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Dog Bites 

Dance away the energy blues, then worship at Sunset’s gardening headquarters

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
Pants, X-Small and X-Large

You have to take your triumphs where you find them, so Dog Bites, who had been eyeing the envelope containing the PG&E bill with approximately the same enthusiasm as we might had its contents actually been ticking, was thrilled, when we finally worked up the courage to open it, to discover our bill for the previous 30 days was $24.57 -- less than the January bill for $33.18!

Now that Gov. Davis has called for all Californians to reduce energy use by 10 percent, we'd like to share our tips on how we've achieved our own, let's see, 26 percent reduction. (We're pretty sure we did the math properly -- we can never remember which number to divide into which number -- but our point remains the same.)

OK, our apartment has frequently been chillier than we might like. On the other hand we've been having a great time, because we've discovered that when you're trying to stay warm, the best thing to do is go out. A lot. Listen, it's not a coincidence that Reykjavik is a great club town.

Sure, there are downsides. After a certain point anyone will come to the realization that there are only so many annoying remixes of "Cada Vez" and "One More Time" he or she can tolerate. And OK, the Hoochie Nation's stronghold is in the clubs of this city; almost nightly we are reminded of one of our most fondly held beliefs, which is that ultra-low-cut pants don't look good on anybody -- even, as the Grammy Awards demonstrated, celebrities with personal trainers. "What are those weird pants? They look like child pants," one of Dog Bites' male acquaintances is frequently heard to complain. Still, we have a vision here, and it's a vision of a city that doesn't sit at home channel-hopping between Survivor and Friends, so bear with us.

Enjoying the duties of our new position as self-appointed energy conservation activist -- "Can't talk. Have to go save electricity." -- we headed out Saturday to "Bottom Heavy" at the Top, which in Dog Bites' opinion has the best tiny dance floor in the city, especially since its perfectly minimalist disco ball always seems to inspire a significant amount of macking amongst crowd members. Still, if we're honest, we have to admit we haven't fully caught on to that weird little drum 'n' bass two-step yet. We felt better when our escort assured us this isn't really an indication of a complete lack of coordination. "You just need bigger pants," he explained, pointing to the goateed guy dancing next to us, whose trousers were flapping around his legs at about 180 bpm. "You have to have the pants to do the dance."

Big pants or no, by 2 a.m., when the entire sweaty crowd tumbled out into the Lower Haight to hail cabs, we had achieved our goal of becoming much warmer. So we say: Get out there and shake it, San Francisco! It'll help us all get through the power emergency, and it's not even hard.

Architecture and Morality

After our item about union organizing at the Fangtanic, Dog Bites was favored with a Wednesday morning phone call from political consultant Jack Davis, who wanted to clarify that while he had indeed visited the Fang Warfield Building -- also henceforth known as the Fang Warfield buildingTKuppercase?, to the several people who actually read to the end of last week's column -- and while he had met with Ted Fang, he had not been in a meeting with him. "What you said is wrong, wrong, wrong," said Davis. "Whoever told you that is full of shit."

Davis went on to explain that he met Fang at Fang's office in the newspaper and was given a tour of the new office space and "walked through floor by floor. I have a real interest in that building and in the Fang family." Fang, he added, also showed him some murals in the basement of the structure.

Cultural Requirements

After the usual, um, somewhat negatively oriented media stories, it is a great relief to Dog Bites to be able to report on a publication for which we feel unreserved -- well, love. This publication is the Sunset Western Garden Book, whose brand-new, vastly expanded eighth edition is now appearing in bookstores. In many circles this is a cultural event on a par with the publication of a new edition of the Joy of Cooking, though we feel we must note that gardeners are generally a less contentious lot than those huffy food people.

Given the chance to interview Kathy Brenzel, the elegant, soft-spoken editor of the Garden Book, and Sunset magazine's garden editor since 1981, Dog Bites nearly collapsed with happiness. Frankly, it would have been impossible for us to ask Brenzel any hard-hitting questions, even had hard-hitting questions been called for; what we secretly wanted to ask was, "Can we be you?"

That seemed creepy, so we settled for inquiring what it was like to have overseen the creation of the new Garden Book, which contains over 2,000 new plant descriptions, several new chapters, and a botanical Latin pronunciation guide. "People rely on it so heavily," said Brenzel. "They refer to it as the "bible of western gardening.' That carries with it a huge responsibility."

Just as the pope derives his authority from God, so the Garden Book derives its authority from Sunset magazine. Sunset, one of the oldest magazines in the "shelter book" category, tellingly styles itself "The Magazine of Western Living," and has, since 1928, guided its readership -- now 6 million strong -- to the best weekend getaways, taught it to make the tastiest roast chicken, showed it the floor plans of the ideal western home, and, of course, suggested the best plants for landscaping around a swimming pool.

We once read that the content of shelter books may be divided into two categories: aspirational and inspirational -- asp or insp for short, and to further disguise the fact that insp really means middle class. Asp titles are for readers who enjoy vicariously swooning onto the Aubusson rugs of the rich and famous; the World of Interiors, or Architectural Digest, for example, are asp. The decade-old Martha Stewart Living is both insp and asp, but mostly asp; in its pages, the tops of $14,000 Federal side tables are crowded with homemade Valentine's cards.

Sunset is insp.

In other words, we shouldn't have been stunned to find that the Sunset publishing empire's headquarters look exactly like an overgrown 1950s ranch house. The resemblance is not accidental; the entire spread, explained Brenzel, was designed in the early 1950s -- when Sunset magazine moved from Montgomery Street to Menlo Park -- "to be a laboratory of western living." The entry looks like a larger version of a private home's front door; the terra-cotta-tiled lobby, apart from a reception desk, looks like a living room, with couches and chairs arrayed on an area rug. Bookcases hold an array of Sunset publishing titles -- these run from the New Easy Basics Cookbook to Garden Style Decorating -- while on the far side of the lobby a set of sliding glass doors opens onto a patio and a huge expanse of lawn and garden. The wrought-iron chairs on the patio are overscaled to match the size of the "house," as are the table lamps next to them, causing the suggestible Dog Bites to experience the momentary sensation that we'd shrunk to near-child-size; we half expected to see Mr. Cleaver barbecuing outside, or Mrs. Brady appearing with a plate of Sour Cream Softies, a cookie that was an after-school favorite in Dog Bites' childhood home, and -- not at all coincidentally -- a Sunset magazine recipe.

Much of the popularity the Garden Book doesn't owe to Sunset magazine it owes to having created its very own climate zone system, which can be used to predict with enviable accuracy whether, say, a gold-band lily will bloom in Denver (yes), or whether a silverbell tree will thrive in Santa Monica (no). Gardeners in other parts of the country are stuck with the much less specific U.S. Department of Agriculture's Hardiness Zone map; the USDA system recognizes only 11 national zones, which form broad continentwide bands marked off in 10-degree increments of average minimum temperature. As Brenzel pointed out, "That puts Yuma, Arizona, in the same zone as parts of the Washington state rain forest."

Sunset's system, by comparison, recognizes 24 climate zones west of the Rockies alone. Driving from San Francisco to Menlo Park, a distance of only 35 or so miles down 280, we passed from Zone 17 ("Marine Effects in Southern Oregon, Northern and Central California") to Zone 15 ("Chilly Winters Along the Coast Range"); in practical terms this means the famed Sunset Test Garden -- which we toured! -- can grow citrus fruits and other plants that need summer warmth, while Dog Bites' cooler and foggier garden in the city can't. The USDA system lumps both into its Zone 9.

This update of the Garden Book took just over a year to put together, though it's much larger than the previous one, which was published in 1995. Planning began last September; there was a significant amount of groundwork (no pun intended), like sending out surveys to growers and nurseries to see who's growing and selling what where, that had to be done before the actual writing could begin in February. How many writers worked on the book? "Oh my," said Brenzel. "I wouldn't even want to guess."

Though there's already probably at least one slightly muddy copy of the Garden Book in every garden center in the west, Brenzel is touring garden shows, promoting the new edition at the beginning of the big spring planting season. Already sick with envy, we learned she'd just come back from the big Northwest Garden Show in Seattle with a wonderful new named variety of Phalaenopsis. The crowds aren't tough, either. "They're all so happy," said Brenzel. "Gardeners are happy people."

About The Author

Laurel Wellman


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