Tag Archives: agaves, woody lilies

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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more on garden shelves

There was never any question I’d leave this alone, last seen in this iteration.

The nice thing about this arrangement is that it tucks under the eaves and keeps the pots dry during winter.
Not a big deal considering our underwhelming rainy season, but still a minor consideration.

It made sense to put the planter with Senecio radicans up there, if only temporarily, since it needed the height to drape.
Doubling up the lower pots made sense for better weight distribution — and maybe because I brought home another agave (‘Little Shark’).
The olearia that was at the top now sits on the bricks at the bottom.

Cotyledon undulata ‘Silver Crown’ in a small, shallow bowl was another obvious candidate for these shelves. More reshuffling required.
I’ve started doing something I swore I never would — keeping the plant tags displayed. My memory is pure sheizen these days.
Note to self: buy more gravel mulch.

This winter (like last winter) I really want to get to work on some proper shelving.

Agave franzosinii

This photo was taken by MB Maher during a visit he made to artists Sue Dadd and James Griffith’s amazing Folly Bowl last summer.

Some agave, huh?


I’m now fairly sure that this uber-undulating creature is Agave franzosinii, which develops this distinctive kinetic energy to its luminous, silvery leaves when mature.
If there’s another agave out there that gives this shimmering, geyser-like performance, please leave a comment and correct me. The Folly Bowl agave seems to corkscrew and twist as opposed to the Lotusland agave, whose leaves are more uniformly, well, lotus-like, but even so, I still suspect the Folly Bowl agave is A. franzosinii. Lotusland seemingly has the definitive A. franzosinii against which all contenders are measured. For example, the true A. franzosinii should not offset much, and the teeth are further apart than agaves sold under the same name. San Marcos Growers sells this agave from stock obtained from Lotusland, but occasionally this agave will pop up for sale from other sources, with variations such as the teeth being closer together or upright leaves that fail to cascade.

From Agaves, Yuccas and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish:

No record exists of a natural distribution of Agave franzosinii. It has been known ornamentally for more than 100 years, particularly in European gardens. Whether it is an unusual form of A. americana, with which it clearly is related closely, or a one-time hybrid remains open to further work.”

I have to thank garden designer Dustin Gimbel for bringing this agave’s name to my attention. Many of us have probably looked at this agave in photos or in actual botanical gardens without knowing its name. I know I have.

Trio Nursery in Santa Barbara, California, has sold this plant recently and may have current stock.
There is a photo of this agave at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California, from their Flickr photostream here, including an inspiring image of Ms. Bancroft herself still hard at work.

Tending the Front Garden

Couple weekends ago I worked in the front garden. Removed a few bricks for Sempervivum ‘Spring Beauty.’


Then weeded the Spanish poppies from the bricks and cleaned out this agave of pups and old leaves.


Why’s it such a big deal to work in the front garden? Possibly because, for me, a garden is synonymous with privacy and enclosure. Over and over, I find Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden cited by gardeners as a prime influence, and I’m sure reading that book multiple times as a kid formed my ideas, for good or ill, on gardens. A garden must have a gate to push open, it must be enclosed, and it must be your secret (for as long as you want to keep it).


So it’s safe to say that the front garden has been low on the list of gardening priorities. It’s actually taken me a while to even consider it as a garden rather than a holding area for plants overflowing from the back garden. And you’d never know there wasn’t a monoculture of grass behind my boxwood hedge in the front yard if you didn’t stop to peer around it. The drought-tolerant boxwood hedge was a useful means of “greening” up the front of the house to hide the minor revolutionary act of taking out the lawn we inherited with the house many years ago, when such an act drew lots of raised eyebrows. Meadows, vegetable gardens, all manner of revolutionary acts can be insinuated into a neighborhood if the eye, like in a magic act, is tricked to look elsewhere.


Where and how people place plants can be so revealing. For example, where’s my civic spirit, to neglect the front and focus on my private garden in back? A friend used to argue with me that a boring front landscape didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t a jardin des paradis in the backyard. I try to remember that when I pass miles and miles of boring front landscapes. And I’ve been on enough garden tours to note that the front garden often sleeps while the back garden parties, so it’s not just my own garden freak flag flying with this arrangement.


And I haven’t been exactly neglecting the front. It’s been through loads of incarnations, but it just doesn’t draw me in like the back garden. The front is a challenge, the back a refuge.


The front garden was enclosed long ago, to safely contain kids and dogs, but because of city ordinances the fences can be no higher than three feet. In effect, no privacy. So the private courtyard I intended for the front garden, an enduring design feature of mediterranean climates, was not to be. I can probably trace my renewed interest in the front garden to when the box hedges planted along the sidewalk reached over six feet in height, topping the fence. Unlike fences, the height of hedges is given a pass by the city (knock wood). Box comes and goes into fashion, with Piet Oudolf’s fantastically undulating boxwood hedges probably single-handedly nudging it back into current favor. It’s all I can do to remember to shear mine in a straight line twice a year, probably the only gardening “chore” I perform. I hate dragging the extension cord and inflicting all that racket on the neighborhood for 10 or so minutes, but I do love the refinement of box. And myrtle, for that matter, though it’s much slower growing. Here’s a peek of the hedge and fence, the cars and neighbors’ houses.


I love hearing the voices of passersby walking unseen behind the hedge, the voices’ owners popping into sight just as they pass. What this says about me psychologically, it’s probably best not to know. Observer, separate and apart, would be a guess. Gardens really do inhabit psychological as well as physical space.


The front garden was graveled over long ago, then became a kind of testing ground for the toughest plants grown in the back garden. A simple, DIY, dry-laid brick path gets you where you need to go. Gravel is scraped away for new additions. When I decided I needed a larger border here a couple years ago, I sifted the gravel out of the soil for the border. L-a-b-o-r-i-o-u-s. The back garden is where I cosset and pamper plants, so when a plant has proven its worthiness it gets to move to the front, where care and irrigation is minimal. This has been a slow process, with no clear plan in mind other than to keep to mostly low-growing plants for a chapparal effect, so the little community of plants that have formed in the front garden seems to be guided by a hand other than mine. Which is probably why this garden has the ability to surprise me when I pull into the driveway (another big drawback visually to the front garden). Photographic opportunities are always hampered, even with the hedges, with passing cars, our cars, power lines, neighbors’ houses, and all this has the effect of quickly puncturing that blissful state so easily attained in the back garden. I day-dream more in the garden than the house:

If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Gaston Bachelard

Aloe brevifolia


‘Sunburst’ aeonium, living up to its name, facing the western setting sun.


While I surreptitiously made a garden in the front yard, my neighbor across the street surreptitiously monitored its progress. Last summer she dug up her lawn and planted a mix of succulents and shrubs. Quite a few of my plants have found a new home across the street. I can’t claim all the credit; the civic water supplies are tightening due to a lengthy drought. Many of the front yards on my street have replaced the lawn with tough, drought-tolerant plants, native or otherwise. This ripple effect a front garden can have is something I never considered when planting it. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the city wouldn’t allow me to build an 8-foot wall around the front garden so many years ago.


Calandrinia spectabilis

On the Agave Walk this cerise Chilean showoff opens its first flower of spring. Zone 8-10.


The calandrinia sprawls onto the Agave Walk and is cut back by half to allow foot traffic. Even with this heavy-handed treatment it flowers prolifically all summer long. Greeny-blue succulent leaves, a tough plant for full sun, best with minimal supplemental irrigation to contain the tendency to sprawl. Its vigor matches that of Senecio mandraliscae, in that they both will overrun detailed succulent plantings. These types of aggressive sprawlers are perfect to edge pathways, where you can cut as much or as little back as you like, depending on if you’re in an expansive mood and welcoming visitors all summer or must keep your head down and work through the season, in which case you let the sprawlers loose to take over the pathways. I’m kidding, of course (sort of.)

I love the way most gardeners are instinctive cartographers of their little worlds, giving imposing-sounding names like the “Agave Walk” to a stretch of walkway no bigger than 10 feet long, 4 feet wide, named for the potted agaves that have been congregating here, mostly so I can watch the interplay of solidity and movement the agaves take part in with the perennials and grasses planted just behind the pots.

Just behind the agave walk in the main border, the castor bean ‘New Zealand Red’* is starting to elbow its way out of the pack. Ricinus has naturalized in Southern California in waste areas, so I’m keeping a careful eye on this one all summer. What broke down my resistance was this variety, the best red I’ve seen so far.


*Edited to correct name to ‘New Zealand Purple.’

Call Me Mr. Agave

(Also answers to “Big Blue”)


Note the congestion of pups destroying his fine lines. The vigor of an Agave americana is an awesome thing to behold and has been known to rupture any pot that dares contain it. Said vigor is the principal reason why he’s not planted in the ground, where he’d grow far too large. This one had already had a thorough de-pupping session in the last year, not long after he was brought home, a cast-off from a landscaping project at a local museum. Brutal as it sounds, A. americana is the trash species of agaves, at least here in zone 10. There’s loads of small, slow-growing agaves to choose from. The day I brought him home he portended instability for the garden, and I knew it.

Mr. Agave needed sorting out.



This level of foolhardiness has its origins in the mid-winter fidgets: No digging, no heavy garden work for three months and, consequently, I’m looking for trouble. Whoever said gardening was some genteel endeavor performed with an English trug on one’s arm and straw hat rakishly atop one’s head has someone else doing the heavy work. I live for the heavy work and miss it terribly in winter.

Mr. Agave is the centerpiece of the main back garden bed. Getting him in position in the first place was a long, hard slog. But once in place, all was forgiven as he seamlessly assumed his role in the garden, holding court, regal and impassive, from the first Dutch iris and self-sown poppies to the last dahlias.


Unseen in the photo, looking out from under the pergola, Mr. Agave is flanked on four sides by evergreen shrubs: two Kohuhu Golfball pittosporums to the south and two Coprosma repens ‘Cappuccino’ opposite, at the patio’s edge. It’s a barely perceptible nod to formality, especially in summer, but during winter this slight gesture adds welcome structural heft.

Training the Golfball pitts into the desired rotund shape was increasingly hampered by Big Blue’s rapid growth. Removing the pathway round the south side didn’t help. Where the Kohuhus once edged the pathway, now they’re adrift mid-meadow, so to speak, after the brick path was removed.

Short version is, access is increasingly difficult for garden tasks, a consequence of the unreasonable demands for more planting space I inflict on such a small garden. And as we all know, you just don’t tread on soil, especially clay soil. Ever. With the path gone, there was no easy access to the center of the garden border. The self-sown plants and grasses I wanted needed more room, and the access problem would sort itself out somehow…

The coprosmas were also problematic. Planted at the patio’s edge, they were growing tall and obscuring the view behind. Tall, sheer, and windswept was the original goal, which they were fulfilling, but I confess the day I read of the loathing Val Easton felt for them in her blog Plant Talk, their days were numbered.


For a good long while, I resisted her opinion. I love brown plants. I tried some judicious pruning. But I ultimately had to admit their brown leaf was dull, with no red tints or glimmer, and their shape was appearing more wayward and rangy by the day. Out they would have to go too.

And fickle, plant-lust driven creature that I am, I just happened to have two ‘Red Dragon’ lophomyrtus waiting in the wings, chafing in their pots, and here was a dark-leaved plant I could heartily defend. Slow-growing, lots of complexity to the brown coloring, clippable or not. A done deal.

In a few weeks, there’d be too much spring growth to contemplate moving the beast, so the time to act was now.

Or the kraken, as he increasingly appeared to me to be 30 minutes into the move, the sea monster/thorn in Perseus’ side and now piercing mine.

I’m still not quite sure how it was all done. The coprosmas were sadly easy to dispatch. It’s always a shock how easy it all is to undo. Once the coprosmas were gone, there was an opening maybe 2 to 3 feet wide to slide the potted agave from mid bed to the bricked pergola. At some point, there was a board for a ramp, then a tarp, then a towel-lasso thingy, but mostly lots of dragging, head bent down under his armored tentacles. Inches took a quarter of an hour. Blue glass mulch glittered a comet’s trail in his wake. I was gripped by numbing fatigue but also the stubborn refusal to have my garden upended. There would be resolution. The kraken would be either tamed or destroyed.


Madness! Folly! Why? Why? Whyeee? I was hoisted on the same petard as Werner Herzog’s feckless Fitzcarraldo dragging his steamship through the jungle.

A chance recruit stumbled on this abysmal scene, took pity and pitched in, and with the extra pair of hands we moved him the last few feet to a temporary resting spot. Unimaginable relief. Let’s just tip him to remove the tarp — the pot leaned, gravity claimed its due, and the pot was on its side and smashed. And it really did seem like slow motion.


Still I cleaned him up, removed the pups, severely root-pruned him.


And then had no idea what to do next. There was no place to plant him — he’d be too large in six months. The pot was smashed and there was no other pot large enough. Work deadlines intervened, and he sat for a day in a muddy heap.


At some point, it occurred to me that the shiny silver trash can I keep potting soil in could be recruited for a pot. I dragged Mr. Agave to a possible site for him in his new trash can, but lifting him up and into the can was the first serious impasse with no clear solution.

I had a stray thought before falling asleep that night about possibly rigging some block and tackles. The next day, still in Fitzcarraldo mode, I jokingly mentioned it to my husband, sneakily testing his potential for being dragooned into an extremely hare-brained scheme. He never disappoints. Within minutes he emerged from the garage with, yes, a marine-quality block and tackle and a large chain. Lever, fulcrum, and with Archimedes’ blessing (“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”), we were back in action.


A happy ending was not to be. Even the trash can was no match for Big Blue’s girth, and he sits too high, no longer looking regal, just foolish. Maybe the coming rain will help settle him in. For now he’s just outside the office door, eye level instead of knee level, absurdly large for his surroundings. There’s talk of possibly more blocks and tackles and chains to swing him elsewhere. Just exactly where that might be is the open-ended question. Oh, for just 1/4 acre more of garden.

Callous as it seems, I can still manage to find the bright side to all this garden mayhem. Now that he’s been moved, it’s much easier to see the Orlaya grandiflora just coming into bloom.


All My Agaves

My love affair with agaves runs deep and goes back decades. Now their sculpted beauty and Fibonacci flare are gaining widespread appreciation, surpassing their heretofore cult status, with gorgeous new hybrids popping up as prolifically as feather grass in gravel. Which is great news, if you ask me.

Now on to the burning question: Potted or unpotted? Agaves in or out of pots, here in zone 10, apart from aesthetic issues, really depends on ultimate size and thorniness. No frost issues to contend with, though leaf burn can occur, as when I carelessly moved a variegated A. americana out of dappled shade into full summer sun, discoloring and burning the leaves, rather than a graduated build-up to full sun exposure.

Apart from the undeniable charisma of an agave in a pot, a big part of their allure in pots is endlessly moving them around the garden for maximum effect. In our mild winters, they add instant glamour to areas gone dormant and add bulk to the remnants of wispy grasses left uncut until spring. When the plantings fill in again in spring, the pots are whisked away for drama duty elsewhere.

But as far as size, careful siting and species selection is key. You just can’t argue with a poorly sited Agave americana, ultimate size over 6×8, and countless lost arguments are on display in gardens all over town, usually resulting from planting too close to walkways. A poorly sited agave will invariably become a victim of abuse, with offending leaves hacked off. Debra Lee Baldwin last week profiled some smaller agaves for the Los Angeles Times.

A small sampling of my agaves includes ‘Mr. Ripple,’ thought to be an Agave salmiana hybrid, planted in the ground, ultimate size 5X8. Approximately 2X3 now but growing fast. An entrancing feature of agaves is their leaf imprints, a feature Mr. Ripple has in spades. His composed suavity is counterpoint for the Olea europaea “Little Ollies” planted along the fence leaning in from the right:


Closeup of Mr. Ripple’s devilish charms:


Years ago I found several seedlings of A. desmettiana at Burkhard’s in Pasadena, which are about 1×1 now, a beauty which, in a family of show-offs, still manages to distinguish itself.
This agave is now purportedly only found in the wild around villages of the former Mayan empire:


Agave attenuata ‘Kara’s Choice’ has been moved from this pot and planted in the front garden this past July. (Edited to correct name to ‘Kara’s Stripes.’)


Potted Agave americana variegata anchoring a sea of Salvia ‘Waverly’ pooling onto the path:


There’s only so much garden available for a hulking, saw-toothed, gorgeous. undulating mass of biosculpure.
So ‘Jaws’ stays potted, where his ultimate size of 4×8 will hopefully be curtailed. (sizing per Plant Delights)


Agaves lift a planting of succulents into the sublime. My feeble memory tells me this is A guadalajarana, but a quick Google check says otherwise, so it shall go unnamed.
Powdery blue, slim, long leaves, burnt orange spines. Senecio vitalis in the back with Senecio mandraliscae in the foreground.
Agave geminiflora, needle-leaved, on the left with variegated aeoniums:


But don’t relegate them to strictly succulent plantings. Just as often I prefer them as bulkwarks in mixed plantings. (A. americana, potted):


Agave titanota, bought off Ebay, a treasure trove for agave collectors.
Though I’m not completely convinced this really is A. titanota, even allowing for there being supposedly two types in commerce, as explained by Desert Tropicals:


All-time fave, Agave bovicornuta, the Cow-Horn agave, when young is a favorite of snails, and keeping him potted allows for close vigilance. Less than two years old, now about 1X2, capable of 3X5. Unlike the American agaves, which “pup,” or sucker freely, this gem retains its architectonic glory. San Marcos Growers writes: “This is a great looking green agave for planting in the garden or in containers. Because this plant does not naturally sucker or produce bulbils on the flower stalk and needs cross pollination for seed set, plants in landscapes generally only last one generation. For this reason it has been relatively rare in cultivation but with new propagation techniques, such as laboratory micro propagation (tissue culture), this beautiful plant is becoming more commonly available. The name cow horn agave and the specific epithet “bovicornuta” (bovi meaning cow and cornuta meaning horn) comes from the teeth recurving in opposing fashion much like a bulls horn. Common names for this agave in Mexico have been lechuilla verde, sapari, sapuli and noriba. Its flowers were washed and used to make tortillas and the stems used to make mescal, though it is noted as being more bitter than other agave used for these purposes. As with other agave this plant has juice which is caustic and has been documented to cause temporary dermatitis on sensitive skin.”


Spineless agave impostor, Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta,’ can take more moisture than an agave. This poor specimen has been dug and repotted to convalesce from a near-lethal snail attack:


A classic, and possibly my first agave, A. americana var. medio-picta ‘Alba.’


Apart from living with a plant that knows how to fight back, the only drawback, inherent with all beloved plants, is their irresistible collectability, which, if taken to extremes, can dilute the drama they so effortlessly add to a garden. (Which begs the question: Can an obsessive ever really know when they’ve taken things to extremes?) And being monocarpic, once they get around to flowering, it’s all over for the mother plant. Alas, my A. potatorum flowered this summer, it’s 6-foot tall flower stalk leaning over and dropping seeds into my son’s convertible Miata. Now, there’s a container idea, with built-in wheels…