Thursday, October 13, 2011

My recipe for fast-draining potting mix

I find that most commercially available cacti and succulent mixes either contain peat (which is almost impossible to rewet after it has dried out) or too much organic matter, resulting in soil that stays wet too long after watering. That, in turn, could lead to rot, especially in combination with colder weather. The only brand I feel comfortable using unamended is Black Gold Cactus Mix; the formulation for California contains 40-50% pumice, which guarantees excellent drainage.

For a while now I’ve been making my own succulent soil mix. It’s cheaper than Black Gold Cactus Mix, it allows me to control all the ingredients and ratios, and it’s fun in a geeky sort of way.

I use only three ingredients:

1 part coir
1 part commercial potting soil
2 parts pumice

Coir is the coarse fiber from the outer husk of coconuts. Check out this earlier post about coir. I like it because it loosens up the mix while adding a bit of water retention. In contrast to peat, coir rewets easily and doesn’t compress as readily.

Coir is available online in compressed bricks, which need to be rehydrated. I simply put the brick you see below in a Tubtrug filled with water, topped it with a few rocks to keep it submerged, and let it sit for a couple of days.

Compress coir brick
Rehydrated coir

The rehydrated coir went in our trusty garden cart.

Garden cart with coir…

To the coir I added the same amount of potting soil (by volume, not weight). I’m not that picky about which kind or brand except that I make sure it’s free of peat. As I mentioned earlier, peat is hard to rewet after it has dried out, and when wet it holds moisture longer than is desirable during colder times of the year.

111002_soil_coir soil_01
…and an equivalent amount of potting soil

Finally I added the ingredient that makes up 50% of my mix: pumice. Pumice is lightweight volcanic rock that, for horticultural use, is crushed or ground into small particles. From what I’ve gathered, pumice is primarily available in the Western U.S. In some locations, pumice is sold in bulk in garden centers or rock yards. Where I live, the cheapest source of pumice is a product called Dry Stall, sold in feed stores as horse bedding material. I get mine at Higby’s Country Feed in Dixon, CA for $9.99 for a 40 pound bag.

111008_soil_mix pumice_02
Pumice sold in feed stores under the brand name Dry Stall
111008_soil_mix pumice_06
Dry Stall is the perfect size for my purpose
111008_soil_mix pumice_01
Pumice added to coir and potting soil…
…and mixed in
The end result is a very loose, airy mix that drains quickly

If you can’t find pumice, there are a number of substitutes that work just as well:

  • perlite or vermiculite (both are sold just about anywhere although finding larger, economically priced bags may not always be easy; check larger nurseries—they may sell you perlite or vermiculite at cost)
  • scoria (small, crushed lava rock)
  • gravel (the smallest size you can find)
  • decomposed granite
  • calcined clay (often sold as cat litter; just make sure you get the right product—you don’t want to get something that turns to mush or has added fragrances or disinfectants)
  • coarse diatomaceous earth (sold in the U.S. by Napa Auto Parts as multi-purpose absorbent; be sure to follow all precautions, such as wearing a respirator if so advised)

You can vary the amount of each of the three main ingredients to create a mix that drains even faster (for example, for extremely xeric cacti) or that holds water longer (for example, for plants from humid environments that like more moisture). You can even add slow-release fertilizer for an even more complete mix.

You are the master of your soil and have ultimate control.

Doesn’t that feel good?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fall at Ruth Bancroft Garden

Last Saturday I drove to Walnut Creek, about an hour away, to attend the fall plant sale at Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG). If you missed my post, click here to catch up. After I’d picked out the plants I wanted to buy, I took a stroll through the garden to do some exploring.

While we don’t have the flashy fall foliage other parts of the country have, the signs of fall were were unmistakable. The prickly pears were covered with fruit, and many—like the one in the first photo—were dropping fruit. If you’re in the East Bay this Wednesday and have time in the morning, join RBG curator Brian Kemble on a fruit tasting tour. You’ll get a chance to sample prickly pear and other cactus fruits.

Prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) with fruit
In Spanish, the prickly pear fruits are called “tunas”
The prickly pears weren’t the only cactus bearing fruit. This cereus (similar to the queen of the night that bloomed in our garden this summer) sported some pretty blue fruits.
Flower petals from the kapok or silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) adorning the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

The garden was decorated with scarecrows for the fall festival that took place on Sunday. These scarecrows added a completely unexpected touch to the succulent wonderland that is Ruth Bancroft Garden.

Scarecrow next to a large Agave americana ‘Marginata’ that could be a giant creature living at the bottom of the ocean
This scarecrow was inspired by Ruth Bancroft herself. Check out the huge clump of foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) to the left of it.
Scarecrow with a message

Another sign of fall: strange fruit forming on some eucalyptus trees. I’m a complete novice when it comes to eucalyptus, so I have no idea what species this is.

Eucalyptus with weird fruit

The strangest plant I saw was a Brunsvigia josephinae, or cadelabra lily, an amaryllis relative from South Africa. It was done blooming but the giant star-shaped structure was still there, with seed pods at the tips.

Brunsvigia josephinae

The echeverias have finished blooming for the summer, but their rosettes look so much like flowers that you might think they’re in bloom year round.

A ruffled echeveria cultivar RBG calls ‘Lace’
Echeveria ‘Lace’

This time I remembered to take a few photos of gasterias planted in the ground. For some reason, I seem to ignore gasterias even though many of them are quite beautiful, with a completely unique look.

Gasteria excelsa, superficially resembling an aloe
This gasteria was simply labeled “Gasteria variegated.' I love the way is has started to spiral.

RBG has dozens of aloe species, not only the common ones but also many rarities. This is Aloe elgonica from Kenya, which I had missed on previous visits. I love the pastel coloration and the “toothy” leaf margins.

Aloe elgonica, not often seen

I forgot to check the tag for this aloe but its small size and cheery flowers played nicely off the larger agave.

111008_rbg_aloe agave
Blooming aloe (unknown species) next to what might be Agave celsii var. albicans

Aloes come in all sizes. The one in the next two photos is Aloe speciosa, a tree aloe that can grow to 18 ft.

111008_rbg_117 111008_rbg_Aloe-speciosa
Aloe speciosa with two agave flower stalks in the background

Since RBG has so many agaves, you will always find some in bloom. Most agaves are monocarpic. This means that the rosette will die after flowering because it puts all of its energy into producing that gigantic flower stalk. Even small agave species with a rosette, say, 1 ft. across can have a flower stalk that is 10-12 ft. tall.

Two agave flower stalks seen through a third flower stalk that broke in the middle because of its weight
Agave americana ‘Marginata’ with a broken flower stalk. Removing this specimen is quite a chore, considering that it’s easily 6 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide.

RBG’s agave collection is very impressive. It’s fun reading up on relatively uncommon species and then then seeing them “in the flesh” on your next visit. But even the more common species, like the ones in the next couple of photos, are stunning when grown well—which is definitely the case here.

111008_rbg_agave_attenuata aloe_plicatilis
Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) with fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis) on the right
Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae), a perennial crowd pleaser—easy to understand when you see an older specimen like this one
A variegated version of Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae ‘Variegata’)
One of my favorite agaves, Agave parryi, growing at the base of an impressive ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata), which isn’t a palm at all but a giant caudex-forming succulent from Mexico
These Agave parryi were sooooo blue
What a beautiful shape!

RBG has hundreds of cacti species in their collection. Not all of them are photogenic and others I’ve covered in previous posts (1 2 3 4), but here are a few that jumped out at my this time—thank heavens not literally, like a jumping cholla might.

Mammillaria geminispina, a small clump-forming species from central Mexico
111008_rbg_Cleistocactus-hyalacanthus Sempervivum-arachnoideum-Cebenese
Cleistocactus hyalacanthus, a columnar cactus from Bolivia and Argentina, with a spectacular expanse of tiny cobweb sempervivums (Sempervivum arachnoideum 'Cebenese')
Cleistocactus hyalacanthus backlit by the morning sun

I started this post with photos of cactus fruit, and I want to end it with some cactus flowers. I was happy to find a couple of cacti that were still in bloom. And they are real beauties!

Astrophytum ornatum, or star cactus, from central Mexico
Parodia magnifica, or ball cactus, from southern Brazil

Soon volunteers at RBG will start to cover the succulents that are frost-tender and/or would rot if they had full exposure to our winter rains. Check this post for more details.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bamboo and More’s 1st anniversary

Today is Bamboo and More’s 1st anniversary. My first post, “Moving black bamboo,” appeared on October 10, 2010. I can’t believe a year has gone by. Even harder to believe is the fact that I published 340 posts in the last 365 days. Not bad, considering my original goal had been three posts a week!

Queen of the night (Cereus hildmannianus ssp. hildmannianus)

Here are some interesting statistics, courtesy of Blogger:

Total number of posts: 340

Total number of comments left by readers: 1004

Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’

Most popular posts:

1. Portland Japanese Garden: Design
2. Wonderful and wacky succulent containers
3. Another morning walk
4. Portland Japanese Garden: Ornaments
5. Three aeoniums

Abutilon x ‘Souvenir de Bonn’

Day with the most hits: October 4.

My two-part post about the open house of Succulent Gardens nursery in Castroville, CA generated a lot of interest, especially among Facebook fans of Succulent Gardens.

Joshua Tree National Park

Countries with the most page views:

Not surprisingly, most blog readers are from the United States, followed by the United Kingdom. The #3 country is a big surprise: the Ukraine. Who knows why? Australia, Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and India round out the top ten.

Phyllostachys nigra

Most frequently used Google search keywords:

1. bamboo muhly
2. ghost plant
3. graptopetalum paraguayense
4. echium wildpretii
5. borinda fungosa

Interesting that only #5 refers to an actual bamboo!

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)

My favorite posts:

This is hard since obviously I try to write about stuff that interests me, but I feel these posts were particularly special:

1. Queen of the night posts (1 2 3 4)
2. Visit to Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery, Gold Beach, OR
3. Mount Shasta Lavender Farms
4. Sacramento Valley from the air
5. Trip to the Southern California desert (1 2 3 4 5)

Western salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

My favorite photos:

I love taking photos and I try to illustrate my posts as lavishly as I can. Some of my favorite photos taken over the past 12 months can be seen on this page.

Mount Shasta Lavender Farm

What I feel I did right:

My posts have been a pretty complete diary of the goings-on in our garden. Not just the things we accomplished, but also what the plants themselves did—when they leaved out, produced shoots, flowered, etc. as the case may be. I’m very happy with how I covered the past 12 months.

By including many photos, I hope that I managed to keep your interest and maybe even inspire you to try a plant or two you’d never grown before—just as I have been inspired by the many other gardening blogs I follow.

Mammillaria microhelia

What I feel needs improvement:

I need to take more “big picture” photos. I feel that I focus too much on plant details—leaves, flowers—and not show enough photos of, say, the garden bed or area that I talk about. Panoramic photos are the best for this purpose, and I do make a concerted effort to include them as much as I can.

I want to include more links to other blogs I read regularly. There’s so much great information out there, I want to help my readers discover other bloggers I find interesting. The more of a true network we create, the more all of us can learn.

Puya alpestris