Tag Archives: succulents

The Wonderful World of Aloe

Probably because our winter has been so dramatic every time I see the brilliant flower spikes of an aloe plant glowing brilliant red, yellow and orange I marvel. Beloved by hummingbirds and sustainable garden aficionados alike aloes are easy to grow. So easy that a couple of these tough-as-steel succulents are growing right out of the cracks in a gas station parking lot in town and blooming without any supplemental water or care. How’s that for bullet proof?

Aloe ferox

Our Mediterranean climate is perfectly suited for the exotic looking family of Aloes. Some hail from the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar but mostly they are native to South Africa. The spikes of their showy flowers supply much needed nectar for hummingbirds at a time that not much else is blooming.

There’s a variety for any space, large or small, container or tree-like. Here are a few of the types I’m seeing blooming right now in our area.

Aloe ferox or Cape Aloe grows best in full sun but tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions. They can thrive in very dry conditions or grow in an area that receives regular irrigation- a good trait given our recent wet winter. The foliage is hardy to at least 20 degrees and the winter flowers down to 24 degrees. Cape aloe grow to 6 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide so plan accordingly if you plant one of these spectacular reddish-orange to orange succulents. Cape Aloe occupies a many habitats in it’s native Cape Region of South Africa and is listed on the endangered plant list.

Aloe arborescens – Torch aloe

Torch Aloe or Aloe arborescens blooms also in fall and winter. The bright yellow or red flower spikes cover this large clumping variety. This species has recently been studied for possible medical uses similar to the well known aloe vera plant. It’s the only other member of the Aloe family that is claimed to be as effective. It can survive much lower winter low temperatures than aloe vera.

Aloe vera has been grown for thousands of years in tropical climates. It is one of the most widely used medicinal plants on the planet. As a houseplant make sure the pot has plenty of drainage holes as they cannot tolerate standing water. Let them go completely dry between waterings and grow them in the very bright light of a south or west facing window.

Aloe maculata

The Soap Aloe or Aloe maculata is so tough that it can survive just about anywhere. Besides the parking lot I mentioned earlier it’s growing in my Bonny Doon garden that receives no winter sun at all. The gritty soil here drains quickly which helps them survive given the 124 inches of rainfall received so far this winter. My Soap Aloe aren’t blooming right now but others in better growing conditions are sporting showy flowers atop tall, multi branched stalks in colors ranging from red to gold. Once established this succulent needs only occasional water to look good. They grow in partial to full sun. The foliage gets 18 to 24 inches tall with the bloom spikes reaching 35 inches tall.

Every garden should have a variety of aloe to feed the hummingbirds in winter.

Lessons in Water Conservation

There’s a saying that you should learn something new everyday and while visiting Robby Franks’ Scotts Valley garden recently I added valuable lessons to my irrigation know-how and successful succulent and other low water-use plant cultivation.

robby_frank_slope_sept2016_Slope with dry creek bed, succulents and other low water-use plants.

You might remember a prior column of two about this “serial mole killer” as Robby laughingly described himself several years ago. He told me he’s licked his huge mole problem by exclusion and trapping plus he’s been the benefactor of a large gopher snake and a couple king snakes from the neighbors so he’s pretty confident now that his garden and all the work that goes into dividing and transplanting and mulching will not go in vain.

The soil in Robby’s garden is quite sandy and thin. He’s done wonders adding his own compost over the years. We all know mulching is one of the best ways to conserve water in the landscape. Robby has long been an advocate of composting and regularly renews the mulch in his garden. He even calls himself “Mr Mulch”. He has permeable paths and a dry river bed that allow rainwater runoff to soak into the soil slowly. He keeps his plants pruned in a naturalistic manner because “smaller plants use less water'”. But all this wasn’t enough. His 3 “dumb timers”, as he calls them, were using too much water. That’s when he started researching weather based smart irrigation timers.

robby_frank_garden1The dry creek bed

“To me it seemed like an easy way to conserve water and it’s better for the plants as well”, Robby said. “It will increase the irrigation times if the weather is hotter and dryer than usual, decrease it if colder and turn itself off if it rains”. After research Robby eventually chose the Rainbird ”Simple to Set” Smart Indoor/Outdoor Irrigation timer.

At a raised feeding platform a covey of quail were enjoying an afternoon snack. Below a group of Mexican marigold, fortnight lily, society garlic and euphorbia were thriving and Robby explained they are all watered with one irrigation hub called an Apollo 8 Port Bubbler. It is simple to install and screws onto an existing sprinkler riser or other 5/8” tubing. Each port can be adjusted to deliver just the right amount of water to each area. Attached a micro spray to the end of the 1/4” tubing and plants grow larger and deeper root systems.

robby_frank_garden2Collection of plants requiring little irrigation

Robby’s garden is a diverse collection of plants from all over the world. He told me he’s been impressed how the cordyline are growing and considers them better performers than the popular New Zealand phormium in both heat and cold conditions. But succulents are his passion. He’s got five varieties of sedum, three types of aloe including his favorite ‘Red Tip’, two varieties of sempervivum although he laments they are slower growing then he’d like, echeveria and his new favorite plant, Dyckia ‘Red Devil’. Although technically not a succulent but in the genus bromeliad it does have similar characteristics. “They remind me of an underwater scene”, he said. Their dark, spiky foliage did look a bit like giant sea anemone.

Robby does a lot a research and loves to share the knowledge he’s gained about plant cultivation and irrigation. Many a garden in Scotts Valley have benefited from his passion. Robby Frank is on a crusade to save water and Smart Irrigation and mulching is one way to do it.

Succulents: One Solution for the New California Garden

According to Weather West, a California weather blog authored by climate scientist, Daniel Swain, the latest seasonal predictions do not inspire a great deal of hope that the coming winter will bring drought relief. “A substantial La Nina event no longer appears to be in the cards. If it’s present at all, it will probably be quite weak.” Seems that persistent West Coast winter ridge may just rear its ugly head again. Even if subtle shifts in the large-scale atmosphere pattern lead to a different outcome here, our persistent drought is still on the table.

aeonium_sunburst_staticeAeonium ‘Sunburst’ with statice limonium perezii

More and more people are asking me to update their landscaping to use less water and be lower maintenance. Many want a more modern look and what could be more architectural and clean looking than a succulent garden?

Converting to a low water landscape requires careful planning and design to achieve the look you want. You need to evaluate drainage patterns, soil types, slopes, areas of sun and shade and building locations. Hardscape features, such as patios, paths and decks require no water to maintain and by selecting permeable materials such as porous pavers and gravel, rainwater can infiltrate the ground. Large boulders can be used as accents.

Next comes the fun part- plant selection. In choosing the best succulents for your garden think about if your area gets frost during the winter. Does it have protection from a building or evergreen tree or do you live in a banana belt that rarely freezes? Are you planting in sun, shade or a combination?

In addition to the hardy succulents like sedum and sempervivum 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. It looks terrific planted with black Voodoo aeonium. Aeoniums do well in our climate as they come from Arabia, East Africa and the Canary Islands where winter rainfall is the norm.

echeveria_lace-closeupEcheveria ‘Lace’

Echeveria grow naturally in higher elevations of central Mexico to northwestern South America and so also 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 Blue Curls echeveria looks like an anemone in a tide pool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASucculent selections

Aloes from South Africa and Arabia are old world plants. Many, like the medicinal aloe vera, are frost tender, but other such as 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.

To ensure success when growing succulents, make sure your soil is fast draining. Our winter rains can rot even the toughest plants when their feet sit in soggy soil. Add sand, gravel or pumice to your soil or plant on mounds to increase drainage.

Cool Ideas for Back-to-School Gifts

With the first day of school fast approaching parents are busy getting colored pencils, highlighters and markers for the new school year. Students need backpacks, clothes and other supplies too. Teachers are hard at work also getting their classrooms ready in addition to lesson plans. If you are thinking of getting your teacher and classroom a little back-to-school gift here are some suggestions that will do double duty as teaching moments and a thank you.

tillandsiaTillandsia mounted on driftwood

Plants are the perfect choice for a small gift. One easy-to-care plant is the tillandsia or “air plant”. A small one can be placed in a small shell or attached to a piece of driftwood and if given some light near a window and sprayed or dunked in water each week they will flower and reproduce by growing offshoots or “pups”. Turn this gift into a teaching moment to share with the rest of the class by writing out an explanation of their interesting ways.

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 on tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

succulentsSmall succulents for the window sill

Another plant that would make a nice addition to the classroom is the succulent.  Succulents are easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants given different watering and light conditions. I’ve seen small ones planted in recycled boxes, old tins and hand decorated or painted clay pots. Succulents have an interesting life history that can be shared with the class, too.

A quick check of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, provides this information. In botany, succulent plants are plants that have some parts that are more thickened and fleshy in order to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions. The word “succulent’ comes from the Latin word sucus, meaning juice or sap. Succulent plants may store water in leaves, stems or roots and have the ability to thrive on limited water sources, such as mist and dew, which makes them equipped to survive in an ecosystem which contains scarce water sources. They can survive on sea coasts and dry lakes, which are exposed to high levels of dissolved salts that are deadly to many other plant species. If they can survive there they will flourish in the classroom.

spathiphyllumSpathiphyllum or Peace Lily

Another gift idea for the classroom is a small houseplant that can clean the air. The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Some of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the classroom. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, Boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, snake plant, pathos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list.

Other gift ideas that would do double duty outside the classroom in life lab would be a packet of quick maturing seeds such as lettuce, spinach or other greens. Sow the seeds thickly into nice prepared soil on the first possible school day and begin harvesting the baby greens ‘cut and come again’ style about six weeks later.

The outdoor garden boxes always need new plants to attract polinizers and 4” pots are readily available. Choose from California native plants such as salvia and yarrow. Common garden plants that attract bees and other insect pollinizers are rosemary, lavender, sweet alyssum, glorious daisy and coneflower.

A Day at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

water_fall.1600water feature in a display garden

I remember my first San Francisco Landscape Garden show as it used to be called. The year was 1989- not long after the event started as a fundraiser for San Francisco Friends of Recreation and Parks. My father and I loved it. All those orchids and bonsai and beautiful gardens. It was held at Fort Mason and my father, a retired Army colonel, was quite familiar with the location. I was new to garden shows and was yet to discover that the display gardens are part theatre – part landscape design. ‘Who would plant a shrub that grows to 6 feet tall in front of that little bitty flowering perennial?”, I said to Dad. Well, I’ve been to a lot of garden shows since including the Northwest Flower and Garden show in Seattle and the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show when it was held at the Cow Palace and now, in it’s 30th year, at the San Mateo Event Center.

Tres_Amigas_March2016Fellow landscape designers at the show

So this year I know what to expect. Or I think I do but there are always surprises. I’m with a couple fellow landscape designers and we have a keen eye for new plants in interesting combinations and design solutions for upcoming landscapes. In addition to the show gardens there are also hundreds of vendors selling all sorts of wonderful garden related items and vendors selling every type of plant you could possibly want. So much fun. Here are just some of the highlights if you weren’t able to attend this year yourself.

The display gardens offer inspiration from lawn replacement ideas to sustainable building methods to exciting new plant introductions. For five days each March, people from around the world are brought together to educate, encourage and inspire garden enthusiast of all ages and all levels of knowledge and experience. This year was no exception although I wish there had been more display gardens like in the “good old days” of the garden show.

water_fountain_deer-scare.1600deer scare or Shishi Idoshi water feature

Who doesn’t enjoy sitting next to an impressive water feature? This year there were several incorporated in designs that also included low water use plants. A pondless waterfall can attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators to your garden. The soothing sound of the water can also mask street noise. One garden featured a Japanese bamboo deer scare or Shishi Odoshi. Perfect for a small space the bamboo spout fills with water and rocks forward to empty, then rocks back to create a gentle clacking sound.

Another impressive display garden featured succulents of every type and shape. Grouped by color and shape, large swaths of these modern succulents_basalt_column.1600looking plants created a living tapestry around columnar basalt landscape rocks. Other notable features of this garden were the brightly painted stucco walls enclosing the space and stucco-over-building-block retaining walls painted bright blue, red and terra cotta.

wall_lightingcreative wall lighting

I probably got the most practical ideas from the garden created by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers than any other garden. Theirs demonstrated ways to re-imagine your garden without a lawn.There were cozy sitting areas. plants that screen out the street or next door neighbor, a vertical edible garden, lawn alternatives like Kurapia and vibrant planters filled with low water use plants. The whole garden was engaging and useful. I also saw a great idea for wall lighting that used a rusted metal screen in front of the light creating an interesting pattern. You had to be there to appreciate it’s unique design.

callistemon_Little_John.1600callistemon ‘Little John’

For me and my colleagues the plants and garden art both featured in the gardens and for sale are what keeps us at the show for a long time. There are so many new plant introductions to evaluate for future designs. From new and improved selections of old favorites such as variegated lavender ‘Meerlo’, a soft mahonia ground cover, abelia ‘Miss Lemon’ to nandina ‘Lemon Lime’ and callistemon ‘Slim Jim’ there is a perfect plant for every garden.

Think about what you want to do in your front or back yard this year to save water and maintenance and enhance the beauty of your space.

How the Angel of Grief turned into a Cactus Garden

Angel of GriefAngel 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.

senecio_mandraliscae.1280senecio 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.

calandrinia.1280calandrinia

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.

euphorbia_lambii.1280euphorbia 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.

barrel_cactus.1280barrel 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.