Sunday, June 17, 2018

Brian's East Bay front yard transformed into a colorful desert garden

I've seen quite a few front yard conversions in recent years, driven by the historic drought as much as turf replacement rebates from local water districts and the State of California. But few conversions have been as complete and as successful as what my friend Brian has achieved at this home in Concord.

Brian has gone from the quintessential suburban front yard—a rarely used expanse of front lawn and some shrubbery along the sidewalk and driveway—to a garden bursting with beauty and life: All the pollinators for whom the previous incarnation was a wasteland now have a smorgasbord that is as never-ending as the California sun. In addition, Brian's water consumption has dropped to a fraction of what it had been before. I don't think you could do much better than that.

Here's a before and after:

Now let's take a closer look.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Hot Color, Dry Garden

Dry garden: Many of us have that. Hot color: That's something everybody needs.

Garden writer, landscape designer and TV host Nan Sterman clearly thought so, too. Her new book Hot Color, Dry Garden (Timber Press 2018) puts an end, once and for all, to the misconception that water-wise gardens are a dull wasteland.

In fact, she busts three popular myths right out of the gate: that "low-water landscapes are brown, lifeless, and colorless," that "low-water gardens are scrubby and scrappy rather than lush and plant-filled," and that "low-water gardens are rocks and desert."

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Sizzle and pop: Southern California road trip curiosities

A busy spring has morphed into a busy summer. We just got back a from a quick 4-day road trip to Southern California to tour universities daughter #2 is interested in. Getting from Northern California to Southern California involves a goodly amount of driving on freeways which at this time of year range from merely busy to downright congested. In addition, traveling the length of the Central Valley from Sacramento to Bakersfield gets boring in no time. But every now and then you see random snippets of unassuming beauty that take your breath away:

Interstate 5, somewhere between nowhere and nowherer

Friday, June 8, 2018

Bittersweet symphony: flowering agaves

My love for agaves is no secret. They're eye candy, they have a don't-mess-with-me attitude, and no matter where you put them—in the ground or in a pot—they make a statement that cannot be denied.

Many agave species live for a long time, but when this happens, the end is near:

Agave utahensis var. nevadensis, April 7, 2018

Unlike perennials, which flower over and over again, virtually all agave species flower only once. They literally put all they've got into producing that one flower stalk. Even in a small agave like the Agave utahensis var. nevadensis above, the inflorescence is very tall in relation to the body of the agave.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Beauty can be a heavy burden—just ask this cactus

It's that time of year when the echinopsis in the front yard go into flower. We only have a few, but they're still quite a sight.

In the past, the flowers opened successively, prolonging the show (each flower lasts only a day, two at the most). This year, though, this Johnson's hybrid has six (!) flowers open at the same time:

It's a stunning spectacle!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, TX (#gbfling2018)

The first garden we visited on the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, TX was the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Established in 1982 as the National Wildflower Research Center under the auspices of actress Helen Hayes and Lady Bird Johnson it moved to its current 42-acre site in 1995 and was renamed Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1997. The Center acquired an additional 237 acres in 2002, enabling it to pursue "larger scale research on the ecology of the Central Texas region and how best to restore healthy landscapes in the region." In 2006, the non-profit organization became part of the University of Texas at Austin.

Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, was a committed environmentalist, working to preserve public lands for future generation and to "beautify" America. She was the driving force behind 200 environmental protection laws that were passed during her husband's administration. At the entrance to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which was opened on her 70th birthday in 1982, there's a quote by Lady Bird that perfectly summarizes her objectives:
My special cause, the one that alerts my interest and quickens the pace of my life, is to preserve the wildflowers and native plants that define the regions of our land—to encourage and promote their use in appropriate areas, and thus help pass on to generation in waiting the quiet jobs and satisfactions I have known since my childhood.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Desert Gardens of Steve Martino: a must-read for xeric gardeners

There was a time when I didn't know Steve Martino's name, but his signature aesthetic—vibrantly colored walls, sculptural desert plants, dramatic interplay of light and shadow—is something I've been familiar for as long as I can remember.

Previously, the only way you could see Steve Martino's work was in magazine articles. His website has great photos, but there are never enough for my taste. And with the majority of his projects being private residences, primarily in the Southwest, it's virtually impossible to visit them in person.

That's why I was so excited when a couple of years ago Steve Martino mentioned on his Facebook page that a book was in the works. That book is now here: Desert Gardens of Steve Martino, written by Caren Yglesias and photographed by Steve Gunther, published in April 2018 by Monacelli Press.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Mirador Garden: steel and succulents in Austin, TX (#gbfling2018)

I usually approach gardens that are completely new to me the same way I do thrillers or suspense movies: I try not to find out too much in advance so I can go into the experience without any preconceived ideas. I find that to be more enjoyable than seeing everything through somebody else's lens.

At the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas we were given brief descriptions of each garden. I skimmed through them the night before to get a general sense but didn't read them carefully until afterwards. I might have missed a few things mentioned in the blurbs but I was able to let each garden "speak" to me on its own terms.

However, in my posts about the gardens we visited in Austin, I'll give you as much information beforehand as I can. That should help you better understand what you see in the photos.

The Mirador Garden was designed by Curt Arnette of Sitio Design. We visited Curt's own garden after the Fling; I'll have a separate post in a few weeks.

In the homeowner's words, Mirador Garden "was designed around low-water plants, and it was inspired by my travels. The fig arbor was influenced by one I saw in New Zealand. The steel-panel retaining walls out front were inspired by the botanical gardens in Sydney, Australia." (She's referring to the Jamie Durie-designed succulent garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens.)

The Corten retaining walls was the first thing I saw as I got off the bus, and I knew this garden would be special:

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Revisiting Marta's garden: succulents, edible fruits and more

One of my favorite gardens here in Davis is less than 10 minutes from my house. It belongs to my friend Marta Matvienko, a plant geneticist whose personal interests include rare and unusual fruits (at least rare and unusual for our area). Marta documents her growing experiences and fruit tasting impressions here.

But fruit trees aren't the only thing Marta and her husband Alex grow. In fact, the first thing you see approaching their house are the flower spikes of two blooming octopus agaves (Agave vilmoriniana). They are yellow beacons visible from a block away. I have no doubt they're extremely popular with bees and possibly hummingbirds.

Agave vilmoriniana flower stalks

Monday, May 21, 2018

Redesigned Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery needs tweaking

I've probably bought more plants at the Ruth Bancroft Garden Nursery than anywhere else. In the old days, I couldn't wait for the spring and fall plant sales when tables full of exciting succulents and other plants were set up all over the garden.

In February 2015, the nursery expanded significantly, ushering in what I consider the golden age. Under the leadership of nursery manager Troy McGregor, the nursery began to offer a large variety of South African and Australian shrubs (including many proteaceas), more succulents than ever, and even water-wise trees. A consummate plantsman originally from Australia, Troy brought in plants that simply weren't available anywhere else in Northern California, always focusing on climate appropriateness and low-water use.

But nothing lasts forever. Troy left to open his own landscape design company, Gondwana Flora. The RBG broke ground to build a multi-million dollar Visitor and Education Center, and a new executive director, Carol Laughlin, took office.

While the site preparations for the new Visitor Center were under way, the nursery did business on the north side of the garden in the green metal-frame building called Ruth's Folly. Now, with the Visitor Center foundation complete, the nursery has moved back to its old spot on the south side of the garden near the main entrance. The official opening of the nursery was last Saturday, May 19. I attended the preview party on Friday, May 18 to get a sneak peek at the new space.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Photographic proof: the garden does just fine on its own

The past month has been very busy. I spent 4½ days in Austin, TX for the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling, but that hasn't been the only thing that has kept me from doing much in the garden. Work has been consuming a big chunk of my time, leaving only parts of the weekends for puttering around outside. As a result, I haven't been able to get nearly as much done as I had hoped earlier in the year. Unfortunately, that seems to have become the new normal for me—I'm sure many of you can relate.

One thing I have been doing even at the busiest times: taking photos to chronicle the goings-on in the garden. Flowers come and go—sometimes all too quickly—so a postpone-until-tomorrow approach usually means you miss out.

This post contains 70+ photos taken over the past month. Some of the flowers are nothing but a memory now, but at least I've captured them at their peak.

What these photos prove is this: No matter how much we like to think we're indispensable, our gardens do just fine without us.

Danebrog poppy (Papaver hybridum 'Danebrog') from Annie's Annuals

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Austin, TX gardens from M to Z

In part 1 of this alphabetical round-up of garden highlights from the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling I went from Agaves to Lush. This installment covers the rest: Mexico to Zilker Botanical Gardens.


Texas was part of Mexico until the Texas Revolution of 1836. The relationship between Texas and Mexico has always been turbulent, and in a February 2018 CBS 11/Dixie Strategies poll 57% of Texans supported Trump's border wall. But in spite of the current political animosity towards Mexico, Texas's neighbor to the south continues to be a major cultural influence: 31% of the total population of Texas is of Mexican descent and 30% of households speak Spanish at home (source). Mexican food—and Tex-Mex, a fusion between Mexican and American cuisine—are insanely popular, and even hard-core conservatives would change their tune if Trump slapped a tariff on the import of tequila.

Food writer Lucinda Hutson's garden, our first stop on Sunday, distills the essence of Mexico into a small urban space in central Austin. Walking through the backyard gate into her Jardín Encantador is like stepping into a courtyard garden in the heart of Mexico. It's Lucinda's love song to Mexico, and I can still hear it loud and clear.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Austin, TX gardens from A to L

As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent five days in Austin, Texas recently to join 90+ kindred spirits for the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling. We toured a dozen private gardens and several public gardens and visited a couple of nurseries. And on the day after the Fling, I had the opportunity to see even more gardens.

Instead of a traditional chronological overview of what we say, I'm giving you a potpourri of Austin vignettes from A to Z. This installment covers A to L, this one M to Z.


Austin and agaves go together like hands and gloves. With maybe one exception, we saw agaves in all the gardens we visited. The whale's tongue agave, Agave ovatifolia, seems to be particularly popular—no surprise there.

Agave ovatifolia at Mirador Garden

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

My Texas plant haul

I'm sorry for not posting anything last week, but I was in Austin, TX for the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling. This was the 10-year anniversary of this annual gathering of garden enthusiasts from the US, Canada and beyond. The first Fling was held in Austin in 2008, so returning to the capital of Texas after Chicago, Buffalo, Seattle, Asheville, San Francisco, Portland, Toronto, Minneapolis, and the DC Area made perfect sense.

I took close to 2,000 photos of the 15 gardens we toured, and I hope to start posting about them next week. In the meantime, let me know show you my plant haul. It came home with me in my suitcase:

Index: 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling, Austin, TX

Cowboy boot planter at
Lucinda Hutson's
colorful Mexican-inspired garden
From May 3 to 6, I attended the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling. This annual gathering of garden bloggers from North America and the UK (and occasionally from other countries) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year in the place where it all began: Austin, TX.

This index contains all my posts relating to #gbfling2018. I'll update the list as I add new posts about the gardens we visited.


  • TBD

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

RIP, rotting 'Frosty Blue'—welcome, 'Desert Love'

In early March I wrote about a mysterious case of rot that had affected three of my agaves: Agave ovatifolia 'Frosty Blue', Agave 'Snow Glow', and Agave parrasana.

Agave parrasana is healing. The rot has stopped, and there's every reason to believe this specimen will pull through.

Agave 'Snow Glow' succumbed within a week of my original post and is nothing but a memory now.

Agave ovatifolia 'Frosty Blue' was one of my favorites and I was determined to put up a fight. I sprayed it multiple times with a fungicide (Daconil), keeping my fingers crossed that would do the trick. However, 'Frosty Blue' simply couldn't be saved; the rot had progressed too far. To this day, I don't know what had caused this outbreak.

This is what the area looked like on April 20, 2018:

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Mark Delepine's Berkeley fusion garden

In April 2017,  as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days program, I visited a garden in Berkeley with a very intriguing name: Pseudonatural Freakshow. I took many photos and blogged about it here. The description of the garden is long but it provides valuable background information. Please scroll down beyond the jump break to read it.

Little did I know that I would become friends with the mastermind behind this garden oasis, Mark Delepine. Mark is very active in the California Horticultural Society, and I've met him on several occasions since my first visit.

Last Sunday Mark and his wife, renowned textile artist Lia Cook, had an open garden/open studio. I jumped on the opportunity to see their garden again.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Annual pilgrimage to Poot's Cactus Nursery (part 2)

In part 1 of this post about my visit to Poot's Cactus Nursery in Ripon, CA I showed you the plantings in the front of the nursery as well as the retail sales area. In part 2 we're going inside the greenhouse that is home to the Poots' personal collection of succulents. Some of the plants are also used as stock plants for propagation.

When you think of "personal collection" you may think of a few hundred plants. Not so here. While I have no idea how many individual plants there are—I'm not even sure the Poots know—there are many thousands, maybe more than 10,000. The greenhouse is absolutely packed with plants. At least half of them are cactus, the rest euphorbias, caudiciforms, and succulents like agaves, aloes and haworthias. There are some fairly common plants, too, but many are true collector's items.

Let's go poke around!

The cactus with reddish "hats" are Melocactus, often called Turk's hat cactus

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Annual pilgrimage to Poot's Cactus Nursery (part 1)

What does it take start a tradition? If visiting the same place at the same time two years in a row counts, then I have a new tradition: an annual pilgrimage to Poot's Cactus Nursery in Ripon. Many of you may have no clue where Ripon is (here's a map) but if you've ever taken Highway 120 East to Yosemite National Park, then you've driven right by Poot's. It's located in the middle of the fields between Manteca and Escalon. Just look for the signs:

The nursery was started by Bill and Roelyn Poot 30+ years ago. It's still a family business, with son Brian managing the daily operations and Bill and Roelyn playing a hands-on role in propagation and sales. We were fortunate get a private tour of the private greenhouse which is off-limits to the public. It houses the Poots' huge collection of succulents, many of which are used for propagation. I'll have photos of the greenhouse in part 2 of this post. 

Greenhouse in the back, demonstration garden in the front. The koi pond is in front of the all the cactus.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hail the size of...

Occasionally you read about hailstones large enough to do serious damage. If they can break glass, I shudder to think what they would do to plants?!

The hail we had the other day was nothing compared to the grapefruit-sized hailstones that fell on Nebraska in 2003, but it came down fast and furious for a few minutes and made a surprisingly loud racket. Here are the three short videos I recorded from the front porch:

Monday, April 16, 2018

When a neighbor gives you free reign of her front yard

In my last post I showed you landscape designer Troy McGregor's personal garden in Martinez, CA. With permission from a neighbor across the street, Troy has planted a variety of Australian shrubs in her front yard. What an opportunity, not only to give your neighbor something attractive to look at, but also to trial plants you wouldn't have room for on your own property!

Up against the house, the existing plantings—lemons, pelargoniums, and the like—remain. They look like they've been here for decades. In fact, they give the house a fairy-tale quality, as if some 1950s version of Sleeping Beauty lives here.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Troy's garden: what does a landscape designer do with his own space?

When we remodeled our house years ago, our contractor told us that his wife always complained about the half-finished projects in their own house—he just didn't have the energy to finish them after long days at work. In a similar vein, I recently read an article about famous chefs eating fast food on their days off because they didn't have it in them to whip up fancy meals when they didn't have to.

These thoughts were on my mind as I went to visit my friend Troy McGregor a few weeks ago to pick up some plants he had for me.

For years, Troy was the nursery manager at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. Under his guidance, what used to be a small corner with a limited selection of plants became a premier destination nursery for succulents, Australian and South African natives, and other drought-tolerant plants.

Troy has since moved on to run his own landscape design and installation company, Gondwana Flora. Since he spends his days creating beautiful outdoor spaces for his clients, would his own garden be a patchwork of unfinished ideas or, worse, just a tangle of weeds?

As it turns out, there was no need for me to wonder or worry. While there was a project in progress when I visited (a redo of a section of backyard), the rest was ready for primetime.

Troy and his wife Vicki live at the end of their street, and there's no question which house is theirs: The landscaping in front is a lush and visually complex tapestry of texture and color. And like every plants(wo)man worth their salt, Troy has a dog. Heck, he has a cat, too! That guy's got all the bases covered!

Nothing gets past Patterson. Plant thieves don't stand a chance!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Rain makes succulents shine

Rain is always welcome in our garden, especially this winter when it's been quite sporadic. What I dread are violent rainstorms with howling winds because they can wreak havoc on tender plants. However, the rain we had yesterday and into today was the opposite: soft and gentle. Just what plants and I like.

Another upside of the rain: It makes succulents glisten like precious jewels. Here are some photos from last evening and this morning:

Aloe vaombe

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Waterwise Botanicals: succulent heaven (part 2 of 2)

I hope part 1 of my post about Waterwise Botanicals in San Diego's North County didn't overwhelm you. If it did, buckle up because you're about to be overwhelmed some more.

As I mentioned earlier, Waterwise Botanicals is a 20-acre nursery that specializes in succulents but also carries other drought-tolerant plants. Their selection is huge, and their prices are reasonable. I'd rate it a must-see stop on any San Diego County nursery tour, especially for people from Northern California and other corners of the world where that kind of nursery simply doesn't exist. (If you're a collector who already has all the common stuff you may have to look a little harder, but you never know you'll find.)

Part 1 focused on the retail area near the entrance. Part 2 covers the rest of the operation, including the demonstration garden and the growing grounds. It's OK to be jealous of the climate and all the plants they can grow in San Diego; I certainly went home wishing I didn't have to worry about freezes ever again.

The demonstration plantings (what they call the Desert Garden on the nursery map) aren't large but there are some nice specimens to admire.

Tree aloe (Aloidendron barberae)

Monday, April 2, 2018

Waterwise Botanicals: succulent heaven (part 1 of 2)

The main reason for my recent trip to San Diego was to attend the 2018 Super Succulent Celebration, two days jam-packed with succulent-themed talks, workshops and buying opportunities. The event was hosted by Waterwise Botanicals, a much-loved nursery in Bonsall in northern San Diego County. Founded and still run by renowned plantsman Tom Jesch, Waterwise Botanicals is now part of Altman Plants, the largest succulent grower in the U.S.

I had never been to Waterwise Botanicals before, but I'd heard and read so much about it that I thought I knew what to expect. Wrong. My frame of reference are nurseries with two or maybe three acres of growing grounds and retail space. Waterwise has 20 acres! That's a lot of plants to look at! And even though Waterwise also sells perennials, including roses, most of their inventory is succulents. Hundreds and hundreds—if not thousands—of species in everything from 2-inch pots to 24-inch boxes.

I literally spent hours walking around the nursery grounds taking pictures. I tried to edit my photo loot as much as possible, but there are so many images I want to show you that I'm breaking this post down into two parts. This part focuses on the retail area near the entrance, including the Mini Succulents Shade House. The map below will give you a better idea of how the nursery is laid out.

Friday, March 30, 2018

My first drive-through nursery experience: Evergreen Nursery in El Cajon, CA

Last weekend I spent a whirlwind 48 hours in San Diego. My first stop on Friday morning was Evergreen Nursery, a wholesale grower open to the public. The company has three locations: San Diego proper, Oceanside, and El Cajon. The El Cajon location was holding an Aloe ortholopha for me, so that's where I was headed.

Evergreen Nursery is right off Interstate 8 northeast of town. Surrounded by hillsides, green at this time of year, the rural location is beautiful.

What makes Evergreen Nursery so special is that it's a drive-through nursery. That was definitely a first for me. This is how the company explains the "Evergreen System:"
Just follow the Evergreen 3 step system: 
1. Drive through or park and shop (you may load directly into your car)
2. Ask Questions
3. Pay at the Checkout Booth
Evergreen's pricing system is designed for your ease and convenience. Plants are priced by the container size. The plants are color coded (the color code is on the map). While driving, the customer can look at a field of one gallon shrubs and easily see the least expensive (yellow card) varieties and read the plant's description. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

48-hour San Diego succulent madness

I know I do crazy things now and then. Last weekend ranks right up there. I flew to San Diego from Sacramento early on Friday morning (flight time is only 1:20 hr), went to the Succulent Celebration at Waterwise Botanicals; toured one of the most beautiful private succulent gardens I've ever seen; explored Rancho Soledad Nursery, the source of many popular agaves like 'Blue Glow' and 'Blue Flame'; met up with some fellow succulent fanatics at the Succulent Cafe; and checked out Jeff Moore's nursery Solana Succulents. I arrived back home at midnight on Saturday. 48 hours of total succulent madness!

I took over 900 photos, so it'll take me a while to go through them all. Here are a few collages to give you an idea of what I saw.

My very first stop was at Evergreen Nursery in El Cajon, east of San Diego. They were holding a hard-to-find Aloe ortholopha for me. Evergreen Nursery is a wholesale-but-open-to-the-public nursery with three locations in the San Diego area. Their prices are extremely reasonable (my 5-gallon aloe was $24.50). But the most interesting thing about Evergreen: It's a drive-through nursery. You drive through the entire nursery (some 30 acres) in your own car, load up the plants you want, and on the way out you stop at a kiosk where they tally up your purchases. I'd never experienced anything like it before.

Evergreen Nursery, El Cajon, CA

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

2018 Super Succulent Celebration at Waterwise Botanicals in Bonsall, CA, March 23-24, 2018

Waterwise Botanicals, a 20-acre succulent nursery in northern San Diego County, is the place to be this Friday and Saturday, March 23 and 24, 2018.

Themed "A Walk on the Wild Side," Waterwise Botanicals' 2018 Super Succulent Celebration is a two-day event packed with presentations, demonstrations, and workshops for succulent lovers.

Photo © 2017 Waterwise Botanicals

The speakers include:
  • author Nan Sterman
  • author and nursery owner Jeff Moore of Solana Succulents
  • landscape designer Laura Eubanks
  • author Debra Lee Baldwin
  • author and former nursery owner Robin Stockwell
  • Waterwise Botanicals owner Tom Jesch
  • landscape designer Steve McDearmon
  • succulent hybridizer and tissue culture expert Kelly Griffin

Vendors include master potter Susan Aach whose creations complement succulents perfectly.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Mangave mystery box

A couple of weeks ago I proclaimed 2018 to be the year of the mangave. This was based on the ever increasing number of hybrids becoming available in nurseries, and the growing popularity of these harmless half-siblings of the spiky agave. If you haven't seen the variety of leaf textures and colors offered by the latest crop of mangaves, check out my earlier post. I'm sure you'll find a few that you like even if you're not fond of agaves.

A week after my mangave post, UPS delivered two mystery boxes to our doorstep. Guess what was inside?

Box 1:

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Unique Succulents DOT com illegally reproduces content from Succulents and More

WARNING: Unique Succulents DOT com is mirroring the content of Succulents and More without my permission. 

Stolen content from Succulents and More

The above is a screenshot of their homepage. All the posts you see there (images and text) are owned by Gerhard Bock, the author of Succulents and More.

Succulent and More has initiated legal action against the entity owning Unique Succulents DOT com for copyright infringement.

All content on Succulents and More is protected by US and international copyright laws and may not be reproduced in any form without prior express consent by the copyright owner, Gerhard Bock.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bromeliads with blooms and barbs, and other oddities in my garden

Cacti, agaves, yuccas and their kinfolk may have been around the longest in our garden, but they're not the only spiky residents. More recently, they've been joined by members of a different family: bromeliads. These aren't succulents, but they're just as alluring.

While some bromeliads have armaments as fierce as those of cacti or agaves, others are very user-friendly—especially tillandsias, the much-beloved air plants that have conquered by the world by storm in recent years. My first tillandsia experience about 10 years ago didn't have a happy ending, but I learned a valuable lesson: air plants can't live off air alone; they do need water. My current crop of tillandsias, acquired in January, lives outside in metal wall planters, and I mist them once a week (or rather, I try to). Whatever I'm doing must agree with them, because to my shock and surprise, one of them is actually flowering!

Tillandsia ionantha

This may not be a big deal to people who have more experience with tillandsias than I do, but I still think it's a minor miracle.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Peacock Horticultural Nursery: still one of my favorite places to buy plants, spiky and otherwise

On Saturday I had the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite nurseries: Peacock Horticultural Nursery in Sebastopol, Sonoma County. If traffic is smooth, it's a 90-minute drive from Davis—unfortunately, not close enough to go as often as I'd like. But as you can see in this image-heavy post, it's such a special place that I've vowed to return soon.

Peacock Horticultural Nursery is owned by Robert Peacock (hence the name) and Marty Waldron. It's the kind of nursery that has become rare in this age of big box stores and garden centers: a place run by true plant lovers—plant nerds, you might say—where plants are front and center. And I'm not talking about the few dozen mainstream plants you find at Lowe's, Home Depot and OSH. What PHN carries is the antithesis of that. Or, as I like to say, the antidote. The 80+ photos below are ample proof of that.

PHN is not a sterile business in a commercial strip. Instead, it's literally Robert's and Marty's front and backyard (they live in the house right by the entrance). It just happens to be full of plants you can buy. The fact that many of them are unusual or rare makes the experience even sweeter. If you like exploring and finding plants you never even knew existed, this is the place for you!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A spiky surprise in the country

I live in Davis, about 15 miles west of Sacramento, the capital of California. Our town of 65,000 is surrounded by a flood plain to the east and agricultural land everywhere else. As soon you leave the city limits, you're in the country.

This fact became very clear when I visited Three Palms Nursery. Located about 7 miles west of downtown Davis, the nursery is located all by its lonesome in the middle of fields. A peaceful and bucolic spot indeed.

But the topic of this post isn't Three Palms Nursery although I'm planning a return trip later in the month. Rather, I want to you show you what I found on the way home.

Just before you enter Davis proper, there's an empty lot at the intersection of two county roads. Except it's not exactly empty. True, there's no house on it, but somebody has been using it as their desert garden. It's conceivable that some of the Agave americana and prickly pears appeared on their own—they do naturalize around here. But the other assorted cacti were definitely added by a human.

Let's take a look!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Rotting agaves don't hurt so good

When John Mellencamp wrote his song "Hurts So Good," he definitely wasn't thinking of two of his favorite agaves rotting away. That, my friends, does not hurt so good. In fact, it hurts quite bad.

Both agaves are next to each other in the same bed along the driveway. And a third one in the same bed is showing signs of rot, too.

Let's take a look. Be sure to grab a Kleenex.

Agave #1 is a beautiful specimen of Agave ovatifolia 'Frosty Blue'. It's nowhere near its adult size yet, but it has such a great presence.

Look closer.

It's impossible to miss.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

2018: the year of the mangave

Agaves are great the way they are. But do you know what's even cooler? The love children from a hanky-panky between an agave and a manfreda!

Manfredas are succulents with soft, floppy leaves, often with pronounced purple spots. I'm sure you've seen the cultivar with wavy-edged leaves called 'Chocolate Chip' (here). Some species in the genus Manfreda are quite hardy, especially especially Manfreda virginica and Manfreda maculosa, both native to the U.S.

Now imagine combining the best qualities of both genera, manfredas and agaves. The result is bound to be special. As you look at the photos in this post, I'm sure you will agree.

From what I was able to gather, the first recorded cross between a manfreda and agave was from seed legendary plantsman Carl Schoenfeld (the last owner of the now defunct Yucca Do Nursery in Texas) collected in Mexico. The seed came from a Manfreda variegata but the seedlings clearly showed agave traits, most likely from Agave mitis blooming nearby. Yucca Do dubbed this new intergeneric hybrid "mangave" and introduced it in 2004 under the name 'Macho Mocha'. The rest is history, as they say. ×Mangave 'Macho Mocha' has conquered the world—or at least those parts of the world where it's hardy.

×Mangave 'Macho Mocha'

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Our aloes are finally flowering—and how!

All things come to those who wait, they say. It certainly took a while this year for the flowers on our aloes to open. I'm convinced the inconsistent weather—cool, unseaonably warm, cool, rainy, cold—got the plants all confused. But finally, after almost two months of impatient waiting on my part, the aloes planted in the strip along the street are at their peak.

Aloe excelsa (first two photos) is flowering for the first time, and our three Aloe 'Moonglow' (orange-yellow flowers) have never had so many inflorescences. Exciting times indeed!

Let's take a look!

Aloe excelsa blooming for the first time

Monday, February 26, 2018

Cactus and aloe sightings at UC Davis (rare euphorbia, too)

On Saturday I had friends from the East Bay visiting. After a docent-led walk through the Acacia Grove in the UC Davis Arboretum, I took them to see the aloe plantings outside the Botanical Conservatory. Through a stroke of luck we ran into Ernesto Sandoval, manager and curator of the Botanical Conservatory. Ernesto is one of the most enthusiastic and generous plant people you'll ever meet, and he not only gave us a tour of the collections but also walked around with us outside to talk about the aloe plantings and the nearby Cycad Garden.

Unfortunately, my camera battery died along the way so I didn't take as many photos as I normally would. But here are some good ones for all you succulent die-hards.

Astrophytum myriostigma in the Botanical Conservatory collection

Saturday, February 24, 2018

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum in late winter: Australian Garden

In part 1 of this post I showed you the South African Garden at the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum. Many shrubs from the Proteacea family were in bloom when I visited a couple of weeks ago, including cone bushes (Leucadendron), pin cushions (Leucospermum) and Cape heaths (Erica).

The Australian Garden was even more stunning, as you will see below. I tried hard to edit myself, but this post is still image-heavy. So grab a cuppa and settle in for the duration.

We'll get to the Australian members of the Proteacea family (Grevillea, Banksia and the like) shortly, but the first plant I actually photographed in the Australian Garden was this Eucalyptus caesia, commonly know as silver princess.

Eucalyptus caesia

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum in late winter: South African Garden

The University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum is arguably the best place in Northern California to see plants from the southern hemisphere (especially South Africa and Australia) in all their glory. The mild coastal climate is virtually frost-free in the winter and rarely gets above 80°F in the summer. These are ideal growing conditions. Heck, I'm not a plant, and I want to live there!

My recent trip to Santa Cruz was successful in every respect. I drove down in an empty car and came back with a trunk full of plants. But more on that in part 2. My partner in crime on this trip was my friend Brian who volunteers at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. He's as plant-obsessed as I am and shares my fondness for Proteacea. Brian doesn't take as many photos as I do, but he was very patient with me. (I do move at a snail's pace when I'm in plant viewing mode.)

Late winter is a particularly good time to visit the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum because many members of the Proteacea family are in bloom. The photos in this post are from the South African Garden; you'll see highlights from the Australian Garden in part 2.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book review: The Colorful Dry Garden by Maureen Gilmer

For those of us gardening in the western U.S., water—or rather the lack of it—is always on our minds. The 2011-2017 drought in California was a wake-up call for many. Even though Governor Jerry Brown declared the drought to be over in April 2017, the minimal rainfall this winter is a painful reminder that drought may be the new normal. Cape Town, South Africa running out of water raises the specter of something similar happening here. While that's not likely (yet), we should still do our best to be as water-conscious as possible.

Homeowners wanting to making their landscaping more drought-tolerant often feel like they're trading in a vibrant garden for a sparse and monotonous expanse of brown. Worse yet, some simply give up altogether and cover what used to be their yard with bark or gravel. I see depressing examples of that right here in our town.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In her latest book, Palms Springs-based landscape designer Maureen Gilmer shows that there are far better alternatives. The Colorful Dry Garden: Over 100 Flowers and Vibrant Plants for Drought, Desert & Dry Times (Sasquatch Books 2018) aims to make "your garden alive with flowers and color, with birds and butterflies, so that it changes with the seasons and yet asks for few resources."

Friday, February 16, 2018

Succulents and steel: a perfect match

A few weeks ago I posted the photo on the left below as a teaser of things to come. Now it's time for the reveal. There's nothing quite like finishing a project and actually liking the result!

While I was pleased with the way the Dymondia margaretae had filled this 16-inch wide strip, I felt like I was letting an opportunity go to waste. Being the plant hoarder collector that I am, I'm always looking to free up more space for even more plants. This strip was a perfect takeover target.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Three Palms Nursery: a horticultural treasure in my own backyard

Whenever I visit a city where independent nurseries still thrive, I can't help but wish for a more active gardening and nursery community where I live. While it's unlikely that the greater Sacramento area will ever rival Portland or Seattle in that respect, we do have a few small nurseries that quietly do their thing on the edge of the mainstream.

One of them, Three Palms Nursery, is right here in Davis. Well, not in Davis per se, but just a few miles outside of town in the middle of the fields. To get there, drive west on Russell Blvd until you reach the intersection with County Road 95. You can't miss the nursery.

Yucca rostrata outside the nursery

Friday, February 9, 2018

Aloes and friends blooming in our garden

After two weeks of warm spring weather—highs in 60s and low 70s, today 75°F—we have quite a few blooms in the front yard. Aloes that have been in a holding pattern since December, as well as some of our South African bulbs, are finally in flower. I can't get enough of this boost of color and energy. I try not to get too exuberant for fear nature might punish my hubris with an unexpected cold snap, but I think we're out of the woods as far as winter goes.

I know I should hold these photos until the 15th, the official Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, but I'm so excited, I just can't wait!

Narcissus among the agaves

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

I discovered a great nursery—and it's a Home Depot!

I don't do a lot of plant shopping at big-box garden centers although occasionally they're good for a surprise. More often than not, though, their selection is less than exciting, and sometimes their plants are not exactly healthy (see this recent post).

Last weekend I discovered that it doesn't have to be that way. For years I've been hearing rumors of the Home Depot in San Rafael, CA having a fantastic nursery. More than that, some Bay Area gardeners talk about it in almost reverent terms. In an old post from 2010, landscape designer Michelle Derviss raved:
I thank my lucky stars every time I shop at my local San Rafael Marin County CA Home Depot nursery. The nursery is on par with some of the best nurseries in United States. The guy who runs it, Charlie Rossi, is a seasoned horticultural veteran of the nursery industry. Your eyes would be blown out of their sockets if you walked into ‘his nursery’. Simply amazing. 
More praised can be found in the comments to this blog post on Garden Rant.

Plants outside the store

Why is this Home Depot garden center so good when so many others plain suck? Easy: It has a dedicated nursery manager who prides himself on sourcing the best plants.

Last weekend I finally had the opportunity (or, rather, created the opportunity) to visit this fabled place. Did it live up to the hype?

Read on to find out.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Ruth Bancroft Garden: aloe there!

While the Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG) in Walnut Creek, CA is a great place to visit at any time of year, it's particularly beautiful right now. The photo below shows you why: Many of the aloes are in bloom.

The RBG has an extensive collections of aloes, both species and hybrids. Brian Kemble, the garden's long-time curator, is a world-renowned aloe expert and has been creating hybrids for decades, many of which are planted out at the RBG.

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to get into the RBG at 7:30 am as part of an open photography session. My earlier post highlights the breadth of succulents on display at the RBG. This post is all about aloes. It's not meant to be comprehensive; it simply showcases the aloes that caught my eye. If you live in Northern California, why not make plans for a visit and experience the aloe bloom for yourself?

Flowering aloe panorama

Friday, February 2, 2018

Oh Home Depot...

I don't want to get into the habit of ragging on the big-box garden centers all the time because I do buy plants there every now and then (especially from the clearance rack at Lowe's). But I get so mad when I see this:

These are otherwise fine cow-horn agaves (Agave bovicornuta) spotted at the Woodland, CA Home Depot this morning. 

I'm not quite sure what caused this damage although my money is on agave mites. But that's neither here nor there. These plants should simply not be offered for sale. 

What makes me even more angry is that the fix is so easy: Just pull the infected plants! 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ruth Bancroft Garden: everything but the kitchen sink

Last Saturday the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek opened early for a 7:30 am sunrise photography session. This was not a traditional workshop; instead, participants were able to do their own thing and turn to instructor John Ricca for assistance as needed.

I loved being able to roam free for 2½ hours before the garden opened to the public. Even though there were a dozen photographers in attendance, there was very little talking. Instead, everybody was focused on taking pictures and enjoying the peace and quiet.

As I was walking through the garden, Ruth Bancroft was very much on my mind. She passed away in November at the age of 109, but she left behind a marvelous gift for us and future generations. The fact that she didn't start her succulent garden until she was in her 60s should be an inspiration for us all: You're never too old to create something new!

Yucca rostrata (right) at sunrise

This post includes photos of just about everything in the garden exception for aloes. Many aloes were in flower and putting on a fantastic show so I'm going to dedicate an entire post to them (coming soon).

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Heavy-duty plant-shopping → trunk full of plants

On Saturday, I made the 50-minute drive to Walnut Creek to attend two morning events at the Ruth Bancroft Garden. The first was a 7:30 am sunrise photography session followed by a 10:00 am class on proteaceae (shrubs like grevilleas, banksias, leucospermums, leucadendrons, etc.) where, among other things, I got to demonstrate how to plant a groundcover banskia and I learned that I wasn't adding enough sulphur to our alkaline soil to make it more acidic. (And that coffee grounds as a mulch are good because they attract earthworms.)

I'll have a separate post with my best images from the sunrise photography session. Today I want to show you my plant haul. I still can't believe I came home with as many new plants as I did. Serendipity or insanity? Something it's a fine line!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

South Coast Botanic Garden: new life on top of a landfill

You've never heard of the South Coast Botanic Garden? I don't think it would have been on my radar either if it hadn't been for the occasional post by Kris Peterson on her blog Late to the Garden Party. In an area full of A-listers like the Huntington and the Los Angeles County Arboretum, the South Coast Botanic Garden (SCBG) is probably only on the B- or C-list. But that's OK. Not everybody strives to be a superstar. Life is more relaxed, and there are far fewer paparazzi to deal with.

The SCBG is just 5 miles from Kris's house, and I gladly accepted her offer to show me around. The sun was already low in the sky when we arrived, and we were rushing through the various areas to see as much as we could before we ran out of light. I definitely want to go back in the late spring or early summer when more flowering plants are in bloom.

One area that looks good year-round is the Desert Garden. Spiky plants don't need flowers to impress. More photos from the Desert Garden in a little bit.

Desert Garden

The history of the South Coast Botanic Garden is quite remarkable.