Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Succulent bed highlights

I’ve been in a “stock taking” mood lately, looking at various parts of the garden to see how they’ve come along. Comparing the current state to, say, last year is useful in assessing what has done well and what hasn’t—and whether you’re happy with the way things have progressed.

I’ve already made some changes recently to one small part of the succulent bed next to our front door, replacing crassulas and echeverias with colony-forming cacti that should tolerate the daytime heat and the searing summer sun a little better.

Now I’m looking at other areas of the succulent bed to see where tweaking might be necessary.

This post describes the origins of this succulent bed. The larger plants have now been in place for 2½ years. Succulents don’t grow as explosively as bamboos do, for example, so progress has been more measured. However, you can see progress even compared to last year. Just take a look at the first two photos.

Succulent bed in July 2010
Succulent bed in August 2011
The biggest difference is the size of the variegated agave (Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’) and the coral aloe (Aloe striata) in the center of the photo.
This variegated yucca (Yucca recurvifolia ‘Margaritaville’) was planted last fall. It replaced a plain green Yucca filamentosa (see photo from July 2010) which, much to my surprise, failed to thrive and began to look ratty. ‘Margaritaville’ has been a big success, and one of my favorites in this bed.
This stunning agave (Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’) has thrived over the last 2½ years and now has close to a dozen “pups” (or babies).
The bluish-green succulent on the right is called Senecio vitalis. It was planted in February 2011 and has almost doubled in size.
Closeup of Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’. Its leaves were marred by hail in May; you can still see the pock marks in the bottom leaves. However, it’s amazing how many new leaves the plant has produced since then.
Some of the pups surrounding the mother plant. I definitely have enough to trade now.
While the larger architectural plants form the backbone of this succulent bed, I added quite a few smaller succulents for variety. On the right is a Pachysedum (a cross between a Pachyphytum and a Sedum) and on the left an Aloe aristata.
Another Aloe aristata. It’s gone dormant for the summer, forming a tight ball with the outer leaves turning brown. Once cooler and wetter weather returns, the rosette will open up and resume its growth. Not the prettiest plant in the summer, but worth keeping for the winter and spring.
Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg.’ One of my favorite echeverias for its intense purple color. Echeverias, I’ve learned, do not like our hot summers. They do survive but definitely suffer. This is one protected from the hot afternoon sun, and it will look perkier come fall.
These two have proven to be real troopers:
Left: Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’
Right: Aloe striata
Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ also suffered hail damage in May, but has had a tremendous growth spurt so the marred leaves are not that visible anymore. It always amazes me how fast some agaves grow when given regular water during summer. This particular agave is not particularly cold-hardy and needs to be covered when temperatures drop below 28°F.
Agave schidigera var. filifera. One of my favorites, but others find it a bit too intimidating. This specimen has a lot of threads, nicely complimenting the white marking in the leaves.
The leaf shape of the Yucca gloriosa (in the background, left) is mirrored by the ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) in the foreground (right). Ponytail palm is not a palm at all, but a very slow-growing and eventually tree-sized succulent from eastern Mexico. There is a lot of conflicting information as to their cold hardiness, but ours has been in the ground since the beginning and hasn’t sustained any frost damage.
Our Beaucarnea recurvata is actually a little family of three plants—I assume three seedlings sprouting in close vicinity. The caudex (the modified round stem that stores water) looks quite impressive even in an immature plant.
The hanging leaves from the Beaucarnea recurvata provide effective sun protection for smaller succulents that don’t want to bask in the hot late-afternoon sun. This Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoriae-reginae) is loving its spot. A mature specimen is easily one of the most stunning of all succulents.
Much smaller and striped horizontally instead of vertically, this zebra plant (Haworthia attenuata) loves a spot in dappled shade. Not considered very cold hardy, ours has shrugged off dips down to 26°F. The overhanging leaves from the ponytail palm definitely give added protection.
Agave ‘Blue Glow’ on the left is particularly stunning when backlit by the evening sun (not easy to reproduce in our garden since our specimen is in the shade when the sun is low).
On the right is one of the weirder succulents in common cultivation, a flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae). In the summer it looks more green, but colder temperatures bring out the blues and reds. This one turned to mush in the winter of 2009 but has come back since then. Definitely not cold-hardy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Alphonse Karr bamboo revisited

Last Halloween I helped friends of ours plant three Alphonse Karr bamboos (Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’) in their backyard. Click here to read that post.

I recommended Alphonse Karr because it is a beautiful clumping bamboo that thrives in our Mediterranean climate and tolerates our winter lows (rarely below 25°F). Like all members of the genus Bambusa it is a fast grower—a definite plus when trying to create a privacy screen, like our friends are doing.

I recently blogged about the tremendous growth of our own Alphonse Karr, and yesterday I took my camera over to our friends’ house to document the progress of their Alphonse Karr.

Here is a photo from last Halloween right after planting:

Newly planted specimens on 10/31/2010

And here is the same view 11 months later.

The clumps look much fuller now and will eventually be tall enough to block the view of the 2nd story windows next door
The clump on the left will also provide a partial visual screen of the compost tumbler and toolshed

Like all Bambusas, Alphonse Karr produces shoots in later summer and early fall, so there’s a lot of activity still waiting to happen.

New shoots

New culms have a very pretty pink blush that over time fades to yellow, accented by green vertical stripes in a random pattern.

New culms with pink blush; the emerging branches will soon dislodge the culm sheaths (the papery covers that protect the culms as they telescope into the sky)

Since Alphonse Karr is a clumping bamboo, our friends don’t ever have to worry about the bamboo escaping into their neighbors’ yard. No rhizome barrier needed, as would be the case with running bamboo.

In our area, Alphonse Karr is one of the most popular bamboos and it is one of the few bamboo varieties available in most nurseries. I think it’s one of the best all-round varieties for most applications in a mild-winter climate.

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.