Monday, September 12, 2011

Hauling out the leaf blower

There is a cherry plum tree (Prunus cerasifera 'Krauter Vesuvius') between our house and our neighbor’s, and for the past few weeks it has been dropping leaves and fruit onto succulent area below it. Ordinarily I wouldn’t worry too much about it, but it’s not a good thing for succulents to be smothered by leaves that, as they decompose, could cause rot.

Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera 'Krauter Vesuvius')…
…dropping leaves on everything…
…adding a nice touch of color…
…but potentially causing problems with rot, especially once the rainy season starts

I regularly rant and rave about lazy gardeners using leaf blowers instead of brooms to get rid of lawn clippings and leafs on sidewalks and driveways. Don’t even get me started on the noise pollution I have to endure as I try to work in my home office.

But when it comes to cleaning this particular area of our yard, I do resort to using a leaf blower. It would be much too time-consuming to rake or pick out the cherry plum leaves from among the succulents.

So even though I felt a bit guilty (not to mention hypocritical), out came the leaf blower and within a short period of time, this succulent area looked 100% better.

Agave parryii ‘Truncata’ after the mini hurricane had come through
The whole area looks much better…
…and the plants can breathe more easily

This job will be on my to-do list a few more times before the tree has dropped all its leaves. Secretly, I must admit that I do like using the leaf blower. But don’t tell anyone.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Succulent bed touchup

In January 2009 we turned the planting area to the left of our front door into a mounded succulent bed. This has been one of my favorite transformations so far, and I’m still happy with the basic structure of this succulent bed. However, some plants turned out to be less sun-tolerant than we thought. Echeverias don’t appear to enjoy being baked in the afternoon sun, and neither do crassulas. As a result, the area marked in the green in the first photo has been problematic. While this summer has been relatively mild, some plants in that area have been struggling, and a few weeks ago I decided to put them out of their misery.

Succulent bed with problematic area highlighted in green
The plants under the fronts of the ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) are struggling…
…especially the string of buttons (Crassula perforata) and an echeveria (bottom left) which I believe might be ‘Perle von Nürnberg’ (normally a deep purple)

Since I’ve gotten into cacti this year, the solution seemed obvious: Why not replace the scraggly succulents with cacti that would be able to tolerate the heat and relative lack of water much better? I didn’t want to have to worry about covering them in the winter, so I opted for cold-hardy Southwest natives.

The result (next photo) seems a bit sparse, and I probably could have stuck another cactus in there, but these are clump-forming species that will eventually form extensive colonies (“eventually” meaning several years).

Left: Escobaria vivipara var. bisbeeana
Right: Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mojavensis

The green, slightly egg-shaped cactus in the middle and on the right is Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mojavensis forma inermis. This is quite a mouthful. Basically, it means that it is a (nearly) spineless form of the Mojave claret cup cactus. As the name says, it’s native to the Mojave desert where it grows on gravelly and rocky soils. There are many forms of this cactus, and some are reportedly hardy into the teens. Over time, they can form colonies (called “trigs”) with hundreds of heads.

Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mojavensis forma inermis

One of the reasons that claret cup cacti are so popular are the flowers. I’ve seen them bloom in Joshua Tree National Park, and they really are this red (“carmine” is the word usually used to described the color). I can’t wait for ours to flower next spring!

Echinocereus triglochidiatus in flower
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second cactus I chose for this area is Escobaria vivipara var. bisbeeana, or Bisbee spinystar. It is native to Arizona and New Mexico. The northern clones of Escobaria vivipara are among the hardiest of all cacti, growing as far north as the Dakotas and into Canada. I’ve seen reports of them surviving -30°F. Escobaria vivipara can form colonies with many dozens of heads.

Escobaria vivipara var. bisbeeana
Escobaria vivipara in flower
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the grand scheme of things, these are small changes, but since this area is in such a high-visibility location, I think even small changes have a big impact.

Now I need to pot up the plants I took out and pamper them until they look good again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Veggie volunteers

This year has been a huge letdown as far vegetables are concerned. Our zucchini and crookneck squash are doing OK, but our tomatoes are a disaster. Sure, there are a few ripe cherry tomatoes every day, but never enough to make a salad, let alone a main meal with them. Other gardeners in our area seem to either be in the same boat as us or are having a great crop. Nobody can figure out why. It’s just been a schizophrenic year.

However, a few plants are going great guns—and we didn’t even plant them. In mid-summer I noticed volunteer tomatoes growing outside our vegetable beds. A couple are right in front of one bed, and the other is growing in the calla lily bed, or rather out from it towards the sun. They’re cherry tomatoes (too early too tell if they’re red, yellow or orange), and I assume they’re from seeds that ended up in those places in the form of a stray ripe tomato or two.

Volunteer cherry tomato plant
And another one in the calla lily bed

However, I cannot explain where this other plant came from. Take a look at the next couple of photos. It looks to me like an artichoke, and we’ve never grown artichokes before. I wonder who brought in the seed for that plant? Birds? It’s real mystery.

Mystery artichoke surrounded by volunteer tomatoes (and thriving mint)
Another view of the artichoke. I supposed it could also be a cardoon, but those are very uncommon around here. I did grow a cardoon once, but that was in the front of the house, quite a ways away from this spot.

When I first saw these volunteers come up, my first inclination was to remove them, but then I decided to let them grow to see what would happen. Yes, they do look messy and weedy, but with any luck, we might get better tomatoes from these volunteers than from our “real” tomato plants—and maybe an artichoke or two from the mystery thistle!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The story of three RÖNNBÄRs

If you’ve ever been to an IKEA store, you’re familiar with their tongue-twisting, barely pronounceable, yet oddly evocative product names. We’re fortunate enough to live only 20 minutes from the West Sacramento IKEA warehouse, and our house is filled with assorted IKEA bookcases, tables, and chairs—not to mention kitchen gadgets, vases and knick-knacks. Can you say BIGARRÅ, BJÜRON, BLYGSAM? How about HASSELNÖT, JÄTTEFIN or ORÄDD? CHOSIGT, HJÄLTE or VÄRDEFULL? (We don’t have all those products, but I love the names.)

IKEA also carries a good selection of flower pots and some plants; most of them are for indoors, but depending on your climate, some of them are definitely suitable for outdoor use. I’ve bought many a succulent—a great price at $2.99—even though they are always unlabeled. And for the past year I’ve been buying RÖNNBÄRs.

RÖNNBÄR is not some cute Swedish relative of the polar bear but a generously sized terracotta pot (15” wide, 12½” high) that’s a steal at $5.99. Last year I painted a couple of them a dark brown using acrylic paint so they don’t stand out so much with their peachy color, but this year I’m too lazy so I’m leaving them as is.

I’d bought three RÖNNBÄRs a couple of weeks ago, and on Labor Day I repotted some plants that were ready for a more spacious home. The first was a cow horn agave (Agave bovicornuta) I’d gotten a recent sale at Three Palms Nursery out in the boonies west of town. I’d been wanting one for a long time but I’d never come across a decent-sized plant. The specimens at Three Palms were perfect.

Agave bovicornuta and three brand-new RÖNNBÄRs

Cow horn agave comes from the mountains of western Mexico and almost always remains solitary, eventually forming a rosette up to 4 ft. wide (much less if confined to a pot). While it’s not particularly cold-hardy—apparently leaf damage starts to occur below 25°F—it’ll live on the front porch where it’ll be easy for me to cover it with frost cloth as needed.

Agave bovicornuta after repotting. Usually I wouldn’t go from a 2-gallon nursery container to what is essentially an 8 gallon pot, but this specimen was getting root-bound, and cow horn agave is a fast grower when given regular water in the summer.

The second plant that went into a RÖNNBÄR is about as far removed from succulents as you can get. It’s a leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) that had outgrown its 2-gallon container. With more room, it’ll become a handsome clump within a year. Although farfugiums aren’t supposed to tolerate heat all that well, ours have been doing great even with temperatures in the high 90s. I do keep them in the shade and never allow them to dry out. That must be the key to success.

Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’ in its new RÖNNBÄR

And now you’re probably wondering what’s going in the 3rd RÖNNBÄR. As a matter of fact, nothing quite yet. I always try to have one in reserve in case I end up buying a new plant that needs a container that size. With many fall plant sales coming up, I’m sure that won’t take long.


If I spoke Swedish, I’d conclude this post with some witty remarks in Pippi Långstrump’s native language. But since I don’t, I’ll simply excuse myself so I can enjoy our dinner of KÖTTBULLAR with POTATISMOS, GRÄDDSÅS and SYLT LINGON.

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)