Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rain shelter for cacti

After a few weeks of truly beautiful early-spring weather, we’re in for a week of rain and periods of high winds with gusts of up to 40 mph.

The rain is much needed because our precipitation totals for the season have fallen below normal now—we had a wet December with above-average precipitation, but January and February have been very dry. Since inland California typically doesn’t get any rain between May and October, now is the time when we build up our water supply.

While rain is good news for California and almost everything we grow, cacti and other succulents prefer to be dry in winter. A little rain doesn’t hurt, but extended exposure can lead to rot, which in turn can spell the demise of the plant.

Just a few few weeks ago I blogged about how Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek protects its sensitive succulents from the winter rain. In our garden, I’ve never done anything in particular to protect the plants in our raised succulent beds from the rain because these beds contain mostly agaves, aloes, yuccas, echeverias and senecios—no cacti, which are generally more sensitive to overwatering and don’t like to be wet at all during their winter dormancy.

However, now that I’m the proud owner of a budding cactus empire, I’m more aware of how detrimental too much winter rain can be. Next fall we will build a more permanent (and visually attractive) solution to protect our succulent display table. For this week’s bad weather I quickly threw together a temporary shelter consisting of a plastic sheet that I found in the garage, and an assortment of rocks and bricks to weight it down on top of the fence. I’ve been keeping an eye on it all day to see how it handles strong gusts, and so far so good.

I wonder what the neighbors will think???

I should mention that I moved the taller columnar cacti from the display table to the front porch before I put up the tarp—I didn’t want them to get damaged by the billowing plastic.

High-tech way of making sure the tarp doesn’t fly off

Yes, I agree, my makeshift shelter isn’t the most beautiful thing, but it should do the trick.

How does that old saying go? Necessity is the mother of all invention? Well, in spite of the necessity, I’m not much of an inventor—just a gardener who typically flies by the seats of his pants.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tropical trimming

This past weekend I was busy cutting down most of our tropical plants that had gone dormant for the winter. I like to keep the dried up foliage through early spring because it provides extra protection for the crown of the plant, or its rhizomes or corms, depending what it is. However, spring is here so it decided it was time to trim the tropicals. (I probably just cursed ourselves, saying that spring has arrived.)

Our tropical bed before I cleaned it up. It’s located on the south side of our house where the front yard meets up with the back yard (that’s the fence you see on the left in the photo). It’s a small space, and it went unused for many years until we built an L-shape raised bed specifically for large-leaved tropicals such as a gingers (alpinias, hedychiums, curcumas) and elephant ears (both colocasias and alocasias), with some trailing plants like creeping wire vine and tradescantia thrown in for good measure.
This bed gets buried under the leaves from two ornamental pear trees, an Aristocrat in our back yard, and a Bradford in the front yard. Leaves make great compost so I left most of them. I added a bag of composted chicken manure and then about four inches of topsoil left over from another project because the soil level in the raised beds had dropped quite significantly over the last couple of years.
This is what it looks like now, after removing the dead foliage and topping off the soil.
Guess what I found under all those leaves? The butterfly gingers (Hedychium coronarium) are already budding out.
Just to give you an idea of what this area looks like in the summer: this is our tropical bed last July (the nice lady is my mom).

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!


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.

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.

Ball cactus (Parodia magnifica), native to Brazil,
flowers yellow in late spring
Closeup of Parodia magnifica
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)

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


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

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'.
Beautiful spination on this one.


Red-headed Irishman
(Mammillaria spinosissima)


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

Old lady cactus (Mammillaria hahniana), hardy to 20°F, easy to grow—good starter cactus
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.

Silver Torch (Cleistocactus straussii), native to Bolivia and Argentina,
hardy to 14°F.
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.

Here’s what I picked up at Lowe’s today
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.


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.

Area next to our front porch—before
Half-round display table (without the resin shelves)
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.

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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

Sedum pachyphyllum
One of three mixed succulent bowls I put together yesterday
Mixed succulent bowl #2
Mixed succulent bowl #2
Click here to see an update (1/19/2012)
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.
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.)
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).
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').