This most popular of all my posts appeared in the spring of 2015. I revised it a year later with photos taken since. Enjoy! ~ Debra
As I sailed past him one mild January day, trowel in hand, I announced to my husband Jeff my intent to stay home this spring instead of going on tour. “I’m done with delayed flights and sleeping in airports,” I said. “I’m going to have people come here instead.”
I quickly realized the garden needed a LOT of work. It reflected every plant flirtation I’d ever had, and not in a good way. Strappy-leaved perennials blocked views of statuesque agaves. Unpruned roses rambled into aloes. Ivy, Mexican evening primrose, centranthus and babiana (a South African bulb) had gone feral. The auto irrigation system insisted on overwatering certain areas and leaving others bone dry. Day after day I dove into the garden, often spending hours on a few square feet.
An overgrown section of the garden.
My gardener, accustomed to working solo during his biweekly visits, was clearly puzzled at how nit-pickey I’d become. Suddenly La Señora hovered like an angry helicopter. “No lineas direchas!” (no straight lines) I snarled, catching him arranging nursery plants in tidy rows. When traps he set came up empty, I sighed and caught gophers myself. “Don’t do anything I can do,” I explained in imperfect Spanish. “You’re stronger than I am, so no weeding and sweeping. Por favor, place those boulders for me.” When I didn’t like how they looked, he rearranged them without complaint. (The man’s a saint. As is Jeff, who had gone into hiding.)
My motto: A garden can never have too many rocks. This sloping bed is home to dwarf aloes and haworthias, growing in a pumice-rich mix.
The thing is, I’m a garden photojournalist, not a landscape designer. Words, camera and computer are my primary tools. I understand the inner workings of great succulent gardens because I’ve researched, described and photographed hundreds. I never doubted I could transform my half-acre into a succulent showplace. However, I lack speed. I contemplate how something might be improved, then I experiment, stand back, and tweak or redo it. Did I mention that the garden had to be perfect? People hold authors to a higher standard. But I wanted more than perfection. I wanted innovation.
My dry pond has thin, nearly spineless cactus pads I ordered from Florida (!) and graptoveria rosettes.
Innovation means you reach deep inside and pull out creativity you didn’t know you had. It’s risky. Sometimes your guts come with it. Yet more and more (at least for me), so did a pleasure so visceral it defies description. Pretty soon, all I wanted was to be outdoors. By sunset I was mud-smeared, with oak catkins in my hair and bloody scratches from a cactus so astonishingly purple I had to have it, even though it’s a mean little thing.
The newly planted cactus garden included a prickly kitty.
Oaks that arch over an expanse of flagstone—a newly installed gathering area—seemed intent on concealing it with fallen leaves. Consequently, I was devastated when my grown son came down with a cold and postponed adding electricity to the lower garden (his Christmas gift to me). I needed it for my new leaf blower—a sopladora de hojas. When at last I plugged it in, leaves flew upward like locusts and descended on the new succulent tapestry. I thought about the literal translation of sopladora—“that which blows, incites or inflames”– as I attempted to harness the 150 mile-per-hour blast.
One of two succulent tapestries by designer Laura Eubanks.
Late every afternoon I observed with dismay the slow goldening of surrounding hills. For once, I welcomed Daylight Savings Time. When the faint clink of neighbors’ silverware made me realize I was hungry, I pulled sweet-tart tangerines from one of the trees. The streetlight’s awakening was the definitive signal to quit, yet there was always something essential to do. My night vision improved. I lost weight, gained muscle tone and acquired mysterious bruises. I rediscovered how marvelous a mosquito bite feels when scratched. I looked in the mirror and saw my mother, who seemed older than I remembered. Jeff noticed it too and asked, “Are you sure this is less stressful than traveling?”
Admittedly, I was ambivalent. I was having a ball, but also worried I wouldn’t finish in time. Offering tours and workshops had shoved me out of my comfort zone, yet also had served as a catalyst. Nothing motivates a journalist like deadlines.
And people indeed were coming. Three months after the process had begun, on the eve of the spiffed-up garden’s debut, the streetlight revealed La Señora shoveling desert-hued decomposed granite onto remaining bare spots. The moon was full (and no doubt the neighbors relieved) when the leaf blower’s intense purr gave way to distant, maniacal yips of coyotes. As I left my shoes at the back door, it dawned on me that I, too, am a sopladora. I fling things, make noise, incite, inflame and, despite missteps, eventually make a clean sweep. Yet I had managed to transform my garden into three-dimensional art and another form of communication. Whether in books, photos, videos or presentations—or with plants, rocks, snarls and sweat—my goal is to entertain and enlighten in equal measure. It’s how I define joy.
Future posts will offer more about my garden. Modesty aside, I think you’ll find them succulent. ;+)
Spring, 2016 update:
People did indeed come to the garden. Because I had to charge a lot to make it worthwhile and cover expenses (such as increased homeowner’s liability insurance), I stressed out trying to make everything perfect. If you came to one of the tours or workshops, thank you, and please know I loved having you. But now my attitude is: Never again! I suspect my real motivation was to justify spending so much time, money and effort on the garden. And now it’s done. Well, more or less. (Is a garden ever finished?)
One group came to see Laura Eubanks, far right, install a second tapestry.
But hey, you can visit my garden any time you like. I’ve filmed numerous YouTube videos in it, including this recent one about replanting one of its overgrown beds:
In addition to hand’s-on advice, the video includes photos of the bed as it changed over the years.
What if you REALLY want to come see my garden, in person? I do occasionally give private tours for visiting VIPs. Email me.