Thursday, May 16, 2019

Rain in May makes plants go yeah

May is typically the beginning of our annual 5- or 6-month dry stretch. By mid-May, the rainfall odds have gone done significantly. If it does rain, it's generally nothing more than a token amount. That's why the past two days have been so unusual. Not only has it been raining for an extended period, albeit on and off, but we've had over an inch since yesterday morning. That's a new historic record for May 15. (You know it's special when the weather oracles on TV talk about a "rain event.")

I'm looking at this as an unexpected gift—one last hurrah before we need to get serious about watering. Beyond that, the garden simply looks great after all the dust has been washed off. Plants are squeaky clean, and colors pop, especially reds and greens.

Here are some random photos from this morning. I'm sure I'll look at them repeatedly over the course of the summer when it's hot outside and the colors have dulled from an ever thickening layer of dirt.

Hechtia 'Wildfire', an Andy Siekkinen hybrid between Hechtia texensis and Hechtia stenopetala. The color really is that insane!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Spring in South Africa, courtesy of UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

In my previous post I showed you a selection of seasonal standouts in the Australian Garden at the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum—plants that looked particularly good when I was there on April 13, 2019.

This post essentially does the same for the South African Garden. While most conebushes (genus Leucadendron) and sugarbushes (genus Protea) were a few months past their prime, many pincushions (genus Leucospermum) were in full flower.

It's easy to fall in love with pincushions, but unless you have the right environment, they're not easy to grow—at least in my experience (current kill count: 4). I think Davis is just a tad too hot in the summer for their liking. In contrast, leucadendrons have an easier time here.

Fortunately, I can always drive to Santa Cruz to get my Leucospermum fill. It's a little over two hours by car if the traffic gods are in a good mood—so a quick one-day outing is doable. A weekend getaway would be even better, of course, except I never manage to plan that far ahead.

But enough yakking already. Time to let the plants shine!

Leucospermum gueinzii

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Spring in Australia, courtesy of UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum isn't close—just over two hours if there's no traffic—so I don't get to go very often. At least their twice-a-year plant sales are a good incentive: Not only did I make it to the fall sale last October (click here), I also managed to hit the spring sale on April 13.

The UCSCA plant sales are crazy, with hordes of plant-hungry people who know exactly what they want and aren't afraid of making a run for it, so I don't take photos while shopping. But once I'm done and my haul is safely stashed in the car, I allow myself the luxury of relaxing and taking a leisurely stroll with my camera.

Last month I began my walkabout in the Australian Garden (this post) and then checked out what was in bloom in the South African Garden (next post). I'm keeping my commentary to a minimum and let the photos speak for themselves.

If you want to read more about UCSCA and its history, head over to their website. After you're done with this post, of course!

Friends of the Arboretum info booth on the left; the sale area is behind the big shrub on the left

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The softer side of the danger garden

I was in Portland, Oregon a few weekends ago for Hortlandia, the massive spring plant sale event organized by the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon. Once again I had the privilege of staying with my friends Loree and Andrew so I had free rein of the danger garden. In reality, there wasn't that much time because we were busy with Hortlandia and miscellaneous nursery visits, but I did sneak in some exploring.

While the danger garden is primarily known for Loree's love of spiky plants—and the occasional stab or puncture wound ensuing from a close encounter—there's a lot more to experience. Loree is a master at layering contrasting textures: Whenever you see a hard edge, you can be sure that a soft element is nearby to act as a counterbalance.

In this post, I'm focusing on the softer side of the danger garden rather than zeroing in on Loree's agaves and their playmates. Of course I'll throw in the occasional agave photo, but I'll also show plants you might not have expected. How about tulips growing side by side with agaves?

Tulipa hageri 'Little Beauty' contrasting beautifully with the yellow flowers of Euphorbia rigida

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Hortlandia in Portland: passionate plantaholics and crazy crowds

This spring I finally had the opportunity to experience an event my Pacific Northwest gardening friends have been raving about forever: Hortlandia, the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon's (HPSO) annual spring plant sale.

This is how the HPSO describes Hortlandia on their web site:
In April of every year, HPSO sponsors an event that is one of the largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. Vendors from far and wide – from nearly the Canadian border to the California border – come to Portland to offer the latest plant introductions as well as the time-tested (and hardiness-tested!) plants. Complementing the plant vendors are specialty garden art vendors bringing one-of-a-kind pieces made from metal, wood, glass, ceramic, fabric, and stone
You get the idea: Hortlandia isn't "just" another plant sale, it's the Coachella of plant sales! It's such a massive event that it's held at the Portland EXPO Center. You do need plenty of space when you have 50+ plant vendors and 30+ garden art vendors—not to mention 6,000+ visitors!

These stats blew my mind. There's nothing like that in California, certainly not in Northern California. Unlike the usual home and garden shows, which seem to be about anything but plants, Hortlandia is all about plants—plants you can buy and take home!

Cistus booth

Monday, April 29, 2019

St Francis Ranch: a private succulent wonderland on a grand scale

More from the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara, which took place from April 4-7, 2019. 

In my previous post I showed you the spectacular venue of the Friday evening reception: organizer Jeff Chemnick's home and nursery, Aloes in Wonderland. When I told Jeff how amazing his place was, he said, "it's nothing compared to where we'll be tomorrow evening."

So here we are: St Francis Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, a 30-minute drive from Santa Barbara proper. It's the kind of country property you're likely to see in a high-end real-estate magazine like LAND (for some reason, my dentist has a subscription so I get to page through it a couple of times a year in the waiting room).

Entrance to St Francis Ranch (photo by Loree Bohl)

If you look at the three figures on top of the gate in the photo above, you'll have a good idea of which animals are raised at St Francis Ranch. The cattle are Ankoli-Watusi, whose prominent feature are almost comically long horns—to my regret I didn't take a photo. And the second kind of animal was this:

Friday, April 26, 2019

Aloes in Wonderland, the best-ever name for a nursery

In early April, I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara, organized by Jeff Chemnick. The Friday evening opening reception was held at Jeff's place in the Santa Barbara hills. Saying "Jeff's place" is a bit like calling Santa Barbara an "alright town." Yes, it's his home and his private garden. But it's also his place of business: a nursery called Aloes in Wonderland. That has got to be one of the best nursery names ever!

But aloes aren't Jeff's only passion. There are all kinds of other succulents, including cacti, as well as palm trees, dragon trees (Dracaena draco) and Queensland bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris). But Jeff's real specialty are cycads, specifically Mexican cycads. Jeff is a leading expert in the field and has one the largest private collections.

Where is the nursery, you might ask as you look at the photos below. The answer may surprise you: It's everywhere. Every plant you see as you walk around the garden is for sale, provided the price is right. I suspect, however, that the "right price" is directly proportional to how much Jeff is attached to it.

To set the right expectations: Aloes in Wonderland is not a conventional retail nursery. You won't find common plants at garden center prices, prepotted for immediate loading into your car.  Instead you select the specimen that speaks to you and either dig it yourself or, if it's too large, make arrangements to have it dug and delivered to your house. Aloes in Wonderland is the place to go if you want a 12-foot tree aloe, a mature cycad, or a bottle tree big enough to have a bulging trunk.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Finally visiting San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara

The 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara was a two-day extravaganza the likes of which I probably won't see again for a while. A personal highlight was breakfast at San Marcos Growers, a wholesale nursery specializing in “plants appropriate to California's mediterranean climate, including many California native plants, as well as vines, trees, shrubs, ferns, perennials, succulents, ornamental grasses and grass-like plants from other areas around the world.” [1]

San Marcos Growers isn't open to the public, but their plants are carried by retail nurseries across California and in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years, I've bought many of their plants at the Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery and Peacock Horticultural Nursery. More recently, I've been able to get SMG plants via a friend so I've been able to indulge.

San Marcos Growers is named after San Marcos Road, the location of the nursery. For a long while I was confused because there's also a town named San Marcos, but it's much further south in San Diego County.

The nursery was started in 1979 by retired businessman Jim Hodges and City of Santa Barbara arborist David Gress on a 6-acre lot. Over time, adjoining properties were purchased, and today SMG has 21 acres in production, with 2 additional acres of cutting and demonstration gardens.

Massive agave flower stalk at San Macros Growers

To many of us, San Marcos Growers is synonymous with Randy Baldwin. He was hired in 1981 as production manager, became general manager in 1990, and is part owner of the company today. Arguably one of the biggest stars in the plant world in California. Randy has been a pioneer in the popularization of plants appropriate for our Mediterranean climate, including many South African and Australian plants that hadn't been seen in California gardens before. This interview with Randy Baldwin, which was posted on the State of California's CA GROWN blog on February 17, 2017, is a great introduction to what Randy does and what his interests are. It's a fast and informative read, and I highly recommend it.

Along with everything else, Randy also writes the descriptions for the plant database on the SMG web site. It's usually the first resource I go when I try to find out more about a specific plant. In addition to the specs you expect in a plant description, Randy gives valuable hardiness information and, with hybrids and cultivars, often sheds light on the plant's origin. Without the SMG database, I'd be lost, and that's no lie.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Spikes in the spring: Ruth Bancroft Garden in April 2019

The day before Loree “danger garden” Bohl and I set out for the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara, we visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. I hadn't been there in almost a year, and I was eager to see all the recent changes. I needn't have worried—the Visitor Center is in the final stretch of completion, the nursery is well-stocked and once again focused on plants instead of home decor, and the garden itself is looking splendid thanks to the leadership and vision of curator Brian Kemble and assistant curator Walker Young.

Loree for scale in front of the massive Agave salmiana 'Butterfingers' near the entrance

The most visible change is the Visitor and Education Center right at the entrance:

The Visitor Center is scheduled to open in June 2019. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara

Last weekend was very special. Loree "danger garden" Bohl came down from Portland, OR on Thursday for four action- and fun-packed days. We hung out in Davis and visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which would have been a treat in and of itself. But there was a lot more in store: We went on a road trip to Santa Barbara for the 2019 Bromeliad Summit organized by Jeff Chemnick of Aloes in Wonderland. Just imagine two spiky-plant nerds joining 60+ like-minded folks for a jam-packed weekend of presentations and visits to public and private gardens and even an air plant nursery!

The opening reception for the Bromeliad Summit was held at Aloes in Wonderland, Jeff Chemnick's 5-acre garden paradise in the Santa Barbara hills. Yes, it's a private garden, but it's an also a nursery where (almost) everything you see is for sale. A shovel is provided free of charge, but backhoe or crane use is extra. I'm not kidding about the later—you'll see what I mean in my upcoming post about Aloes in Wonderland.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Abkhazi Garden: return to the Garden that Love Built

When plant lovers think of Victoria, it's invariably Butchart Gardens that comes to mind. Very few horticultural institutions have achieved the kind of superstardom that Butchart Gardens has enjoyed for 70+ years. And it is a floral spectacle—one that rivals Disneyland in its pursuit of perfection. An unforgettable experience for many, but too impersonal, aseptic and artificial for others,

My favorite garden in Victoria is the opposite: intimate, personal and meaningful. Abkhazi Garden has heart and it has history. A labor of love created over a span of 40 years by a British expatriate who had grown up as a well-to-do socialite in Shanghai and the Prince of Abkhazia, forced to flee his homeland because of the Russian Revolution. The story of Peggy and Nicholas Abkhazi reads like a sprawling novel of revolution, war, imprisonment, love lost and finally found again. See my 2016 post for the short version.

Located in the leafy beachside suburb of Oak Bay, the Abkhazi Garden is now managed by The Land Conservancy and is open to the public year round (7 days a week in the summer, Wednesday through Sunday the rest of the year). At 1 acre, it's large enough to accommodate a variety of trees and shrubs without appearing crammed and yet compact enough to retain its private character instead of feeling like a public park.

When I first visited on April 10, 2016, the garden was a glorious riot of color. This year, spring is late (Victoria was under a blanket of snow just a month ago) and not a lot of shrubs were in bloom. Overall, the garden looked more like in late winter than spring. But it has such a solid backbone, it's beautiful even at the least photogenic time of year.

The garden isn't the only attraction. The Abkhazi's modest home is now a teahouse. Located on top of a rock outcropping at the highest point on the property, it features not only a beautiful view but also great food. We had Elevenses, a selection of savory and sweet nibbles served with your choice of tea. I felt very civilized, sitting on the terrace sipping tea out of china once owned by the Abkhazis.

Teahouse, originally the home of the Abkhazis

Friday, March 29, 2019

Visiting Victoria plant geek Nat Marcano at C&C Growers

I've known Victoria, BC plant geek Nat Marcano for many years. His blog, Stupid Garden Plants, is not only educational, but also wickedly entertaining. Nat has been too busy to post new content in a while (you know, work, life, etc.), but you can still catch up on all his previous posts. Fortunately, plant knowledge doesn't go out of date.

Yesterday I caught up with Nat at his place of work, C&C Growers in the Blenkinsop Valley, a tranquil and surprisingly rural area at the foot of Mt Douglas. As it turned out, it was only 7-minute drive from the Airbnb where we're staying! C&C is one of the largest wholesale growers of annuals and perennials on Vancouver Island, supplying retail outlets all over the island as well as on the lower mainland (including the great Vancouver area). The plants C&C produces may not be all that exciting to hard-core plant nerds, but they're the mainstay of many a garden: petunias, violas, begonias, sweet peas, bidens, fuchsias, lavender, and so on.

Nat has been with C&C for 12 years and has made his way up the ladder to a position where he is able to pursue his own projects in addition to his regular work. He is Mr Succulent, in charge of the hardy and non-hardy succulents C&C sells. He also propagates rarer succulents available only in small quantities (such as the seed-grown Aloe polyphylla you see below).

Nat is the kind of person you feel you've known forever

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Late March, Victoria, British Columbia: it's spring, I guess?

It's spring break for daughter #2 (last year of high school) so we're visiting daughter #1 in Victoria, British Columbia. This is one of the truly sublime spots on the west coast of North America, so it's not a hardship.

Late March is the middle of spring according to my internal clock. Not so in Victoria. While it's in Canada's banana belt (zone 8b), this winter brought far more snow than usual, and plants are slower to wake up and get going. In a "normal" year (whatever that means these days) I would have expected the rhododendrons to be in full bloom; this year they're just starting.

I'm pretty good at going with the flow, so I quickly let go of the mental images I'd come with and am simply enjoying what there is to see. Fortunately, I brought a hoodie that's warm enough to keep me comfy. But I still shiver every time I see a particularly hardy local in shorts and T-shirt when it's in the upper 40s (9 or 10°C).

This post is a collection of photos from the first three days of our visit. We made it to Butchart Gardens on Monday, and I'll have a separate post about that (this time it was less in-your-face-color, more backbone structure and texture).

Our first plant-related stop was at Finnerty Gardens on the campus of the University of Victoria. Check out this post from early April 2016; no such floral splendor this time, at least not yet. But there were enough early-blooming rhododendrons to make me happy.

Rhododendron 'Cindy Louise'

Friday, March 22, 2019

Taft Gardens in Ojai, California: from A(loe) to X(anthorrhoea)

Over time, some gardens achieve near mythic status. They're talked about in a hushed voice, like a secret only a select few are privy to. Sometimes there's a hint of uncertainty, as if the speaker isn't really sure that the garden even exists. This reputation seems to be directly related to how (in)accessible it is. Gardens that are virtually impossible to get into are the most likely to become the stuff of legends.

Out of all the gardens I've visited, the Taft Gardens fit into this category the best although they're not impossible to get into, as this post proves.

The Taft Gardens are located in a bucolic undeveloped part of Southern California, outside the town of Ojai southeast of Santa Barbara. The project was started in the late-1980s by developer John Taft and his wife Melody on their 265-acre property in the foothills of the Topatopa Mountains near Lake Casitas. Since the climate is very similar to what you find at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the initial idea had been to grow South African proteas. This was soon expanded to include a wider range of plants from South Africa's Cape Province, especially aloes, as well as proteacea from Australia.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Rusted “metal” containers on the cheap

I greatly admire creative minds like Loree Bohl of The Danger Garden or Annette Gutierrez and Mary Gray of Potted. It seems so effortless for them to come up with original ideas for garden containers. Loree has created dish planters out of birdfeeder tops and has upcycled metal odds and ends in a variety of ways, and Anette and Mary have written an entire book on the subject.

My ambitions are decidedly more pedestrian, but that doesn't take away from the excitement I feel when I complete a project, even a modest one.

Over the last few years we've been adding Corten steel containers to the front yard to introduce some much-needed vertical elements and gain planting height. I love the rich look of rust that weathering steel like Corten develops over time, but metal planters are pricy. I've finally found an alternative that has much of the same look with just a fraction of the price tag.

Here is an example I did last fall:

Ground-level view:

Friday, March 15, 2019

Visiting Jo O'Connell, plant maven from down under

As you may remember, I went on a quick road trip to Southern California right after Thanksgiving. One of the stops I was most looking forward to was Australian Native Plants nursery in Casitas Springs just outside of Ventura.

Few people in the U.S. know more about plants from down under than Australia-born horticulturist Jo O'Connell. She started the nursery in the early 1990s with her American husband Byron Cox and, through passion, dedication and perseverance, has developed it into a leading resource for plant material from the southern hemisphere. Much of the plants Jo and Byron offer are propagated by themselves, either from their own stock or from seeds imported from Australia. Literally, they are often the only source for a particular plant in the entire U.S. As you can see here, their plant list is truly impressive.

Jo O'Connell and Australian cattle dog Wallaby who guards the plants in the nursery

Jo O'Connell's personal story reads like a movie script—if Hollywood made movies about plant people, that is. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Weekend Wrapup (WeWu) for 3/10/19: rain, flowers, and foliage

As I'm typing this, the sky is much darker than it should be at 5:00 pm, and the rain has started to fall. I don't even bother looking at the forecast any more. Just like I'm sure people further north are sick of the snow, I'm sick of the rain. I'm careful saying it because it seems sacrilegious—not long ago we would have given anything for rain. There doesn't seem to be an in-between anymore, it's all one extreme or the other.

Maybe because of the long cool winter (or spring? not sure what season we're in!), the Grevillea 'Flora Mason' in the backyard has been flowering far longer than it usually does; this is month 4!

Grevillea 'Flora Mason'

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Tucson's Pima Prickly Park: amazing what dedicated volunteers can accomplish

Tucson has no shortage of destinations for plant lovers. I've blogged about many of them before, including my personal faves: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tohono Chul Park, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Although they're different in their own ways, they have one thing in common: they're run by organizations with a professional staff.

Then there's Pima Prickly Park: a public desert garden that has neither a professional staff nor much of a budget (if any).

Located on West River Road next to the offices of Pima County's Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Agency, the 7-acre property is owned by Pima County. What makes the site so special is that it was "adopted" by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society (TCSS) in 2010. Run by the TCSS under a 15-year operating agreement with Pima County, Pima Prickly Park was officially dedicated in September 2012. TCSS members have volunteered countless hours and donated countless plants to create a desert habitat park that highlights opuntias (prickly pears and chollas) and compatible desert plants. The park is not fenced so it's basically open anytime, although technically the hours are from sunrise to sunset. There is no fee for parking or admission.

I first visited Pima Prickly Park on New Year's Day 2015 when it was still very much a work in progress. My second visit was exactly four years later, New Year's Day 2019. I could hardly believe it was the same place. The 3000+ additional hours put in by TCSS volunteers between early 2015 and early 2019 have made an enormous difference. Anybody who has ever been involved in a club dependent on volunteer work can appreciate what a monumental achievement that level of participation is, even for a club as large and active as the TCSS.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Bach's Cactus Nursery in Tucson on a chilly winter day

Since I'm housebound because of the rain and can't do any work in the garden, let's go on a virtual nursery visit. The experience may be vicarious, but at least we'll stay dry.

Last New Year's Eve, I visited Bach's Cactus Nursery, one of Tucson's best retail destinations for succulent lovers. It was a cold day, the sky heavy with menacing-looking clouds, and I didn't expect the nursery to be busy. It wasn't, but I wasn't the only customer either, which surprised and pleased me.

Bach's is located north of downtown, not exactly out in the country but not in a bustling part of town either. The turnoff onto the dirt road/driveway that leads into the nursery does look decidedly rural:

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Tohono Chul really is one of Tucson's best-kept secrets for desert plant lovers

Recently two different people asked me if I had ever been to Tohono Chul Park in Tucson and, if so, what I thought of it. The answer is easy: yes, and I love it.

I visited Tohono Chul for the first time in 2013, then in 2015, and again last December. If it were in a different town, Tohono Chul would be the leading botanical attraction. The fact that in Tucson it's relegated to a lesser tier speaks volumes about the quantity and quality of parks and gardens available there. Tucson not only has a national park (Saguaro National Park), a world-class zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden all rolled into one (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), another botanical garden (Tucson Botanical Gardens), a campus-wide arboretum (University of Arizona), and a score of smaller parks—not to mention great nurseries. Not bad at all for a city of 500,000!

I think Tohono Chul can easily hold its own, even in a crowded field like that, and deserves to be much better known among out-of-town visitors. I have a feeling, though, locals are quite happy to have Tohono Chul mostly to themselves and let the tourists flock to Saguaro National Park and the Desert Museum!

Horse sculpture by Kioko Mwitiki in the Cactus Circle Garden. The cactus, appropriately enough, are Pachycereus marginatus aka Mexican fencepost.

Tohono Chul Park is a 49-acre “living museum” that was once the home of a Tucson couple who fought hard to preserve a slice of native desert. Today Tohono Chul—“desert corner” in the language of the Tohono O'odham—combines nature with art and culture. Miles of trails wind through natural areas and demonstration gardens while three art galleries, classroom facilities and a fine-dining tea room offer attractions for people who are less plant-crazy.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

A crisp Arizona morning at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

In the last couple of days, Arizona saw plenty of rain and snow. Flagstaff set a new snowfall record for Thursday, February 22. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum west of Tucson posted photos of snow-covered cactus, as did the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, east of Phoenix.

The weather was much less severe when I was at Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) on December 30. It was  cold, as you can see below, but the sun was out and the air temperature had climbed into the high 40s by the time I left at noon: not as warm as during previous visits in December, but just fine for walking around. In fact, I was so into the plants and scenery all around me that I didn't have time to think of anything else.

You might say that I was in my element!

Monday, February 18, 2019

...which of these aloes is the prettiest of all?

Mirror mirror on the wall, which of these aloes is the prettiest of all?

"All of them," would be a good answer. Or, "that changes daily." Or, "depends on the mood I'm in."

My answer is even more diplomatic: I'll let you be the judge!

Below are most of the aloes in our garden that are in bloom, very close, or at the tail end.

Aloe marlothii, flowering for the first time ever. It looks like the flowers will be more yellow than red, which is what I was hoping for.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Rain is good—until it's too much

The biggest threat to our plants in the winter is usually the cold. This winter, the lowest nighttime temperature we've had was 30°F, as well as multiple nights right at 32°F. It's ironic, then, that something else has turned out to be the biggest problem—something we were begging Mother Nature for just a few years ago: rain.

In a region where the specter of drought is always a lurking presence, rain is a good thing. Until it isn't. In just the last few days, we've had flooding up and down California (Valentine's Day was the wettest day in Palm Springs in 76 years!), landslides, sinkholes, not to mention toppled trees and more minor incidents.

Nothing so dramatic happened in our little corner of the world. But considering we've had 12.5" of rain since December 1 (vs. 3.7" the year before),  I've become increasingly worried about rot from the excessive rainfall, especially after the 'Desert Love' incident. On Wednesday, I decided to grab what plastic sheeting I could find in the garage and drape it over some of the more vulnerable xeric plants in the front yard. I know it was more to make myself feel better than to effect any real rain protection for the plants, but sometimes that's all we can do.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Finding Nemo the rare Mount Diablo manzanita

I seem to have a thing for plants that start with A: Aloe, Agave, Acacia, and now Arctostaphylos aka manzanitas. With smooth or peeling bark ranging in color from cinnamon to chocolate, contorted branches, stiff leaves in hues from apple green to silver, and masses of small bell-shaped flowers in late winter frequently followed by tiny fruit resembling little apples (hence the Spanish name), their presence cannot be denied.

While some manzanita species are present in other western states as well—the prostrate kinnikinnick or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is even found in the polar regions of North America, Asia and Europe—the biggest concentration is in the California Floristic Province (CFP) which stretches from southwestern Oregon into northern Baja California. According to the Field Guide to Manzanitas, 104 of 105 currently recognized Arctostaphylos taxa (species and subspecies) are native to the CFP. (The 105th, oddly enough, grows only at the top of several volcanic craters in Guatemala, thousands of miles from its closest manzanita neighbor.)

The county where I live, Yolo, is home to only one species (the common manzanita, Arctostaphylos manzanita subsp. manzanita), but some of the biggest manzanita hotspots are an easy drive away: Sonoma County (17 species and subspecies), the greater Bay Area (27), and Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties (27). It's one thing seeing plants you like in a residential or public garden, but it pales compared to the real deal: seeing them grow in their natural habitat.

Even though I've done some reading and have seen different manzanita species in botanical gardens, my practical skills at identifying them are virtually non-existent. Some species are very distinct, but many others (especially subspecies) are difficult to tell apart. The best clue is location: the native habitat of a manzanita is probably the best criterion in order to narrow down the possibilities.

Softly undulating hills dotted with oak trees are a typical landscape feature in our part of California

With that in mind, I decided my first manzanita outing of the year should be to a spot that only has two species: Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve near the city of Antioch in the East Bay.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Desert Love in trouble

Philosophical question of the day: Is déjà vu a good thing? 

Yahoo has the answer: "For your own safety," one user writes, "'deja vu' should be understood for the same reason a venomous snake should be understood, or more mysteriously, an unidentified creature." 

 What now?

"Sometime it happens right before a seizure," somebody else says, "but that is very rare. So don't think you are going to have a seizure."

Whew, good to know!

"It is neither, or both, depending on your reaction," states a very smart person. "It is an experience that can awaken an awareness of what is going on in your life, and you need to just pay attention! There are things to be learned."

Time for a learning moment—maybe.

Agave ovatifolia 'Frosty Blue' in February 2018

Almost a year ago I lost an Agave ovatifolia 'Frosty Blue' and an Agave 'Snow Glow' to rot. I was never able to figure out definitively what happened. I removed the rotting carcasses and drenched the area with two kinds of fungicide. Then I planted an Aloe africana and an Agave 'Desert Love', a Plant Delights hybrid involving Agave ovatifolia, Agave parrasana and possibly Agave asperrima.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Let the light in: much-needed bamboo thinning taming

The three clumping bamboos in the front yard (all of them Bambusa species) are happy and healthy even on a much less generous watering regime than in the old days before the drought. That, in turn, makes me happy because I love the lushness they contribute to our garden.

For most of the year, I just let the 'boos do their thing. In the winter, however, when the sun is low in the sky, it becomes obvious how much the Asian lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides 'Viridi-vittata') shades the smaller succulent mound. Take a look at the photo below to see what I mean.

The Asian lemon bamboo is a fairly dense clump of culms and leaves:

It looks great, but it creates more shade than the other plants need or want.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

New Hans Hansen ×Mangave releases for 2019

I was very excited to find two boxes at the front door last week, especially since I didn't know they were coming:

My mystery mangave benefactor was wondering if I'd like to trial the latest creations from Walters Gardens in Zeeland, Michigan where mangave wizard and plant genius at large Hans Hansen practices his hybridization magic. Except for one plant in the box, ×Mangave 'Mission to Mars', they were all new to me.

Opening boxes is a truly exciting thing. Maybe I should up my game and start producing unboxing videos like so many people on YouTube, but for now this is the best I can do:

Box 1

Friday, February 1, 2019

Photo of the Day: shoutout to the humble jade plant

Photo of the Day for Friday, February 1, 2019:

Jade plant (Crassula ovata)

The jade plant (Crassula ovata) is so common here that it gets very little respect. It's even worse in the Bay Area where it grows so effortlessly that some consider it a weed.

I must admit that I'm not always good to our jade plant either. It's not an automatic drip, so in the summer it gets water whenever I think of it—which maybe as infrequently as once every six weeks.

And yet, it takes no offense and it holds no grudges. Instead, it flowers for weeks on end, bringing a smile to my face whenever I walk by.

Humble jade plant, I see you, and I will be more kind to you.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Photo of the Day: Acacia baileyana starting to bloom

Photo of the Day for Thursday, January 31, 2019 (yikes, the last day of January already!!!):

Acacia baileyana 'Purpurea'

Late winter is acacia time around here. Our Cootamundra wattle (Acacia baileyana 'Purpurea') is now 20 ft. tall and covered with blossoms. This is one of the first branches with open flowers. I love the contrast between the bluish-silver leaves and the golden-yellow puffball flowers.

This is the first time this acacia has flowered.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Agave hunter Ron Parker's personal collection

I recently reviewed Chasing Centuries: The Search for Ancient Agave Cultivars Across the Desert Southwest, Ron Parker's groundbreaking book about agave species cultivated and refined by the pre-Columbian cultures of Arizona. It's a book unlike any other, and I highly recommend it if you have even a passing interesting in the prehistoric peoples of Arizona and, of course, agaves.

On my after-Christmas Arizona trip, I had the opportunity to visit Ron on his home turf in Fountain Hills, northeast of Phoenix. To say that where he lives is pretty is like saying the Grand Canyon is alright. This is the view west from his street:

And this is his front yard:

Photo of the Day: do as I say, not as I do

Photo of the Day for Monday, January 28, 2019

Seen yesterday on the University of California Davis campus:

This is the Environmental Horticulture building. You'd think that they'd use this planting bed as showcase for their department! Unless the weeds aren't weeds at all but a new kind of plant breeding breakthrough?

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Debris-collecting Agave macroacantha had to go

Once upon a time, in March 2014 to be precise, I planted a beautiful Agave macroacantha outside the front yard fence, next to the 'Black Lace' elderberry and one of three Aloe 'Moonglow'.

When I say beautiful, this is what I mean:

Agave macroacantha with backlit marginal teeth and terminal spines

It looked like this right after planting:

Agave macroacantha perfection right after planting in March 2014; look how small the Aloe 'Moonglow' was (on the left)

Friday, January 25, 2019

Photo of the Day: Hechtia fosteriana

Photo of the Day for Friday, January 25, 2019:

Hechtia fosteriana (AS439)

Hechtia fosteriana is a terrestrial bromeliad native to Oaxaca, Mexico. Like many hechtias, it changes color throughout the year in response to cold, heat, and availability of water. My specimen came from Andy Siekkinen. I'm nuts about this color!

© Gerhard Bock, 2019. All rights reserved. No part of the materials available through may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without prior written consent of Gerhard Bock. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Gerhard Bock is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by  United States and international copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Gerhard Bock. If you are reading this post on a website other than, please be advised that that site is using my content without my permission. Any unauthorized use will be reported.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Photo of the Day: Acacia merinthophora

An ongoing project at work is taking up so much of my time that it's affecting the number of posts I'm able to write for Succulents and More. Right now, I seem to be managing no more than two a week. 

That's not enough for me.

To make up for it, I've decided to give myself a challenge that won't be a big time commitment: Starting right now, I'll post one new photo a day. It could be from our garden or from anywhere I happen to be that day. That'll allow me to share a small vignette of my life with you on a more regular basis.

Here's the Photo of the Day for Thursday, January 24, 2019:

Zig-zag wattle (Acacia merinthophora)

With their lack of real leaves, acacias are an odd bunch to begin with. The zig-zag wattle (Acacia merinthophora) is even odder since it's taking the no-leaf business to an extreme. The long greenish things you might think are leaf stalks (petioles) with the actual leaves missing, are called phyllodes. That's all there is—no conventional leaves at all. These phyllodes are actually modified (often flattened) petioles that carry out photosynthesis, i.e. they do what a leaf would do on a "normal" tree.

Our Acacia merinthophora has been blooming for weeks now. Even though the pom-pom flowers are small, they are very fragrant. It's a good thing I love the smell of acacias. To me, it means spring is right around the corner. True or not, I choose to go with what this zig-zag wattle is telling me.

© Gerhard Bock, 2019. All rights reserved. No part of the materials available through may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without prior written consent of Gerhard Bock. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Gerhard Bock is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by  United States and international copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Gerhard Bock. If you are reading this post on a website other than, please be advised that that site is using my content without my permission. Any unauthorized use will be reported.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Aloes getting ready to flower in our garden

We had a couple of nights a degree or two below freezing in December, but it's been warmer than usual since then. Not that I'm complaining; I'd happily never experience frost again, at least not where I live. If this weather keeps up, it won't be long now before the aloes in the front yard will be in full bloom.

This Aloe wickensii (lumped by some in with Aloe cryptopoda) has a head start on the others. It has never looked this good before:

Aloe wickensii

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Catching up with agave wizard Greg Starr in Tucson

Over the years, I've become friends with Greg Starr, author of the Timber Press book Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers and owner of Starr Nursery. I visit him and his wife Carol whenever I'm in Tucson, and this time was no exception. I always love hearing about his discoveries on agave expeditions to Mexico and seeing what he has growing in his greenhouses. And I never fail to find cool plants I simply must have.

Greg lives on the west side of Tucson, pretty close to the edge of the city. The Tucson Mountains are just a few miles away; beyond them are the western unit of Saguaro National Park, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and the Old Tucson Studios theme park.

The properties in this part of Tucson seamlessly merge into the desert. "Borrowed scenery" is not just an abstract concept here, it's reality:

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Electric Desert: after dark at the Desert Botanical Garden

The Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix, AZ likes to light up the night. When I was there in December 2013, they had a large-scale exhibit of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures which attracted crowds both during the day and at night (a record-breaking 631,000 visitors). In December 2015 they hosted Bruce Munro's Sonoran Light installation (318,000 visitors). This year, it was Electric Desert, created by video artist Ricardo Rivero and Klip Collective.

Electric Desert

On each of these occasions I went in December, which allowed me to experience both the special exhibit and Las Noches de las Luminarias, a beloved holiday tradition at the DBG combining 8,000 luminaria bags (hand-lit every night by volunteers) and holiday entertainment in nine different spots throughout the garden.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Off the grid in the Arizona desert: Jan Emming's Destination:Forever Ranch

A large parcel of land away from it all, surrounded by scenery so beautiful you want to cry, with no neighbors in sight and the freedom to do exactly what you want: Who hasn't dreamed of that at some point in their lives? I certainly have. But how many people actually turn this heady fantasy into reality? Precious few.

However, there are some who do. Jan Emming is one of them. A Colorado native, he began in the late 1990s to scour the western U.S. for a site where he could create the desert garden he'd been envisioning since he was a teen. In 1998 he found what he was looking for: 40 acres in northwestern Arizona near the small town of Yucca.

This is a very special spot where the Mojave meets the Sonoran Desert. I was astounded to find Joshua trees, the signature plant of the Mojave, growing side by side with saguaros, the signature plant of the Sonoran. Add ocotillos, chollas, hedgehog and barrel cactus, California junipers and scrub oak, and you have a great start for a desert garden. When I pulled into the driveway of Jan's property on the morning of December 28, I understood immediately why he had chosen to live there.

But let me back up a little. I got off Interstate 40 at the first exit for Yucca. If you've ever driven this stretch, you've probably seen this quirky structure from the road:

Golf Ball House aka Area 66 off I-40 in Yucca, AZ

Known as the Golf Ball House, it was built in the 1970s as the restaurant and night club for an ambitious real-estate project that went belly up before it ever got off the ground—a metaphor for so many desert dreams that go poof. Later owners built a store and renamed the property Area 66, but when I stopped to take some photos, the gates were locked and there was no sign of life.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

My Arizona haul: spikes, rocks, and metal Mariachi musicians

I just got back from my after-Christmas road trip Arizona. I drove 2,223 miles in seven days, visited six public and three private gardens, took 1,800 photos, and returned with a car full of goodies. My rental plantmobile was a Chevrolet Equinox, an small SUV with plenty of room, and yet I managed to fill it with my purchases and finds: a wild assortment of plants, rocks, and other stuff that somehow ended up in the car.

In case you're wondering what my favorite trophy is:

Two totem pole cactus sections (Lophocereus schottii f. monstrosus) I found on Phoenix Craigslist for $10. Yes, ten bucks. Considering a rooted two-foot specimen can be $50 or more in a nursery, this is the steal of the year. These two will take up residence in the bed next to the front door when I redo it in the spring.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Happy New Year from Arizona

Happy New Year, everybody! May it be filled with lots of joy, laughter, and prickly plants.

Speaking of prickly plants, I've been seeing my fair share of them in the last five days. I'm on my annual after-Christmas road trip, and this time I'm back in Arizona. I'll have detailed posts about plants and places in the weeks to come: Desert Botanical Garden, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Tohono Chul, just to name a few.

In the meantime, here are a few random snaps to tide you over: