Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Brown-bitting our cordylines

“Brown-bitting” isn’t in your gardening vocabulary? Don’t feel bad, it wasn’t in mine either until I read the book Architectural Plants by Christine Shaw. It literally just means removing all the brown bits of a plant—dead or dying leaves, spent flowers and so forth. It’s something I do regularly, but now I have a handy word to describe it.

Almost exactly two years ago we redid the far corner of our back yard, next our the Washington navel orange tree. This area is tricky because in the summer it only gets a few hours of sunshine in the morning, and maybe another hour (if that much) in the afternoon. In the winter the sun is too low to hit this area at all. We decided to plant mostly foliage plants, including several cultivars of lilyturf (Liriope muscari), Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) as well as two variegated flowering maples (Abutilon pictum 'Thompsonii' and Abutilon x ‘Savitzii’). In the right-hand corner (not visible in the photos below) is a blue bamboo (Himalayacalamus hookerianus ‘Teague’s Blue’).

Freshly planted cordylines, January of 2009

The focal point in this area are two cordylines (Cordyline australis). I chose the regular all-green kind because the more colorful purple varieties tend to get lost visually unless they’re placed against a lighter background. Cordylines are a common sight in their native Australia and New Zealand and have become quite popular in California in the last 10 years. I’m very fond of their long strappy leaves and vertical growth habit. As the older leaves die and shrivel up (or get cut off, as the case may be) the plant forms a thin trunk, with the growth concentrated in the pompom of leaves above. This gives the plant a palm-like look.

January 2011

Our two cordylines were planted in January of 2009 from 1-gallon containers and have grown quite a bit since then. Even though the bottom leaves were still largely green, I decided to trim them to make the trunks more visible and give the plants more definition.

Before black-bitting
After black-bitting

Cordyline australis has several common names, including cabbage tree and and cabbage palm. I have never actually heard anybody call them that, and I have no idea where the cabbage reference comes from—no cabbage I’ve ever seen has leaves like that! I believe in the U.K. cordylines are called Torbay palms, probably because they thrive in Torbay and other spots along the Southwestern coast of England.

January 2011

Cordyline australis is said to be hardy to 15°F, even lower with some protection. It grows well in containers and provides an exotic vertical accent when placed up against the house. It isn’t fussy when it comes to soil (except poorly drained clay) and it can make do with relatively little water. While the literature says that it needs full sun, our two cordylines only get sporadic sunshine and are doing just fine.

Monday, January 24, 2011

More radical pruning and shearing

On Saturday we continued our winter pruning and shearing in the front yard. After finishing the area outside the fence, my wife and daughters tackled the planting bed inside the fence. While some people just let their perennials be, we prefer a more manicured look—fresh green foliage without last year’s dead bits—for this part of our garden. After all, that’s what we see when we look out the front windows and hang out on the front porch.

Front yard on January 23, 2011

Right now, the planting bed does look bare and sad. But in just 4-6 weeks spring growth will start in earnest, and by early summer our front yard will hopefully look like it did last year.

Front yard on July 3, 2010
Front yard on July 3, 2010
View from front door on September 18, 2010

I’m definitely ready for spring! How about you?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saguaro heaven

I’ve been thinking a lot about Southern Arizona lately, probably precipitated by the days of endless fog we had recently. Our weather is much better now but I still wish I could just hop on a plane and do some exploring in and around Tucson.

Panorama of Saguaro National Park
Photo: Wikipedia

In December of 2007 I traveled to Tucson with my mother who for many years had been wanting to see saguaros in their native habitat. While there is much more to the Sonoran Desert than just saguaros, they are its most magnificent inhabitants and one of the best known icons of the American West.

Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) are true giants. The largest known saguaro is 45 ft. tall, with a girth of 10 ft. They are extremely slow-growing; a 10-year old saguaro is often just two inches tall. It can take up to 75 years before a saguaro develops side arms, and it can live up to 150 years or longer. What’s even more amazing: Out of the 40 million seeds a saguaro typically produces over the course of its life, only one of them will develop into a plant that outlives its parent.

Saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona and in the Mexican state of Sonora. Saguaro National Park, consisting of two sections on the east and west side of Tucson, conserves particularly outstanding tracts of the Sonoran Desert. It is the best place to see saguaros in their native habitat.

Vista from shade ramada at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located just south of the Western Unit of Saguaro National Park, is just as special. This world-renowned botanical garden, zoo and natural history museum offers many opportunities to learn more about the flora and fauna of this remarkable land. I’ve been there three times now, and it’s the most unique place of its kind I’ve ever seen.

Even though we’re not planning a trip to Arizona at the moment, I enjoy looking at the photos I took during my 2007 visit—especially as I’m adding more succulents and cacti to our garden.

071218_saguaro_light 071218_saguaro_dark
Two saguaros
Dangerous but beautiful
Saguaro family
Saguaro with ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
The strangest saguaro we saw
Saguaro skeleton
Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae-reginae)
Agave in a bowl at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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.

110120_sedum_nussbaumerianum echeveria_pulvinata
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.

110120_sedum_nussbaumerianum echeveria_pulvinata2
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.

110120_sedum_treleasei echeveria_pulvinata2
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, csucculent.com, 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).

110120_sedum_treleasi echeveria_pulvinata
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 Etsy.com
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