I 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, serpentine, 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 iron 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 provide 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.
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I walk regularly in Henry Cowell State Park in Felton. I can’t imagine losing the majestic redwood forest I enjoy so much to a fire. Over the summer there were several arson caused fires in the park. Actually 10 separate fires have occurred in the same general area and along the San Lorenzo River over the past 6 months, some caused by campfire escapes and some by arson. All of them were caused by humans.
We live in this beautiful area because of the natural scenery and wildlife. To lose any part of it to wildfire would be tragic. Whether a fire is caused by humans or natural causes such as lightning it’s all the same to our neighborhood, our homes, our pets, our lives.
We know that fire in some instances can be good for the land. After many years of fire exclusion an ecosystem that needs periodic fire to remain healthy becomes overcrowded and flammable fuels build up. The Forest Service manages prescribed fires to benefit natural resources and protect communities. However, as we build homes further into nature prescribed fires are not always possible. This is where mechanical treatment can benefit ecosystems and people.
Mechanical treatment include thinning of dense stands of trees or other fuels that make an area better able to withstand fire. Pruning loser branches, piling brush or creating fuel breaks encourage a more manageable fire should one occur.
Last week I talked about how to make the area closer to your home more firesafe. Here are some more tips.
In areas 30-70 ft. away from your house plants should be trimmed and thinned to create well-spaced groups and help prevent a fire in the wildland from spreading to your home. Be cautious with slopes. If you have a large lot, the fringe area should be inspected and maintained regularly to eliminate any build up of dry brush and litter. This reduces the chance of surface as well as crown fires.
Plant arrangements, spacing and maintenance are often as important as plant types when considering fire safety. Group plants of similar heights and water requirements to create a landscape mosaic that can slow the spread of fire and use water most efficiently. Use plants that no not accumulate dead leaves or twigs. Keep your landscape healthy and clean. On a regular basis remove dead branches and brush, dry grass, dead leaves and pine needles from your yard, especially within 30 feet from your home and at least 150 ft if you’re on a hill. Keep trees spaced at least 10 feet apart with branches trimmed at least 10 ft away from your roof. It’s best, however, to keep trees further from your house. Low shrubs can be closer in and herbaceous perennials and groundcovers can be nearest the home.
Extremely flammable plants have a high content of oil or resin and should be separated from each other, removed of dead branches and lower limbs and kept free of dry debris anywhere around your property. Extremely flammable pyrophytes like hollywood juniper, pines, fountain grass and Japanese honeysuckle will need a higher level of maintenance. Other common plants that are highly flammable ares sagebrush, buckwheat and deer grass. Rosemary and purple hopseed also fall into this category.These contain oils, resins and waxes that make them burn with a greater intensity.If you have these plants on your property yearly pruning and maintenance is important.
Irrigation is vital in a fire safe landscape to maintain plant moisture especially in the 30 ft around your home. Choose the right irritation system. While all plants can eventually burn, healthy plants burn less quickly. Consider drip irrigation and micro sprays for watering most of your landscape. Use sprinklers for lawns and other groundcovers or turf. Even drought adapted species and natives will benefit from watering every month or so during the dry season. Unwatered landscapes generally increase the risk of fire.
Mulching around your plants will preserve this precious commodity in these times of drought. Plantings beyond 30 ft. should be irrigated occasionally but to a lesser extent. As you get 70-100 ft from the home, native plantings that require little or no irrigation should be used.
Using fire resistant plants that are strategically planted give firefighters a chance fighting a fire around your home especially within the 100 foot defensible zone. Each home or property is different and you will need to look at the unique qualities of yours in planning your firescaping. Some of the info for this column was obtained from 2 valuable booklets. ‘Living with Fire in Santa Cruz County’, prepared by Cal Fire and available free from any fire dept or online and another from Calif. Dept of Forestry at www.fire.ca.gov/.
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I drove through the Groveland area near Yosemite a couple of days before the Rim Fire started on August 17th. The local talk over Tioga Pass was then about the recent Aspen fire in the Sierra National Forest. The Rim fire has now burned 400 square miles of forest and cost $122 million to fight to date. What started as a 40 acre fire when discovered exploded to over 100,000 acres within 2 days. It is now the 3rd largest in California history.
Remote sensing satellite images indicate that virtually all the vegetation is dead on nearly 40% of the burned area. Chaparral and oaks will resprout but ecologist say it could take 30 to 50 years for the forest to reestablish itself. It scorched some of the last remaining old growth in the Stanislaus National Forest. Two years of drought and constant slow warming across the Sierra Nevada worked to turn the Rim Fire into an inferno. For years forest ecologists shaded_fuel_brake_example.2048have warned that Western wildfires will only get worse. The fuels get drier and drier.
There have been two wildfires close to where I live in Felton, one of which was only 5 miles away on Martin Grade in Bonny Doon several years ago. How can I protect my home? Is there a landscape that is safer in a wildfire than another? Which plants burn more readily?
Many people think they have to clear everything within 30 feet of their house to truly have a defensible space. This is unnecessary and actually unacceptable due to soil erosion and habitat destruction reasons. We want to retain the character of this beautiful area we live in, provide the food and shelter that our native wildlife are accustomed to but also reduce fire risk. For example, grasslands mowed to leave 4-6″ of height allow insects, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals shelter, food and a place to reproduce. Leaving 4-6″ standing also provides some erosion protection and shades out some of the weeds that follow disturbance.
Fire safe landscaping is a term used to describe defensible space. It can look like a traditional landscape. The idea is to surround the home with things less likely to burn and place them to provide separation between canopies and avoid creating fire ladders. Highly flammable plants should be placed, whenever possible, with low-growing and/or low fuel plants.
Many homes may not have 30 ft. between their house and the property line but following these guidelines will help. Plants in this area need to be the slowest to ignite and should produce the least amount of heat if they do burn. There are plants with some fire resistance which include drought tolerant California natives and Mediterranean climate selections. The key to fire resistance, though, is maintenance and keeping the moisture in the foliage high.
For example, Baccharis pilularis or dwarf coyote brush is generally considered highly flammable if its lush green top growth covers a hazardous tangle of dry branches and leaves several feet high. Trim this plant down low in early spring, remove the dry undergrowth, follow with a light feeding and watering and the new top growth is now resistant to fire.
Other considerations may be as important such as appearance, ability to hold the soil in place and wildlife habitat value. Some fire-resistant California friendly plants are western redbud, monkey flower, ceanothus, sage, yarrow, lavender, toyon, California fuchsia and wild strawberry. Also consider coffeeberry, flowering currant, bush anemone, snowberry, California wax myrtle and evergreen currant. Fire resistant plants from areas include rockrose, strawberry tree, Chinese pistache, barberry, escallonia, oleander, pittosporum, bush morning glory and wisteria to name just a few.
Next week I will discuss plant spacing arrangement and maintenance to help you prepare a fire-safe landscape around your home.
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He told me that his was a one-of-a-kind garden, unique in such a small space and would I be interested in visiting some time? I love being invited to tour all types of gardens but I had an inkling that the garden of Rich Merrill, former Director of the Horticulture Dept. and Professor Emeritus at Cabrillo College, would be something special.
It was a beautiful morning when I arrived at Merrill's garden overflowing with flowering plants, small trees, edibles and water features. Many large boulders, surrounded by pebbles, caught my attention in such a small space. All part of the design to attract beneficial insects I was told. His organic garden is teeming with small beetles, spiders, predatory bugs, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps and lacewings. It's the ideal method of pest control, environmentally safe and free of cost.
While admiring his lovely garden, Merrill shared his knowledge of beneficials- from insects to birds to spiders to frogs and beetles. They are all part of the ecology of a successful habitat garden. I could barely keep up, writing down notes on my yellow legal pad as he weaved a story about how each of the elements in his garden contributes to its total health. I was never able to take one of his classes at Cabrillo College so this was a real treat. My own private class.
The wide diversity of plants in Merrill's garden provide moisture, shelter, prey and nutrition in the form of nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. His plants are "beneficial" plants because they foster beneficial insects. It just so happens that many of these plants are also beautiful in the garden. Some of his favorites include composite flowers like sunflowers, marigolds buckwheat, scabiosa and santivalia or creeping zinnia. They have flat flower clusters with accessible landing platforms and small nectar and pollen to make it easier for insects to feed. They in turn eat the tiny eggs of the bad bugs in your garden. His is a complete ecosystem.
This 800 square foot garden happens to be in a mobile home park but any small space could be designed to be as beautiful and full of life as Merrill's. Most of my clients ask for a garden filled with color, hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies and wildlife so I came away with lots of great ideas.
Once a teacher, always a teacher. Merrill gave me a handout he'd prepared for Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, explaining in more detail why he lets the broccoli go to flower to attract beneficials and why he allows aphids on his cruciferous vegetables to feed the beneficial insects when prey is scarce so they are on hand should he have an outbreak of bad insects that might ruin his flowers and plants.
As we strolled within a border of palms, olive trees, phormium, bottlebrush, Marjorie Channon pittosporum and cordyline, Merrill showed me his philosophy of right plant in the right place in action. Asclepias curassavica, commonly called Mexican Butterfly Weed, has self sown on its own in unexpected spots. One happened to come up next to the gorgeous blue thunbergia by the pondless waterfall making an awesome combination. Both monarch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy the nectar.
Next to a red salvia, a red and white bicolor Rose of Sharon made it's home. Merrill lets all his plants intertwine and the pink flowering Heckrottii honeysuckle was already inching up into an olive tree. Other salvias in his garden include Hot Lips, San Antonio and San Jacinto. There isn't room to grow any of the larger salvias, Merrill explained. He swears he doesn't know where the brilliant blue one came from. Must be from the "fairy dust" his wife, Dida says he sprinkled over the garden to make everything grow so lush.
She loves flowers for fragrance and cutting so in several beds they grow gardenia, lemons, roses and alstroemeria among the alyssum which is a prime syrphid fly attractor. Several bird of paradise, obtained from different locales in the hopes one will be hardier grow beneath a tall palm.
Merrill grows only the vegetables that do well and are the most nutritious like kale, onions, garlic, broccoli and collards. He enjoyed growing cucumbers this year and has a large pumpkin in the making for his grandson. The rest he gets from the farmer's market. He had developed his own strain of elephant garlic which is actually a leek and has a milder flavor than garlic. I left his garden with a gift of elephant garlic and lots of inspiration.
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