A Succulent Wall Like No Other

succulent_wall.1280I designed other parts of this garden but this area was all hers. She’d been interested in cactus and succulents for a long time before deciding to combine her passion for these plants and her love of gardening to a problem spot in the garden. The results are jaw-dropping impressive and I was honored to visit this garden and get a private tour. My friends live on the river in Ben Lomond and working as a team have created a living wall on a slope that runs the length of their driveway rising steeply up to a road on the upper side.

Most people would have built a block retaining wall and added a few low water use plants for erosion control and called it a day. But not this couple. He’s a rock hound and has collected specimens on every vacation and job site for a very long time. “His rock collection became so large we needed to bring them out in the open and put them in a place where he could see them daily”, she says. My eyes were riveted on a mosaic of colors as the various stones of jasper, jade, granite, graptopetalum.2048serpentine, travertine, chert, sandstone, obsidian, lava and limestone intertwine. “The wall has been quite an adventure”, the couple says casually as my eyes darted back and forth, up and down admiring each vignette. Almost all of the succulents and cactus plants were obtained for free from discards and generous friends and the garden art in the wall was found on construction sites and recycled. The wall itself is an ongoing labor of love. Starting just a year and a half ago with a short block wall as the base, this living succulent wall has been built with mortar, rebar and dry laid stones and even has a sturdy set of stairs, a flagstone and pebble path and several places to sit and take in its beauty.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful rock walls and colorful succulents that filled every crevice and cascaded down the rocks. How do you make it so stable I asked? “A good mason handles a rock only 9 times”, he said with a laugh. Seems there’s a story that accompanies every little section. An unusual black ornamental lion_fountain.1600iron railing surrounds a tiny slate patio at the top. It consist of typical sunflowers on the sides but in the middle of each section is a bat with wings extended. Really gets your attention I have to tell you. I was told that Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame used to live in Ben Lomond. He had a patio made for his aging mother and this was the surrounding railing. It arrived via some friends who now own the house and said they could have it as long as they never sold it. Along with some rocks from Tarzan’s old garden it is permanently installed in the succulent wall. At the top of the wall along the road lives a red rose that’s been in the garden a very long time. Story goes that a neighbor distributed these roses to many in the neighborhood and they originally came from Eleanor Roosevelt when she visted the area. Succulents for the wall are part trial and error, part research.

Drainage for any succulent is a must so first a mix is created using pumice, gravel and sand. This is used for the pockets in the wall and also for containers which are filled with rocks and only a few inches of the mix is added to the top. They have found that by using frost blankets over only the most frost sensitive varieties their collection survives our winters. The first winter they did protect them while getting established but now they are on their own. Even if some turn to mush, I was told, they are cleaned up in the spring, replanted and grow back just fine. And being succulents they multiply and there are even more to tuck into crevices the next year.

The wall contains hundreds and hundreds of plants, both succulents as well as other plants that my_garden_rock.1024provide colorful foliage and contrast to the rock. A new section is being developed with dark green serpentine and orange jasper rocks. Blue chalk stick (Senecio vitals ‘Serpents) is just one of the succulents growing here along with several varieties of crassula, echeverria, graptopetalum St. Ives, agave, sempervivum and aloe. There is a pink and blue section and a chartreuse and burgundy section, too. Every color of the rainbow is represented. Every succulent garden is unique and the owner’s of this one have created their own astonishing living wall. From fossil rocks shaped like hearts to slate pavers chipped into a heart shape to Hens and Chicks growing in the rock crevices and forming a heart, this garden shouts love.

Tree Pruning Tips

limbed redwoods.1600The big wind we experienced not long ago was just the beginning of the wild weather that is coming our way. Looking up at the trees violently swaying from one side to the other I wondered how they could survive such strong wind gusts. Not all of them do survive coming down and blocking driveways, roads and sometimes landing on a house or a car. There are ways of trimming, pruning and managing trees that can help them stay upright in a strong wind. Don’t endanger yourself, your family, your property or your valuable trees by mismanaging this valuable resource.

You’ve seen it. A homeowner wants more sun and has their redwoods limbed way up so there is just a a tuft of branches and foliage at the top. Living in the forest myself I can understand the desire for more sun. Why is this bad for your trees? What is a better way to ensure the health of the tree and still have space to walk or park under them or open up a view?

Raising the height of the lowest branches or limbing up is often done to create clearance in an area where people will walk or park. Seven feet is your target height . Over pruning removes many of the energy producing needles and leaves taking away most of the trees ability to photosynthesize. Evergreens don’t have food reserves like deciduous trees. They may even die completely in 8-10 years or topple in a heavy wind because they have become so top heavy and have lost their windbreak effectiveness.

Removing the lower limbs of redwood, cedar, pine or other conifer is needed to remove dead and dying branches which improves circulation and makes them more fire resistant. It’s done naturally in the woods when limbs die and fall off. If you must remove live lower branches do it over a longer period of time to reduce stress on the tree. The amount trimmed off should not exceed 25% of the total foliage. 10-15% is better but not always attainable.

Windowing of a tree should follow the same guidelines. To open up a view and preserve the health and beauty of your trees, here are some ways to make views and trees work together. According to Plant Amnesty, windowing or cutting selected branches, works best when the subject is a large, close-in tree blocking your view. By carefully choosing what to cut you can open a window in that tree to give you a fully framed view of whatever lies beyond. Like most pruning, there’s a certain amount of art involved in this. Never top a mature tree it’s arboreal butchery.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not to limb up evergreen trees in your yard, do your homework first. Oregon State University Extension Services recommends pruning when the treclear cut hillside.1600e is not actively growing. This is late winter to very early spring, well before any new growth will take off in the new season. For our area January and February is best. Redwoods go into a short period of dormancy at that time making it the best time for pruning. This gives them a chance to heal the cuts you make with their first burst of new growth in the spring.

Another scenario that wreaks havoc with the land is to clear cut large sections of forest. When you do this the trees left behind on the fringes are not prepared to deal with high winds. They grew up being protected by the trees around them and their trunks are not as strong. Trees channel the wind over the top and buffer it before it hits the ground. By clearing the land completely the wind barrels through the open area and hits the next thing in its way which may be your house or deck or landscaping. It’s better to remove selected trees completely.

Put away the saw and enjoy the beauty of your mature evergreens. Prune lightly. Preserve your trees natural shape. A properly pruned tree will look as natural as possible.

Growing Cover Crops – Part II

Orin_Martin_bell_beansOrin Martin of the Alan Chadwick Garden on the UCSC campus is widely admired for his incredible knowledge and skills as a master orchardist, horticulturalist and teacher. I was lucky a couple of years ago when he visited a group of fellow designers and brought his favorite russet apples. Another time he brought a dozen different kinds of potatoes that we roasted, critiqued and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Alan Chadwick Garden was nothing but poison oak and chaparral in 1967 when Alan Chadwick first got his hands on it. Martin came to UCSC in 1969 as a literature major but was soon impressed with Chadwick’s work, preaching the gospel of treating the garden as a self-nourishing system. Together they worked the garden, building the soil and teaching others.

Now Martin runs the appreaster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048ntice program which teaches future organic gardeners and shares his knowledge in workshops like the Cover Crop class I recently attended.

Last week I wrote about how and why to plant cover crops. This is what to do next spring after they’ve done their magic in the soil fixing nitrogen.

Cover crops are plowed or skimmed off in late February to early April. Because it takes 3-5 weeks for the cover crop to break down so crops can be seeded or transplanted, it is often best to skim off the cover crop at the base of the plants and combine with straw or leaves to make compost. Previously made compost can then be applied to the surface. It is important to retain the roots and nitrogen-filled nodules in the soil. Take only the vegetative portion.

cover_crops_Orin_Martin.1280Another method is to skim the foliage with a weed wacker or mower chopping it into small pieces 1/4″ to  4″ long. You can then rototill this into the soil and allow it to decompose on its own. In about 2 weeks the material should be broken down to be unrecognizable as plant material before replanting.

If you are developing your soil to build organic matter and improve structure incorporate the cover crop at a more mature stage (half to full bloom) when it has a higher carbon content. The nutrients will be stored in the reservoir of humus and released slowly over a number of years.

On established soils where you want primarily to fertilize next spring and summers crops, incorporate the cover crop after skimming and chopping when it has just started to flower as it decomposes quickly at this stage.

The Chadwick Garden fertilizes its established fruit trees by simply cutting down the cover crop growing at their base with a machete at the 25% flowering stage. 4-6″ of wood chips are laid over the chopped up pieces and left for nature to decompose. That’s all their is to it. Martin explained that the garden used blood meal and the organic fertilizer, Sustane, during the first several years while the trees were becoming established.

Picking up a clump of grass sown just 2 weeks ago, Martin teased off the soil to show the vigorous, fibrous root mass. “This is why the riches soils of the world, the Steppes of Russia and the original Midwest prairies, are so fertile and are called bread basket soils”, he explained.

Plant a cover crop this fall and your soil will be richer for it.