Aldabra islands, an isolated archipelago in the Indian Ocean), or, heck, even King Kong. In the Galapagos there's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg question that goes with gigantism--did the prickly pear get big to keep its fruits from being consumed by giant tortoises, or did tortoises grow big to reach more prickly pear fruit? Maybe it's an exotic example of symbiotic co-evolution.

Life begets life. At some point, the diversity of plant and animal species increases and, as if through some synergistic magic, increases yet again. The older islands are actually quite green and diverse, while newer bits of land are still baked lava crust supporting a paucity of species. For most of the birds for which the Galapagos are so famed, and for many of the other critters, the islands aren't much more than a place to nest and take a rest--all their food comes from the surrounding seas. At any rate some day, as here in the highlands of Santa Cruz, the islands support a rich, almost rainforest abundance of life. Thus, a new Eden is born.


Beauteous Bulbines

Guess what's odd about Bulbine frutescens. It's got no bulb. Nor does it have a rhizome, corm or tuber. But aside from its ill-chosen name, there's plenty to like about this stellar South African native known to locals as snake flower, cat's tail, or burn jelly plant (yes, it has some medicinal value). Bulbine is actually a succulent, but I know few that flower as freely as this one. I grow bulbine in a pot, where its hummock of rather finely textured grassy foliage looks tidy and well mannered early on. Later in the season, narrow wands rise skyward to erupt with a clown hat of tightly nestled buds which, soon enough, yield delicate orange flowers. When a plant produces 10-15 or more spires at a time, the effect is glorious. There's one drawback: the whole thing is kind of dinky, with the wands reaching, on a good day, maybe 18-24 inches and each flower smaller than a thumbnail. But pretty! And so wonderfully complex. Carefee as any succulent, and easy to overwinter indoors in cool temps and bright light.


Man-Eating Plants!!!

OK, have I got your attention? Good. Now take your mouse, tickle it, and head straight over to Dark Roasted Blend for a superlative photo collection of carnivorous plants in all their resplendent glory. These pix are just great, and the whole carnivorous clan is represented, from pitcher plants to sundews and venus flytraps. The only one missing and--come to think of it--the only actual man-eater is Audrey, the vexing vegetation from the Little Shop of Horrors. Though none of these are hungry for Homo sapiens, some are big enough to eat a rat. Yum!

Dog Soup

No, it's not what you're thinking. Dog soup is actually a description of the coyote genome (that of the Eastern coyote anyway), which, as it turns out, contains bits of wolf and dog DNA, and so is a melange of critters in the genus Canis. That's just part of what you'll learn in a fascinating story about the canny coyote in the New York Times. Turns out these guys are a lot smarter than you might think. Some even team up with other species in ongoing partnerships to hunt more effectively. And, news to me, they are not crazy. Some times the woods around us echo with their spooky, cackling giggle, and it sounds as if the inmates have escaped the asylum.


Color It Wild

I'm an equal opportunity garden enthusiast, but I get a touch zealous about what I call handmade gardens-those designed, planted and maintained by the homeowner(s). Handmade gardens are the most personality rich and idiosyncratic of gardens, reflecting, as they do, the undiluted vision of their makers. These are gardens without compromise. And one of my favorite handmade gardens hereabouts is the creation of Les and Monique Anthony, whose Wallingford, CT garden was on tour yesterday as part of the Connecticut Horticultural Society Open Gardens series.

Why do I like it? Well, here's one reason: Les (who's a dab hand with a can of spraypaint) and Monique share a vibrant, playful sense of color. It's apparent in their plantings, which are exceptionally rich in colorful foliage but also in their "stuff," their ornaments, doodads, thingamajiggies, and what not. The chairs, the pots, the tables, on and on it goes. Even something as simple as a metal orb is rethought by virtue of several wildly varied shades of spray paint. I never tire of looking at it. And we'll be back, to see what Les and Monique do with foliage.


Highway in the Sky :

Next time you look up, think about this:

Hat tip: Boingboing and NPR


Fab Foliage Friday!

This gloriously gleaming bit of garden bling brightens any landscape all year round. It's Blue Ice Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica 'Blue Ice'), an easy to love, undemanding conifer that simply glows, especially when placed against a dark backdrop. Though I'm a card carrying ABG (anything but green) gardener besotted with colorful foliage, I do, sadly, have a paucity of the silver spectrum represented in my foliar follies. Silver and burgundy leafy combos satisfy, but I'm really smitten with chartreuse, and, to my eyes, silver and charteuse should not even be in the same zip code together. So I have to place my silvers with care. And restraint. This was one of the few plants that really thrived during our baking, rain-free summer and though it's often rated hardy to just USDA Hardiness Zone 7, I've been growing it here in 6 for several years.


Pergolas, and Fine Gardening's Photo Blitz

I worked several years as the managing editor at Fine Gardening magazine, and for many more as a contributing editor, so I wasn't too surprised to get a call from the most-excellently-named associate editor Brandi Spade (left), who'd run across an old photo that included part of one of my pergolas (I've since built several more). Anyway, she needed pictures to accompany a story she was developing about pergola-making, so she and newbie editor Ann Stratton arrived yesterday for a pergola photo blitz.

Below is my best-looking pergola, its entry framed by a few colorful, tropicalesque pots. Any structure adds a synergistic effect to a garden, with enduring bones that create a strong dialog with the more ephemeral plantings that surround them. And any structure looks good all year. I value pergolas, especially, because of the way they soften the transition between indoors and out. Under cover of one, you're sort of betwixt and between, not really inside, not really outside.

Best of all, the inner sanctum of a pergola is what Julie Moir Messervy refers to in her superlative book "The Inward Garden" as an archetypal space, a place that resonates with the magic and mystery of the settings we loved as children exploring our new world. I used to love making forts under the forsythia bushes, so it's probably no accident that a plant-draped, sheltering kind of space is still deeply satisfying to me. I don't know whether Julie would call this a "cave" or a "harbor", or even an "island" (for its feeling of separation from the rest of the world), but what matters is that the cover of the pergola provides me a meaningful retreat.

Because I like pergolas, and the feeling they give me-by inviting me, from the outside, or the sense of security and embrace they provide from within--I've got a few. My veggie garden, though worn out by now, still looks inviting thanks to the pergola attached to my garden shed. Those morning glories-'Heavenly Blue', what else-provide a pleasing echo to the shed's blue hues. By the way, if there is any way to get a truer, long lasting blue into the garden, or anything better than this plant-and-forget-about-it morning glory, please let me know.

Finally, there's my entry way pergola, last to be built, but not least. Slowly but surely it is being covered by climbing hygdrangea, but in the meantime, it frames our doorway and the garden entry. And eases the in/out transition. Like the others, it is of very simple contstruction. I contemplated making it fancy with lots of layers and ornamental cuts, but in the end decided I wanted to stick with the architectural vernacular of the house. Its staunchly colonial, salt-box style would be compromised by anything else. Far as I 'm concenred, the only rule worth having for pergolas is this one: Make your plans, then use wood one size up-6x6 uprights instead of 4x4, 2x8 rafters instead of 2x6, etc. As with so many things in the garden, bigger is almost always better.


Soaking It Up

Our trip to Ecuador included a visit to Termas de Papallacta, a hot springs high in the Andes. We never did get a glimpse of glacier draped Antisana, a huge mountain that towers over all, but during a couple days in a cabana , we spent plenty of time soaking. The place has more than 20 pools--all different temperatures--and many are artfully configured with stone edgings and mosaics. The Artiste once spent all night soaking, gazing up at a spectacular skyscape. and Birdboy was in the water every chance he got.

As for me, I had to spend some time admiring the plant life, which was celebrated in surrounding gardens with swaths of echeverrias, calla lillies, fucshia, Brugmansia sanguinea, and so many others, most, sadly, unknown to me.

Decades ago, I passed through Papallacta while I was on a 6-month hitchhiking trip through Latin America. As it happens, I got there by bus, a battered, smoke-belching vehicle crawling up out of the sweltering Amazon basin from the jungle town of Misahualli. Of course the bus was full, and I was riding on the rooftop luggage rack (the better for awesome views of the Andes). When I got to Papallacta, dusty and dry (me, not the village), those hotsprings--then totally undeveloped--were mighty inviting. So, it was nice to discover, even having been gentrified (or what passes for same in a remote hamlet), they are still an enticing spot for serious R&R.


There's a Nekkid Lady Out There

The Artiste hosted a painting party this weekend. About ten of her pals gathered in the back garden and spent the day painting and sketching a model they'd hired. Their rapt attention was amazing, and everyone was in such a deep state of creativity that they hardly spoke. You could just feel a wave of energy emanating from their collective easel. Once it got toward late afternoon, paintbrushs were exchanged for wine and mojitos--did I ever tell you I make the BEST mojitos?--and a little review and criticism of each other's work. Here's a sampler of the results:

After work , it was time for play.

So, we retired to the knoll, for a torch-lit, potluck dinner and the warmth of Birdboy's fire.


Unearthing My Recent Past

OK, so I've been MFB (missing from blogosphere) for almost a year now. Some sort of explanation might be in order, but it's a long story. Anyhoo, here's some of what I've been up to lately.
Remember this part of the garden? It looks presentable here, but I've never beeen satisfied with it--despite many iterations and years of evolution. A good solution always escaped me.

So we regrouped and called in the earthmover, who came in February to dig the whole place up. incuding the big frozen rootballs of any plants worth saving. This guy was a master at maneuvering his tiny digger and managed to scrape out enough space for a foundation without causing major havoc in the rest of the garden, and soon enough we had Clatter Valley's newest feature: a sunroom.

Lots is going on in there that will be the subject of future posts. I'm growing exotic vines planted in the ground (the floor is gravel, atop richly amended soil), carnivorous plants, a green wall and, of course, it will soon provide winter quarters for some of my favorite tropicals.

Our hope is that this will become our home away from home come winter, where we can dine amid the feel of a tropical splendor. The artiste's sole stipulation is that we have room for a dining table and chairs. otherwise I can run amok in there--and I plan to do just that. Birdboy let loose some anoles (gecko-like lizards) and for a while a finch and parrot were in free-flying residence. Alas, the critters have already escaped to either their reward (the birds) or the great outdoors (the anoles).

Over this sweltering summer, I wrassled 5 tons of stone to create terraces and raised beds that frame our new addition. The place is already starting to settle into the garden at large. Here's a look at some of the pots on the new terrace just outside the sunroom

Dude, Where's My Tornado?

Wish we got some of this rain. Could do without the wind though.