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