Category Archives: agaves, woody lilies

the light is left on at Rancho Reubidoux


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I’ve been dreading completing this post, but since Reuben and Paul have officially decamped from their house and garden at Rancho Reubidoux as of last week and moved into their new home, it’s time to unpack these last images and move on as well. Continue reading the light is left on at Rancho Reubidoux

Bloom Day May 2017 (and assorted garden projects)

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Photo taken last night, when I still hoped I could squeak this post in under the Bloom Day deadline, the 15th of every month, and be righteously on time, but it was not to be. Flash of red is from the ladybird poppies, P. commutatum, mostly over but left in situ for reseeding.

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Never loads of flowers but always plenty of rosettes.

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Still, if you look closely, the plants are procreating. Like the little echeverias that began to bloom while I was away.

Continue reading Bloom Day May 2017 (and assorted garden projects)

a Hollywood Hills garden in three acts

(This Sunday, May 7th, you have another opportunity to visit this extraordinary garden. Details here.)

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The recent APLD watershed garden tour was exemplary in every way that such tours should be; lots of interesting and pertinent design solutions for SoCal dry gardens that illustrated ways to channel and marshall water and plant according to optimal conservation principles without sacrificing design. And there was one garden on the tour which was the home of designers, which is an entirely different animal than a designer-client collaboration. In their own gardens, designers constantly edit and replant, sharpen the focus, ruthlessly remove weak performers.

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This garden is a personal laboratory, a freewheeling, unfettered deployment of adventurous planting and design ideas nestled snugly into the Hollywood Hills. During a subsequent late afternoon visit, over glasses of prosecco, I learned a bit of the garden’s story as it evolved over the three major phases of its existence.

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The garden in its current iteration is between three to four years old. The terracing is believed to have been started back in 1947, just a few years after the house was built. The first owners unleashed ivy on the terraces and turfed what level areas they could, what you might call defensive landscaping. When Eugene McCarthy and Carla Fry moved in, the ivy and turf became short-timers. Eugene, a property master for many films, is instinctively attracted to the strong, sculptural outlines of plants such as tree aloes, and began clearing and planting as he collected specimens from farmers markets and even the big box stores. A trio of Aloe marlothii he planted are now ten years old and were in spectacularly synchronous bloom for the first time earlier this year.

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Sadly, Carla died in 2002, and it wasn’t until Eugene and Johanna Woollcott found each other that the garden’s current form began to take shape maybe three to four years ago. Needless to say, it was their mutual love of plants that brought them together, and the garden vividly celebrates every bit of that bond.

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Checking the blog after the visit, I realized I had already seen some of Johanna Woollcott’s design work (Wild Gardens LA) via the Venice Home & Garden Tour some years ago. Johanna brought clarity and coherence to the terraces and planting. Some terraces were knocked down and leveled for larger planting areas, new paths and retaining walls poured. Unless I miscounted, there are now three main terraces holding back the hillside.

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In the new framework, with all ivy and turf now banished, only the best of nonthirsty plants were allowed admittance to the garden.

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There’s more detailed photos of the stair plantings in a previous post here.

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The sitting area at the topmost terrace. Unfortunately, none of us thought to straighten the rug.

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Looking down on the big patio on what I’m calling the second or mid-level terrace.

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Detail of the original retaining wall, which I’m told is holding up amazingly well decades later. Eugene said a nearby Wallace Neff house gave them the idea of pairing the retaining walls with big saucers of aeoniums.

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Serpentine, sinuous, sexy. I love terracing. And so do these deliriously happy plants.

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A new retaining wall/bench/flight of stairs starts at ground level at the street-level entrance to the garden and runs up the hillside alongside the house, meeting up with the first terrace. I’ve seen some incredible concrete projects this spring, and this two-tiered retaining wall, done in one pour, ranks up there with the most impressive.

The young trees to the left of the wall are a trio of gingkos planted to shade the house. Other trees include acacias, including the Pearl Acacia, P. podalyrifolia, Palo Verde trees, a cork oak, and an impressively august specimen of the ‘Dr. Hurd’ manzanita.

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Upon asking, Johanna said Eugene simply came home one day with the horse, as if that was the most ordinary of occurrences. And for them, I’m sure it is.

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Underfoot is alternatively gravel and decomposed concrete, and on the terraces broken concrete is used for paths. Johanna says that, despite appearances, the boundary metal fence is not CorTen.

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Many of the objects are collected from their travels.

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Like this ornate urn from Morocco, holding back a vast sea of foaming peppermint pelargoniums.

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View of the house rising out of the lush planting, with the gingkos mentioned above.

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A gabion bench in the lower garden is filled with more treasures and mementos.

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The garden unfolds in discovery after discovery of myriad details and autobiographical incidents.

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The fireplace on the large patio at the back of the house holds many such trophies from travels.

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The large patio seen from overhead. Those are four potted smoke trees against the house. Lots of entertaining/partying happens here. I’m told celebratory prosecco is freely poured on Friday nights, just as it was on this one.

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Ruby, the current canine mistress of the garden, is a ringer for this garden statue.

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And everywhere, fabulous planting.

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If you go (details here), let me know what else you find out about this remarkable hillside garden.

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Johanna and Eugene are the nicest garden hosts and historians and will tirelessly answer any questions.

photos by MB Maher.

weekend clippings 4/29/17

Feel like talking yourself into more plants this weekend? There’s lots of opportunities, whether at the Huntington Spring Plant Sale, the South Coast Plaza Garden Show, and/or even the Long Beach flea market on Sunday at Veterans Stadium.

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Some motherly advice: If you go to the Huntington (or the flea market), bring a hat. It’s going to be hot and you’ll be walking long distances to your car in reflected heat carrying your treasures. Even the members sale at the Huntington on Friday packed the parking lot. So many decisions to make on the fly, like finally grabbing that long-sought Agave pumila (I didn’t). The sale continues through Sunday. Their own hybrid aloe ‘Kujo’ is on sale, and mine at home has agreeably burst into bloom to model for you. The leaves in the foreground belong to cameronii. ‘Kujo’s’ are basal and spotted, which to me speaks of harlana blood, but I’m not sure of the cross parentage.

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There’s a table of kangaroo paws for sale too. In my garden ‘Tequila Sunrise’ is gaining some height but is upstaged at the moment by the crazy melianthus blooms of ‘Purple Haze.’

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The ID from my Huntington haul: In the purply foreground, on the left, Mangave ‘Lavender Lady’ (From the tag: “Hans Hansen hybrid of Agave attenuata and Mangave ‘Bloodspot.’ Grows to 1′ diameter. Soft, rubbery grey-green leaves w/lavender spots.”) On the right, Aloe ‘Hellskloof Bells’ (“Brian Kemble hybrid, a. pearsonii (red) X A. distans. Erect, columnar rosettes blush red in sun. Hardy to the 20s.”)

Silver leaves is Salvia argentea. Chartreuse leaves is Crassula perfoliata v. minor ‘Lime Green’ (“Jack Catlin 12/6/91 form with vivid, lime-green foliage. Same red-orange, clove-scented flowers.”)

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I’ve been on a tear with pelargoniums, first at Robin Parer’s booth at the Fullerton Arboretum Green Scene and yesterday again at the Huntington, where I found this fascinating, succulent-leaved P. acetosum ‘Peach.’ They love a hot, dry summer like ours, whether in the ground or in pots, and make clouds of bloom, giving the plants a frothy halo I find irresistible.

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And sometimes richly scented too. The leaves of the scented pelargoniums carry oils that mimic famous scents, like the Rich Littles of the plant world. ‘Atomic Snowflake’ above, from Robin Parer at the Cal State Fullerton Arboretum Green Scene last weekend, has a lemon-rose scent. (Robin Parer will also be at South Coast Plaza this weekend selling her geraniums and pelargoniums.) And before I forget, I have to belatedly put in a good word for last weekend’s Green Scene sale. It’s big, well run, with some nice plants at good prices. I found the pure silver bromeliad Alcantarea odorata for an incredibly good price. The alcantareas attain great size before blooming, which is fine by me. At the South Coast show I didn’t buy a single plant, but I like how some of the vendors sell unrooted bromeliad pups for cheap, a great way to get ahold of these expensive plants.

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Instead of chasing plants, maybe you’d prefer to stay home and read. The New York Times did a wonderful piece on our native cactus: “As Rains Ease in the West, Cactuses Shine Brigher Than Ever,” by the great science/naturalist writer Natalie Angier. I loved her book The Beauty of the Beastly.

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However, the wild place I took these latter photos was not the desert but Pitzer College at Claremont last weekend. Maybe the graffiti clued you in.

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More interesting science writing in the NYT can be found at this link, where several articles are aggregated, including a piece on Joshua Trees by Ferris Jabr and water under the Mojave Desert by Emma Marris, who also wrote Rambunctious Garden; Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, on my list of books to read.

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What else is exciting? In a couple weeks I’ll be visiting the Denver Botanic Garden. The itinerary is already packed to the gills, but if you have any must-see suggestions, I’m all ears.

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Nice melocactus. I discovered mine was a rotting mess just yesterday.

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The Washington Post did a nice job covering the March For Science, even if t.v. news mostly opted out of in-depth coverage.

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Last week I paid a bittersweet visit to Reuben Munoz’s garden at Rancho Reubidoux, which I first visited more than five years ago (here). He’s been an enduring source of inspiration ever since. Reuben, Paul and Inky will be leaving the garden in the hands of like-minded buyers and are excited about the new co-op they’ve found nearby. I hope to have some photos up next week.

And this Sunday, the 30th, Pasadena gardens will be available to tour via Garden Conservancy Open Days. Have a great weekend.

APLD steps up

The Association of Professional Landscape Designers 2nd Annual Watershed Approach Garden Tour this past April 9th was a solid, smoothly run success and a great addition to Los Angeles garden culture. I hope they do it again next year. Most of the gardens on the tour were interesting case studies in the delicate collaboration between client and designer, with sustainable practices beautifully incorporated into residential landscapes. The after-party was held at the home of garden designer Johanna Woollcott (Wild Gardens LA) and film industry Property Master Eugene McCarthy. I’ll be getting more photos up of this garden on the blog soon. There’s just too much creative expression packed into this Hollywood Hills terraced garden for one post. Here’s a teaser of some of the exquisite planting details:

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I miss Ruby the garden dog already. More on this amazing garden to come.

April don’t go

Bathed in soft light and 70ish temps, April, you’re so dreamy. But can you slow down and linger just a bit longer?

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Open gardens, plant shows. April in Southern California gets the heart of the plant obsessed beating fast. Last weekend included a visit to the superb Mallen/Vincent dry garden in Fallbrook through the San Diego Horticultural Society. Some of Debra Lee Baldwin’s book photos were taken in this garden.

Above is a specimen in the climate-controlled euphorbia greenhouse. Because Fallbrook’s average low temp is 45 degrees in January, I’m guessing the motors I heard whirring into action in the euphorbia greenhouse were for ventilation purposes, not heating. Container after container framing perfectly manicured, exquisitely grown plants fill several greenhouses and are scattered throughout the 2-acre garden as well. This was my second visit (maybe third?), and it was as disorienting as the last. Perfection is hard for me to process. In my own garden, good enough is always the enemy of perfection.

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Out in the garden, some plants are ID tagged but not all. If you ask Wanda Mallen, she knows every name, including previous superceded names and contested names. I didn’t always ask because there were lots of other visitors asking what’s this or that.

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But I so wish I had asked the name of this spectacular euphorb.

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The gorgeous variegated ponytail palm is an easy ID.
(Immutable Law of Horticulture: If you kill a plant, you never forget it.)

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Years of careful study and observation are the only way to uncover how to display plants to their best advantage, e.g., elevating the caput-medusae type euphorbias so their sinuous dreadlocks drape down the pot. This might be my favorite planter in the garden.

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There’s a greenhouse devoted to rhipsalis. I’m not lying. But this one was hanging from the patio. (More photos of this patio from my previous visit here.)

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Bromeliads and Elephant Food/Portulacaria afra, a container to plant then do nothing much else with but admire all summer.

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Another favorite planter, a trio of young Euphorbia ammak.

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More caput-medusae euphorbia.

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Euphorbia horrida ‘Snowflake’

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There were several strawberry jars filled with gasteria.

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Gasteria is a succulent that stands a lot of neglect, which is what it gets from me. I just haven’t really bonded with gasteria yet like I have aloes and agaves.

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Cool, stomach-shaped flowers on elegant racemes, sturdy leaves, tolerant of low light. I should treat mine with a little more respect.

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“Squid” pot (from Tentacle Arts) with Aeonium ‘Mardi Gras’

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At first glance the garden seems to favor palms, agaves, and aloes, but the owners have wide-ranging interests, like conifers, callistemon, acacia, bamboo, maples, cycads.

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Another gorgeous April day in this Fallbrook plant collectors’ garden.

a garden visit with bixbybotanicals

It all started with a very sweet and generous offer of some foliage for vases. Via bixbybotanicals Instagram, I learned that his Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ was in full winter dress, and he was willing to share some of the largesse with anyone in Long Beach. The South African conebushes are prized for their long vase life, and since my leucadendrons at home are too young to pillage for vases, I jumped at the chance to pick up some ruddy-leaved branches.

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The Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ in question, so you’ll know in case you’re ever offered some branches. Just say yes. And you never know — not only did we leave with a bucket stuffed with cone bush branches, but also some delicious duck eggs, which were ravenously consumed for dinner that night.

Okay, great taste in shrubs and garden fowl — who is this guy anyway?

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The shorthand answer to that question? Just an Italian Renaissance art scholar/teacher and incredibly busy father of two with a big love of dry garden plants and a strong affinity for garden design.

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Of course, I immediately began pestering Jeremy for a return visit with the AGO crew (Mitch), and he graciously agreed to let us explore.

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And on an average suburban lot, there is an incredible amount to explore. The parkway is filled with California natives, including milkweed and self-sowing Calif. poppies, making a plant-rich corridor between the hell strip and the front garden.

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And here’s where Jeremy’s garden and other front-yard lawn conversions part ways. Just behind that thick band of plants bordering the sidewalk is this surprisingly private piece of serenity, just feet from the street. I don’t think I’ve seen a river of blue chalk sticks/Senecio mandralsicae used to better effect. And, yes, Jeremy says they do require a stern hand to keep them in check. A ‘Creme Brulee’ agave peeks through salvia, the red echoed by callistemon in bloom opposite.

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All anchored by the shiny simplicity of that lone stock tank. (There’s another one in the back garden.)

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I love how he took featureless, flat panels of lawn and sculpted the space into a multi-faceted garden that works for the family, wildlife, and the neighborhood. A strong sense of enclosure without a fence — who knew? My own street-side (and mangy) box hedges are striking me as unnecessarily claustrophobic now.

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Jeremy seems to have effortlessly managed balancing the broad strokes that strongly lead the eye with the detailed planting that rewards closer inspection. I counted a total of three Yucca rostrata, but there may be more.

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The front garden was started in 2012, when it was nothing but a flat expanse of lawn and a couple palms. Not a trace of either is left. (Those are a neighbor’s palms in the background.)

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Now there’s nooks to watch the kids chase butterflies.

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That Salvia canariensis on the corner of the house behind the nasturtiums is going to be stunning in bloom.

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Mixed in amongst the nasturtiums is the charmingly nubby Helenium puberulum, a Calif. native.

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And opposite the chairs and table is another gorgeous bit of planting, deftly angled to screen the house on the driveway side. Obviously a collector of choice plants, nevertheless his design instincts are manifest in subtle screening and massing for privacy balanced by openness/negative space. A sentinel arbutus stands apart, with the strong afternoon sun blurring the outline of a 5-foot Leucadendron discolor ‘Pom Pom’ to the arbutus’ left, one I’ve killed a couple times. Jeremy admitted to lots of failures, too, but his successes are envy-inducing.

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Encircling ‘Pom Pom’ is a detailed planting of aloes, yucca, golden coleonema, senecio, Euphorbia lambii. Like me, he browses for plants at local H&H Nursery as well as flea markets.

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Detail of arbutus bloom.

But where are those ducks? we asked, hoping to steal a peek into the back garden. The ruse worked.

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To visit the ducks, we were led behind a sleek black fence at the end of the driveway guarded by Acacia cognata.

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And a dombeya, the highly scented Tropical Hydrangea. Jeremy said he chased this small tree’s identity for years.

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All was finally revealed during a visit to Disneyland, where the dombeya was growing, and labeled, in Toontown. In an instant, the silly and the sublime converged.

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Meet the ducks. Mural in the background was done by Jeremy’s brother.

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I want ducks!

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I asked how the gardens were handling the recent (relatively) heavy rain, and Jeremy said the front garden came through like a champ. But there has been a bit of flooding in the back garden.

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I’m sure I was told but can’t remember who built the duck enclosure. What duck wouldn’t obligingly lay as many eggs as possible in such cheerful digs?

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There’s a serious container fanatic at work here too…

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A termite-infested pergola attached to the house had to be knocked down when they moved in, leaving this low wall along the driveway as the perfect spot for staging containers.

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In case you bloggers are feeling that it’s all about Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, Jeremy is a faithful reader of blogs.

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Melianthus major

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Winter-blooming Dahlia imperialis, after several moves, in a spot obviously to its liking.

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For the leucadendron branches, the duck eggs, and the inspiring garden visit, thank you so much, Jeremy!

All photos by MB Maher.

a succulent garden in February

On the way to picking up a family member’s weekly box at the CSA Growing Experience in North Long Beach last week, I took the opportunity to drive slowly through the surrounding neighborhood of mostly Spanish-style homes. It was drizzling again, still a charming novelty after years of drought. Because of that drought, there’s very little front lawn left in these neighborhoods, and what’s filling the turf vacuum are all sorts of interesting mashups. I was ready to head for the main thoroughfare again, when I caught a peripheral flare of orange as high as a street parking sign. Could it be? Several K-turns and U-turns later, I found this gem of a garden:

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That promising orange flare was everything I hoped for. If this is Aloe marlothii, it’s the biggest one I’ve seen outside of a botanical garden.
Amidst all the post-drought, lawn-replacing, tentative start-up front gardens, here’s a garden planted long ago and simply for a love of these plants.

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Could the shaggy-headed aloe on the left be ‘Goliath’? (A tree aloe notorious for growing more leaves than the trunk can support and therefore prone to toppling over.)
Whatever its name, it’s a magnificent specimen, with no underplanting to obscure the trunks.

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Here’s a better view of that tree aloe. The experts say to grow them lean, and you’ll have a better chance of keeping them upright.

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I assumed the other trees were palo verdes, but under these overcast skies it’s hard to tell.
The architectural massing of plants builds closest to the house and lessens at the sidewalk.
With strategic positioning of plants, the house is both screened and open to the neighborhood.

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After all this rain, the d.g. still meets the sidewalk in a disciplined line. It was obviously laid down properly, with a good base, then compacted with a roller.
Having the planting on a deep setback from the sidewalk is a neighborly gesture to reassure the spiky plant phobic.

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I wonder how much editing was done before this vision emerged.
This garden struck me as the antithesis of most succulent gardens —
which focus mainly on understory, ground-cover planting that builds tapestries out of all the amazing shapes and leaf colors succulents offer.
Here the huge specimens dominate, surging skyward from an austere base of decomposed granite. A very clean, dramatic effect.

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A great example of the range of moods and styles possible when planting with succulents.

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chasing agaves


Last Saturday, while millions marched their way into the history books, I was driving south to San Diego to meet agave expert Greg Starr.
I had been looking forward to this 2-hour road trip for some time, as a beacon in an otherwise fairly bleak January. Family medical issues against the chaotic national backdrop were starting to take a toll.
My guilt was somewhat lessened by the knowledge that our family would be represented by a marcher. Definitely count me in for the next one and the one after that.
NPR covered the march for the drive south, and the recent back-to-back storms cleared to offer up a gorgeous, cloud-scudded and dry Saturday. Pardon my nativism, but California is so beautiful.

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My destination was this private home where the San Diego Horticultural Society was hosting the talk by Greg Starr and a plant sale. Greg was bringing agaves!

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The front garden was a life-affirming explosion of agaves and aloes.
A blooming cowhorn agave, A. bovicornuta, is still a commanding presence, even among show-stealing flowering aloes.

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Tree in the background is Euphorbia cotinifolia.

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A narrow footpath runs a few feet in front of the house for access.
I’d be guessing at aloe names, since the owner has access to some amazing hybrids.
The bright orange in the left foreground looks a lot like my Aloe ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’

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Agave ‘Jaws’ fronted by a marlothii-hybrid aloe in bud.

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Incredibly tight tapestry of succulents, with some self-sowing alyssum and California poppies managing to find a root-hold.

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Unfortunately, Mr. Starr was unable to attend, probably due to the recent spate of severe weather and heavy rain.
But the owner’s private collection of aloes and agaves was more than enough compensation. That’s Agave ‘Streaker’ above in one of his raised beds in the backyard.

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Agave pumila, at a size I didn’t know they achieved.

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Selection of Agave utahensis

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Aloe longistyla, touchy about drainage, prone to mites, but so beautiful, flaunting some of the largest flowers of any aloe in relation to clump size.

The San Diego Hort. Society members provided lots of interesting plants for sale, including a variegated agave I can’t find a reference for (‘Northern Lights’ — anyone?)
With the Mini already nearly full to capacity, I stopped at Solana Succulents on the way home, detouring west to its location directly on Highway 1 in sight of the Pacific.
Owner Jeff Moore manages to tuck in a stellar selection of rarities in a relatively small-size nursery. Here is where I finally found the long-coveted Agave weberi ‘Arizona Star’ in a gallon.

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A nice shipment from B&B Cactus Farm was on the shelves, like this Astrophytum ornatum. I also brought home a Parodia magnifica.

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And another cowhorn agave.

I don’t think I’ve had Jeff’s self-published book out of arm’s reach since I bought it last Saturday.
“Aloes & Agaves in Cultivation” is everything you’d expect from someone who knows all the growers, hybridizers, and designers in San Diego County.
He’ll be speaking closer to home, at South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes, this March.
And February’s speaker doesn’t look bad either (Panayoti Kelaidis!)

a holiday visit with Dustin Gimbel

Now that garden designer Dustin Gimbel has branched off into ceramics, I can buy a few holiday presents and visit his incredibly inspiring garden.

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Coming in the little side gate, there’s this silvery vision of Acacia pendula, faced down by a mature leucospermum loaded with flower buds. A new planting of aloes catches the light.
I still get palpitations every time I visit.

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Acacia podalyrifolia on the opposite side of the porch has replaced the Arbutus ‘Marina’ that stubbornly failed to thrive here.
It was uncharacteristically windy today, the first real “weather” we’ve had in Los Angeles, starting off with the previous night’s measurable rainfall.
Note the Acacia podalyrifolia bowing in the wind.
The totem sentinels seem to have proliferated since my last visit, accentuating a really strong, syncopated flow he’s been working on in the front garden with octagonal pavers and festuca.

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The view under Acacia pendula, trained beautifully on a rebar arbor, looking down the main path at the front of the house toward the driveway

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In this view, to the right of the main path, is where his signature totems congregate.
The small pavers allow for a “custom” journey through the garden, an intimate, immersive engagement with the plants.
Dustin uses berms to build topographical interest into the front garden. The stones to the left rim the berm containing the leucospermum.
At the far end is a berm built up with “urbanite” aka broken concrete, which abuts the driveway. Of course, drainage in the berms is excellent too.

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The berm by the driveway, planted with echium, adenanthos, centaurea, kalanchoe, and lots of other treasures.
The dark green ground cover is Frankenia thymifolia.
Luminous Yucca ‘Bright Star’ needs no introduction.

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We played around with his new “tinker toy” ceramic pieces in the front garden.

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I continually nag him about getting a shop website up for his ceramic pieces. He promised it will happen in the new year.
Wonderful shapes and texture from box balls, grasses, Agave mitis var. albidior through a scrim of dripping acacia.

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The Gaudi-esque tinker toys among pavers, grasses, small succulents.

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I’m always impressed by the captivating visual power of Dustin’s garden, the compounding effect of the pure geometric, organic shapes and forms he favors.
Just beyond that hedge, it’s almost a shock to the system when the magic quickly dissolves into ordinary sidewalk, street, cars, etc., etc.

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Everywhere you look the planting is almost unbearably gorgeous.

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In the back garden, I was able to check on the progress of the wood screen which hides the propagation tables.

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I gathered my holiday purchases (which must remain a secret for now), very pleased with myself for combining business and inspiration in one visit.
You can find more of Dustin’s ceramics and garden designs on his Instagram feed.
Have a great weekend.