Monday, October 17, 2011

Weekend in Santa Cruz

I spent last weekend in Santa Cruz with my two daughters. We had a blast on the world-famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California’s oldest seaside amusement park dating back to 1907. We also visited the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum and did a boat tour of the Elkhorn Slough where we saw scores of sea lions, otters, seals, and birds.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk as seen from the Municipal Wharf

Today’s post is a somewhat random collection of snapshots taken all over Santa Cruz. Every time I visit, I’m struck by how beautiful this city’s location is, how colorful its population (in large part due to UC Santa Cruz and a thriving counter culture whose roots goes back to the heyday of the 1960s and 1970s), and how perfect its climate. I've often said that I want to live where tree ferns thrive (mild summers and mild winters), and Santa Cruz is such as place, as you will see below.

Cocoanut Grove Conference Center (left) and Boardwalk on the right
Palm trees—and eucalptus trees—are ubiquitous

I saw tree ferns planted in front of many few houses. The Boardwalk has an entire row, and they all seem to be thriving—no wonder, considering the average high in September (hottest month of the year) is 76.5° and the average low in January (coldest month) is 39°F.

Tasmania tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
And here are three more
Five palm trees as seen from under a tree fern

The nicest landscape I saw was at the Dream Inn just up the hill from the Boardwalk. This upscale boutique hotel sports a contemporary landscaping scheme encompassing some of my favorite plants: bamboo, succulents, restios, and palm trees.

What’s not to love? Bamboo, palm trees, birds of paradise, and even foxtail agave!
(Photo by Laura Bock)
Cape rush (Chondropetalum tectorum) and foxtail agave (Agave attenuata)
Close up
Bamboo in tall urns, flanked by horsetail rush (Equisetum hyemale)
Palm trees, bamboo, and horsetail rush
(Photo by Laura Bock)

In downtown, I saw bamboo in many places. I wonder if it’s because Bamboo Giant is only a few miles away, or whether the populace of Santa Cruz is particularly enlightened. No matter what the reason, I sure enjoyed the lushness provided by bamboo.

The following three photos were all taken at the Tea House Spa built around a 50-year old grove of timber bamboo. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to walk around the grove because it’s inside the actual spa.

A tantalizing glimpse of the grove of timber bamboo at the Tea House Spa
View from the other side of the building
Bamboo growing at the entrance to Tea House Spa. The planting strip is maybe a foot deep, and the light level is very low (it was actually darker than the photo above). Amazing that this bamboo is doing as well as it appears to be.

Succulents, and especially shrub-sized aloes and jade plants, seem to be popular as well. Here’s a particularly beautiful combination in front of a Victorian house in downtown.

Jade plant (Crassula ovata) and torch aloe (Aloe arborescens)
Jade plant (Crassula ovata) and torch aloe (Aloe arborescens)

The biggest and most pleasant surprise I came across was this planter of variegated farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Argenteum’). This is my favorite foliage plant, and the size of the leaves was simply amazing. While our all-green specimen has leaves that size, I’d never seen a variegated one that large. This is a rare plant, and I’d love to know who decided to plant it in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz (a great bookstore, by the way)?

Farfugium japonicum ‘Argenteum’
Enormous leaves (the hand belong to my 10-year old daughter)…
….with beautiful variegation…
…and the occasional all-white leaf. This one was protected by other leaves on top of it, and it’s as perfect as can be.

Related posts:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Late-shooting bamboos

We’re in the midst of a late Indian summer with daytime temperatures in the 80s—last night at 10pm it was still 69°F!—and it’s hard to imagine that this beautiful weather will end. But it will end, and winter will roll around with gray skies, fog, and most importantly, much lower temperatures.

The perennials have started to get ready for winter, but quite a few of our clumping bamboos are still in active growth mode. These clumpers, especially the ones from the subtropical and tropical genus Bambusa, produce new culms in the summer—in their native habitat that coincides with the onset of the monsoon season. In our climate, many of these new culms don’t even leaf out until the following spring because the cold weather interrupts their growth cycle. If they’re not hardened off by the time winter temperatures come around, their tips may freeze and fall off. That happened to a few culms last year but it didn’t seem to faze the plants at all.

Here are some photos of the clumping bamboos that are still producing above-ground growth.

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Right: Bambusa oldhamii
Middle: Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’
Left: Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’
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Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’…
…my favorite bamboo because of the stunning blue color of its new culms. These two photos were taken from upstairs looking straight at the culms.
Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis,’ beginning to arch over the sidewalk
Bambusa dolichomerithalla ‘Silverstripe’
This is in a pot and much to my surprise has produced two very tall culms (no silver stripes though). I’ll need to move it to a bigger pot next year.

In addition to the Bambusa above, I also have two Borinda, mountain bamboos from the Himalayas, shooting late.

111014_borinda_fungosa angustissima
Left: Borinda fungosa, or chocolate bamboo
Right: Borinda angustissima with its much smaller leaves
New Borinda fungosa culms
Borinda angustissima on the right. Its leaves are among the smallest of any bamboo I’ve seen. They form a beautiful contrast to the leaves from Borinda fungosa.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Mushrooms after rain—good or bad?

Today I’m doing something I’ve rarely done. Post about a topic I know practically nothing about. But I’m hoping you experts out there can chime in. Please leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

Last week we had the first real rain of the season, and within days mushrooms started to pop up in various places around the yard. Now, I like mushrooms as food and I think they’re pretty cool in general, at least in the abstract, but in my mind there’s always a lingering doubt as to whether their appearance en masse is a sign of something troublesome happening.

I know that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi that exist in the soil. Those fungi help break down decaying matter, and after a heavy rain they begin to “bloom,” hence the mushrooms appearing above ground.

Realistically, there should be no cause for concern, but I can’t help shake this feeling of unease when I see these alien-looking things appear seemingly out of nowhere. Maybe I’ve seen too many bad sci-fi movies!

So, please take a look at these photos and tell me that these mushrooms are neither poisonous (especially to our dog who eats everything) or detrimental in any other way.

Mushrooms growing at the base of an aloe are definitely a strange sight!
There must be a lot of fungal activity in this particular spot!
This one looks like a regular button mushroom from the store. Is it?
This one has a concave cap as if it was trying to collect water
It’s growing in one of our vegetable bed (currently bare), together with many others

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
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Dry Stall is the perfect size for my purpose
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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.