Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ball cactus flower surprise

One of my favorite small cacti is Parodia magnifica, commonly called ball or balloon cactus for the shape of its body. When you think about it, that’s not the most imaginative name since thousands of other cacti are ball-shaped, too. I wonder who gets to decide on a plant’s common name???

What I love about Parodia magnifica is the bluish gray coloration of the body—although mine has gotten more green lately—combined with the fine, almost furry spines that are more bristly than spiky. I think it’s a beautiful cactus even when young and solitary. As it matures, it may form  a clump that becomes ever more impressive as it ages.

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Clump of Parodia magnifica at Ruth Bancroft Gardens, Walnut Creek, CA

I bought my Parodia magnifica on closeup at Lowe’s earlier this year. For some reason, Lowe’s closed out a big portion of their succulents in February, only to restock them a couple of months later. Their loss, my gain.

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Parodia magnifica in February when its skin had a pronounced bluish cast
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I love how the yellow spines contrast with the bluish body

In early August I noticed that flowers were forming. I was very excited—like I always am when a cactus gets ready to bloom. Over the following weeks, the buds didn’t seem get any bigger so I stopped paying attention, figuring they would abort.

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August 3, 2011
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August 3, 2011

Imagine my surprise when I walked out at lunchtime today and found a perfectly formed flower of the most magnificent sulphur yellow.

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August 27, 2011

Unlike many other cacti, like the Gymnocalycium friedrichii that bloomed the other day, this flower opened up and stayed open in the shade.

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The flower is about 2½" across. The cactus itself is 5" wide by 3" tall.

When I checked again later in the evening, the second bud had opened, too, so now there were two flowers in bloom.

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7pm: both buds are open now

Parodia magnifica is native to the grasslands of far southern Brazil and Uruguay that have distinct warm and cool seasons. Winters can get relatively cold (with an emphasis on relatively), and it’s been reported that Parodia magnifica will survive 20°F with some protection as long as it’s kept perfectly dry.

Actually, I believe this is the biggest secret to growing cacti: Water them well while they’re actively growing (and fertilize them occasionally), but keep them dry in the winter.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Baby cactus update

In April, I received a bunch of cactus seedlings from fellow garden blogger Alan in St Louis. He had chronicled their early days on his fantastic blog It’s Not Work, It’s Gardening (1 2 3 4 5 6).

In the four months since they’ve been living at our house, some have put on a tremendous amount of growth while others have been much slower. I guess it all depends on the genus and species. Some cacti, like prickly pears (opuntias) are much faster growing than, say, saguaros. According to the seed packet, these seedlings could be any number of things: saguaro, hedgehog, fishhook barrel, dollar prickly pear, desert prickly pear, christmas cholla, cane cholla, Santa Rita prickly pear, cardon. There is no way of making a positive identification until they are much bigger.

Anyway, let’s take a look at these spiky fur balls:

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Some of the seedlings in early May…
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…and in mid-August
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These are clearly columnar cacti, and they’re also the ones with the brightest color. The taller of the two is about 1¼" in height.
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These are are round and very spiky, about ⅜" across
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Amazing how the spikes are longer than the cactus!
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This one might be a fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni). At least it reminds me of my much larger specimen (check here).

A little while ago I also got some cactus cuttings from my mother-in-law who had gotten them from the receptionist at her doctor’s office (talk about passalong plants!). The cuttings weren’t rooted, so I stuck them in some pots with well-drained soil and let them do their thing. Starting three or four weeks later, I began to water them once a week, and they’ve clearly liked this treatment.

I still haven’t positively identified these babies, but they might rat tail cactus (Disocactus flagelliformis). In any case, being a tropical cactus, they are unlikely to tolerate any kind of frost so they’ll live inside during winter.

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Rat tail cactus (?) babies. The taller ones are close to 3".
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In this close-up you see how many new “branches” have developed
on this one small plant

I also received a few other tropical cacti from fellow blogger Steve of Steve’s Garden. In the photo below, the three cuttings on the left are an Epiphyllum species, and the three on the right are Hylocereus, also known as dragonfruit or pitaya (most likely Hylocereus undatus)

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Cuttings received on April 28, 2011

Let’s take a look at how much they have grown since I got them at the end of April.

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Dragonfruit cutting four months later. The section with the blue outline is the original cutting, everything else is new growth (about 16").
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Another dragonfruit cutting—the two branches (about 3" in length)
on either side of the vertical stem are new
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Epiphyllum cuttings. About 6" of new growth. The section with the blue outline are the original cuttings.

It’s been great following the progress of these plants all summer long. Unlike my beloved bamboos, these plants are small and still fit on one table where I can keep a close eye on them.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gerhard and the Bamboostalk?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the clumping bamboos in our front yard. They’ve put on tremendous growth this year. Just how much was brought home this morning when I looked out the upstairs loft window. There are more new culms than I bothered to count, and they haven’t even leafed out yet. Once they have, the view from upstairs will be very different for sure!

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Left (back): Bambusa oldhamii
Middle: Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’
Right: Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’

Our giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii), the darker green bamboo on the left, has five new culms that range from 1½ to 2 inches in diameter. They’re not visible from this angle yet, but once they’ve reached their final height, our neighbor’s front yard might be almost invisible.

I love all this growth—that’s the reason why we planted bamboo in the first place—but it is a bit scary to think that it will continue next year, and the year after…

I will definitely cut back on the fertilizer and maybe on the water, too. Otherwise I might find myself in my own version of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Gerhard and the Bamboostalk, one might say.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who says pink isn’t a manly color?

Whenever I go to our local ACE Hardware store, I walk through their garden center. The selection is fairly mainstream but they do carry a good and frequently changing selection of 3" and 4" plants from Lone Pine Gardens, a specialty succulent nursery in Sebastopol, California—the same town where Bamboo Sourcery and Hardcore Espresso are located, two businesses I’ve blogged about before.

I often walk away with a new addition to our cactus collection, and this Sunday was no different. I ended up buying a Gymnocalycium friedrichii, a small globose cactus from northwestern Paraguay that is actually quite hardy (down to USDA zone 8). I had eyed this species all summer, and this time ACE had nice-sized plants in 4” pots that were getting ready to bloom.

This is what the cactus looked like when I bought in on Sunday:

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Today the flowers opened up in all their pink glory. While pink isn’t a favorite color of mine, it does complement the reddish hue of the cactus itself.

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Like many cactus flowers, they’re only open from noon to mid-afternoon, starting to close at 5pm or so. When the flowers are closed, their pinkness is even more pronounced.

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Unfortunately, as is the case with all cactus flowers, they don’t bloom for very long. But I think the cactus itself has a unique look, and I will enjoy it even without flowers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Please vote for Bamboo and More…

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Thank you!

Baby steps towards garden ornaments

Our garden has made great progress in the last few years, but its appeal rests almost entirely on the plants we’ve chosen and the way we’ve combined them. One major frontier remains largely unexplored: garden ornaments, or yard art.

Last year we added a few Asian-themed ornaments, but other than that I had always thought our garden would look better unadorned.

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Granite lantern in the Koyabu style
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Cast-concrete Guanyin head
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Craftsman style granite lantern next to Fargesia robusta

However, the more gardens I visit—either in person or on the web—the more curious I become about the possibilities of giving our garden a unique character through ornaments.

While I have a soft spot for whimsy and kitsch, such as the cow and mannequin at Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA, they wouldn’t feel right in our garden even if we had the room.

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Cow at Annie’s Annuals
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Life-size mannequin at Annie’s Annuals

The space that has provided the most inspiration is Mark and Gaz’s garden at Alternative Eden. Their choice of décor is elegant, exotic, and timeless, and it strikes the right balance between not enough and too much. Check out these vignettes to see what I mean: 1 2 3.

However, I must admit that I don’t possess the innate sense of taste and design that Mark and Gaz do. I greatly admire their garden but I’m not sure I would be able to come up with something so cohesive—and what works in their garden may not work in ours. My inherent sense of style is more along the line of Matthew Levesque, although not quite as creative.

With ample time and an unlimited budget it would be relatively easy to go out and buy all the things that strike your fancy, but we have neither so we’re adding pieces as we come across them and can afford them.

Earlier this year we bought a few pieces of Haitian metal art made from oil drums that I’m very fond of. Just a couple of days ago I moved them from their old spot against the fence and hung them from the trunks of our bay trees. I love the almost monochromatic look of silver on silver, yet I think that they stick out enough to be noticeable without being in your face.

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Haitian metal art
                                                                                                                                         
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Haitian metal art

We just started to explore garage sales as potential sources for yard art. On Saturday we found two wooden masks ($7 for both!) which, while not made for outside display, are OK during the dry months of the year. I’m a bit of a sucker for ethnic masks (I have three in my office) so these appealed to me right away.

One is a Maya-inspired piece that for now is hanging on the fence between some potted bamboos. I’m not 100% sure that it’s right for this location, but I’ll give it a try for a while.

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Mayan warrior shield (?)
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Mayan warrior shield and Haitian metal art

The other mask is a rather forbidding looking demon that looks good matched by the dark culms of a black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).

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Chinese (?) mask next to black bamboo

Time will tell whether these ornaments work or not in our garden. Since we have two active kids (10 and 13) and an equally active dog, it’s not a good idea buying fragile pieces of pottery because the odds of them being broken is high. But I’ll keep my eyes open for new finds, and if past history is any indication, something will smack me in the face (figuratively, hopefully) when I least expect it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

From Bradford pear to timber bamboo

When we bought our house in 1997, the front yard was “graced” by two Bradford pear trees (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’). Once considered a near-perfect street tree—it grows fast, it’s hardy, tough and drought tolerant, and it has pretty white flowers in the spring and beautiful red foliage in the fall—the reality is that as the tree ages, its limbs become too heavy and break off from their weak attachment points. One of our neighbors had a Bradford pear that split in the middle, luckily missing the house as it broke apart.

As if that genetic disposition to breakage wasn’t bad enough, our Bradford pears were also infested with mistletoe, weakening them even more. We were already concerned because bits and pieces had been breaking off over the years, but one sunny and calm Sunday morning in the fall of 2009, an entire limb broke off of one tree and fell across the street, almost touching the sidewalk on the other side. Luckily, no cars had been parked in front of our house or our neighbor’s, otherwise pretty serious damage would have ensued. This was the last straw for us and we petitioned the City of Davis to have the tree removed. After the tree had been examined by the city arborist who agreed with our assessment, the matter went to the city tree commission which luckily approved our petition (they’re quite conservative when it comes to the removal of trees, but this one clearly was a hazard and liability). At the very end of December 2009 the city came and cut down the tree and ground out the stump.

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Even in 2005, before our big remodel, it was easy to see the mistletoe infestation on the Bradford pear that eventually led to its removal.
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Summer 2008, a year and a half before the Bradford pear was removed

Instead of having the city plant another tree, we opted to go our own way and replace the Bradford pear with something that would grow much faster than a tree and give us a more unique look: a giant clumping timber bamboo aka Bambusa oldhamii.

I bought a 5-gallon plant from Madman Bamboo and it went in the ground at the beginning of February 2010.

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Bambusa oldhamii planted in early February 2010
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Looking a bit lost in this seemingly large space

Initially, the Bambusa oldhamii looked quite lost in the space where the Bradford pear had been, but when summer rolled around and the oldhamii began to shoot, things began to change. The new culms measured between ¾ and 1 inch in diameter and shot skyward at a very satisfying pace.

The oldhamii made it through the winter with flying colors, and as you can see in the following photo, it had increased in size over the prior year by several orders of magnitude.

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March 2011

Fast forward five months to August of 2011, and what was a wispy plant 1½ years ago is now an assertive presence in front of the house.

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August 2011
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August 2011

Shooting season began in late July, and the biggest of this year’s culms is 2 inches in diameter. I expect it to top out at 25-30 feet.

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2 inch culm

I’m so used to the oldhamii that I hardly remember what it was like to live with the brittle and messy Bradford pear. But even though the tree itself is gone, there’s still plenty of life left underground. A veritable army of suckers has appeared for the past 1¾ years. I keep a close eye on the area and every couple of weeks, I arm myself with my trusty hori-hori knife and cut them out. In the spring, I tried a chemical sucker suppressant but all it did was temporarily slow down sucker production. Removing them manually, again and again and again, seems to be the most effective approach. At some point all the energy stored in the roots has to be used up.

The Bambusa oldhamii doesn’t seem to be bothered by the Bradford pear roots that are left underground. It forms a fairly tight clump anyway, and if down the line it meets up with the roots, they will act as a rhizome barrier, deflecting its growth. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering I want to keep the clump from getting too close to the fence.

                                                                                                                                               
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Bradford pear suckers, August 21, 2011