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


I also dug up the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) next to the leucospermum because it was beginning to smother everything around it—and it was sending out runners that popped up three feet away from the mother clump.

In their stead I planted the 5-gallon Agave weberi ‘Arizona Star’ I’d gotten from the Ruth Bancroft Garden earlier in the year. I had originally earmarked it as the centerpiece for the front lawn conversion to happen later this year but I’m going to use Agave vilmoriniana ‘Stained Glass’ for that.

Agave weberi ‘Arizona Star’ is a big agave, up to 6 ft. across. Although in the photos below it looks like it’s right next to the fence, it’s actually a good three feet away. That should give it just enough room to spread its wings.




Right now, the area where I planted ‘Arizona Star’ looks very unfinished, like so many spots around the garden. The plan is to cover the bare dirt with Dymondia margaretae. But that has to wait until the real fall rains are here.

I also need some vertical interest against the fence. Something airy and see-through, like the Verbena bonariensis already growing in many spots outside the fence. I’m thinking rice flower (Ozothamnus diosmifolius). I already have one behind the Agave ‘Joe Hoak’ in the strip between our house and our neighbor’s. It’s very well behaved and doesn’t need (or get) much water.



Here’s another view of this corner. Unfortunately, progress isn’t as fast as I would like because succulents are such slow growers.


Just regular maintenance but it has to be done: many plants are encroaching on the sidewalk. I’m surprised we haven’t received a complaint from the city yet.


As much as I like Texas rangers as a group, this Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Compactum’ isn’t getting the overhead sun it needs because of the Bradford pear tree behind it (in the backyard, actually). As a result, it’s growing outward, smothering the plants in front of it. I’ll prune it hard in an attempt to confine it to the back half of the bed. That will be its last chance so it’d better fall in line.


Lifting up the front half of the Texas ranger, I uncovered three aloes. The one in the middle, Aloe broomii, is actually a decent size. It’s been growing in virtual darkness for months! I’ll have to be careful to protect those aloes from the sun so they don’t burn.


The projects above are minor compared to the front lawn removal and conversion. Time has gotten away from me, and I’m beginning to feel a sense of urgency. The plan was to hire somebody to take out the lawn but everybody is jumping on the lawn removal wagon and finding folks to do the work is getting challenging. I may have to do it myself. Heaven forbid!


Ironically, the lawn is looking fairly decent in spots even though it’s only getting watered once a week.


But the space could be used much more creatively so it will go. I outlined my tentative plans in this post.



Against all expectations, the Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’) next to the front porch is thriving on its once-a-week irrigation diet. It needs some serious thinning though.


The sago palm (Cycas revoluta) next to it is not getting enough sun. But overall, I do like the lush look.


The spot formerly occupied by the Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ that flowered and died is still empty. After having toyed with the idea of planting another large agave here, I’m now leaning towards smaller succulents and more rocks to avoid crowding. I need to think on it a little more before I get started.


Moving to the backyard, the first project I want to tackle is removing this ratty bamboo (Indocalamus tessellatus). It has not taken kindly to the restricted watering it’s been subjected to. The other bamboo in this stock tank, Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’, is doing well, so it’ll have the stock tank to itself. May it run and proper!


In the next photo, the bamboo (Borinda fungosa) is perfectly fine, but the Australian sword fern (Nephrolepis obliterata) in the pot next to the granite lantern is dead. Another victim of our watering restrictions. What would do well here in the dry shade?


Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’ is thriving. I wish all plants were that easy. But the Dymondia margaretae I planted around it is taking its sweet time to grow (I don’t think it’s getting enough sun) so there’s a lot of bare dirt. I’m thinking I need to cover it with some rocks until the dymondia fills in. Probably something innocuous, like small gravel.


Not thriving: Agacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’ in a large bowl next to the family room slider. I had high hopes, dreaming of a lush cascade of finely dissected green. Instead, we got this. I’ve heard from several people that ‘Cousin Itt’ is very temperamental and unpredictable. I think it’s time for it to move out. Not sure what to plant here yet. My first choice would be an agave, but it wouldn’t be the most user-friendly plant in such a high-traffic area. Any suggestions?


Another project: potting up these bulbils from the Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ formerly growing next to the front door. They’ve rooted much faster than I thought. I gave some to a friend recently and took six to a raffle at the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society last week. But there are still more than 80 left. I need to separate them and move them to individual pots soon before their roots get too entangled.


The biggest project in the backyard is the same as in the front yard: removing the lawn. Except this lawn is pretty much dead already. The plan is to replace it with Dymondia margaratea. It will give us an expanse of green and it will take (light) foot traffic. I will space the plugs fairly tightly so it won’t take forever for the individual plants to mat together.


I’m sure I’d find more projects to add to the list if I tried but that is plenty to start with. I’m already feeling overwhelmed.


  1. What about asparagus on that circular pot where the acacia is?

    I like the way you've dotted and used variegated agaves all over. The theme repeats and forms a cohesion. Plus they do make fantastic focal points!

    1. Asparagus, that's a brilliant idea. I'll get a couple of Asparagus densiflorus 'Myersii'.

      I'm so happy you picked up on the variegated agave theme. Since I can't bring myself to plant multiples of the same agave, I'm trying to create repetition through the use of similar (but different) species/cultivars. The same goes for companion plants, including salvias and other perennials. Eventually, I'll get there.

  2. I was going to suggest at hardy Aloe for that pot, but I like Marks suggestion better. So are you going to open up a roadside stand for the Agaves ? Lemonade and Agaves !

    1. The kids can make the lemonade, I'll provide the agaves!

      I'm thinking of having a plant sale in the spring. If I can get $1 or 2 for each agave pup, I'll have a nice amount for the spring plant sale season!

  3. Your yard and your plants are SO cool. Thanks so much for letting us follow these projects! I was thinking of Orostachys iwarenge (Chinese Dunce Cap) for the bowl -- I found one (to my surprise) at a nursery in Big Bear Lake last summer and it's making dunce caps like mad at the moment, yay! -- but I like the Asparagus densiflorus 'Myersii' idea more. Wonderful post!

    1. Thank you, Luisa! I'm always happy to share the pleasures and pains of gardening :-).

      I've wanted to have dunce caps for a long time but have never seen them locally. It sounds like they're OK with our summer heat? Sempervivums hate it.

  4. If you tackle the lawn removal yourself, approach it as a multi-week job unless you rent a turf cutter or if it's weakly rooted. I've had patches of lawn that pulled up quite easily.

    1. That's my fear. After a long and scorching summer, the soil is dry and compacted.

  5. I envy your gully washer! All we got was spit (0.04 inches of rain in total) and temperatures are set to soar here again this week. Re the lawn removal, I hired a qualified gardener and his helper to take our the 2 remaining sections in my garden but, even after discussing my disappointment with the job done by the prior crew and receiving promises that he'd dig down several inches, I got the same result this time around. The areas are still full of grassroots (already leafing out) and piles of sod netting. So my husband and I are back to digging and sifting, which is a slow process. It did make a difference with the front yard last year, though, so I'm committed to going through the process shovelful by shovelful. I think it's probably useful to rent a sod-cutter or find someone who uses a sod-cutter for lawn removal - none of the local guys I spoke to here do.

    1. Thank you for your valuable tips. We're meeting early next week with the landscaper who did the original front yard. He's a good guy, but super busy and probably not able to work on our project until January. So be it.

      When we meet with him, I'll make it clear that we need ALL of the grass gone, including the roots. Fortunately, neither the front lawn nor the back lawn are very large so the actual work shouldn't take long for a crew or 2 or 3. Then it's just a matter of bringing in soil for the succulent mound and DG for the path around it.

  6. I've got a small amount of dymondia growing amongst succulents and agaves in the front garden, and it doesn't like their irrigation schedule -- to be truthful, there isn't an irrigation schedule. I just hit the agaves with a hose to wash debris off once in a while. We had some rain early this week too, and the dymondia is filling out again, so it does hang on but doesn't make a lush carpet without some irrigation. You probably know this already! That's so great that some of your bamboos are OK with restricted water. You've got a great backdrop already in place for the new lawnless areas.


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