Thursday, December 26, 2019

From the mountains to the desert

Christmas Day at my mother-in-law's place in Mount Shasta, about an hour south of the Oregon border. The mighty mountain the town is named after has been playing peek-a-boo:

Mount Shasta (14,179 ft, 4,322 m)

Mount Shasta (14,179 ft, 4,322 m)

When Mount Shasta is hidden in the clouds, motorists passing through on Interstate 5 often mistake Black Butte for Mount Shasta:

Black Butte (6,334 ft, 1,931 m)

However, at 6,334 ft, Black Butte is less than half the height of 14,179 ft Mount Shasta. Rising up right next to the freeway, it's still an imposing sight.

Black Butte (6,334 ft, 1,931 m)

The town of Mount Shasta is in a picturesque alpine setting. However, less than 10 miles to the north, the geography changes dramatically as the conifer forest gives way to the high desert, which stretches east into Nevada and beyond.


 As much as I like the mountains, the desert is where my heart is. This desert, any desert.

“I succumbed to the desert as soon as I saw it,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, best known for The Little Prince. He was referring to the Sahara, but still.

Typical high desert scene east of Weed, CA

Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

It's been a long time since I've done any exploring in the far eastern corner of California—an area that is as vast as it is remote. One of these years... 

In the meantime, I'll get my desert fix somewhere else entirely—over 1,000 miles further south in the Sonoran Desert. On Boxing Day, I'm heading to Tucson, Arizona for my the annual post-Christmas solo road trip. From the Oregon border to the Mexican border, one might say!

Map data ©2019 Google, INEGI


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Eyeball-worthy nuggets from around the web—2019 holiday edition

2019 has been a very busy year workwise. Long hours chained to my desk have meant little time for staying current on my favorite blogs, let alone scratching anything but the merest surface of the bottomless sea of information available online.

Fortunately, work slows down between Christmas and New Year's, allowing me to catch up on my reading. And since I love sharing, here are some particularly fascinating tidbits I've come across.


Greenovia dodrantalis
© rare_succulent on Instagram
Unusual succulents are one of the 5 hot houseplant trends for 2020

According to Yahoo Lifestyle, “unusual succulents” are #2 of the “5 Houseplant Trends That Will Be Hot in 2020.” As examples, they give “jumping dolphins” and “rose buds.” If you're like me and have no idea what these made-up names refer to, “jumping dolphins” are Senecio peregrinus and “rose buds” are Greenovia dodrantalis.

Greenovias, or mountain roses, are aeonium relatives from the Canary Islands. Looking at some photos online, I can see how they would appeal to plant lovers who like their succulents soft and unarmed. House Beautiful even had an article about the mountain rose in June: “Because it’s a succulent, you can keep it indoors with very little fuss.” (No comment on that.) If you want your own greenovia, Etsy sells plenty of them.

“Jumping dolphins” (Senecio peregrinus), also sold as “string of dolphins,” are companions to “string of pearls” (Senecio rowleyanus), “string of beads” (Senecio herreianus), and “string of bananas” (Senecio radicans). In habitat, these closely related succulents from South Africa creep along the ground and form dense mats. In captivity, they look great cascading from a pot. If you want your own string of dolphins, Mountain Crest Gardens sells them.


Senecio peregrinus
© Mountain Crest Gardens
Available for order
10 plant trends to watch out for in 2020
Succulents also fare prominently in another list of 2020 plant trends, this one published on the Nursery Management website. “People are discovering the immense variety that is the world of succulents,” an expert from the University of Florida is quoted as saying. “Their interesting shapes and growth habits seem to offer a form of living art.”

To us, this may not seem surprising, let alone newsworthy, but bear in the mind that what nurseries carry is largely driven by consumer demand. If consumer tastes in succulents become more sophisticated, we're going to see more unusual or uncommon varieties in mainstream retail channels (possibly including greenovias!). That benefits all of us.

Even more intriguing is trend #4, “re-wilding.” This means taking “steps to have less control in the landscape. This can include encouraging beneficial insects, reducing herbicide and pesticide use, pruning less and planting more native plants.”

I'm totally on board with having less control. Not only does it involve less work, it also allows us to experience unexpected discoveries and surprises. I realize that giving up a certain amount of control can cause anxiety, but leave yourself open to the possibility that the rewards just may outweigh your discomfort.


© Intelligent Living
Planting trees in square holes makes them grow stronger and faster
That's what a December 21, 2019 article on the web site Intelligent Living claims. Apparently, when planting a tree in a round hole, it will develop a circular root system, much like it would in a container. Ultimately, this creates a “girdle that chokes the plant.”

In contrast, your tree has a much better chance of thriving in a square hole because when the roots meet up with a 90° angle, they spread beyond the planting hole and penetrate the surrounding soil. These are the findings from systematic planting trials.

Whether true or not, it doesn't take much more effort, if any, to dig a square hole so that's what I'll do from now on.


© Florida Fruit Geek
Cold-hardy avocados
I'm not sure how many of you lose sleep anguishing over whether to plant an avocado tree in a borderline inhospitable climate, but here is a handy guide to cold-hardy varieties. Surprisingly, some of them can handle temperatures as low as 15°F!

According to this excellent article by Florida Fruit Geek (Craig Hepworth), there are three subspecies of avocados—Guatemalan, West Indies, and Mexican. Only the first two are grown commercially, but they're frost-sensitive.

The frost-tolerant varieties are from the Mexican subspecies. They aren't grown commercially to any great extent because their skin is so thin that transportation would be difficult and hence costly (apparently you can mash them up skin and all). Because of their high oil content, they have a rich flavor that apparently puts the commercial varieties to shame.

Most Mexican varieties can handle cold snaps to 18°F, some even 15°F with little damage.

In addition, there are hybrids between the Mexican and Guatemalan or West Indies subspecies. They have less cold tolerance but thicker skin, making it easier to transport and store them without damage.

I once bought an avocado tree (I can't remember which variety) and it survived in its #5 nursery pot for several years. I never did get around to planting it, mainly because our backyard is small and I didn't want to dedicate precious real estate to a tree that is really quite ugly. However, if I ever were in the market for an avocado tree again, I'd try a Mexican variety for their flavor.


© Tom Cowey, as seen on Bored Panda
Crown shyness, or why trees don't like to touch
I was stunned when I first saw a picture of this phenomenon. To appreciate this marvel of nature in all its glory, look at these photos on Bored Panda.

Why are these trees taking great pains to avoid touching their neighbors? Nobody knows for sure but there are several hypotheses for what botanists call “crown shyness,” “canopy shyness,” or “intercrown spacing.”

Some experts postulate it's to protect against mechanical damage that would be caused by rubbing against neighboring trees; others think it's to prevent the spread of insects from tree to tree. To me, the hypothesis that makes most sense is that trees are trying to maximize the amount of light that reaches the leaves on lower branches. Maybe it's a combination of things.

Crown shyness is seen in a variety of trees, ranging from tropical and subtropical species to some European oaks and pines. This drone footage from Mexico is a jaw-dropping illustration this phenomenon:

Forest Therapy - Do Nothing for 2 mins... from Dimitar Karanikolov on Vimeo.


© Guillermo Rivera
Plant expeditions
I just received the latest newsletter from Guillermo Rivera Plant Expeditions. As always, it's full of drool-worthy destinations: Baja California, Namibia, Ecuador, South Africa/Namaqualand, Argentina, Chile.

Guille Rivera has been leading plant-focused trips to the Americas and Africa for decades. Several friends of mine have traveled with him, and they loved every minute. I've never been able to go on one of these trips, but it's wonderful to dream, especially when it's cold outside.

On that note: Happy Holidays to you and yours!


Monday, December 16, 2019

Favorite succulent photos of 2019

This year, I've published 106 posts containing some 2,600 photos. That number surprised even me! Granted, many of them are utilitarian—merely meant to illustrate something that happened or something I was working on. But more than half of them are actually nice, especially the ones from trips or garden visits. It's a shame their shelf life is so limited and the odds that they're viewed more than once are close to zero.

With that in mind, I've picked 60+ of my favorite succulent-themed images that appeared in 2019 posts, essentially giving them a second chance to be seen.

I've sequenced the images so there's a logical flow, either based on subject matter or location, or on color or texture. I hope you'll enjoy looking at them as much as I did taking them.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) east of Yucca, AZ

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Succulent hunting in the Arizona desert

Only two weeks to go to Christmas. That means two weeks and a day until I set out on my 7th annual post-Christmas trip south. Like 6 out of these 7 times, it will be to Arizona. What can I say? I love the desert, especially the Sonoran, and I need my yearly fix!

Looking back at my previous excursions, I realized that I never blogged about a December 2016 outing to the Waterman Mountains with agave guru Greg Starr, author of Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers, and desert rat Ron Parker, author of Chasing Centuries: The Search for Ancient Agave Cultivars Across the Desert Southwest. It was one of the most memorable experiences I ever had in the Sonoran Desert, and the photos I took are too good not to share.


Located about 25 miles northwest of Tucson, the Waterman Mountains are part of Ironwood Forest National Monument. This is a remote area inhabited by few, if any, souls. The roads we took after getting off Interstate 10 got progressively narrower and bumpier. That was before we entered territory that can only be described as hair-raising. Ron, to his credit, handled the many potholes and sharp rocks with great skill (and speed). Eventually the “road” got too bad to continue so we parked the car and set off on foot.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mountain Crest Gardens succulent mail order experience 👍

The wonderful thing about mail order is that it doesn't matter where you are. This is true not only for the buyer but also for the seller. Case in point: Mountain Crest Gardens, one of the bigger players in the online succulent business, is located in the small town of Fort Jones in a remote corner of northwestern California. Real estate is much cheaper there than in urban areas, allowing them to offer their plants at very competitive prices.

Coincidentally, Fort Jones is less than an hour's drive from my mother-in-law's house, and this summer she and I checked out Mountain Crest Gardens in person. Click here to read my post about our visit.

On online rating sites like Trustpilot, Shopper Approved, and Yelp, Mountain Crest Gardens has overwhelmingly positive reviews. Plant friends of mine who've ordered from them have been very pleased, not only with the quality of the plants but also with the packaging. If you think that latter is a trivial matter, you must not have ordered a lot of plants online. While some sellers have mastered the art of packaging plants securely for their arduous journey (Plant Delights and Annie's Annuals come to mind), others think sticking plants and a few wads of newspaper in a box is enough.

I hadn't really planned on ordering anything from Mountain Crest, knowing I'd visit them again in the spring, but when I saw their Black Friday deal—20% off and free shipping on orders over $49—I decided to bite. Better to give my money to a small family-owned business like Mountain Crest Gardens than ordering yet something else from Amazon.

Mountain Crest Gardens processed and shipped my plants in record time. The box arrived less than a week after I'd placed my order.

The first thing I do when I receive plants in the mail: I shake the box. In this case, there was no movement. Very good sign. This is what the inside looked like after I removed the top layer of packing peanuts (the biodegradable kind that dissolves in water):


The box itself can be recycled (duh, it's cardboard), and the materials inside—peanuts and shredded brown paper—can be composted. High marks for that.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Front garden on Black Friday 2019

This is a continuation of my previous post, which was about the renovated bed next to the front door. The photos were taken on Black Friday, the last sunny day before a series of rainstorms that will stretch into the 2nd half of next week. I love the light at this time of year—warm and gentle because of the lower angle of the sun.

The front garden is full of plants that positively glow when lit from the back or the side. This sight, from the walkway that connects the driveway with the front door, makes me feel good about what is otherwise an eclectic hodgepodge of plants: