Tuesday, December 31, 2013

California drought

110220_dead_palms2013 will enter the history books as the driest calendar year ever in California. The numbers are astounding—and sobering: Since January, Los Angeles has received only 3.6” of rain (average: 14.91”), San Jose 3.8” (average: 14”), San Francisco 5.59” (average: 21.45”).

Normally December is one of our wettest months; this year it’s been one of the driest on record. The snowfall in the northern Sierra Nevada, where most of our water supply comes from, has only been 10% of normal. A persistent high-pressure ridge stretching over a large swatch of the northern Pacific Ocean has been diverting the usual winter storms away from California. Meteorologists see no change for January, which means that precipitation will continue to be far below normal. And even when we finally see some rain it won’t make much of a dent in the water levels of our reservoirs because the soil will suck up most of the moisture, resulting in very little runoff. We need a series of very wet storms to bring us back to a semblance of normalcy.

The odds of this happening are not good so gardeners need to be prepared to conserve water, either because of mandatory water rationing or simply because it’s the right thing to do. With a garden full of drought-tolerant shrubs and perennials, not to mention succulents, I feel I’m fairly well positioned. However, there is one major weak spot in our garden: the bamboos. While the bamboos in the ground should be OK with a little less water than what they’ve been used to (I already cut back in 2013, both in terms of watering and fertilizing), the potted bamboos will be pushed to the brink. As it is, the dozen potted bamboos that are left—from a peak of maybe 20 a few years ago—haven’t looked all that great since I reduced the amount of watering. Instead of the lush green screen I had envisioned, I see brown leaves and even dying culms. An even more draconian watering regime will mean the demise of many of them. Maybe that’s inevitable, considering that our climate barely supports potted bamboos. I’ll need to come up with alternatives to plant in all those containers. More potted agaves?


The precipitation numbers for Davis are as follows:
Average annual precipitation: 19.6”
Total precipitation for 2013: 5.22”
Percent of normal: 26.6%

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tucson Botanical Gardens (Tucson, AZ)

Yesterday afternoon (December 29, 2013) our backyard thermometer read 65°F. I was working outside in my t-shirt and I was hot! Crazy, but in a good way. After being sick for 10 days and then gone over Christmas, I finally removed all the frost blankets we had installed for the artic blast in early December. The damage looks to be fairly minor, with only a few losses, but I’m not ready to write about my own garden quite yet. Instead I want to stay in Arizona a little while longer, at least in my mind.

Today’s post is the last one from Tucson. While as a city Tucson is far from perfect—too much sprawl for one thing—it holds a special place in my heart. If I were looking to relocate, it would be near the top of my list.

The last place I visited while I was in Tucson in early December was the Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG). Like so many public gardens, it started out as a private property. The structure you see in the photo below was the home of the Porter family, built in 1929. Many of the trees and shrubs surrounding the house are typical of what was in vogue in Tucson during the 1930s, 40s and 50s: olives, myrtles, pomegranates and citrus.


Entrance/Gift Shop

Friday, December 27, 2013

Agaves at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2013 edition

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) exhibits and interprets the rich flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Because it receives rain both in the summer and the winter, it is considered to be the “lushest desert on earth”[1]. The range of plants growing in the Sonoran Desert is astounding, including iconic cacti like the saguaro, but invariably I’m most drawn to agaves.


Arizona is home to 12 of the 18 agave species native to the U.S. (be sure to read this very interesting article about domestic agaves). The ASDM has them all, plus most species native to the two thirds of the Sonoran Desert that is in Mexico. The ASDM Plant Names Database lists 53 entries for agaves (38 unique species and 15 varieties and hybrids). My post has photos for 27 of them. Chances are I missed the others because they weren’t labeled and/or located in parts of the garden I didn’t explore this time.

Not every agave variety is a stunner. Some are downright weedy-looking, like Agave felgeri or Agave schottii. But many others, like Agave colorata, Agave gigantensis and Agave parryi, are truly beautiful. I’m sure you’ll find your own favorites—old and maybe even new ones.

The photos in this post are in alphabetical order so you can easily skip to a particular species that might interest you.


Agave americana var. expansa

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones. I hope you’re enjoying a wonderful time surrounded by family and friends. And may Old Man Winter be kind to you until spring arrives. No more of that arctic blast, please!


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Welcome to Succulents and More!

131203_ASDM_014As you may have noticed, Bamboo, Succulents and More is now Succulents and More. When I started this blog in October of 2010, my main interest was bamboo. However, over the years my focus has shifted to succulents. I’m still a bamboo aficionado and I will continue to write about bamboo, but this will now fall under the “More” umbrella.

Together with the name change, I’ve switched my blog to a new URL, www.succulentsandmore.com. If you have bookmarked the previous URL, www.bambooandmore.info, don’t worry; it will redirect automatically to the new web address. And if you access my blog through Facebook or Networked Blogs, nothing will change for you.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (Tucson, AZ)

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) has a special place in my heart. This was my fifth visit, and any fear that I might be bored—especially since I’d just been there the summer before—were quickly allayed.

Founded in 1952, the ASDM encompasses 21 acres of Sonoran Desert west of Tucson. According to their website, there are “two miles of walking paths, 16 individual gardens, 1,200 native plant species and 56,000 individual plants.” If I had to venture a guess, I’d say most visitors, especially families, come for the animals. Others, like me, come for the plants.

Last year, I wrote three detailed posts about the ASDM (see links at the bottom). Please check them out to see the full range of botanical sights that await visitors.

The current post covers some of the same territory but I’m mainly focusing on sights I hadn’t shown you before. This post looks at agaves at the ASDM.


Right at the entrance are beautiful specimens of ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde (Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’). This is the hybrid I planted at our house this fall.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Tohono Chul Park (Tucson, AZ)

I brought home something very unexpected and undesirable from my recent Arizona trip: a nasty bug that sidelined me for almost a week—I literally didn’t set foot outside the house for six days—and gave me pinkeye (conjunctivitis) to boot. The last time I had pinkeye was in elementary school! Even now I’m dragging, and I have a hard time making it through the day without wanting to take a long nap. Fortunately Christmas and the promise of a week of relaxation is just around the corner.

In today’s post I’ll take you back to Tucson. We’ll visit Tohono Chul Park, a 49-acre “living museum” that was once the home of a Tucson couple who fought hard to preserve a slice of native desert. Today Tohono Chul—“desert corner” in the language of the Tohono O'odham—combines nature with art and culture. Miles of trails wind through natural areas and demonstration gardens while three art galleries, classroom facilities and a fine-dining tea room offer attractions for people who are less plant-crazy.

For me, the main draw were the natural areas and the gardens so that’s what I focused on. Join me as I walk through Tohono Park on a Monday morning. The place was all but deserted (no pun intended) and it felt like it was all mine.



Entrance plaza

Friday, December 13, 2013

A visit with agave expert Greg Starr (Tucson, AZ)

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I love agaves. As you can see here, I have 50+ species and varieties in my collection, most of them in pots.

Before my Arizona trip, I contacted Greg Starr, author of the Timber Press book Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers and one of the country’s leading experts on agaves, and he graciously agreed to let me visit him at his home in Tucson. As expected, it ended up being a personal highlight of my trip.

You can read more about Greg in his book and on his website, but here’s a quick summary: Greg’s nursery has been in business since 1985 and he has been botanizing in Mexico for at least as long. Since 1990 his main focus has been on agaves, and he has visited many type localities in Mexico. In recent years he has been working on a book on the agaves of Baja California. He is also working on a second edition of his first book, Cool Plants for Hot Gardens (now out of print).

Greg lives west of town at the base of the Tucson Mountains. The scenery is straight out of an old western movie. Here are some photos I took on my way to Greg’s house:


Tucson Mountains


Stately saguaros in a lucky homeowner’s front yard


Recently planted saguaro. I wonder how long it needs to be supported like that?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Arizona plants have arrived

My plant purchases from my Arizona trip arrived today. The box I’d shipped from Scottsdale last Friday arrived more or less intact, but it didn’t seem quite as full.


This is what the inside looked like:


I was very surprised since I’d filled the entire box with packing peanuts. Now it looked like a 3-inch layer was missing. Could the peanuts have settled that much?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bach’s Cactus Nursery (Tucson, AZ)

Instead of dealing with the aftermath of the cold snap that has gripped us since Thursday of last week, I decided to write the first extended post from my trip to Arizona last week.

The first destination we’re going to revisit is Bach’s Cactus Nursery in Tucson. From a post Loree “Danger Garden” Bohl had written in December 2011 I already had an idea of what to expect. But I wasn’t prepared for the size of the nursery. It’s large! In fact, the friendly employee who gave me a ride on one of their electric carts told me that at 10 acres it’s the third largest cactus nursery in the country. (I don’t know what the largest two are.)

Let’s start at the entrance and work our way through the nursery.


I love the colorful clump of Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia ‘Santa Rita’) at the entrance


Desert silhouettes in metal gate


Cactus galore from the second you enter the parking lot…

Friday, December 6, 2013

Arizona day 6—Phoenix: Cosanti, Desert Botanical Garden

This morning I visited Cosanti, the 5-acre studio complex and residence of visionary architect and artist Paolo Soleri located in what is now a fancy residential area of Scottsdale. As you may remember from yesterday’s post, Soleri is the man behind Arcosanti, the experimental desert community near Prescott.

Soleri bought the land that would become Cosanti in 1955 and soon thereafter began to build the first earth-cast concrete structures. Soleri’s architectural philosophy was one of frugality: using the cheapest materials and simplest methods possible. Many of the structures began as shaped mounds of earth upon which a thin (typically 3-inch) layer of concrete was poured. When the concrete was fully hardened, the soil underneath the concrete “roof” was dug away, resulting in a structure that is partially or wholly underground.


Cosanti Gallery Courtyard

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Arizona day 5—Taliesin West, Arcosanti, Old West Cactus Farm

Two of today's three stops didn't have anything to do with plants. Instead, they were focused on another interest of mine, architecture.

The first stop has been on my bucket list for a long time, and I'm glad I can finally scratch it off now: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale. Built as his winter home and architectural campus on 600 acres he bought in 1937 for $6,500 (!), Taliesin West is a masterpiece of organic architecture, its deceptively simple lines and low-slung shapes mirroring the Sonoran Desert which surrounds it on all sides. Today it serves as the headquarters of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the winter campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

I did two tours, one of the most important buildings and a second of the desert that forms the majestic backdrop. Here are a few photos I took. I don't want to bore you to tears with pictures of architectural details, but I thought you might want to get a general impression of what Taliesin West is all about. If want to find out more, there is a wealth of information online.


Campus entrance and bookstore (downstairs)


Bookstore and gift shop

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Arizona day 4—Superior: Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Phoenix: Desert Botanical Garden Luminarias

This morning I left Tucson (sad face) and headed north towards the Phoenix area on Highway 79, the Pinal Pioneer Parkway. I was astonished by how much sprawl there is north of Tucson, but eventually I found myself in open country:


For a long while the scenery was dominated by creosote, cholla and saguaro:


Near the town of Florence (dominated by a large state prison), I came across this vignette: somebody’s desert dream gone bust.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Arizona day 3—Tucson: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Desert Survivors Nursery, Tucson Botanical Garden

My first stop of the day was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM). Located in the desert to the west of Tucson, this 98-acre park is one of my favorite places in Arizona. After visiting the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix a couple of days ago, I was afraid the ASDM might have lost some of its luster in my pantheon of favorite public gardens. Fortunately, that was not the case. The Desert Botanical Garden may have a larger variety of plants, but it also feels more “domesticated.” The ASDM, in contrast, is a bit wilder, especially the lower trails that are mostly natural desert. I love both, and I’ll never be able to pick a favorite among the two.

Here are some of the photos I took today:


Entrance plaza.
Note the trees: They are the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde hybrid.


Sonoran Desert

Monday, December 2, 2013

Arizona day 2—Tucson: Tohono Chul Park, Bach’s Cactus Nursery, Greg Starr, Tucson Mountain Park, Saguaro National Park

Day 2 of my Arizona trip started at 8:00am with a visit to Tohono Chul Park, a 49-acre nature preserve in a northern suburb of Tucson. Aside from two bird watchers, I was the only visitor, at least at the beginning.

Tohono Chul isn’t a botanical garden per se, but there was plenty to keep me busy for a couple of hours. I’ll have a separate post in a week or two so I’ll limit myself to a few teaser photos.



Sunday, December 1, 2013

Arizona day 1—Phoenix: Desert Botanical Garden

After arriving in Phoenix at noon, I spent the afternoon at the Desert Botanical Garden. This is the one of the premier public gardens in the country for xeric plants, and it has been on my bucket list for a long time. My expectations were sky high. Did reality live up to them? You bet! I’m still overwhelmed by everything I saw in the 3.5 hours I was there. Since I didn’t get a chance to visit every part of the garden, I’m going to rearrange my schedule so I can go back on Friday morning.

I will have several in-depth posts about the Desert Botanical Garden in the weeks to come, but here is a short teaser. The art displayed throughout the garden is by world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly.



Arizona 2013 trip index


Here are all the posts about my December 2013 trip to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona:

Day by day:


Detailed posts:


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Getting ready for the big chill

Towards the middle of next week our stunning fall weather (low 70’s today) will come to a screeching halt as a cold front from Alaska will sweep down into Northern California. The different weather providers can’t seem to agree just how bad it will be; the most optimistic is forecasting lows around 30°F, the most pessimistic a low of 23°F (!) on Thursday, December 5. Normally I wouldn’t worry quite yet but since I’m leaving tomorrow morning for Arizona, I needed to take precautions today.

In a hectic two-hour period, my wife and I draped holiday lights over plants and then covered them with frost cloth and, after we’d run out of frost cloth, old sheets. Ideally, I would have liked some more time, but it is what is.

Here are some before and after photos:


Succulent table next to front porch


Assorted agaves and cacti on front porch

Friday, November 29, 2013

Looking forward to sun and succulents in Arizona

I feel very grateful this Thanksgiving. Not just for my family and friends—and my loyal readers—but also for the opportunity to spend the first week of December in Arizona. I’ll be exploring gardens, parks, nurseries and other things worth seeing in the Phoenix and Tucson area. I know I won’t be able to make more than a dent in the long list of sights Arizona has to offer, but I’ll be able to strike a few places off my bucket list.


Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

I hope to have daily posts from the road starting Sunday night. In the meantime, here are some photos from our 2012 visit to Tucson. If you’d like to see more, this trip index is a good place to start.


Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fall at the UC Davis Arboretum

Last Sunday, after exploring the Australian Collection at the UC Davis Arboretum, I continued my walk around Lake Spafford, the somewhat misnamed bulge in the old northern channel of Putah Creek. This is where much of the fall color is concentrated.

However, there are quite a few trees that don’t need colorful foliage to stand out. Here are some of them:


Bigberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) with particular dark coloration


Greek strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne)

Monday, November 25, 2013

UC Davis Arboretum Australian Collection

The weather was particularly beautiful this past Sunday. On such a glorious fall day—blue sky and warm sunshine—staying inside would have been a crime so I decided to go for a walk at the UC Davis Arboretum. This time I started at the downtown end of the Arboretum, and the first section you come to is the Australian Collection.

While not as extensive or diverse as the Australian Garden at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum (see 1 and 2), it still showcases many iconic plants from down under that thrive in our zone 9b climate. (Santa Cruz has milder winters than Davis, allowing the Arboretum there to grow tender plants that wouldn’t survive here.)


The UC Davis Arboretum has 39 different species of eucalyptus. Some are still juvenile, but others tower over the paths along Putah Creek.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Succulents drowning in sea of leaves

Friday afternoon…

The wind has been blowing like crazy for the last two days, knocking the leaves off trees that had still been hanging on to them. As is always the case, the bulk of our neighbor’s leaves ended up in our yard, specifically on the newly renovated driveway succulent bed.

It may not look that bad in this photo…


…but if you take a closer look…


…you’ll see how many leaves there really are.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Plant of the week: Koelreuteria elegans

This time my plant of of the week is quite large, and it isn’t even in my own yard. Fellow Davis gardener Sue emailed me the other day to let me know about a Taiwanese rain tree (Koelreuteria elegans ssp. formosa) that is currently in all its fall glory. Now when you think of trees in the fall, you think of colorful leaves. And typically that’s what you get. However, take a closer look at the tree in the center of this photo:


Let’s move a little closer:


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bicycles and geraniums

Davis is known for all kinds of things—some a bit weird, others more factual. Yet nothing seems to define Davis more than its obsession with the bicycle. Rumor has it that in Davis there are more bicycles per capita than in any other city in the U.S. Wherever you go, you’re bound to see people riding to and fro the university, school or work—or simply for fun and exercise. Davis has such a reputation in the cycling community that in 2010, the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame relocated to a site adjacent to Central Park in downtown Davis.

You’re probably wondering what all of that has to do with gardening. Well, all summer I’ve been driving by a house with five brightly painted bikes mounted to the fence and decorated with baskets of geraniums. Today I finally took some pictures:


Monday, November 18, 2013

Sunday afternoon walk in mid-November

I must say I’m shocked by how early it gets dark these days. Winter is definitely nipping at our heels! Yesterday afternoon I took a walk through the neighborhood and even though it was only 3pm, the sun was already so low that it felt like evening.

The neighborhood felt very autumnal; more so than I had expected. Unlike New England where the fall colors are so vibrant they smack you in the face, autumn is a quieter and less raucous affair in our parts.




Sunday, November 17, 2013

Aeonium bed update

Thirteen months ago I planted aeoniums (and a few other succulents) in a neglected bed in the side yard along the north side of the house. This is what it looked like right after planting:


October 6, 2012

And this is what it looks like now:


November 17, 2013

It’s downright shocking much these plants have grown. This area only receives a bit of morning sun and is in the shade the rest of the day. However, our neighbor’s house, painted a cream color, acts as a giant reflector, bathing the side yard in bright indirect light all day long. I’m convinced this has been a major reason why these aeoniums have thrived.