Friday, October 30, 2015

Huntington Desert Garden: aloes and other Old World succulents

On December 27, 2014 I finally had the opportunity to visit the Huntington in San Marino, CA, one of California’s great estates. Established by businessman Henry Huntington in the early 1900s on what was originally a 600-acre ranch, the Huntington comprises a world-class library, art collections and 120 acres of gardens.


Foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata ‘Boutin Blue’), some of them in flower. Behind it is a mature tree aloe (Aloidendron barberae).

The most famous of these is the 10-acre Desert Garden. It was started in 1907 when garden superintendent William Hertrich convinced Henry Huntington to plant cacti in an area where little else would grow. Huntington initially agreed to let Hertrich experiment on ½ acre. Hertrich went ahead at full steam, filling the ½ acre lot with 300 cactus. In 1908, Hertrich hauled three carloads of saguaros from Arizona, followed in 1912 by two carloads of cacti and other succulents from Mexico. Huntington was finally convinced and gave Hertrich another 4½ acres. In 1925, the Desert Garden grow by another five acres, and in 1981, long after Hertrich’s death, the final 5 acres were added. In 1985, the Desert Garden Conservatory opened to the public; it’s home to 3,000 succulents that either need some sort of protection or are simply too rare to leave outside.


Aloe panorama

Today, the Desert Garden has sixty planting beds filled with more than 2,000 species of succulents and desert plants from both the Old and the New World. While impressive-sounding, these stats are fairly meaningless until you see the garden’s splendor in person. We’re not just talking a lot of plants, we’re talking old plants, masses of them. It’s easy to see why the Desert Garden is considered one of the world’s premier collection of succulents.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Aloe sinkatana surprise

The photo below shows three potted succulents in the backyard. The one on the left is Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’, pupping away merrily (the “mother plant” here is itself an offset from the original mother). The one in the middle, in the hollowed-out pumice rock, is Agave bracteosa ‘Calamar’, a solitary cultivar of the squid agave, which normally forms large clumps. On the right is Aloe sinkatana, a non-demanding small aloe from Sudan that blooms several times a year.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Green urn makeover: from mealybugs to strappy cool

One of the permanent fixtures of the front yard are two moss green urns on either side of the front door. We’ve had them since 2007 and they’ve been home to a variety of things, including feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) and Golden Goddess bamboo (Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’).


December 21, 2009: green urns with Golden Goddess bamboo (Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’). Unfortunately, when the bamboos got larger, I couldn’t keep them watered enough to look good.

In their most recent incarnations, the urns contained a variety of aeoniums (cuttings from the backyard). They looked good from fall through spring. In the summer, however, aeoniums go dormant and look terrible. So ultimately, they turned out to be the wrong choice for this prominent spot. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a nasty mealybug infestation, especially in the urn on the right side. I let it go longer than I should have, but this morning I finally decided to spring into action.

Read on to find out what I did.


See the Aeonium ‘Cyclops’ in the middle of the photo? That’s where the urn is. Coincidentally, it’s the only aeonium I was able to save.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Front yard desert bed at 1½ (October 2015 update)

It’s been six months since I last talked about the desert bed in the front yard (technically outside the backyard fence on the street side). As a quick reminder, this is what this area was like until February 2014:


February 16. 2014 before the Pittosporum tobira hedge came down

After planting it initially looked sparse:


March 16, 2014 right after planting

But not for long. Just six months later many of the plants (especially the perennials) had exploded. A year later I had already removed some of them because they were crowding out the succulents. Now, a year and a half after we created this bed, the succulents have put on enough size to become more noticeable; give it another year and they’ll be standouts.


October 16, 2015

Let’s take a closer look at the plants.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dwarf cowhorn agave (Agave cupreata)

In my previous post I mentioned that I recently found a dwarf cowhorn agave (Agave cupreata) at a Sacramento area Home Depot garden center. I couldn’t resist since it was such a perfect specimen:


Agave cupreata at Home Depot

After I got home, I did some research. It’s not a commonly cultivated species, and neither Greg Starr (Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2012) nor Mary Irish (Agaves, Yuccas, and Related Plants: A Gardener's Guide. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2000) had an entry for it in their books.

Howard Gentry (Agaves of Continental North America. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1982) does describe it, putting it in the Crenatae group (same as Agave bovicornuta). He says, “[its] habitat is a frostless zone below the Tropic of Cancer with 30-35 inches (73-86 mm) of annual rain, falling mainly between May and November.” That’s quite a lush area; we only get about 17 inches in an average year (plus our summers are dry while our winters are wet).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Surprising agave sightings at Home Depot

More often than not I rag about the big box garden centers—Home Depot, Lowes and their ilk—either because their plant selection is outdated (too many thirsty annuals, not enough climate-appropriate perennials or succulents) or their plants are not well cared for (typically overwatered).

However, in recent years things have improved. It was a slow process at first, but the worse the drought in California got, the more water-wise plants I began to see. Now both Home Depot and Lowes have their own line of landscape succulents, often displayed in a prominent spot at the garden center entrance. Quality control is still an issue (read this post on a recent aloe mite sighting at the Home Depot in Morgan Hill, CA), but with proper employee education, this could be solved fairly expediently.

Aside from the small 2” and 3” succulents from Altman Plants, typically found in their own display inside the garden center, Home Depot and Lowes don’t carry a large selection of landscape succulents. Usually there are fewer than a dozen different varieties in #1 cans and up. Out out those, two or three might be agaves. So you’d think that they carry the most popular kinds—the likes of ‘Blue Glow’, ‘Blue Flame’, ‘Cornelius’ etc. But for reasons I cannot fathom, the agaves I’ve seen for sale at Home Depot lately have been anything but predictable. Here are two cases in point.*

Home Depot branch #6200, 8000 Folsom Blvd, Sacramento (near California State University Sacramento)

A selection of agaves in #5 cans was displayed right outside the garden center entrance. They were priced at $22.98, which is great for plants that size.

Agave geminiflora (right) is a good choice for the Sacramento area. With its dozens of flexible spaghetti-strap leaves adorned with curly white hairs, it’s not only a very ornamental species, it’s also quite friendly to humans.

Agave striata (left) is just as common and ornamental but much more pokey.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Stapelia gigantea: stinky time is here again

October 14, 2015: Like every year at this time, the Stapelia gigantea on the front porch is getting ready to flower.


October 16, 2015: The first flower unfurls.


Friday, October 16, 2015

Love it or leave it: front yard steel dividers

In the wake of California’s epic drought, more and more homeowners are replacing their thirsty front lawns with less wasteful alternatives. Most projects entail the removal of all turf. But just because that’s common sense doesn’t mean everybody has to subscribe it.

My wife recently spotted a front lawn project in an adjacent neighborhood that is very different from what we typically see in Davis. On Saturday I finally had a chance to check it out myself.

What do you think?


Love it or leave it?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Exploring the Ruth Bancroft Garden, October 2015 edition

It’s become a tradition now: At each Ruth Bancroft Garden plant sale, I first pick out the plants I want, then I stroll through the garden to see what’s new and revisit old favorites.

It was no different last Saturday. Since I had to get raffle plants for the Sacramento Cactus & Succulent Society, I spent even more time than usual looking at all the plants. Plus, I had nice chats with RBG staff, including nursery manager Troy McGregor and garden curator Brian Kemble, and with Kathy Stoner who blogs at I was hoping I’d run into Kathy, and I did. One of these days I’ll make it to Napa to see her garden.

My stroll begins at the large clump of Agave franzosinii near the porta-potty and follows no particular route. “Wandering about aimlessly” would we be a good description. For this reason, the photos below are in no particular order, but that should heighten the sense of discovery.


151010_RBG_072 151010_RBG_074

Agave franzosinii with a flower stalk the size of a small tree. Agave franzosinii is one the largest agave species. It can grow up to 8 ft. tall and 10 ft. wide.


Agave parrasana. This specimen in the bed near the information kiosk outside the office is particularly striking.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ruth Bancroft Garden 2015 fall plant sale recap

The calendar may say October, but the weather gods don’t seem to have gotten the message: We still hit the low 90s virtually every afternoon. Last Saturday, I was already sweating at 9:45 a.m. as I was standing in line at the Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG) waiting for the nursery to open for the fall plant sale. I would have loved overcast skies and temperatures in the 60s but that was simply not in the cards.


The RBG’s fall plant sale was a bit different this year. Instead of opening an hour early for members only, the sale started at 10 a.m. for everybody. However, members were rewarded with a 20% discount on all plants—a very nice bonus indeed.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

2015 agave report preview

A detailed update on the agaves in my collection is long overdue. I just started to take photos of the 100+ agaves I have in the ground and in pots, and I realized it would make more sense to do some cleanup first so the plants look as good as they possibly can. So it’ll be a while yet before I have that post ready. Maybe we’ll even get another rain shower or two to help wash off the dust from a long and dry summer.

In the meantime, here’s a small teaser.


Driveway succulent bed


Agave ‘Snow Glow’, a sport of Agave ‘Blue Glow’, which in turn is a hybrid of Agave ocahui and Agave attenuata

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Aloe mite sighting at Home Depot in Morgan Hill, CA

On the way home from the 2015 Succulent Extravaganza I stopped at the Home Depot store in Morgan Hill, south of San Jose. I got excited when I spotted a grouping of large succulents outside the entrance to the garden center. The boxed agaves turned out to be plain old Agave americana—seriously, who would spend money on those? Dasylirion quadrangulatum was tempting for $59.99 in #15 cans but they were no bigger than what I already have. But then there was Aloe ‘Erik the Red’. I already have one, but the flowers are so nice, I wouldn’t have minded another one. Aloe ‘Erik the Red’ was also $59.99 in #15 cans.


A good price for large plants.

But were they healthy? Not so much.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Easing into fall gardening projects

The transition from summer to fall is very fluid here in the western Sacramento Valley. It’s not like you wake up one morning and it’s autumn all of a sudden. Instead, it’s a drawn-out process, full of false starts. In recent weeks, we’ve been swinging between 95°F and 70°F degree days, often with no transition, just to veer towards the 90s again.

On Saturday evening, though, we had an epic thunderstorm that might have marked the beginning of fall. We rarely get thunderstorms so lightning is always something special. And Saturday night was epic. Virtually nonstop thunder and lightning for over an hour. In the 18 years I’ve lived in Davis, I can’t remember anything quite like it. And for about 45 minutes we got rain. Not the weepy drizzle we had earlier in the week. A real honest-to-goodness gully washer. It cleaned the cars in the street, the solar panels on the roof and the plants in exposed areas.

On Sunday morning, for the first time in a long time, I felt the urge to putter around outside. I didn’t do much, but I did remove a few plants that had died in the infernal furnace of the 2015 summer: a Canary island sow thistle (Sonchus congestus) I bought at Annie’s Annuals last fall, and the Leucospermum ‘Scarlet Ribbon’ I brought home from the Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery in February. The latter one really hurt, but I hadn’t been certain it would make it this spot anyway.


Dead Leucospermum ‘Scarlet Ribbon’ (left) and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), now removed


Friday, October 2, 2015

Condominium complex water garden, Victoria, BC

Time’s a-flying. It’s hard to believe it’s been three months since our Pacific Northwest trip. I’ve already covered all the gardens I visited; you’ll find my posts listed in this handy overview. But there was one unexpected find I haven’t written about yet: the serendipitous discovery of a charming water garden at a condominium complex in Victoria, British Columbia.


The condo complex is called Harbourside and it’s located at 636 Montreal Street, near Fisherman’s Wharf. Some of the ground-floor units adjoin the “lake” that connects the two buildings. Rather than a blank expanse of water, it’s studded with a variety of aquatic plants. The design is so attractive, I spent a half hour taking pictures.