Thursday, December 28, 2017

Of course I'm buying plants on my trip!

I don't want you to think I'm "just" visiting gardens on my Southern California trip. Yes, that's the main reason why I'm in the Southland, but I've been doing of plenty of plant shopping.

Here are a couple of quick snapshots of my haul so far, with a full day left:

Yucca 'Bright Star', Leucadendron 'Jester', Phylica pubescens, assorted groundcover succulents

I've gone to the dogs...


Samoyeds Boris and Natasha welcoming me to their garden paradise. Photo by Hoover Boo.

If you follow Hoover Boo's fabulous blog Piece of Eden, you know who these cuties are.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book review: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Growing Cacti & Succulents

When I first became interested in succulents, these were the kinds of books available:

I'm sure you're familiar with them. A fair amount of information, although some of it turned out to be inaccurate, especially with regards to cold hardiness. Or advice like adding peat moss to your soil. But there was one area where these books really sucked: images. Photos were either dull and grainy or weirdly oversaturated. The print quality was mediocre, resulting in an altogether unsatisfying product. Of course that's seen through today's lens. At the time, it was what is was.

We've come a long way since then. Not just in terms of photo and print quality, but also in the way books are written and designed. The book I'm reviewing in this post is a perfect case in point.

I'm always on the lookout for a good succulent reference for beginners that I can recommend. It needs to be full of relevant information, starting with basic botany and then going into a decent amount of detail about care and cultivation, maintenance, pest control and other practical aspects. A representative sampling of commonly grown cacti and succulents should round out the book. 

I've finally found the title I was looking for. I came across it on Amazon purely by chance and couldn't believe I had missed it before. The Complete Illustrated Guide to Growing Cacti & Succulents (Southwater, 2012) was written by Miles Anderson with contributions from Terry Hewitt. Some of you may recognize the name Miles Anderson. He's a renowned succulent expert from Tucson, AZ and runs Miles' To Go, an iconic mail-order nursery. At the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society we routinely order from Miles for our monthly drawing, and his plants are always top quality.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Cold-hardy sedums

We're spending Christmas with my mother-in-law in the mountains of Northern California. When I walk around her 2-acre property, I often think of the kind of garden I would have if I lived here. Only a few of the succulents I grow in Davis would survive outdoors in this zone 6b/7a climate—others, including aloes, would not.

What would do well are hardy sedums. They, ironically, languish in Davis (zone 9b). As a rule of thumb, the hardier a sedum is, the less heat it tolerates. That's why I've lost seemingly easy sedums like Sedum spurium and Sedum reflexum. They're hardy to zone 3 and zone 5 respectively and would turn into beautiful mats in my mother-in-law's garden.

On our Iceland trip this summer, I visited Reykjavík Botanical Garden one evening. In addition to a wealth of alpine plants, most of them new to me, I also saw several sedums that were in full bloom. Typically I think of groundcovers as unassuming plants whose main role it is to hide bare dirt, but in Reykjavík these sedums—and companions like saxifrages—were the stars of the show.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Book review: Visionary Landscapes

Think of a Japanese garden you've visited. What attributes come to mind? For me, it's tranquility, stillness, and self-reflection. You might say peace, meditation, a connection with nature. A refuge from the everyday world. Or you might feel transported to a faraway land that seems exotic and yet strangely familiar.

In his introduction to Visionary Landscapes: Japanese Garden Design in North America (Tuttle Publishing, 2017), Kendall Brown, Professor of Art History at California State University Long Beach, explains it like this:
[T]hese gardens often exist as dreams of elsewhere and constructions of otherness. As microcosms of an idealized Japanese tradition, the landscapes can provide a compelling alternative to the banality of the here and now. Japanese gardens also serve as a kind of road home, a way of connecting us with idealizations of nature that restore us mentally and physically.

Attesting to the power of Japanese gardens, their popularity has spread across the globe. As Brown says, Japanese gardens are "now more common outside Japan than in it." To differentiate Japanese gardens in Japan—true expressions of Japanese culture and identity—from those elsewhere, Brown calls the latter "Japanese-style gardens" since they are based on "adaptable values" and "accumulate identities and functions that may relate to Japan only tangentially."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Brrrrr, 26°F predicted for tonight

At this time of year, one of my daily rituals is checking the weather, especially the night-time lows. I don't worry too much as long as temperatures don't drop below 30°F. I woke up this morning to an unpleasant surprise: Tonight's low is forecast to be 26° or 27°F, depending on what weather service you look at. The only dissenter is my favorite weather app, Morecast, which is forecasting 37°F. Hmmm, a 10°F difference? I don't think I've ever seen that. Clearly, somebody will be wrong.

Not wanting to tempt fate, I scrambled in the late afternoon to move my most sensitive potted plants up against the house and covered them with frost cloth. A tray full of aloe seedlings and a few prized plants (Euphorbia horrida 'Snowflake', Agave albopilosa, and Aloe ferox 'Mediopicta') were quickly shoved into the garage where they'll spend Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Giving dudleyas another try—and tulips, too

Dudleyas are succulents with fleshy leaves hailing from southwestern North America. Many of the 45 species are native to coastal California where they happily cling to cliff faces or rock outcroppings, often in a manner that appears to defy gravity. In their natural habitat, they are perfectly adapted to going without water for months at a time. In the summer, they often go dormant, shriveling up to just a fraction of their normal size.

As is often the case with California natives, dudleyas can be challenging in cultivation when conditions are significantly different from what they're used to. Rot is the biggest problem. A common cause is watering in the summer when dudleyas expect to be completely dry. In addition, since many dudleyas grow vertically, they have a hard time dealing with water left sitting in their crown or on their leaves. That's why dudleya experts typically recommend planting them at an angle and never watering them from overhead.

Having killed more dudleyas than I care to remember, I stopped trying for a number of years. However, at my early December outing to Annie's Annuals in Richmond I was so smitten by their collection of dudleyas that I decided to throw caution to the wind. After initially putting five or six dudleyas in my cart, I managed to rein myself in a bit and ended up with three: Dudleya farinosa, Dudleya hassei, and Dudleya palmeri. My decision was based in part on the unexpected success I've had this year keeping alive a Dudleya brittonii I bought in March at Poot's Cactus Nursery. Either my luck has turned, or I simply know more about the idiosyncrasies of dudleyas than before.

The next question, logically, was where to put my dudleyas. Since they would fry to a crisp in the summer if planted in full sun, I needed a more sheltered place. I eventually decided on the spot marked with a yellow arrow in the photo below:

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Aloes on the UC Davis campus—mid-December progress report

In my last post, I reported on the flowering progress of my own aloes. This morning I checked on the aloes on the University of California Davis campus. Unfortunately, when I tried to take my first photo, I realized the battery in my DSLR was dead. Not wanting to rush back home, I ended up using my phone camera. The photos aren't as good as they would have been on my regular camera, but they give you an idea of where the UCD aloes are at in terms of flowering.

Yellow-flowering Aloe arborescens outside the Botanical Conservancy greenhouses on Kleiber Hall Drive

Thursday, December 14, 2017

It's getting to be aloe time

As much as I dislike winter, it has one bright spot: It's flowering time for many aloes. In our zone 9b climate the peak is usually late January so we still have a few weeks to go before the fireworks go off. However, that doesn't stop me from checking my aloes every day. I enjoy seeing even the smallest amount of progress!

Here's a look at what's happening right now.

The Aloe cryptopoda next to our driveway started to flower a month ago. It sent up two flower stalks, but unfortunately one of them (on the right in the photo below) got bent over by the nasty winds we had a few weeks ago.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Book review: Private Gardens of the Bay Area

I vividly remember getting a coffee table book about the Caribbean islands when I was a young adult. Looking at the glossy photos was like being there in person, and the book ignited a passion for travel that continues to burn bright to this day.

Stirring the imagination—that's the power of a well-produced coffee table. Private Gardens of the Bay Area by Susan Lowry and Nancy Berner, with photographs by Marion Brenner (who also worked on The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden), is such a book. It takes you on a journey to destinations that are as exciting as the Caribbean but a lot more varied: Some gardens evoke England, others France or Italy; some look like a South Pacific paradise, others like the desert; many are firmly rooted in the California landscape around them.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Wave Garden in Point Richmond: one of my favorite spots in the Bay Area

The Wave Garden in Point Richmond may be one of the best kept secrets in the Bay Area. There seems to be some hesitation to share its exact location. Maybe it's because the Wave Garden is privately owned even though it's open to the public and meant to be enjoyed by the wider community. More on the history of this unique place a little later.

I visited the Wave Garden in February 2014 and again in May 2015 and had been wanting to go back ever since. Since it's only 15 minutes from Annie's Annuals and Perennials, I caught two birds with one stone last weekend. After spending a couple of hours shopping at Annie's, I made the short drive to Point Richmond. As on my previous visits, there was nobody else there. For an hour I enjoyed what has to be one of the most scenic and peaceful spots on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

One of several seating areas, this one overlooking the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge crossing San Pablo Bay

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Shopping Annie's Annuals' 15% off sale

It's no secret that Annie's Annuals & Perennials in Richmond, CA is one of my favorite nurseries. Now through the end of the year they're having a 15% off sale on everything in the nursery: plants, gift items, even gift certificates. Is there a better reason to visit? Granted, the best time for planting is over for the year, but what is life if you don't push the envelope a little bit?

In that spirit, I made the one-hour drive yesterday. My partner in crime was my friend Brian who volunteers at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. While it's fun shopping with somebody who is as plant-obsessed as you are, it's also dangerous because you end up pushing each other to buy even more than you had planned: "Hey, doesn't this plant look good? You should try it!" Or "This plant does really well in my garden. You need to get one, too." I apologize to Brian if I made him buy something he hadn't planned on buying!

Richmond is in zone 10a. Davis, where I live, is in zone 9b. You might think there isn't much difference, but there is. There is a big difference, actually, especially in the winter. Plants that struggle in Davis—think aeoniums, many proteas, fuchsias, etc.—sail through Richmond's virtually frost-free winters. That's why Annie's display gardens look good all year. I enjoy looking at them almost as much as I like shopping!

This is what I saw at Annie's yesterday:

Many nurseries have cats, Annie's has a friendly cow