Category Archives: succulents

How the Angel of Grief turned into a Cactus Garden

Angel of Grief
Angel of Grief

A friend of mine who attended Stanford University told me that the next time I was on the campus I should check out the famous Angel of Grief marble statue. Tucked in the trees behind the mausoleum that houses the remains of Leland Stanford, his wife and son, this statue was commissioned by Jane Stanford in honor of her deceased brother. It’s a duplicate of several others that are in places like Costa Rica, Canada, Luxembourg and Cuba and is actually the second on this site after the original was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

cactus_garden_path.1280It is indeed moving to stand in front of this massive white marble statue. Nearby is a cactus garden that is equally impressive to this horticulturalist. Alive with hummingbirds and songbirds, the flowers hummed with activity. In these days of designing drought tolerant gardens I’m always on the lookout for tough plants that combine well making a garden a delight to stroll and enjoy. I came away with lots of ideas. Here are some succulents that would work well in a drought tolerant garden in our climate.

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senecio mandraliscae

On a hot day, the color blue makes everything feel cooler. Plants with blue foliage or flowers can serve to calm a riot of color, connect different color schemes and make a space seem larger. One such succulent that serves this purpose well is called Blue Chalksticks or senecio mandraliscae. As a ground cover this beauty spreads 2-3 ft wide but only 12-18” tall. It’s very drought tolerant in full sun or light shade but will also tolerate regular irrigation and is hardy down to 20 degrees. The blue-gray foliage really stands out when paired with burgundy or pink.

Another favorite succulent that I like to use in drought tolerant landscapes is the Ghost plant which is a much easier name to remember than graptopetalum paraguayense. The colors of their 3-6” wide rosettes are what really catch your eye. Ranging from lavender blue to light pink and pale blue on the same plant, this colorful succulent will spread wide but only about 1 foot tall. It’s very hardy to winter lows of 20-25 degrees and will even rebound from being frozen if temps drop below that.

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calandrinia

The Stanford cactus garden has milder winters than us so not all the plants there handle our cold and potential rainy winter weather. But another plant that does great in our climate is calandrinia grandiflora. Brilliant purple, poppy-like flowers rise out of a rosette of succulent gray-green leaves to make a colorful show from spring to fall. Beside being so showy- especially in a large group- this plants needs only very occasional water and is hardy down to 15-20 degrees. It’s super easy to grow and spreads quickly suppressing all weeds as it grows. Maybe that parking strip out front or bare hillside would look great planted with some calandrinia.

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euphorbia lambii

As I strolled through the many winding pathways in this cactus and succulent garden I was amazed when I came across a tree euphorbia taller than I. It really does look like something straight out of a Dr. Suess book. It would need a bit of protection here when temperatures drop below 25 degrees but if you like unusual plants this is the one you’ve got to have. Between the long yellowish-green leaves and the bunches of greenish-yellow flowers-really bracts- it’s a show stopper.

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barrel cactus

Besides the massive barrel cactus in the Stanford cactus garden, there are many, many varieties of aloe, agave, hens and chicks and yucca to name just a few. I was reminded by the huge Joshua trees of my years living in the Antelope Valley. This garden was originally planted around 1880 and many of the original historical plants are still there. Volunteer restoration work began in 1997 and is ongoing. With approximately 500 cacti and succulents it’s worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Blooming Gifts for Gardeners

Echeveria_LaceIt’s as fun for me to give a little something during the holidays to those I care about as it is to receive a present. I admit I look forward to what might be under the tree but half the fun of the holidays is putting together an inexpensive gift that is just right for each person on my list. With so many gardeners on that list, the choices are endless. Here are some ideas that you might find just right for those you love.

Succulents are easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants with variations in watering and light conditions. Seems I’m always coming across someone who has a story about how long they have had a particular specimen and where it came from. “You see that hens and chicks over there?”, they say. “Well my aunt gave me a little slip way back in… and it blooms every year.”echeverria_ruffled

I’m particularly drawn to the many frilly and ruffled echeveria that are available now. There are 180 different species of this succulent and hundreds of hybrids to choose from. Many of them are blooming at this time of year making them a showy gift that’s sure to get you a lot of thanks. With names like Afterglow, Easter Bonnet, Red Edge, Coral Glow, Perle Von Nurnberg, Morning Light, Blue Surprise or Fire and Ice you can pretty much pick the shade of scarlet, tangerine, purple, opalescent blue or nearly black, often with a combination of colors.

These rosette shaped succulents are native to Mexico. The brilliant colors of the leaves never fade and the waxy flowers last a very long time. They make ideal potted plants and are easy to propagate. The perfect gift in my book.

Another simple, inexpensive gift for the gardener on your list is the tillandsia. Sometimes called air plants, these relatives of Spanish moss and pineapple have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just an occasional spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs.

Tillandsia prefer the light frtillandsiaom a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain. Wire one on a branch or piece of driftwood or place in a shell where they will live happily for years growing pups at the base that replace the mother plant.hyacinth_jars.1600

It’s not too late to start a couple of hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator to give as gifts. Part of the fun is watching the bulbs put out roots well before the fragrant blooms. Choose a hyacinth jar or other narrow necked jar that will support the bulb just above the water and keep in the frig until roots start to fill the jar. Take the bulb out of the dark and give it a bit more light each day for a week until acclimated to bright light. The house will fill with the sweet scent of spring even though it may only be January.

They say that we often give a gift that we ourselves would like to receive. Simple is sometimes the best but they all say “love”.

Gardening Projects and Ideas for a Rainy Day

As I looked out the window at the rain coming down I thought of all the things I should be doing in the garden. “Where does the time go”, I thought to myself. “Why did you frolic in all that sunshine last month instead of transplanting and moving plants to better spots”?  I could tell from the conversation going on in my head that I needed some inspiration so off I went to visit a local garden store. I knew I was in trouble as I explored and wanted to buy nearly every cool plant I saw. Here are some of the plants that really caught my eye.

tillandsia_on_apple_branchLast month for my birthday a friend gave me a collection of tillandsia attached to an gnarled, mossy apple branch that had fallen from a tree in her garden. There are many kinds of these bromeliads or air plants as they are sometimes called and they can be displayed in lots of ways. At the garden store, I saw miniature hanging terrariums that looked awesome with several tiny tillandsia specimens, glossy pebbles and moss bits arranged inside. The humidity inside the glass as well as the bright light from a window is just what they like.

Other tillandsia were mounted on bark, some on driftwood, some in table top terrariums and some displayed in beautiful baskets. Tillandsia, like their relatives, Spanish moss and pineapple, have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just a spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

I’m always on the lookout for ideas for landscape plants that might be perfect in an edgeworthia_chrysanthaupcoming design. Often what is needed to complement a house or view from a window is a plant with interesting foliage color or  branching pattern and bark in the dormant season. Showy, fragrant flowers make a welcome addition to the front entry at any time of year but I found one new to me and it’s blooming now.

Tucked among other plants with soft yellow and green foliage I saw my first Edgeworthia or Chinese Paper Bush. Also called yellow daphne, this daphne relative is grown mainly for its flowers. Tubular, bright yellow flower clusters fade to creamy white. The showy display is memorable. They definitely possess that weird appeal that collectors love. In China this plant is used to make paper and medicine.

Edgeworthia chyrsantha are hardy to 10 degrees and prefer half day sun or afternoon shade during the hot summer sun. They grow to about 6 feet tall and a bit wider. The tropical looking foliage is attractive during the summer but it’s the overwhelmingly fragrant display of pendent, golden yellow flowers that will make you want to grow this shrub in your garden. I’m looking forward to planting it next to a fragrant daphne.

pittosporum_tenuifolium_Irene_PattersonAnother plant that caught my eye was an Irene Patterson pittosporum tenuifolium. With speckled frosty green leaves this shrub will really light up a dark area. It can take full sun but it’s the shady areas I have in mind. Hardy to 15-20 degrees it will survive our winters and is adaptable to most soils. I think it would look great paired with the variegated huge green and white leaves of ligularia argentea.

I was also inspired to plant up my own succulent garden after seeing the display planted in recycled wooden boxes, old tins, antique cheese boxes and weathered boots. Whatever you have on hand with a drainage hole will look   succulent_garden2great with a succulent or two planted inside. Succulents in containers can be moved out of winter frost and rain which increases the variety that can survive in our area. I have a vintage Swift’s Silverleaf pure lard tin that’s just waiting to provide a home for some new succulents.  I’m looking forward to going back to the garden store to choose just the right specimens for his special container.

It’s fun to have some gardening projects that I can do indoors. There’s lots of time to plant those new landscape plants that caught my eye on a rainy day.

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.

Succulents for Color

Fresh from a day spent among the spectacular world of succulents I’m excited about using these unique plants in new ways. Succulent Gardens in Moss Landing hosted a day of speakers, tours and demonstrations showcasing these  fabulous, unearthly-looking plants. I’ve always liked succulents grown along a walkway, around accent boulders or tucked between perennials. Now I’m creating awesome vignettes in containers that I can move under an overhang to protect from excess rainfall and frost if necessary. There are so many impressive varieties to choose from. Here are some of my favorites that I enjoyed on the tour.

Many showy succulents need only a bit of protection during our winters.  Aeonium decorum Sunburst is one of the showiest species with spectacular variegated cream and green 10" rosettes. This plant  grows 2′ tall and looks terrific with black Voodoo aeonium in a pot. Sunburst is hardy to 28 degrees while Voodoo will go down to 32 degrees. Aeoniums do so well in our climate as they come from Arabia, East Africa and the Canary Islands where winter rainfall is the norm.

Aeoniums propagated from tissue culture are now affordable. There was a time when a 2" seedling cost upwards of $100. Tissue culture involves taking the cells from the core of the plant and growing it in a sterile medium like agar. The resulting plants are exact copies of the mother plant and mature quickly.

Echeveria grow naturally in higher elevations of central Mexico to northwestern South America and so do well in our our cool wet winters. After Glow is frost tolerant and looks to be painted with florescent paint. There are spectacular hybrids being developed every year. These are not as hardy as the traditional hens and chicks but well worth the effort to find a place where they can survive a freeze. Frilly Mauna Loa sports turquoise and burgundy foliage while echeveria Blue Curls looks like an anemone in a tide pool.

Aloes from South Africa and Arabia are old world plants. Many like the medicinal aloe vera are frost tender but some, like the tree-like aloe plicitilis, are hardy down to 25 degrees and look great either in the garden or in pots.  Did you know the Egyptians used aloe in the mummification process or that there are no known wild populations of aloe? In South Africa, an aloe called ferox is used in the same way as aloe vera for burns and stomach problems. This variety is hardy down to 20 degrees and blooms in January.

When potting succulents in containers, be sure to use a quality potting mix as good drainage is essential. There are special succulent mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. A great tip I got from Debra Baldwin, author of Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, is to add Dry Stall to regular potting soil. Dry Stall is a horse bedding product made with pumice. It is similar to perlite although heavier and less expensive.

Her recipe for succulent soil mix differs with the size of the leaf. For fat, juicy leaves use 75-90% pumice of perlite to potting soil. Fine-leaved varieties thrive in a soil mix of 25% pumice to 75% soil and all the rest get a mixture of 50/50. Don’t add gravel or clay shards at the bottom if planting in a container as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

Because succulents use little water they are easy to care for. If you hate the idea of having to water after you get home from work, create the garden of your dreams with succulents.

Tough Succulents & other Plants for Containers

I have hundreds of plants in containers (295 at last count). You’d be amazed how many pots you can squeeze on a wrap-around deck, including the railings! Some of my favorites are those that house my succulent collection. I’ve come to think of them as pets as they grow over the years. They are tough, resilient and beautiful.

All my plants must be able to survive our winters without intervention on my part. I remember one cold snap about 10 years ago when the surface of my deck was frozen by early evening. I decided to move some cymbidium orchids onto the covered porch, slipped and almost broke my leg. Never again, I vowed. I may move a few succulents out of the pouring rain for the winter season but that’s the extent of my coddling.

The simplest and most sophisticated of all hardy container designs is to plant a skim of sedum across the surface of a shallow container. There are so many to choose from Then leave it alone to grow and drip down the sides.

Another plant combination that works well is to anchor a large pot with a slow growing shrub or dwarf tree that lends height as well as carries your display through the season.Plant a few hens and chickens (echeveria or sempervivum)  at the base and maybe a couple of blue fescue grasses for contrast.

Fast growing succulents, like trailing Sedum acre Lemon Ball or Golden Girl are fun and easy to grow and propagate. I’ve had my original for years although I thought I’d lost it last winter. Sixty inches of rain washed out all the soil in the pot and floated away most of the plant. From one small piece it has recovered beautifully.The chartreuse foliage would blend nicely with chocolate foliage like Carex Red Rooster or even chocolate cosmos.

Libertia, an iris relative with golden-orange swordlike leaves, looks great underplants with any of the succulents. This beautiful grass-like plant grows 2 ft high and 1 ft wide forming a colony by rhizomes. They are especially attractive when backlit. Clusters of inch wide, white flowers bloom from late spring to midsummer. Grow them in sun or light shade along with your succulents, phormiums and grasses.

Be sure to use a quality potting mix in your containers. There are special succulent and cactus mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. of the pot as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

There are lots of succulents to plant up in interesting containers or simple clay pots. Some take full sun, while others like a bit of shade. Some handle frost easily while others need some protection. Let your imagination go wild.