Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Favorite agaves

Almost two years ago we began installing mounded succulent beds to replace plantings that weren’t thriving due to heavy clay soil and poor drainage. The effect was instantaneous and dramatic. The gardener in me was born, or at least re-awakened, by this experience. Before, gardening had mostly been a chore; since then, it’s been a passion.

We’ve gotten more positive comments on our succulent beds than on any other feature in our yard, including our bamboos. The conclusion I draw from this is that everybody loves succulents, while bamboos—like exotic foods—are an acquired taste.

Inspiration for our succulent garden came from many sources. The University of California Davis Arboretum has been an incredible resource. Just a few miles from our house, it comprises a variety of plant collections in realistic environments. Most influential on our design was the Valley-Wise Garden dedicated to drought-tolerant plants appropriate for the Sacramento Valley. This is a beautiful destination at any time of year, but especially in April and May when the garden erupts in a riot of colors.

Inspiration also came from books, especially Designing with Succulents by Debra Lee Baldwin and Sharp Gardening by Christopher Holliday. Both books are lavishly illustrated, and I can highly recommend them. If you’re into container gardening, Debra Lee Baldwin published a new book this spring called Succulent Container Gardens.

(For people interested in more in-depth information about agaves, the two best reference books are Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish, and Agaves of Continental North America by Howard Gentry. The latter is a 670-page scientific reference work with extensive taxonomic and ethnobotanical information and overkill for anybody but the most serious collector.)

When it came to sourcing plants, I was hugely disappointed by what is offered in local nurseries. The nurseries here in Davis only carry small succulents, mostly cacti, and even the premium nurseries in Sacramento, like Capitol Nursery, have a very limited selection of larger agaves, yuccas and aloes.

My best purchases initially were from Wal-Mart. I bought a couple of 15” succulent bowls which I disassembled. They yielded 20+ smaller plants each, especially useful groundcovers like blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae) and various sedums but also smaller beauties like string of buttons (Crassula perforata). All have thrived.

Then I came across a post on San Francisco Craigslist by the Landscape Cacti and Succulent Nursery of the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. What a wonderful find that turned out to be! They carry a huge selection of agaves, aloes and other succulents in 1- to 5-gallon sizes at incredibly reasonable prices, especially for the quality you’re getting. Practically all our larger succulents came from there. If you live in Northern California, I cannot recommend them highly enough. Plants have to be picked up in person; they’re not set up to ship.

Other sources for smaller plants were Peacock Horticultural Nursery in Sebastopol (large selection of tissue-cultured agaves in 4” containers) and Cottage Gardens of Petaluma (in my opinion one of the most beautiful nurseries in Northern California). It pays to look around because you never know what you might find!

So, without further ado, here are my favorite agaves from our garden.


Succulent bed next to front door
Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’
Agave lophanta ‘Quadricolor’
Agave attenuata x ocahui ‘Blue Glow’
Agave ‘Blue Flame’ (Agave attenuata x shawii)
Agave celsii
Agave potatorum
Agave 'Kissho Kan'  (potentially Agave potatorum 'Variegata')
Agave ‘Cornelius’
Agave geminiflora
Agave dasyliroides
Mangave ‘Bloodspot’ (cross between an agave and a manfreda)

I’ll write a separate post about aloes because many of them are winter bloomers and will flower soon.

For a complete list of agaves in my collection, please click here.

For an agave update (June 2012), please click here.

One Word Wednesday: Green


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Need help with a friend’s yard

Last week a friend asked me if I could give her some ideas on what to plant in her backyard. She had recently taken out some existing landscaping and now had a mostly blank slate. She had already bought some plants which needed to be incorporated into the overall design (like the fig tree, Green Spire eonymus, and Alphonse Karr bamboo in the first photo below).

Her yard is very small so it was important not to overwhelm it with too many “heavy” plants that make the space smaller or darker.

For plant ideas we made a trip to Lemuria Nursery, a wholesale nursery in nearby Dixon which is open to the public. I had never been there, but our friend loves it and I can see why: extremely friendly folks, low prices, and a decent selection, especially for shrubs and trees.

Here is the layout for the planting strip along the backyard fence after our nursery run:


To give you a better idea of what our friend likes, the next photo shows the side yard that leads into the backyard. Here she has four specimens of her favorite foliage plant: variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’).

Variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’) in the side yard

While we were able to come up with a satisfying design for most the yard, two trouble spots remain: one in the back and one in the front next to the front door. I’d love to have your input on what might work well in these areas, taking into account the types of plants we’ve already chosen.

In the next photo you’ll see the problem area in the backyard. It’s a little over 2 ft. wide at its widest and about 12 ft. long. The window is about 2.5 ft. above the ground and whatever is planted here should not obstruct the view in any way. This bed receives 4-5 hours of morning sun in the summer and is in the shade in the afternoon.

Any ideas that spring to mind? Ideally, something with all-season interest as opposed to herbaceous or deciduous. Tropical/exotic-looking would be good, but not required. The plant(s) for this bed have to be small and well-behaved.

Problem area in backyard

I think something like this small Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ might look nice. Here’s a quick mockup I created. The yellow variegation contrasts well with the light blue of the house.

Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ mockup

The other trouble area is a similar 2 ft. wide strip next to the front door. The window you see is about 3 ft. above ground. This area receives no direct sun but thanks to light reflected by the house next door, the light levels are fairly bright.

I had thought of dwarf oak leaf hydrangea, but even the dwarf forms are too large. Ideally, nothing should overhang the walkway, at least not by much. Again, all-season interest would be preferred, especially since it’s so close to the front door. Even a row of small, well-behaved shrubs might work here.

Trouble area next to the front door. The narrow width makes it difficult to come up with good choices.

I can’t wait to see what ideas you might come up with. I will post photos of the finished project later on.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Keeping my succulents dry

In our climate, most succulents do fine outside as long as they stay relatively dry in the winter. Rain was forecast for Friday, Saturday and Sunday so I finally got my act together and built a rain shelter for my succulent table.

This is what this table looked like in July.

Succulent stand on 7/7/2011

The plants sitting on top of the fence and on the top tier of the table had to be moved. I also rearranged the other pots to maximize use of the available space. I figure having the pots close together can only help retain some extra warmth on a cold night.

After rearranging on 11/13/2011

Here’s another view of the rearranged pots. Since rain was imminent when I actually did the work, I didn’t have time to rake the leaves, but that’s a cosmetic thing so ultimately it’s not important.


The shelter consists of 4-mil plastic sheeting, 10 ft. wide. I added a row of grommets along the top so the sheeting can be attached to the overhang of our front porch by means of small bungee cords.

4-mil plastic sheeting to serve as a rain shelter

Here’s the installed sheeting. Not the most architecturally stunning sight but inexpensive, fast, and fully functional—the perfect solution for me since I’m not very handy.

Installed sheeting

Another advantage I noticed: The area seems brighter because the plastic diffuses the light, and it’s noticeable warmer since it keeps out the most of the wind.

Another view of the installed sheeting

Here’s the view from the street. I don’t know what our neighbors will think, but I’m sure that before long we will find out through the neighborhood grapevine.

Rain shelter as seen from the street

The covered front porch is already home to many potted succulents, and for the winter, I’ve added plants that usually live elsewhere, like in the backyard or on top of the fence. The main goal is to protect them from the rain. Freezing temperatures are a separate issue; on nights below below 28°F or so, I will throw a frost blanket on the more tender succulents. That should be enough to keep them from getting damaged.

Front porch, now home to even more plants than usual. The rain shelter described above is on the right.

Here are some photos of what are becoming increasingly crammed quarters. But I actually find the massed arrangement of pots quite attractive.

Cacti and agaves on the edge of the front porch
Different view of same plants
View towards the driveway (on right)
Even our bistro table got taken over
Larger pots lining the edge of the porch, still covered by the deep overhang of the roof
Small table on the front porch. The plant on the left with thin strappy leaves is an Agave geminiflora. It’s been in this spot (bright light but no sun) for 2+ years and loves it.
Looking towards the front door (on right)
Repurposed shoe rack to the right of the front door
Area to the left of the front door; I plan to shove more plants under the bow window

A couple of dozen plants are now inside the house for the winter, including my angel wing and palm leaf begonias and the caudiciforms I bought at the UC Davis Arboretum plant sale recent. I’ll write a separate post about them soon.

P.S. The rain we had after my wife and I put up the rain shelter amounted to very little. It did rain hard west of here, but we were spared. But at least now I’m prepared for what is sure to come.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Portland vignettes

Last week I spent three days in Portland, Oregon to visit good friends and to photograph the Portland Japanese Garden in its fall glory. I didn’t leave the house without my camera and ended up talking an assortment of photos that aren’t about a specific subject but rather capture the time of year in one of America’s most beautiful cities.

I’m purposely not including photos of Portland landmarks in this post because I want to focus on scenes of anonymous beauty.

The trees are just starting to turn in Forest Park
…but even with green foliage the forests are beautiful
Path at Hoyt Arboretum
Fall filigree
Roger's California grape (Vitis californica x vinifera 'Roger's Red')
Washington Park
Fall color everywhere!
Arborvitaes against purple wall
Maple in the Pearl District
The brick façade of many buildings in downtown Portland is a perfect backdrop for fall foliage
Red on red
Planter and pumpkin in front of a townhouse
Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) emphasizing the architectural details of this building
Small conifer garden outside a townhouse complex
Beautiful landscaping in front of this townhouse
I’ve been looking for rocks like these for our own backyard!
Landscaping in front of an adjacent townhouse—completely different from the first townhouse above, but very complementary…
…especially the use of stone.
I was very impressed with the landscaping of this row of townhouses and would have loved to see the private courtyards in the back. One of the townhouses was for sale, and I was stunned by the price: $850,000 for 2200 sq.ft. The Pearl, once an industrial and warehouse district, certainly has come a long way.
Maple leaf on the kitchen window in our friends’ house
Hydrangeas and arrow bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica)
To me, Portland is the city of hydrangeas. They seem to be everywhere!
Some people would consider these leaves a bothersome mess that needs to be cleaned up, to me they were simply beautiful
What a contrast: prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) and maple leaves. I would have thought that all the rain would cause the cactus to rot, but apparently not!

I really enjoyed my visit because Portland is so different from Davis. Here we don’t have much fall color from native vegetation; mostly, leaves just turn a nondescript brown.