Tag Archives: dry gardens

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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beyond the lawn; part 2

Leave, my friend (for it is high time), the low and sordid pursuits of life to others, and in this safe and snug retreat emancipate yourself for your studies.” — Pliny the Younger

Another house on the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour in Los Angeles this early May had some wonderful ideas.
Right at the curb, the broad, decomposed granite parkway provided stark contrast to the neighboring turfed properties.
Even though this house and garden stand out among the others on its street and carry a bit of the shock of the new, the design principles upon which it draws are old.
Very old. Ancient, in fact. Indeed, the designer didn’t stray very far at all from the source materials for mediterranean homes and gardens.

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Step away from the street and the double rows of parked cars, up a short flight of steps, and we could be entering a Roman villa.

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And I’m talking about garden principles faithful in spirit. The Romans would have used myrtle and box, not the Australian westringia, but the latter’s small leaves fit in seamlessly.

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Landscape architect Joseph Marek began work in 2011, with more fine-tuning in 2014.

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By a cleverly strategic, stripped-down use of water and plants, a lushness and vitality is nevertheless communicated and felt.
Through gestures such as the rill in the front garden.

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From the tour notes: “[I]n 2014…the garden was re-graded and all lawn was removed from both the front garden and the wide parkway.
Once cleared, the house’s true scale and presence were revealed…
A gurgling iris-lined lily pond, intersecting a richly colored sandstone and gravel courtyard surrounded by Mediterranean,
Australian and native California plants now welcomes neighbors and visitors

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Step through the portico, follow the path into the back garden, and we could be in Ibiza or Santorini.

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The side path leads to a trellised table area.

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Looking from the pergola, past a small fountain, to the pool.

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Looking down the length of the pool reveals a prioritized, economical use of space.
(And to further update a neoclassical setting, I believe that’s actress Rosalind Chao, nee Keiko O’Brien of Star Trek: TNG, under the olive.)

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The chairs and fire pit area are semi-screened from the pergola by citrus and from the neighbors by towering bamboo.
Ancient principles are clearly stated here, that irrigation should not be wasted on plants serving as shallow-rooted carpeting underfoot.
Water is prized, framed and contained, where its liquid abilities to brim and spill can be appreciated, but never squandered.

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Looking at the main house.
Buxom evergreen plants of box and citrus flesh out the patterned geometric surfaces underfoot.
This all just makes so much sense for hot and dry Los Angeles, a frenetic city that requires strong doses of sanctuary (and not just from the sun).
As Pliny the Younger puts it, in such a place as this we can leave the “low and sordid pursuits of life to others.” Amen, Pliny.

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Looking at the apartment/studio connected by the pergola to the main house.
Materials could be COR-Ten steel, recycled concrete, any neoclassical references on pergolas can be stripped away.
The basic premise remains that, weather permitting, it’s outside the home where mundane activities like napping, reading, eating, become heightened adventures
shared with the birds, the wind, the sun. Perhaps it’s a primal link to a time when we were outdoors far more than indoors?

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Under a surface luxury lies careful, conservative planning, strategic use of plants, water, shade, based on timeless design principles for summer-dry climates.

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I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re treated to more about this garden.

The landscape at Pitzer College

We have Joe Clements to thank for the unique pleasure it is to stroll the grounds of Pitzer College in Claremont, California, at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Twenty-five years managing the Desert Garden at the Huntington Botanical Garden more than prepared him for his current position* as Arboretum and Grounds Manager at Pitzer.
The site of a former quarry, this liberal arts campus dating to 1963 covers about 35 acres.
I tried my best to photograph as much as possible on a hot, blindingly bright afternoon this weekend.
For a comprehensive pictorial, at least a half dozen more trips would be needed, and preferably in the even light of early morning or sunset.
This post will be quick and dirty, no plant IDs, just an introductory overview.
I missed the chance to explore the campus when attending a field trip sponsored by CSSA during their recent Biennial Convention held at Pitzer and vowed to return.

From “Guidelines for the Pitzer College Landscape“:

Geologically, Pitzer is situated on an alluvial fan at the foot of some of the steepest mountains in the world.
Biologically, we are at the intersection of the mountainous chaparral community with the
coastal sage scrub of the valley. In a broader sense, we are part of the arid and semi-arid
American Southwest that embraces New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Utah and Nevada, as
well as southern California and Baja. Climatically, we live in one example of a
“Mediterranean” climate (mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers), which we share with the
countries of the Mediterranean rim and parts of southern Africa, Australia, and Chile

For me what sets Pitzer apart is its unusual hybrid status as both residence and commercial site.
Both uses have been melded together in a landscape that succeeds as a temporary home for students while they attend the college.

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Continue reading The landscape at Pitzer College

traditional with a twist

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Here’s another house nearby that warrants a second look and always brings a smile.

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It’s the traditional front lawn setup with a bit of a twist. All the supporting plants are exclusively dry garden plants, some rare like the cycads.

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Every plant in the landscape is a “specimen,” like the dasylirion, cycads, potted ponytail palms.
There’s definitely a collector at work here, but a restrained collector with a conservative streak.
That’s my Sherlockian take, anyway, to explain leaving the lawn in place.
(And I mean conservative in temperament, not in a political sense.)
The front porch is given that bristly moustache from horsetail reeds grown in an unseen container.

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Potted tree aloe, palm, and more cycads. I have no idea which cycads they are.
I haven’t been bitten by that bug yet, thankfully, since cycad collecting can be an expensive habit.
And/or a habit that requires great patience while these Jurassic-era plants slowly make size.

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Foundation planting on the wild side.
Overcast skies courtesy of our “June gloom,” one of my favorite times of year.
I feel cheated when June doesn’t gloom up but instead marches straight into bright and sunny.

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I love this bungalow, but sorting and choosing these photos, with the pea-green color of the house, green roof, and the lawn, is making me a bit queasy.

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This house in the same neighborhood makes an interesting exercise in compare-and-contrast.
Do you prefer the green lawn or the buff-colored decomposed granite with dry garden plants?

the east fence

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In case I’ve left the impression my only collection of pots resides on that little table under the pergola, there are more. Lots more.
This group of pots lines the east fence. Morning shade, afternoon sun.

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The topmost plant in the iron stand is a ponytail palm, Beaucarnia recurvata, entangled in a climbing onion, Bowiea volubilis.
This photo was taken on a dewy February morning last winter. Both of these plants are incredibly easy in pots and take neglect in stride.

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Conserving water and keeping plants in containers might seem to be mutually exclusive aims, but I can vouch that it can be done without spiking the water meter.
These pots of mostly different kinds of succulents are doing very well on the “bucket” water from the shower.

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Rather than created especially for summer, most of these pots contain plants I rotate in and out of the garden.
For example, the aeoniums were a big part of the winter garden, dug up and potted in spring to make room as summer plants fill in.
If summer temperatures consistently top the 90s, I’ll probably move the aeoniums again to more shade.

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Last year I dug all the eucomis/pineapple lilies out of the garden and dumped them in this pot on the right, which is watered on the succulents’ schedule.
As much as I love eucomis in gardens, mine is planted too tight to allow the pineapple lilies to comfortably unfurl in summer.
Bright green Asparagus retrofractus just above the eucomis contributes that wonderful foamy texture on a miserly amount of water.

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Eucomis in bloom July 2013.

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Agave attenuata ‘Boutin’s Blue’ with Carex trifida ‘Rekohu Sunrise.’ I love using this carex in pots just for this effect. Both plants are fine in part shade, dry conditions.
I dug up the entire pot out of the garden last week, which you can tell by the darkish color to the pot about 6 inches up from the base.
The potted agave was prominent all winter but slowly became engulfed by early summer. (I wrote about parachuting potted agaves into the garden here.)
I’ve been wanting to try the Korean Feather Reed grass, Calamagrostis brachytricha, so when found locally I pounced and slipped one into that spot.

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The wrought iron stand holds a neoregelia still in pretty good shape. Other bromeliads are getting leaf burn as I figure out shifting sun/shade patterns for summer.
There’s another look at that fabulous Asparagus retrofractus again.

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Not the best photo, but it shows what a bromeliad nursery Reuben’s wrought iron orb has turned into. The light conditions under the fringe tree are ideal in summer.
Small bromeliad pups and tillandsias all seem to find their way here. Makes it easier to remember to mist them all a couple times a week.
(I’d love to find something similar at Reuben’s upcoming Open Garden on June 20.)

Yes, I do have a lot of pots, but May’s water bill nevertheless brought good news. The three of us used 97 gallons of water a day, and that includes occasional overnight guests.
The average use per person per day is estimated at 80-100 gallons, so we’re way under average.*
Yesterday I visited a couple nurseries, just to check if I felt cheated to be counting gallons, to see if I’d experience a massive horticultural FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
No, I think I’m good.

*Meaning for the entire household, indoors and outdoors, our water usage was 97 gallons a day.
If average usage is 80 gallons per person a day, the average for our household would be 240 gallons a day.

the Leonotis leonurus down the street

This Lion’s Tail is thriving in the front garden of a neighbor who took advantage of the first wave of lawn removal rebates offered a few years ago by our local water department.
I”ve been personally characterizing the latest round of lawn rebates after April 2015 as the second wave, just to distinguish between the two, because I have noticed some differences.
The first wave of rebates resulted in front gardens filled with natives and other dry-adapted plants like this leonotis from South Africa designed around paths, berms and swales.
The work and planting in the first wave was mostly done and/or directed by the homeowner. This Lion’s Tail garden also includes, among others, ceanothus and the Indian Mallow, Abutilon palmeri.

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In contrast, I’ve noticed that a lot of the second-wave designs include far fewer kinds of plants, and quite often are entirely of smallish succulents.
Widely spaced succulents bedded in gravel or mulch and laid out in a horizontal grid.

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Now that actual water restrictions are in place as of April 2015, the second-wave gardens are being executed in more haste and less planning than the first wave.
Less planning and haste seem to be hallmarks of a well-known company which leaves its sign in the newly planted grid advertising free lawn removal in exchange for the rebate.
Not that there’s anything wrong with seizing an entrepreneurial opportunity.
But results from the second wave are almost a throwback to that time when a dry garden meant a kitschy collection of cacti, bleached cow skulls, and wagon wheels in white rock mulch.

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Hopefully, there will be some fine-tuning of these second-wave gardens by the owners now that the heavy lifting part of the job has been done.
The Lion’s Tail doesn’t mind pruning, dry conditions, and will roar in full-throated tawny bloom spring through fall. For full sun.

low and green

I’ve got to say it’s been a long time coming, but it’s still just a tiny bit surreal to wake up every day to more MSM coverage on lawns, and by extension, the plants that will have to replace lawns.
Suddenly, in just two months’ time, the governor has bravely steered the conversation to the generally ignored world of plants and garden design.
Now my usual solipsistic focus on what I’m planting has shifted to wondering what in the world everyone else is going to be planting.
How is the mostly plant-indifferent public going to figure this out quick and dirty, so to speak? (Hint: garden designers are your friends!)
My theory on the enduring popularity of lawns is that they’re probably the easiest garden feature to understand and control.
And in a lot of ways, human life and grasses are inextricably linked. Controlling grasses is literally in our blood.
In roughly 10,000 years, life as nervous prey in tall grass has eased into settling into Adirondacks with icy drinks on tightly mown carpets of lawn.
Emotionally, it’s hard to give up those clear, safe sight lines. And mixed plantings require far more decision making, which can quickly push people out of their plant comfort zone.
And where natural rainfall supports a small lawn, why not? A flat, green, negative space has lots of fans. Mid Century architects wouldn’t know what to do outdoors without lawn.
Here in California, the most diehard lawn fans are apparently looking into artificial turf in record numbers.
I admit I find this solution scary for any space bigger than an area rug. It’s already clear this is going to be a tricky transition away from lawns.

Sunset’s “Gotcha Covered” explains the superiority of living plants as ground cover here, in comparison with paved surfaces, but there’ll be similar issues with artificial turf:
As all plants undergo evapotranspiration—the process of releasing water through their leaves, then discharging it back into the environment—they help humidify, oxygenate and cool the air.
Paved surfaces, on the other hand, warm the air by radiating the sun’s heat back into the environment, increasing air temperatures by15 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Using groundcovers near, or in place of, paved and hardscaped surfaces helps reduce that air temperature and can even lower air conditioning bills

And what about soil health underneath that artificial turf, or how our gardens serve as habitats for species other than ourselves?
Let’s not panic and rush to roll out the outdoor carpeting just yet.
If the prospect of replacing the lawn seems daunting, just remember the Chinese proverb:
If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.

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Aside from natives, there’s creeping rosemaries, westringias, grevilleas, cotoneasters, helianthemum off the top of my head.
But keep your eyes open, and you’ll see examples of low and evergreen all over town.
Above is Myoporum parviflorum, a fast-growing Australian native with almost inconspicuous tiny white flowers.

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The Salvia leucantha and myoporum were filling in a parking strip at a local market. I’m trying out a red-leaved myoporum at home with succulents.

Las Pilitas Nursery has compiled a list of “Less than a foot high ground cover plants that are native to California.”

San Marcos Growers helpfully breaks up their extensive list into useful categories. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden has lists of Calif. natives by category here.

And for lawn-substitute grasses, there’s no better source of information than John Greenlee.