Braving the rain to visit John B's aloe garden in Richmond

Standing around in the pouring rain is not something I do on a regular basis. But when it involves checking out cool plants and yakking with friends, the normal rules don’t apply. Such was the case last Saturday when fellow plant nerds Kyle and Justin and I made the drive to Richmond to visit common friend John’s aloe-centric garden. I’d blogged about John’s garden in July 2021 (here) and was eager to see how his plants had grown.

Rain may cause discomfort in humans who linger out in the open, especially when they foolishly choose inadequate clothing (me, looking sheepish in the mirror), but it does something wonderful: It makes even muted colors pop. The photos in this post are vivid proof, and this is a superb example:

Royal blue pot overflowing with Aloe cameronii flushed tomato soup red

John’s house is painted a vibrant turqoise which can be seen from a block away. When people ask him how they can tell which house is his, he can confidently say, “Trust me, you’ll know.” The color may split opinions, but I love it for its boldness. Plus, it makes a great backdrop for the plants.

March 2023

Compare the photo above with the shot below, which I took in the summer of 2021:

July 2021

Some plants have been (re)moved, but most plants are still there, just much larger now. Plants love the zone 10a climate of Richmond.

While Kyle, Justin and John were engaged in deep conversations about this aloe species or that, I rushed to take photos without getting the camera excessively wet.

Most of John’s aloes are in front and along the side of the house, right next to the sidewalk. Much like the L-shaped bed outside our house, John’s garden is a gift to the neighborhood. I hoped it has inspired others over the years to make their own front yards a little more engaging.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the special plants in John’s garden:

The large aloe on the left is Aloe ferox, the flowering aloe on the right is Aloe vaombe

Aloe vaombe

A perfect specimen of Agave pelona, one of my favorite agave species

Aloe ankoberensis

Aloe lukeana (top), Aloe rubroviolacea (bottom)

Aloe lukeana

Aloe capitata var. quartziticola

Aloe africana (left), Aloe marlothii (center)

Yellow-flowering Aloe rupestris × ferox

Yellow-flowering Aloe rupestris × ferox

Aloe thraskii in a small bed inset in the hell strip between the sidewalk and the street

Aloe labworana and Dudleya pulverulenta

Aloe vanbalenii

Aloe cameronii × ferox from Devon Boutte (back), Dudleya brittonii (front)

A spectacular specimen of Dudleya brittonii

Aloe titanota and Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’

Aloe titanota and Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’

Agave parrasana and Kumara plicatilis in the hell strip around the corner

Aloe pulcherrima

The backyard is mostly for family use, but I spotted some cool plants:

Aloe mawii

Signature single-sided flower of Aloe mawii

Part of John’s dudleya collection. John has started to make one-of-a-kind planters by gluing together small chunks of rocks using Loctite.

From left to right: Dudleya brittonii (purple pot), Dudley greenei, Dudleya gnoma, and Dudleya stolonifera hybrid in rock pots, Dudleya pachyphytum (on right, front), Dudleya gnoma (on right,back)

Dudleya greenii

Dudleya gnoma

The secret to John’s success, other than living in a Goldilocks climate that’s neither too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter, is to amend the soil to ensure sharp drainage. John either mixes native soil with inorganic material such as pumice, lava rock (5/16" or smaller) or lava fines, or he adds pre-made blends such as Ultra Bedding Mix or Ultra Potting Mix from American Soil & Stone, a local rock yard. (Both Ultra Bedding Mix and Ultra Potting Mix are based on coconuit coir and red lava and contain pH adjusters and fertilizers; this page lists the exact composition.)

Plants that are particularly sensitive to overwatering are mounded even higher, as you can see in many photos. These mounds use Bancroft Bedding Blend, a proprietary mix originally created for the Ruth Bancroft Garden and sold exclusively by Contra Costa Topsoil in Martinez.

Thanks to these simple measures, John has avoided of the kinds of problems many of us have experienced this winter: rot from excessive precipitation, either at the base from supersaturated soil or on leaves that remain wet for extended periods of time.

One thing even John hasn’t been able prevent: weeds. The record rainfall this winter has been a boon to California’s water supply, but it has also caused weeds to grow even more explosively than they usually do. And one of the worst is oxalis. Two species are common in the Bay Area: Oxalis pes-caprae (flowers on taller stems, sometimes grown as an ornamental) and Oxalis corniculata (tiny flowers close to the ground). Both are exceedingly difficult to eradicate: Oxalis pes-caprae forms tiny bulbs that invariably remain in the soil when you pull out the plant, and Oxalis corniculata has creeping stems and produces an insane amount of seeds that shoot out the mature fruits. Even Roundup (glyphosate) is only partially effective. The only way to get rid of oxalis for good is to remove the top layer of soil that contains the bulbs and seeds—not a trivial undertaking.

Pesky oxalis aside, John’s garden is a fantastic showcase of plants rarely seen in cultivation in Northern California. Aloes are beautiful at any time of year, but they’re extraordinary in winter when their flowers delight humans and feed hummingbirds and other pollinators.

© Gerhard Bock, 2023. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. I'm seeing rare, pristine aloes adjacent to car doors, and it makes me nervous! He must live in a very friendly, garden-appreciative neighborhood! A. cipolinicola looks like a chunkier version of A. capitata var. quartziticola, so lovely.

    1. I think he's had some issues with vandalism, but nothing major. Fingers crossed that it'll stay that way!

    2. P.S. Turns out my ID (A. cipolinicola) was wrong. It actually *is* A. capitata var. quartziticola.

  2. How fun to see the garden plots in different stages and seasons! I hear you on the rain--you've had so much lately. The photos are fantastic!

    1. The rain has been too much. From one extreme to the other. At least it's clear and sunny now. Maybe things will finally grow. We're a good month behind where we would normally be by mid-March.

  3. A wonderful aloe collection, creatively crammed into what looks like a relatively small space! I love the Aloe pelona. The planters using rock glued together are very clever.

    1. Every time I see John's rock pots, I feel inspired to make my own. I think this year I finally will!!

    2. I marvel at Tony Marino’s rock pots! These seem very similar. Perfect for prickly plants!

    3. The Tony Marino comment is mine, I don't understand why it says "Anonymous"

    4. I agree, I immediately thought of Tony Marino's pots, too. I think John was inspired by them as well and ran with it.

      I don't know why some comments sometimes appear as "Anonymous"...

  4. Love the house color with the vivid plants, and as I was reading I was thinking how healthy everything looked. Thanks for the background on John's soil prep.

  5. I spent the day yesterday in the rain at the Desert Botanical Garden. I love that the colors are so vibrant in your photos! John B.'s aloes and dudleyas are to die for!!! Check out some of my photos on Facebook! Believe me, I was dressed warm and in full rain gear! Such fun!!

    1. When it rains so much, you simply have to brave the elements if you don't want to be stuck indoors all the time.

  6. So gorgeous! And well-tended with love!!

  7. John's garden is fantastic! Aloe pulcherrima is really pretty, I've never seen one before. Seeing how quickly everything grew gives me hope for my own spaces, although I'm no 10a! lol

    1. I'm always inspired by John's garden. Even though he's only an hour away, his plants always grow faster and bigger than mine :-).


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