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Aloe Superstars: A Landscape Designer’s Favorites

One of Southern CA’s in-demand landscape designers, Bill Schnetz of Schnetz Landscape, Inc., likes to use aloes of all sizes in residential gardens. If you love succulents, live in a mild climate, and grow these South Africans in soil that drains well, “they’ll soon become your favorite plants,” Bills says. For a natural setting, he suggests mixing one or two varieties with tough, drought-tolerant ornamental grasses and flowering perennials. And “for a contemporary look, plant similar aloes in rows and geometric blocks.”

In this Rancho Santa Fe courtyard garden, Bill installed multiple coral aloes (Aloe striata). Their long-lasting flowers and translucent leaf margins repeat the orange of roof tiles and pavers, succulent ‘Sticks on Fire’ at left, and bird-of-paradise along the wall (when in bloom).

Blue, the color complement of orange, creates striking contrast via Senecio mandraliscae and Senecio serpens (at left) and tufts of blue fescue (below). Other ornamental grasses, paddle cactus and elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’) lend texture and interest. Dymondia, a walkable ground cover, serves as a low-water lawn substitute. Stone pavers and Saltillo tiles repeat the rust hues of boulders that line a dry creek bed. (Also see this garden in Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed., page 58.)

Bill’s Favorite Aloes

I asked Bill if he’d share which aloes he uses most often in clients’ gardens, and why. He graciously provided the list below. For additional descriptions, photos, and landscape ideas for aloes, see Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed., pp. 182-190. For labeled photos of these and 70+ other species and cultivars, go to my website’s Aloes page—which also is a good resource for determining what you may already have.

 

Small aloes. These tough, toothed aloes handle adverse conditions.  Height: 8 to 18 inches.

Aloe x nobilis, Aloe aristata, and Aloe humilis all grow tight and stay low.

Aloe ‘Rooikappie’ is Bill’s favorite small aloe. It gets a little bigger than the three above and is a good fit for small and large landscapes. It’s a repeat bloomer and transplants easily.

Mid-size aloes are good for borders and large-scale massing.  Height: 18 to 36 inches.

Aloe striata has nice plump leaves and good floral color.

Aloe vera is dramatic planted en masse, and yes, the gel is useful for burns and cuts.

Aloe x spinosissima is a 2- to 3-foot sprawler great on hillsides and rocky soil.

Aloe cameronii is Bill’s favorite 2-foot aloe. Stays red all year if given full sun.

Tree aloes tend to be slow growing and may not look their best in cold winter months. Don’t plant them near foundations or under eaves—they do get big.

Aloe bainesii is a moderate grower, 15 to 30 feet tall. Leaves may turn yellow and get black spots, but with summer warmth and feeding they’ll green up.

Aloe dichotoma is slow-growing to 15 to 20 feet. It has nice gray leaves and is very drought tolerant.

Aloe ferox is slow growing to 6-10 feet with a single trunk that holds dead leaves.

Aloes ‘Hercules’ is a faster-growing hybrid with a thick, strong trunk. Give it plenty of room.

Shade-tolerant aloes useful as firebreak plants are fast-growing and spreading.

Aloe ciliaris is a sprawling succulent that will climb palm tree trunks. Take care that it doesn’t get buried in leaves and melt away. Sometimes called ‘Fire Wall’ aloe, when grown on a slope, the plants form a 3- to 4-foot mat of fire resistant growth.

Aloe arborescens is probably the most commonly grown aloe in the world. If you have room for it, you can’t go wrong. It solves a multitude of landscape problems, and thrives everywhere—coast, low desert, foothills—from Mexico to San Francisco. Originally from South Africa, it’s also found all around the Mediterranean. This multiheaded aloe makes a good background plant and tolerates filtered shade beneath tall trees. For a dense barrier, plant 6 to 8 feet apart in a line or triangle. Height: 4 to 8 feet and spreading.

The above is courtesy of Bill Schnetz of Schnetz Landscape, Inc. and Rebecca Simpson.


More Info

On this site ~

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

I wonder if Patrick remembers giving me a cutting of that red aloe (A. cameronii). I know l’ll never forget it…[Continue reading]
Books ~
Aloes are shown throughout my books, with special sections in Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed., pp. 182-190 and Succulents Simplified, pp. 185-197.
I also recommend nurseryman/designer Jeff Moore’s beautifully illustrated Aloes & Agaves in Cultivation.

My YouTube Videos ~

Spectacular Aloes in Flower

Hannah Jarson’s Aloe Eden


 
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Oh, No, My Succulents Froze!

Can succulents recover from a hard frost? It depends. Here’s a southern California nursery’s display garden before nighttime temperatures dropped into the mid-20s F:

IMG_9517annotated_resized

Here’s the same Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata, after the frost:
IMG_1410_annotated_resized

Likelihood of recovery: Nil. Too much of the tissue was damaged. But what about the Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ behind it? It’s hope of recovery is excellent because only the top growth froze. It protected the stems underneath, which are still healthy.

IMG_3059annotated_resized

If something similar has happened to your plants, succulent or otherwise, once all danger of frost has passed, prune the dead top growth and the plant will be good as new…except smaller, of course!

How about the frozen aeonium below? Pretty much hopeless. But look a the Sedum ‘Angelina’ surrounding it. It’s a succulent too, and perfectly fine!
IMG_1237resized_annotated

Why does frost kill some succulents and not others? A lot has to do with where a particular kind of plant originated. Succulents, which store water in their leaves to survive drought, are mostly from dry, hot climates. But some are from dry, cold climates. See my Wall Street Journal article on this topic.

Related articles and info:

An excellent book about succulents that survive freezing temps is Hardy Succulents, by Gwen Kelaidis, illustrated by Saxon Holt.

Screen shot 2016-01-05 at 7.59.00 PM

My books also have info on growing succulents in challenging climates and how to protect them from frost and excess rain ~

 

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Showy Succulents for Snowy Climates (Debra’s WSJ Article)

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 3/9/18. 

Snow heightens the color of hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum globiferum ‘Connie’). Photo: Mountain Crest Gardens

Is it a given that Northerners can’t grow succulents? Not at all. Granted, most of these moisture-storing, arid-climate plants prefer warm, sunny habitats. Yet in response to demand, major growers are cultivating tough, showy varieties that sail through subzero winters. The two main kinds are stonecrops and hens-and-chicks, but there are others that may surprise and delight you.

Stonecrops

Golden barrel cactus is cold hardy only to 14 degrees F, but dainty-looking ‘Angelina’ stonecrop will go well below zero.

Arguably the best known cold-hardy succulent, because of its wide distribution and tolerance for nearly any climate except desert, is Angelina stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’). The feathery-textured ground cover turns from chartreuse in summer to orange-tipped gold in winter. This trailing spreader makes a good filler plant for potted and in-ground gardens alike.

Tiny-leaved ground covers like ‘Angelina’, commonly known as stonecrops, spread “even in Zone 3,” notes Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator of the Denver Botanic Gardens. “They’ll root from little pieces. There are hundreds of different kinds, and they’re the backbone of green roofs.”

Kelaidis says that clump-forming succulents once classified as Sedum (now in the genus Hylotelephium) are “probably the most important succulents for perennial gardens” because of their size and year-round beauty. Like sedums, these have star-shaped flowers in clusters, but unlike true sedums, hylotelephiums form tap roots and have rosy flowers rather than yellow. Although the top growth of hylotelephiums dies and turns brown in winter, “don’t cut them back until spring,” Kelaidis advises. “The dry flower stalks look great covered with snow.”

Plant breeder Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens in Hebron, IL is perhaps best known for upright sedums with serrated chartreuse leaves and flowers that blanket the plants with clouds of pink. Horvath authored “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Sedums” (Timber Press, 2014).

In his book, Horvath says of the best-known perennial sedum, Autumn Joy (Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’), “The flower heads of soft raspberry pink deepen to garnet as fall approaches. What’s more, in all but the harshest climates, this tenacious plant continues to delight through the winter months as its flower heads turn copper, then bronze.”

Monrovia nursery notes, “This sturdy perennial is as tough as they come. Clumping foliage displays large, plate-like flower clusters… Succulent foliage will die back to the ground in cold winter regions, but will re-emerge in early spring.”

Hens-and-chicks

Succulent hens-and-chicks, so called because offsets ring the mother rosette, are in the genus Sempervivum, meaning “ever-living.” “Many of our semps and hardy sedum spent over a month buried in 18 inches of snow last year, resulting in tremendously vivid red, pink, purple, and even some orange tones later in the spring,” says Matts Jopson, VP of Mountain Crest Gardens near Mt. Shasta in Northern CA. “They also survived a record -15 F night without issue.” Certain semps will look different throughout the year, depending on variety and climate, and warm colors caused by cold may settle into shades of green by late summer.

One of a handful of nurseries specializing in hardy succulents, Mountain Crest Gardens’ “rapid growth has continued through 2017, and we’ve been expanding our selections like never before,” Jopson says. “We should have at least 200 different hardy varieties for sale this spring, at least 50 of which we consider to be rare collectibles.”

Nearly all of the succulents found in the nursery’s Hardy Succulent category can be grown outdoors year-round in zone 5 (-20F) areas such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. “We created that category and our own definition of “hardy” exactly for this purpose,” Jopson says, “to let the large northern population of the U.S. (and thus most of the country’s population) know that they can grow a wide selection of beautiful succulents outside through the winter. Even people in colder Minneapolis should be fine keeping many of the Sempervivum heuffelii and hardy Sedum outdoors.”

Sempervivum heuffelii are “truly special plants,” Jopson says. They have…

  • More consistent year-round color than regular Hens and Chicks
  • “Glowing” edges
  • Foliage is probably the most durable of any hardy succulent
  • Many are more tolerant of indoor light than semps.

 

 

Several Sempervivum cultivars by Kevin Vaughn

Mountain Crest Gardens works with a hybridizer and creator of “many beloved semp cultivars,” Jopson says: Kevin Vaughn of Salem, OR. Vaughn holds a hybridizing clinic each year in April “organized by the avid semp community on the garden.org forums.” Jopson adds that the breeder’s current goal is to hybridize “a ‘football sized’ semp with the dark color tones of an Aeonium ‘Black Rose’.”

Hybridizer Kevin Vaughn’s book. Release date: May, 2018.

Vaughn’s book is a must-have for semp enthusiasts: Sempervivum: A Gardener’s Perspective of the Not-So-Humble Hens-and-Chicks.

Among professional breeders of cold-hardy succulents mentioned by Jopson and Kelaidis is Chris Hansen of Michigan-based Garden Solutions (chris@sunsparklersedums.com). Hansen says of one of his cultivars, Sempervivum ‘Gold Nugget’, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime plant, the world’s first bright yellow semp with red tips.” In northerly climates, ‘Gold Nugget’ turns shades of lime green and hot pink in summer, gold and red in spring and fall, and warm red in winter.

Chris Hansen shows Sempervivum ‘Gold Nugget’, part of his registered Chick Charms line of hens-and-chicks.

See more of Hansen’s patented plants, including his SunSparker Sedums, on my 50 Cold Hardy Succulents for Northern Climates page. His online mail-order plant business (with Mary Walters) is www.GreatGardenPlants.com.

Sempervivums are monocarpic, meaning that after a rosette blooms, it dies. But this seldom compromises a colony’s appearance. Chicks carry on, filling gaps with their own offsets in spring.

Ice plants 

Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’ is a Kelaidis introduction

Naturally Kelaidis mentions ice plants, of which he says tongue-in-cheek, “I invented 35 years ago.” He trekked through Siberia, Mongolia, and similarly remote, high-elevation regions seeking mat-forming succulents with shimmering, daisylike blooms. Kelaidis went on to introduce many—including his own hybrids—to gardens in the Rockies and beyond.

Asked to name an ice plant that’s especially floriferous, Kelaidis praises purple Delosperma cooperi: “It blooms all summer.” The plant, which Kelaidis has helped popularize over his 35-year career, is readily available nationwide. He says proudly, “Hundreds of millions sold.”

How to Grow the Hardies

There’s more to growing hardy succulents than plunking them in the ground. They need to be acclimated to the cold. Jopson advises: “It’s never a good idea to leave them outside in a hard freeze immediately after delivery. Established root systems are required for most hardy succulents to survive the coldest winter temps, and it is recommend to plant in the ground, beds, or large containers for additional insulation for the roots. Snow is actually welcomed by hardy varieties as it can insulate them from frigid air temperatures.”

“Wetness is the enemy,” cautions Kelaidis. “Plant them in walls, rock gardens and shallow containers.” Give in-ground plants maximum sun exposure and “a microclimate similar to a Russian steppe:” a south-facing slope amended with coarse, gritty soil.

Read more

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Soft Succulents: Jeff Moore’s Stunning New Book


Jeff Moore’s books are the See’s of eye-candy, filled with photos that show the very souls of fleshy plants. Moore is a succulent expert, garden designer, photographer and author who for 26 years has owned Solana Succulents nursery in Solana Beach, near San Diego.

We met in 2003, back when I was covering gardening for magazines. He struck me as unusually normal. Generally I’d hang out with an endearing plant geek until I understood his or her passion, and then I’d write about it. I interviewed many collector-experts, but (apologies to those still around), most were off-the-charts eccentric. Not Moore, a regular guy who just happened to have a thing for fleshy plants. The only weird thing was that he made a living at it. I asked this surfer and family man (who usually wears shorts, sunglasses and sandals—very Solana Beachy) which succulent we should feature. He chose Aloe bainesi (Aloe barberae). [Scroll down for an excerpt.]

His new book, Soft Succulents, is the sequel to Under the Spell of Succulents and Aloes and Agaves in Cultivation. Moore’s books are self-published, which imbues them with a refreshing persona and makes them an excellent value (none are over $35).

Moore’s nursery specializes in plants for Southern and coastal CA from the Bay Area south. Not surprisingly, Soft Succulents skims over cold-climate varieties and devotes 20 pages to Dudleya, an underutilized genus native to California and Baja. Echeverias, also from Mexico, have 52 pages with 63 varieties. Aeoniums, challenging to grow elsewhere in the US, have 53 pages with 46 varieties. (And to think I grow only 14!)

Many of these photos from Solana Succulents’ website appear in Soft Succulents ~

A few favorite quotes from Moore’s latest (and arguably loveliest) book:

“You could take a dive into and roll around on any of these juicy creatures, and the only damage would be to the plants and maybe stains on your clothes. These softies will pass the nervous grandma test.”

“Consider blending them with at least a few of their more heavily armored relatives…my kids and animals grew up around the spiky stuff, and they learned some valuable life lessons from daddy’s plants.”

“I would estimate that well over half of the species, cultivars or hybrids that I have at my nursery were either unavailable or yet to be created when I opened in the early nineties.”

Echeveria ‘Bubble Machine’ is either a true beauty of genetic manipulation, or an example of man’s inhumanity to plant.”

“If you’ve tried and killed a traditional bonsai tree, keep the pot and try a jade, such as Crassula ‘Hobbit’ at left.”

To nit-pick, I would have preferred the plants presented alphabetically by genus. Although most of them are, it’s odd finding Sempervivum in the front and Cotyledon in the back. There are nomenclature glitches (such as different spellings of the same plant) and formatting inconsistencies (i.e. single quotes, italics and the like). But, as it turns out, the one error I thought was egregious wasn’t.

I figured “Toelken” in a header was a misspelling of “Tolkien” (as in J. R. R.). However, on page 196, re crassulas ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Gollum’, Moore explains: “The fanciful names are attributed to Helmut R. Toelken, who published a thesis on the revision of the crassulaceae in 1977. Although no relation to the J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings renown, someone must have been inspired by the similar names to bestow these cultivars with their monikers.” Well OK, then!

From “Aloes Aloft,” the article I wrote about Moore for the June, 2004 issue of San Diego Home/Garden magazine:

“People speculate that Seuss drew his multiheaded palms after seeing Aloe bainesii,” Moore says, “But I doubt it. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, there were maybe a couple in all of San Diego. Aloe bainseii just happens to look like a Dr. Seuss tree, not the other way around.”

Inside Moore’s mind is a map with locations of memorable succulents highlighted.

“I notice them when I’m driving around. Each one is a piece of art.”

Photo: Mary Beiler

Fourteen years and three books later, Moore has provided the horticultural world with impressive photo galleries of nearly every kind of succulent. And he’s not finished. In the works is a book on cacti and spiky euphorbias. Such plants are gaining popularity, and I can attest that no other succulents are as much fun to photograph. If Moore’s previous books are a visual feast, the next will be desert (pun intended).


Above: In one of my earliest YouTube videos, Moore makes a couple of container gardens on the tailgate of his pickup truck.

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Succulents, Fibonacci and Spiral Phyllotaxis

Many cacti and succulents form geometric spirals similar to those of sunflowers, pine cones and nautilus shells. Spiral leaf arrangements funnel rain to roots, and keep upper leaves from shading lower ones.

The arrangement of a plant’s leaves along the stem is phyllotaxis (from ancient Greek, phýllon “leaf” and táxis “arrangement”). Mathematically, spiral phyllotaxis follows a Fibonacci sequence, such as 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc. Each subsequent number is the sum of the two preceding ones.

There’s a hypnotic beauty about spiral phyllotaxis, not to mention it’s a great word to impress friends with. As is the puzzling-to-pronounce Fibonacci (fee-bo-NACH-ee), who was a 12th-century Italian mathematician.

Perhaps the best known succulent to do this is aptly name spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla). Unfortunately it’s devilishly tricky to grow, making it the Holy Grail of succulents. (If you can grow a spiral aloe, you can grow anything.)

Aloe polyphylla, also known as Spiral Aloe

I’m fond of spherical cacti because of how their spines spiral—in fact, I almost prefer the plants out of bloom. These are mammillarias. I show a cool way to display them in another article, Create a Cactus Curio Box. And I describe the growing popularity of these photogenic plants in Is Cactus the New Black?

mammillaria

Sempervivum arachnoideum, cactus spiral

Sempervivum arachnoideum, cactus spiral

Sempervivums (hens-and-chicks) also spiral beautifully. Squint at this photo and you’ll see how similar it is to the center of a sunflower.

Sempervivum arachnoideum, cactus spiral

IMG_4277

Medusa euphorbias, known for their craggy, snakelike stems, each has a spiral at its center. No two are the same, and seldom do you find one that’s perfect.

Medusa euphorbia

Have you noticed spiral phyllotaxis in your own garden? Do look for it. You may be surprised at how it jumps out at you, once you’re aware of it. For example, this common succulent (Graptopetalum paraguayense) exhibits spiraling, albeit more subtly than the examples above.

You may even see it on nonorganic items, like book bags. 

Related Info

On this site —

If you enjoy gardening,you’ve no doubt experienced how it can be a form of meditation and a treat for all the senses. But have you considered how simply looking at certain plants induces a feeling of serenity? You can discover this simply by enhancing a sitting area with succulents that incorporate geometric patterns and spirals…[Continue reading]
 
Long a pariah plant, cactus is becoming cool. The first edition of my book, Designing with Succulents (Timber Press, 2007) showed few cacti—mainly golden barrels. A decade later, the completely revised second edition devotes 15 pages to numerous varieties of spiny succulents in gardens large and small. [Continue reading]


 

Debra Lee Baldwin, Garden Photojournalist, Author and Succulent Expert

Learn more about Debra Lee Baldwin, garden photojournalist, author and succulent expert

 


 

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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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Why Doesn’t My Succulent Bloom?

Succulents (most plants for that matter) need light in order to flower. Sun is essential to photosynthesis, which creates energy and fuels new growth. All plants (actually, all living things) really want to reproduce, and for plants that means being robust enough to bloom. Because most succulents come from warm, dry climates, they require a lot of light.

 If this aloe could talk, it would say, “I’m starved for light! I may not be able to bloom! Help!”

*Aloe maculata (A. saponaria)

Above: A specimen of Aloe maculata growing indoors in the Seattle area. Although it’s healthy, it has flattened and elongated its leaves in order to expose as much of its surface as possible to light. The term for this is etiolation (et-ee-oh-lay-shun).

Aloe maculata (A. saponaria) in bloom

Above: This is how Aloe maculata looks with half a day of sun and half a day of bright shade. Even in these near-ideal conditions, the rosette and flower spikes lean in the direction of greatest light. Leaf tips have protected themselves from too much sun with reddish-brown pigmentation. (It’s similar to melanin, which causes skin to tan or freckle.)
Above: In all-day sun with minimal water, a similar specimen’s leaves have shortened to reduce evaporation. (Note how those in the first photo are much longer.) Sun exposure is evidently somewhat harsh because it has reddened even more. The horticultural term for this is “stress,” which is aesthetically desirable because it enhances color and symmetry. This plant may be a bit too stressed—leaf tips have scorched and growth has slowed—but look closely: It’s in bud.
What to do if you live in an often overcast climate or grow succulents mainly inside? This is from my website page, How to Grow Succulents in Seattle (Northern Climates):
Indoors, set them near windows that face south or west. Don’t bother with north-facing windows, but if your windows face east, do collect and enjoy low-light lovers such as haworthias and gasterias. [Read more]
 
*About Aloe maculata: Formerly known as Aloe saponaria (soap aloe) because the gel in its leaves lathers like soap, it is one of the few potentially invasive succulents, capable of sending up new plants from horizontal roots a few inches below the soil surface. Baby plants can pop up three feet or more from the mother! I have a colony of Aloe maculata in a rocky area of the garden where they can’t get into trouble, because I love the flowers, which are branching—unlike the columnar spikes of many other aloes. They don’t make good cut flowers, though, because cut stems ooze a mucilaginous gel. Aloe maculata is not often found at nurseries in Southern CA because there’s minimal demand for it (it’s a common passalong plant). A similar aloe that is better behaved, not toothed, often sold in nurseries, and much more prized in cultivation is Aloe striata (coral aloe). See it and others on my website’s Aloes page.
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What’s Your Ultimate Aloe?

Above: Aloe ferox at Desert Theater nursery, Escondido, CA. From my video, Spectacular Aloes in Flower.

My ultimate aloes are any large, sculptural species with brilliant, Popsicle-like flowers that make striking garden plants even when not in bloom. Midwinter is peak aloe season and an excellent time to see them in nurseries and landscapes.

All About Aloes

On this site ~
One of Southern CA’s in-demand landscape designers, Bill Schnetz of Schnetz Landscape, Inc., likes to use aloes of all sizes in residential gardens…[Continue reading]

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

Books ~
Find info about aloes in my books: Designing with Succulents, 2nd ed., pp. 182-190; Succulents Simplified, pp. 185-197.
I also recommend nurseryman/designer Jeff Moore’sbeautifully illustrated Aloes & Agaves in Cultivation. 

My YouTube Videos ~

Spectacular Aloes in Flower

 Hannah Jarson’s Aloe Eden


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Debra’s Top Six Firewise Succulents

My top six firewise succulents are quite common and start easily from cuttings. If you live in a fire-prone, backcountry area, consider them one more weapon in your arsenal against wildfire by planting them around your property’s perimeter.

View my 6-minute video: Do Succulents Burn? Compare the combustibility of jade, aloe, aeonium, firesticks, elephant’s food and paddle cactus to branches cut from bamboo and oak trees.

In combination, these readily available succulents make a beautiful, low-water landscape. This garden, for example, originated entirely from cuttings:

  • Opuntia (paddle cactus), the thicker the better. If you wince at the thought of having cactus in your garden, look for spineless or near-spineless varieties. They do exist, and they don’t draw blood. Those rounded, upright pads make a nice counterpoint to more finely textured plants, succulent and otherwise.
  • Aloes. Mound-forming Aloe arborescens is the heroic succulent that “saved” the home of Rob and Suzy Schaefer during the devastating wildfires of 2007. It sends up orange-red, torchlike flower spikes in midwinter.
  • Aeoniums. There are numerous varieties of these rosette succulents. The best ones for fire resistance are multi-branching.
  • Crassulas. Plain old green jade didn’t burn during the wildfire that threatened the Schaefer home, but rather it cooked, and like the aloes, its leaves turned putty-colored and collapsed. If you think jade is boring, you may not be aware of its many cultivars. Some are striped cream-and-green; turn yellow-orange-red when grown in full sun; have silvery-gray leaves rimmed with red; or have intriguing tubular or wavy leaves.
  • Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ — Highly ornamental with bright orange, upright stems, this makes an excellent fire barrier, to 7 feet in height. Downsides are it’s frost tender and its milky sap is caustic.

    Above: Photo by homeowner Camille Newton of her firebreak garden immediately after the 2017 Lilac Fire. Orange ‘Sticks on Fire’ are prominent. Burgundy rosettes at middle right are aeoniums. Watch my “Succulents as Firebreak” video of Camille’s garden.

     

  • Portulacaria afra (elephant’s food) is shrub-like, and yes, elephants really do eat it in South Africa. In fact, the plant benefits from being stomped on because pieces root readily. The variegated variety is less vigorous and more ornamental than the common green species.


Go to my Firewise Landscaping page 

In Designing with Succulents (2nd edition, p. 107), I tell how my husband and I were evacuated, and how the succulent garden on the cover of the book’s first edition “saved” a home in Rancho Santa Fe. Ten years later, during the 2017 Lilac Fire, Camille Newton (whose garden in Bonsall, CA is on page 51 of the 2nd edition) had a similar experience [read more].  See Camille and me on TV. 

From my Los Angeles Times article, “Did Succulents Save Her Home?” ~ “SUCCULENTS have soared in popularity recently because they’re drought-tolerant, easy-care and just plain cool to look at, and now there’s another compelling reason to grow them: They’re fire-retardant. During last month’s wildfires, succulents — which by definition store water in plump leaves and stems — apparently stopped a blaze in its tracks…” [Read more]

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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 art, home decor, clothing and gift items. The first edition of my book, Designing with Succulents (Timber Press, 2007) showed few cacti—mainly golden barrels. A decade later, the completely revised second edition devotes 15 pages to numerous varieties of prickly succulents in gardens large and small.


Golden barrels backlit by the sun

Succulent aficionados initially drawn to echeverias and other rosette succulents are gaining appreciation for those with streamlined, sculptural forms. There’s a surging interest in succulent oddities as well, resulting in windowsill gardens with a vaguely extraterrestrial look.


Collectible crested cacti on display at a nursery

Membership in the Cactus & Succulent Society of America (CSSA), founded in 1929, is at an all-time high. Longtime members of CSSA clubs nationwide seem bemused by the growing interest in succulents as landscape plants. But then, members are collectors. Clubs host shows and award trophies to rare, perfectly grown potted specimens. These widespread events are open to the public and free, so they’re often where people see exotic succulents first and in the flesh.

Large cacti that are spherical, cylindrical or jointed are popping up far from their native desert Southwest. Forward-thinking California landscape designers are creating focal-point beds consisting of rocks of all sizes (another trend) and with dramatic succulents with translucent spines. These living sculptures, breathtaking when haloed by early morning or late afternoon sun, require no irrigation other than rainfall.

You needn’t live in a hot climate to grow cacti in-ground. On page 112 of the second edition of Designing with Succulents, I share this good news: “More than fifty types of Opuntia and a dozen varieties of Echinocereus will grow where temperatures drop below 0 degrees F, according to members of the Ottawa Cactus Club, who have grown and tested them in their gardens.”


My makeshift cactus tools include grippers with pieces of foam rubber attached to the tips with rubber bands and rubber gloves wrapped with duct tape

Whoever introduces flexible gardening gloves impervious to spines and glochids will likely make a fortune. Regardless, if they haven’t already, tool manufacturers will see an uptick of interest in long-handled tweezers, calipers, hemostats, narrow-bladed scissors, and other items that enable gardeners to groom and handle cacti without actually touching them.

Not that I expect garden-club ladies to ever be enthralled by cacti. This edgy subsection of succulents appeals to a new generation of gardeners: people in their twenties and thirties who have the gardening gene (they’re fascinated by plants and cultivation) but who want to do it their own way. Look for young green-thumbers to take an interest in formerly ignored fat plants, reveling in the eye-of-the-beholder beauty of mammillarias, euphorbias and more. (The more treacherous, the better, especially those with eyebrow-raising names and forms.)


Sure, it’s cute, but can spineless cacti help world hunger?

I’ve saved the best for last: It’s likely that research begun by famed hybridizer Luther Burbank (1849-1926) on spineless varieties of Opuntia (paddle cacti) will start up again in earnest, with the goal of creating a dependably smooth-leaved hybrid that’ll grow nearly anywhere. Many in this large genus have pads as thick as oven mitts, and juicy tissues capable of sustaining the plants during prolonged dry spells. Tender young pads, a dietary staple in Latin America (nopales), are notably high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients.

Burbank envisioned spineless opuntia as an economical alternative to cattle feed. Despite harsh conditions, the plants grow from fallen pads. They thrive in poor soils and need far less labor than grains. Forget silos; simply leave pads on the plants until needed. But never mind cattle. Call me crazy, but I think spineless opuntia offers a significant way to combat world hunger. And due to its wealth of antioxidants, possibly cancer too.

Cacti are just one direction in which succulents are trending. With 400 photos and entirely revised and updated text, the celebratory, tenth anniversary, second edition of Designing with Succulents presents hundreds of innovative, practical, and eye-catching ways to use and enjoy these appealing and remarkable plants. Learn more at www.debraleebaldwin.com and www.timberpress.com.

Related Info ~

April 13, 2018 — Cactus as a design element is trending, popping up on pajamas, place mats, wallpaper and more. As awareness of the plants grows, cliche images of “cactus” as saguaros and prickly-pear will give way to… [Continue reading]
Dec. 27, 2017 — Whenever I’m asked how to find certain succulents or services that are in short supply, I wonder why so few offer them. After all, there’s clearly money to be made! [Continue reading]