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Newport Beach succulent garden
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Critique: Newport Beach’s Grand Succulent Garden

If you’re planning to design, revamp or evaluate a succulent landscape, find out what I like and what dismays me about Newport Beach’s grand Civic Center succulent garden. It’s large-scale, but its plusses and minuses apply to waterwise gardens of any size.

Opened in 2013, the Newport Beach Civic Center graces a coastal community of homes with an average value of $2,000,000. The complex cost $140 million and is a masterpiece of modern architecture within sight of the Pacific. Overlapping, S-shaped awnings atop a series of sleek buildings suggest ocean waves. The multi-acre succulent garden along the complex’s north side is a public park.

It has a nice layout, with wide, serpentine paths that invite strolling and rolling (everything from baby carriages to wheelchairs). There are multiple plantings of large specimens—Dracaena draco, Aloe bainesii, Beaucarnea recurvata and columnar cacti. These likely were mature at installation in order to be in scale with their setting, and doubtless were craned-in at no small expense. Filler plants include agaves, dasylirions, aloes, puyas (a succulent bromeliad), golden barrels, aeoniums, Senecio mandraliscae, and silver-leaved Cotyledon orbiculata. Warm-toned gravel enhances the design, holds moisture in the soil, inhibits weed growth, and lends visual continuity. In light of the fact that structures across the street have water-thirsty lawns and tightly pruned shrubs (landscaping that doesn’t make sense on so many levels), what’s not to love?

Newport Beach Civic Center garden

Silver and blue succulents dominate the Newport Beach Civic Center garden

Highly toxic euphorbia

Well, Euphorbia resinifera for one thing. I like the mounding growth habit of this African succulent, which suggests a short-spined cactus consisting of squarish, columnar green stems. It grows slowly into ever-expanding colonies. However, this cool-looking plant is quite hot…and not in a good way.

Suggestions for the Newport Beach succulent garden

Euphorbia resinifera has short, sharp spines and—typical of the genus—milky sap.

Its milky, resinous sap contains resiniferatoxin, which is similar to capsaicin in peppers but a thousand times hotter. On the Scoville scale, resiniferatoxin ranks at 16 billion units, 4.5 million times hotter than a jalapeno. So if the sap should enter an open wound or eye, the sensation would be like a blow torch. Of course that’s only possible when Euphorbia resinifera grows where someone could fall on it, break its stems, and get scratched by its thorns…like along the downward curve of a pathway in a public garden frequented by kids on scooters, skates and bikes.

Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden

Adding a curb would create a barrier that keeps kids from careening into Euphorbia resinifera. 

A missed opportunity

Another succulent in the garden, prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.), is far from pathways…which is no surprise because it’s obviously unfriendly.

Newport Beach succulent garden

Prickly pear cactus (lower center) grows well away from foot traffic.

Yet Opuntia species that lack spines are nowhere to be found, and they would have been suitable anywhere. Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’, shown below at a nursery, grows tall (upwards of 6 feet), offers a pleasing silhouette of ever-branching ovals, forms a sculptural green backdrop, starts readily from cuttings, gets by on rainfall alone, and is entirely harmless.

Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden

Spineless paddle cactus at a nursery

Silver swords and serrated leaves

Spare-no-expense plants such as Puya venusta (a succulent bromeliad) and Cleistocactus strausii (a fuzzy columnar cactus) blend together in a surreal, silvery harmony of starbursts and snowy poles. But IMHO they’re a bit too texturally inviting to be at toddler-level.

Suggestions for the Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden

Silver swords combine with bromeliads near Civic Center windows. From my video: “Newport Beach’s Grand Succulent Garden”

Yes, of course, parents should teach children not to touch unfamiliar plants, especially any that are spiny, thorny, toothed or bristly. But what about plants that touch kids? Over time, the puyas have become crowded and some, seeking light, have grown horizontally. Here’s one that had to be cut back from the pathway. Doing so has destroyed the plant’s symmetry and bloom potential.

Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden

A truncated Puya venusta at the Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden

I also wonder if the area that this silver grouping occupies—north-facing, close to the building and beneath its wavy eaves—is sunny enough for puyas to bloom. After all, that’s what they’re known for: eye-catching, truly-blue flowers.

Suggestions for the Newport Beach Succulent Garden

Big silver puyas bloom blue.

Best-ever beaucarneas

On the plus side, the garden showcases how to mound and topdress soil, use planted islands, and how just a few sculptural succulents can create an intriguing, low-maintenance, low-water landscape. This is best illustrated by a grouping of Beaucarnea recurvata. (Its common names “ponytail palm,” “elephant’s foot palm” and “bottle palm” are misleading—these tree succulents aren’t palms.) Like many agaves and cacti also in the garden, beaucarneas are from Mexico. They’re easy to come by, inexpensive even in 5-gallon pots, grow fairly rapidly when in the ground (about a foot a year), tolerate mild frosts, and have intriguing Dr. Seuss-like forms. What makes each “succulent” is its bulbous, water-storing base (caudex). In summer, the trees’ topknots produce feathery sprays of cream and pink flowers.

Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden

Beaucarnea recurvata in bloom

Out-of-control agaves

But for me, the most perplexing aspects of the garden are its rows of century plants (Agave americana) that occupy large beds between walkways and street. I suspect that what must have seemed brilliantly economical six years ago has become a maintenance nightmare. Though quite common and often free for the asking, century plants eventually get as big as Volkswagens and produce numerous offsets (“pups”) from shallow roots.

Newport Beach Civic Center succulent garden

Trimming a century plant like a pineapple removes problematic foliage, but it’ll pup regardless

These large agaves’ thick leaves are wickedly toothed along their margins and tipped in sharp spines. I suspect that after a few years, century plants began encroaching on walkways. The need to prune some of them likely led to the aesthetic decision to trim all of them so they look the same.

Agave americana in habitat

As shown in my YouTube video, “Do’s and Don’ts of Growing Century Plants,” Agave americana produces pups (clones of the mother plant), which in turn spawn grandpups.

 

Newport Beach succulent garden

These pineappled century plants are in my YouTube video, “Newport Beach’s Grand Succulent Garden”

En masse these agaves resemble a pineapple plantation, but that doesn’t offend me. What does, is that agave leaf pruning and pup removal are labor-intensive. Moreover, many municipalities won’t accept agave green waste—the plants are too fibrous, spiny and slow to decompose. I’m curious how thousands of sliced-off century plant leaves, each nearly as large as its machete-wielding gardener, have been (and will continue to be) disposed of.

Agave alternatives

There do exist large, statuesque agaves that are not especially treacherous and don’t pup like feral dogs. Two that would have worked well here (if it were possible to source them in quantity) are Agave guiengola and Agave ovatifolia. But using better-behaved agaves is just one alternative. Also from the Southwest US and Mexico are low-maintenance, low-water succulents such as yuccas, dasylirions and hesperaloes. They’re dynamic planted in multiples and don’t bloom-then-die like agaves do.

If I were to give the Newport Beach Civic Center’s succulent garden a letter grade, it would be a C+. I’d like to give it higher, but online info indicates that numerous large and expensive specimens (like Aloe thraskii, a tree succulent) that had been planted early-on, died. Perhaps they couldn’t tolerate being transplanted or were sited incorrectly. Regardless, my sad conclusion is that inadequate horticultural research prior to the installation of this grand succulent garden wasted time, taxpayers’ money and potentially terrific plants.

Related Info:

On this site…

Succulents for Coastal Southern CA Gardens (plant list)

No-Water Succulents for Southern CA (garden of Mark and Cindy Evans, Laguna Beach)

On my YouTube channel…

Video, Newport Beach Succulent Garden

Watch the video of my visit to the Newport Beach Succulent Garden

 

About century plants

Don’t miss my video about the pros and cons of a large succulent that’s often free: Agave americana

 

Great agaves for gardens

Agave expert Kelly Griffin and I show half a dozen lovely, non-pupping agaves.

 

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin

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Agaves Handle Summer Heat

Late summer is when tough succulents really shine. Large agaves handle summer heat, and are unfazed by harsh sun, high temps and lack of rain. Their statuesque, fountainlike forms lend a sculptural element to any landscape, and contrast beautifully with fine-textured ornamentals. They also make good firebreak plants and security fences.

With the exception of a few soft-leaved and variegated varieties, agaves want sun—the more the better in all but desert climates. Most are hardy to the mid- to high-20s F, and some go a lot lower.

Sharp points at leaf tips and along leaf edges can make agaves treacherous. I snip about a quarter inch from leaves’ needlelike tips with garden shears.

Agave attenuata, blue form

Agaves smaller than basketballs make excellent potted plants. Small agaves—there are many exquisite ones—look good displayed one to a pot.

Agave Victoria-reginae

Agaves with serpentine terminal spines and prominent teeth along leaf margins are both graceful and fierce. Don’t they remind you of how cats yawn and show their fangs?

Agave fangs

Scalloped patterns on an agave’s leaves (“bud imprints”) are caused by spines and teeth pressing into the flesh of inner leaves before they unfurl. Aren’t they fascinating?

Agave 'Baccarat'

When pruning a damaged leaf, keep in mind that a straight-across cut at its midsection may spoil an agave’s symmetry. It’s best to make two cuts that trim the leaf to a “V” that resembles the leaf’s natural tip. Or cut it all the way to the trunk.

One of the most common agaves, A. attenuata (foxtail agave) has soft, smooth, nonspiny leaves that are prone to sun scorch in summer and frost burn in winter. Damaged tips will collapse and turn white. If this has happened to yours, watch my short video on how to trim them.

How to prune a frost-damaged agave

Large agaves that pup (not all do) can be thugs. They’ll grow and spread rapidly, especially when given good soil and regular irrigation. One of the most widely grown is A. americana (century plant), because it offsets so prolifically (free plants!) and needs no care at all…until those pups start to get big and form an unruly, ever-expanding colony.

Agave americana with pups

Because it seems that everyone is blithely planting Agave americana these days, agave expert Kelly Griffin and I made a video that gives better choices for the long run: Six Great Agaves for Your Garden. It’s the sequel to What You MUST Know About Century Plants (Agave americana).

Being indigenous to the New World (the American Southwest, Mexico and Central America), larger agaves store enough moisture to get by on rainfall alone and will thrive in nutrient-poor soils. Although agaves like water, their roots—like those of most succulents—will rot in waterlogged soil.

All but a few agaves are monocarpic, meaning they bloom once and then die. This may take as many as 25 years, but it will happen. As it completes its life cycle, a mature rosette that has graced a garden for years sends up an asparagus-like flower stalk (most, but not all, branch). This dwarfs the plant and saps its energy. Flowers along the stalk eventually turn into miniplants (bulbils) or seed capsules.

All about agaves

Only the individual agave that flowers dies. In some cases—notably with those involving Agave americana—a litter of pups will carry on.

Agave americana post-bloom with pups

The above is edited from the intro to Agaves in “Succulents A to Z” in Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.). The book, which also covers Aloes among 30 important genera of succulents, includes photos and descriptions of significant varieties, and shows how to grow and use them beautifully in gardens and landscapes.

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Debra’s Top Firewise Succulents

My top 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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Gerhard Bock’s Review of Designing with Succulents

It’s a thrill for an author when a reviewer “gets” what a book’s all about. But succulent expert/blogger/photographer Gerhard Bock frankly floored me with his insights and evaluation of the second edition of Designing with Succulents. 

Excerpt:

Sometimes the second edition of a popular book is little more than a cosmetic update, maybe featuring a new foreword, a different page design, and some new photos. Not so here. The second edition of Designing with Succulents may share the same basic organization as the first edition—the first half covering design principles, the second half showcasing the best plants for a variety of applications—but the nuts and bolts of the book have been completely reworked. In the preface,

Debra says:

The world of succulent design has advanced so significantly since the first edition of Designing with Succulentswas released in 2007 that this second edition is a complete rewrite—in effect a new book. It showcases the cleverness and creativity of numerous designers and gardening enthusiasts, many of whom used the first edition as a starting point.

Let’s talk a closer look at the book. Beyond the preface and introduction, it consists of six major sections. “Succulent Landscape Essentials: Plan and Design Your Dream Garden” covers basics such as site selection and soil preparation; design principles such as scale and proportion, repetition, contrast, emphasis, shape and texture, and color; hardscape elements such as walls, raised beds, pathways, and terraces; as well as outdoor art.

“Specialty Gardens That Showcase Succulents” shows how succulents can be used in a variety of specific garden styles, including boulder and rock gardens, seaside and sea-themed gardens, desert gardens, firewise gardens, green roofs, container gardens, tapestry gardens, and miniature landscapes.

“Success Secrets for Succulents” covers the basics of planting, watering and fertilizing, pest, damage and weed control as well as growing succulents in challenging climates—everything from hot and dry, rainy and humid, to cold climates. This chapters also touches on various propagation techniques.

“Succulents A to Z” contains Debra’s “favorite foolhardy succulents for gardens large and small.” Organized in alphabetical order, this section describes the best species and cultivars from all common succulent genera—from aeoniums to yuccas.

“A Designer’s Palette: Plant Lists for Succulents” builds on the previous section, listing popular succulents according to characteristics such as size (tall, midsize, small), leaf variegation, leaf color, and “dramatic blooms.”

“Top Fifty Waterwise Companion Plants for Succulents” showcases a selection of trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses that not only look good in combination with succulents but also share similar cultivation requirements.

My favorite addition to the second edition are the Featured Gardens. At the beginning of each section, Debra introduces us to a very special succulent-centric garden. For example, she describes the evolution of her own ½ acre garden over the last ten years—in her words, “a giant editing job”—and takes us to other gardens in San Diego, on the Central Coast, and in Northern California. All these examples illustrate how harmoniously succulents blend into just about any garden style.

What I noticed immediately when I received my copy of the book was its visual elegance. The superb page design, combined with arguably the best succulent photographs ever to to appear in a mainstream title, make the second edition of Designing with Succulents the most handsome commercially published gardening book I’ve ever seen.

As a photographer, Debra does know that one well-chosen photo often stirs a reader’s imagination more than a page of even the most evocative prose. Still, without words to back up the images, visual beauty is just skin-deep. So while it’s possible to enjoy the second edition of Designing with Succulents as a lavish photo book, its real value is the wealth of information contained in its pages. Debra’s writing is clear as a bell and conveys even complex information without going over their heads. It simply is a joy to read.

Read the rest of the review. 

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin

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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.

Books by Debra Lee Baldwin