streetside succulent garden

Some lucky neighborhoods have stimulating examples to study of successful front gardens made without a blade of lawn.
This example is in my hometown, Long Beach, Calif, coastal zone 10, western exposure, December 2015, drought-stricken, irrigation restrictions imposed since last spring.
The garden looks to be of a mature enough age where offsets of original plants have been added to infill and increase the size of individual plant colonies.
Drifts of massed plants, whether herbaceous or succulent, enable strong rhythmic patterns to emerge.
Replanting front gardens that were designed to hold flat planes of lawn is undeniably tricky.
The process needs tinkering and fiddling as some plants fail and others succeed, or the vigorous overrun slower growers. (It’s called “making a garden.”)
The dark mulch on the lower right covers a brand-new landscape next-door dotted with tiny succulents of uniform size, mostly small kinds like echeverias that will take years to fill in.
The garden on the left benefits from big, statuesque plants like ponytail palms, Furcraea macdougalii and Euphorbia ammak, now reaching mature sizes.
There’s also shrubby stuff as a backdrop, like Salvia apiana and Echium candicans, along with the shrub-like succulent Senecio amaniensis.


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Near sunset, the darkened sky was hinting at the rain to come later.

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In this photo alone, I spy several kinds of agaves, including desmettiana, macroacantha, bracteosa, parryi, ‘Blue Glow.’
Panels of small-scale ground covers knit the rosettes together.

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I like the careful buildup of heights and volumes.

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With aloes nestled against agaves. I think the owner has tucked in Salvia nemerosa here, too, for summer bloom.
I also noted some large, shrubby salvias against the house, what looked like the mexicana hybrid ‘Limelight.’

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Agaves ‘Blue Glow’ and possibly stricta.

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Kalanchoe grandiflora and Euphorbia tirucalli

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Good winter color on the Sticks on Fire. We’ve occasionally dipped into the 40s in December.

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On the opposite side of the central path is a beautiful specimen of Euphorbia ammak, a clump of pedilanthus, opuntia, and needle-leaved agaves, possibly geminiflora, stricta or striata.
One of the shrubs as tall as the euphorbia is an overgrown Echium candicans, which has been sheared into a hedge and functions now as a boundary between the two properties.
A young Aloe marlothii is in the foreground. The light was just about gone at this point.

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Not sure whether this is Agave stricta or geminiflora, but it’s set off wonderfully against the rocks and Santa Rita prickly pear.

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Agave potatorum with lots more pups tucked under its skirt of leaves.

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There’s a huge, blooming-size clump of what can only be a puya along the main path to the front door.

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Puya, right?

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Another look at that inflorescence as the sky darkens. Big leaves of flapjack kalanchoes and Kalanchoe synsepela in the foreground.

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Just a great source of inspiration for the neighborhood.

streetside: succulent garden 6/24/14

Another gem of a garden found via a traffic shortcut.* I’ve been admiring it for some time and stopped by last night for photos. Driving by, the tall succulents, a Furcraea macdougalii about the size of mine, Euphorbia ammak and ocotillo, were the first striking outlines to capture my attention traveling at the speed of a car, all three plants being good enough reasons to later investigate on foot. Maybe I’m biased, but from a purely aesthetic point of view, to me some of the most successful lawn-free front gardens I’ve seen locally have featured succulents. Their strong outlines are perfectly suited to conform to that tyrannical template we all inherit with these small houses — the path slicing through the middle of a geometric grid enroute to the front door. Succulents have an inherent formalism of structure that suit the rigidity of these ubiquitous layouts that were designed to be horizontally dominated by smooth turf, but their diversity, supercharged dynamism, strong colors and shapes subvert the traditional notion of a staid front garden. All while still managing to be neat and tidy 365 days a year (here in zone 10) and incredibly easy on the monthly water bill. A love of beautiful plants and a strong eye for design can produce startling effects even within this typical suburban design framework. I’ve tagged most of the agaves but leave the ID of the opuntia and other cacti up for discussion.


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Agaves included are ‘Blue Glow,’ desmettiana ‘Variegata,’ macroacantha, parryi, stricta, bracteosa.

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My own Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ bloomed this year, its space already taken by smaller, if less dramatic agaves.

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I’m blanking on this writhing, silvery mass with serrated leaves. Dasylirion? Puya? Nolina? Silvery shrub in the background is a westringia.

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Along with the Pelargonium sidoides, pollinators can find something of interest in flowering ground covers and a big native buckwheat near the front window, St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum).

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The pencil stems with orange flowers on the far left looks like a pedilanthus.

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Small-scale ground covers eloquently underplant the rosettes including this Agave potatorum.

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Aptly named squid agave, A. bracteosa. The strewn leaves are from a neighbor’s parkway magnolia.

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Agaves nestled snugly into the well-placed rocks.

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Ocotillo and a pencil euphorbia, possibly E. leucodendron.

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I mostly avoided taking photos of the house, but the Furcraea macdougalii was smack in the middle of a front window, backed by eriogonum.

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Wreathed in aloes at its base.

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The parkway/hell strip was all helichrysum silver.

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Except for this one, which I’m pretty sure is a sideritis, the first I’ve seen locally outside my own garden.

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Front gardens like this always beg the tantalizing question: What on earth did they save for the back?


*Once again a traffic jam forced me into taking a lesser-traveled route. So I’ve been admiring this newly found garden since spring, during the recent Stanley Cup playoffs and final series, driving en route to watch the games with my mom. After my dad died, we all took up the one sport he never followed, initially as a means to get together frequently during the week. I’d never been a fan of any sport before but knew that televised sports had been an important part of their marriage. I caught an Olympic hockey game in 2010 and admired the speed and athleticism, and thus we started following the fortunes of our beleaguered, star-crossed local team. At first we were unable to even keep an eye trained on the whizzing puck and found the unspoken rules mystifying. But then the Los Angeles Kings did the unimaginable, winning their first Stanley Cup not long after we became fans, keeping their diehard fans waiting over 40 years. In 2012 we still barely understood the concept of icing the puck. This last season, stretching from October to June, was an endurance test for the fans, too, but astonishingly ended in another Stanley Cup. Unlike me, my mom can recite the jersey number and stats on every team member, and she now finds golf and baseball unbearably slow to watch. Go Mom! Go Kings!

UCBG Natural Discourse: Form and Function 1/11/13

The final event in the unique, year-long collaboration that the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley undertook with “artists, architects, scientists and poets in the garden,” Natural Discourse, was held Friday, January 11, 2013. As co-curator Shirley Watts explained at the beginning, “This is my dream symposium. So I just said, Who do I want to hear?”

What we heard was an extraordinary series of lectures, a “natural discourse” that drew from the disciplines of anthropology, art, botany, design, science, politics, engineering, including: The transformation of a sheep ranch in Sonoma County into a world-class, Richard Serra-containing, outdoor art installation (I must see this some day*); the inception of the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire (I must visit this some day); the making of The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, Mexico (I MUST go here some day); the role of cellular structure, its actual physical shape, in furthering understanding of stem cell biology (I may benefit from this some day). And, of course, the juicy back story behind the creation of and ensuing national controversy surrounding one of the Natural Discourse exhibits, SOL Grotto, which utilized the discarded cylindrical tubes from the bankrupt solar cell manufacturing company Solyndra (written about previously here.) My magpie brain happily gorged on the lectures, and I was able to dart into the garden, hummingbird-like, when opportunities presented. A dream symposium indeed.

In between lectures, the garden, which hasn’t experienced a frost yet, was ours to explore, so I’m interspersing some of the photos I took during the short breaks and lunch. I didn’t explore too far beyond the conference area. The one time I did, I was late for a lecture. Shades of college all over again.

Agave strictahedgehog agaveucbg 1/11/13
Agave stricta

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Euphorbia cooperi var. cooperi
Euphorbia cooperi var. cooperi, South Africa

Aloe sabaeaYemen
Aloe sabaea, Yemen

Aloe sabaea bloom
Bloom of Aloe sabaea

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Agave species, Mexico

Depending on sound quality, I have ambitious plans to produce transcripts of most of the lectures — they are simply too wonderful not to share — but there may be unforeseen technical challenges ahead. For now, below are the opening remarks by Paul Licht, Director, UCBG:

It’s a pleasure to see this many people interested in what I think are very important parts of our lives. I’m Paul Licht. I’m the director of the garden, and so I get the great pleasure of opening what’s going to be an exciting day.

“And I’m not supposed to say this, but if you get a little tired of sitting, there’s a lot of other things to see out here. In fact, there are 34 acres. We describe it as 34 glorious acres, which houses one of the biggest, most diverse plant collections in North America, and it’s unequaled in many ways.


UCBG 1/11/13, Beavertail cactusOpuntia aff. prolifera
Opuntia aff. prolifera, Beavertail cactus (note searchable database)

“I’m not going to give you the whole spiel, but you’re in a very special place for many things, one of which you’re going to hear about the rest of the day. But just to orient you, it is a 34-acre garden. It’s part of the University of California, but we are one of the few really public entities of the University of California. There are other museums, but they are not public. They are mostly research. We have a plant collection that’s unequaled not only in its diversity, that is, the number of different kinds of plants — we have roughly 12 thousand different kinds of plants growing here. They are from all over the world. But they are unusual in that they are almost all wild collected, and no other garden has this kind of collection. And it’s hard for people to believe that right here in this little town of Berkeley we have this incredible resource. That’s what it’s supposed to be, a resource for you. It’s a public garden. It’s your garden as much as anyone’s.


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Puya venusta, Chile


“What we’ve tried to do over the past few years is to make people more appreciative or better able to discover the garden by appealing to a lot of different senses that I think should be part of the garden, and one of them is art. Art and music, I think, go together. Now, I’m very much of the belief that if you did nothing in this garden, it is still a piece of art. It’s an artwork. Any landscaper, any gardener, will tell you that no matter what it looks like, whether it’s just a bunch of flowers or very natural looking, it’s artificial. It’s created by people, landscapers and gardeners and people who love these living things. So I would argue that it’s all a piece of art that you’re sitting in the middle of right now. Everything is intentional. Well, not everything. We do have some weeds. But most of what you see here has been done intentionally. And if it doesn’t look like a formal garden to you, that you’re used to, like rows of beautiful plants, that’s intentional. We’ve tried to recreate nature in the middle of nature. But we’ve created it in the way that we think sends out a message.


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Aloe capitata
Aloe capitata


“So we started from the point of view that we think we have a lot to offer to the art world, and then we began to explore more — I won’t say traditional, but things that I understood better. Simple things, like botanical illustration, was clearly related to the garden. So next week in this room, next Saturday, is the opening of a botanical illustration exhibit, where we’ll have a whole group of several dozen botanical illustrators that have worked here, displaying their things.

“And then when I thought I sort of had it all under control. Mary Anne Friel and Shirley Watts came with another idea, which kind of stretched my imagination a little bit. What they put together was an exhibit they called Natural Discourse. And to this day, it is so rich and varied that when people ask me what is it, it takes a long time for me to sort of articulate it. And I think it’s much better done by seeing it than talking about it. So I hope in the course of this talk you’ll have the opportunity to get out and really experience it firsthand. And if it’s brought in people who haven’t been to the garden before, then it really succeeded because that’s the whole goal of it.


Euphorbia grandialataSo. Africa
Euphorbia grandialata, South Africa
(window shade coverings, very faint in this photo, are vellum-burned “spiderwebs” by Gail Wight, exhibit entitled “Under the Influence,” inspired by 1960 experiments of feeding psychotropic drugs to spiders.)

“And it’s very different from the traditional artwork in that it is very much part of the garden, an extension of the garden. The artists who created these pieces did a wonderful job of extending the garden into their artwork, and that’s I think what makes it so very, very special. A lot of these pieces might not look as exciting if they were just plunked in the middle of the MOMA or the DeYoung or something. They would look interesting, but they wouldn’t have the same meaning. And that’s what I hope you’ll all get out of this, that art can be just a transition into the garden. It doesn’t have to be a separate thing…So I hope that you’ll find this as exciting as I do. And I hope that it will present a doorway for you to get out into the garden and enjoy the art that’s part of the garden.”

List of speakers:
Dr. Paul Licht, Director, UC Botanical Garden, Welcome
Shirley Watts, Natural Discourse co-curator, Introduction to Symposium
Mary Ann Friel, Natural Discourse co-curator, Overview of exhibition
Ronald Rael, “Material Provenance” (SOL Grotto)
Steven Oliver, “Art That Ceases to be a Commodity”
Gerard Dosba, The International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire
Dr. Marie Csete, “Structure and Function in Stem Cell Biology,” Division Director, AABB Center for Cellular Therapies, Bethesda, MD
Dr. Alejandro de Avila, “Blood on a Fountain,” founding director of The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca


*Visits to the Oliver Ranch are arranged only through membership in non-profit organizations. For example, the UCBG is arranging a visit for its members in 2014.

Inter-City Cactus Show & Sale

I went to the show, had my mind blown, took some pictures. In other words, a typical succulent show…except that I introduced myself to a best-selling author on succulents in the landscape and containers and then gushed and fawned and stammered and…oh, the shame!

But the plants loved being fawned over. What utter showboats.

I’m always surprised to see lush leaves and delicate flowers springing from a bloated, contorted, caudiciform base, as in Stephania venosa.

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Evem common sempervivums and aeoniums strut and preen like show dogs. That glow is all in the grooming and staging.

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Aloe ‘Coral Fire,’ a Kelly Griffin hybrid.

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Agave stricta. Brown pot, brown leaf tips. Sometimes it’s best not to overanalyze and go with uncomplicated.

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Or there’s always the baroque approach. Succulents on a clamshell.

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Euphorbia poissonii. Really makes you wonder what defenses a plant could possibly have to merit this name in a genus well-known for its caustic, milky sap.
From Wikipedia: “The most active toxin…binds to pain receptors…It stimulates the neurons to fire repeatedly, causing pain.” I note the Wiki photo looks like an entirely different plant, but image searches also show the euphorbia depicted in this photo:

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The dyckias were ravishing.

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Sometimes it’s hard to imagine living with these show plants on a day-to-day basis. Having a quiet breakfast on the sun porch among your treasures — wait a second. Wasn’t the abromeitiella on that table last night? And who took the sports page? C’mon ‘bro, give it back.

Abromeitiella brevifolia.

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I think I’ve seen this enormous Moringa ovalifolia in the several shows I’ve attended this summer. Just wheel him in and hand the ribbon over.

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Succulent shows are where horticulture definitely veers off into the fetishistic, obsessive, hobbyist realm, which might make garden designers uncomfortable, but there’s an incredible amount of cultivation knowledge to be gained, and each plant arrives pre-Photoshopped for your contemplation of its ideal state. A succulent show is an unapologetic plant zoo.

The show will also be held today, August 14, 2011, at the LA Arboretum, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.