Sunday, May 31, 2015

I had some hostas in Davis...

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

One of my favorite movies, Out of Africa, begins with these haunting works, spoken by Meryl Streep's aging character Karen Blixen as she remembers her life in Kenya (then British East Africa).

“The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”

This post is nowhere near as fascinating as Blixen's remembrance of a life and love lost long ago (a real story, not fiction), but my lament is similarly wistful.

I had some hostas in Davis not far from Interstate 80. They grew happily in the backyard when I first planted them, but they struggled in the summer heat. Our winters were so mild, they weren't able to spend enough time in dormancy. As a result, they were smaller and weaker when they came back the following year. And the year after, most of them didn't return.

Original batch of hostas in the backyard (photo taken on May 1, 2009)

Friday, May 29, 2015

This is where the plants from Annie's Annuals went

As May is drawing to a close and daytime temperatures are climbing into the upper 80s, the planting window is about to close for summer. As it is, putting new plants in the ground now is pushing things. But can you do when you have a tray of new acquisitions (a.k.a. the plants I bought at Annie's Annuals & Perennials last Saturday) to find a home for?

Here is what I did with them:
The purple-flowering Geranium maderense went in the backyard. This is the spot that used to be occupied by Borinda papyrifera, a bamboo I removed in June 2014. The small potted tree is the cut leaf emperor oak (Quercus dentata 'Pinnatifida') I brought back from Portland last summer. It has put on quite a bit of growth even though it's generally a slow grower. The agave on the right is Agave montana, the one on the left Agave victoria-reginae.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Return to the Wave Garden

Last Saturday, after visiting Annie’s Annuals & Perennials in Richmond, I took my mother-in-law to see the Wave Garden in nearby Point Richmond. I wrote a long post about this very special garden in February 2014. Please refer to it to see how it it has developed.

As I said in my earlier post, the owners of the Wave Garden, Jeanne and Vern Doellstedt, bought the property adjacent to their home to prevent it from being developed (and presumably from blocking their view of San Pablo Bay, the northern extension of San Francisco Bay). They decided to turn it into a collaborative space combining concrete walls and paths, metal gates and fences, and lush yet drought-tolerant plantings that provide visual interest and color year round. To top it all off, they elected to open the garden up to the public to enjoy. The result is utterly stunning and unique, as you will see in this post.

This gate greets you at the lower entrance (there’s an upper entrance without a gate as well)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day visit to Annie’s Annuals

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., one of only a few 3-day weekends we have. Badly in need of a nursery fix, I decided to head to Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA on Saturday. My mother-in-law was my shopping companion. Davis was bright and sunny when we left, but Richmond (some 50 miles away) was gray and overcast when we arrived. I was thrilled since overcast skies make for better photography.

I was surprised by the number of cars in Annie’s lot—we had to park quite a ways away. It turned out a huge crowd had shown up for a talk on gardening during the drought at 11 a.m. Normally I would have loved to hear what the speaker, garden designer Kate Frey, had to say but my mother-in-law and I decided to get our shopping done while the nursery was virtually empty. A 15% off sale on all plants was an extra incentive to load up the cart.


I brought my wife’s compact point-and-shoot camera and took a lot of snaps as I wandered through the nursery. I’ve been to Annie’s quite a few times but every time I go I see new plants. Everything Annie’s sells seems to be interesting in its own right; I can’t think of a better antidote to the run-of-the-mill nurseries and garden centers that seem to dominate the retail landscape.

With very few exceptions, all plants are in 4-inch containers and propagated right at the nursery. And as you can see from the sign below, no neonictonoids are used.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Our house on Google Earth

While I post many photos of our garden, both in the front and back, it may be difficult for those of you who haven’t visited us to figure out exactly what the layout of our property is. Fortunately, Google Earth provides satellite imagery that is extremely useful for this purpose. All of the images below were captured with Google Earth Pro (download for free from here if you don’t have it yet). All rights to these images remain with Google and the various image providers.


This image shows all of Davis, CA. The road bisecting the town is Interstate 80. Sacramento is 15 miles to the east (right), San Francisco 70 miles to the west (left). The red arrow indicates the approximate location of our house.


Moving in closer, you can see that we’re very close to the edge of town. The fields in the foreground are outside the city limits and in another county.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

May 2015 snapshot of the front yard

May has been a great month this year, lack of rain notwithstanding. With daytime highs almost 10 degrees below average, i.e. low 70s instead of low 80s, I felt like I was in San Diego County instead of the greater Sacramento area. Invariably the weather will heat up and summer will descend upon us, stressing both humans and plants. For now, though, the floral display in the front yard continues. Time to take a stroll!


Penstemon ‘Firebird’ (complex hybrid involving Penstemon cobaea, P. hartwegii, P. campanulata, P. gentianoides and P. isophyllus)


Parkinsonia ‘Desert Museum’

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My agave cactus is blooming for the first time

Friends who aren’t into spiky plants are eternally confused as to what the difference is between cacti and succulents. This is what I tell them: All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. For example, agaves are succulents but not cacti.

So far so good.

But what about the agave cactus? Yes, there is such a thing. It looks a lot like an agave, but it’s a real cactus. Mine is blooming for the first time, and the flowers are a dead giveaway.


The botanical name of the agave cactus is Leuchtenbergia principis. It’s the only species in the genus Leuchtenbergia, which underscores what a special plant it is. It’s related to the genus Ferocactus, home to many iconic barrel cacti. Supposedly it can hybridize with them, although I’ve never seen such an intergeneric cross.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sue’s impressive front yard makeover

Fellow Davis gardener Sue Fitz is no stranger to this blog. I’ve featured her expansive backyard a few years ago and I’ve written about her volunteer work at Woodland High School. Now it’s time to take a look at her recent front yard makeover.

A year ago the Fitz’s front yard looked like this:


With a lawn sloping down to the sidewalk and foundation shrubs against the house, it was the kind of old-school front yard all of us are used to seeing.

But no more. This is what the Fitz front yard looks like now:


Thursday, May 14, 2015

The elephant in the room, a.k.a. our front lawn

As the drought in California and other parts of the western U.S. continues unabated, more and more homeowners are switching to water-wise landscaping. In our garden, we’ve been focusing on low-H₂O plants since the beginning so we haven’t had to swap out large swaths of plant material to accommodate the new normal. All planting strips and beds are on drip irrigation, which runs once a week for 20 minutes.

However, there’s a metaphorical elephant that stares you right in the face when you look at the following photos: the front lawn. At roughly 400 sq.ft. it isn’t huge and in previous years it was used regularly by our kids, but as yet another bone-dry summer approaches, it’s getting harder and harder to justify its existence. It, too, gets watered once a week for 20 minutes and is doing reasonably well on this new regimen. Yet I bet the lawn sprinklers running at full blast for 20 minutes put out much more water than a drip system would.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Flowering agave update (May 2015)

Time for an update on the Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ next to the front door. I first noticed at the beginning of September 2014 that it was getting ready to flower. By mid-October the flower stalk was already 8 ft. tall. In February 2015 the first flowers opened up. Now, in May 2015, most flowers are gone and the plant’s decline is accelerating. (This agave, like most, is monocarpic, meaning it dies after flowering.)


Eventually the dead carcass will have to be removed. My plan is to leave it until fall and tackle this task when the weather starts to cool down.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Palo verde update

I receive more comments and questions about our palo verde trees than any other plant in our garden. I don’t know if it’s because homeowners are rethinking their landscaping in the wake of the ongoing drought in the western U.S. and are looking for trees that don’t need much water, or because they simply like the looks of these stunning desert trees. For us, the decision to plant palo verdes was a combination of both, as well as wonderful memories of previous trips to Arizona (the palo verde is the state tree of Arizona).

In this post I chronicled the challenges of sourcing palo verdes in the Sacramento area, especially the very desirable ‘Desert Museum’ hybrid. I finally found what I was looking for at Village Nurseries, a large wholesale nursery. I brought home two 15-gallon trees on September 29, 2013 and planted them a week later.

Fast forward a year and a half. The two ‘Desert Museum’ palo verdes are doing very well. More than that. The one you see below, planted in the strip between our neighbor’s and our house, has exploded. It’s in full bloom now, stopping me in my tracks every time I walk out into the driveway. It’s simply magnificent.


May 9, 2015: ‘Desert Museum’ in full bloom


September 29, 2013: Bringing home two ‘Desert Museum’ palo verdes in our minivan

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Recap of 2015 Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society Show & Sale (part 2)

In this post I showed you vendor area at the  2015 Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society Show & Sale. For the public, this is typically what they’re interested in the most. For many members, however, the judged show is the main focus. This where they get to exhibit their beloved babies and, with a bit of luck, receive an award.

The SCSS show is open to all members. There is no entry fee and you can enter as many plants as you like. There are two main divisions—“Cacti” and “Other succulents”—and within each division there are 27 classes (either groups of related genera or more general categories such as “Crest, monstrose, variegates” or “Miniatures”). A third division is dedicated to planters, dish gardens, bonsai and the like. Exhibitors fall in three categories: Advanced (anyone with 5+ years of experience showing plants), Open (professional growers) and Novice/Junior (less than 5 years of experience showing plants or 16 or younger).


Photo courtesy of Fiona Ellis

Folks brought in their show plants on Friday, and bright and early on Saturday morning two groups of judges (one group for cacti, one for other succulents) inspected all the entries and judged them on five criteria: condition; staging/presentation; size and degree of maturity; nomenclature; and rarity. Ribbons for first, second, third place, and honorable mentions were given in each class. Rosettes were given for a variety of higher-level categories such as Best Cactus (Advanced, Open, Novice, Junior), Best Succulent (Advanced, Open, Novice, Junior), Best Ferocactus, Best Mammillaria, Best Agave, Best Aloe, etc. etc. Rosette winners were moved to the stage and also received a pot made by SCSS president Keith Taylor, a very accomplished potter.

Now that you know a little more about how the show works, let’s take a look at the plants. I didn’t take as many photos as in years past but you’ll still get a good idea of the caliber of plants in the show.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Recap of 2015 Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society Show & Sale (part 1)

As you may know, I’m involved in the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society, an organization well worth supporting if you like succulents and live in the greater Sacramento area. At $15 a year, it’s a bargain, too! Aside from monthly meetings every fourth Monday and occasional field trips to regional destinations, the major highlight of the club’s annual calendar is the Show & Sale that takes place the first weekend in May. A lot of hard work goes into this event and then, before you know it, it’s all over—until next year. This was the 55th Show & Sale, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be a 56th on May 7 and 8, 2015.

Here are some photos I took of the vendor area in the courtyard of the Shepard Garden and Arts Center in midtown Sacramento. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the judged show/exhibition inside.


The calm before the storm: sale area early on Saturday morning, a couple of hours before the crowds arrived


And the crowds did arrive right on time at 9am on Saturday!

Friday, May 1, 2015

My first juried succulent show

Yesterday I posted a teaser about the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society’s 2015 Show & Sale. I’ve been a member since 2011 and an officer since 2012 and yet I’ve never entered the show. In fact, I’ve never entered any plant show. Unlike many other club members who enjoy the competition aspect, it’s never been important to me. In addition, most of my favorite succulents are planted in the ground anyway. But this year I finally have some potted plants that are easy to transport and look good—at least enough to enter them in the show.


Since I’ve never participated before, I’m considered a Novice. I’ve been assured that means less pressure and more lenient judges. However, I still spent more time that I care to admit on preening and primping, except the attention wasn’t lavished on my studly self but on my show plants.

Was it worth it? I’ll tell you on Saturday after I find out if I won anything. And even if I place, what will I do with the ribbons? Do people actually hold on to stuff like that? I have a hard enough time managing the other crap that magically accumulates in my wake. At the same time, I know that if people tell me they liked my plants, I’ll be a proud dad.