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.