From an upper-story bedroom window, Michael Kappel looks down on his sumptuous garden in Westwood. It is a soothing sight for someone who lives in constant and excruciating pain, the result of a spinal cord injury sustained 12 years ago. Yet Kappel is the most resilient person I know, full of optimism and positivity, traits that are reflected in his flourishing plants, many of which defy conventional horticultural wisdom.
Kappel has two robust, richly flowering shrubs — a fuchsia and a rhododendron — that are more than 20 years old, despite the fact that it is rare for either of these exceptional beauties to live even half that long in Los Angeles. Here, they luxuriate in the dappled shade of a lemon-scented gum (Eucalyptus citriodora), the most distinctive eucalyptus species owing to its smooth, alabaster bark and well-spaced branches.
Most eucalyptus trees have rough and furrowed bark and a dense mass of stems and foliage. Lemon-scented gum provides a light and airy contrast to typical eucalyptus fare, in addition to carrying leaves that emit a strong lemony fragrance when crushed.
Conventional horticultural wisdom dictates that you should never plant under a eucalyptus tree. Eucalyptus roots have been found to be allelopathic, meaning that they secrete chemicals that depress or prevent growth of other plants. Yet most of Kappel’s plants are growing in soil that, just beneath the surface, is full of meandering eucalyptus roots.
For many hours at a time, Kappel is confined to his bed. When he rests there in his upper-story aerie, all he can see as he looks outside are the branches of his eucalpytus, upon which birds alight and chatter. Kappel likens himself to these birds, who lack for nothing.
“Each of us is given what he needs,” Kappel often tells me, “nothing more and nothing less. ”
In a container on Kappel’s patio, pink rock orchid (Dendrobium kingianum) is aglow with blooms more lavender than pink. It is commonly assumed that if you divide an orchid clump, you should be prepared to wait a few years until the new plants start flowering again. This rule does not apply in Kappel’s case. A year ago, he divided a small clump of pink rock orchid pseudobulbs.
Pseudobulbs, which are present in many orchid species, are equivalent to bulbs in every respect except they grow on top of the soil instead of under its surface. Kappel separated his small clump of pseudobulbs and repotted them in a larger container. Now, only a year later, each separated pseudobulb is already producing its own flowers. Pink rock orchids, with sister cultivars available in mauve, red and white, may eventually reach several feet across. Flowers are fragrant, too.
After Kappel had struggled to grow a conventional lawn — and growing a lawn is always a struggle in Los Angeles, but especially in the shade — he decided to go for broke by replacing it with Mondo grass. Mondo grass is actually a member of the lily family and has tough rhizomes to prove it. In the dappled light under his eucalyptus, Kappel planted his Mondo (Ophiopogon japonicus) from dirt flats, 81 plants to the flat, with 4-inch spacing.
If you opt to plant Mondo as a lawn replacement, make sure to plant common Mondo grass and not dwarf Mondo, which is less durable. Even so, you should not play badminton on Mondo grass. It does fine with occasional foot traffic but is not meant for heavy wear and tear. Once established, a Mondo grass lawn is highly drought tolerant. Kappel waters his Mondo lawn once a month in June and July, and twice a month in August and September. He has it cut to the ground once or twice a year with a lawn mower. After mowing, leaf-tip burn is observed but plants green up shortly.
Kappel cultivates vegetables and flowers in raised beds. Two potato varieties, ‘Yukon Gold’ and ‘Yellow Finn,’ always seem to be growing. Once a year, Kappel orders seed potatoes from a mail-order nursery. His son cuts up the tubers and plants the pieces. Close by the potatoes are Swiss chard with bright magenta and orange-gold stems, as well as curly-leaf kale, an ornamental type of cabbage. And then, suddenly, you see a black Johnny jump-up (Viola sp.), and learn that it self-sows reliably among the potatoes and the chard. Each corner of Kappel’s garden is a daring experiment, an unexpected pleasure, or both.
Kappel has adorned several patio containers that receive half-day sun, as well as his shady entrance garden, with trailing princess flower (Centradenia grandiflora). Yes, it is related to the shrubby princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) with royal purple blooms, except Kappel’s trailing version is a much sturdier plant. It will persist in the garden for years and years and is easy to propagate from tip cuttings, as Kappel has done in spades. Trailing princess flower is noteworthy not only for its silky lavender purple flowers, but for its unusual cone-shaped, deep rose-colored flower buds and crimson-infused foliage.
Tip of the week
Two weeks ago, I recommended bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) and European birch (Betula pendula) for their non-invasive roots, at least where proximity to houses and block walls was concerned. However, there was one important contingency that I did not consider: root damage to sewage lines.
Tom Adams, from Chatsworth, informed me that he had experienced major problems with bottlebrush trees growing into sewage lines on several properties where he had lived. In reading through the articles he sent, I noticed that European birch is similarly problematic where sewage lines are concerned.
One saving grace is that newer houses are likely have plastic ABS or PVC sewage lines, which are less susceptible to root invasion than the old vitrified clay pipes that were used almost everywhere in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.