Thursday, December 26, 2019

From the mountains to the desert

Christmas Day at my mother-in-law's place in Mount Shasta, about an hour south of the Oregon border. The mighty mountain the town is named after has been playing peek-a-boo:

Mount Shasta (14,179 ft, 4,322 m)

Mount Shasta (14,179 ft, 4,322 m)

When Mount Shasta is hidden in the clouds, motorists passing through on Interstate 5 often mistake Black Butte for Mount Shasta:

Black Butte (6,334 ft, 1,931 m)

However, at 6,334 ft, Black Butte is less than half the height of 14,179 ft Mount Shasta. Rising up right next to the freeway, it's still an imposing sight.

Black Butte (6,334 ft, 1,931 m)

The town of Mount Shasta is in a picturesque alpine setting. However, less than 10 miles to the north, the geography changes dramatically as the conifer forest gives way to the high desert, which stretches east into Nevada and beyond.


 As much as I like the mountains, the desert is where my heart is. This desert, any desert.

“I succumbed to the desert as soon as I saw it,” wrote Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, best known for The Little Prince. He was referring to the Sahara, but still.

Typical high desert scene east of Weed, CA

Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

It's been a long time since I've done any exploring in the far eastern corner of California—an area that is as vast as it is remote. One of these years... 

In the meantime, I'll get my desert fix somewhere else entirely—over 1,000 miles further south in the Sonoran Desert. On Boxing Day, I'm heading to Tucson, Arizona for my the annual post-Christmas solo road trip. From the Oregon border to the Mexican border, one might say!

Map data ©2019 Google, INEGI


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Eyeball-worthy nuggets from around the web—2019 holiday edition

2019 has been a very busy year workwise. Long hours chained to my desk have meant little time for staying current on my favorite blogs, let alone scratching anything but the merest surface of the bottomless sea of information available online.

Fortunately, work slows down between Christmas and New Year's, allowing me to catch up on my reading. And since I love sharing, here are some particularly fascinating tidbits I've come across.


Greenovia dodrantalis
© rare_succulent on Instagram
Unusual succulents are one of the 5 hot houseplant trends for 2020

According to Yahoo Lifestyle, “unusual succulents” are #2 of the “5 Houseplant Trends That Will Be Hot in 2020.” As examples, they give “jumping dolphins” and “rose buds.” If you're like me and have no idea what these made-up names refer to, “jumping dolphins” are Senecio peregrinus and “rose buds” are Greenovia dodrantalis.

Greenovias, or mountain roses, are aeonium relatives from the Canary Islands. Looking at some photos online, I can see how they would appeal to plant lovers who like their succulents soft and unarmed. House Beautiful even had an article about the mountain rose in June: “Because it’s a succulent, you can keep it indoors with very little fuss.” (No comment on that.) If you want your own greenovia, Etsy sells plenty of them.

“Jumping dolphins” (Senecio peregrinus), also sold as “string of dolphins,” are companions to “string of pearls” (Senecio rowleyanus), “string of beads” (Senecio herreianus), and “string of bananas” (Senecio radicans). In habitat, these closely related succulents from South Africa creep along the ground and form dense mats. In captivity, they look great cascading from a pot. If you want your own string of dolphins, Mountain Crest Gardens sells them.


Senecio peregrinus
© Mountain Crest Gardens
Available for order
10 plant trends to watch out for in 2020
Succulents also fare prominently in another list of 2020 plant trends, this one published on the Nursery Management website. “People are discovering the immense variety that is the world of succulents,” an expert from the University of Florida is quoted as saying. “Their interesting shapes and growth habits seem to offer a form of living art.”

To us, this may not seem surprising, let alone newsworthy, but bear in the mind that what nurseries carry is largely driven by consumer demand. If consumer tastes in succulents become more sophisticated, we're going to see more unusual or uncommon varieties in mainstream retail channels (possibly including greenovias!). That benefits all of us.

Even more intriguing is trend #4, “re-wilding.” This means taking “steps to have less control in the landscape. This can include encouraging beneficial insects, reducing herbicide and pesticide use, pruning less and planting more native plants.”

I'm totally on board with having less control. Not only does it involve less work, it also allows us to experience unexpected discoveries and surprises. I realize that giving up a certain amount of control can cause anxiety, but leave yourself open to the possibility that the rewards just may outweigh your discomfort.


© Intelligent Living
Planting trees in square holes makes them grow stronger and faster
That's what a December 21, 2019 article on the web site Intelligent Living claims. Apparently, when planting a tree in a round hole, it will develop a circular root system, much like it would in a container. Ultimately, this creates a “girdle that chokes the plant.”

In contrast, your tree has a much better chance of thriving in a square hole because when the roots meet up with a 90° angle, they spread beyond the planting hole and penetrate the surrounding soil. These are the findings from systematic planting trials.

Whether true or not, it doesn't take much more effort, if any, to dig a square hole so that's what I'll do from now on.


© Florida Fruit Geek
Cold-hardy avocados
I'm not sure how many of you lose sleep anguishing over whether to plant an avocado tree in a borderline inhospitable climate, but here is a handy guide to cold-hardy varieties. Surprisingly, some of them can handle temperatures as low as 15°F!

According to this excellent article by Florida Fruit Geek (Craig Hepworth), there are three subspecies of avocados—Guatemalan, West Indies, and Mexican. Only the first two are grown commercially, but they're frost-sensitive.

The frost-tolerant varieties are from the Mexican subspecies. They aren't grown commercially to any great extent because their skin is so thin that transportation would be difficult and hence costly (apparently you can mash them up skin and all). Because of their high oil content, they have a rich flavor that apparently puts the commercial varieties to shame.

Most Mexican varieties can handle cold snaps to 18°F, some even 15°F with little damage.

In addition, there are hybrids between the Mexican and Guatemalan or West Indies subspecies. They have less cold tolerance but thicker skin, making it easier to transport and store them without damage.

I once bought an avocado tree (I can't remember which variety) and it survived in its #5 nursery pot for several years. I never did get around to planting it, mainly because our backyard is small and I didn't want to dedicate precious real estate to a tree that is really quite ugly. However, if I ever were in the market for an avocado tree again, I'd try a Mexican variety for their flavor.


© Tom Cowey, as seen on Bored Panda
Crown shyness, or why trees don't like to touch
I was stunned when I first saw a picture of this phenomenon. To appreciate this marvel of nature in all its glory, look at these photos on Bored Panda.

Why are these trees taking great pains to avoid touching their neighbors? Nobody knows for sure but there are several hypotheses for what botanists call “crown shyness,” “canopy shyness,” or “intercrown spacing.”

Some experts postulate it's to protect against mechanical damage that would be caused by rubbing against neighboring trees; others think it's to prevent the spread of insects from tree to tree. To me, the hypothesis that makes most sense is that trees are trying to maximize the amount of light that reaches the leaves on lower branches. Maybe it's a combination of things.

Crown shyness is seen in a variety of trees, ranging from tropical and subtropical species to some European oaks and pines. This drone footage from Mexico is a jaw-dropping illustration this phenomenon:

Forest Therapy - Do Nothing for 2 mins... from Dimitar Karanikolov on Vimeo.


© Guillermo Rivera
Plant expeditions
I just received the latest newsletter from Guillermo Rivera Plant Expeditions. As always, it's full of drool-worthy destinations: Baja California, Namibia, Ecuador, South Africa/Namaqualand, Argentina, Chile.

Guille Rivera has been leading plant-focused trips to the Americas and Africa for decades. Several friends of mine have traveled with him, and they loved every minute. I've never been able to go on one of these trips, but it's wonderful to dream, especially when it's cold outside.

On that note: Happy Holidays to you and yours!


Monday, December 16, 2019

Favorite succulent photos of 2019

This year, I've published 106 posts containing some 2,600 photos. That number surprised even me! Granted, many of them are utilitarian—merely meant to illustrate something that happened or something I was working on. But more than half of them are actually nice, especially the ones from trips or garden visits. It's a shame their shelf life is so limited and the odds that they're viewed more than once are close to zero.

With that in mind, I've picked 60+ of my favorite succulent-themed images that appeared in 2019 posts, essentially giving them a second chance to be seen.

I've sequenced the images so there's a logical flow, either based on subject matter or location, or on color or texture. I hope you'll enjoy looking at them as much as I did taking them.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) east of Yucca, AZ

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Succulent hunting in the Arizona desert

Only two weeks to go to Christmas. That means two weeks and a day until I set out on my 7th annual post-Christmas trip south. Like 6 out of these 7 times, it will be to Arizona. What can I say? I love the desert, especially the Sonoran, and I need my yearly fix!

Looking back at my previous excursions, I realized that I never blogged about a December 2016 outing to the Waterman Mountains with agave guru Greg Starr, author of Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers, and desert rat Ron Parker, author of Chasing Centuries: The Search for Ancient Agave Cultivars Across the Desert Southwest. It was one of the most memorable experiences I ever had in the Sonoran Desert, and the photos I took are too good not to share.


Located about 25 miles northwest of Tucson, the Waterman Mountains are part of Ironwood Forest National Monument. This is a remote area inhabited by few, if any, souls. The roads we took after getting off Interstate 10 got progressively narrower and bumpier. That was before we entered territory that can only be described as hair-raising. Ron, to his credit, handled the many potholes and sharp rocks with great skill (and speed). Eventually the “road” got too bad to continue so we parked the car and set off on foot.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mountain Crest Gardens succulent mail order experience đź‘Ť

The wonderful thing about mail order is that it doesn't matter where you are. This is true not only for the buyer but also for the seller. Case in point: Mountain Crest Gardens, one of the bigger players in the online succulent business, is located in the small town of Fort Jones in a remote corner of northwestern California. Real estate is much cheaper there than in urban areas, allowing them to offer their plants at very competitive prices.

Coincidentally, Fort Jones is less than an hour's drive from my mother-in-law's house, and this summer she and I checked out Mountain Crest Gardens in person. Click here to read my post about our visit.

On online rating sites like Trustpilot, Shopper Approved, and Yelp, Mountain Crest Gardens has overwhelmingly positive reviews. Plant friends of mine who've ordered from them have been very pleased, not only with the quality of the plants but also with the packaging. If you think that latter is a trivial matter, you must not have ordered a lot of plants online. While some sellers have mastered the art of packaging plants securely for their arduous journey (Plant Delights and Annie's Annuals come to mind), others think sticking plants and a few wads of newspaper in a box is enough.

I hadn't really planned on ordering anything from Mountain Crest, knowing I'd visit them again in the spring, but when I saw their Black Friday deal—20% off and free shipping on orders over $49—I decided to bite. Better to give my money to a small family-owned business like Mountain Crest Gardens than ordering yet something else from Amazon.

Mountain Crest Gardens processed and shipped my plants in record time. The box arrived less than a week after I'd placed my order.

The first thing I do when I receive plants in the mail: I shake the box. In this case, there was no movement. Very good sign. This is what the inside looked like after I removed the top layer of packing peanuts (the biodegradable kind that dissolves in water):


The box itself can be recycled (duh, it's cardboard), and the materials inside—peanuts and shredded brown paper—can be composted. High marks for that.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Front garden on Black Friday 2019

This is a continuation of my previous post, which was about the renovated bed next to the front door. The photos were taken on Black Friday, the last sunny day before a series of rainstorms that will stretch into the 2nd half of next week. I love the light at this time of year—warm and gentle because of the lower angle of the sun.

The front garden is full of plants that positively glow when lit from the back or the side. This sight, from the walkway that connects the driveway with the front door, makes me feel good about what is otherwise an eclectic hodgepodge of plants:


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Front door succulent bed makeover update (Black Friday 2019)

Black Friday was cool but beautifully sunny. Knowing we're heading into a longer stretch of rain (much needed!), I took advantage of the nice weather to take some photos of the front garden.

We renovated the succulent bed by the front door in late October, and I've been adding some final touches since my original post.

 Peek at the area inside the street-side fence:


The newly overhauled bed is on the left, immediately behind the trio of ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata):


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Holiday book tip: Spiny Succulents by Jeff Moore

Jeff Moore is the owner of Solana Succulents, a brick-and-mortar specialty nursery in the northern San Diego County town of Solana Beach. Jeff's been in business for 27 years and has sold just about every succulent you can imagine. Through the contacts and friendships he's made over the years, he's had access to even the rarest plants. And because he's an avid photographer, he's taken countless pictures.

In 2014, Jeff self-published his first book, Under the Spell of Succulents, an introduction to the huge diversity of succulents found in cultivation. It distilled Jeff's succulent knowledge and his photographic skills into 250 pages and 800 photographs. Sparing no expense in production, Jeff set a new standard for what a self-published book can be.


Not one to rest on his laurels, Jeff released Aloes & Agaves in Cultivation (344 pages, 1000+ photos) in 2016 and Soft Succulents (300 pages, 1000+images) in 2017. Jeff had total control not only over the content but also over the printing, and it shows. These are heavy books, printed on state-of-the-art equipment, and the images are as good as it gets. In my opinion, all three of them are the visually most spectacular succulent books ever published.

Now, just in time for the holidays, comes Jeff's fourth book, Spiny Succulents. It's the logical continuation of the series and focuses on the opposite of “soft succulents:” euphorbias, cacti, terrestrial bromeliads and all kinds of other well-armed dryland plants. Since there is much territory cover, this is the biggest of Jeff's books: 350 pages and 1800+ images (a few by yours truly).

Let's take a look.


Monday, November 25, 2019

Visiting Lotusland — 3

Thanksgiving is just a few days away, and this year I'm thankful that I got to spend time in Lotusland without being tied to a guided tour. Generally, that's the only way to see the gardens unless you have a membership. At the 2019 Bromeliad Summit, we were fortunate to have free roam before and after the day's activities and during breaks.

Here are the other installments of this 3-part series: part 1part 2.

Part 3 starts in the Water Garden, originally the swimming pool of the estate’s second owners. It was built in 1925; the pool house was designed by George Washington Smith, a leading proponent of the Spanish Colonial Revival style that gives much of Santa Barbara its distinctive look. Ganna Walska transformed the swimming pool into a pond and stocked it with Asian lotus, the inspiration for the name “Lotusland.”

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Visiting Lotusland — 2

This is part 2 of my 3-part post about visiting Ganna Walska Lotusland earlier this year. Part 1 left off in dragon tree grove across the front courtyard. Part 2 continues our journey in the oak grove next to the guest house where Ganna Walska chose to live (she used the main house mostly for storage). 

Here, sheltered by the canopy of decades-old oaks, bromeliads like aechmeas and alcantareas thrive on the ground while epiphytes like Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) are suspended from tree branches. Just beyond, the hundreds upon hundreds of columnar cactus that flank the approach to the main house glisten in the sun as if they were made of pure silver.


The sight was so arresting that I found it hard to tear myself away. I wasn't the only one. Even though there are no people in these photos, a group of at least a dozen 2019 Bromeliad Summit participants were standing near me, transfixed by this spectacle.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Visiting Lotusland — 1

Lotusland is one of the top garden attractions in California. Located in a quiet residential area in the upscale community of Montecito just east of Santa Barbara, it's only open from mid-February to mid-November and advance reservations are required (as per city regulations, only a limited number of visitors are allowed per day).

I was lucky to have the opportunity to roam free during the 2019 Bromeliad Summit. I made the most of the time I had available and took hundreds of photos—enough for three posts. This is part 1 of 3.

High drama near the main house

The history of Ganna Walska Lotusland, as it's officially called, is as quirky as the 20 different sections that make up this 37-acre estate. The property was purchased in 1941 by former opera diva and socialite Madame Ganna Walska for $40,000. She originally named it Tibetland with the intention of creating a retreat for Tibetan priests. The priests never came—they were unable to travel to the U.S. because of World War II—and Ganna Walska’s marriage to her 6th husband soon fell apart. Turning her back on men for good, she decided to invest all her energy and her considerable fortune—the spoils of several highly lucrative divorces—into creating a botanical wonderland unlike anything that had ever been seen before.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Death-defying suspension bridge over a raging waterfall

On the last day of our Remembrance Day Vancouver Island road trip we visited Elk Falls Provincial Park near Campbell River on the east coast of the island. Elk Falls itself is beautiful although at 75 ft. not particularly tall.

The real attraction is the metal suspension bridge completed in 2015. I admit, “death-defying” is a bit of an exaggeration—it's not quite Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—but I look at any suspension bridge with a healthy dose of skepticism. I have a mild fear of heights, and being suspended on a swaying contraption over a gaping maw that looks like instant death does make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up a bit.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Fairytale forests on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is big: 290 miles long and 62 miles wide at its widest point. In terms of surface area, it's the largest island in the Pacific east of New Zealand—about the size of Maryland or, if European comparisons make more sense, the size of Belgium. The vast majority of its 775,000 people live in the population centers along the coast, half of them in the Victoria Metropolitan Area at the southern tip of the island.

While Vancouver Island has one of the mildest climates in Canada and the south and east coast are comparatively dry, the west coast receives enormous amounts of precipitation. In fact, North America's wettest place is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island (Henderson Lake with 261 inches a year).

Large stretches of the island used to be temperate rainforest. However, according to Sierra Club estimates, only 1/5 of the original old-growth rainforest still exists; the rest has been logged or otherwise destroyed. Much of the remaining temperate rainforest is in undeveloped areas with no public roads, but we were able to get a glimpse in several easily accessible places.

The first was in Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park right on Highway 4 near Port Alberni. Cathedral Grove is a remnant of the ancient Douglas fir ecosystem. The largest trees are about 800 years old. If you want to read more, this is a good article.

Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park: this has got to be the most scenic outhouse on Vancouver Island

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Playing tourist on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island

We're visiting daughter #1 in Victoria, British Columbia and are spending Remembrance Day weekend on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This remote and sparsely populated area is as beautiful as it is low key—perfect to unwind.

We're staying in Ucluelet (population 1717) on the edge of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This wild and undeveloped park is perfect for hiking, sea kayaking and surfing for those so inclined. We're far less motivated in that department; we're happy to let the day take us where it wants and simply enjoy the sights. Every now and then there's nothing better than going with the flow instead of making plans.

This is the view (literally) from our hotel room in Ucluelet:


Saturday, November 9, 2019

Fall color, finally—but I had to travel to British Columbia to find it

In the Sacramento Valley, daytime temperatures are still well into the 70s. There's a sense of fall in the air, but fall itself seems determined to keep us waiting. And rain? Let's not even talk about rain, or the lack thereof.

850 miles north of Davis, things are quite different. Stepping off the plane in Victoria, British Columbia where we're visiting daughter #1, was confirmation: Here they really are smack in the middle of fall. Temperatures are in the low 50's, not in the high 70's, it rained last night, and there is fall color!


Apparently we missed the fall color peak by a couple of weeks, but I wouldn't have known that walking through Finnerty Gardens, the botanical garden on the campus of the University of Victoria. It was like being inside a coffee table photography book: one beautiful sight after another. You cannot help but feel good about the world in an environment like that. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

California Cactus Center in Pasadena

On a recent trip to Southern California, I finally managed to visit California Cactus Center in Pasadena. It's one name that always comes up when you ask locals about succulent nurseries in the Southland. I've heard more than one comment about prices being on the high side, but even critical voices agree that they have a beautiful selection of well-staged plants.


California Cactus Center was established in 1976 by Thai immigrants Zhalermwudh and Maleenee Thongthiraj and is still owned by the family. The nursery is on a relatively small 12,000 sq. ft. lot next to a busy street, but it's packed with plants. Parking is tight (just a couple of spaces) so you may need to leave your car elsewhere and walk a few hundred yards.

Let's take a look around.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Front door succulent bed makeover

Gardens are anything but static. Plants grow, and grow—and then grow some more. Sometimes they end up outgrowing their spot, requiring us to make choices whether we like it or not. Here's a case in point, the bed near our front door:


I wasn't exactly unhappy with how things looked, but the Agave schidigera in the front had flowered and was dying; the Yucca recurvifolia 'Margaritaville' in the back had bloomed for the first time and was likely going to sprout multiple heads, meaning it would get even bigger; and the Agave cupreata in the lower left was just a bit too ungainly for where it was. Beyond the Agave cupreata was a hybrid Hesperaloe (Hesperaloe parviflora × campanulata) from the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden; it had flowered only once in 9 years, taking up valuable real estate without giving us much payback.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Marilyn and Peder's David Feix-designed garden on the San Francisco Peninsula

I joined the Bromeliad Society of San Francisco (BSSF) this summer, and the first garden I visited with them was that of Bay Area landscape designer David Feix. He's a big fan of bromeliads, succulents and tropical-looking plants, and his Berkeley garden reflects that.

As luck would have it, my second outing with the BSSF had a David Feix connection as well. The San Francisco Peninsula garden of BSSF members Marilyn and Peder was designed by David, and he's still very much involved in its maintenance.

According to David, the property is about ¾ acre (~30,000 square feet). The garden was started in 2015 immediately after Marilyn and Peder bought their new home. The only things remaining from the previous garden are the pool and the pool house as well as a few mature windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) and giant birds of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai).

Originally, the garden was surrounded on two sides by a 30-foot Leyland cypress hedge. Not only did the cypresses make the space feel confined, they were also a major fire hazard, being so close to the house. The conifers were removed two years after Marilyn and Peder bought the property, and the resulting gaps were filled in with new shrubs and perennials.

Marilyn has been a member of both the Bromeliad Society of San Francisco and the San Francisco Succulent and Cactus Society for many years. She had a massive collection in their previous place, and many of the hardier plants made the move. In fact, the greenhouse, which you will see later, was the first project to be completed on the new property.

Front garden

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

2019 ×Mangave roundup

In a March 2018 post, I proclaimed 2018 to be the “Year of the Mangave.” Sure, it was a rather self-important thing to do, but it did reflect the rapidly growing popularity of the love child between two closely related succulent genera: Agave and Manfreda.

My original post gives a comprehensive overview of the nothogenus ×Mangave. I won't repeat all the details here, but in a nutshell, mangaves have evolved from naturally occurring hybrids (such as 'Macho Mocha' and 'Rio Verde') to man-made novelties (the ever popular 'Bloodspot') to commercially viable ornamentals (the successful “Mad About Mangave” introductions by Walters Gardens).

×Mangave 'Mayan Queen' in our front yard

This evolution—“revolution” might actually be a better word—was largely driven by the pioneering hybridization work of Hans Hansen, Director of New Plant Development at Walters Gardens. If it hadn't been for Hans's neverending curiosity, innovativeness and perseverance, we might never have moved beyond 'Bloodspot'. Thank you, Hans, for propelling us into a new age of ornamental abundance! (Hans, I might add, is not just Mr. Mangave; he has filed dozens of plant patents in genera as diverse as Anemone, Baptisia, Buddleia, Hosta, Kniphofia, Phlox, Sedum, and many more.)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Tropicalesque splendor on the mountain

Even though I'm an inveterate researcher, much of that happens after the fact. When I visit a garden for the first time, I prefer to know as little as possible in advance. In that sense, gardens are like movies I haven't seen yet: The plot basics outlined in the broadest of strokes is all I want—just enough of a hook to reel me in.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of visiting a mature private garden in the Russian River Valley. The arrangements were made by a friend of mine; I merely tagged along in blissful ignorance. All I knew was that the garden was several decades old, and its owner, Diana, was a retired garden designer.

As it turns out, Diana wasn't “just” a garden designer but also a photographer and a keen observer of nature, perfectly in tune with life in her corner of the world. She graciously led us through her hillside garden, which looked much bigger than its actual size of 1/3 acre, and she talked about all the changes the area has seen in the 40 years she's lived there. I had the luxury of listening to Diana's conversation with my two travel partners while letting myself drift away from them just enough to experience the garden on my own. That's a pleasure I don't always have, but I had it that day.

Diana was only too happy to answer all our questions—about the area, about the plants, about the ornaments and pieces of art—and I could include much of that information here. But I've decided not to in favor of simply letting the photos speak for themselves.

Look at this post as a coffee-table book with very little text—just some basic captions. You'll be able to enjoy what Diana has created without having to know the how's and why's.

If you could create a garden inside a tree house, the result may very much be like Diana's garden

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Coming soon: sneak peek at what's cooking

Lately it seems I've been working on a number of different projects at the same time without getting much of anything done. In reality, though, it simply takes longer to reach the finish line when you're multitasking. To make myself feel better, here's a quick peek at what I've been up to.

Ongoing work in the backyard:

The backyard has been a construction site for years now. It does present a lot more challenges than the front yard, mostly because there is so much shade. But not just any shade—dry shade. I've read scores of books and articles on dry shade but I haven't hit upon the magic solution yet.

Through trial and error, though, I've found out that many succulents do quite well in fairly shady conditions. Even more surprisingly, that also goes for shrubby plants like manzanitas, especially the groundcover types native to the coast. They like to be protected from the hot afternoon sun and enjoy a drink now and then.

Here are some areas in the backyard that are getting closer to completion:


Thursday, October 10, 2019

New plants for our garden—always room for more!

Fall is the ideal planting time in our neck of the woods, they say ("they" including nurseries eager to, well, sell plants). While an argument could be made that for some types of plants, including succulents, spring is actually better, I'm not in an arguing mood today. Instead I want to show you all the wonderful things you can find at this time of year when botanical gardens, native plant societies and other organizations debut their new offerings. More temptation comes courtesy of commercial nurseries who routinely offer nice discounts, either on select groups of plants or even on their entire stock.

This is not the time to be disciplined so don't even bother. After all, who refuses a piece of cake on their own birthday! Buy what catches you eye and don't be afraid to take a chance on something that may not be perfectly ideal for your climate—nice surprises happen more often than you think!

But there's another source for new plants: friends and fellow plant geeks! Of course their generosity isn't limited to autumn, but there seems to be a shared desire to rehome plants before winter comes.

In this post I want to show you some of my recent plant hauls. Lest you ask, no, I don't know where all of them will go, but I home some ideas. Read on to find out.

Aloes from John and Justin, including rarities like Aloe ikiorum, Aloe lukeana, and Aloe vanbalenii × mawii as well as Aloe africana from Annie's Annuals and Aloe claviflora from Trader Joe's. There's also a ×Mangave 'Bloodspot' pup from Justin (and a nice-sized Agave applanata not shown in the photo).

On Saturday, I visited two friends in the Bay Area, John in Richmond and Justin in Pinole. Like me, they love aloes, in addition to being the nicest people. Above are the goodies they sent home with me, ranging from seedling they grew themselves to unexpected finds at places like Trader Joe's and Annie's Annuals. The seedlings are still small and will live in pots for at least another year, but the Aloe africana is ready to go in the ground now.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Small but splendid succulent garden at Orange Coast College (Old World section)

This post looks at the Old World section in the small but oh-so-fine succulent garden at Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa, California. If you haven't seen the New World section yet (on the left in the photo below), click here.

The Old World section takes up about half of the succulent garden. Just like its New World counterpart, it combines a representative selection of plants (all grown to perfection) with hardscape elements like boulders and a dry creek bed. The overall effect is beautiful and cohesive. Botanical gardens have both more plants and a wider variety—obviously!—but few have vignettes this attractive.

Old World section in the succulent garden at Orange Coast College

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Small but splendid succulent garden at Orange Coast College (New World section)

Quite a while ago, somebody told me about the succulent garden at a community college in Orange County. I couldn't remember who I'd gotten the tip from or what the name of the college was, but I decided to do some research when I was in Orange County a couple of weeks ago. A simple Google search led me to Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa. As luck would have it, our hotel was less than 5 miles away, and it took me just 10 minutes to get there.

From a brief article on the OCC web site, I knew that the succulent garden was behind the chemistry building which, in turn, is right next to the main parking lot. In other words, it didn't take me long to find what I'd come to see:


According to the article, the succulent garden began as a project in horticulture instructor Joe Stead's class “Cactus, Succulents, and their Use in Landscaping.” The hardscape and plants were installed in January 2012. Currently the small garden contains 60 species from 35 succulent genera from both the Old and the New World. Plant biology classes use the garden as a living laboratory to study parallel evolution.

Often a display garden at a public institution is a fairly modest affair—a sparse selection of common varieties necessitated, as much as anything, by a shoestring budget. That's what I expected to find at OCC as well. Fortunately, the reality is a lot more exciting. This is Orange County, after all.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Mark R's amazing succulent and bromeliad garden (back)

In part 1 of this post I showed you Mark R's front garden in Oakland: a colorful abundance of succulents and bromeliads in all their glory. The back garden is a seamless continuation, with a few other surprises thrown in—even some tomatoes, as you can see in this photo:


The back garden is not a large space, but it comfortably held our group from the San Francisco Bromeliad Society (not everybody made it into these photos).


Whenever I'm with a group of like-minded people, I'm torn between wanting to talk shop and looking at the plants. In this case, we were on a schedule so I opted to focus on the plants. I hope I didn't come off as boorish.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Mark R's amazing succulent and bromeliad garden (front)

Earlier this summer I visited several remarkable gardens in Berkeley and Oakland with the San Francisco Bromeliad Society. The first was landscape designer David Feix's tropical jungle. The second was Mark R's succulent and bromeliad garden. I took so many photos that I decided to spread them out over two posts. This one focuses on the front garden.

Mark's front garden

I hadn't met Mark before and didn't get a chance to talk to him during this visit either because he was busy answering a nonstop stream of questions from the 30+ SF Bromeliad Society members. For this reason, I don't know anything about the development of his garden. However, based on the plant selection alone, it felt like Mark was a long-lost brother from another mother.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Superb succulent plantings at Plant Depot Nursery

Last month I wrote about Plant Depot Nursery in San Juan Capistrano at the southern edge of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. This weekend I'm back in the Southland helping daughter #2 move into her dorm at UC Irvine. I had some free time on Saturday morning so I drove back down to Plant Depot. As luck would have it, San Juan Capistrano was still shrouded in mist—perfect light for photography. Before I went into the nursery proper, I took a closer look at the street-side plantings. They seem nice from the car, but it's hard to see a lot of detail when you're supposed to pay attention to the road. I'm happy to report that up close, they're not just nice, they're fantastic! I was pleasantly surprised by the large variety of succulents and the way they're combined. What a great way to showcase water-wise plants, and what a great advertisement for the nursery!

As I was taking pictures, a man walking his golden lab came up to me and expressed surprise that I was so interested in the plants. I explained that we simply don't have nurseries like these in the Sacramento area. After I mentioned how much I enjoyed the plants and that I thought it was a great way to get people to stop at the nursery, he introduced himself as Brent Kittle, the owner of Plant Depot! Brent couldn't remember ever hearing customers say anything about the plantings so he assumed nobody paid any attention to them. I found that astounding—and sad. 

A lot of effort (and money) goes into creating attractive plant showcases, and I wish customers were more vocal about their appreciation. I, for one, am determined to give positive feedback whenever I can. Nurseries value a kind word just as much as we do as gardeners.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Garden sparkles after unexpected rain

Our summers are long, warm/hot, and  dry—emphasis on the latter. We have a textbook Mediterranean climate so we typically don't get any rain between May and October. According to the UC Davis Weather & Climate site, the last time it had rained was on May 27 (a whopping 0.07").

Imagine my surprise and excitement when yesterday we not only woke up to cloudy skies but soon smelled petrichor—that incomparable scent of rain on dry asphalt and parched soil. No, it didn't last long or amounted to much (0.06"), but it was an unexpected gift and therefore precious.

I was thrilled for myself, but equally so for our plants. Beyond a much needed drink, they also needed a good washing off after months of dust. As the “rain” was letting up, I went outside and took pictures to document this unexpected boon.

×Mangave ‘Purple People Eater’

Friday, September 13, 2019

David Feix's tropical jungle in Berkeley

Berkeley is only 60 miles from Davis, but it might as well be a different planet. In the summer, people in Davis wear as little as they can get away with because it's 100°F outside; in Berkeley, they don wool sweaters and wrap scarves around their necks because it's a chilly 65°F. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. A mid-summer daytrip to San Francisco Bay is always a welcome escape, especially when plants are involved. Even better: an organized event that makes the trip legit.

In late July, I had the opportunity to visit several Berkeley-area gardens as part of the San Francisco Bromeliad Society's East Bay Garden Tour. The first stop was the garden of well-known landscape designer David Feix. David started his professional career as a landscape architect but soon switched to landscape design because his primary interest was creating plant-focused gardens instead of projects that prioritize the hardscape. A plant geek to the core, he has been a major influencer in the Bay Area landscape design and gardening community, introducing plants from all over the world in his gardens.

I've been following David for years on social media channels, but I'd never actually met him in person. That's why I was excited to finally see his own personal space. Knowing that David's garden designs center on bromeliads, succulents, subtropicals and Mediterranean-climate plants, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. However, I was still surprised by the sheet density of plants both in his front and back garden—and the almost shocking greenness. Yes, this is Berkeley with its Goldilocks climate (mild and frost-free winters, warm but not hot summers), but David's garden is extraordinarily lush even for Berkeley.

Front garden

The day of my visit was sunny, resulting in very contrasty conditions and making photography difficult. The fact that there were 40+ other people in the garden at the same time didn't make things easier. I'm hoping that I'll have a chance to visit again on an overcast day, and with fewer people around, but for now here are my photographic impressions of David's private sanctuary. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Going vertical: the next frontier

Space was the final frontier for the starship Enterprise. My aim is not quite as lofty, although my eyes are directed toward space. I'm beginning to moving up: quite literally up, off the ground. It's the only way to go since I'm running out of horizonal space on terra firma.

With four California bay trees in the backyard, there are plenty of places for hanging planters. Finding one I like was the hardest part. Macramé lovers have plenty to choose from (the 1970s are destined to haunt us forever), the rest of us not so much. I finally stumbled on something that spoke to me: rusty metal, a decent size, and reasonably affordable. Best of all: a large frame that doesn't interfere with the plants as much as the rope or wires of a traditional hanging planter would.

Here's the project in three photos: two planters attached to two different bay trees.


Big thanks to my wife for her creative thinking and her help installing these planters.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Plant-nerd technology that works: Huntington digital plant map

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently attended the 2019 Succulent Symposium at the Huntington in San Marino, CA. In contrast to my experience at similar events, every single presentation kept my attention, and I learned a great deal about plants with which I only had a passing familiarity or knew nothing about. 

I also found out a few things about the Huntington, including ambitious plans for the Chinese Garden and a new outdoor event area. But nothing surprised me more than finding out that the Huntington has been digitally mapping the plants in its collections and making the results available to, well, anybody and everybody. 

I suspect I might be the last one to hear about this, but in case I'm not, here's what I've gathered: As they walk the gardens, employees use portable devices (maybe simply their smartphone?) to send plant location data to the Huntington's online plant database. From http://plants.gardentour.net, you and I and the rest of the world has access to all the plants that have been captured so far. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, I didn't have this information when I walked through the Desert Garden the day before the Succulent Symposium, but I tried it out at home. Here's what the experience is like:

This is what you see when you get to http://plants.gardentour.net

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Huntington Desert Garden: Old World eye candy

In my previous post I treated you to some eye candy from the New World section of the Huntington's Desert Garden. I could follow it up with something completely unrelated but that wouldn't be couth. So I'm going to be completely predictable and continue with eye candy from the Old World.

I had intended to take more photos than I ultimately did, but as temperatures were climbing into the 90s and the 7+ hours on the road were beginning to catch up with me, I ended up bowing out in mid-afternoon to retreat to the air-conditioned coolness of my motel room. Sometimes creature comforts take precedence over plant-related pursuits.

Crown of thorns (Euphorbia millii)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Huntington Desert Garden: New World eye candy

I just got back from yet another whirlwind trip to the Huntington. On Saturday, I attended the 36th Succulent Symposium, an annual tradition since 1983. The day was packed with presentations on a wide variety of topics, including terrestrial bromeliads (Andy Siekkinen), cacti from the West Indies (Alberto Areces-Mallea) and Peru (Paul Hoxey), as well as the mutually beneficial cooperation between private collectors and botanical gardens (Ron Kaufmann). Karen Zimmerman, the Huntington's succulent propagator, gave us a virtual tour of the treasures in the off-limits collection greenhouses. In addition, there was a silent auction and, at the end of the day, the opportunity to shop in the Huntington's succulent nursery. And let's not forget breakfast and lunch—food not only keeps people's stomachs from growling, it also makes them more attentive and more generous.

If you're interested, the 2020 Succulent Symposium is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, September 5 (Labor Day weekend).


I gave myself an extra day because I wanted to spend some time at the Huntington and the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden nearby. Unfortunately, it was so hot in the afternoon that I retreated to my motel room earlier than I'd expected. I wish that in the summer months both the Huntington and the LA Arboretum let visitors in early—I would have loved walking around in the cool of the early morning. As it is, the Huntington doesn't open until 10:00, the LA Arboretum at 9:00.

Heat or not, the Desert Garden at the Huntington is a truly spectacular place. Even though words and images can't replace the immersive experience of a personal visit, I'm hoping that the magic of the Desert Garden has rubbed off a little on the photos in this post.