Saturday, December 31, 2016

Arizona 2016: Day 5: Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden, Cavalliere Park, Pinnacle Peak, and Taliesin West

Last night it rained on and off, and this morning I woke up to leaden skies. Quite a change from the past few days! Fortunately, by the time I was done with breakfast and had checked out, the sun made an effort to break through. It only succeeded for minutes at a time, but I didn't let the weather deter me. The fact that it wasn't exactly cold (high fifties initially, later warming to the high sixties) made things easier.

My first stop was the Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden. I first became aware of it in this blog post by Austin garden writer Pam Penick. She visited this demonstration garden in April when the palo verde trees and many shrubs and perennials were in bloom. Not so at the end of December, but the backbone of the garden--the hardscape, the desert trees (palo verde and mesquite) and the cactus and succulents--provide visual interest year round. Designed by Christine Ten Eyck, the Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden is cleverly built around the City of Scottsdale's water treatment plant. Unless you read the signs, you'd never know what the massive gabion-adorned structure is. Speaking of gabions, this is the motherlode: gabion walls, gabion pillars, even triangular gabion retaining fins. Add to that a liberal dose of Corten steel and gigantic shade sails, and you have a contemporary garden that is a wonder to behold. Here's just a teaser of what I will show in a dedicated post in a few weeks:

Scottsdale Xeriscape Garden

Friday, December 30, 2016

Arizona 2016: Day 4: Krutch Cactus Garden and Civano (Tucson); ASU Polytechnic Campus (Mesa)

Today I was once again reminded of how fast time flies when you’re having fun. It seemed like I just got to Tucson, and yet it was already time to head back to Phoenix. But before I left town, I checked out the Krutch Cactus Garden on the campus of the University of Arizona. It was originally started in 1891 and moved and expanded in 1929. Based on this description, it must have been a lovely spot. Between the 1950s and 1970s much of the original garden was removed and/or replaced with turf (the horror), and the small patch left today is but a shade of the garden’s former glory. I’m glad I finally took the time to check it out, but it’s not a must-see.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Arizona 2016: Day 3: Agave-hunting in the Waterman Mountains and visiting Greg Starr’s nursery

I had the most amazing day today hiking and exploring in the Waterman Mountains with friend and agave expert Greg Starr, and Ron Parker, the mastermind behind Agaveville and a seasoned agave hunter with a lot of field experience. It was long day full of unforgettable sights of cactus, agaves, and breathtaking scenery. I took enough photos for two or three longer posts, to be served up later in January.

Our first stop was a patch of desert near Saguaro National Park. Across the road was a gas station, and all around were the kinds of rural properties that are typical for this part of Arizona—modest houses or mobile homes on an acre or two. This empty lot is one of the few localities in Arizona for Mammillaria thornberi. I found this small, cluster-forming cactus remarkably hard to spot at first because it tends to grow under bushes. After a while, though, even I could spot it. Maybe my desert eyes are finally coming in. Even more remarkable to me were the many fishhook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) growing here. They’re particularly beautiful right now, adorned with this year’s fruit.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Arizona 2016: Day 2: Tucson Botanical Garden, DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

I had a busy day today trying to make the most of the daylight hours. My first stop was the Tucson Botanical Garden. It turned out it’s less than 10 minutes from the Lodge on the Desert, where I’m staying. The parking lot was almost empty when I arrived at 8:45 a.m. but by the time I left at 11:45 a.m. it was completely full. I was happy to see that the people of Tucson (and visitors) are supporting this fantastic resource. There have been many changes since my last visit in 2013, including a major installation titled “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life.” I’ll have more details (and photos) in a dedicated post or two. For now, some teasers:

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Arizona 2016: Day 1: Desert Botanical Garden and more

It’s the end of December, and I’m back in Arizona. This is my fourth December trip to Arizona in a row (2013 | 2014 | 2015) so I suppose it’s OK to call it a tradition now. This time I flew because I could only carve out five days. Instead of buying what I want and tossing it in the car, like on the previous two trips, anything I buy has to fit in my suitcase. We’ll see how that goes.

I arrived in Phoenix last evening—late because a gas cap was missing on our plane and a mechanic had to check it out before leaving Sacramento. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but when I got to the Hertz counter at Phoenix Sky Harbor (“The Friendliest Airport in America”) to pick up my rental car, it turned out that they had run out of cars. And yes, they blamed it on Christmas, as if Christmas had somehow snuck up on them. At least a dozen disgruntled customers were in the same boat. In essence, we had to wait until cars were dropped off and could be cleaned. In my case it took “only” 30 minutes (some people apparently had to wait longer), but I’m still pissed at Hertz. Instead of apologizing to us, the sentiment among the Hertz employees was that we should be more sympathetic to their situation. Not cool. I’m done with Hertz and will rent elsewhere from now on.

One a much more positive note, my visit to the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) this morning was fantastic. Just like it always is. It truly is one of my favorite plant places to visit. And since I don’t come here that often, it never gets old. I do recognize individual plants now (“hey, old friend”) but they’re constantly improving and refining. Unlike so many other botanical gardens, the DBG appears to be well funded, which warms my heart.

I took fewer pictures at the DBG than in recent years—a conscious attempt not to photograph the same things over and over—but I still ended up with over 200 new images. I’ll have several dedicated posts in January and February. To whet your appetite, here are a few collages:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

No need to dream of a White Christmas, we've got one!

No need to dream of a White Christmas this year. We have one! 

Originally, we had planned to drive to my mother-in-law's house in Mount Shasta, in the mountains of far northern California, on Friday afternoon. However, because of a winter storm that make freeway driving iffy, especially for cars without snow tires, we decided to delay our departure until Saturday morning. It ended up being a good decision because we were able to experience winter wonderland in all its glory once we got to Castella, about 15 miles south of Mount Shasta.

This photo of Castle Crags epitomizes what I mean: 

Castle Crags

Friday, December 23, 2016

Happy Holidays from Succulents and More!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, or whatever else you might be celebrating at this special time of year!

Relax with friends and family, and forget about the turmoil in the real world for a little while.


This year I fell hard for holiday light laser projectors. After I saw our neighbor’s, I had to have my own. So instead of agaves decorated with glass balls, I give you bamboo with pulsating twinkles.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

After the freeze

On Saturday, Sunday and Monday night our temperatures dropped below the dreaded 32°F mark. Readers in chillier climes, go ahead and mock us all you want. It doesn’t change the fact that freezing temperatures are anxiety-inducing for gardeners in zone 9 and above—especially if you’re like me and stretch the hardiness envelope a bit.

On Saturday we covered most of our sensitive plants. On Sunday, we also draped frost cloth and old sheets over many of the aloes with emerging flowers because those flowers are more prone to frost damage that the plant itself. With several aloe species blooming for the first time ever, I didn’t want to risk losing the flowers.

This is what the neighborhood looked like on Monday morning:



Saturday, December 17, 2016

Freeze ahead—time to dig out the frost blankets

The inevitable is about to happen. Temperatures will drop down to freezing or even below tonight and again on Sunday and Monday. Although the weather folks can’t seem to agree on how cold it will actually get. This is what Accuweather says:



Thursday, December 15, 2016

The storm door is wide open

Whatever you think of the weather people on local TV (I get my weather online, so that tells you something right there), they're often quite entertaining. One phrase I vividly remember from years past, long before the current drought, was "the storm door is wide open." This would invariably be accompanied by a weatherman or -woman in photogenic rain gear frantically holding on to an umbrella about to fly away.

Well, that good old storm door has finally swung open after a very long absence. It's blustery outside this afternoon, with temps in mid 50s, and the rain is coming down in buckets. This is an old-fashioned Pineapple Express storm, the kind we used to have quite frequently in decades past. Yes, I sound like an old geezer, but my teenage daughters have a hard time remembering wet winters--the kind California is supposed to have.

It's too early in the season to know whether this will finally end the long drought we've been living with, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

Instead of photos, I decided to post several short video clips I took on my cellphone. The quality isn't the greatest, but at least you get an idea of what a wonderful experience this rain is to us parched Californians.

Succulent bed next to the front door

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Aloes in our front yard getting ready to bloom

It’s that time of year when the days are short and the heat of summer nothing but a hazy memory. Some people love winter, others would rather skip it (me!), but many of the aloes in our front yard are in a festive mood. I must admit, as much as I dislike this season, I do love the annual flower show put on by our aloes.

We still have a few weeks to go before things really get bloomy, but anticipation is half the fun. On that note, let’s take a look at what’s developing.


This smaller Aloe capitata var. quartziticola next to the garage is getting ready to bloom for the first time


This Aloe cryptopoda starts blooming earlier than the rest. The flower stalk is almost six feet tall now.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Before and after: what a crew of professionals can do in 5 hours

Today the tree service came and removed two bamboos and an Artistocrat pear tree. Now I can continue with the overhaul of one of the side yards in the backyard and finally do some planting outside the backyard fence along the street. The planting window is still open, so time to get going. Just as soon as the rain lets up (yes, we’re finally having some decent rain).

But let’s back up a little.

The bamboo you see closest to the fence in the photo below is Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’. It’s reasonably attractive and grows very well in our area, even with water restrictions in place. The problem is that there are three bamboos in this spot, and things are getting crowded. After much back and forth, we decided the ‘Alphonse Karr’ had to go.

This is what it looked like a couple of days ago:


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Garden visit: succulents—and rare fruit trees

I’m happy to report that I have a new gardening friend. Her name is Marta, and she lives not even ten minutes away. Marta contacted me after reading my post about ×Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’. Last week, I went over to her house to bring her one of the ‘Macho Mocha’ pups. I expected to see succulents, and I wasn’t disappointed. But there was so much more to discover.

Marta began to transform the front and back yard right after she and her husband bought their house in 2001. They got rid of the lawn long before it was fashionable and instead planted palm trees and succulents. Over the years, Marta added more and more aloes (she loves the flowers in the winter) as well as fruit trees. If you’re like me, you think, hmmm, fruit trees take up quite a bit of space. How many can you possibly plant in a small suburban lot? Way more than you think. Read on to find out.


Marta’s property is on a corner, just like ours, so she has a long planting strip along the side of the house. This is where she has planted a number of agaves, including Agave vilmoriniana and Agave americana ‘Marginata’. The Agave vilmoriniana currently in the ground are actually the offspring of the original plant, which flowered (and died) years ago. I wasn’t able to take good photos of the planting strip along the side of the house, but I will try again the next time I visit Marta.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sunday stroll through UC Davis Arboretum (part 3)

Time to wrap up last Sunday’s stroll through the UC Davis Arboretum before it’s Sunday again. The Australian Collection at the downtown end of the Arboretum is the section most people see when they visit, and it happens to be my favorite. Something is in bloom there whenever you go, even in the dead of winter.

Someday I’ll do a post on the gum (eucalyptus) trees growing on either side of Putah Creek, but today let’s focus on flowering shrubs.

The regular crimson bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) is a common sight all over in Davis and Sacramento. It grows easily in our hot-summer climate and is tough as nails. Much rarer—and much nicer, in my opinion—is weeping bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis). Check out this old specimen at the Arboretum:


Weeping bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis), with my friend Ursula for scale

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sunday stroll through UC Davis Arboretum (part 2)

Let’s continue our stroll through the UC Davis Arboretum, which began here.

Unlike other botanical gardens affiliated with a university, the UC Davis Arboretum is not in a separate location but fully integrated into the main campus. In fact, it starts right at the edge of downtown so it gets used both by students and the public at large. As I mentioned before, the Arboretum is open 24/7; there are no gates or fences to keep people out. In our small university town, it’s a treasured institution.


Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’

One of the most popular spots on campus right now has got to be this lawn area on the edge of Lake Spafford. The two ‘Autumn Gold’ ginkgo trees are in their full fall glory.