A geologist’s garden: succulents and rocks

One of the greatest things about writing a blog is meeting like-minded people. And it’s even better when they live fairly close by. That’s exactly what happened this past Wednesday when my friend Justin and I visited Kyle Johnson in Sacramento. Kyle had visited Justin’s garden a few months ago so they already knew each other—proof that plant nerds like us often are just a few degrees of separation apart.

The first thing that caught my eye as Justin and I pulled up to Kyle’s house was this beauty in the side yard, a 1946 Ford pickup!

It turns out that this was Kyle’s first car. Now it holds some of Kyle’s cactus collection. I couldn’t help but smile.

Kyle is a geologist by profession and many of the rocks he’s collected over the years have found their way into his garden. As somebody who regularly brings rocks home from road trips, I was excited to see minerals I’d never encountered before. Here’s a spectacular example:

Chalcopyrite and molybdenite from a open-pit copper mine south of Tucson, AZ

Kyle also has an artistic side. Check out these pieces of wall art he made out of slices of rock cut from core samples:

This is the kind of art I love. I wish Kyle would make some of these for sale!

Speaking of core samples, several are incorporated in the planting beds in the back yard:

Petrified wood and core samples in Kyle’s garden

The plant palette in Kyle’s garden is right up my alley: aloes, agaves, mangaves, dudleyas, echeverias, mesembs, cacti, and perennials for color.

Kyle’s back yard consists of a series of mounds bordered by rocks. This is my preferred style of planting as well, not only because it’s much easier than trying to amend our native clay soil, but also because it ensures the sharp drainage succulents (and many perennials) need.

As you’d expect in the garden of a geologist, the rocks are an integral part of the design, not just an afterthought. Here are a few particularly striking vignettes that perfectly combine rocks and plants:

×Taciveria ‘Belana’, a hybrid between Echeveria laui and Tacitus bellus (formerly Graptopetalum bellum). This is my new plant crush!

Sedums and other small succulents spilling out of lava rocks

Beautifully staged Dudleya sp.

Kyle is an enthusiastic collector of plants and rocks, but his garden is far more than a random assemblage of everything he’s brought home. He has an innate sense of design and has arranged his plants and rocks so masterfully that I could have spent hours exploring every vignette.

San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachinoi), a Craigslist purchase, like several other larger plants in Kyle’s garden

Aloe pseudorubroviolacea (left)

Aloe perfoliata (aka Aloe distans)

Petrified wood from Sutton, Alaska, an old coal mining area, and a metamorphic boulder picked up in a streambed in Alaska (Kyle lived in Alaska for four years)

Succulents are awesome and look great even when not in flower. But there’s nothing quite like flowering perennials and annuals adding pops of color:

Salvia ‘Amistad’ (right)

Kniphofia ‘Poco Orange’

Verbena bonariensis ‘Lollipop’ adding color without obstructing the view of the other plants in this bed

Aloe lineata var. muirii surrounded by Felicia aethiopica ‘Tight and Tidy’ (left) and Geranium ‘Rozanne’ (right)

Agave bovicornuta planted in an old tire rim

Cosmos sulphureus ‘Indonesian Kennikura’ (from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds) is an annual. Kyle gave me some seeds, so expect to see it in my garden next year.

In addition to succulents and perennials, Kyle’s back yard also has several fruit trees and a thornless blackberry on a metal trellis:

Thornless blackberry, still ripening

Here are some wider views:

Kyle built the shed you see in the photo above and below for his wife. The interior is not quite finished yet, but it’s very nice—far nicer than some apartments I’ve lived in.

Beaucarnea recurvata (left) and Stapelia gigantea, the latter another Craigslist find

Echinocactus grusonii pushing out a ring of offsets

More succulents and rocks:

Agave utahensis var. nevadensis

Kyle’s Moroccan mound (Euphorbia resinifera) may still be small, but it’s off to a great start

The patio off the living room is shaded by a pergola covered by a grape vine. The grapes weren’t quite ripe yet, but there’s a good crop in the making.

Since the house is fairly small, Kyle and his wife actively use the patio and the back yard as an extension of their living space. Thanks to a patio heater, they can sit outside even in the cooler months.

Kyle makes excellent use of all the space he has, not just horizontally but also vertically:

Inspired by Pot Inc.’s Hover Dish planters, Kyle made these hanging planters out of squirrel baffles for bird feeders for a fraction of the cost

Zig tag cactus (Disocactus anguliger)

Lush tropicals in a shadier spot

The patio is also home to a number of potted plants:

Agave attenuata ‘Ray of Light’ and Dudleya sp.

Metal barrel repurposed as a planter

The front yard is dominated by a liquidambar tree with fairly shallow roots. Kyle has carved out some planting areas for succulents already and plans to add a shallow cactus mound right in front of the tree (on the right in the photo below).

Agave titanota from Justin waiting to be put in the ground

Justin (left) and Kyle

Even though I’d never met Kyle before, it seemed like I’d known him for years. That’s what happens when plant nerds start geeking out together. And since Kyle lives only 30 minutes away, I’m sure I’ll get to revisit his garden before long—maybe on an overcast day the next time so my photos will be less contrasty.

© Gerhard Bock, 2022. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. You have a talent for connecting with interesting people and gardens, Gerhard! It looks like Kyle makes good use of his day job when it comes to his garden. I loved this post from the first shot of the old truck. The raised beds with rock borders are wonderful. I still need more rock...

  2. There's so much to love about Kyle's garden! The way he has combined succulents, flowering perennials, edibles and rocks with interesting art is very well done indeed.

    Kyle's art is super cool. I see echos of Kandinsky's compositions and the designs of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. There's definitely a gap in the market for this kind of garden art - Kyle could consider a side gig if so inclined.

    We're hoping to purchase a house soon - I will check back on this post when setting up the garden - it is very much the kind of space I hope to create. Thanks for the tour!

    1. What wonderful comparisons! Kyle will be very happy to read your comment!

  3. This garden could have easily been your garden! Kindred spirits the three of you. Sun or not, your photos are great and really show off Kyle's talent and passion for plants and rocks. You must get invited back to see the finished shed as well. That old truck is immensely cool.

    1. Yes, I will definitely be back. And I'll take photos of the finished shed.

  4. I'm checking out the local farm store for squirrel baffles! Such a stylish, well-designed, well-rounded garden (grapes and berries too!) the kind of space you could wander in for hours and never lack for something beautiful to admire. I admit to being surprised by my own prejudice that assumed a scientist would be less stylish! The wall art may not be mobile but it does remind me of Calder.

    1. Let me know what you find re: squirrel baffles.

      Your comment about wandering for hours is right on!

  5. I enjoyed this garden so much! Will look forward to more photos in the future! Oh, to live in Southern California!

    1. Or northern CA! As long as it is not in the super hot desert like Phoenix!

  6. Core samples for the win! There's a lot to love in this garden, I'm glad you got to visit. Well done Kyle!

    1. I'll ask Kyle where regular folks like us can get core samples...


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