Saturday, January 22, 2011

IKEA succulents

I was at IKEA yesterday to buy a book case, and as is usually the case I ended up checking out the succulent selection. Even though most succulents are tough as nails, the constant handling by customers—who aren’t always gentle, I’m sure—and the lack of watering eventually takes its toll. Yesterday, however, IKEA had a new delivery of perfect-looking succulents. They were still on a rolling cart and hadn’t been set out on the shelves yet. I managed to extract a few that caught my eye from the cart.

My haul from yesterday.
Top: Gasteria x ‘Little Warty’ (left) and Sedum nussbaumerianum (right).
Bottom: Sedum morganianum ‘Burrito’ (left) and Echeveria harmsii (right)

Succulents at IKEA are $2.99 for a 4-inch pot. That’s a great price and a savings of at least 25% over what box stores charge for 4-inch plants. Their selection varies constantly and you never know what you’re going to find. That’s the fun part.

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Echeveria harmsii (left) and Sedum nussbaumerianum (right)

The downside is that the plants are not clearly labeled; all the container says is “Succulents Assorted”. That isn’t an issue if you keep your succulents inside. However, if you plan on putting them outside or even planting them in the ground (like me), accurate identification is desirable in order to determine what the plant’s cold hardiness is. Just knowing that a plant is a sedum, for example, isn’t enough because there are sedums that barely tolerate 32°F while others are hardy to far below freezing.

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Echeveria harmsii (left; hardy to ~20°F) and Sedum nussbaumerianum (right; hardy to ~28°F)

So how do I go about identifying succulents? The answer is simple: the Internet. My first stop for succulents from IKEA is the Plant Library at Cactus Shop. This web site is operated by Altman Plants, a large wholesale succulent nursery in Southern California. They supply the succulents you see at box stores like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Orchard Supply & Hardware, Target and Walmart. While I’m not 100% sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if IKEA’s succulents came from Altman as well.

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Echeveria harmsii (left) and Sedum morganianum ‘Burrito’ (right;
hardy to ~30°F)

If the Cactus Shop Plant Library doesn’t yield a positive ID, I browse the web sites of large online succulent vendors such as Garden Life (the official online retail source for Altman plants), Succulent Gardening,, JadePoint or Roraima Nursery (they’re in Australia, but it doesn’t matter since I’m only trying to ID plants, not make a purchase).

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Sedum morganianum ‘Burrito’ (left) and Echeveria harmsii (right)

Finally I go to Dave’s Garden, one of the largest online gardening communities. Their PlantFiles database contains information and photos for close to 200,000 plants, contributed by over 40,000 gardeners. (I should add that on Dave’s Garden some features are free while others can only be accessed by subscribers.)

Between these resources I’ve been able to ID most of the succulents I’ve bought from IKEA and elsewhere.

Gasteria x ‘Little Warty’

Sometimes you come across more information than you really need or are willing to digest at that moment. For example, I found out that the gasteria I bought yesterday is an Australian cultivar named ‘Little Warty’, which is a cross between Gasteria batesiania and Gasteria ‘Old Man Silver’. ‘Little Warty’ is closely related to similar cultivars ‘Lime Warty’ and ‘Lizard Warts’ and is one of the ancestors of a gasteria x aloe hybrid called Gasteraloe ‘Green Ice’. Is your head spinning yet?

Gasteria x ‘Little Warty’

I bet that’s more than you ever wanted to know about this particular plant! It’s even more than I needed to know. After all, I just wanted to find out how to care for it. It turns out that practically all gasteria species and hybrids have the same cultivation requirements in our climate: light to full shade, hardy to 30°F. My gasteria will live in a sheltered spot on the front porch and be covered up during frosty nights.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Wonderful and wacky succulent containers

I’m always looking for inspiration on how to better display my succulents. Here are some of the more intriguing container ideas I’ve come across on the web, ranging from the fairly mainstream to the mildly unusual and the outright wacky.

Yucca rostrata, one of my favorite succulents, in a contemporary V-shaped container. ¡Me gusta mucho!
Anybody know a local source for the container in Northern California? I have three small Yucca rostrata that need a stylish home.
Source: The Seattle Times
Handmade in the Bay Area from at least 50% recycled steel, enameled in various colors. I find this über cool. Other designs on their web site.
Source: Bilt Products
steel container with Agave
I’m a sucker for steel containers.
If I had a local source for something like that, I’d buy one!
Source: Earth Designs
Old filing cabinet. Actually makes a clean looking modern container and is much cheaper than a purpose-built metal planter. Not sure about the color though.
Source: BaldManModPad
Cinder blocks. Now this I dig!
Source: Apartment Therapy
Recycled ash flooring. Clean, minimalistic and just plain beautiful. I  just wish it were bigger.
Source: ErdeDesigns
I don’t know what the actual container is but I love the simplicity—that is, after you throw out the silly rock.
Source: Nadia Knows Gardens
Tea tins. Too bad I threw out my tea tin collection years ago. Oddly attractive although borderline little-old-lady-with-blue-hair.
Source: Apartment Therapy
Various old containers, or “antiques” as they are called here in the U.S. I actually like these, especially the metal toolbox on the left and the wooden box on top. A bit on the Kountry Kitchen side but at least there are no stenciled geese.
Source: GRN Events
Crap or junk art? Kitsch or inspired design?
I can’t make up my mind.
If I were the cactus, I’d feel a tad undignified.
Source: Digging
Old camera. I have a few of those lying around. What would happen if you hung the camera from its strap?
Source: CoyotePact
Another cactus-in-a-camera design. I used to see lots of old Brownie cameras in yard sales but the supply has dried up in recent years. Maybe they’ve all been snatched up by Etsy sellers.
Source: Unlimited Editions
OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve always wanted one of these face pots, tacky or not.
Source: Gardening Gone Wild
Old tree root. Now if only I could find a piece of a cactus skeleton…
Source: Drought Smart Plants
Old boot. Perfect for your Gold Rush garden.
Source: SDCCS Green Room
New shoe. Perfect for the Real Housewives of XYZ.
Source: Giddy Spinster on
Golly Pods. Perfect for your Avatar-themed conservatory.
Source: Tend
That’s what I should have done with that broken old papasan chair! Silly me, I threw it away!
 Design: Roxanne Kim-Perez 
Old car part. Don’t ask me which part that is. I barely know how to open the hood of a car.
Source: A Plant Fanatic in Hawaii
Hey, if you have to have an old car sitting in your front yard, you might as well make it pretty!
Source: A Plant Fanatic in Hawaii
For the die-hard hoarders who won’t throw anything out, not even a bicycle that looks like it’s encrusted with pigeon poop.
Source: News Times
Old trunk turned succulent-studded pirate’s chest. Making these is the perfect pastime for aging buccaneers who can’t buckle the swash no more.
Source: Fantasy Gardens
Duh—I should have seen this coming! Million dollar question: Is the toilet new or used?
Source: Craigslist
OK, I simply have to post this. Not because the container is anything special, but because I think there should be a law against sticking googly eyes on cacti.
The horror! The horror!
Source: Gardening on Cloud 9

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Taming Silver Arrow

The Germans seem to have an affinity for silver arrows. Like the famous Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows from the 1930s and 1950s, the Silver Arrow I’m talking about is a racy thing. This German cultivar of maidenhair grass, with creamy stripes through the middle and along the leaves, is officially named Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ (German for “silver arrow”). Unless older variegated miscanthus cultivars, ‘Silberpfeil’ has a more upright habit and isn’t as prone to flopping over. However, to achieve the best form and to bloom, it needs at least 6 hours of full sun a day. Grown in more shade, the culms get lax and bend under the weight of the leaves, which produces a disheveled and decidedly less elegant look.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ in July of 2010. It’s a hard to believe that we planted it from a 4-inch pot in the summer of 2007.

With a height of 5-6 ft. and a width of 4-5 ft., ‘Silberpfeil’ is a stately plant with a commanding presence. Ours is planted outside our front yard fence and its variegated leaves make it stand out from the surrounding vegetation. In fact, from across the street, your eyes are immediately drawn to this slightly arching clump of greenish-silver foliage. Of all the ornamental grasses we have, this is my favorite.

Like most miscanthus, ‘Silberpfeil’ is hardy to zone 5 and can be grown in climates with pretty harsh winters. It doesn’t seem to be fussy about soil—ours is in clay—and it likes regular watering.

Some miscanthus cultivars are said to re-seed freely but I haven’t found a single seedling from our ‘Silberpfeil’ even though it produces copious amounts of seeds on its 6 ft. plumes. This leads me to believe that this particular cultivar is sterile.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ on January 17, 2011
after my wife cut it back

As vigorous as it is, the base of the plant forms a very tight clump, expanding outward by just a few inches each year. Since our ‘Silberpfeil’ has reached its mature size, I decided to remove about 6 inches from the back of the plant to create a bit of space between it and the fence. Initial attempts using a shovel failed so I got out our heavy pry bar. Ten minutes later I had two larger and three smaller divisions ready to be potted up. I may do some more chopping and prying on the weekend to create additional room—it certainly won’t hurt.

I removed 6-7 inches to give the clump some breathing room
One of the chunks I pried out with the crowbar
Divisions ready to be potted up

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Radical hair cuts

Even though we’re still in the middle of winter and not out of the woods yet as far as frost is concerned, we decided to start our annual round of trimming on the perennials outside the low fence in our front yard. This 4-ft. wide strip provides color from spring to early winter but often ends up looking like an overgrown jungle by the end of the year.

In July of 2010 and now

Last year we left some plants untouched, which was not necessarily the wisest choice. Many of our lavenders, now going into their 5th year, have grown large and woody. The interior is dead and moldy from a lack of light and air circulation. This is not good for the long-term health of the plants even though the outside looks perfectly vital. After a radical hair cut, our lavenders look unattractive now but as soon as it warms up, new growth will quickly cover up the unsightly mounds.

Grosso lavender (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’) in July of 2010
and now after its radical hair cut

Radical hair cuts were also given to the Silver Arrow maidenhair grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’) and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) shown in the photos below. The Mexican bush sage had its top growth fried by frost on January 11th and looked particularly unsightly. There’s already new basal growth so maybe we’ll get another round of bloom in the next couple of months. Typically, Mexican bush sage blooms for us from fall until spring.

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Silver Arrow grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) in mid-November and now

My 9-year old daughter, who was helping my wife with the trimming, couldn’t quite fathom why we would cut back plants that were still blooming (like the lavenders). I totally understand how she feels. Although I know it’s necessary, I still feel like I’m doing something horrible when I take the pruning sheers or nippers to a blooming plant.

My wife’s valiant trimming efforts produced quite a pile of plant matter. Fortunately, we have curbside pickup of yard waste!


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Indulging the blahs

Except for a brief interlude of sunshine on Friday, we’ve had nothing but gray, foggy weather for the last couple of weeks. I realize that compared to what winter is like in many other parts of the country, we have nothing to complain about. However, the damp and dank that accompanies this all-pervasive grayness gets into your bones and into your head.

Gray and dank—that’s how it’s been for the last few weeks

I want to go outside and work in the yard, but the soil is still saturated from the rain and the frost window is still wide open so there’s little point in doing any planting. There’s cleanup to do, but that kind of work doesn’t excite me even on the cheeriest and sunniest of days. I do have my 11 projects for 2011 to focus on, but most of them require better and warmer weather otherwise they become onerous instead of fun.

Books I’m currently reading

Even though I generally try not indulge the blahs, today I will give in to them. I think it’s healthy to give the finger to your to-do list now and then, and simply do nothing. I plan on curling up on the couch with a stack of gardening books I just checked out from the library. I’ll dream of gardening in places very different from ours, and maybe I’ll be inspired to try a new thing or two.

Indulging the blahs can be a great way to recharge your creative batteries.

Agave at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
I’d love to be there right now. The light in the desert is pure magic.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Calla comeback

Last week I posted a photo of the calla lilies in our back yard after a particularly cold night (10 hours below 32°F). I was convinced that all top growth was dead and that we would have to wait for the leaves to grow back from the rhizomes.


I’m very happy to report that I was wrong.

While some leaves are clearly damaged…


…and some look curiously yellow…


…the majority of them fared much better shape than I had anticipated.


It even looks like the flower stalks have survived unscathed and the flowers will open up soon, provided the temperatures manage to stay above freezing.


What a testament to the resilience of these beautiful plants!