Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Death of a century plant

The century plant (Agave americana) is the most common and one of the largest agave species. A fast grower and prolific producer of suckers, it forms huge colonies over time. In California’s Central Valley where I live, it’s frequently seen at the entrance to rural properties, or lining fences. With its vicious end spines and serrated leaf margins, it truly makes a formidable barrier.

On our way to the closest Costco warehouse we drive by a large century plant colony. I’ve been meaning to photograph it for many years, but I didn’t get around to it until this week. These photos aren’t beauty shots, but they illustrate the aftermath of some of the rosettes flowering. Most agave species are monocarpic, meaning they will die after they flower. While this sounds like a tragic event, it really isn’t: a) It takes many years, sometimes decades, for an agave to flower, and b) most produce a generous amounts of offsets, or suckers, before they do die.

When a small agave that is, say, one or two feet across dies, removing it from your garden is a relatively easy task, spines notwithstanding. However, imagine what happens when one of the giant species kicks the bucket, for example the ubiquitous century plant! The photos below give you a pretty good idea. As you look at them, keep in mind that the colony in these pictures is easily 20 feet long by 10 feet wide. The rosettes that died likely were 7-8 feet tall, and the flower stalk they produced (the things that look like tree trunks) a good 25 feet high. Now think of what’s involved removing the dead plants, full of protrusions and edges that are sharp as a knife. Yikes!

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110210_agave_americana1
 
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110210_agave_americana4
 

I love agaves, but the common century plant is so huge and hostile that I would never consider planting it—even if I had a few acres to play with. While the gray-blue coloring is attractive, there are many better choices for gardens.

When I visited Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek last week, I spotted this agave flower stalk, freshly retired from doing duty as a Christmas tree. What a neat idea! Seeing it brought a smile to my face.

110203_rbg_agave_flower_stalk
I don’t know from what species this flower stalk is, but it’s much smaller than you’d find
on Agave americana.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Some cactus beauty shots

A few people have asked me what the cacti were that I bought the other day at Lowe’s. Luckily, they were all labeled, so it was quite easy to throw together this gallery of beauty shots.

Parodia-magnifica_05
Ball cactus (Parodia magnifica), native to Brazil,
flowers yellow in late spring
Parodia-magnifica_01
Closeup of Parodia magnifica
110210_succulent_bowl2
8x8 inch cactus bowl. Everything in there was on sale at Lowe’s.
Back: Facheiro azul (Pilosocereus pachycladus) (2x)
Front: Caterpillar plant (Echinopsis sp. forma cristata)
Pilocereus-pachycladus_04

Facheiro azul (Pilosocereus pachycladus), frost-sensitive, native to Brazil,
eventually to 30 ft.

Echinopsis-sp.-forma-cristata

You’ve gotta love the common name
of this one: caterpillar plant
(Echinopsis sp. forma cristata)

110210_succulent_bowl1
Second cactus bowl
Back: old man of the mountain (Oreocereus trollii)
Front: (Mammillaria elongata 'Julio')
I’m leaving room for either another succulent
or some special rocks as yet to be found.

Mammillaria-elongata-'Julio'_04

Mammillaria elongata 'Julio'.
Beautiful spination on this one.

Mammillaria-spinosissima_08

Red-headed Irishman
(Mammillaria spinosissima)

Mammillaria-spinosissima_09

Red-headed Irishman
(Mammillaria spinosissima)
The small purple spot in the center of the photo is a flower bud forming.

Mammillaria-hahniana_07
Old lady cactus (Mammillaria hahniana), hardy to 20°F, easy to grow—good starter cactus
Mammillaria-hahniana_01
Closeup of Mammillaria hahniana.
I wonder why it’s called “old lady cactus”???

The final two aren’t from Lowe’s but from UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. I’m including them because a) they’re small, and b) they’re too funky to ignore.

Cleistocactus-straussii_06
Silver Torch (Cleistocactus straussii), native to Bolivia and Argentina,
hardy to 14°F.
Oreocereus-celsianus
Closeup of od man of the Andes (Oreocereus celsianus). A cactus with “oreo” in its name has got to be good!

All of these cacti are small, and while I keep them outside, they could just as easily be kept indoors on a window sill or another location that receives sunlight for at least 4 hours a day. I used to have cacti in my room when I was young (I was into horror novels, too, so I’m sure people thought I was weird), and I’m excited to have rediscovered cacti now.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Great plant deals at Lowe’s in West Sacramento

I went to Lowe’s in West Sacramento over lunch today to see what they have on clearance. After finding a very large golden barrel cactus last month, I didn’t expect to have much luck today. I’m happy to say that I was mistaken.

Right now, they have more plants on clearance than I’ve ever seen there before. In fact, there were at least four racks of clearance plants right by the entrance to the garden center. The selection ranged from junipers, heavenly bamboos and ferns to citrus trees, succulents and cacti. Except for a few succulents that were frost-damaged, all sale-priced plants looked to be in perfect condition. I assume Lowe’s is clearing these plants out to make room for more inventory. However, why mark down citrus trees now when their season is just starting? Not that I’m complaining—I snapped up a Meyer lemon. I’m sure we’ll find a spot for it in the front yard.

If you’re in the area, do stop by before these plants are gone. The prices are excellent. 1-gallon junipers, heavenly bamboos and similar landscaping shrubs were $1.50. Citrus trees in 13-inch treepots were $4.00. I saw a large fern in a 5-gallon container marked down from $19.95 to $5.00. Cacti and succulents ranged from $0.50 for the smallest size (2 inches) to $4.00 for 6-inch containers.

Here’s my loot for today. I picked up two Old Gold junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Old Gold’) for my in-laws, the rest is for us. Grand total for everything: $29.

110209_lowes_haul
Here’s what I picked up at Lowe’s today
 
110209_lowes_haul2
These 8-inch square metal containers are perfect for a miniature succulent garden. They were $0.50 each.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Planning a trip to Joshua Tree NP and Salton Sea

We’re planning a trip to Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea for the end of February when the kids have a week off. My wife and I used to do a lot of camping in that area, but that was before kids. We’re specifically looking for recommendations on places to stay. We’re not into expensive resorts; we much prefer small and funky (but clean and safe) places. For example, we’ll be staying one night at the Harmony Motel in Twentynine Palms. U2 stayed there while working on The Joshua Tree—my favorite album of all time.

Dawn at the Salton Sea, December 1996

If you have any recommendations, please post them in the comments section below or email them to me. Suggestions on places to visit are welcome, too. In addition to Joshua Tree, we already have Salvation Mountain, Bombay Beach and The Living Desert on our list.

Thank you!

Bamboo in the wind

For the last 24 hours, high winds with gusts up to 40 miles per hour have been whipping through the Sacramento Valley. Last night, the wind was so loud that I ended up sleeping with the pillow over my ears to block out the sound. This morning, our newspaper was in the middle of the street; it had been blown right out of our driveway. And just now when I got the mail from the community mailboxes down the street, I noticed hundreds of mistletoe berries that had been knocked out of the mistletoe-infested Bradford pear tree by the mailboxes. That was a very odd sight—maybe because I hadn’t expected to see so many of these greenish white berries that to me look like something a witch in a Grimm fairytale would use to concoct a poisonous brew.

The wind is supposed to die down this evening, but right now at 3:30pm, it’s still beating the living daylights out of the potted Golden Goddess bamboos next to our front door. It’s a good thing I had just watered them. Nothing desiccates bamboo leaves faster than a high wind, so be sure to keep your bamboos well watered, especially potted specimens.
 

110208_wind

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Plant stand for succulents: mission accomplished

One of the 11 projects I set out to complete in 2011 was to create a display stand for my succulents. Until now, they were in pots on our front porch, severely limiting the floor space we had available for other things—like hanging out, having drinks, or simply watching the world go by.

Since I pretty much suck at building things, we didn’t quite know what solution we’d be able to come up with. Then, a couple of weeks ago, my wife saw a listing on Craigslist for “three tiered rolling metal grow tables”. The measurements and the price were right, so my wife and I went to take a look. The seller had a whole bunch of them, both in square and half-round configurations. They had come from Target garden centers in the area that had been closed. (Target decided last summer to close all their garden centers because they weren’t considered profitable.)

We bought one of the half-round tables and I painted it black so it wouldn’t look quite so industrial. The half-round design ended up being perfect for the space immediately next to our front porch. The table now holds most of the smaller succulents, and we have much more room on our porch. While there’s still a good amount of tweaking and possibly repotting to be done to make the display as attractive as it can be, this project is officially DONE.

110123_front_porch_succ_area
Area next to our front porch—before
 
110123_plantstand
Half-round display table (without the resin shelves)
 
110206_plantstand2
Potted succulents on display table.
The ground is just dirt right now, but we will put down a 2-3 inch layer of bark mulch to suppress weeds and to improve the overall look. The bark will blend in with the adjoining garden beds.
 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Repotting a large golden barrel cactus

Last month I found a large golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) on the clearance rack at Lowe’s. It was in a 7 gallon container and measured 13 inches across. Since it was filling the nursery container with no room to spare, I knew I would have to repot it fairly soon—although admittedly with a slow-growing cactus like this one, there is no real sense of urgency.

However, when I woke up on Sunday morning and saw how gorgeous the weather was, I decided that it was the perfect day to tackle this job.

110106_barrel_cactus_from_lowes
Golden barrel cactus in its nursery container

Everything I needed was on hand: The weekend before, I had found a great ceramic pot at 50% off at Silverado Building Materials, and since the my coir had finally rehydrated I was able to make the potting mix I needed. As described in yesterday’s post, I used 50% pumice, 25% coir and 25% regular potting soil.

I’d spent some time researching the methods other people use for transplanting large cacti and combined their recommendations into the procedure described below. My main goal was to make sure the cactus wouldn’t be damaged. I knew I needed help, so I enlisted the whole family. There’s no way I could have done this by myself, considering how heavy the cactus was.

Step 1: I laid a luggage strap on the grass and, on top of that, several blankets.

110206_repotting_barrel_step1_blanket
 

Step 2: I wadded up a whole bunch of newspaper to provide extra padding and to prevent damage to the spines. Since it was a relatively windy day, I asked my daughters to hold down the newspaper so it wouldn’t fly away.

110206_repotting_barrel_step2_newspapers
 

Step 3: I pounded on the sides of the nursery container with a rubber mallet to loosen the root ball a little. Then I carefully laid the cactus on its side, right on top of the wadded up newspaper.

110206_repotting_barrel_step2b_newspapers
 

Step 4: I wrapped the blankets around the cactus and cinched the luggage strap tight.

110206_repotting_barrel_step3_wrapped
 

Step 5: I carefully removed the nursery container (it actually slid off quite easily). As you can see, the root ball looks great. The cactus certainly wasn’t pot bound.

110206_repotting_barrel_step3b_rootball
 

Step 5: My wife and I lifted the wrapped cactus into the new pot. I’d already put some potting mix into it, but it was too much so we had to lift the cactus out again—easy to do thanks to the luggage strap. After some trial and error we finally had the right amount of soil in the bottom of the pot. The rest went quickly: We centered the cactus in the pot, unwrapped it, and I filled up the container with potting soil.

110206_repotting_barrel_step4_in_new_pot
 

Result: Perfect! Thanks to all the padding from the newspaper and the blankets, not a single spine got broken and not a single drop of human blood was spilled.

110206_repotting_barrel_done
 

I’m very happy with the way our golden barrel cactus looks in its new home on our front porch.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Transplanting succulents and cacti

Yesterday was the perfect early spring day. We hit an afternoon high of 74°F, and being outside in the sun felt heavenly. I took the opportunity to transplant most of the small succulents I bought recently at IKEA and Silverado.

The first step was to mix up some well-draining potting soil. I used about 50% pumice, 25% coir (see post from last week) and 25% regular potting soil. The result was a nice and fluffy mix that should be perfect for succulents.

110205_succ_soil
Succulent soil mix

Then I got out the succulents and some pots I’d been collecting for this purpose, sat down on the front lawn and went to work. Here’s what I came up with.

110205_sedum_pachyphyllum_pot
Sedum pachyphyllum
 
110205_mixed_succ_bowl2
One of three mixed succulent bowls I put together yesterday
 
110205_mixed_succ_bowl3
Mixed succulent bowl #2
 
110205_mixed_succ_bowl
Mixed succulent bowl #2
Click here to see an update (1/19/2012)
 
110205_ikea_succ
As I was unpotting the IKEA succulents, I realized that each nursery container didn’t contain a single plant with multiple stems as I had thought, but rather a bunch of loose cuttings that were in the process of rooting. This was an unexpected boon because there were more plants to go around.
 
110205_trying_to_root_sedum_burrito
The small, fat leaves of Sedum ‘Burrito’ (at the bottom in the previous photo) break off very easily. By the time I had planted the 10 or so cuttings contained in the 4" pot, I had broken off at least a couple of dozen leaves. They are supposed to root easily, so I filled two of the IKEA nursery containers with soil and placed the leaves on top. Even if only two or three of them root, I’ll be happy. I really like the look of Sedum ‘Burrito’ and would love to have more plants—especially if they are free. (Check out this photo from Succulent Gardens in Castroville, CA. They’re propagating Sedum ‘Burrito’ this way.)
 
110205_cactus_agave_pot
I also transplanted three of the cacti I bought at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden last month. They’re called Silver Torch (Cleistocactus strausii) and will slowly grow to 6-8 ft. The agave in the foreground is one my favorites, Agave schidigera 'Shira ito no Ohi', a Japanese dwarf cultivar that might eventually reach a width of 1 ft. I’ve had it for almost two years and while it’s doubled in size, it’s still only 4 inches across (the tallest of the cacti is about 9½ inches).
 
110205_senecio_vitalis2
One of the succulents I bought at Silverado last weekend went into the ground. This is Senecio vitalis (plant on the right), and I put it in the succulent bed right next to the front door. The agave on the left is Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor', which has been producing one offset after another. The green pot in the background contains a Golden Goddess bamboo (Bambusa multiplex 'Golden Goddess').
 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Echeverias—flowers of leaves

Echeverias are rosette-forming succulents native to Mexico and Central America. There are dozens of species, and literally hundreds of named cultivars bred for specific characteristics such as color, size or leaf shape. Considering the sheer variety, it’s easy to see why echeverias have become the darlings of the design world, featuring prominently in everything from mixed succulent bowls to living wreaths and vertical gardens.

I’m not a designer and don’t pay too much attention to what the Martha Stewarts of the garden world happen to dream up in a given season, but I do think that echeverias are among the most beautiful of succulents. Their rosettes often remind me of flowers—flowers of leaves that never stop blooming.

In their natural habitat, echeverias grow at higher elevations marked by low humidity and moderate temperatures. In areas where hot summer temperatures routinely exceed 90°F, they prefer semi-shade. However, too much shade causes their rosettes to stretch and lose their symmetry (a phenomenon called “etiolation”). In addition, some of the more colorful echeveria varieties assume a sickly greenish cast if they don’t receive enough sun.

Like all succulents, echeverias need well-draining soil. If your native soil is too heavy, you can amend it with pumice, lava rock, decomposed granite, pea gravel or similar materials. The best solution would be to plant your echeverias in a raised bed or on a mound of light-textured soil. This will prevent root rot, especially during a wet winter.

Echeverias have some frost tolerance, down to the 25°F range, allowing them to be planted in the ground in zones 9b and up. If your winters are colder than that, you’re better off relegating them to containers that can be protected from the cold or moved inside.

Most echeverias form offsets and can create extensive colonies over time. In my book, this is one of their most desirable traits. Simply pluck one of the offsets, stick it in soil, and you’ve got a new plant—and the beginnings of yet another colony. (Some authors recommend leaving the offset in a shady location for a week or two, or until new roots begin to form. I’m too impatient and put them in soil right away; I’ve never lost an offset that way.)

Here are some of the echeverias I photographed the other day at Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. Some of these species are common, like Echeveria elegans, others are quite rare, like Echeveria expatriata.

Echeveria-expatriata
Echeveria expatriata, rare
Echeveria-agavoides_01
Echeveria agavoides, a fairly common species, often with red-tinged leaf margins
Echeveria-pulchella
Echeveria pulchella, uncommon
Echeveria-setosa_01
Echeveria setosa, one of the fuzziest echeverias
Echeveria-setosa_02
Closeup of Echeveria setosa. I love the fuzz—it reminds me of a tarantula
Echeverias_and_aeoniums
Echeveria elegans in the foreground, with aeoniums planted behind it
Echeveria-elegans_01
Echeveria elegans, one of the most commonly found species
Echeveria-gilva
Echeveria ‘Gilva’, an old hybrid of unknown origin but assumed to be a cross between Echeveria agavoides and Echeveria elegans
Echeveria-'Hummel-#1_2'
Echeveria ‘Hummel #1’. This hybrid is only found at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. It was received from plant breeder Ed Hummel in the 1960s. See here for more info if you’re interested.
Echeveria-'Hummel-#1'
Echeveria ‘Hummel #1’ and an unidentified groundcover aeonium
Echeveria-'Violet-Queen'
Echeveria ‘Violet Queen’, an Echeveria elegans hybrid
Echeveria-'Powder-Blue'
Echeveria ‘Powder Blue’. Looks anything but powder blue to me, but maybe the coloring becomes more pink in full sun?
Beautiful hybrid for sure.
Echeveria-'Lace'_02
Echeveria ‘Lace’. A very large hybrid with curly leaf margins. Its general appearance and size remind me of ornamental kale.
Echeveria-'Lace'_01
Closeup of Echeveria ‘Lace’. This one, like all other echeverias with ruffled edges, is most likely a hybrid of Echeveria gibbiflora.
Echeveria-'Firelight'
Echeveria ‘Firelight’, yet another frilly gibbiflora hybrid. I can appreciate it for its unique look, but personally I prefer non-ruffled varieties.

SIDE NOTE: Echeverias are sometimes referred to as “hens-and-chicks”—an unfortunate choice since “hens-and-chicks” is the common name for sempervivums (also known as “houseleeks” or “liveforever”). While some of the smaller echeverias do resemble sempervivums, there are significant differences. Sempervivums are Old World plants native to the mountains of central and southern Europe. They are very cold hardy; some sources claim down to -30°F as long as sharp drainage is provided (I don’t know why that would matter since at -30°F the ground would be frozen solid anyway.)

In turn, sempervivums don’t do all that well in hot climates. I have a few sempervivums that have hung around for a number of years. While they look great—and grow very fast—in the spring and early summer, they do get ratty by July, with individual leaves or entire rosettes turning brown and the colony assuming an unkempt appearance. I imagine that in even hotter climates, like the Southwest, it would be virtually impossible to grow sempervivums well.