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Sunset’s Midcentury Succulent Cover Story

“Once in the ’90s and again in the late ’20s, gardeners have turned to succulents with an intensity amounting to a craze. Now they are coming back into favor again, and this time it looks like something more than a temporary infatuation.” — Sunset magazine, June, 1954*

Fifty years ago, each hefty, half-inch-thick issue of Sunset magazine cost 20 cents and brought days of useful, entertaining reading about gardening, food and travel. My parents subscribed, so they no doubt read the June, 1954 cover story about succulents.

I’ve always assumed they surrounded their Southern CA ranch home with succulents because cuttings were free for the asking, and my father didn’t want to water the garden more than absolutely necessary.

An ad for Fiberglas awnings shows an idealized midcentury patio

But was it possible that my parents were onto…a trend? Well, no. The six-page cover story is mostly about container gardens for “the outdoor living areas of the Western house: its patios, lanais, decks, and paved areas…And if ever a plant was made for a pot, it’s the succulent.” Containers didn’t appear on my folks’ patio until the ’70s. With geraniums.

The succulent article’s 25 photos are B&W except for those shown on the cover. In 4,000 words, Sunset editors give an overview of succulents and their care, design ideas, and a “beginner’s collection” of about 50 varieties. Most are still fairly common, but Euphorbia valida is now E. meloformisGasteria maculata is now G. bicolor; and Cotyledon hemisphaerica is Adromischus hemisphaericus.

Mentioned but nearly unknown today are Echeveria rosea grandis and Sedum amecamecanum. “Do you mean Sedum americanum?” asked Google. Uh, not unless Sunset made one whopping typo. I found out that this stutter-named sedum has “fragile leaves”—doubtless why it’s not much in demand.

Kalanchoe flammea” in the illustrations sure looks like Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, shown here. Don’t you wish it had kept its earlier, more descriptive name?

Aloe arborescens (left), Aeonium haworthii (right)

The jades, aeoniums, aloes, ice plants and cacti in my parents’ garden were not necessarily those in the article—they grew Aloe arborescens and  Aeonium haworthii, for example. Perhaps even back then these were so common, the few succulent specialty nurseries that existed didn’t bother to offer them. (Hence a reason not to mention them, lest readers write in and say they’d tried to find them but couldn’t.)

Although it’s shown in the article, perhaps Sunset shouldn’t have bothered. The defining characteristic of Drosanthemum floribundum is lost in black and white.

As a little girl, I was proud to pronounce the name of this searing pink ice plant: “mesembryanthemum.” And I would be still, except it’s since become drosanthemum.

Now about that astonishing statement, “Once in the ’90s and again in the late ’20s, gardeners have turned to succulents with an intensity amounting to a craze…” Aren’t you curious what happened in the 1890s and 1920s? I am. Hm. I’ll see what I can find out…

*Special thanks to friend, colleague, and retired Sunset Senior Garden Editor Kathy Brenzel for presenting me with the 54-year-old issue. In case you’re wondering, all its content is copyrighted, so apart from short excerpts, I’d need permission to share it.  There’s no link to it because it’s not online.

Related info on this site:

Certain low-water annuals and perennials are my “nostalgia plants” because they remind me of…[Continue reading]
As for ice plant, don’t plant just one variety. Combine several—not curbside, though, lest they cause an accident… [Read more]

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Why Grow Paddle Cacti? DLB’s 16 Reasons

Of the dozen or so types of cacti in my garden, I have more opuntias than any other. Also known as paddle cactus or prickly pear, Opuntia species have stems shaped like ping-pong paddles. New pads grow from older ones after rains drench the roots and help fuel new growth. Typically these new pads, and flowers that turn into fruit, form along the edge of the pads and orient themselves for maximum sun exposure. For garden plants, I prefer spineless or near-spineless varieties, like Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’, O. ‘Burbank’s Spineless’ and O. ficus-indica. These grow from 3 to 7 feet tall.

I also have dwarf varieties in my miniature landscape, which I designed to suggest a Latin American mountain town. Photos of it and the specimen below are in my book, Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed.

Flowers of opuntias are spectacular, and open in succession. So although the blooms last only a day or so, the show lasts a week or more.

As with all cactus, opuntia spines are modified leaves. There’s a good reason to grow prickly varieties—whether Opuntia species or others, they’re breathtakingly beautiful when late afternoon or early morning sun backlights translucent spines.

Certain varieties, such as O. Santa-rita, have purple pads. It’s been my observation that these tend to attain their best color in desert gardens; here in Southern CA, the pads stay green with a purple tinge.

I grow an intriguing variety that has beard-like white filaments, but I recently had to trash much of the plant because scale insects snuck under the threads and colonized the pads unnoticed. I did manage to keep a few unblemished ones, which I treated with Safer soap and replanted.

Opuntias are easy to start from pads; simply slice or break one off and stick it in the ground. Knock one off, and where it falls it’ll form roots.

The egg-shaped fruit of opuntias is edible and a colorful garden enhancement.

Opuntias are unique among cacti in that they have two types of spines—needles and glochids. The latter often is nearly invisible, barbed, and will go home with you if you touch it. Glochids create fuzzy polka-dots on the paddles of Opuntia microdaysis. Beautiful…but beware.

Because cactus pads are moisture-storage organs filled with a mucilaginous gel and protected by a tough, waxy skin, they’re slow to catch fire. Opuntias not only make great firebreak plants in wildfire-prone areas, they’re efficient at conserving water and need no irrigation other than rainfall.

Tender new opuntia pads (nopalitos) are sold in Mexican markets. They’re good in salads and can be cooked as a vegetable dish that tastes like green beans.

Let me know what you think. I always enjoy hearing from you! ~ Debra 

 

Related Info

On this site: 

Is Cactus the New Black?
Aug. 9, 2017 — Long a pariah plant, cactus is becoming cool. Spiny succulents are following smooth ones in popularity, notably in [Continue reading]

 
Succulent enthusiasts flock to the annual Cactus & Succulent Society Show at the Los Angeles Arboretum mid-August. It’s the largest of its kind in [Continue reading]
 
Recently in Baja I was showing off my knowledge of native succulents when one “got” me. The friend who was taking a video with my phone gasped when I unsuccessfully tried to set a 3-inch-long chunk of cholla (“choy-ah”) cactus back onto a boulder. It resolutely clung to my fingers [Continue reading]

 

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Spring in My Succulent Garden: Flowers Wow with Bold, Hot Hues

My spring garden’s most vivid blooms are those of succulent ice plants. Aloes, bulbine and numerous arid-climate companions are bright and beautiful from March through mid-May. Increasing temps tend to put the kibosh on delicate spring flowers. If you live near the coast of CA, you’ll enjoy a longer spring, but you may not get the sun and heat that makes many flowers blaze.

Spring is the season of flowers, so get outside and enjoy them. Soon enough, in summer, those hot colors will fade and your garden will go back to being mainly shapes and textures—which of course succulents do best. What many people  don’t realize is that flowers are ephemeral—they flash and fade, and then you’re left with foliage. (I like to say that sentence in my talks. Try it. The alliteration is luscious.)

Above: A normally uninteresting corner of my garden is stunning in spring because of all the flowers. Red ones at center are Sparaxis tricolor, a bulb from South Africa. Easy-grow shrub daisies (Euryops pectinatus) echo the yellow margins of Agave americana ‘Marginata’—which though nearly engulfed, still makes a bold statement.

California poppies pop in spring. These bright orange annuals reseed every year. Behind them is Drosanthemum floribundum (rosea ice plant). Adding contrasting form is spineless opuntia. Almost incidentally, fruit on citrus trees repeat the poppies, and elevate their color to eye level.

Scilla peruviana, returns every March. It produces large, purple-blue snowflake flowers and then disappears for nine months. It was planted by the previous owner and I don’t do a thing to keep it going. But like all bulbs, it leaves behind droopy, messy foliage which you need to leave because it feeds the bulb for the next g0-round.

And as for ice plant, don’t plant just one variety. Combine several—not curbside, though, lest they cause an accident.

Related articles:

Succulent garden design essentials

How to grow succulents

Debra’s own garden 

My succulent meditation garden

YouTube video: Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Garden in Spring.

Flowering Plants in My Spring Garden: Inland Southern CA, Zone 9b

Spring (peak): mid-March to early April

Annual: California poppies

Bulbs:

Babiana stricta (baboon flower)

Scilla peruviana

         Sparaxis tricolor

Succulents:

Aeonium arboreum

         Aloe maculata

         Bulbine frutescens ‘Hallmark’

Gasteria sp.

Ice Plants:

Delosperma congestum ‘Gold Nugget’

Drosanthemum floribundum

                  Drosanthemum speciosum

         Sedum ‘Firestorm’

Perennial shrubs:

Euryops pectinatus

Gazanias (African daisies)

Pelargoniums (geraniums)

Rose, climbing: ‘Altissimo’

Wisteria

 

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Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks

My new YouTube video

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 good-looking as they are practical.

“Before” photo of driveway planting

 

Driveway garden, “after” (newly installed)

In my video, Van Liew Garden Redo, San Diego landscape designer Steve McDearmon explains how he installs succulents amid swaths of warm-toned Mojave Gold gravel, Hickory Creek rubble rock, and Honey Quartz boulders (all from Southwest Boulder and Stone). Though subtle, the rocks are as important as the plants.

Reasons for rocks:

— They need no maintenance and look the same forever.

— They contrast texturally with walls, pavement, and plants.

— They add color and cohesion to a landscape.

— They moderate soil temperature, keeping it warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

— They hold moisture in the soil and inhibit evaporation.

— They prevent erosion by diffusing the impact of rain.

— They give a garden a finished look. (Doubtless you already know that topdressing is important for containers. The same is true of gardens.)

— They’re visually intriguing, especially when several sizes combine.

— When used to create flowing lines in the landscape, they lend design interest and emphasize focal points.

— By shading the soil, they prevent weeds from germinating. (And any that do pop up are easier to pull.)

Aloe glauca

Also see my books:
Designing with Succulents (2nd ed), boulder and rock gardens, pp. 96-99

Succulents Simplified, rocks in gardens, pp. 99-101

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Watch How You Water!

OK, we all know that succulents are low-water plants. But they’re not “no-water” plants. Although they may survive without irrigation during the heat of summer, they’re unlikely to be lush and healthy.

I suggest that you ~

— Check your automatic irrigation system. Trust me, it needs it, and maintaining it can mean life or death to prized plants. Watch for leafy growth blocking sprayers, clogged riser heads, and plugged drip lines.

— Pay keen attention to soil moisture during heat waves and desiccating winds.

— If the root zone goes dry, supplement auto irrigation with hose watering. (See my canary-in-the-mineshaft way to evaluate evaporation in my latest video, Succulents, Sun and Summer.)

— Water early in the morning or late in the day. Note to desert gardeners: Watering in midday heat can literally cook roots. (Eek!)

— HOWEVER, aeoniums, dudleyas and other succulents that have closed their rosettes should be watered minimally or not at all, lest dormant roots rot. The plants will revive when the rains return. (They may not make it until then, though, if in full sun. So, shade them.)

— If the ground is concrete-hard, leave a hose dripping overnight to create an underground cone of moist soil.

— Trees and shrubs want water where their canopies would naturally direct rainfall: around the perimeter of the plant.

— Add gravel topdressing around succulents (or use organic mulch for woody plants) to help hold moisture in the soil.

— Take the opportunity, when hose-watering, to blast pests, fallen leaves and dirt out of leaf axils and the centers of rosettes.

— Use a hose-end sprayer—ideally one with multiple settings—to direct water where you want it.

— A hose lying in summer sun may contain scalding water. You already know this, but your house-sitter may not, so be sure to mention it.

— If you have a hose-full of hot water, aim a fine spray skyward. Droplets will cool by the time they hit leaves.

What about potted succulents?

From my website’s FAQ’s:  Aim to keep soil about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. About once a week should do it. Water thoroughly to soak the roots and flush salts. Let common sense prevail: Water more during hot, dry spells and less or not at all during periods of high humidity, cool temperatures and rain.

ALSO SEE: Page 56 of Succulents Simplified, pp. 219-222 of Succulent Container Gardens, and pp. 134-135 of Designing with Succulents (second edition). 

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Patrick Anderson’s Garden: It All Started with Aloes


I wonder if Patrick remembers giving me a cutting of that red aloe (A. cameronii, at center right). I know l’ll never forget it! Photo from the second edition of Designing with Succulents 

Visiting Patrick Anderson’s garden in 1998 was the first time I had seen a residential garden that featured large aloes and agaves. In my YouTube video, “Patrick Anderson’s Succulent Garden,” I take you on a tour of the residential garden that launched my love of succulents. You’ll see it as it looks now, nearly 20 years after I visited it on assignment for the San Diego Union-Tribune (read the original article, below)Patrick’s garden was, and still is, mainly aloes and agaves plus other succulents and low-water plants.

Patrick and I became friends, and he graciously proofread the first edition of Designing with Succulents, released in 2007. That book, which helped generate interest in succulents worldwide, had more photos of Patrick’s garden than of any other. Now, a decade later, the book’s completely revised second edition includes newer, arguably even better photos of his garden. (See them in the video. Incidentally, I chose classical background music because Patrick is an opera singer.)

A dozen great ideas from Patrick’s garden:
— Use low walls and terraces to create an inviting entry garden.
— Streetside, install a no-irrigation, rock-and-boulder landscape.
— Create a sense of adventure with curved, meandering pathways.
— Build an open-air room as a destination and focal point.
— Repeat a theme color throughout, such as “aloe orange.”
— Contrast the theme color with its complement (i.e., orange with blue).
— Use large, rounded, unplanted pots as accent pieces.
— Have your garden double as an outdoor sculpture gallery.
— Paint walls bold colors to create dramatic backdrops.
— Make hardscape and walls as visually important as plants.
— Position barrel cacti so they’re backlit by morning or afternoon sun.
— Create memorable vignettes that express your individual style.

Learn more:
— View my 6-min. YouTube video: Patrick Anderson’s Succulent Garden
— Find numerous design ideas for succulent gardens, containers and landscapes in my books. 
— Go to my Aloes page for 70+ labeled photos of aloes (many in bloom) in residential gardens.
— Read the article that re-routed my career: Gardening in the Big Leagues (below).

The original article ~ Gardening in the Big Leagues

I’m proud to note that this article won a prestigious award for newspaper feature writing from the Garden Writers Association of America. Enjoy! ~ Debra

Originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 31, 1999

Text and photos by Debra Lee Baldwin

Fleshy green monsters in Patrick Anderson’s Fallbrook garden look like they might snap him up if he turns his back. They’re giant succulents, and Anderson’s half-acre hillside showcases hundreds of unusual ones. “I like their huge, sculptural forms,” he said during a tour of his garden in January.

Patrick Anderson

Anderson is an active member of the San Diego Horticultural Society, and is known to local garden clubs as a lecturer who specializes in the great gardens of Europe. “I give slide presentations, and like to think I offer trenchant commentary,” Anderson said. “I’m a student of garden history and design, so I put European gardens in that context.”

Yet his own garden specializes in plants that wouldn’t survive in Europe, much less in most of the U.S. They prefer heat, poor soil and — because their leaves store water, camel-like — a dry climate.

Showiest among them are aloes and agaves, giant succulents with an attitude. Punks of the plant world, they produce blooms big as baseball bats, in colors calculated to shock. Hundreds of bullet-sized flowers sheathe bloom stalks. Leaves have sharp tips and clawed edges.

Yet Anderson’s armed-and-dangerous flora do have an otherworldly beauty. This time of year, aloes pierce the sky like exotic torch bearers, hot orange against cool blue.

Aloe ferox and coral tree

And the way they sprawl like squids or explode upward like fistfuls of knives make them the darlings of architects. Imagine a Volkswagen-sized artichoke growing against a stucco wall: One plant a landscape makes.

Succulents come in all sizes, and grow easily in frost-free areas. They need no fertilizer, and only a little water in summer and fall. They’re green year-round, and don’t require pruning. Even so, cultivating the behemoths among them is not for the faint of heart.

“I wanted to use desert-climate plants in a lush way,” Anderson explained as his footsteps crunched on a gravel pathway near plants aflame with flowers. “And to create a tropical-looking garden that would survive without water.”

A dasylirion’s thin, slender leaves suggest spraying water.

Anderson paused at a fountain-shaped Agave americana, commonly known as century plant. Each pointed, tapered leaf was the size of a small shark, and toothed like one, too. Using garden clippers, he snipped a wicked tip that protruded into the pathway.

“With these spines and jagged edges, this is the agave from hell,” he said. “But look at its symmetry. Isn’t it magnificent?” He continued, “I can’t stand it when people cut back an agave so it looks like a pineapple. If you’re going to grow something like this, you’ve got to give it plenty of room. I won’t buy a succulent unless it’s labeled. I have to know how big it’ll get.”

Many people confuse agaves with aloes, he added. “Both are succulents and grow in a rosette form, but that’s where the similarity ends. Aloes are Old World plants, from South Africa, Madagascar, the Saudi peninsula and the Mediterranean region. Agaves are New World plants from the Americas. Leaves of agaves are fibrous; those of aloes are filled with gel.”

Agave americana and Aloe vera

He pointed his clippers at a smaller plant topped with yellow blooms. “That’s Aloe vera, also known as Aloe barbadensis. It’s the best known aloe because of its medicinal uses. And over there, by the lily pond…” he gestured downslope to a succulent supporting a candelabra of coral-orange spires… “is Aloe ferox. It’s used in South Africa as a purgative.”

“Aloes are in the lily family, yet agaves are the ones that behave like bulbs,” he continued. “Agaves send up stems that bloom, and then they die. Aloes don’t die after flowering.” And, Anderson added with a smile, “an aloe won’t kill you if you fall into it.”

Agave shidigera

Anderson’s fondness for plants began in childhood. “My grandmother was a wonderful gardener. She had roses and perennials — the traditional old Irish garden.”

He grew up in San Gabriel, and a neighbor who traveled the world gave him cuttings from unusual cacti and succulents. “But I had to leave them behind when we moved to Lake Arrowhead.”

Anderson majored in theater arts in college, then worked in the corporate world as a human resources director. In 1988, he and life partner Les Olson transplanted themselves from congested Los Angeles to a two-acre ranch in north San Diego county.

“We didn’t move all at once,” Anderson explained. “For the first few years, we were here only on weekends.” They still maintain a home in Pasadena, enabling Anderson to perform with a choral ensemble in that area (he also sings with San Diego’s Pacific Camarata), and to volunteer at the Huntington Botanical Gardens.

Located east of Pasadena in San Marino, “the Huntington” is famous worldwide for a 12-acre dry-habitat garden showcasing more than 5,000 species. National Geographic’s “Guide to America’s Public Gardens” describes it as “a naturalistic wonderland of often bizarre plants, accenting their architectural shapes and pronounced textures.” These attracted Anderson like a moth to a night-blooming cereus, and inspired his own garden.

“I love theater, and these plants are about as theatrical as you can get,” he said.

Aloe speciosa

As a Huntington volunteer, Anderson continued, “I work in plant propagation, specifically for plant sales.” This entails nurturing seedlings, cuttings, and “pups” taken from the base of parent plants.

Does Anderson have an ulterior motive in step-parenting unusual specimens? You bet.

Half his collection originated at what he calls the “mother of all plant sales,” held annually at the Huntington the weekend after Mother’s Day. The rest came from “like-minded friends,” or nurseries specializing in tropical plants, cactus and/or succulents.

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Go to my Aloes page for 70+ Aloe photos and IDs
Most of my 70+ aloe photos show the plants in gardens and in bloom. After all, their large, vivid flowers are… [Continue reading]

View my 6-min. YouTube video (2017): Patrick Anderson’s Succulent Garden

Obtain my comprehensive guide to succulent landscaping, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.).

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Announcing the Second Edition of Designing with Succulents!

 

Available for pre-order now. Ships Aug. 27, 2017

When publisher Timber Press proposed a celebratory 10th anniversary, second edition of Designing with Succulents, I figured all I’d have to do is change a word here and there and add a few photos. So I agreed to what seemed like a reasonable deadline—six months. But as soon as I dove into the project, I realized so much had changed that a complete rewrite and almost entirely new photos were in order.

To meet the deadline, I worked 12-hour days and weekends, often in pajamas with uncombed hair, too much coffee, and a dog that needed to go out. With the guidance of a terrific editor—Lorraine Anderson—I ripped the book open, pulled out its innards, rewrote the text, and agonized over the photos. It was so difficult to winnow the selection to 400!

How can I express my pride in this second edition of Designing with Succulents? It’s like birthing a child (except that was easier). It’s my magnum opus. Above all, it’s my gift to you—to anyone—intrigued by these elegant plants and their potential to enhance gardens and landscapes.

And don’t you just love the cover?

The second edition of Designing with Succulents is available for pre-order now. It ships August 27.

Obtain a signed copy from me at the annual Succulent Extravaganza at Succulent Gardens nursery in Castroville, CA (near Santa Cruz), Sept. 22-23; or at the San Diego Horticultural Society meeting Oct. 9. I’m speaking at both events.

The cover of the original edition of Designing with Succulents

Learn more about the book that launched worldwide interest in succulents: the first edition of “Designing with Succulents,” released in 2007.

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Amy’s Circular Succulent Garden Re-Do

Watch my 5-minute YouTube video of this project: “Circular Succulent Garden Start to Finish.”

When I first saw fitness coach Amy Van Liew’s circular garden and spherical fountain, I envisioned how it might look replanted with colorful succulents. A great fountain and garden bed deserve to be seen, especially when in the middle of a magnificent home’s entryway!

In the spring, when I took this photo of Amy, the flowers in the circle garden were impressive. However, aeoniums bloom once and then die. As you can see, they had already become leggy, and other plants (notably Sedum rubrotinctum) were overgrown and ratty. Moreover, the nearly concealed fountain was home to tadpoles.

Amy and husband Ed agreed it was time for a re-do. So, six months later, we created a new entry garden.

The basin now is filled (and concealed by) aqua-colored crushed rock that suggests water. This appears to overflow and create rock rivulets between planted areas that are top-dressed with pea gravel in a contrasting orange hue.

Each of six sections features a different kind of plant. We chose six of each kind, all in one-gallon pots, and all from Waterwise Botanicals nursery in nearby Bonsall, CA. Some have rounded leaves or a globular form that repeats the fountain’s. Except for one, all are succulents.

Sedum ‘Firestorm’ is a ground-cover succulent with red-orange leaves massed with clusters of tiny white flowers in spring.

Echeveria ‘Sahara’ is a new cultivar bred to be heat-tolerant, and therefore is suitable to a climate with summer temps in the 90s. It has a circular shape, lavender-pink-blue coloration, and produces dainty flower stalks in autumn.

Yet more circles can be seen in the leaves of Portulacaria afra ‘Minima’, a cultivar of elephant’s food. ‘Minima’ is a low-growing, heat-tolerant, ground-cover succulent with bright green foliage and red stems.

Blue fescue took the longest to become established—which is why I postponed showing the finished garden. This ornamental grass is doing great; it’s just s-l-o-w. As you can see, it has a mounding growth habit and slender, threadlike leaves that are truly blue.

Amy had had good luck with flapjack plants (Kalanchoe luciae), so we used them again, this time massing them for effect. A bonus is that their red-edged leaves are rounded—yet another echo of the fountain.

But nothing so perfectly repeated the fountain as these globular barrel cactus. I was pleased Amy wanted them; many people don’t because the plants are so spiny. But barrel cactus is not difficult to handle if you know how. The spines curve downward, so they’re not treacherous unless you push on them the wrong way (upward).

Here’s how the circle garden looked when finished last fall.

And how it looks now, six months later.

To see highlights of the installation, watch my 5-minute YouTube video, “Circular Succulent Garden Start to Finish.” The entire project took about two days, including time spent rounding up plants and materials.

See my video of the Van Liew garden redo by landscape designer Steve McDearmon, and my blog post “Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks.” 

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Post-Rain Must-Do’s for Succulent Gardens

Rain at last!

Could the California drought finally be over? Well, no. It’ll take hundreds of years for underground aquifers to refill. The snowpack isn’t adequate for our future water supply. On the bright side, our gardens are looking glorious…even those with mainly drought-tolerant plants. Perfect conditions for succulents are good drainage, annual rainfall less than 25 inches, low humidity, and temperatures above freezing.

Check for:

Succulents with rotted leaves. Remove mushy leaves before rot spreads to the plant’s stem or crown. This and other concerns are addressed in my YouTube video, Oh No! Something’s Wrong with My Succulent! 

Drainage issues. If soil stays sodden and muddy areas remain long after a storm, roots may drown. Move plants to high ground, and install French drains.

Slope erosion. Create dams of rocks and diversion channels, and add gravel or mulch to diffuse the rain’s impact.

Stagnant water. Check pots, bins and barrels. If they’ve filled, dump the water before mosquitos find it and breed.

Weeds. Wherever soil is exposed to sun, weeds WILL sprout. Get them when small. All too soon they’ll have deep roots, go to seed, and look you in the eye.

Seepage. Check your home’s basement. Mine used to have an inch or two of standing water whenever the ground became saturated during storms. A few years ago, a friend suggested a simple solution: Coat the concrete blocks that form the basement’s walls with a special paint that prevents seepage. Works great. Any home improvement store carries it.

Shop for plants.  Now’s a good time to accumulate plants you want to add to your garden. Rain-soaked ground is soft and easy to dig. Early spring is the best time to establish new plants, after all danger of frost has passed (here in Southern CA, that’s mid-March). Plants will take off in spring and won’t have to contend with summer heat while putting down roots. Don’t delay; if your garden is like mine, when the soil dries, it’ll be as hard as concrete.

Take photos as what-to-do reminders. When the weather clears, such issues are easy to forget.

The bottom line: Succulents are opportunistic when it comes to rain. Given adequate drainage, they absolutely love it!

Related articles:

Spring in my succulent garden: Flowers wow with bold, hot hues 
My spring garden’s most vivid blooms are those of succulent ice plants. Aloes, bulbine and numerous arid-climate companions are bright and beautiful from March through mid-May. Increasing temps tend to put the kibosh on [Continue reading]

YouTube Videos:

Post-Rain Must-Do’s for Succulent Gardens Debra's post-rain must-do's video

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Are You a Plant Collector, Gardener or Both?

The Bold Dry Garden Book

As she researched her book, The Bold Dry Garden, it dawned on Sunset’s garden editor Johanna Silver that plant collectors are not necessarily gardeners, and vice-versa. The subject, Ruth Bancroft, is both gardener and collector—as is Brian Kemble, the curator of the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA. Since 1980, Brian has helped Ruth (now age 108) orchestrate an inviting, 3.5-acre showcase of unusual succulents and low-water companion plants.

Johanna, Brian and I were having dinner when she fixed me with her level gaze and asked, “Are you a collector?” I knew from reading her book that she isn’t. “I am no closer to being a plant collector than I was when I signed up to write this book,” she admits in the Preface. Yet Johanna went on to write that she is “now more likely to research where a plant comes from and track down photos of its natural habitat in order to get a sense of what helps it thrive in the garden.”

Earlier we had been at Johanna’s and Brian’s joint presentation at the San Diego Horticultural Society, during which Brian had observed, “When you see a plant in habitat, it’s like looking into its soul.” No wonder that speakers at Cactus and Succulent Society meetings show photos of little-known genera in arid, rocky terrains accessible only by hiking or horseback. Brian, in fact, had just returned from his sixth or seventh South African plant-hunting expedition.

It makes sense that to cultivate any plant perfectly, one needs to be aware of the conditions in which it grows wild. But although I’m thrilled every time I see a succulent I haven’t seen before, I don’t necessarily want it. So I replied to Johanna’s question: “No, I’m not a collector.” She nodded. We may love plants and gardening in all their multifaceted aspects, but we lack the collector’s gene.

Johanna Silver

Johanna Silver

Ruth Bancroft, on the other hand, kept detailed handwritten notes on every plant she acquired, and also had extensive collections of sea shells, art, books, and textiles. “There is a certain flavor of obsession that comes with collecting,” Johanna writes, “an inability to stop. A collector is passionate, driven, and on a quest for knowledge. The habit only intensifies as the desired objects become more obscure.”

While he was in town, I escorted Brian to several San Diego garden destinations, and observed this gentle, quiet man come to life with an explosive “Oh, my God!” at Petra Crist’s Rare Succulents nursery when he saw some of her specimen plants. Invariably, he and Petra verbally revisited the wilds of Socotra, the Great Karoo, or Madagascar as they discussed a plant’s unique characteristics.

Petra Crist and Brian Kemble discuss a cyphostemma

Petra Crist and Brian Kemble discuss a cyphostemma, a lumpy-trunked succulent tree from Madagascar.

Johanna said she’d like to go on a plant-hunting expedition. Not me. Too dangerous. (On his recent trip, Brian sustained an injury that left him hobbling for several days.) However, I do understand the appeal. It must be similar to a photographer’s quest for the perfect shot, my genealogist friend’s desire to track down every ancestor, or the adrenaline rush I sometimes get when shopping at high-end second-hand stores.

How Ruth acquired, successfully cultivated, and combined her plant collection into a great garden—despite such setbacks as killing frosts—is described with wit and clarity by Johanna; fact-checked by Brian; and photographed brilliantly by Marion Brenner, who pursued and captured the garden’s soul.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: To enter to win a copy of The Bold Dry Garden, simply leave a comment below stating why you’d like to have it. Johanna or our mutual publisher, Timber Press, will pick the winner on Tuesday, Nov. 1. I’ll announce the winner here and contact him or her to obtain a mailing address.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE WINNER! Many thanks to all who participated. Johanna selected Renata Muller because “I like that she recognizes Ruth for the gutsy/brave pioneer that she is!”

Renata wrote: “I am both a gardener and Succ-aholic. I have visited and purchased specimens from The Ruth Bancroft Garden. I cannot think of a more amazing garden story than that of Ruth Bancrofts. In a time when boldness and courage was not on the female virtues roster, she was a pioneer. Gutsy and brave and not content with the mainstream pansy route. She saw the beauty in the dry landscape and brought it and a lot of plant knowledge to millions thru her toils creating the incredible garden we all can visit and drool over, as well as the wisdom and experience she imparted dry scape novices and wanna be’s with the help she offered the local community with her newspaper articles. She was sustainable when sustainable wasnt cool! I would love a book about this grand lady and her creation and legacy!”

So there you have it…I’ll contact Renata and Timber Press will send her a copy of the book!