Sunday, March 6, 2011

Saturday garden chores

Sometimes you do one big thing in your garden that has an immediate and dramatic impact, like installing a water feature or plopping down a giant rock. But that doesn’t happen all that often. Most of the time it’s many little things that contribute to the overall result. Chores fall in that category. Each one individually may not be much, but it all adds up.

For me, a typical weekend of gardening consists of a variety of seemingly unrelated tasks. Some are dictated by the weather or the season, others are the result of what I feel like doing that day. I often bumble about from one thing to the other, with no aim other than to be outside and have fun in the garden.

Today was a day just like that. I didn’t really know what I wanted  to accomplish when I started out, but at the end of the day I felt satisfied with what I had gotten done.

The first order of business was doing some pruning on our Washington Navel orange tree. It’s a dwarf tree, more than 15 years old now, and we’re trying hard to keep it compact so we can reach the fruit. I removed a couple of larger branches that had begun to creep towards the cordylines (lower left in the following photo) and I picked all the oranges that had fallen. We try to be diligent about picking all the fruit, but some always drops and starts to rot.


I need to do a bit more shaping on the top of the tree, but I do it in baby steps rather than taking off too much at a time.

I then cleaned up the callas that had sustained some damage in January. A few more weeks of warm temperatures, they’ll look perfect.

Callas along the north side of the house.

Just the other day I commented on this Vinca minor ‘Illumination’ starting bloom. I bought it a few weeks ago but hadn’t decided where to put it. I ended up planting it near our Borinda papyrifera, a clumping mountain bamboo with beautiful bluish culms. There are lamium and sweet woodruff in that area already, and I think this vinca will complement them nicely. Some readers have expressed concern about it become invasive, so I’ll keep a close eye on it.

Still lots of room to roam for this Vinca minor ‘Illumination’

On our recent trip to Southern California I saw several purple prickly pears (Opuntia santa-rita) in people’s yards. None of the nurseries we stopped at had them for sale, but luckily I was able to find a source on the Internet, My order arrived just the other day, and I’m very happy with the purple coloring!

The plant was bare root, wrapped in a brown paper bag. In the first photo, you can clearly see the roots sprouting from the bottom and the sides of the pad from which it was propagated. I potted it up using the bag method I described last week, and I’m happy to report I didn’t get pricked by a single glochid.

110305_santa_rita_roots 110305_santa_rita_potted

After reading a few books by Tucson landscape designer and garden writer Scott Calhoun I had been wanting to mulch my succulents with small rocks so I decided to make a quick run to the home improvement store. I picked up two kinds of rocks, one called Southwest Cobble and the other California Gold, and I trial-mulched a few cacti. I must say I like the results.

Purple prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita) with California Gold
Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) with Southwest Cobble

I then remembered then I had collected some rocks on our Southern California trip (something I do on most trips) and placed a few in the succulent bowls I planted last month. Something was missing in some of them, and I think the rocks did the trick.


I can’t wait for the rainy season to end so I can uncover my succulent table and properly display my budding collection of prickly plants!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Interactive plant hardiness zone map

I’m sure that you, as an avid gardener, know your plant hardiness zone. There are many websites that display your zone after you enter your zip code. Some may only give full zones, others may indicate subzones as well (e.g. 9b, my zone).

However, I just came across a site that beats all other hands down. It’s called, and it displays zone information for the USA, Canada, and the UK. What makes it so great is its ease of use and the way information is displayed. Using Google Maps technology, it lets you drill down as far as you like, even to street level, although that’s not very useful in this case.

For example, selecting the map for my home state of California I get this:


Using the zone boxes along the left and the top, I can display and hide zones as desired.

Entering my zip code results in a map with weather statistics:


After I close the weather statistics, I see a map of my region with the zone overlay. I can then zoom in or out to see if I live close to a lower or higher zone.

For example, when I zoom out a couple of levels, I see that we’re surrounded by many different zones ranging from 7a to 10a. (In the following screenshot, the distance from the top of the map to the bottom is roughly 100 miles.)


While I knew that San Francisco and Marin County were zone 10a, I had no idea that there was a small enclave of zone 10a northeast of Sacramento. It even encompasses parts of Woodland, our county seat, located about 10 miles to the north. I really can’t explain why it’s warmer there than here; it might be because of the moderating influence of the Sacramento River. I must admit that I have a bit of zone envy; I’d love to have the extra few degrees of protection zone 10a would give me :-).


If this site sounds interesting to you, check it out yourself at

Friday, March 4, 2011

Australia, what have you been smoking?

Last week, I read that in an effort to curb illegal drugs the Australian government wants to ban thousands of plants that contain either mescaline or dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a naturally-occurring hallucinogen that is ubiquitous in nature. At first glance this sounds like a good thing, considering that the government is supposed to look out for the welfare of the people. However, at closer examination, I was at first amused, then startled and finally p**** off to discover that this looks like government interference—or should I say arrogance?—taken to a whole new level.

Golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha), Australia’s state flower,
about to become illegal?

The Australian government plans to prohibit all plants that have even the tiniest amounts of these substances, never mind that (a) neither DMT nor mescaline play a role in the illegal drug trade, and (b) most of the plants on the list contain only such tiny amounts that it would be virtually impossible to extract enough for drug use. The list of plans to be banned is so extensive that virtually every nursery and gardener in Australia would be affected. The following would be prohibited:

  • All brugmansia and datura species—no more angel’s (or devil’s) trumpets down under!
  • Angel’s trumpets soon to fall silent?
  • All cacti species that contain even tiny trace amounts of mescaline—no more prickly pears for you, or saguaros, or mammillarias (the largest cactus genus), or hundreds of other popular cacti.
    Prickly pear to land you in jail?
    As if getting glochids in your skin wasn’t bad enough!
  • No more wattles and wattle-relatives—this includes not only Australia’s state flower, the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha), and other acacias, but also many plants we’re familiar with in the U.S., such as delosperma (a very popular ice plant—I have several in my front yard), giant reed (Arundo dondax), and all wisterias—yes, wisterias! I bet you didn’t know you could get high off of wisteria!
No more wisterias for desperate housewives?

And the list goes on.

This website has a wealth of information on the proposed legislation and its disastrous effects on gardening in Australia. This article has a more humorous take. And this article quotes a prominent biodiversity advocate, Robyn Francis, who says:

“It’s just crazy. One of the species on the list is a common agricultural weed – is every farmer who has that growing on their land liable to be imprisoned because they’re growing ‘commercial quantities’?

“And what about all our local wattles [acacias], which just grow up by themselves as pioneer species – it means ecology suicide to enforce things like this and it’s unrealistic.”

Since I’m not an Australian citizen, I can’t really do anything about this, but if you reside in Australia, I urge you to let Brendan O’Connor, the Minister of Justice, know what you think. Garden Freedom has a handy contact form.

It’s easy to laugh at this, but don’t think for a second our own government—Democratic or Republican—isn’t capable of going down a similar path.

Image source: All images from Wikipedia.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bamboo sighting around town

No matter where I go, I’m always on the lookout for interesting plants—especially bamboos, succulents, and large-leafed tropicals plants because these happen to be my favorites.

While bamboo is still fighting an uphill battle for acceptance in the U.S., I’m glad to see that even in our town of 60,000 more and more businesses and private individuals are embracing it for its unique beauty and landscaping potential.

I recently came across this beautiful arrangement of Phyllostachys aurea ‘Holochrysa’, the truly golden form of “golden bamboo”. While the plants are still relatively juvenile—maybe 6 ft in height—they already have the unique compressed internodes that Phyllostachys aurea is known for. In non-technical language, these are the relatively short sections on the canes (culms) between the rings (nodes). You can see them well in the last photo in this post.

Beautiful bamboos in attractive containers

“Golden bamboo” (the species form of Phyllostachys aurea) is actually a misnomer. Its culms are typically all green, and only older culms take on a slight yellowish hue. On the other hand, the ‘Holochrysa’ variety in these photos is truly golden, and a beautiful burnished golden color to boot.

I love how the elegant look of these bamboos softens the hardscape outside this office building

Phyllostachys aurea is a running bamboo. Unless you have a large property and don’t mind if it spreads, it shouldn’t be planted in the ground without some form of containment (like a rhizome barrier) or a regular regimen of rhizome pruning. In this case it doesn’t matter because the plants are in metal containers. I absolutely love the look of these simple metal containers, but since they’re relatively shallow, the plants will have to be divided, thinned and/or root-pruned every couple of years to ensure their long-term health.

Close-up of culms with compressed internodes

I can’t repeat myself often enough: I’m thrilled to see that businesses around town are using bamboo for landscaping, and I hope the trend will continue. I will do my part to spread the word.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spring is springing

Even though temperatures are about 10 degrees below average for this time of year, spring is definitely settling in. It’s supposed to rain again in the next couple of days, so I decided to take some pictures today of the signs of spring that are popping up everywhere in our yard.

I hope you, too, are leaving winter behind and are enjoying the early stages of spring.

New leaf on one of our flowering maples
(Abutilon x hybridum ‘Souvenir de Bonn’)
New growth on string-of-buttons (Crassula perforata), planted in one of our backyard succulent beds
Hot Lips sage (Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips')
New leaf on giant leopard plant
(Farfugium giganteum). It has the potential to eventually turn into this.
I was very happy to find that Vinca minor ‘Illumination’ has begun to bloom. It’s still in its nursery pot because I haven’t decided yet where to put it. The leaves are spectacular.
And finally the biggest bloomer at the moment: our flowering purple-leaf plum tree (Prunus cerasifera 'Krauter Vesuvius'). Monrovia claims it seldom fruits, but I have news for them: Ours fruits every year now, and quite generously, too. Our neighbor picked the fruit and made cherry plum pie last year—with great success.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Repotting Bunny Ears

I brought home three Bunny Ears (Opuntia microdasys) from our recent trip to Southern California. Unlike most other prickly pear species, these don’t have regular spines and hence are considered more “user-friendly”.


Angora bunny ears (Opuntia microdasys 'Albata', sometimes also labeled ‘Albospina’) in 2-inch container. The plant is 8 inches tall.

However, while they look soft and cuddly with their fuzzy polka dots, I’d advise against getting too close. What looks like soft fur are actually bundles of glochids—very small and very fine hairy spines that detach at the slightest contact. It seems that just the vibration from moving the pot dislodges them. You could easily have a few dozen stuck to your skin without having done much at all!

Monday, February 28, 2011

My succulent haul from the Southland

Yesterday I was teasing you about this mystery plant that I brought home from our trip to the Southern California desert:

Mystery plant in 5-gallon container…

The way it was wrapped it could have been anything, but it is a beautiful specimen of a fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) native to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Since it’s hardy to at least 15°F, it can spend winters outside in our climate as long as it is protected from the rain.

Check out this site for some beautiful photos of its spines and flowers. As you can see in my photos, the spines lose their cinnamon color as they age and turn to a pinkish gray.

…revealed to be fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii)

I realize the spines are pretty nasty looking but since they’re curved, they don’t really prick you unless you touch them from underneath. I do like the heavy armature on this cactus—it has attitude!

This Arizona native has very impressive spines—they are rigid and sharp

Click here to see where the fishhook cactus ended up.

I also brought home some small cacti. The first two are star cacti (genus Astrophytum). I saw one in the ground at Ruth Bancroft Garden last summer and have been wanting one ever since.

Bishop’s cap (Astrophytum myriostigma), 2½” wide in this photo
Monk’s hood (Astrophytum ornatum), 2” wide in this photo

The next one is an agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis). Looking at the leaves, it’s easy to see why it’s called agave cactus. It’s supposed to be very slow-growing, to approx. 30 inches over many years. Since it forms a turnip-like tap root, it prefers to be planted in a deep pot. This is different than most cacti whose root systems are shallow.

Agave cactus (Leuchtenbergia principis)

The next three don’t really look like they’re related, but they are. They are not cacti, i.e. they are not members of the New-World Cactaceae family. Instead, they are euphorbias, native to the Old World (in this case Africa).

The genus Euphorbia, part of the Euphorbiaceae family, is enormous, comprising more than 2,000 species. It includes the ever-popular spurges, poinsettia, crown-of-thorns, giant columnar “cacti”, and many others.

Milk barrel (Euphorbia horrida var. striata), 1½” wide in this photo.
Eventually grows into a cylindrical plant up to 3 feet tall.
Hardy to the mid-20s for short periods of time.

Euphorbia aeruginosa, 4” tall in the photo above, eventually to 12” with many tightly packed stems. Flowers in the early spring. Very cheery looking plant. Not cold hardy so it’ll live in a pot and be brought inside on frosty nights.

Pencil milk bush (Euphorbia mauritanica), native to northwest Africa. 12” tall in the photo above, 36” when mature, hardy to the mid-20s

The next one is a silver dollar plant (Crassula arborescens), closely related to the jade plant (Crassula ovata), with the same growth habit and cultivation requirements. I actually like it even better than the jade plant because of its gray leaves with red margins. Since jade plants are marginally hardy in our climate—i.e. they can stay outside but need some protection on the coldest nights—this one will live outside as well.

Silver dollar plant (Crassula arborescens)

I also brought home three prickly pears (opuntias). Since they had completely outgrown their nursery containers, I transplanted them into a larger pots. Check back  on Tuesday for a separate post about that. It was quite an undertaking, with glochids (tiny spines) flying everywhere.

P.S. I’ve been posting a lot about succulents lately, especially cacti. I promise you, I’ll return to less prickly plants very soon, especially as our bamboos begin to shoot.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teaser: plants I brought home from our SoCal desert trip

After being gone for a week, I had a lot of catching up to do today so I didn’t have time to write a post. But I’ll be back tomorrow with a post about the plants I brought home from our trip to the Southern California desert. Here’s a teaser:


What could possible be in there???

Click here to find out.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Desert trip—day 5: Palm Desert to Davis

Spending the night in the wealthy community of Indian Wells paid off with the best motel breakfast we’d had on this trip. However, it didn’t take long for us to overdose on the endless display of conspicuous consumption evident everywhere: from the country clubs and gated communities to upscale shopping and dining.

What depressed me the most, though, was the unbelievable amount of water wasted on expansive lawns, out-of-place plantings of flowering annuals, and enormous fountains found at the entrance of almost every hotel, country club, and shopping center. Don’t landscape designers realize that this is the desert, with an average annual rainfall of under 5 inches? While we did see great examples of xeric plantings around some commercial buildings, most of them are still stuck in the dark ages as far as climate-appropriate landscaping goes.

Before we left the Palm Springs area, we made one last stop. A few weeks ago I’d come across a Craigslist post from a new succulent nursery in the town of Desert Hot Springs just a few miles off the I-10 and I wanted to check it out. I had expected a small specialty nursery with a modest selection of 4-inch plants. Boy, was I in for a surprise! Mariscal Cactus & Succulents is huge, and while they do have a large stock of 4-inch plants, they have an even larger stock of plants in 5-gallon containers and up, ranging all the way to 8-foot cacti in 24-inch tree boxes. I’d never been to a nursery that offers so many large specimens of succulents.

The Desert Hot Springs location is one of three; Mariscal’s main nursery is in Fallbrook in San Diego county. According to their website, they grow 500 different varieties of succulents.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I ended up buying a few plants—just a few, no more than a generous handful.


For me, one of the most impressive man-made sights in the Palm Springs area is the giant wind farm off I-10. There are 4,000 wind turbines and they generate enough electricity to supply Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley. Apparently they were featured in the movie Mission: Impossible III, which I have yet to see.

Just a few of the 4,000 wind turbines dotting the desert
on either side of I-10

I had such a blast on this trip that it was hard heading home, back to our everyday routine. But at least I have the many photos I took to tide me over until our next trip to the desert, whenever that may be.

Joshua tree right along Highway 395 in the Mojave Desert
Mysterious cloud hovering over the desert. Maybe it’s an alien spacecraft?

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5

Desert trip—day 4: Salton Sea to Palm Desert

This morning we left the small town of Calipatria, our home for the last two days, and headed up the western side of the Salton Sea to Palm Desert, one of the many affluent communities that form the urban sprawl around Palm Springs. Our destination here was the Living Desert. This zoo and botanical garden was founded in 1970 as a nature center to preserve a part of the local desert ecosystem from encroaching development. Since then, it has grown to 1,800 acres, 1,000 of which are in their natural state. In the early 1980s the scope of the organization’s preservation efforts was expanded to include endangered species from Africa.

Agave planting in the Living Desert entrance plaza

Unfortunately, the economic reality is such that it is impossible to attract a sufficient number of visitors to a place like the Living Desert without offering Disneyland-style attractions. I was dreading things like “Village WaTuTu”, an “authentic replica of a village found in northeast Africa” including a marketplace where you can deck out your house and yourself in African goods, and “Gecko Gulch”, an “incredible, interactive outdoor play land”, but I knew that there’d be something special for me waiting at the end of the desert rainbow: the Palo Verde Garden Center, a small nursery selling a wide range of desert plants.

While the verdict on the Living Desert isn’t a glowing thumbs up due to some excruciatingly tacky and out-of-place elements like a huge model train setup and the unappealing and overpriced food ($3.25 for a small fountain drink??? Give me a break!!!), I’m very glad we visited. The animal exhibits are spacious and naturalistic, and even Village WaTuTu wasn’t as bad as I had feared. mainly because of the mature acacias that shaded it. (There were lots of different kinds of acacias in the Africa section.)

What did impress me the most were the plantings. The Africa section only had plants native to Africa; the Americas section, broken down into geographical areas like Mojave Desert, Colorado Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert, was likewise planted in native flora. In that respect, The Living Desert upheld its promise as a botanic garden. However, there was one area that was insufficient: labeling. While many plants were labeled, others weren’t—invariably the ones I wasn’t sure about. Considering how much effort has gone into building this place, it wouldn’t be that much extra work to improve the labeling.

Here are some photos from the various sections. I didn’t take as many photos in the Africa section because African flora isn’t my main interest.

Blooming tree aloe; unlabeled, but possibly Aloe ferox
A very impressive quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma), about 10 ft. tall. In its native habitat in South Africa and Namibia, it can grow to 30 ft.
Unlabeled restio against rock boulder; very nice contrast

In the Americas section I did feel a bit like I’d gone to heaven—so many species of agave, yucca, nolina, dasylirion, not to mention cacti!

Blue agave (Agave tequilana)
Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana)
Two blooming agaves—very impressive bloom stalks with chartreuse-colored flowers
Interesting planting of golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) with a
top dressing of black lava rock in front of the
Palo Verde Garden Center
Nice succulent container arrangement
Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) at the base of a ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). The designers of the Living Desert must  love ponytail palms as much as I do because I saw quite a few specimens, including a nice potted one in front of the gift shop—almost made me want to step inside!
The barrel cactus garden, one of my favorite spots in the Americas section. I was thrilled seeing so many different barrel cactus in one place.
More golden barrel cactus and adolescent saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea)
Two types of ferocactus
A nice clump of organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi), most impressively represented at Organ Pipe National Monument southwest of Tucson, AZ
My favorite yucca, Yucca rostrata, against the afternoon sky.
I was happy to see several adult specimens.
The Palo Verde Garden Center had a stunning 5-foot specimen
in a 24-inch box for sale for, gasp!, $430.
Blooming ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). I came soooo close to buying a 1-gallon plant in the garden center but since I have no idea whether it would grow in our climate (possibly too much rain in the winter), I decided not to.
I really liked this juxtaposition of agave and cholla. The colors and textures form a very pleasing contrast.

The Palo Verde Garden Center had a great selection of desert and desert-adapted plants. If I had a larger yard, I would have bought several desert shrubs and trees that I never see in our local nurseries. The selection of agaves, yuccas, nolinas and dasylirions was superb, but since we’re running out of space in our yard, I took a deep breath and resisted the siren’s call. All I bought were four small cacti.

Hard to believe that our mini vacation is almost over. Tomorrow we’re heading back to Davis—just in time for a cold spell that is supposed to bring sub-freezing temperatures for three nights in a row. I’ll miss the wonderful early-spring weather of the desert!

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5