Monday, September 5, 2011

Latest additions to my cactus collection

Whenever I happen to be a home improvement center, hardware store or nursery, I can’t help check out their succulent selection. While in previous years I was focused on larger succulents suitable for in-ground planting, especially agaves, aloes and yuccas, this year it’s been cacti, especially smaller ones for container culture. Fortunately, almost every place that sells plants carries at least a few cacti, and some nurseries, even small ones, have surprised me with their selection.

The other day I stopped by Redwood Barn Nursery not far from our house, and I was very happy to see a large selection of cacti in 2” and 3” containers. Usually I’m drawn to the larger 4” size for instant impact, but there was something so irresistible about the 2” pots. While some plants don’t develop their wow factor until they’re older, others have it when they’re tiny. Check out the first three cacti below. Pretty neat, aren’t they?

Mammillaria gracilis
Mammillaria gracilis
Mammillaria gracilis in flower
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Mammillaria crinita sup. duweii
Mammillaria crinita sup. duweii
Mammillaria crinita sup. duweii in flower
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Mammillaria microhelia
Mammillaria microhelia
Mammillaria microhelia

These three tiny beauties went in a shallow bowl together with another mammillaria I already had, Mammillaria elongata ‘Julio’ (center). At first I had planned on adding two or three more cacti but then I decided to add some rocks as contrast. These cacti will form clumps and when I need the room, I can simply remove the rocks.

Most of the time I’m focused on the larger landscape, especially when working with bamboos but also perennials. This is the exact opposite. Here I’m trying to create small-scale vignettes that will make people stop to take a closer look (literally) at these incredibly intricate plants.

Finished bowl. My wife thinks the design is too symmetrical; I’m inclined to wait for a while to see how things shape up before making changes. I also want to add a top dressing of finely crushed lava rock but I haven’t been able to find a local source yet.
These mammillarias are hardy to the mid-20s so they’ll be able to stay on the front porch in the winter. 

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.