Monday, April 30, 2012

Hammock heaven

In my mind, hammocks conjure up the ultimate in tropical relaxation. Lying on your back on what feels like a cushion of air, watching the clouds go by overhead, enjoying the gentle swaying motion from the wind—what could be better!


For years I’ve been trying to come up with a way to string a hammock between the bay trees in our back yard, but the spacing is just not right. Finally I have what I’ve always wanted: a freestanding hammock stand that is not only eminently practical, it’s also darn good looking. Yes, it takes up quite a bit of space (13 x 9 ft.) but it’s space that wasn’t much used anyway except to walk on.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Visit to Hakone Estate and Gardens

This week I finally had the opportunity to visit Hakone, the oldest Asian estate and gardens in the Western hemisphere. Located in Saratoga, CA, about 20 minutes from San Jose and the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley, Hakone occupies 18 acres in the hills just outside of town.

Hakone was established in 1915 by Isabel and Oliver Stine, a wealthy couple from San Francisco. It went through several changes of ownership over the years, fell into disrepair, was lovingly restored, and then sold to the City of Saratoga in 1966.

Entrance gate to Japanese garden

I’m by no means an expert on Japanese gardens. However, having visited the Portland Japanese Garden (PJG) several time in recent years (see 1 2 3 4 5 6), I knew I would start comparing the two. Both are magnificent places of tranquility and beauty. The PJG seems to be built on a grander scale and feels more like a public garden; Hakone has the feeling of an intimate retreat and it is indeed much used for corporate events, weddings, receptions, etc.

Panorama of Hill and Pond Garden

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

UC Botanical Garden plant sale this Saturday, 4/28/12

The biggest plant sale in Northern California is just days away: The UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley will have its spring sale this coming weekend. This is the mother of all plants sales. Sale tables will be spread throughout the UC Botanical Garden, and experts will be on hand to answer questions. To quote their website:

We specialize in regionally-appropriate Mediterranean climate plants. We also sell rare cycads and palms, carnivorous plants, cacti and succulents, rare bulbs, Asian plants, glorious vines, tropical and houseplants, dry-growing Mexican and Central American plants, and much more.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sizzling ice plants

The other day I posted a photo of Cooper’s hardy ice plants (Delosperma cooperi) nestled against a clump of Cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens) and Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fructicosa). The color of these ice plant flowers is so intense, it looks almost fake.

Delosperma cooperi, flowers open

But like so many plants commonly given the moniker “ice plants,” Delosperma cooperi produces flower colors that border on the fluorescent. If they didn’t close up at night, they might light up your entire yard!

This is what the same clump looks like in the morning and evening:

Delosperma cooperi, flowers closed

Monday, April 23, 2012

Our front yard in late April

I haven’t done a “our yard in the month of xyz” post in a while, mostly because things were slow in taking off this year due to unseasonably cool weather. Now, however, spring is here with a vengeance. Plants that were just poking out of the ground last week are in full leaf this week. The planting strip outside the front yard fence is beginning to resemble the tapestry of color we so love. Finally the time of year is here when you can see changes from one day to the next.

The bed inside the front yard fence may not look like much from a distance, but the ornamental grasses are going great guns, and herbaceous perennials like penstemons, echinaceas and salvias are trying to catch up.

Planting strip inside our front yard fence

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Orange smell-o-vision

I’m sure somebody somewhere is working on a technology to transmit smells over the Internet. I wish I had that technology at my fingertips today to share with you the heady scent permeating the backyard and wafting into the house through the open windows: Our Washington navel orange tree is in full bloom. Not only that, it has more blossoms this year than ever before, adding to the intensity of the fragrance.

Blossoms of Washington navel orange

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Senecio relocation

In early 2011 I planted a Senecio vitalis on the edge of the succulent bed next to our front door. Closely related to the ever popular blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae), Senecio vitalis is more upright and has a greenish-gray coloration as opposed to Senecio mandraliscae’s steely blue. Both plants are reasonably common in local nurseries, and I would recommend them both for a drought-tolerant landscaping scheme.

Senecio vitalis  on 9/17/2011

Friday, April 20, 2012

Moving a bee swarm

Yesterday there was a lot of excitement on our street. Our neighbor across the street noticed in the morning that quite a few bees were buzzing around the butterfly bush (buddleia) in their front yard. In the next few hours, it became clear that this was a swarm in the midst of moving to a new place to live.


While beekeeping in suburban backyards is gaining in popularity, our neighbors weren’t ready for a bee colony so they contacted the Sacramento Area Beekeeper Association and were referred to a local beekeeper who lives just a few streets away.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Annie’s Annuals 2012 Spring Party

Last Saturday, after attending the Ruth Bancroft Garden’s spring plant sale, I made the 35-minute drive from Walnut Creek to Richmond to check out the Spring Party at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials. I’d been to Annie’s a couple of times since last summer (1 2), but their inventory is both vast and ever-changing so I knew that I would find something new to drool over and/or take home.

Annie’s is located in a light-industrial area and the approach isn’t exactly welcoming (neither are the coils of barbed wire on top of the outside fence). But land is premium-priced in the Bay Area, and a production nursery that wants to remain competitive doesn’t have much choice when it comes to location, especially a multi-acre operation like Annie’s.

Market Street railroad crossing. Annie’s is a few hundred yards down the road on the left.

However, as soon as you step through the gate, you instantly forget that you’re not in the nicest part of town.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ruth Bancroft Garden in the spring

Last Saturday I went to the spring plant sale at Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA. Click here to read my write up about the sale.

After I had picked out what I wanted, I wandered through this 3-acre succulent wonderland to check up on my favorite plants and to take photos for this blog. I visit three or four times a year and every time I find something new and different—not surprising considering there are thousands upon thousands of plants. One of these days I’ll try to find out how many species of succulents there are in the Garden’s collections.

Ruth Bancroft (104 years old now!)
still lives in the house next to the garden

Ruth Bancroft Garden plant sale recap

For Northern California succulent lovers, one of the biggest events in the spring is the April plant sale at Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG) in Walnut Creek, CA. I’ve been to quite a few of them over the years and they’re always high-octane events but this sale seemed to draw even more people than usual. It’s a clear sign that a wider segment of the gardening public is taking an interest in succulents. Water is becoming ever more scarce and expensive in our part of the country and replacing at least some thirsty annuals and perennials with drought-tolerant succulents is a great way to conserve water.

I arrived a few minutes early and took the opportunity to photograph the plantings along the entrance road. As you can see, they are stunning in their own right.

North entrance. The road leads to the garden entrance on the right and to a parking area.
View in the other direction toward Bancroft Road, a busy four-lane street


Friday, April 13, 2012

Snow in April

Yesterday I blogged about our thwarted attempt at a planting party at my in-laws in the mountains of Northern California. We brought up a bunch of plants, but due to a series of freak snow storms we never got around to putting them in the ground.

Not only did the snow not let up yesterday, it continued a good part of the night. This morning we woke up to 7 inches of fresh snow on the ground. A winter wonderland straight out of a postcard, albeit a few months late.


We’re safely home in Davis now, but I wanted to share with you some of the photos I took before we left Mount Shasta. Not exactly plant-related, but I hope you’ll enjoy them nonetheless.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Winter in spring

For the last six months I’ve been collecting a variety of plants for my in-laws who live in the mountains of Northern California. We delivered the plants a couple of days ago, expecting crisp but sunny spring weather. Well, the weather gods managed to surprise as again, as they already have many times this year. Instead of sunshine, we were greeted by rain. It did stop briefly—the sun even popped out for an hour or two—but then it resumed and overnight turned to snow. I could hardly believe my eyes when I woke up to a solid snow cover this morning!


Post-Easter winter wonderland

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

NorCal plant sales on Saturday, April 14

If you live in Northern California, this coming Saturday, April 14, is shaping up to a blockbuster plant sale day. Not one, not two, not three but four plant sales sure to excite any gardener. It’ll be hard to decide which one(s) to go to!

Where will I go? I’ll start at 9 am at Ruth Bancroft Garden, then hop over to Annie’s Annuals. I would love to go to Far Out Flora’s moving sale, but I’m not brave enough to face driving through San Francisco on a Saturday morning—although I’m mighty tempted and reserve the right to change my mind on short notice!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The gardens of Alcatraz, part 2

In yesterday’s post, I described the gardens on the east side of Alcatraz. Today we’ll continue our tour on the west side. I thought the gardens there would be similar to what I’d already seen on the other side of the island, but I was wrong. It was even better! A true paradise for succulent lovers, as you will see very shortly.

Here is our trusty map again for orientation:

Map of Alcatraz

As you walk around the lighthouse (#8 on the map), you’re greeted by a carpet of pink Drosanthemum floribundum, one of the many kinds of iceplants from South Africa. It clearly thrives in this exposed spot which, like most of the west side, gets plenty of sun.

Drosanthemum floribundum…
…or “Persian carpet,” as the island residents used to call it
I love how it trails over the edge of this retaining wall
Not the most spectacular iceplant flowers up close but en masse the effect is spectacular

Just a few hundred feet down the path is where the real spectacle begins. Aeoniums packed together like sardines in a can, interspersed with Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum) and jade plant (Crassula ovata).

Aeonium paradise at the base of the cellhouse
Perfect specimens of Aeonium arboreum…
…interspersed with Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum) and jade plant (Crassula ovata)
Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
Jade plant (Crassula ovata) up close. Check out the massive trunk!

As you descend the path, other succulents appear in the mix. The magenta-flowered vygie (Lampranthus amoenus) beckons you to step closer. According to The Gardens of Alcatraz, this patch of lampranthus is from cuttings taken from one of two surviving original plants.

The magenta-flowered Lampranthus amoenus definitely stands out
The magenta iceplant on the left is Lampranthus amoenus,
the yellow one on the right is Scopelogena verruculata
Lampranthus amoenus interspersed with white sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
Lampranthus amoenus

Up close, you realize how tightly packed these plants are. The vigor here is astounding.

Scopelogena verruculata with several kinds of aeonium
Scopelogena verruculata next to a colony of aeoniums packed in so tight, they look squished!
All of these are aeoniums…
…maybe somebody can help ID them?
I couldn’t believe how tightly massed together these plants were
Would this qualify as monstrose growth?
Aeonium flower next to bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis)
This seagull looks particularly content

To my delight, I spotted several clumps of Cotyledon orbiculata, often called “pig’s ears.” In addition to the regular green form, seen in bloom in the photo below, there also were three other varieties with leaf colors ranging from grayish green to a light blue-gray. They all had the typical red leaf margins that appear in good light.

Several forms of Cotyledon orbiculata
Aeonium arboreum var. atropurpureum (right) and Cotyledon orbiculata (left)
All of these are Cotyledon orbiculata

I did a double-take when I spotted these fox-tail agaves (Agave attenuata). They are possibly the most frost-sensitive agaves and yet they look as healthy as can be in a place that is buffeted by the elements in the winter. Temperatures simply must not drop enough to harm them.

Agave attenuata growing amidst the aeoniums and bush sedum
Agave attenuata

Not far away, I saw another agave, Agave parryii var. truncata. I don’t think this species grew here during the penitentiary years, but it’s a great fit for this exposed slope.

Agave parryii var. truncata

Continuing on the path, I spotted a Chasmanthe floribunda, a South African bulb. Chasmanthe floribunda grows all over the island, but this was one of only a few clumps in bloom. The others must be done already since this bulb typically blooms in the winter.

Chasmanthe floribunda

The next spectacle that took my breath away was this carpet of yellow-flowering Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum) and magenta-flowered Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’. The cellhouse forms a somber backdrop to this cheery scene.

Sedum praealtum and Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
Sedum praealtum and Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
Sedum praealtum and Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
with bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) on the right

Most century plants (Agave americana) on Alcatraz seem to be growing on the steep western slopes that extend down to the water. This small colony was nestled into a protected corner near the path.

Agave americana
I really appreciated the interpretive signs all over the island
Variegated Agave americana, perched on a cliff above the water
Agave flower stalks poking out above a retaining wall,
with the San Francisco skyline in the distance
The white building on top of the slope covered with pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)
is the greenhouse built by inmate Elliott Michener who was the unofficial head gardener
from 1941-1950.

I spotted just a few echeverias, but this clump of Echeveria imbricata was particularly nice.

Echeveria imbricata
Echeveria imbricata

Toward the bottom of the hill where the path runs into the recreation yard, the terrain flattens out. Instead of succulents, you see colorful plantings of annuals and perennials. If it weren’t for the fences and the hulking specter of the cellhouse above you, this could be a city park or somebody’s garden.

Annual and perennial plantings
Annual and perennial plantings
White African daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum) and purple Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
Wallflower (Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve') dominating this corner with its purple flowers
On the right, the classic California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
On the left, a fancy variety most likely introduced during the restoration.

I had expected to find significant clumps of aloes on Alcatraz but aside from a few lone specimens growing at the base of aeoniums, this was the only larger expanse of aloes I saw.

Expanse of aloes. I couldn’t get close enough to attempt an identification.

This is the very last photo I took at the end of the garden path: the view across San Francisco Bay towards Sausalito, punctuated by agave flower stalks.


I hope you enjoyed this tour of the gardens of Alcatraz. I was very happy to have come at the right time of year to enjoy this spectacle of color and texture.

The Garden Conservancy offers docent-led garden tours every Friday and Sunday at 9:30am from the Alcatraz dock. You need to take the first ferry of the day to go on one of these tours.

The Garden Conservancy also operates a great web site, The Gardens of Alcatraz, where you can find a great deal of information about the history of the gardens and the restoration.