Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lucky again!

Ever since my lucky bamboo died in June, it seems that my wheel of fortune has been on a slight downward tilt. The milk I use for my morning coffee seems to spoil more frequently than before, my socks have more holes than usual, and last week a mouse died in the ductwork of our Honda sedan (I’m not even going to describe the smell that’s currently permeating the interior).

But all of that is going to change now. We attended a Bar Mitzvah celebration yesterday where every table was decorated with lucky bamboo centerpieces. At the end of the party, our friends asked us to take home as many as we wanted, so we ended up with seven! Seven is a lucky number, and lucky bamboo is a harbinger of good fortune, so we’re all set on our path towards all things good and wonderful.


I did some research to make sure our lucky bamboos will stay alive. Here’s what I gleaned:

  • Keep your lucky bamboo in indirect light (bright or moderate light levels). Keep it away from direct sun.
  • Lucky bamboo doesn’t like to be cold, so keep it above 60°F in the winter.
  • Lucky bamboo grows in standing water. There should be a few inches of water at any given time. Top off the water level when needed. Every 7-10 days, dump out the old water and replace it with new.
  • If your tap water is chlorinated, use bottled water or fill a pitcher and let it stand overnight so the chlorine can evaporate.
  • Fluoride is toxic to lucky bamboo. If your tap water contains fluoride, use bottled water only.
  • Fertilize once a month with 1/2 strength houseplant fertilizer.
  • Lucky bamboo is toxic to pets so keep it away from your cats.

What killed my lucky bamboo was the fact that I never completed changed the water, I just topped it off. I’ll definitely pay attention to this particular point.


I’m sure you know this but it bears repeating. Lucky bamboo isn’t a bamboo at all. Its Latin name is Dracaena sanderiana, and it’s an understory plant native to the rainforests of Cameroon. Bamboo or not, it’s certainly a plant that is much revered all over the world, and if you give it what it need—which isn’t much—it should brighten your living space for a long time to come.

After all, even my neglected lucky bamboo hung in for four years before it threw in the towel.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My favorite flowers this year

I’m looking forward to the long Labor Day weekend and hope to get plenty of work done in the garden, at least in the mornings when it’s still cool (a high of 97°F is expected for Saturday and Sunday).

I want to repot a few things, but I need to get some pots first. Panama Pottery in Sacramento is having a big Labor Day sale: buy 1 item at regular price, get a 2nd at 50% off. Stop by if you live in the area. It’s a neat place.

I happened to browse through my garden photos this afternoon and I realized that I’ve taken many pictures this year that I’m really happy with—not only because I think they’re beautiful in and of themselves, but because they’re a great visual record of our garden or of other gardens I’ve visited this year.

Here are my favorites, mostly in chronological order. I hope you’ll enjoy this visual recap of my gardening year thus far.

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ at the UC Davis Waterwise Garden
Vinca minor ‘Illumination’. I still love the plant even though I’ve banished it to a pot.
Nectarine blossoms. This photo has sentimental value because we removed the tree.
Pisum sativum, the humble pea we all love to eat
Eucalyptus preissiana spotted at Ruth Bancroft Gardens. I’m still looking to buy a seedling.
Zantedeschia aethiopica, so clichéd, yet so beautiful.
Parodia werneri, the first of my tiny cacti to flower this year.
2011 has definitely the year of the cactus for me.
Phalaenopsis sp. What intricate details!
Thelocactus hexaedrophorus var. lloydii. The flower was bigger than the body of the cactus!
Polygonatum commutatum, better known as Solomon’s seal
Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips,’ probably my favorite salvia
Lamium maculatum ‘Purple Dragon’
Nigella damascena. One of my favorite flower name: Love-in-a-mist. Makes me think of the ending of Casablanca when Elsa and Rick say goodbye at the airport.
Kniphofia uvaria, finally coming into its own in our garden
Aesculus californica, California buckeye. It grows all along the greenbelt near our house.
Romneya coulteri, or Matilija poppy—another greenbelt dweller.
Opuntia microdasys ‘Albata,’ the cuddly-looking bunny ear cactus that will leave your fingers full of irritating glochids if you don’t watch out
Echium wildpretii, my beloved tower of jewels, finally blooming and then setting seeds
Heart-shaped string of flowers on Echeveria subsessilis
Amorphophallus titanum—gigantic, smelly, and impressive corpse flower blooming at UC Davis Botanical Conservatory
Another moth orchid with flowers that are perfection—and last forever. This photo was taken on June 25, and the flowers are still pristine two months later.
Echinacea x ‘Tomato Soup,’ probably my favorite of the recent coneflower hybrids. The color lasts for a long time, even in our dry heat.
Obregonia denegrii, sometimes mistaken for peyote, although it contains just traces of mescaline compared to the real peyote, Lophophora williamsii.
Mount Shasta Lavender Farm. One of my favorite places I’ve visited this year.
Passiflora caerulea, or blue passionflower, photographed at the house we rented in Brookings, Oregon.
Heracleum maximum, or cow parsnip, at Harris State Park near Brookings, OR
Astrophytum myriostigma, one of my living souvenirs from our trip the Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA
Cereus hildmannianus subsp. hildmannianus, or queen of the night. Rescued from the gutter in the spring, the largest segment had four spectacular but oh-so-ephemeral flowers.
Gymnocalycium mihanovichii var. friedrichii, blooming just days after I bought it. You’ve got to love these tiny cacti that somehow produce flowers that are almost as big as their body!
Parodia magnifica, one of my favorite small cacti, producing two sulphur yellow flowers of chiffon-like translucence
One of the cheeriest flowers on one of the weirdest plants I have, a living stone species from South Africa (Pleiospilos compactus)
As short-lived as many of the cactus flowers are, this inflorescence has been going strong since late June: yellow lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Garden bullies

I could have sworn that we don’t, but every garden has them: Plants that start out all nice and friendly but eventually flex their muscles and throw their weight around. My wife calls them “bullies,” and in a way they are because they try to dominate their environment by brute force.

Here are the bullies in our garden. All are plants I’m quite attached to, but I realize that something needs to be done to keep them in check.

We have three variegated maidenhair grass (miscanthus) in the planting strip outside the front yard fence. All of them started out as 4” plants, purchased at one of our favorite nurseries, Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville, about 25 minutes west of here. Every year they’ve gotten bigger, and even though I’ve done some preventive maintenance over the years, my efforts clearly weren’t enough.

This is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto,’ a dwarf version of variegated maidenhair grass. Up until now it’s been quite upright, but in the last few days it’s flopped over under the weight of its leaves, smothering the plants in front of it. Even though I hate the thought, I’ll have to do some rigorous trimming before these plants end of choking.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rigoletto’, flopped over

The same thing is happening with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ (or Silver Arrow, as it’s sometimes called). This specimen is even bigger than ‘Rigoletto,’ and it’s completely draped itself over the lavender planted in front of it. In addition, it’s encroaching on the clumping bamboo next to it, Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis.’ Frankly, I’d rather give this space to the bamboo, so the miscanthus will be removed in the winter. Any takers?

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberpfeil’ next to Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’

This is by far the best-behaved variegated miscanthus we have: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Dixieland.’ Its leaf blades are much wider than the other cultivars, and it’s strictly upright. The plan is to take some divisions and replace the ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Silberpfeil.’

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Dixieland’

Now this is a well-behaved grass: Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal,’ a switchgrass native to the North American tallgrass prairie. I was given a small division by a local gardener a few years ago, and it’s filled in nicely. Its growth habit is very upright, with no tendency to flop over.

Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’

But grasses aren’t the only bullies in our garden. This has been the year our red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) have come into their own, and they are definitely asserting their place in our garden. As much as I love the flowers, I’m not that fond of the foliage—and let’s face it, that’s what you see most of the year. I’m conflicted, but I may take out one clump to make room for a plant with a less coarse texture.

Kniphofia uvaria
A clump of Kniphofia uvaria near Bodega Bay

The last bully is also the one that’s nearest and dearest to me: Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha). There are few fall- and winter-blooming plants that have quite the same impact, but it’s a commanding presence and it takes no prisoners. Our specimen has completely overrun a smaller salvia as well as the ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis 'Pink Crystals’) I planted earlier in the year. I’m not going to get rid of our Mexican sage, but I’ll trim it back some to keep it in check.

Salvia leucantha

Who are the bullies in your garden? Please leave comments below.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Living stones brighten late-summer doldrums

Rumor has it there are people who actually prefer work to, say, gardening, but I’m definitely not one of them. Unfortunately, work does take up a large chunk of my time since I have to earn a living, and this week has been particularly busy. I haven’t been able to do much of anything in the garden other than my usual walkthrough, but the other day I was greeted by this when I got back from an evening walk with my wife and younger daughter:

Pleiospilos bolusii just starting to bloom.
The flowers open in the late afternoon and close at dusk. It seems that everything about this plant is strange in one way or another!

Pleiospilos bolusii is an odd succulent from South Africa that falls in the “living stones” category. Its common name is “split rock” or “mimicry plant,” and it’s easy to see why.

Its native habitat is very dry, with as little as 4” (100 mm) of rainfall per year. To deal with such extreme conditions, Pleiospilos bolusii has a long taproot, much like thistles or sea hollies. To allow room for the taproot, I’ve planted my specimen in an extra deep pot. With a depth of 6¾", IKEA’s Mandel pot is perfect for this—and a bargain at $2.99.

The key to keeping this oddity alive is to strictly control the amount of water it gets. The only time it should be watered is once a week from later summer to early fall. In the winter, its prime growing season, new leaves emerge from the old leaves, which are eventually consumed entirely. If the plant is watered during this stage of active growth, the old leaves remain and the plant eventually rots and dies. Experts say that this plant is so drought-tolerant that it could go without water for an entire year in a typical North American or European climate.

Keeping the plant in a deep pot is clearly the best way to go. Our potted plant is on the edge of our succulent bed, away from any irrigation, from spring to early winter. During the rainy season, I keep it on our covered front porch. Pleiospilos bolusii is hardy to the mid 20s (-5°C) so in our zone there’s no need to bring it inside.


My potted Pleiospilos bolusii in a Mandel pot from IKEA

At this time of year, when flowering perennials and even ornamental grasses are getting a bit long in the tooth and the garden is beginning to look tired in general, it’s wonderful to see this pop of color from what is otherwise an unassuming plant.

If you’re fascinated by Pleiospilos bolusii, check out the “real” living stones: the genus Lithops. Lithops are true collector plants, and much information is available on the web. This site is a great place to start.

Living stones are easy to find, at least here in Northern California. Almost every box store has them. In addition, there are quite a few specialty nurseries that sell online, including Living Stones Nursery.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Farfugium lovers, check out Alternative Eden

Most gardeners have never heard of farfugiums. They are wonderful shade-tolerant foliage plants from Japan, and I’ve been in love with them for a number of years. I blogged about them several times before (1 2) and will do another post in the fall.

My UK-based friends Mark and Gaz at Alternative Eden just published a fantastic post about their farfugium collection, which contains almost every cultivar currently available in the West. Rumor has it that Japanese breeders have developed other cultivars that haven’t made it to our shores yet so there’s definitely more to look forward to in the years to come.

If you like large-leaved plants with exotic appeal, be sure to check out this post at Alternative Eden!


Wordless Wednesday


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bamboo and More on Facebook

Some of you know this already, but others may not. Bamboo and More has a page on Facebook where all my posts are syndicated automatically. If you prefer to follow me on Facebook, it’s easy to do. Simply go to this page and click the Like button. All new posts will then automatically appear in your Facebook news feed.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Mealybugs kill hens-and-chicks

At this time of year, I water our potted succulents once a week. Sometimes I do it leisurely, inspecting each plant for new growth or just admiring their form; sometimes I’m rushed and try to get it done as quickly as possible.

Three weekends ago I must have been rushed and not paid much attention to what was going on. This became very apparent when I noticed the following week that our sempervivum bowl had the worst case of mealybug infestation I’d ever seen on a succulent. I immediately sprayed with neem oil, which is typically quite effective, and quarantined the bowl to a far corner of the yard. When I checked back a few days later, most plants were dead—I hadn’t caught the infestation early enough. I might have been able to save a few plants, but I decided to just dump the entire content of the bowl into the garbage can and start over. The thought of trying to salvage anything was too discouraging and just plain unappealing.


Severe mealybug infestation on hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum sp.)

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.

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.

Parodia magnifica in February when its skin had a pronounced bluish cast
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.

August 3, 2011
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.

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.

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.

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.