Pictures from a long, hot summer

I posted this screenshot from Weather Underground on Succulents and More’s Facebook page the other day:


For a number of days now we’ve had temperatures above 100°F (38°F) and a few about 104°F (40°F). Yes, it’s a dry heat, but heat is heat. And it’s taking its toll on people and plants alike, especially as we try to conserve water.

The other thing on people’s mind are wildfires. The photo above, taken last week from our upstairs loft, shows the smoke-filled sky towards the west. The smoke was from the Wragg Fire near Lake Berryessa, about 30 miles west of here as the crow flies. It burned 8,000 acres and is now 95% contained. In addition to smoke, the fire also left fine particles of ash in our garden.



Another fire, the Rocky Fire, is burning 70 miles northwest of here (as the crow flies). This one is much bigger, 47,000 acres, and is only 5% contained. We smelled smoke yesterday, and today the sky is filled with a yellowish haze. It has all but obscured the sun and is casting a strange, almost apocalyptic light on the world.

Neither the heat nor wildfires are anything out of the ordinary but given the record drought, things seem more dire this year. There’s an unsettling sense of foreboding, a feeling that things could get worse before they get better. Most of California is so dry, it could go up in flames in a heartbeat. (Another fire is burning in far northern California and is threatening the town where my wife grew up; residents have been told to evacuate.)

Rain is still months away. Unlike Southern California, we haven’t had any precipitation since May.

Some parts of the garden look fairly good, others not so much. This Leucospermum ‘Scarlet Ribbon’, my favorite plant this spring, has bit the dust. I don’t think it was a lack of water as much as the unrelenting heat. (I still have another leucospermum in the backyard; it’s in a container and only gets partial sun. It’s doing OK.)


Succulents and shrubs native to hot places (ike the baja fairy duster and Texas ranger in the next couple of photos) are thumbing their noses at the heat.



But other perennials that I thought were heat-tolerant, like chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) and sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii), have fried. Maybe they’re not really dead, just dormant? I cut them back to the ground and am hoping for a rebirth in the fall.


My tower of jewels clump (Echium wildpretii) continues to do well. One of the rosettes flowered this year. Odd, since all the rosettes are the same age and should have flowered together. I expect the others to put on a show next spring.


The driveway succulent bed looks the same as always. The ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde looks pristine; the heat doesn’t faze it one bit.


Inside the front yard fence is a tangle of perennials (mostly sages and globemallow). I cut everything back this morning so we’ll enjoy fresh growth in the fall.


On the front porch things look unchanged. Agave mitis (left) and Agave attenuata ‘Boutin Blue’ get by with weekly watering.


In the backyard, our angel wing begonias have been blooming for months now, with no end in sight. They’re on drip irrigation and get watered once a week. I’m very surprised by how good they look.


My two remaining yellow lotus bananas (Ensete lasiocarpum) are thriving thanks to gray water from the kitchen:


Growing in a stock tank under the bay trees, this bamboo, Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’, is hanging in there, another recipient of gray water from the house. I wouldn’t call it ecstatically happy, but at least it’s still alive.


One of the two remaining hostas, ‘Climax’, continues to defy my expectations: I always expect it to die, but it thrives.


My favorite plant in the backyard at the moment is the dwarf jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia ‘Bonsai Blue’) I bought in early June. It’s absolutely loving its new home and is growing like crazy:




The plant in the foreground is my other leucospermum, a hybrid called ‘Goldie’. It’s doing well in this spot. Maybe it’ll bloom next spring?

More backyard vignettes:


Agave ‘Blue Flame’ enjoying the heat


Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’ growing like a champ


I love this corner, my shrine to Guanyin


Many people don’t like the look of dormant aeoniums…


…but to me this Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ looks like a metal rose

In spite of the heat and lack of water, there’s still plenty of life in the garden. You just have to look closer at this time of year. You might find something like this:


The red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) I bought at Lowe’s in Phoenix, AZ in early January is finally going to bloom!


  1. Omigosh! So many days over 100F. When will it end? And at least two more months of dry weather as you say. You have my greatest sympathy. Fire and heat; been there, done that. August is the month I always want to leave California. Go to Alaska where it's cooler or go to the the San Juan Islands, or anywhere it is raining, but I never do. I welcome the first rains so much. Your survivors seem to come from hotter and wetter areas like the tropics and are looking good. Can't keep aeoniums looking good here either, even with water. Have to plant something in front of them. I love that the begonias are doing so well. Would that we humans who don't like heat could do as well.

    1. Yes, the first reason of the season is pure magic. When will it come this year???

      The more tropical plants I have get extra rations from the water we collect in the kitchen and showers. That's the only way I can keep them going.

  2. The lushness of the Jacaranda, bananas, begonia etc defies the heat and drought you guys are having there. Interesting to hear about the plants that are not that heat tolerant, and those that are which fortunately are a big majority of your garden. Garden is still looking great! And hopefully you all get some rain respite from the heat soon.

    1. I'm trying hard to have a few elements of tropical lushness. Not easy, considering what we have to work with. You make it look so easy, and you don't even live in the tropics!

  3. I have to say we have dodged the bullet on the heat here in Napa--we had some mid 90's last week but for the most part the high 80's are all we have had to contend with.Never the less , my garden is looking mighty sad, mostly water related .

    1. You've been lucky because Napa can get quite hot, too.

      I'm going to take a long and hard look at the entire garden this fall to see what I can plant that will look good year round, winter and summer. I think I'll replace quite a few herbaceous perennials. More grevilleas and banksias, maybe.

  4. I sympathize and I hope you get some relief from the heat - and the fires - soon. We're in a fire sensitive area too (in fact, I had trouble getting someone to insure us for fire when we bought the house) and I get nervous every time I see smoke. I'm glad your dwarf Jacaranda is doing well - I'm still seriously considering getting one myself this fall. I'm sorry you lost a Leucospermum. If it's any comfort, the one I bought from the Australian Native Nursery died almost as soon as I put it in the ground - I rue my decision not to leave it in its pot until it was more developed.

    1. Thank you for sharing your leucospermum story. At least I don't feel like I'm the only one who can't get these to thrive. If only their flowers weren't so darn beautiful.

      I continue to be impressed with that 'Bonsai Blue' jacaranda!

  5. As you know we've been hot, 103, 101 and 97 for Thur, Fri, Sat...but of course the difference is I can water, and have been. For the most part my pants are unfazed by this summers excessive heat, because of my generous watering. I feel a little crazy doing it but hopefully it's for a good cause (the fundraising tour). I do wonder what the garden would look like if I weren't being so generous, no doubt a lot more like yours, although thankfully our smoky days have been few.

    1. Portland has had some crazy temps this summer. People who don't have AC must have gone bonkers.

      To a degree, saving water is a choice. If I wanted to, I could keep the spigot running, I suppose. The only ill effect would be a higher water bill. But I'm trying to do my part as a good Californian...

  6. Heat is heat; it just feels different when the temperature is 98º and the 'feels like' is 110º. Humidity is easier on plants, harder on we who breathe in heavy air that feels like a blanket. Kin in central Florida are wishing they could send their rain to the West Coast. Will Rogers was right.

    1. I hadn't stopped to think that quite a few plants actually like high humidity. Just look at the tropical lushness of Florida and Hawaii.

      Succulents don't handle the humidity too well though. They're more like me :-).

  7. Like Kathy in Napa, the highest temps have been high 80s, occasional low 90s, but incredibly humid. Young verbascums mushed away from the humidity. Keeping the garden drier has made the usual ant problem even bigger. I'm battling ants with cinnamon, black pepper, and will try corn meal. The whole house smells of the cinnamon sprinkled on the window moldings to bar entry! The ants have just about killed my Aloe capitata var. quartzicola. And a creature dug up a thriving Leucodendron 'Safari Goldstrike.' In short, the usual summer attrition! I sympathize with your high temps -- there's nothing more enervating for people and plants.

    1. AAARGH. I thought you're having the perfect summer there on the SoCal coast, especially with the recent rainfalls you had.

      We had huge ant problems when we bought this house. I tried all the things you're trying. After a while they just disappeared on their own and haven't come back. I still don't know why. The same goes for the rat infestation we had a few years back (in the yard, not in the house, thank god).

      What did the ants do to your quartziticola? Would love to know more to prevent it from happening here.

  8. Quite a bit of color despite the drought! Orange sky is novel, but smelling the smoke makes it scarier I imagine!

    1. Seeing a sky that color is eerie as hell, especially in conjunction with the smoke. I expected an army of zombies to appear from up the street!

    2. I was just a kid the first time I saw that forest fire sky, and "eerie as hell" and "apocalyptic" describe it perfectly :~((( Love the "army of zombies" comment!

  9. You and your garden are holding up better than I would in 104F. Stay cool! I hope your house has A/C. The smoke is so bad.

    Tried washing machine water? My Syzygiums are thrilled with it. Use greywater-intended detergent...

    1. We have two A/C units, one for downstairs and one for upstairs. Fortunately we don't have to run them much. Our whole-house fan sucks in cool air all night long, and in the morning we simply close all the windows. The house stays pleasant until the late afternoon. Because of the time-of-use metering we have for our photovoltaic system, running the A/C before 6pm would be prohibitive expensive anyway.

      I'd love to capture the gray water from the washing machine, but because of where our laundry room is located and how it's plumbed, it's virtually impossible to do that without structural modifications.

  10. So hot! Glad that most of your plants are hanging in there. We've had higher than normal temperatures this summer but nothing like what you've had and we're still cooler than Portland. Awful smoke but I'm sure you're using it to take some interesting photographs! Hoping you get rain soon!

    1. You know what's funny? Almost as soon as I wrote this post, the temperatures dropped. Today's expected high is only 85°F. Unreal!! I'll enjoy it while it lasts. Mid-90s again in a few days.

      Realistically speaking, we won't get rain until mid-October or so. Another 2 1/2 months...


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