Tag Archives: succulents

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.

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Tillandsia 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.

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Small 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.

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Spathiphyllum 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

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water 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.

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Fellow 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.

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deer 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.

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creative 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.

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callistemon ‘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 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”.

Low Water Use Plants for the Garden

leucadendron_discolor2Has the hot, dry, windy weather made your garden look like mid-summer? Our meager spring rains have all but disappeared from the soil and what hasn’t evaporated the weeds have taken. The local water companies all have water conservation requirements starting last month. I’m getting lots of calls and emails asking for advice about the best way to use water efficiently in the landscape so the garden doesn’t look like the Sahara this summer. I’m helping others redesign their gardens with an eye towards ongoing water conservation.

Conserving water is now a way of life. This doesn’t mean you need to let your valuable trees and shrubs die. Water smarter with an efficient irrigation system set to run less often and encourage deeper rooting. It’s a good time to reduce the size of the lawn or better yet, replace it with a low water substitute and get a rebate. Allocate your water budget wisely. Pay attention to which plants are doing well and which aren’t. Be realistic about plants that don’t suit the conditions you have to offer. Remove them and replace with plants that have proven themselves adaptable and are well suited to your own garden. The key to preserving the earth’s resources is to choose the right plant for the right place.

Many of your most successful plants can manage on a lot less water cordyline_leucadendronthan you think.  These may be California natives or water-wise Mediterranean or Australian plants that perform well here. Plan now. Any new plant, even drought tolerant ones, require some irrigation to get established so maybe postpone that big garden planting until after mid-September when the weather is cooler but the soil is still warm which encourages rooting.

We gardeners will always find a way to enjoy our outdoor space. A plant in a pot doesn’t require much care and is easy to water. An interesting plant combination that will thrive in tough conditions is the burgundy, grass-like Festival cordyline planted with Leucadendron discolor. The burgundy foliage of the Festival grass looks great combined with the red and yellow flowers of the leucadendron. Both of these plants require little water once established.

succulent_gardensSucculent gardens are another fun way to have a garden and conserve water at the same time. Selecting an interesting container or hunting for a new one is part of the fun. During the winter you can cover or move the planter for frost protection so you can choose some of the more colorful but tender succulents.

As a reminder, many common garden plants that you normally consider not very drought tolerant like camellia require only a deep watering every 10 days or so in the growing season. Modest, fuzzy little lamb’s ears grow happily in sun or shade and any kind of soil. Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ grows only 12″ tall, blooms with purple flowers and spreads to make a beautiful edging or low border that is very drought tolerant.

Elfin thyme is the perfect groundcover. It’s a good lawn substitute for an area that gets only light foot traffic. Gorgeous when in bloom with light pink flowers in summer. It will cover dry slopes, fill in between stepping stones or creep over a rock. Elfin thyme likes good drainage and is very drought tolerant. In fact overwatering with impair growth.

I also recommend old favorites such as Jerusalem sage, gray or green santolina, low and upright forms of rosemary, manzanita and ceanothus as well as California fuchsia, scaevola and Homestead verbena. Low water use plants can be colorful as well as gentle on the water budget.

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.