Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why did this cactus rot?

A month ago I wrote a post about one of my favorite succulent container combinations: Silver Torch cacti (Cleistocactus straussii) and Agave schidigera 'Shira ito no Ohi'. In addition to the Silver Torch cacti planted in that pot, I had two others in a separate terracotta pot. They had grown just as much and I had plans to transfer them to a larger container this spring.

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Like all my cacti, they were protected from the winter rains (not like it’s been a wet winter anyway). Much to my surprise, I noticed yesterday that the tallest of these two Silver Torch cacti had flopped over due to rot toward the bottom of the stem, an inch or so above soil level.

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The soil is bone dry and I have no explanation what might have happened here. Sure, it’s possible that a stray rain drop or two might have landed on it during a rain storm, but if it’s that sensitive to moisture, wouldn’t it have rotted at the soil level?

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On Friday afternoon I decided to do a radical amputation to save the patient’s life. Out came a sharp fillet knife, and in a split second I had cut off the rotten parts. I then dunked the cut surface in 70% isopropyl alcohol to seal it…

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…and I drizzled some alcohol on the cut off section still in the pot. I’m hoping it will heal so the pup originating from the rotten stem will survive.

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I placed the cut segment in a dry and shady spot where I will let it callus over for a month before planting it in a new container.

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With temperatures warming up, I have every hope that it will survive and eventually become as healthy as the ones in the other pot:

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Silver Torch cacti (Cleistocactus straussii) and
Agave schidigera 'Shira ito no Ohi'

Friday, February 17, 2012

Agave americana in motel landscaping

We spent last weekend in the Santa Cruz/Watsonville area south of San Francisco, and we stayed at the Best Western Rosen Garden Inn. Usually motel landscaping is as generic as it comes and I rarely get excited about what I see. However, being the succulent nut that I am, I was thrilled to find several suckering clumps of Agave americana.

Agave americana is a somewhat variable species. It can be as large as a compact car, leaving behind a difficult-to-remove carcass when it flowers (and dies),  or it can be quite refined, especially in its protoamericana incarnation or when interbreeding with closed related species.

I don’t know if these are plain-vanilla Agave americana or something more exotic, but I loved the overall look just as I’m sure the motel gardening contractor loves the fact that these are zero maintenance plants. Considering how critical the water situation is in Northern California, landscaping with extremely drought-tolerant plants such as agaves is a definite plus. Kudos to Best Western Rose Garden Inn for making all the right choices for their location!

Curiously, I didn’t see a single rose, but I tend to tune out plants that don’t interest me.

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Other posts from our trip to Santa Cruz and Watsonville:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sierra Azul Nursery & Gardens, Watsonville, CA

Last weekend we visited family in Watsonville, CA, just south of Santa Cruz, probably the most iconic beach town in Northern California. While Santa Cruz is hip, cool and over-educated, Watsonville is agricultural and down to earth. The bulk of strawberries sold in Northern California supermarkets comes from Watsonville, together with many other types of fruits and vegetables.

As it turns out, Sierra Azul, the Watsonville nursery we visited on Sunday morning, was once strawberry fields. Now it is one of the most interesting nurseries I’ve visited in a long time. Even though Sierra Azul was recommended to me by the good folks in the Succulent Fanatics group on Facebook, I didn’t expect to find a demonstration garden cum outdoor sculpture park and a nursery very thoughtfully stocked with southern hemisphere plants, succulents, and plants ideally suited for Mediterranean climates.

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Entrance to Sierra Azul Nursery & Gardens
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Palm trees, prickly pears and agaves along the edge of the driveway into the nursery parking lot
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Aloe arborescens in full bloom

When we arrived at 9 a.m. sharp on Sunday morning, the nursery wasn’t even open yet. We were able to freely roam the 2-acre demonstration garden, and even my daughters, who haven’t been bitten by the horticultural bug yet, found enough to keep them entertained for a while. (The bamboo grove shown further down was a big hit.)

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Entrance to the 2-acre display gardens
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Agave vilmoriniana and Leucadendron ‘Wilson's Wonder’
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Billows of dried ornamental grass and Leucadendron salignum ‘Golden Tulip’
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New Zealand flax, spurge, Leucadendron salignum ‘Golden Tulip’, rosemary
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Does any shrub/tree provide more winter interest than red osier dogwood
(here: Cornus stolonifera ‘Cardinal’)?
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Two of my favorite plant groups: bamboo in the background (Phyllostachys bambusoides?) and a restio (Chondropetalum tectorum) in the foreground on the right
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Bamboo tunnel

Sierra Azul has hosted an annual installation of sculpture art since 2006. Every year over a hundred pieces by dozens of artists are on display in the demonstration garden and nursery. In addition, there is a permanent collection of sculptures that appears to be on exhibit all the time.

I realize that many of the pieces shown in the photos below are far too large and/or expensive for regular folks like yours truly, but I still found it incredibly exciting to walk among so many stunning pieces.

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“Observation Tower” by Aaron Van de Kerckhove, one of the largest sculptures in the demonstration garden
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“Imagination, Vicky Dream” by Michael Seymour
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“GMO Heifer” by Michael Seymour
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“Shield and Skirt” by Paul Cheney (left) and huge clump of Rhodocoma capensis (right)
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“Bottle Rockets” by nursery owner Jeff Rosendale
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“Strawberry Fields” by Kathleen Crocetti
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“Begonia Fields” by Kathleen Crocetti
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“Flaming Lotus Lily” by Dr Wasabe
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“Cosmology” by Jack Biesek
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“Crows” by Tamar Assaf
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Agave americana (left) and “Sphere” by David Mudgett (right)

Interspersed with these intriguing pieces of art are plants that I found just as interesting. While most ornamental grasses and shrubs are still dormant, succulents took center stage.

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Cotyledon macrantha
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Aloes in their winter colors
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Graptoveria hybrid (left) and potted Agave americana ‘'Marginata' (right)
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Graptoveria hybrid and Echeveria agavoides
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Echeveria agavoides and Graptopetalum paraguayense
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Variegated Yucca filifera, Echeveria imbricata and Graptopetalum paraguayense
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Agave bracteosa
                                                                                                                                              
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LEFT: Aloe striatula and Echeveria agavoides
RIGHT: Echeveria agavoides in an old clay sewer pipe (great look, I will “borrow” it in our own garden)
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Mound featuring Dasylirion longissimum
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Dasylirion longissimum (left) and Leucadendron salignum ‘Winter Red’ on the right (that’s the same leucadendron I bought at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum the day before)

Being the bamboo lover that I am, I was thrilled to discover a 24-inch box of one of my favorites, Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum). It goes so well with larger succulents, it should be planted much more in mild-winter climates (it’s clumping, so non-invasive). Check out the beautiful specimen at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden here.

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Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum) in 24-inch box

For a measly $12.95 you can get your own 1 gallon pot of Mexican weeping bamboo and kick your xeric garden into overdrive!

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Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata var. aztecorum), 1 gallon plants

And if bamboo isn’t your thing, how about this 5 gallon Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi)? Thanks to coastal fog, Watsonville is more humid and significantly cooler than Davis; my tree ferns never look this good (and are much smaller)!

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Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi)—I want one!

I’ve been mentioning manzanitas a lot lately (1 2); here is a really nice selection for the naturalistic western garden.

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Selection of manzanitas

But what made my heart beat faster were the southern hemisphere plants, like these banksias…

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Selection of banksias

…grevilleas…

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Selection of grevilleas

…proteas…

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Selection of proteas (and a couple of leucadendrons in the foreground)

…and leucadendrons. Sierra Azul had very nice larger specimens of leucadendrons, all at 20% off. As so many times before, I was wishing we had a larger lot. I would love to plant a garden with proteaceans.

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Selection of leucadendrons

While not quite as stunning (and admittedly much smaller) than the Acacia baileyana I had just seen at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, this acacia was still an impressive specimen.

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Spectacular potted acacia in bloom

While Sierra Azul doesn’t specialize in succulents, they had a good selection. In addition to 4-inch containers (priced very reasonably at $3.95) there were quite a few larger 1 gallon pots.

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Succulents in 1 gallon pots and larger

The sales kiosk, newly equipped with solar panels, is surrounded by plants I thought were particularly tempting. I guess it’s the grocery store equivalent of selling candy and tabloid magazines at the checkout—junk food for plant lovers :-).

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Sales kiosk

Even though this is one of the smallest sculptures on display, “Rollover” by Penny Waller was one of my favorites. At $750 it was one of the cheapest as well. But unfortunately, it was still out of my price range. But maybe some day…

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“Rollover” by Penny Walker, with all kinds of interesting plants
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Entrance to the retail nursery

We ended up buying more plants than we had anticipated—including a yellow twig dogwood(Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’) for my in-laws and a ‘Marina’ strawberry tree (Arbutus ‘Marina’) for a friend who was looking for one—and I couldn’t be happier. I try to put my money where my mouth is, and supporting small family-owned nurseries is something that is dear to my heart.

Sierra Azul Nursery & Gardens is located across from the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds at 2660 East Lake Avenue (Highway 152) in Watsonville, CA.

Also check out this long but very interesting blog post about their propagation operation.