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Shooting a Succulent Prodigy

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Country Gardens magazine, published by Better Homes and Gardens, sent Ed Gohlich, one of the top garden photographers in the US, to the home of Matthew Wong, then 11, to shoot him with his succulent collection. I served as field editor and writer and took photos, too. The article is in the early spring 2016 issue, on newsstands nationwide and online. If you’d like to give the magazine a thumb’s up, you can do so on its Facebook page. Also enjoy my ten-video series, Succulent Matters with Matthew, on my YouTube channel. (In the most recent, you’ll join Matthew as he explores my garden.) And if you’d like to visit Matthew’s blog and connect with this remarkable kid, here’s the link.
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Ed’s assistant arranges plants for Matthew to hold.

 

 

Below: Matthew mugs for the camera, pretending to bite a cactus.

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Below: Stapeliads have stunning flowers that smell like rotting meat in order to attract flies and other pollinators.

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Below: We shot some of Matthew’s drawings of succulents, too.

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Here’s what to look for when you’re in line at the supermarket. This issue’s article on monarch butterflies is another reason to buy it. (Saving the monarch is one of my favorite topics, too. Click here for my post about an aloe garden designed for monarchs.) 

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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/):

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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 monarch gardeners:
Reference books: Milkweed, Monarchs and More by Rea, Oberhauser and Quinn; and Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons
Milkweed seeds
Butterfly feeder
Butterfly nectar

 

Will Frost Hurt Your Succulents?

Succulents from certain parts of the world, notably lower elevations of South Africa and Madagascar, are vulnerable to freezing temperatures. If the forecast is for temperatures below 32 degrees F, throw a sheet over your crassulas, kalanchoes, aeoniums, stem euphorbias and aloes before nightfall and remove it in the morning. See how I do it in my own garden in this video, Protecting Your Succulents from Frost.

Frost that nips your succulents may turn their leaves brown and unsightly. How do you know if a plant is worth keeping? It may depend on how patient you are. Even badly damaged succulents are surprisingly resilient, but it may take months before they look good again.

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Temperatures below 32 degrees caused the fluid in this aloe’s cells to expand and burst, irreparably damaging the tips of many of its leaves. Luckily for the plant, those same leaves protected its core, which is still green and viable.

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If you decide to try and salvage a succulent with this sort of damage, wait until the weather warms in spring, then snip off the dead tissue. Because new growth forms from the center of the rosettes, pretty soon the old leaves will be barely noticeable.

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And now you know that this is one succulent that needs covering next time there’s a frost advisory for your area. Here’s how my garden looks when temps are predicted to drop below 32 degrees F.

Notice that Agave attenuata tucked beneath the tree on the left? It’ll be fine because the tree will protect it. The plants you have to worry about are those that are out in the open, with nothing above them. I sometimes stand over a succulent and gaze upward. If there are no tree limbs or eaves directly overhead, it gets draped. (I use old sheets. Several years ago a nongardening friend, stopping by for a visit, asked if I was doing my laundry.)

How do you know if you live in a frost-free area? Your neighbors grow Agave attenuata in their gardens, and the plants look fine. In my garden, this soft-leaved agave is the canary in the mineshaft where cold is concerned.

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It’s the first plant to show damage from frost in winter. A lot of succulents can handle cold below 32 degrees for short periods. But Agave attenuata will look like this the next day. This is a nuisance, but fortunately not fatal.

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See the healthy green part of each leaf? Wait until spring, then use scissors to trim off the tissue-paper-like frozen tips, cutting each leaf to a point. When you’re done, the damage will be barely noticeable. By summer new growth will have hidden the short lower leaves.

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What about a succulent that has frost damage only on its leaf tips? Don’t bother to trim them. It’ll lose those oldest leaves in a few months, anyway.

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Kalanchoes tend to be quite frost-tender. One similar to this melted to the ground in my garden at 27 degrees, and I assumed it was a goner. Fortunately I didn’t dig up the damaged plant and discard it, because a few months later…

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…it came back from the roots.

Jade plant is another widely cultivated succulent damaged at 32 degrees. The leaves turn squishy and putty-colored. This is not pretty, but if the plant’s stems are firm, it will recover and grow new leaves.

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Actually, the jade plant in the photo was not a victim of frost. You know the term “frost burn?” This plant actually was burned…by a wildfire. The only indication that it wasn’t “burned” by frost is that frost tends to damage the top of a plant. This one was scorched on the side closest to the fire. (Which just goes to show, succulents cook rather than burn, but that’s a different post.)

If you live in an area where you can’t grow most succulents in the ground because it gets too cold, take heart…there are varieties that will do well for you. I recommend this excellent book: Hardy Succulents by Gwen Kelaidis, photos by Saxon Holt.Screen shot 2016-01-05 at 7.59.00 PM

Go to my post: Four Ways to Overwinter Your Succulents

Learn more in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.):
— Cold-Climate Succulent Gardens, pp. 111-113
— Cultivating Succulents in Challenging Climates, pp. 143-148

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Katie’s Succulent Wreath Class

On a December Saturday that couldn’t have been more perfect weather-wise, a couple dozen ladies assembled at Buena Creek Gardens nursery north of San Diego to make succulent wreaths. Katie Christensen, a talented young designer from the Seattle area conducted the class. I had fun helping her, seeing old friends and making new ones, and recording the occasion with my camera.

For more about wreath-making, see my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas; go to my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents (1st ed.) pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.

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For more wreath-making tips and ideas, view my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas; see my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.

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Holiday Decorating with Succulents

This time of year, the succulent elves bundle up, go into the garden, and transform it into a holiday wonderland. Should I reward them with cocoa, or considering their size, chocolate chips?

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When you’re not much bigger than a caterpillar, you take your life in your hands when you decorate an agave. But look at the results!

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Yikes. Santa must have spilled the contents of his sleigh. I understand why the elves left the presents where they landed, don’t you?

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Aw. Look how they refilled his sleigh. IMG_5149bSo many agaves, so little time…

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Ho, ho, ho.

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A Succulent Bouquet in Colored Sand


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For a great hostess gift, arrange a bouquet of succulent rosettes in a glass container filled with layers of colored sand. (See my video, How to Wire Succulent Rosettes.) Despite no roots, soil or water, cuttings wired onto faux stems and wrapped with floral tape last for months, living on the moisture in their leaves. The sand lends color, style and interest, and serves as ballast so top-heavy rosettes don’t tumble out.

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Colored sand is available online from Amazon, occasionally found at crafts stores, or you can make your own. Obtain a bag of playground sand from any home improvement store, plus Rit dye in whatever colors you want (sold in supermarkets and online). The sand looks white but is actually pale gray, but that’s OK, because the resulting muted colors look good with the plants. To color sand, pour the liquid dye into a pan no longer used for food, add sand to the level of the liquid, and bake until the liquid evaporates—300 degrees for an hour or so. Stir occasionally with a metal spatula or clean garden trowel. Let it cool outside, stirring every so often to expose moist sand and to break lumps. When cool, funnel the dry sand into glass jars and store the excess in ziplock bags labeled with whatever color or mix you used.

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When making a bouquet, I like to select sand based on the colors of the rosettes or vice versa.

IMG_7104annotated_resizedIt’s fun to experiment with layers of sand and hard to go wrong. I generally fill the container halfway with three different colors, turn it on its side and rotate it to make swirls, then add more soil to make sure stems will be concealed. Push a chopstick into the layers to make V’s along the inside of the glass. These next two bouquets are by attendees at one of my workshops.

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Kathryne's bouquet

I didn’t want to transport sand to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, so I tossed a bag of split peas in my suitcase. In a marvelous coincidence, volunteer helper Kathy Juracek of Browns Point, WA brought budded eucalyptus for the dried greens, which perfectly repeated the peas. Here’s the bouquet I made during my presentation. The red explosions are tillandsias; the succulents, Graptosedum ‘Vera Higgins’ and Echeveria ‘Lola’.

 

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P.S. If using dried peas, try not to get them wet. ;+)
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The Easy Way to Paint Watercolors

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When you dilute watercolor paint with liquid light (clear water), you can create an image that’s translucent. Because the white of the paper shines through, the result suggests a sunlit moment in the garden.

I learned this cool technique from San Diego watercolor artist Diane Palley McDonald.

  1. Select a photo that inspires you.
  2. Print the photo on 8-1/2 by 11 paper.
  3. Put the photo on a light table or against a sunny window, and tape a piece of watercolor paper over it.
  4. Using a pencil, lightly trace the photo’s main lines onto the watercolor paper.
  5. Tape the edges of the watercolor paper to a thick rectangle of cardboard.
  6. Mask any bright white lines. (optional)
  7. Have fun painting!

It’s a lot like painting a coloring book page. The worst that can happen is you’ll have to start over, but the hard part of any painting is the drawing, so you can skip that part. I often do two or three paintings of a subject before I’m satisfied.

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See more of my paintings in my succulent watercolor calendar…or paint your own! Most of them also are on my Pinterest page, Succulent Watercolors. I also have a YouTube video showing how I paint a watercolor. Enjoy!

 

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Succulent Wreath Tips and Ideas

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Do you like the succulent wreath that my friend Denise made during a wreath party at my home? To create a similar one, you’ll need about 100 cuttings, a wire wreath form, 24-gauge florist’s wire, a chopstick, and a bag of sphagnum moss. The form, moss and wire are available at any craft store. Cuttings will root right into the moss (no soil needed).

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Stuff the wire form with moistened moss, then wrap the form with wire to hold everything together tightly. Add wire loops to both top and bottom of the back of the wreath so you can rotate it, when finished, 180 degrees once a month or so for balanced growth. Poke holes in the moss and insert cuttings.

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Keep the wreath flat until cuttings root into the moss—about two weeks. To hang it sooner, secure the cuttings with U-shaped florist’s pins.

For more wreath-making tips and ideas, view my other blog posts: Make a Succulent Wreath and Katie’s Succulent Wreath Class; see my books Succulent Container Gardens pp. 176-178 and Designing with Succulents (1st ed.) pp. 113-117; sign up for my Craftsy class (get 50% off); and watch my YouTube video, Design and Plant a Succulent Wreath.

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Also view the 50+ pins on my Pinterest page, Succulent Wreaths and Topiaries.

 

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Four No-Water Succulents for Your Garden

 

Succulents that need little or no water other than rainfall, grow in nutrient-poor soil, and handle searing sun and frost are native to the Southwest and Mexico: dasylirions, agaves, cacti and yuccas (DACYs). These no-nonsense plants thrive from Mexico to the Bay Area, and in parts of Colorado, Texas and the Carolinas (Zones 7b and higher). The Laguna Beach garden shown here has all four.

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Above: Mark and Cindy Evans’ hilltop garden in Laguna Beach, CA has all sorts of DACYs. 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 the store water in their trunks. A succulent is “any plant that stores water in fleshy leaves or stems in order to withstand periods of drought.” (Some succulents also store water in their roots, but we’ll delve into that another time.)

 

KPBS and NPR with Debra Lee Baldwin
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Debra Talks Succulents on KPBS News Radio

Debra’s interviews on KPBS radio news have been making the rounds on television and the Internet. Succulents are more popular than ever and—as Debra explains on-air—San Diego is taking the lead in championing their success.

 

 

Check out Debra’s YouTube channel and her three bestselling books for more expert info on succulents.

 


 


Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

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