Thursday, March 1, 2012

Local avocados!

We love avocados and have long dreamed of having our own tree. We are not alone: growing avocados appears to be the holy grail of many a Sacramento Valley gardener. Every now and then you hear from a friend of a friend of a friend who successfully grows avocados in our area. But I had never met anybody who actually has an avocado tree.

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Locally grown avocados, the holy grail for many of us!

Until last Sunday. At a flea market in downtown Davis a guy was selling avocados from his very own tree. He said he had a bumper crop this year because of the mild weather. What’s even more remarkable: This guy is just a regular homeowner, not an over-the-top plant nut like me, and the tree was already there when they bought their house. He doesn’t baby-sit the tree, doesn’t protect it on cold nights, and yet it still produces. My wife and I bought four avocados to try, and they are indeed yummy. I also took some avocado leaves to freeze—they’re used in some Mexican moles and are impossible to find in local grocery stores. (I love making traditional Mexican food.)

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This variety is called Bacon

Coming across these locally grown avocados may have pushed us off the fence as far as planting our own tree is concerned. We removed a nectarine tree in our backyard last fall and had already been toying with the idea of replacing it with an avocado. Now it’s simply a matter of choosing which variety:

  • Hass, the regular supermarket avocado with the black bumpy skin, is much too tender.
  • Bacon, the variety we just tried, is a possibility since it’s rated to 24°F.
  • Mexicola is even hardier, down to 20°F.
  • However, based on what I’ve read, my current first choice is Stewart, a compact (8-10 ft.) Mexicola relative hardy to 24°F, producing excellent-tasting fruit.
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Avocado leaves are fairly large and have a substantial feel to them

Avocado trees come in type A and B, and both are needed for successful pollination. However, in California avocados are considered self-fruitful (I don’t know why but I’m not complaining). That means that you only need one tree, type A or B, to get fruit as long as you live in a temperate enough climate. Complicated, isn’t it?

If you want to know more, check out the web site for Dave Wilson Nursery in Modesto. It has a lot of useful information for the Central Valley.

And if you thought there are only a few varieties of avocado—after all, in the store you’ll see no more than one or two—check out the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources site. It lists almost 1,000 (!!) known avocado varieties!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Three euphorbias that look like cacti

Very few groups are as large and varied as the genus Euphorbia. According to Wikipedia there are more than 2,000 euphorbia species, comprising everything from annual weeds to trees. The genus also includes the many wood spurges (Euphorbia characias, Euphorbia amygdaloides, etc.) and other familiar sights like the good old poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).

Of particular interest to me are the succulent euphorbias, of which there are hundreds of species. I haven’t counted, but I’m sure I have upwards of 20 in my collection. I will do a more comprehensive post about them at a later date. Today I want to focus on three small euphorbias that look just like cacti although they are not related to the Cactaceae family (all cacti are native to the Americas while most succulent euphorbias are native to Africa). The fact that these two completely unrelated plant families look so similar is due to convergent evolution—the Wikipedia article on convergent evolution even uses the example of a Euphorbia obesa and an Astrophytum asterias cactus to illustrate this concept.

If you’ve followed my most recent posts you know that I’m making a concerted effort to better organize my plant collection and to move plants that are currently in small 3- or 4-inch containers into larger pots to make it easier to water them. This past weekend, I created two succulent bowls and I planted a Maihuenia poeppigii cactus into an unusual shallow dish. In addition, I combined three small cactoid euphorbias into a community pot:

  • Euphorbia horrida, which looks like a small barrel cactus
  • Euphorbia makallensis, which as a juvenile reminds me of a Mexican fencepost cactus (Pachycereus marginatus) although as an adult it forms mounds that look a lot like Euphorbia resinifera
  • Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’, which looks like a cartoon version of a saguaro made out of cheap white plastic

 

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Euphorbia makallensis (left), Euphorbia horrida (back),
Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’ (right)
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Euphorbia makallensis
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Euphorbia horrida
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Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’
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Euphorbia mammillaris ‘Variegata’
New growth, possibly getting ready to flower

I thought that these three euphorbias complement each other very well so I planted them together in a shallow azalea pot. VoilĂ , a miniature cactus garden, consisting of three plants that aren’t cacti at all.

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Miniature “cactus” garden

Maybe I should add small figurines of cowboys and horses?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Unusual container for an unusual cactus

One of the plants I bought at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials last month was a strange little cactus from southern Chile called Maihuenia poeppigii (check out this post for more information).

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Maihuenia poeppigii
(kudos to those of you you can pronounce it)

At first I thought a handmade hypertufa container along the lines of what you see in the next photo would the most appropriate way to present it. I’ve never experimented with hypertufa before but I’ve been wanting to since reading this post on It’s Not Work It’s Gardening. Hypertufa is right at the top of my “want to do” list for this spring.

Photo source: mygarden.lt

Then, as I was going through my stock of plant containers in an attempt to organize and declutter, I came across this unusual looking creation. It’s not deep enough to be called a “pot,” so I’ll call it a “dish.”

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I bought it from Stockton potter Steve Pate on a field trip with the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society (SCSS). While not practical in the utilitarian sense of the word, I think it’s a thing of beauty.

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A light bulb went on in my head, and in no time I had made a mound for my Maihuenia poeppigii. I topped it with chunky gravel to simulate what the cactus’ native habitat might look like. (Plus, I like the look.)

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Definitely an unusual presentation, but I can already see the cactus spreading out across the mound.

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I’m hoping Maihuenia poeppigii will grow slowly so it can stay in this dish for a while, but I know that eventually it will have to be moved.

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But by then I should have gotten around to trying my hand at hypertufa.

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Whipping up a batch of succulent magic

After exposing my tendency to amass plants in yesterday’s post, I decided to make productive use of my collection and whip up a couple of new succulent bowls. While this doesn’t reduce the number of plants I have, it makes maintenance easier because I don’t have to hand-water quite so many small pots which dry out very quickly in hot weather.

Ingredients: Two bowls I had sitting around, a bunch of succulents, a bag of Black Gold Cactus Mix, and Osmocote Plus 6-month time release fertilizer for a bit of nutrition.

Recipe: Fill bowls with soil, sprinkle in some fertilizer, add plants, done.

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I picked succulents with a variety of colors and textures
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To my own surprise, I ended up using all of these plants
                                                                                                                                           
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I often make my own succulent mix (read this post to find out how) but I didn’t have any coir left so I decided to do the next best thing: Black Gold Cactus Mix. Unlike some succulent mixes that contain peat (which I hate because it’s almost impossible to rewet), this product is 40-50% pumice and drains exceptionally well. I also add a sprinkling of Osmocote Plus slow release fertilizer for nutrition. While most succulents aren’t greedy feeders, a bit of fertilizer does result in nicer plants.
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Good stuff in this cactus mix!

The result of my efforts, while pleasing, doesn’t make you go wow quite yet. I’m hoping by the time summer rolls around these plants will have filled in nicely. It’s always a fine line between stuffing too many plants in a bowl and not enough. I left a little bit of room for some trailing sedums which will add a vertical counterpoint to the round shapes of the rosettes. Surprisingly, my collection is very light on trailing plants so I need to buy some first.

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The green pencil-like stems sticking out of the ground are a Euphorbia leucodendron
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Red bowl from a different perspective
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I love how the apple green of the aeonium contrasts with the purple of the echeveria (middle) and Graptopetalum pentandrum (right)
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The variegated plant in the foreground is an Aeonium decorum 'Sunburst'

I was very surprised to see how many pots I managed to empty. Two of these went in the ground, but all the others were planted in these two bowls. It was very satisfying to see so much progress!

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More pots mean more room for new plants—just kidding!

The two bowls are now on top of the fence next to the front porch. While matching bowls would have looked more uniform and elegant, everything about our garden is eclectic and traditional style is definitely not what I’m going for.

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Next order of business: Clean and rearrange the display stand
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Bowl #1
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Bowl #2
The bamboo on the right is Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Am I a plant hoarder?

The other day I mentioned that a neighbor thought the pots lining the flagstone walkway to the front door looked really nice. While I appreciate her compliment, I think our front yard is beginning to resemble a cottage nursery.

I’ve been buying too many plants since fall, and in the winter everything went into a holding pattern. I put pots wherever there was room, often stuffing them into nooks and crannies on the front porch or under the eaves. As warmer weather returned, I began to spread them out along the walkway so the plants could get much-needed sunshine. But I’m beginning to be bothered by how haphazard it all looks, meaning it’s time to do something about it.

I may have crossed the line from gardener—somebody who buys plants based on actual need—to hoarder—somebody who likes to amass plants for no reason other than to have them. Actually, I prefer to call myself a “plant collector.” That sounds a tad more sophisticated than “hoarder.”
Let me share some photos with you so you can appreciate the full extent of this mania.  Am I a lost cause, or are things maybe not quite as bad as I think?

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It doesn’t look horrible—yet!
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From here it actually looks kind of OK
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Ignore the blue strawberry pot with the echeverias—that one I do like. It’s the other assorted pots that are the problem.
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Small Yucca rostrata. It won’t be large enough to use in the landscape for many years. I have two more of this size.
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The three Dioon edule ‘Palma Sola’ seedlings I recently bought on eBay
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The two smaller pots in the lower right are echeveria and aeonium cuttings I got from fellow succulent lover Candy “Sweetstuff”.  The two larger pots contain echeverias I bought last fall at the Succulent Gardens Extravaganza. They are showing signs of winter damage…
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…especially this Echeveria gibbiflora ‘Arlie Wright’. I should only buy succulents in the spring after somebody else has overwintered them!
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The two larger pots on the right came from the recent UC Botanical Garden winter sale. The other two I got at Walmart for 75% off. It’s hard to resist a bargain even when you don’t really need that particular plant!
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Kalanchoe ‘Fang’. Hey, it was only $0.75 a Walmart!
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The potted succulents in the back are a permanent fixture in this spot. The pots in the foreground are just hanging out temporarily. The larger black nursery pot contains an Encephalartos lehmannii, a cycad from South Africa.
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Nandina domestica ‘Filamentosa’, one of my favorite recent purchases. It’s such a unique plant, I don’t quite know how to best use it.
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Giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) from Cactus Jungle. It will eventually go in a nice pot.
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Tree euphorbia (Euphorbia lambii) from Annie’s Annuals. It will eventually be planted in the succulent bed by the front door, seen in the 2nd photo above, but it’ll live in a pot until it’s taller. Hopefully extra fertilizer will help speed things along.
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What was once a shoe rack now serves as an overflow rack next to the front door. I will make a concerted effort to combine small (4”) pots into larger community pots.
                                                                                                                                            
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LEFT: Agaves and prickly pears on the front porch where they’re protected from the rain (what little rain we’ve had this season)
RIGHT: Cactus cuttings. No clue where they’ll go when they’re rooted but I want to have them in my collection. See what I mean??
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This table on the front porch looked nice a few years ago but has since then degenerated into another plant holding area
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At least this tray looks neat. These cacti lived on top of the front yard fence last year but had to be moved to a sheltered spot during the rainy season.
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More plants on the table on the front porch. The terracotta bowls will be moved back into their old spots on top of the fence very soon so we can actually use the table again.
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Ephiphyllum ‘King Midas’ from Annie’s Annuals. It’ll go in a hanging planter to be suspended from the front porch roof. See, I do have concrete plans for some plants! I’s just a matter of following through.
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Cactus community pots I put together last summer. I’m thinking of redoing them and putting at least twice as many plants in each pot, considering that they grow so slowly. That would free up valuable floor space, too.
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And finally the cactus and succulent display stand. I will completely rearrange it this spring so it looks less haphazard. Smaller plants will be combined into community pots.

And then there are the plants I bought as bonsai candidates: Japanese boxwood, dwarf pomegranate, cotoneaster, some dwarf azalea, etc. Some are even “real” bonsai starters from Lone Pine Gardens. While I’m still intrigued by bonsai, I don’t feel the same urgent desire to dive into it that I had in the fall. I think it’s because I feel a bit intimidated, considering that bonsai has such a long tradition and so many rules. I know, it’s silly to feel that way since my goal isn’t to enter a bonsai competition, just to create some interesting specimens for myself.

In any case, it doesn’t look like these plants will be bonsai’d anytime soon. That’s not a problem per se because the larger these plants grow, the better suited they will be for bonsai treatment.

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Assorted bonsai candidates
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Chinese elm (Ulmus parviflora ‘Yatsubusa’)
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Heart-leaf ivy (Hedera helix ‘Scutifolia’)
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Japanese garden juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’)
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This is what I have in mind with the Japanese garden juniper above
So, do I still fall in the “normal” range, or should I seek help from Plant Hoarders Anonymous?