dragon trees

a dragon tree, Dracaena draco, takes decades to reach even this size — Venice, Calif

A few years ago I had the opportunity to help with a small front garden, that was designed to receive only occasional hand watering. I planted agaves and other succulents, dymondia, some bromeliads, three Hesperaloe ‘Brakelights,’ (all of which withered away — why not choose life, hesperaloe!?) and a dragon tree, Dracaena draco, the first and only time I’ve planted this succulent tree. Although slow growing, I knew its potential size might be a problem — I seem to have a fatal attraction to Canary Islanders! Right now the dragon slumbers in the form of an innocuous, leafy rosette, roughly about 4X3′. But when it flowers, which is still a long way off, but when it does, its stem will begin to branch and develop that mesmerizingly dense, umbrella-like canopy, with branches radiating outward like arterioles, that can rise over 20 feet. Now, with the house changing hands soon, I’m debating whether to dig it up or leave the botanical time bomb in place.

Dracaena cinnabari image by Daniel Kordan

My smoldering moral dilemma involving a single dragon tree was recently inflamed by some amazing images by photographer Daniel Kordan. Dracaena draco is not the only dragon tree named for its red sap, which Greek myth says originates in the dragon blood spilled when Hercules vanquished Ladon in the Garden of the Hesperides. The subject of Kordan’s photos is Dracaena cinnabari, the Socotra dragon tree from Yemen, that also spills red sap when cut, a resin used not only medicinally but also in many other applications such as for dyes and varnish. The storied dragon trees have sparked imaginations for millenia, Greek, Roman, and Arab. And now I’m in a quandary over what to do with the baby one I planted in a small city garden in Los Angeles, facing a busy sidewalk, where its presence goes mostly unnoticed….for now.

Dracaena cinnabari image by Daniel Kordan

I might have to go shopping for a large pot this weekend for a baby dragon tree — and happy Father’s Day to all our dads!

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the mysterious island in my back garden


One of the movies on heavy VHS-cassette rotation when my boys were young was Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Hot air balloon escape from a Civil War-era prison, crash landing near an uncharted island to fight for survival against monster-size crabs, chickens, and bees — all exquisitely rendered by the special effects artistry of Ray Harryhausen. Riveting stuff (and the boys liked it too, ha ha…)

A single truss bloomed in March this year, with satellite trusses forming like elephant ears in May.

Now I’ve flipped the script on the bees. Watching them frenzy over my Tree Dandelion, Sonchus palmensis, I have to wonder if the local bees feel they’ve wandered into a mysterious island of their own. Up and down the street dandelions come in the garden-size variety, but buzz over our fence and the dandelion is as big as a tree. And there may be more than one soon, because it’s apparently happy enough here to self-sow. For zones 9b-11.

Self-sown seedling of Sonchus palmensis, lower right rosette.

Coming from what are to me the ultimate mysterious islands, filled with one-off, eccentric, and just plain gorgeous flora, the Canaries, Sonchus palmensis turns the back garden into an adventure, for me and the bees.

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lilies again (and time to order tulips!)

Improbable mashup of agave, castor bean, Sonchus palmensis and possibly Lily ‘Eurydice’ — the color is right, though the bloom habit is supposed to be drooping, pendant, not outward facing. Maybe that habit develops as the bulb matures? Whichever way it hangs, the scent is incredible

Here in dry frost-free zone 10b, grow lilies in containers. That’s what I’ve been admonishing myself for years. And that’s what I’ve been doing, without much noticeable benefit, because the bulbs rarely return a second year whether in the ground or containers. It could be the lack of winter chill and/or me falling down on watering duties after they bloom. But in the housebound August of 2020, late summer being when the selection is best, I deliriously ordered over a dozen lilies; and upon their arrival in October/November I planted them in the ground. Potato/potatuh, right? If success in containers is minimal, it’s back to the garden for the bulbs. At the very least, there wasn’t an extra dozen containers underfoot all winter/spring.

unlike other bulbs, lilies never go dormant, and they require even moisture year-round. And when an Oriental lily bud unfurls and throws its scent…ooh la la!

At twilight just these two lilies in bloom wafted scent strong enough to fill the entire back garden. Even when it’s too dark to see, it’s hard to leave that scent behind and head indoors at the end of the day. I ordered my lilies from B&D Lilies and the Lily Garden, and both companies are highly recommended for selection and service. Be warned that not all lilies are scented; the colorful, earlier blooming Asiatic lilies bear no scent.

no ID — my lily bulb binge garnered a bonus unnamed orienpet from B&D Lilies

So this year I mostly skipped the tulip rigamarole but went in a big way for lilies, and there are a half dozen stalks with buds forming in pockets throughout the garden.

Move over, aloes and agaves. Even a garden as small and densely planted as mine can squeeze in some lilies.

Treating them both as expensive annuals, I find lilies actually easier to manage than tulips. There are no pests like the lily beetle here waiting to ravage the flowers, and so far no creature disturbs or attempts to dig up the bulbs. However, the tulip rigamarole will be back for 2022 — some pandemic habits, like heavy catalogue use, will be difficult to break!

a good one for forcing/prechilling, Tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ March 2011. The Triumph and Single Early varieties are generally good bets for prechilling, which is how frost-free zones like mine must handle the bulbs

Once again I ordered early for the best selection, and the bulbs will come this fall 2021 prechilled. Incorrigible is the word that best describes this bulb habit, a peculiar form of zonal denial. And this cool spring I’m enviously reading reports of how long the tulips are lasting.

handled prechill regime well — Tulip ‘Brown Sugar’ February 2011

With their mysterious bulbous nature, hidden underground like Persephone for much of the year, I find them the ultimate garden tease. Delivery devices of rich, complex colors suspended on slim green stems, their appearance searingly intense but brief. In a condensed performance, bulbs enact a preview of the transformations a garden will make spring through fall.

Tulip ‘Double Beauty of Apeldoorn’ March 2011

I suppose it’s because they are so difficult here that I find them perversely irresistible. I don’t dream of large municipal plantings of tulips in spring, just a few pots on my back steps to celebrate Persephone’s triumphant reemergence as captured in the fleeting drama of ‘Gavota‘ — and maybe next year ‘Bastogne‘ and ‘Amber Glow‘ too if the prechill rigamorale is a success.

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Under Western Skies

“[M]ost gardens are a three-part alchemy between the riches and constraints of the natural and/or cultural history of the place, the individual creativity and personality of the gardener, and the gardening culture in which both the garden and the gardener exist.”

preface to Under Western Skies
Under Western Skies - Cover

I’ve been taking small sips of this delicious new book by Jennifer Jewel and photographer Caitlin Atkinson, rich in both words and images. So often I become fixated on what the West lacks — abundant rainfall, for instance. Under Western Skies‘ emphasis on the West’s natural beauty and the rare opportunities it affords to make unique gardens here has refreshed my appreciation for my home. This book shows that the only lack one must be wary of in making a garden in the West is imagination.

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the Reids’ garden at Hog Hill, Sebastopol, Calif., photo by Caitlin Atkinson
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Rancho Arroyo, Phoenix, Arizona, photo by Caitlin Atkinson
Nature Garden by Mia Lehrer, Natural History Museum, Los Angeles, Calif., photo by Caitlin Atkinson
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the Taft Gardens and Nature Preserve, Ojai, Calif., photo by Caitlin Atkinson
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Marwin Gardens, Watsonville, Calif., photo by Caitlin Atkinson
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David Godshall’s Edendale Garden, Echo Park, Calif., photo by Caitlin Atkinson
Bernard Trainor’s garden, Carmel-By-The-Sea, photo by Caitlin Atkinson
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Academy for the Love of Learning, New Mexico, photo by Caitlin Atkinson
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Harborton Hill, Portland, Oregon, photo by Caitlin Atkinson

Rarely do garden images and words complement each other as effectively as they do here; the collaborative synergy between writer and photographer comes through page after page. This over 400-page book is filled with unforgettable images of brilliant planting, such as cactus spires rising up from a froth of flowering buckwheat. And the detailed discussions of both the people and plants provide insight into the process of making a garden that can be universally applied, whatever sky you’re under. In books and magazines the West is often celebrated for the outdoor culture it has pioneered and exported, its patios and swimming pools, not its Coast Live Oaks, saguaros, Joshua trees and manzanitas. This plant-driven, deeply felt love letter to Western landscapes and gardens restores plants as central to the idea of a garden in the West, and for that alone it is to be cherished. It is highly recommended as a book to to be placed within easy access on your bookshelf, to be referred to over and over again when making a garden that attempts to honestly engage with your own unique land and sky.

(My copy of Under Western Skies was kindly provided by Timber Press for review.)

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new planting progress report

In November 2020 three Monterey cypresses were removed, the wooden fence replaced, a small brick patio removed, and the plantings reworked. Fernleaf acacia trunk is center photo.
roughly the same angle today. Agave victoriae-reginae needed potting up and received a celebratory matte turquoise pot

In November 2020 the east side of the garden saw some major renovations. The size of the lemon cypresses on the east boundary, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora,’ had dictated the character of the planting in its root and shade shadow. After their removal, the planting became intentional instead of reactive. A lot of the new planting was woven around original plants that were retained, such as Yucca rostrata, aloes, forms of Agave attenuata, tough plants that had managed to thrive in less-than-ideal conditions. In the far corner, a purple-leaved crinum and Doryanthes palmeri were also retained. Rarely do I think ahead about before-and-after documentation, but there are a few photos of this area that show how it’s been filling in. I am a plant-crazy person, there’s no two ways about it, so this in no way is a comprehensive plant report but more of a quick overview.

Dustin Gimbel’s ceramic totems are temporarily on loan from Mitch until his own garden is ready for them. Most recent additions are the two Ballota acetabulosa ‘All Hallows Green’ in the foreground, the sharp end of the wedge (now Marrubium bourgaei ‘All Hallows Green’)

Today the planting has taken on a wedge shape, with the narrowest end meeting up with the brick patio. I initially didn’t intend to take the planting this close to the bricks but — you know how it goes when you’re weak-kneed susceptible to the stunning beauty of plants. My neighbor’s garage is the visible structure. Leucospermum ‘Tango’ and Grevillea ‘Poorinda Blondie’ are two big, shrubby, and hopefully permanent additions on either side of the totems.

Before the crushed rock mulch which was put down in November/December 2020. The tight buns in the foreground and in front of Agave ‘Arizona Star’ are a dwarf statice I found at Worldwide Exotics, most likely Limonium minutum. It’s sending up clouds of bloom now — love it! I have a slightly larger form too, no ID.

Breaking this down a bit more, in the fall 2020 renovations, a sloping, roughly east/west spine of rocks was laid up to the fence. Lots of my potted succulents were planted along the rocks.

the old LA street light shade was deployed when the gravel was empty of plants

There was a lot of gravel showing early on — not so much now as the planting has absorbed new acquisitions and as spring progresses into summer. The slim trunk belongs to a young Euphorbia cotinifolia which was planted as a small understory tree to the fernleaf acacia.

Poppies have already filled in, bloomed, and been pulled. Gomphostigma virgatum is now hidden under mauve bachelor buttons.

Another Yucca rostrata was moved in front of the fence, transplanted from the front yard.

newly planted succulents along the rocks settling in over winter. Heuchera maxima was planted behind the existing Yucca rostrata, now one of two here. Agave geminiflora in a tall pot was slipped in behind the heuchera. Yet-to-bloom Aloe wickensii in foreground, Aloe ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ to the left. Grassy and strappy leaves are the predominant feature here year-round, whether sedges, yuccas, restios, agaves…
alstroemeria leaves filling in on the left
spring growth filling in along the rocks — especially prominent is the Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ — on the left, silver leaves, is the happiest dudleya I’ve ever grown. Carex testacea on the right is a prolific reseeder.
Yucca ‘Magenta Magic’ on left, Mangave ‘Purple People Eater’ on the right. With dwarf statice, echeverias, Chondropetalum tectorum lower left
wands of statice forming flowers
looking to the west, Plectranthus argentatus bulking up, the white flowers of Heuchera maxima now fading to tan
southeast corner with permanent planting of strappy-leaved Doryanthes palmeri, dark-leaved crinum, big leaves of Trevesia palmata. Alstroemeria ‘Third Harmonic’ was already established in this corner as well.

I’ve had a great time playing around with new plantings, keeping in mind the two categories of planting intention: plants that are hopefully permanent, such as the Trevesia palmata above right, and those that are intended for the 2021 season, like Digiplexis ‘Illumination Apricot.’ Silvery plectranthus, bronze fennel, palm-leaved geranium, gaura, verbascum, castor bean are all in the less-than-permanent category, though some will reseed or be easily renewed with cuttings.

Euphorbia cotinifolia engulfed by spring surge. Grevillea leaves in the foreground.

The Euphorbia cotinifolia, even though not an especially long-lived shrub/small tree, is also intended as a permanent feature. One of it’s drawbacks is that it is a prolific reseeder here. I intend to keep it clipped to no more than 8-10 feet, which will keep the reseeding down somewhat — although this morning I noticed flowers forming.

The leucospermum in particular will want frequent irrigation until it’s established.

I’m hoping to do another progress report towards the end of summer, with the aim of checking on size compatibility and seeing what’s survived the hot, dry months — “dry months” being relative terms, as this area has been hand-watered since planting last fall, with scant rainfall recorded. Oh, California! You don’t make it easy…

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, journal, plant crushes, pots and containers, succulents | Tagged | 8 Comments

meet Billie

At 10 pounds, she’s still growing into those ears!

She’s a little sleepy right now, which is the best time to point a camera at her.


Born January 9, 2021, we picked her up on March 13. Just this morning I noticed how she’s becoming less madcap puppy and more surveyor and protector of her home and family. Positioning herself in strategic locations where she can watch two points of entry at once, for instance.


Her ankle-biting, herding instincts are practiced less on us now and channeled more into the big daily event of bringing the cat into the house before sundown. When Billie gets a little too enthusiastic, Banksy the cat has no problem setting her straight with a quick swipe. The cat has been remarkably patient and seems a natural at training rambunctious puppies.

herding cats

Watching the relationship unfold between these two has been pure comedy. And very touching too. Marty still has occasional lapses and calls Billie by our first corgi’s name (“Ein”), but that’s becoming less frequent as her uniquely impish personality develops. I have my own selfish reasons for loving this breed. Compact yet sturdy, both sociable and independent, their acute spatial awareness makes them expert at navigating small spaces (i.e. gardens). Now that she’s current on all her shots, we’ve been getting out for walks at the beach and trying out the local dog parks — which gives the cat a well-earned break from all that herding practice!

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Green Touch Nursery fills a void with plant fairs

Oscar and family are growing the local cactus and succulent community one plant fair at a time on the grounds of his Green Touch Nursery in Bellflower, Calif. And why not? They’ve got the space and, most importantly, the can-do entreprenurial spirit to grow outside the traditional retail box. Oscar and family recognize the pent-up desire of plant collectors to shop for rarer plants, mingle, and swap growing techniques and sources.


It’s important to point out that most Southern California nurseries offer a good selection of cactus and succulents any day of the year. They’d be crazy not to, because these plants have only become more desirable in the past year as plant sales have boomed. What you don’t see are the rarer offerings from small growers that are traditionally brought to plant society sales or offered at local botanical garden sales. With the covid pandemic, all this plant-collecting enthusiasm has been pushed online, and the physical outlets to browse rarities have been shuttered. Green Touch has nimbly filled that void, getting out the word through social media, easily adapting their expansive grounds for plant fairs.


I’ve missed a few plants fairs already and was determined to make it to last Saturday’s. Arriving at 10ish, as always the early birds got the best selection . Oscar says about 250 people were ready to shop when they opened at 9 a.m. Stopping at the first table inside the gate, Botanic Wonders immediately had me in thrall with their aloes. Their Aloes boylei, karasbergensis, and capitata ‘Tsiroanomandidy’ ended up being the sum total of my purchases this plant fair — the offer of fresh seed of Dioscorea elephantipes with purchase was a very nice touch! (I’m very excited about my two Aloe boylei, which have the widest leaves of all the grassy-leaved aloes.) Botanic Wonders is open by appointment at their Vista, California nursery. I’ll be adding it to the itinerary of upcoming San Diego road trips.


And then it was on to ogling all the pretty spiny things in bloom.


You can pack a hatchback full of these 4-inch delicacies without breaking a sweat.


Checking out the nursery, I recognized old friends, like this Echeveria gigantea hybrid that just gets better and better. Green Touch’s day-to-day selection is exceptional.


The developing bloom spike on Agave victoriae-reginae has exploded skyward since my last visit.


Nice-looking bunch of spiral aloes.


Thank you so much, Green Touch Nursery, for organizing and hosting cactus and succulent plant fairs — looking forward to the next one! Follow them on Instagram and Facebook for announcements of upcoming sales.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, plant nurseries, plant sales, pots and containers, succulents | 5 Comments

bloom day May 2021

the south-facing back garden is the focus of May’s bloom day report
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Posted in agaves, woody lilies, Bloom Day, pots and containers, succulents | 10 Comments

back to Greece


It’s been two years since Mitch visited Greece. When I first saw his photos, it was the giant fennel in its native habitat that grabbed all of my attention. With my giant fennel taking its sweet time to bloom, Mitch’s photos may be the closest I get to seeing it in flower.


Looking at his photos again, I rediscovered all the beauty I initially skimmed over, enough for a mini-travelogue this Monday. It’s so nice to have a compulsive shutterbug in the family. When I visited the Parthenon, did I shlep a camera around? Um, no.



Got all your shots yet?

Posted in garden travel, MB Maher | 5 Comments

what’s on the table

pelargoniums, euphorbia, cactus, albuca
night-scented Pelargonium glaucifolium
Pelargonium ‘Pomona’
Silene fabaria var. domokina has built up an intricate structure dangling flowers like tiny dancers parachuting in

In the garden, the development of this little silene has been incredibly exciting, however much it underwhelms the camera.

the silene’s basal growth a few weeks ago
agave in bloom
Mangave ‘Kaleidoscope’ in bloom
‘Regal Velvet’ kangaroo paws

My normally sober-as-a-judge succulent garden is having a deliriously frothy moment this first week of May.

Posted in agaves, woody lilies, journal, pots and containers, succulents | 5 Comments