Echeveria and Crassula falcata
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The Succulents of Birdsong

Frank and Susan Oddo of San Diego are hand’s-on gardeners who continually are on the lookout for unusual plants that’ll thrive in a low-water landscape. Not surprisingly, they’ve incorporated many succulents on their multi-acre property. With its layers of foliage and tall trees, the garden serves as a wild bird sanctuary that attracts dozens of species, including visitors that drop in (literally) during seasonal migrations. Below are outtakes from the article I wrote about Frank and Susan’s garden (which they call “Birdsong”) that’s in the summer, 2016 issue of Country Gardens magazine. Enjoy!

Aloes in bloom

Aloes bloom along the lane near the entrance to the garden.

 

Succulents for San Diego

A silk floss tree provides bright shade for the succulent garden beneath it.

 

Agave and yucca garden

Agave angustifolia ‘Variegata’ growing at the base of yucca trees echoes their lancelike leaves and silhouette.

 

Blue columnar cactus

Blue baseball bat cactus (Pilosocereus pachycladus) is an amazing blue with golden spines. At its base are similarly sky blue pebbles

 

Agaves and bromeliads

A cluster of Agave attenuata thrive in the dappled light of Frank’s bromeliad garden.

 

Kalanchoe luciae and burro tail in a car-part pot

Frank, who collects cars, likes to repurpose old car parts, gears and more as succulent containers. This one is planted with Kalanchoe luciae ‘Fantastic’ and trailing burro tail sedum. A yucca explodes behind it.

 

Agaves glow in the sun

Agave ‘Blue Glow’ has red margins that light up when backlit, plus it stays small and doesn’t offset.

 

Echeveria and Crassula falcata

Red flowers of Crassula falcata (green form) are striking in contrast with a teal-and-pink ruffled echeveria.

 

Echeverias bloom in a pot near a koi pond

This photo of a pot near the koi pond inspired one of the line drawings in my coloring book, Sensational Succulents—sans the fish.

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Succulent Garden Design Essentials

Nancy Dalton’s award-winning succulent garden in San Diego is an outstanding example of smart landscaping for Southern California’s arid climate. Enjoy it’s many pleasing and practical aspects and keep these dozen ideas in mind as you design and plant your own garden.

  1. Repeat colors and forms. By combining agaves with yuccas, the designers used similar-but-different plants to create continuity. The Yucca rostrata at far right repeats the dark green starburst shapes of slender-leaved agaves at middle left. These in turn echo an intriguing aspect of each other: white filaments that curl from leaf margins.Succulent landscaape

2. Incorporate textural plants. Texture is both what’s seen up-close, like fuzzy red kangaroo paw flowers, and what’s viewed from a distance, like the mounding jade at middle right and ‘Sticks on Fire’ beyond. Also highly textual are barrel cacti and any plant that shimmers in the breeze—like the Yucca rostrata at left.

Award-winning succulent front yard in Southern California

3. Sculpt the terrain with berms and valleys. Mounded soil is more interesting than flat and height enhances drainage. Tip: Bring in several yards of topsoil amended with pumice and mound it atop your former lawn or a difficult-to-dig area of compacted dirt. The succulents you plant in fresh soil will quickly take root and thrive.

Agave multifilifera in the front yard succulent garden.

4. Group plants with varying heights and sizes. In Nancy’s garden, Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ serves as a backdrop for medium-sized succulents such as barrel cacti and variegated elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’). Low-growing blue Senecio mandraliscae and Othonna capensis complete the high-medium-low vignette.

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5. Position plants according to water needs. Those most prone to rot, such as cacti from to the desert Southwest, tend to do best atop a berm that allows water to drain away from their roots. Finer-leaved succulents tend to dry out more easily and will be happiest around the base of the mound or in a swale. See my article, “How to Water Succulents.”

6. Grow rangy non-succulents in pots. Instead of in the ground, Nancy’s herb garden occupies large terracotta pots near her kitchen door. This keeps the plants under control (some, like mints, are invasive) and makes them easy to water, tend, harvest, and replant.Pot grouping of herbs

7. Add a fountain. The sound of splashing water on a patio or adjacent to a garden sitting area blankets neighboring noise and  enhances even a small yard’s sense of privacy. It also attracts songbirds.

8. Put complementary colors to work. Succulents come in all colors, as do glazed ceramic pots, so have fun with them! Here, Nancy contrasted blue and orange. Coppertone stonecrop (Sedum nussbaumerianum) in the bed serves as a ground cover, frames the focal point, and flows around pots of Kalanchoe orgyalis (copper spoons) at left and Agave colorataFountain surrounded by succulents

 9. Display dynamic succulents against walls. Nancy lent interest to a white stucco retaining wall with three brightly-glazed pots. They contain a tall, columnar cactus, a clustering euphorbia, and star-shaped Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’. Find more ideas in my book, Succulent Container Gardens.

Pot grouping in Nancy Dalton's succulent garden

10. Showcase the symmetry of succulents. Small agaves look great in pots that frame and call attention to their elegant, geometric shapes.  Here, Agave victoria-reginae graces a hexagonal pot near Nancy’s front door. Agave victoriae-reginae in a pot

 

11. Include a dry creek bed. In a drought-prone climate it’s soothing to suggest the presence of water. To create the look of rushing water, designer Michael Buckner lined Nancy’s dry creek bed with cobbles turned sideways. Such enhancements can channel water from gutters into the garden and provide access to hard-to-reach areas. See the section in Designing with Succulents on dry creek beds, pp. 56-59.

Cobbles appear to be rushing water

12. Top-dress bare soil with crushed rock. It may seem minor, but this often overlooked aspect of design makes a huge difference. A layer of gravel lends a finished look, discourages weed growth, and helps hold moisture in the soil. See my articles, “Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks” and “Why Top Dressing is Essential for Succulents.” 

Special thanks to Deeter-Buckner design for these “before” photos of Nancy’s front yard:

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Nancy Dalton’s s garden won the city of San Diego’s drought tolerant landscaping contest and was on the San Diego Horticultural Society’s Spring Garden Tour. Located in Carmel Valley, the garden has a mild, frost-free climate. Landscape designers Samantha Owens of Barrels and Branches nursery and Michael Buckner of Deeter-Buckner Design helped with soil amendments, plant selection, placement, and installation. Nancy herself is knowledgeable about plants and is a hand’s-on gardener.

Download my list of Succulents for Coastal Southern California Gardens.

See my YouTube channel playlist, “Great Succulent Gardens.”

See Nancy’s garden in my video, Design Ideas from an Award-Winning Succulent Garden

…and in my book, Designing with Succulents.

Related info on this site:

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks
Remember when crushed-rock front yards were a ’60s retirement-community cliche? Not any longer! Nowadays smart designers cover bare soil with rocks to create gardens that are as sophisticated and… [Continue reading]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six No-Water Succulents for Your Garden
Even if you live in drought-parched Southern CA, garden plants that don’t need to be watered are not as hard to come by as you might think. Certain readily available succulents… [Continue reading]


How rain benefits succulents
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How Rain Benefits Succulents

How rain benefits succulents

Don’t be surprised if after a good rain, your succulents look brighter and more vibrant. Rain provides dissolved minerals and washes away dust that inhibits photosynthesis. It dilutes and flushes salts and harmful chemicals that have built up in the soil from tap water and provides nitrogen essential to growth, especially during electrical storms. It’s odd but true: Lightning nourishes plants.

To make the most of precious rain, collect it in buckets and use it to water house plants and in-ground succulents beneath eaves. When rain is forecast, move your container-grown patio plants where rain can soak them. (Once the storm is over, return them to their earlier location, lest sun scorch leaves—or if frost is a possibility.)

Succulents do best in regions where annual rainfall is less than 25 inches.  Excessive amounts can cause roots to rot, especially if soil stays soggy. Prepare for this by growing the plants in coarse, fast-draining soil, on a slope or atop a berm.

how rain benefits cactus

 

My blog post, Succulents and Too Much Rain, A French Solution describes a French botanical garden’s simple but effective method of protecting its cactus collection.

Opuntia appears to dance

Of all succulents, cacti seem to respond the most dramatically to rain. No surprise; they’ve been waiting all year for it. If they weren’t rooted, they’d be dancing. Opuntia (paddle) cacti that have been doing a whole lot of nothing for months rapidly grow new pads that can double the size of a young specimen in a matter of weeks. It’s as though the pads were water balloons being squeezed; the resulting bulge is a new leaf.

how to protect succulents from excess rainfall

And then there are ribbed cacti…those that look like round or columnar accordions. You can almost hear their crenellations pop and stretch as they plump with water. They’re such simple plants—not much more than balls or bats—and yet the way they grow is amazing. The process of becoming engorged with rainwater exposes more of their skin to the sun, enabling photosynthesis, which equals energy, which in turn fuels new growth. In the heat of summer, those same ridges and valleys deepen, shading and protecting the plant.

Now that succulents are hugely popular, I’m asked how to grow them in tropical climates that have a great deal of rainfall. It’s like asking how to grow monkeys in Alaska. Sure it’s possible, but is it worth it? By definition, succulents have the quality of succulence: juiciness. They’re expressly designed to get by without a lot of rainfall. The flip side is that they don’t survive well with it. So grow them in containers, and move them under shelter when the weather turns too wet. Even then, in humid climates, they may mildew. In which case, move them indoors, provide lots of sunlight and fresh air, and keep a dehumidifier going. (And get my book, Succulent Container Gardens. I wrote it for succulent lovers in challenging climates.)

Frost protection for succulents

Rainstorms are often followed by clear, windless nights, during which the temperature may drop near freezing or below. Many succulents are frost tender, meaning that at 32 degrees, the water in their tissues crystallizes, expands, and bursts cell walls. This can turn leaves to putty, irreparably damaging the plants. You can gain several life-saving degrees by covering your succulents with sheets, lightweight fabric, or frost cloth. But not plastic, which by trapping moisture and blocking light and air can cause more damage than it prevents.

Frost burned aeoniums

If your succulents have been damaged by frost, they’re not necessarily goners. Learn more about this in my recent posts: Oh, No, My Succulents Froze! and Frost Damaged Succulents? Here’s What to Do. Notice the damaged tips on these aeoniums? No need to do anything. In a few months the older leaves will dry and fall off, and the rest will be hidden by new growth.

Related info:

Greenhouse for succulents in display garden
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Succulents at the Spring Home/Garden Show

Succulent display garden

I zipped around San Diego’s Spring Home/Garden show right before the judging, cell in hand. (When in a hurry, I use my phone to take photos in dim light instead of my fancy-schmancy Canon.) I was delighted with what I saw. No question I’m biased, but the display garden (above) showcasing plants from Desert Theater nursery, and designed by Steve McDearmon of Garden Rhythms and Katie Christensen of Miss Katie’s Garden, was my favorite. You could plunk the whole shebang in your front yard for a great-looking, low-maintenance lawn-replacement landscape.

The show is the first Fri.-Sat.-Sun. of March every year. You’ll have to pay parking, but you needn’t pay the admission price of $9 at the door. Obtain a FREE PASS by going to the show’s Buy Tickets page and entering this special code for my fans and followers: DLBA.

Have fun!

Succulent display garden

Apologies for photos that lack credits. None of the display gardens had names on them because they were about to be judged. If you want to ID them in a comment below, please do!

Greenhouse for succulents in display garden

St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center (display garden above) helps adults with developmental disabilities. Gardening, propagating plants and selling them is a big part of it. I love the greenhouse in their display garden!

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Do I detect a trend brewing? This lovely display combines succulents (dudleyas) with red bromeliads and other low-water tropicals.

Succulent vertical display garden

Melissa Teisl and Jon Hawley design gardens as Chicweed Design & Landscaping. Although they sold their floral shop in Solana Beach, you can still see aspects of it in their gardens, like the lovely vertical display above. I’ll bet the sandbox behind it was inspired by their little boy.Potted aloe garden by Chicweed

This mosaic pot filled with succulents also is in Chicweed Design & Landscaping’s display garden.

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Speaking of lovely succulent container gardens, this one is by Katie Christensen for Desert Theater. The gorgeous purple plant is a dyckia, a type of bromeliad that’s succulent. Dyckias would doubtless be more popular if they didn’t have leaf edges as sharp as steak knives. (Katie, are you bleeding?)

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Also in the Desert Theater display is “Miss Katie’s potting bench.”

Succulent container gardens

Miss Katie brings a feminine aesthetic to succulents.

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Judges give bonus points for labeled plants. This is a charming way to do it, don’t you think?

IMG_4306The display garden above, which incorporates agaves and dasylirions, utilizes a lot of interesting hardscape and topdressings, which after all are THE ultimate way to have a waterwise garden.

echeverias in metal bowl

And isn’t this stunning? So simple! Pass the oil and vinegar. (Kidding.)

Don’t forget, you can get a free pass by going to the Show’s website and entering my special discount code: DLBA. If you missed it this year, subscribe to my newsletter (below), and I’ll give you a head’s up for next year.

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Should You Let Your Flapjack Plants Bloom?

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You’re probably aware of flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae), a succulent that’s popular because of the color of its leaves. (Shown above at Waterwise Botanicals nursery, perfectly timed for Valentine’s Day.)

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Like other succulents with overlapping leaves along a single stem, when Kalanchoe luciae blooms, the entire plant elongates. This is how those in my window box looked in March of last year.

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If your goal is to have a lot of new little plants, one option is to let the mother plant bloom. Providing it survives the effort (they usually do, but not always), you’ve hit the jackpot. Harvest each cluster with several inches of stem attached to anchor it, and start it as a cutting. Roots will grow from leaf axils (where leaves are attached to the stem).

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I didn’t want awkwardly tall plants in my window box, so when the flapjacks started to elongate in March, I snipped off the bloom spikes. The mother plants seemed determined to flower regardless, and buds grew from leaf axils beneath the cut. I was just as determined they weren’t going to flower, so I pinched out the buds.

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Within a month, the plants’ topmost leaves turned beige and crisp along the edges. I’m not sure why this happened, but I trimmed them to keep the plants tidy.

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By June, new little leaves concealed the truncated stems, indicating that the plants had been gearing up to produce offsets. When they couldn’t do it along a bloom spike, they did so closer to the core.

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Here’s how one of the plants looked in August.

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And again in October. Other plants in the window box are blue echeverias and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’. The composition looks fine, but would be even better if those flapjacks would turn as red as they were at the nursery! (Hm. Topic for a future post? “How to Keep your Flapjacks Red.” Advice welcome!)

 

 

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Rick’s Aloe and Butterfly Garden

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The current population of monarch butterflies is a mere 4% of what it formerly was. These once ubiquitous butterflies are on the brink of extinction. Anyone with even a small garden, in any part of the US, can help reverse this sad trend.

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I knew that Rick Bjorklund’s garden in San Diego would delight me with its aloes, but I didn’t expect to see butterflies who felt the same way. Not only do monarchs love aloe blooms, their offspring have settled into Rick’s garden, too.

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This is because Rick also cultivates milkweed, the one and only food of monarch caterpillars. His numerous Asclepias curassavica shrubs are infested with striped, leaf-eating, antennaed tubes.

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Hm. Which end is which?

Once they’re fat and sassy, caterpillars look for a place to hang out…literally. To pupate, they attach themselves to a branch or eve, and their skin splits open, revealing a conical box that resembles a jade earring. What a surprise to see a chrysalis hanging from a kalanchoe (below). It’s amazing that insects native to the Americas are at home in a garden of plants mainly from Madagascar and South Africa.

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This one’s attached to an agave leaf.

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Here’s what happens next (photo courtesy of http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/):

Butterfly emerging

Monarchs also like Verbena bonariensis. I photographed this in a northern CA garden in early autumn.

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What every friend of butterflies should know: 

— To promote the survival of monarch butterflies, cultivate milkweed (one or more plants in the genus Asclepias).  Native to the Americas, milkweeds can be cultivated as far north as Quebec.

— When designing your monarch-habitat garden, position nectar-producing plants (like aloes, daisies and verbena) near milkweed. Adult butterflies look for both when laying their eggs, to ensure that their offspring will have plenty to eat.

— Refrigerate milkweed seeds three to six weeks prior to sowing. Get them off to a good start in peat pots with a thin covering of topsoil (they need sunlight to germinate). Transplant into the garden when rooted, four to six weeks after germination, in a full-sun location. Daytime highs should be at least 70 degrees F. Plants grow 36 to 60 inches tall, and can be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart.

— Monarchs and other butterflies have liquid diets. They like muddy water for its minerals, and the nectar of numerous flowers, which they ingest through a proboscis that unfurls and serves as a flexible drinking straw.

— Monarchs produce four successive generations annually, each with phases of egg, larva, pupa and butterfly. Adults of the first three generations live two to six weeks. The fourth generation, born in the fall, migrates to a warmer climate where the butterflies live through the winter, mate, and then return north.

— Butterflies fly best when temperatures are between 80 and 100 degrees. They’ve been clocked at 12 mph.

— Make sure butterflies have plenty to eat by supplementing their diet with a quality commercial nectar. To keep ants out of a butterfly feeder, coat an inch or so of the rod that supports it with Vaseline. Clean the feeder and replace the nectar daily. Place the feeder close to the milkweed and flowering plants in your garden, but out of direct, hot sun lest the liquid evaporate.

— Provide a mud puddle as a water source, ideally near a boulder on which butterflies can sun themselves.

Resources for butterfly gardeners:

Online article on saving and aiding butterflies, by British expert Clive Harris of DIY Garden, who emailed me: “76% of our butterfly species have declined over the past 40 years, so anything that helps spread the word about protecting these little chaps would be massively appreciated.” 
Milkweed seeds
Butterfly feeder
Butterfly nectar

Reference books:

Milkweed, Monarchs and More by Rea, Oberhauser and Quinn
Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons

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Six No-Water Succulents for Your Garden

 

Even if you live in drought-parched Southern CA, garden plants that don’t need to be watered are not as hard to come by as you might think. Certain readily available succulents not only get by on rainfall alone, they’ll grow in nutrient-poor soil and can handle searing sun and frost.

These easy-care succulents are native to the Southwest and Mexico: dasylirions, agaves, cacti and yuccas. They thrive from Mexico to the Bay Area and in parts of Colorado, Texas and the Carolinas (Zones 7b and higher).

This garden in Laguna Beach, CA has all four genera.

No water succulent garden
Above: Mark and Cindy Evans’ hilltop garden in Laguna Beach has all sorts of dasylirions, agaves, cacti and yuccas. Also in their garden are euphorbias, crassulas (jades) and aloes.  Can you tell which is which?

Above: In the Evans’ garden are Yucca rostrata, Agave attenuata and Yucca aloifolia (Spanish bayonet). A topdressing of golden decomposed granite lends a finished look.

Above: Two Dasylirion whipplei (which resemble pincushions) are 15 years old. The Yucca aloifolia at left was there when Mark and Cindy bought the house in 1999. “I think it’s pretty old; its base is huge,” Mark says. Four silvery blue Yucca rostrata also are 15 (the much larger one at right gets more sun). Mark planted the spineless paddle cactus along the wall from cuttings six years ago. Behind them, at right, is a 6-year-old blue Agave americana. Growing in the dry fountain are 8-year-old foxtail agaves (Agave attenuata).

How is it possible that yuccas and dasylirions, which have thin leaves, are succulents?  It’s because they store water in their trunks. A succulent by definition is “any plant that stores water in fleshy leaves or stems in order to withstand periods of drought.”

Related Info:

Go to my Agave page for labeled photos of 20+ varieties

Read my article: “Is Cactus the New Black?”

Watch my YouTube video: What you MUST know about century plants (Agave americana

 

Obtain my comprehensive guide to succulent landscaping, Designing with Succulents.