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.
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.
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!
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“[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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another Yucca rostrata was moved in front of the fence, transplanted from the front yard.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.