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Succulent Experiments: A Tutorial

What a surprise that Apartment Therapy liked the hanging planters for succulents I blogged about recently. The ones made from…um…car jack stands. Which we just happen to have in abundance here at home because there’s a couple 1970’s Volkswagen vans in the driveway that require frequent maintenance up on the jack stands. All work supervised by the VW engineer in chief.

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Here’s one of the planters with Crassula expansa subsp. fragilis, with the photo from the original post.

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Apartment Therapy said they “would love to see a tutorial.”
That’s all the encouragement MB Maher needed to create a little video on the improbable subject of turning car jack stands into succulent planters.

There’s very little useful instruction happening and really just a lot of silliness but, hey, it’s my first how-to. And, yes, I forgot there were eyeglasses on top of my head. A couple important points I neglected to mention: The excess window screen is eventually cut off, leaving maybe an inch to roll and fold down and tuck in about even with the top of the jack stand. And if you use smaller plants, they can be arranged around the central hanger. The method depicted in the video was chosen because I wanted to start with a bigger, fuller plant.

Car Jack Stand with Succulent, an Anti How-to from MB Maher on Vimeo.

Warm thanks to Apartment Therapy and MB Maher.

Tropicalissimo Redux

Anybody remember “tropicalissimo”? In gardening, it references a word used maybe a decade ago for the then-shocking innovation of incorporating tropicals in summer borders and containers. A fairly mundane practice now. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I’ve found these plants, the alocasia, colocasias, xanthosomas and many more, far easier than summer-flowering annuals to grow in containers, stay fresher longer with much less effort, and the thick leaves withstand the vagaries of irrigation far superior to, say, thin-leaved coleus. In fact, this year, other than succulents and a couple big containers with a mish-mash of begonias, pelargoniums and cordylines, the tropicals are what’s growing in pots for summer, taking center stage. Just a few containers produce a big impact for surprisingly little care, the plants reveling in mid-summer heat and humidity.

Colocasia esculenta ‘Diamond Head’ with Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ in the background.
(The dust from ongoing house repairs evident on the dark leaves.)

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Colocasia esculenta ‘Mojito’

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Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ producing a weird, “Two-Face” bifurcated leaf.

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In my zone 10 I overwinter these outdoors, tipping the pots on their sides during dormancy to keep rain out. (Gardeners in colder climates avail themselves of basements, garages, etc., with or without grow lights. It’s quite an impressive undertaking and requires dedication but is very doable, even for neophyte gardeners. A good place to start researching strategies for a particular climate zone is the Tropicals forum on Gardenweb.) The lime-green xanthosoma in particular is amazingly robust and would dearly like a bigger pot to explode upwards to as much as 5 feet. Gardeners in colder climates seem mesmerized by the size tropicals can achieve in one growing season with regular applications of fertilizer, but other than mixing in some organic fertilizer with fresh potting soil in spring and then renewing a bit more in July, I don’t indulge their robust appetites. I’m not after size, just those gently swaying tropical leaves.

Plant Delights has a very good selection.

Blue Bottle & Finial

I cleaned out my garden shed the other day and found this blue bottle buried under twine and dirty garden gloves dried into angry fist shapes. There was apparently attraction enough at one time for me to squirrel the bottle away into this very tiny shed, the door clasp of which has long since buckled under the strain imposed on such a magpie’s closet. Maybe at some point I was thinking of building a bottle tree. I did throw out a lot of the junk in the shed, but hesitated with the cobalt blue bottle. I didn’t put it back in the shed, but left it out on a table, hoping to force a final decision. Then, ahem, out of the blue, it occurred to me that the rusty finial lying around with the wine cork shoved into it for a previous incarnation as the crowning glory to a candelabra might just fit in the bottle. And so it did.

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There would seem to be a resident flying squirrel in the garden, judging by the reflection in the bottle just under the neck in the photo below. Or, to indulge in a paranoid cliche, possibly a UFO silently glided over the garden when the photo was taken. Or, as a smarty pants in the family opined, it has something to do with a parabolic effect. I’m going with the flying squirrel. I like the M.C. Escher funhouse distortion in the bottle, the bowed ribs of the pergola against the blue glass sky.

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The perfect fit of the bottle and finial started a binge into blue which was to last the next few days. Because didn’t I have some tumbled blue glass somewhere in the garden brought home from Building REsources? Yes, indeed, which I had used to outline nerine bulbs, so I wouldn’t inadvertently stomp on the bulbs in their dormant phase. I checked the gravel garden, and sure enough, there was a scattering of blue glass shards, no longer in neat outline around the nerines but strewn about and half buried in gravel. I picked up every shard and gave them a good wash. In my defense, I plead summertime. It’s long, it’s hot, and it can make eccentric activities seem like seriously worthwhile pursuits.

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The blue glass mulch was left soaking in water for several days on a table in the kitchen, with no greater purpose or plan in mind. Then I became distracted redoing some plantings in the front gravel garden, moving agaves a few feet over, removing the one-off succulents and adding bigger swathes of a particular favorite, the Mexican Snowball, Echeveria elegans. For a fresh gravel surface, I cheaped out on the gravel, which is approximately the same light grey as the echeverias instead of the pricier warm buff color I had used in the past. All that work for a fairly disappointing result. Something else was needed to draw definition to the white echeverias against the grey gravel. Which just happened to be soaking in a bowl in the kitchen, freshly washed, bright and shiny.

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Once the echeverias grow in a bit more, the blue glass will disappear, so it is a bit of mid-summer silliness. I do know it’s not easy to throw away a cobalt blue bottle. I couldn’t do it. But for the sake of blue glass mulch, I’m glad not everyone squirrels bottles away in their garden sheds.

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Occasional Daily Photo 7/29/11

Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ and Allium senescens. This little mid summer-flowering onion is sweet consolation for an allium-less garden up to this point.
Unlike me, the early-blooming, flamboyant drumstick alliums don’t enjoy a zone 10 garden and prefer chillier winters. And although echeverias don’t need to be kept in pots and can be grown outside year-round by the coast here in Southern California, it’s always nice to have a few in containers to force some interesting companionships between pots and garden. The allium in the garden in bloom, no more than a foot high, becomes borrowed scenery on a miniature scale for a study in pink. Icy starbursts wooing fleshy rosettes. Being a busybody matchmaker is perfectly acceptable with plants.

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San Marzano Tomato Taste Test

After maligning the San Marzano tomato in my last post, an update seems in order.
Following a thorough and deep watering, the vine may not have tomato blight or cucumber mosaic virus or whatever ailments a tomato succumbs to. My mom may have simply neglected to water deeply. Time will tell. In the meantime, a few green ones were picked and ripened in the kitchen for a few days.
MB Maher did the photographic honors and insists the tomato taste test turned into a pretty peppy party, if not an alliterative disaster.

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Bred for sauces rather than for eating fresh, San Marzanos typically have fewer seeds and are meatier, less juicy.
Indeed, not a drop of tomato juice was spilled.

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Some devotees of the San Marzano tomato claim that its unique flavor cannot truly be replicated outside of its native volcanic soil near the village of San Marzano in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.

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With no basis for comparison, and not having been blessed with the most refined palate, yet even I noticed the unmistakably sweet rather than typically acidic tomato taste. However, the round shape is atypical compared to photo references of the San Marzano, which shows a more elongated, cylindrical shape. Also famed for being easy to peel, I completely forgot to do a peel test and ate every last slice.

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If the rest of the crop makes it, there will be sauce!

Summer’s Bounty

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Man cannot live by tomatoes alone. (The first dahlia opened today.)

There’s no way I’m going to keep the garden moist enough simply for a few dahlias to thrive, but I’d hate to face August and September without them. So this year I planted my one dahlia tuber in a 5-gallon nursery can in March, amping up the potting soil with lots of compost. The container was then plunged into the garden, hidden from view behind some grasses but still in full sun and easily accessible for watering. This prestidigitation with containers, popping them into the garden in season, whether tulips, lilies, or dahlias, keeps things interesting, and has the added benefit of allowing the water runoff from the containers to go directly in the garden’s soil. Checking the blog, I find this dahlia was bought in 2009 at a garden show, and I neglected to note the name.

As far as tomatoes, so far it’s been a disaster, and I’m miserable about it. 2010 was a raging success. Never having had a garden before, my mom was thrilled with her daily summer bounty of tomatoes and zucchini from the 5X8 foot raised bed we built off her patio, and probably has the world’s unofficial record for number of zucchini breads baked by one woman in a 3-month period, which she froze then gave as holiday gifts. I knew the first year of living alone after my dad died would be difficult and, of course, my predictable solution was to plant a garden for her. I can’t help it. My mind finds the solution to all problems at the end of a garden path. (If the U.S. Congress can’t get this debt ceiling debate reconciled, they should be made to tend the White House vegetable garden in the sweltering heat of August and September, and then distribute the vegetables among the Capitol’s needy. And with their paychecks suspended in limbo.)

This year for her raised bed I foolishly chose a San Marzano tomato on a whim, knowing nothing about this legendary sauce tomato from the Campania region of Italy. As a sauce tomato, it doesn’t crop like tomatoes grown for the table, and while her friends are boasting of the ripe tomatoes they’re picking, she’s had zip. Right now it’s loaded with huge, bright green tomatoes, but over the past week the vine looks to have become diseased. I wouldn’t know cucumber mosaic virus if it bit me on the ass, but I’m guessing this is the affliction.

My mom is heartbroken. After her happy, carefree foray into vegetable gardening in 2010, except for the surprise success with Persian cucumbers, this year is all confusion and pain. Which is a common state of being for vegetable gardeners, something I’m trying to explain to my mom. But she just thinks she’s done something wrong, when the fault is all mine for choosing a late-cropping, finicky variety meant for sauces and not eating fresh.

Today I’m running to the local nursery to find a run-of-the-mill, dependable tomato to plant in a large container for her. There’s plenty of time left in our long growing season to turn this sad tomato situation around. Wish I could say the same for any prospect of turning this sad political season around as well.

Sherman Gardens & Library

I took the day off yesterday to check out some local nurseries for dahlias and eucomis in flower.
(All my eucomis were bought as bulbs, some with leaves purportedly of varieties as dark or darker than ‘Oakhurst,’ but all instead carry leaves of the brightest green.) One of the nurseries was minutes away from the Sherman Library & Gardens, so I popped in for my first visit ever to this gem of a garden tucked into the busy shops and restaurants of Corona del Mar, just off Pacific Coast Highway within sight of the Pacific Ocean. A courtyard garden had been famously redesigned by Matthew V. Maggio in 2005-2006 during his internship there as a horticultural student. Prior to the renovation, the courtyard garden had been known as the Cactus Garden and included the requisite cactus kitsch, sun-bleached steer skulls and splintered wagon wheels, which Matthew felt more rightly belonged on a Hollywood movie set than a garden. Macabre ornaments such as these, depicting death and decay, mischaracterize and obscure the true story of ingenious survival written in every succulent. In an article Matthew wrote on the making of this garden for Pacific Horticulture (Volume 71, No. 4, Oct/Nov/Dec 2010), he shares his goals to “shatter conventional views about succulent plants, engender lasting excitement over succulents, inspire design creativity,” and in the new garden each of those goals is met and surpassed. All quotes are from this article.


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Continue reading Sherman Gardens & Library

Ennis House

All Bladerunner fans, relax. Deckard’s house is safe.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis house in Los Angeles, used as a set for some of the scenes in Bladerunner, left a Wright family conservatorship in 2009 and has now been sold to a private party for $4.5 million.

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It’s these kind of brilliant design choices by director Ridley Scott that give Bladerunner its timeless quality.
One of four “textile block” homes by FLW, the Ennis house was built in 1924 and was FLW’s favorite. The use of concrete was experimental, and it was hoped to be an affordable new building material. The concrete blocks were cast on site, modeled in a Mayan Revival style with Greek key/meander motifs in the blocks.

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I’ve never been inside the house, and this photo gallery is the most extensive one I’ve seen so far. I’m incredibly drawn to this house, but my husband is absolutely repulsed by it. Does anyone live snug and comfortable in a FLW home? And why can’t we make fences with blocks like these? — albeit with modern-day building methods to minimize some of the crumbling the Ennis house has seen over the years.

A pity the blocks and house as built won’t last forever, but then what does?

More photos here.

Agave bovicornuta

The Cow Horn Agave. I can’t think of another agave with this translucent quality to its leaves.
And the little “steer horns” (teeth) fire up in morning sun like burning coals heating a branding iron.


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Do I really know anything at all about such cowboy matters as branding irons?
Only what I learn from my husband constantly alluding to the old cowboy shows of his youth, like “Rawhide,” whose theme song he knows by heart. And what I learn from checking in occasionally on that modern take on cowboy life, The Pioneer Woman blog, a powerhouse of marketing which I’d never even heard of until The New Yorker did a piece on it this past May. Always got my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, yesiree. (Not!) The Pioneer Woman’s photography is stupefyingly good.

My little cow horn agave is growing up into a big beast, and the Irish guide lists 5 to 6 and a half feet as ultimate width. He grew to most of his current size, about 2X3 feet, in a container and was carefully moved into this position in the garden last year. And like all agaves in the landscape, it’s always catching some manner of schmutz on its horns — I mean thorns. Teeth, rather.

I really need to simplify this bit of garden in the fall, since the agave’s golden halo from slanting morning sun is obviously what’s important here. Most everything else is superfluous, especially that lanky aeonium and possibly even the *solanum grown as a standard which is responsible for all the schmutz. This agave reputedly doesn’t offset, flowering after 12 to 18 years, so it keeps that pure, lotus-like form to the end. Appreciates some shade in summer. From the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Chihuahua. Frost-tender.

*Typically, once I truly acknowledge where the problem is, there’s no lag time. Thought becomes action. In garden matters, anyway. Five minutes after I typed about its possible removal, the solanum standard is gone. Truthfully, there was a 5-foot tree covered in purple flowers behind the agave and aeonium when I woke up this morning, now headed for the shredder. But the aeonium stays for now.


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Sean Hogan at Flora Grubb Gardens

On Sunday, July 17, 2011, Sean Hogan of Cistus Nursery, Portland, Oregon, gave a talk at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco, California, entitled “The Art of the Rosette.” I’ve visited Cistus Nursery twice, so I know first-hand that it’s every inch a horticultural destination, in the same league as such legendary West Coast nurseries past as Heronswood and Western Hills. To have Sean Hogan so frustratingly close, a mere 300 miles away, proselytizing about succulents and agaves, one of my favorite subjects, was maddening. Over the last couple weeks I wheedled, cajoled, and outright begged MB Maher, also in San Francisco, to attend the lecture, maybe take a few notes and grab a couple photos. Which, despite a busy weekend schedule, he kindly did.


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Sean organized the talk around some fabulous rosettes:
Bromeliads, aloes, manfredas, eucomis, yuccas, and some of the smaller agaves.


Bromeliads discussed were terrestrial, such as puyas, and it was while on the subject of puyas that Sean acknowledged the masochism required to grow these spiny plants, even speculating they may have carnivore tendencies, since small rodents have been known to become impaled and trapped on their thorns. Hechtia texensis, a hardier terrestrial bromeliad similar to a dyckia from Texas/Mexico, was also given special mention.

I’m linking to photos from that excellent resource, the Plantlust site, which lists many of the Cistus plants discussed, such as Tradescantia sillamontana from the limestone mountains of Northern Mexico, where its cobwebby leaves mimic and disappear against the limestone formations. An admitted “opuntia freak,” Sean singled out for discussion Opuntia fragilis, native to a range stretching from Arizona up to Oregon and beyond, to the Peace River in Northern Alberta, Canada, as it happens also the former range of the North American buffalo, who unwittingly propagated this shy-flowering opuntia through pads hitching a ride in the beast’s shaggy coat. (I hope I’m keeping the notes straight on that anecdote. Perhaps a bit of MB Maher’s poetic license strayed in?)


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The diminutive aloe hybrid ‘Brass Hat’ was singled out as particularly fine for container culture. Also cited for fabulous rosettes were the manfredas and their complicated hybrid spawn like ‘Spot’ and Mangave undulata ‘Chocolate Chips.’ Below is my photo of my Mangave ‘Bloodspot.’ Such wonderful studies in rosette architecture.

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Eucomis, the pineapple lily, are to be appreciated for their tolerance of poor drainage. Their fast-growing, strappy leaves and dramatic summer flowers can enliven relatively static succulent plantings. I agree that they’re fabulous summer bulbs, in the ground or in containers. Sean feels yuccas are underused, underappreciated, and includes Yucca rostrata ‘Sapphire Skies’ in his top ten list of favorite plants, a spherical beauty hardy to zone 7 with almost a grassy texture. Also mentioned were Yucca nana, named just 12 years ago, from western Utah, hardy to zone 5, planted to good effect rising up out of iceplants and echeverias, as well as Yucca angustissima ‘Southside.’ A green roof project in Portland, Oregon included in its design 300 Yucca rostrata to add summer interest and structure, since vernal plants also used were summer-dormant. One-half inch of water three times during summer is all it takes to keep the yucca flourishing.

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As far as agaves, there are lots of size options, since a vigorous agave poorly sited is a terrifying thing. The americanas can grow larger than a VW bug. Sean showcased some of the choice, smaller agaves, such as Agave schidigera ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Shira ito no Ohi.’

Below is my photo of another schidigera selection I’ve had at home a couple years, ‘Durango Delight,’ about 4 inches high. (Edited to correct ID. This is indeed ‘Black Widow.’)


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He did stress, however, to include varying sizes and heights of agaves in the landscape, and not to be afraid of including the occasional large specimen.
Sean also emphasized that succulents are like goldfish, in that they will adapt to the size of their container, staying small when confined.

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Apart from being unable to bring home an Agave funkiana ‘Fatal Attraction,’ I almost feel like I was there.
Huge thanks to MB Maher, for covering this wonderful lecture by Sean Hogan and to Flora Grubb Gardens for hosting such an exciting horticultural event.