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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!

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Succulent Garden Design Essentials

Here are a dozen succulent garden design essentials for you to keep in mind as you design and plant your own garden. They’re exemplified by an award-winning succulent garden in San Diego, an outstanding example of smart landscaping for Southern California’s arid climate. Many thanks to Nancy Dalton for sharing her garden.

Succulent Garden Design Essentials

  1. Repeat colors and forms. By combining agaves with yuccas, the designers used similar-but-different plants to create continuity. The Yucca rostrata at far right repeats the dark green starburst shapes of slender-leaved agaves at middle left. These in turn echo an intriguing aspect of each other: white filaments that curl from leaf margins.Succulent garden design essentials

2. Incorporate textural plants. Texture is both what’s seen up-close, like fuzzy red kangaroo paw flowers, and what’s viewed from a distance, like the mounding jade at middle right and ‘Sticks on Fire’ beyond. Also highly textual are barrel cacti and any plant that shimmers in the breeze—like the Yucca rostrata at left.

Succulent garden design essentials

3. Sculpt the terrain with berms and valleys. Mounded soil is more interesting than flat and height enhances drainage. Tip: Bring in several yards of topsoil amended with pumice and mound it atop your former lawn or a difficult-to-dig area of compacted dirt. The succulents you plant in fresh soil will quickly take root and thrive.

Succulent garden design essentials

4. Group plants with varying heights and sizes. In Nancy’s garden, Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ serves as a backdrop for medium-sized succulents such as barrel cacti and variegated elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’). Low-growing blue Senecio mandraliscae and Othonna capensis complete the high-medium-low vignette.

Succulent garden design essentials.

5. Position plants according to water needs. Those most prone to rot, such as cacti from to the desert Southwest, tend to do best atop a berm that allows water to drain away from their roots. Finer-leaved succulents tend to dry out more easily and will be happiest around the base of the mound or in a swale. See my article, “How to Water Succulents.”

6. Grow rangy non-succulents in pots. Instead of in the ground, Nancy’s herb garden occupies large terracotta pots near her kitchen door. This keeps the plants under control (some, like mints, are invasive) and makes them easy to water, tend, harvest, and replant.Pot grouping of herbs

7. Add a fountain. The sound of splashing water on a patio or adjacent to a garden sitting area blankets neighboring noise and  enhances even a small yard’s sense of privacy. It also attracts songbirds.

8. Put complementary colors to work. Succulents come in all colors, as do glazed ceramic pots, so have fun with them! Here, Nancy contrasted blue and orange. Coppertone stonecrop (Sedum nussbaumerianum) in the bed serves as a ground cover, frames the focal point, and flows around pots of Kalanchoe orgyalis (copper spoons) at left and Agave colorataSucculent garden design essentials

 9. Display dynamic succulents against walls. Nancy lent interest to a white stucco retaining wall with three brightly-glazed pots. They contain a tall, columnar cactus, a clustering euphorbia, and star-shaped Agave lophantha ‘Quadricolor’. Find more ideas in my book, Succulent Container Gardens.

Succulent garden design essentials

10. Showcase the symmetry of succulents. Small agaves look great in pots that frame and call attention to their elegant, geometric shapes.  Here, Agave victoria-reginae graces a hexagonal pot near Nancy’s front door. Succulent garden design essentials

 

11. Include a dry creek bed. In a drought-prone climate it’s soothing to suggest the presence of water. To create the look of rushing water, designer Michael Buckner lined Nancy’s dry creek bed with cobbles turned sideways. Such enhancements can channel water from gutters into the garden and provide access to hard-to-reach areas. See the section in Designing with Succulents on dry creek beds, pp. 56-59.

Succulent garden design essentials

12. Top-dress bare soil with crushed rock. It may seem minor, but this often overlooked aspect of design makes a huge difference. A layer of gravel lends a finished look, discourages weed growth, and helps hold moisture in the soil. See my articles, “Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks” and “Why Top Dressing is Essential for Succulents.” 

Special thanks to Deeter-Buckner design for these “before” photos of Nancy’s front yard:

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BucknerDSC_1345_resized

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Nancy Dalton’s s garden won the city of San Diego’s drought tolerant landscaping contest and was on the San Diego Horticultural Society’s Spring Garden Tour. Located in Carmel Valley, the garden has a mild, frost-free climate. Landscape designers Samantha Owens of Barrels and Branches nursery and Michael Buckner of Deeter-Buckner Design helped with soil amendments, plant selection, placement, and installation. Nancy herself is knowledgeable about plants and is a hand’s-on gardener.

Download my list of Succulents for Coastal Southern California Gardens.

See my YouTube channel playlist, “Great Succulent Gardens.”

See Nancy’s garden in my video, Design Ideas from an Award-Winning Succulent Garden

…and in my book, Designing with Succulents.

Related info on this site:

Patrick Anderson’s Garden: It All Started with Aloes

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,” [Continue reading]

 

Ten Reasons Why You Really Need Rocks
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… [Continue reading]

Six No-Water Succulents for Your Garden
Even if you live in drought-parched Southern CA, garden plants that don’t need to be watered are not as hard to come by as you might think. Certain readily available succulents… [Continue reading]