Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mid-summer plant evaluations for University of California Landscape Plant Irrigation Trials

A year ago I blogged about the irrigation trials at UC Davis. As I said at the time, the objective is to determine how ornamental plants fare when they receive different amounts of water and are irrigated increasingly less frequently. The ultimate goal is to find the sweet spot where a plant still looks good with as little irrigation as possible.

On the UC Landscape Plant Irrigation Trial website, the project is described like this:
UC Davis horticulturists are evaluating landscape plants with the potential to be good performers in low-water use gardens. [...] the plants are exciting new cultivars provided by growers and breeders who want to evaluate their new plant varieties for low-water use in hot California gardens. The results of these trials are providing growers and retailers the information they need to successfully distribute and market these plants to the public.


Saturday, July 13, 2019

Tanglewild Gardens: Morocco meets Thailand in Texas (#gbfling2018)

I like fusion. Fusion cooking, fusion music, and yes, fusion gardening. Why limit yourself when you have the entire world to choose from? Pick what you like, and don't worry about what others call “rules.”

We saw a particularly nice example of fusion gardening in Austin, Texas last year. Blending Moroccan and Thai influences with an extensive collection of daylilies, 1.7 acre Tanglewild Gardens proves that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

The original house was a split level built in 1971. The current owners Jeff and Skottie tore it down to the studs and foundation in 2011 and created exactly the kind of space they wanted. We didn't get to see the inside of the house last year but here are a few representative photos.

Front of the house

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Rancho Diablo: a hilltop desert paradise just 15 miles from San Francisco

The California Horticultural Society (Cal Hort) recently organized a visit to one of the most spectacular private gardens in the East Bay I've ever seen: a 5-acre hilltop property with a cactus and succulent garden that would look right at home in Phoenix or Tucson.

As always, a picture is worth a thousand words:


I'd visited once before, in 2014, on a Garden Conservancy Open Day, and I was happy to see that the gardens are as stunning as before—even more so possibly, seeing how the plants are five years older now.

For geographical context, look at the next photo. This is what the approach to the property looks like:

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

CSSA Show & Sale at the Huntington—and my plant haul

The reason I went to the Huntington a couple of weeks ago was to attend the 2019 Show and Sale of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA)—the 54th, it turned out! The judged show is open to members of the CSSA or one of its affiliated clubs. As one of the most prestigious cactus and succulent exhibitions in the country, it draws top-tier growers and collectors, resulting in an amazing assemblage of plants.

The show and the accompanying plant sale were held at the Huntington's Brady Botanical Center. Succulents were in one building, cacti in the other. The trophy table with the top winners in each category was in the same room as the cacti; it had better natural light so it was easier to get good photos.

I photographed the plants that caught my attention for one reason or another—sometimes because of their beauty, sometimes because of their weirdness. Some plants are simply so strange that you don't know what to think. Above all, I want my photos to show the huge range of succulents, including caudiciforms (“fat plants”), which store water in their swollen roots or trunks.

Tacitus bellus by Nels Christiansen. This Graptopetalum-relative has huge flowers compared to the size of the body.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Huntington Desert Garden keeps me coming back

My previous post from the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Southern California bypassed the world-famous Desert Garden. In contrast, this post is about nothing else.

I've talked about the history of the Desert Garden in an earlier post, but here's a recap:

Established by businessman Henry Huntington in the early 1900s on what was originally a 600-acre ranch, the Huntington comprises a world-class library, art collections and 120 acres of gardens. Arguably the most famous is the 10-acre Desert Garden. It was started in 1907 when garden superintendent William Hertrich convinced Henry Huntington to plant cacti in an area where little else would grow. Huntington initially agreed to let Hertrich experiment on ½ acre. Hertrich went ahead at full steam, filling the ½ acre lot with 300 cactus. In 1908, Hertrich hauled three carloads of saguaros from Arizona, followed in 1912 by two carloads of cacti and other succulents from Mexico. Huntington was finally convinced and gave Hertrich another 4½ acres. In 1925, the Desert Garden grow by another five acres, and in 1981, long after Hertrich’s death, the final 5 acres were added. In 1985, the Desert Garden Conservatory opened to the public; it’s home to 3,000 succulents that either need some sort of protection or are simply too rare to leave outside.

Isn't this a breathtaking sight?

Today, the Desert Garden has sixty planting beds filled with more than 2,000 species of succulents and desert plants from both the Old and the New World. While impressive-sounding, these stats are fairly meaningless until you see the garden’s splendor in person. We’re not just talking a lot of plants, we’re talking old plants, masses of them. It’s easy to see why the Desert Garden is considered one of the world’s premier collection of succulents.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Huntington Botanical Gardens: much more than succulents

Last weekend was the 2019 Show & Sale of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA), the national umbrella organization of local clubs like the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society (SCSS). As is tradition, it was held at the Huntington in San Marino, California, and members of local C&S societies received free admission. Considering that it's $25 per adult to get into the Huntington, that's a tangible benefit, especially if you're there for several days.

This year, the stars were aligned just right. Not only was I able to go, my wife agreed to come along. As a result, I had reason to look at more than “just” the gardens. Plant nerds sometimes forget that the Huntington has significant art collections and a library housing a wide variety of rare books. (Among other things, we saw a Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum, one of only 12 known to exist.)

Ultimately, though, I was drawn to the gardens more than anything else. I showed my wife the Desert Garden—my favorite spot at the Huntington—and then we walked through the Jungle Garden where it was wonderfully cool.

But you don't have be in one of the themed gardens (of which there are 16 spread across 120 acres) to see cool plants. The general landscaping is beautiful, even in the parking lots—definitely no boring shrubbery from big-box garden centers! Plant labeling is incomplete but decent enough, all things considered. Areas that serve a more educational purpose have better labeling; this includes the entrance garden and, surprisingly, the parking areas.

Aeoniums and Agave attenuata 'Boutin Blue'. Even more impressive in a mass planting!

Usually, I start off with a succulent-themed post. This time, I'm mixing things up and do a non-succulent post first. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Public sidewalk obstructors beware!

Last week we found this dreaded door hanger on our front door:



Has somebody complained to the powers that be? Are there people in our neighborhood who harbor ill will against us? And if so, why? I guess we'll never know.

Here are some snapshots of the crime scene:


Oh what thugs we are for letting our unruly vegetation intrude into the sacrosanct space of the city sidewalk!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Kirk Walden's garden: It's all about the view (#gbfling2018)

More from the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling, which took place in Austin, Texas from May 4-6, 2018. 

Kirk Walden's garden in Austin, Texas is all about the view.

The end.

Just kidding. 

A little at least. Because even if that was the entirety of this post, it would do a pretty decent job of capturing the essence of this garden. The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words definitely applies here.

View of Lake Austin from Kirk Walden's garden

The view does take center stage, as it should in a setting like this. But there's more to Kirk Walden's garden. There's limestone, a building material as local as it gets in the Texas Hill Country. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Bromeliad haul from Sacramento Bromeliad Society sale

A couple of weekends ago I went to the 2019 Show and Sale of the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society. I hinted at the haul that came home with me, and here it is:

Haul from the 2019 Show and Sale of the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society

That's a lot more than I had hoped (let only intended) to buy, but the selection was good and the prices were even better. “Resistance is futile,” as the Borg so memorably stated, so I didn't even try.

Below are portrait shots of all the plants from that sale as well as some other recent bromeliad additions and even one bloomer. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ruthie Burrus garden: Texas Hill Country hideaway with spectacular views (#gbfling2018)

More from the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling, which took place in Austin, Texas from May 4-6, 2018. 

Last week I wrote about the garden of Austin, Texas designer B. Jane. It combines a low-water and low-maintenance front yard with a contemporary resort-style backyard in a compact package. To quote Loree “danger garden” Bohl, it's small but lives large.

Ruthie Burrus's garden is in some ways the opposite. As you'll see, it lives large because it is large: The hilltop property is two acres and overlooks downtown Austin. As you can imagine—and will see in a bit—the views are insane.

The residence is at the top of the hill, connected to the street by a long and steep driveway. A golf cart comes in handy in a place like this!


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A bounty of bonny bromeliads in Sacramento show

This past weekend I went to the 2019 Show and Sale of the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society. Unlike last year, when I'd been a bromeliad newbie, I approached this year's event with more knowledge and a better sense of what to expect and what to look for. The sale plants were once again priced very reasonably so I ended up buying more than I would have in a retail nursery. That makes not just me happy but also the club.

While the sale was at the top of my agenda—business is business—I did take the time to look at every plant on display inside the Shepard Garden and Arts Center (also the home of the Sacramento Cactus and Succulent Society and most other plant clubs in town).

Since the Sacramento Bromeliad and Carnivorous Plant Society Show is not judged, there was no winner's table. Instead, the club had put together a spectacular display of bromeliads and carnivorous plants:


Monday, June 17, 2019

Railroad spikes to corral wayward garden hose

For years I've been struggling with the garden hose as I hand-water plants in the front yard. Even though I have rocks placed in strategic corners that are supposed to keep the hose from strangling and mangling plants, it doesn't always work, especially if the rock surface is a bit slick.


Last week I happened to be on Etsy and through sheer chance I came across a listing for old railroad spikes. BINGO! This could be the solution for my hose troubles.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

B. Jane Garden: small but sophisticated backyard resort (#gbfling2018)

More from the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling, which took place in Austin, Texas from May 4-6, 2018. 

Garden bloggers from North America and Europe are gathering in Denver, CO right now for the 2019 Garden Bloggers Fling. Because of my daughter's high school graduation, I'm not able to join them, but I'm there in spirit. To celebrate the 2019 Fling, I'm making a concerted effort to write about the gardens we saw last year in Austin. There are still some incredible places to come!

Today: B. Jane Garden, located in the Brentwood neighborhood in Central Austin. This area was a cotton farm until the 1940s when it was annexed by the City of Austin. This area is dominated by two- and three-bedroom bungalows, many of which were originally bought by GIs starting families after WWII.

⸻⸺⸻

What do they say about mullets? Business in the front, party in the back? That comparison popped into my head as I was going through my photos of this garden. You'll see why in a moment.

B. Jane is an Austin landscape designer whose company, B. Jane Gardens, offers full-service design and build services. The garden we visited is B. Jane's own Brentwood oasis.

The house looks like it started out as one of those modest 1950s bungalows I mentioned earlier. I have no doubt that originally there was a front lawn as well as unassuming foundation shrubs in front of the house. The lawn is long gone, replaced by a climate-appropriate planting scheme that's as attractive as it's water-wise and low-maintenance (“I love plants but I’m not a constant gardener,” B. Jane admits).

Muhly grass and opuntias in front of B. Jane's home

Monday, June 10, 2019

Visiting the garden of Austin, TX writer and blogger Pam Penick (#gbfling2018)

More from the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling, which took place in Austin, Texas from May 4-6, 2018. 

Garden bloggers from North America and Europe are getting ready for the 2019 Garden Bloggers Fling in Denver, CO next week. Because of my daughter's high school graduation I won't be able to join them, but I'll be there in spirit.

Thinking of the 2019 Fling made me realize that there are still several gardens from the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, TX that I haven't covered yet. No better time to start catching up than now—and no better garden to showcase than the private sanctuary of Pam Penick, one of the original founders of the Garden Bloggers Fling and co-organizer of the 10th anniversary event in Austin.

Pam Penick's award-winning blog is called Digging: cool gardens in a hot climate. She not only chronicles the evolution of her own garden in Austin, TX but also writes about other gardens—public and private— in Austin, Texas, and beyond: The Regional Garden Tours drop-down menu on Digging has listings for 24 U.S. states and eight foreign countries!

In addition, Pam has written numerous articles for magazines such as Country Gardens, Garden Design, and Wildflower as well as two bestselling books published by Ten Speed Press: Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard and The Water-Saving Garden: How to Grow a Gorgeous Garden with a Lot Less Water.

North Carolina blogger Daricia McKnight in front of a perfect specimen of Agave ovatifolia

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Air Plant Alchemy: behind the scenes at a tillandsia nursery

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

The final destination we visited at the 2019 Bromeliad Summit was Air Plant Alchemy. They're a major grower and wholesaler of tillandsias and orchids and now have a showroom/retail outlet at their location outside of Carpinteria. We had a chance to shop (the first and only opportunity at the Summit) and got to take a look inside a production greenhouse. I should have stuck with the group as I might have learned a few things about growing tillandsias, but as usually I drifted off to take photos. When will I learn?

The showroom/retail outlet occupies half a greenhouse and features some impressive specimens of tillandsias and other bromeliads:



Quite a few tillandsias were flowering:

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Wacky Wednesday featuring nine red cactus flowers

Our Echinopsis ‘Johnson Hybrid’ just had a nonuplet of flowers. I was hoping they'd open two or three at a time so the entire show would last a little longer, but no, all nine opened on the same day. By the afternoon on the second day, the flowers were all done. So much concentrated beauty in such a short span of time!


Monday, June 3, 2019

10-acre Montecito estate garden near Lotusland

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

On the final day of the Bromeliad Summit, we visited an estate garden in Montecito not far from Lotusland. I'm sure everybody has a slightly different idea of what an “estate” is, but in my book, 10 acres in one of the priciest zip codes in the country certainly qualifies.

10 acres is 435,600 square feet. That's 53 times the size of our lot (8,145 sq.ft.). In fact, the house on this estate is larger than our entire lot. According to public records, the house (actually, “home” would probably be a more appropriate word) is 11,160 sq.ft., compared to 8,145 sq.ft. for our lot.

What I'm trying to say: I was in a completely different world. I knew it when about halfway down the seemingly endless driveway we passed a structure which at first glance appeared to be a house. Looking closer, I realized it was a massive garage—with eight garage doors, so room for at least that many cars. And when we got to the actual residence, I saw that it had its own three-car garage. This is one car-loving family!

We were met in the entrance courtyard by landscape architect Derrik Eichelberger of Arcadia Studio, the principal designer of the garden. He wasn't at liberty to say who the owners are, but he did indicate that they live here only part-time, a few months out of the year. (Whatever reaction you just had, I had the same.)

Derrik took us on a walking tour of the sprawling grounds (ten acres is ten acres) and talked about the distinctly different gardens. I could have learned a lot from Derrik if I had listened carefully, but there were so many things to distract me that both my mind and my body began to drift.

As a result, I can't tell you much about the gardens or the estate in general. Instead, I'll invite you to look at the 70+ photos in this post and simply enjoy the visuals.

Courtyard (through archway)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Visiting Mr. Hechtia, Andy Siekkinen

In my recent rain in May post I showed you a number of hechtias in my garden. That, in turn, reminded me that I still hadn't written about my visit with Mr. Hechtia, Andy Siekkinen, at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden last December—an oversight I'm remedying herewith.

Andy is currently doing PhD research at Claremont Graduate University's Department of Botany, which is housed at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Andy's scientific focus is on the genus Hechtia; using next-generation DNA sequencing, he's examining the relationships between the various Hechtia species in order to reorganize the taxonomy of the genus from the ground up. His recent Master's thesis, Systematics of Hechtia (Hechtioideae): Insights in phylogenetics and plastome evolution in a non-model organism with Next Generation Sequencing, was the first major step in that direction.

While I have a rudimentary understanding of phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary relationships among organisms) and taxonomy (the science of classification), the finer points go right above my head. And that's OK with me. I'm no scientist, and my interest is fairly mundane: I simply want to know how plants are related. I like things to be structured and organized—a real challenge considering nature often prefers chaos and confusion over order. That's why I'm glad that there are bright minds like Andy who dig deep into the specifics and allow me to benefit from their research.

Andy Siekkinen in front of some of his bromeliads

Andy had told me that he's able to use greenhouse space at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden although the bulk of his collection is at his house in San Diego. In light of that, I expected to see a few dozen plants at most. Was I in for a surprise!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Bromeliads for the backyard

In my previous post I talked about redoing the bed you see on the right in the photo below:


But why stop there? Let's swing around to the left:


While I didn't do any major renovation here (that was done last year), I've been adding more bromeliads. This includes plants I brought home from the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara and from Hortlandia.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Out with the old, in with the new: small succulent bed makeover in backyard

Last week's unplanned makeover of a section of the streetside bed, the result of our 'Sonoran Emerald' palo verde falling flat on its face, proved contagious. Out with the old, in with the new—sometimes there's nothing better to break through the inertia.

Case in point: this small planting strip along the side of the house (the kitchen is behind the wall). It's separated by a concrete walkway from the much larger planting bed against the streetside fence. On the other side of the fence is the streetside bed where the palo verde toppled over, just to give you a sense of place.

Since the bed is only 2½ feet deep, we're limited in what we can plant there. After a long cycle of trial and error (mostly the latter), I decided to stick aloes and agaves in there. I can't even remember when that was—it might have been as long as ten years ago. Likewise, I can't tell you where the yellow columbine on the left came from; probably a volunteer. The nasturtiums were here when we bought the house 22 years ago; I'm sure they'll outlive us, too.

From left to right: Agave 'Red Margin, Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor', Aloe cameronii × maculata, Agave parry var. truncata, Aloe striata, Yucca filamentosa 'Bright Edge', Aloe glauca

There wasn't anything terribly wrong with this bed, but I was tired of the same-o, same-o. Time to switch things up!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Palo verde removal and replanting: no lollygagging here!

This is the continuation of Monday's post

Sunday morning, 7:00 am. The dog has been fed, coffee is brewing, the house is quiet because the dog and I are the only ones up. Waiting for the coffee, I look out the dining room slider. Something isn't quite right, but it takes me a few moments to realize what it is. The tree aloe, which was getting close to touching the palo verde branch above it, is standing proud and tall, silhouetted against the morning sky. Unobstructed. Wait, where's the palo verde it was about to bump up against? No palo verde in sight.

Dread is mounting as I rush outside. This is what I see:


For a heart-stopping second I'm not sure if anything is trapped under the fallen tree. Fortunately, not.

But the tree does block more than half of the street. That's a problem, even on a quiet weekend on this quiet cul-de-sac in our quiet neighborhood.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Miracle rain continuing, with unforeseen consequences

The unusual, unexpected and unabashedly wonderful series of rain storms that started earlier in the week continued throughout the weekend. This post expands on my previous one with more photos of besotted plants luxuriating in the serendipitous gift from above. But it wasn't all love, peace and happiness; there was high drama as well, as you will see.

No need to rush, though. Let's enjoy the quiet beauty of branches heavy with rain drops while it lasts:

Grevillea 'Flora Mason' in backyard

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!