Saturday, September 17, 2011

A few things in the yard that caught my eye

It’s hard to believe it’s the middle of September. Even though the thermometer still climbs into the high 80s in the afternoon, there’s a definite chill in the air in the morning, and on some trees the leaves are beginning to change color ever so slightly. One thing that remains elusive: rain. But that’s not unusual. I don’t really expect rain until mid- or late October.

Yesterday I walked through the front and backyard with my camera, and there were quite a few things that caught my eye. The flowering superstars of the summer (the rudbeckias and echinaceas, for example) are on the wane, but other plants are going strong, including my beloved succulents and bamboos. They are interesting to me all year round, which is why I have so many of them.

Flowering maple (Abutilon x hybridum ‘Souvenir de Bonn’) reaching toward the sky. I wish it would grow bushy instead of tall and gangly, but I love the leaves and the flowers.
Potted bamboos on the edge of our backyard patio.
From left to right: temple bamboo (Semiarundinaria fastuosa), green stripe blowgun bamboo (Bambusa dolichomerithalla ‘Green Stripe’), and yellow buddha’s belly (Bambusa ventricosa ‘Kimmei’).
Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ settling into its new home in the stock tank.
Here’s a post on this project.
Leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) shaded by the branches of a Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda) growing in a half wine barrel
Blooming lilyturf (Liriope muscari ‘Silvery Sunproof’)
Variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’). This is the second year it has bloomed. Peeking through the leaves on the left is one hosta that is actually doing OK in our climate, a cultivar called ‘Climax.’ Ironically, I got as a freebie when ordering other hosta varieties that have fared quite poorly.
Two succulents with strappy leaves that complement each other nicely. Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’ in the pot, and Beschorneria albiflora in the ground.
Three of my favorite plants in our front yard succulent bed:
Aloe striata (front left), Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’ (front right), Yucca recurvifolia ‘Margaritaville’ (back center).
Ghost plants (Graptopetalum paraguayense) assuming a neat purple coloration in a mostly shady spot near the front door.
Golden lotus banana (Musella lasiocarpa) in its third month of blooming. Notice the additional smaller flower on the left.
A tropical harbinger of fall: Kahili ginger in bloom (Hedychium gardnerianum)
Still my favorite bamboo: Baby Blue or Barbie bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’) producing one ice blue culm after another. I don’t understand why this bamboo isn’t more widely available in the Bay Area and mild-winter areas of Northern California. It’s hard to beat for rate of growth and sheer beauty.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I like spiders, but…

Unlike many people, I have nothing against spiders. I know how useful they are in keeping a lid on mosquitoes, flies, and other insects. As a matter of fact, in our family we go out of our way to take spiders outside when we find them inside. And we’ve learned long ago to accept the occasional cobweb in the house as part of the décor.

However, by late summer the spider webs outside get to be a bit too much, even for tolerant me. The webs stick particularly well to rough siding, and they’re often riddled with desiccated insect corpses. Fascinating when viewed up close, but not exactly decorative (except possibly at Halloween).


Spiders also seem to prefer succulents. I’m sure it’s because succulents are stationary as opposed to plants with branches and leaves that move in the wind. Since my succulent collection has expanded significantly this year, I have a lot more plants covered with spider webs. Just take a look!

String-of-pearls (Senecio rowleyanus)
Sedum ‘Burrito’
Agave geminiflora

Agave colimana

Confederate rose agave (Agave parrasana)
Silver torch cactus (Cleistocactus straussii)
Roadkill cactus (Consolea rubescens)
Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Every few weeks I remove the webs as best as I can using a small bamboo stick, twirling it as if I were making cotton candy. That works quite well. To remove cobwebs from even narrower spaces, like in between the spines of the golden barrel cactus above, I use a wooden skewer, moving it back and forth.

But no matter what I do, a few days later the webs are back. It appears the spiders like our succulents as much as I do!

Too bad a leaf blower doesn’t work on spider webs the way it does on fallen leaves!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blue fescue producing live babies

A couple of years ago I bought a six-pack of blue fescue ‘Elijah Blue’ (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’). The plants were just plugs, about an inch across, and I stuck three of them in the narrow succulent strip outside our dining room (the wall you see in the photos below is actually our kitchen). This area is in the shade most of the time, but it does receive a couple of hours of intense afternoon sun. I knew succulents would be able to deal with the heat, and I was pleasantly surprised by how shade-tolerant they turned out to be.

Anyway, the blue fescue has thrived here although the literature says it wants full sun. If anything, the leaves are a more blue than you usually see in plants growing in the full sun.


What is extraordinary about one of the three fescues is that it has produced miniature plants at the end of some of the flower spikelets. Many agaves produce such plantlets, often called “bulbils,” on their flower stalks, but I have never seen this behavior in a grass.


I did a bit of research, and fescues do exhibit vivipary (the production of live plants instead of seeds) now and then. There even is a fescue species, Festuca vivipara, native to cold climates like Alaska which reproduces exclusively through vivipary, ostensibly because the growing season is too short for seed production.


Regarding blue fescue, I found an interesting post in the Gardening Answers Knowledgebase operated by the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. A gardener is reporting that one of her (or his) Festuca glauca growing in a shady spot is producing a great number of plantlets. The expert’s reply quotes Flora of North America, vol. 24, p.392:

Under adverse conditions, many species [of Festuca] may proliferate vegetatively, where leafy bulbils or shoots form in place of some or all spikelets. Some populations of Festuca are largely (or completely) sterile, reproducing almost entirely through such bulbils, a process termed pseudovivipary.


‘Elijah Blue’ is indeed a sterile cultivar, so it would appear that the relative lack of sun has sent my plant into a frenzy of self-preservation.

On the weekend I will snip off some of the plantlets and try to root them in small pots. I certainly wouldn’t mind a few extra specimens of this stunning grass.


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.