Garden Puzzles

Working with a small garden can be a bit of a puzzle. This powder blue Agave potatorum, or ‘butterfly’ agave, was planted a couple years ago deep in the recesses of the gravel garden, much too out of the way and concealed for such a handsome agave, but no other space was available at the time. An ill-fitting piece of the puzzle.


Might as well admit that the puzzle has at its root a ceaseless acquisition of beautiful plants. (I could have just passed up that agave, couldn’t I? But I’d never seen a butterfly agave that peculiar shade of blue, and haven’t since.) A lot of recent friction seems to be coming from the shrubs I can’t stop bringing home. Appreciated and admired in December, by mid-summer shrubs just seem in the way. This summer, much of which has been spent methodically deshrubbing the garden, I’ve had to face up to the unavoidable conclusion that shrubs are not in the cards for the foreseeable future. Perhaps their moment will come again when, for whatever reason, I won’t enjoy the level of intensive gardening I do now. As much as I love the amazing range of Australian, South African, and New Zealand shrubs available today, they fill up space so quickly, when I’d rather play around on a much smaller, more impermanent scale. Even so, enticing shrubs like this Azara microphylla ‘Variegata’ from Chile, with vanilla-scented blooms, still break down my defenses. Perhaps it will be happy in a pot for a few years.


In this instance, a beautiful leucadendron was removed and sedums and agaves planted in its place. With the leucadendron gone, I much prefer how the bay of smaller, low-growing plants fits into the garden contrasted with the 4×5 foot leucadendron. An old, overgrown Lespedeza ‘Gibraltar’ near the leucadendron was also removed, though I note a few shoots of the lespedeza are returning. The rhythm and sweep of bays is something I love in landscapes but a feature I often forfeit due to the persistent vice of overplanting. The butterfly agave was moved yesterday to the spot vacated by the leucadendron, which is filling up fast with mangaves, sedum, carex, the New Zealand Purple Sheep’s Bur Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea,’ and other small agaves. The restio in back was completely hidden by the leucadendron, and the lespedeza thrashed around behind the big agave on the right, ‘Mr. Ripples.’ The planting has perhaps unintentionally taken on the character of an agave garden now. (Gee, ya think?)


Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea,’ image found here, was extremely happy up in Mendocino County, where it was purchased at Digging Dog Nursery, but is struggling in Los Angeles’ recent temperatures in the high 90s.


What finally set that half-concealed Agave potatorum in motion was the need for its spot mid border to try out Callirhoe digitata, a very tall winecup that needs the dry, lean quarters of the front gravel garden instead of the lush, compost-rich digs of the back garden. While the grand gesture of sweeps of grasses and perennials is impossible to pull off in a small garden in a near-winterless zone 10, still the seasonal vibrancy that a few well-chosen, fairly drought tolerant perennials brings has always caught my imagination. The puzzle resolved itself with the agave finally getting the prominent position it deserved, and with the callirhoe tucked into a spot where they have a chance of thriving.


This summer has been a continual process of paring down. Earlier this morning a ‘Silver Anniversary’ buddleia exited the back garden roots first, a shrub I love but lack of room was making it awkward rather than graceful. Cuttings were taken in case unforeseen space suddenly opens up (as in, say, a small meteorite hits the back garden this winter). Also removed this morning was a large Clematis recta ‘Lime Close’ that never colored deeply or even bloomed much for that matter, and its spot given for a trial of Trifolium rubens. Pieces of the puzzle continually slide in and out of place. Rarely, but occasionally, there’s that satisfying “click” when the pieces somehow manage to fall into shape.

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4 Responses to Garden Puzzles

  1. An agave garden? I knew I loved this blog.

  2. Kathy says:

    De-shrubbing-I’m all over it. 3 corpus delicti lined up next to yard waste toters. My Agaves must reside in pots, the cold, wet, standing water of our winters is not popular. They are often seen planted in the ground here, but places with drainage are required . This garden does not fit the bill.

  3. hb says:

    ‘Mr Ripple’ is going to need more room….

  4. Denise says:

    Loree, I finally decided not to fight the impulse and have at it. Agave garden it is.
    Kathy, amazing how shrubs seem to accumulate, isn’t it?
    Hoov, I’m already thinning the dwarf olives behind him, and the pathway in front of Mr. R is negotiable…kidding! Sort of. He’s about 4×5 feet now, and I’m hoping that’s mature size.

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