Friday, November 15, 2019

Death-defying suspension bridge over a raging waterfall

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

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Fairytale forests on Vancouver Island

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Playing tourist on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island

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

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

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

Saturday, November 9, 2019

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

California Cactus Center in Pasadena

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

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

Let's take a look around.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Front door succulent bed makeover

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

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

As summer merged into fall, it became clear that this bed needed an overhaul. Since it's right next to the front door, we see it all the time. As a result, what might be a minor niggle elsewhere became a persistent thorn in my side. And who wants to live with that when you don't have to?

Taking out the unwanted plants went much faster than I'd expected, thanks in no small part to my trusted Root Slayer. (If I were ever banished to a remote island and could only bring one tool, it would be a Root Slayer.) Here's the “after” photo:

The three ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) are staying, as are the blue Agave guadalajarana 'Leon' and some of the smaller aloes along the front.

The potted Yucca linearifolia has stayed, too, it just got moved further away from the path.

One major goal was to raise up the bed and add rocks. All it took was 1 cubic yard of top soil and 1,200 pounds of rock:

Quite a few rocks were hidden under the soil,

After a few hours of concerted soil and rock hauling, the bed looked much improved, even prior to planting:

The next photo gives you a better idea of how much height we added. Even factoring in the inevitable compaction, the bed will remain at least a foot higher than it was before.

The Agave 'Red Margin' and the dudleyas you see at the bottom of the next photo had been there all along, but the plants behind the ponytail palms are new.

Also new are the totem pole cactus (Lophocereus schottii 'Monstrose') I brought home from Arizona last December:

Next photo: In the 11 o'clock position is an Aloe vaombe I bought several years ago with the express intention of putting it in this spot. At the 2 o'clock position is a fan aloe (Kumara plicatilis) that had been languishing in a pot, and to the right of it an Agave 'Snow Glow'. And finally, at the 4 o'clock position, a Cleistocactus brookeae I brought home from the CSSA Show and Sale at the Huntington this summer.

Here's a view from the front:

As you can see, I've added a bunch of plants towards front. Some will stay on the small side, others will fill in over the time. A little more work needs to be done in the back, but I'm not in a hurry now that the foundation has been laid.

New plants added to this bed:

Agave 'Snow Glow'
Agave albopilosa
Agave pintilla 2x
Agave victoriae-reginae 'Himesanoyuki'
Agave utahensis var. eborispina
Aloe dorotheae 2x
Aloe lukeana
Aloe vaombe
Cleistocactus brookeae
Hechtia aff. fosteriana
Hechtia argentea
Lophocereus schottii 'Monstrose' 4x
Mangave 'Red Wing'

I'll post plenty of updates as the plants mature.

On to the next project!

© 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.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front garden

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

2019 ×Mangave roundup

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

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

×Mangave 'Mayan Queen' in our front yard

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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Tropicalesque splendor on the mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Coming soon: sneak peek at what's cooking

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

Ongoing work in the backyard:

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

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

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

Thursday, October 10, 2019

New plants for our garden—always room for more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 7, 2019

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

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

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

Old World section in the succulent garden at Orange Coast College

Thursday, October 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

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

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

Mark's front garden

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

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Superb succulent plantings at Plant Depot Nursery

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Garden sparkles after unexpected rain

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

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

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

×Mangave ‘Purple People Eater’

Friday, September 13, 2019

David Feix's tropical jungle in Berkeley

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

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

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

Front garden

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Going vertical: the next frontier

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Plant-nerd technology that works: Huntington digital plant map

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

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

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

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

This is what you see when you get to

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Huntington Desert Garden: Old World eye candy

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

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

Crown of thorns (Euphorbia millii)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Huntington Desert Garden: New World eye candy

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Prickly pictures from the U.S. Library of Congress

Last week, somewhere on the internet, I stumbled on a black-and-white photo of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo standing next to an enormous agave. The image was striking—beautifully composed and hauntingly expressive. Is Frida saying hello? Or goodbye? Is she sad? Or just pensive? The fact that there's a gigantic Agave salmiana in the frame makes the picture even more memorable, at least for me.

Toni Frissell: Frida Kahlo (Señora Diego Rivera) standing next to an agave plant, during a photo shoot for Vogue magazine, “Señoras of Mexico”, 1937
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Toni Frissell Collection, LC-F9-01-3707-25 -8

What caught my attention beyond the image itself was the credit line: “Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.” A quick Google search led me to the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC), which contains about 1.2 million digitized images, many in the public domain. 

I ran two searches, for “agave” and for “cactus,” and found not only Frida Kahlo's agave images but also a bunch of others that caught my eye for one reason or another. Here's a sampling of what I discovered.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Rusty can as succulent planter: upcycling gone right—or wrong?

It's no secret I like the look of rusted metal in the garden. Weathering steel (Corten) planters, however, are not cheap. In the spring I converted a few old chimney flue liners into faux metal planters using oxidizing iron paint; the result surprised even me.

In my ongoing quest to find low- or no-cost metal accents, I've decided to try something I've avoided so far: use a rusty tin can:

Hechtia epygina

What do you think?

The first time I looked at the final product from a few feet away, I wasn't sure whether I liked it or not.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Sloping succulents and upcycled metal: personal garden of Bay Area landscape designer Mathew McGrath

I love visiting private gardens. They give me an opportunity to learn from what others have created—to be inspired or, conversely, find out what I don't like. If I ever get to create my own dream garden, it will build on everything I've seen over the years.

While I'm eager to discover new things and willing to look closer even at stuff that initially leaves me cold, I virtually never come home thinking, wow, there's nothing I would change in this garden. I'm sure most of us are that way, gravitating naturally towards a pick-and-choose approach. After all, every one of us is unique, so what are the odds we fully embrace what somebody else has done?

Imagine my surprise last Saturday when just that happened. It's all because of this guy:

Mathew McGrath, Farallon Gardens

This is landscape designer Mathew McGrath, the creative mind behind Farallon Gardens, according to their website “one of the leading design and maintenance firms now serving the greater Bay Area.”

Mat and I had been emailing back and forth for a good while, and I finally had the chance to visit him at home in the Berkeley Hills.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Piece of Eden: a plant paradise in Southern California

Everybody deserves their own slice of paradise, wherever and whatever it may be. That's why visiting a fellow gardener who has found theirs is such a treat for me.

A few weeks ago when I was in Southern California for my daughter's university orientation I had the pleasure of hanging out with Hoover Bo, the creative mind behind one my favorite gardening blogs, the aptly named Piece of Eden. Yes, Hoover Boo has created her own paradise, a peaceful sanctuary that seems to exist apart from the world outside.

I first visited Piece of Eden in December 2017 and wrote a two-part post about it (1 | 2). Needless to say the garden looks different in the summer—other plants are in bloom, for one thing. But even without a single flower, Piece of Eden would be dazzling because of the enormous variety of shapes and textures.

Hoover Boo gardens on a ½ acre in Southern California that combines level areas with slopes, both in the front and the back of the property. For someone like me who has always lived in level places any kind of elevation change is a wondrous thing. I'm sure the reality isn't quite as glamorous, but Hoover Boo and her husband, Beloved, have solved their terrain challenges brilliantly.

Starting out, here is the wider view of the immediate neighborhood. Hoover's front yard is on the left; the house you see is their next-door neighbor. And check out the hills in the distance: all of that is undeveloped land protected within the borders of a regional park. Sights like that are becoming rare in the most densely populated part of California.

The massive inflorescence of a flowering Agave marmorata is a beacon that is impossible to miss

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Visiting Mountain Crest Gardens succulent nursery in far northern California

We're so used to online ordering, we often forget that the stuff we buy comes from a real place where real people work. It's no different for plant enthusiasts who purchase from sellers all over the country, maybe even from other countries. That's why I get so excited when I have the opportunity to visit one of those “anonymous” businesses.

Mountain Crest Gardens (MCG) is a leading online succulent nursery. Billing itself as “The Ultimate Succulent Store,” they carry 700+ varieties of succulents. On the MCG website—one of the best designed, in my opinion—they're organized in two major groups: “soft” (tender) and “hardy.” The nursery also caters to wholesalers and landscapers with bulk offerings, both plugs and 2" pots.

The beginnings of MCG go back to 1995 (click here to learn more about its history). Initially, they sold pre-planted succulent dish gardens and wooden birdhouses with succulent roofs through big-box retailers and later through their own website. In 2005, they switched to their current format: growing and selling a large variety of named succulents directly to consumers through an easy-to-navigate and richly illustrated online store.

Mountain Crest Gardens is located in an unlikely place for a succulent nursery: the small town of Fort Jones (population 850) in far northern California, about 40 miles from the Oregon border. Fort Jones is in USDA hardiness zone 7b, i.e. its average annual extreme minimum temperature is between 5° and 10°F. According to, “there are 136.7 days annually when the nighttime low temperature falls below freezing.”

For me, the location is actually quite convenient. My mother-in-law lives in the Northern California town of Mount Shasta, only 50 miles from Fort Jones. She and I had been talking about visiting Mountain Crest Gardens for over a year, and it finally happened a couple of days ago.

The fastest route from Mount Shasta is just under an hour, taking Interstate 5 to Yreka and then Highway 3 for the remaining 20 minutes. However, my mother-in-law and I decided to take the more leisurely and more scenic route over hill and dale. This part of California is sparsely populated. We only passed through two very small towns; most of the drive looked like this:

Friday, August 9, 2019

Succulent wonderland at Newport Beach Civic Center

Completed in 2013, the Civic Center in the Southern California coastal city of Newport Beach has become a word-of-mouth destination for succulent enthusiasts. It's easy to see why:

Newport Beach Civic Center along Avocado Avenue

The complex, which houses Newport Beach city hall and the central library, is architecturally stunning. It's adjoined by 14 acres of parks and gardens transected by 1.25 miles of walking trails. The $140 million price tag is hefty, but no corners were cut—and that applies to the outside areas as well. That in itself is very gratifying since landscaping, which is usually the last major element to be installed in a project, often gets the short end of the stick, especially when there are budget overruns.

The landscape design was created by Berkeley-based PWP Landscape Architecture whose projects are found all over the world, including Jewel Changi Airport in Shanghai, the National September 11 Memorial in New York, and the Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore. With their extensive experience and a generous $15 million budget, PWP created the kind of high-impact public landscaping that gets even indifferent and incurious passers-by to take a second look.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Another must-see SoCal nursery: Plant Depot in San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano is famous for two things: its Spanish mission founded in 1776, and the cliff swallows that arrive from Argentina every year on St Joseph's Day (March 19) and leave on the day of St John of Capistrano (October 23).

For plant lovers, I'm going to add something else: Plant Depot.

Plant Depot is a large family-owned garden center conveniently located right off Interstate 5. They seem to carry everything from aloes to zinnias, along with pottery, decor and gift items, tools and all kinds of accessories. Most importantly, I'm happy to report that they have a larger selection of succulents than any other general retail nursery I've been to in Southern California. Continue reading to see photographic proof.

Yucca 'Bright Star' and Lotus berlothii planted in bowls on top of the pillars that are part of the streetside fence 

Ironically, I hadn't heard of Plant Depot until last Friday when I visited Hoover Boo of Piece of Eden and she asked me if I'd ever been there. Through sheer luck, I had a couple of hours of me time (my family was doing other things), so I made a beeline for San Juan Capistrano. Traffic was still light, so I got there in 30 minutes.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Checking out OC Succulents, Irvine, CA

We're in Southern California for daughter #2's freshman orientation at University of California Irvine. When traveling with family, plant-related interests aren't at the top of my agenda, but I still try to squeeze in what I can.

Fortunately, the family sleeps late and many nurseries open early. Case in point: OC Succulents (OC stands for Orange County). It has three locations, one each in Orange County, Los Angeles County, and San Diego County. Primarily a wholesale nursery, it's open to the public as well. As you can see below, it's not a fancy “destination” with elegant displays and a nice cafe, but rather the kind of place where landscapers go with their trucks to buy big plants for landscaping jobs.

While the plants on tables are fairly organized, the larger ones on the ground are in no discernible order. Not that it bothers me—quite the contrary, it gives me an opportunity to explore, just in case something weird and unusual is hiding in plain sight.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Random snapshots from our garden, late July 2019

This post is a series of random photos taken in our garden at different times over the past few weeks. There's no real theme other than plants: some in flower, but all of them pretty even without.

This is what you see as you walk from the front door (behind us) to the driveway (over on the right):

I prefer to call it my “collection” of plants, but I won't blame you if you think it's hoarding about to veer off the rails. Just remember: My mantra is “if more is good, then more more is even more good.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Some projects to liven up the dog days of summer

With the exception of a few days above 100°F, we've had an unexpectedly pleasant summer. That has allowed me to get more done than I otherwise would have. No big projects—they'll have to wait until fall—but a few little ones with surprisingly big impact.

Nature abhors a vacuum, the saying goes, and that definitely applies to empty planters. The Corten container in the photo below had been sitting there for weeks, taking the place of a bloomed-out Verbascum bombyciferum 'Arctic Summer':

While the gaping maw of the Styrofoam-lined interior wasn't the most attractive sight, I wasn't in a big hurry either because I simply didn't know what to put there. Well, actually I did know: I wanted to put an Agave 'Mr Ripple' in there (I have a nice blue clone from Ron Parker). However, since the container is only 2 ft. from the public sidewalk, there was no way I could plant a massive agave so close to where people pass by. 

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Jackson Broussard: a landscape designer's personal garden

I imagine the work of a landscape designer is a constant give and take in order to find a balance between their own ideas and their clients' wishes. At best, the two parties strike a happy medium—and at worst, they end up making concessions that leave everybody dissatisfied.

That's the reason why I love seeing what garden designers do at home where they're not bound by compromise and can give their creativity free reign.

I had such an opportunity right after the 2018 Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin when Pam Penick, garden writer extraordinaire and one of the Fling organizers, took a handful of us diehards on a tour of even more gardens. The first one we visited belongs to landscape designer Jackson Broussard.

Hard to believe but these are Bradford pears

It was clear right off the bat that this is no ordinary garden. The walkway to the front door is lined with Bradford pears, shaped perfectly and giving a welcome sense of coolness in the Austin heat.

I couldn't believe these are the same trees I hate so much in Davis where, as city trees, they're neglected, misshapen, and infested with fire blight and mistletoe. I asked Jackson twice: Yes, they are Bradford pears. (Jackson created a ingenious Bradford pear arbor in another garden we visited as part of the Fling.)

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