Succulent dreams…

Succulents are everywhere! Long a staple in the schemes of gardens in mild winter and temperate summer locales such Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area I am seeing more and more creeping into the landscapes in my  San Joaquin Valley. Even the big box home improvement stores have copious supplies practically year-round. The growing interest in low water gardening has us all looking at plants with new eyes hoping they will be just the solution to our current challenges.

Four or five years ago I toured the San Francisco Decorator Showcase home, an event  held annually to benefit the city’s University High School.  That year’s home was a gorgeous 4 story, very early 20th century mansion not far from The Presidio and overlooking the Palace of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Bay. The landing just outside the home’s very formal front door was flanked by the first examples I had seen of what we now call ‘living walls’. These horizontal facades consist of generally metal frameworks to which are attached individual plant openings made from root retaining bags or boxes. Each opening is individually planted and when the plants fill out, a solid wall of green is established. In the intervening years since this first glimpse many different systems of this kind, in all manner of sizes and materials, have been developed and are readily available to home gardeners. These particular walls were planted entirely in succulents and were preceded, as you walked up the steps, by two extremely large bowl shaped urns planted with additional succulents, mostly having very bold natural structures. I was in love! The juxtaposition of the century old limestone home with all its turn of the century ornamentation and these modern and very statement making plantings was not only fun but also gave the home an upbeat, young, fresh look. Unfortunately the photos I took did not survive the transition from Blackberry and PC to iPhone and Mac and my vivid memory of the scene cannot be inserted as media into this post! I have spent time each of the ensuing years trying to come up with just the right combination of structure and succulents to add a semblance of these pleasing points of interest to my own garden world.

Research was my first task so, of course, I bought a book to add to my gardening reference library. It was lovely reading but ever so much more academic information than I needed fullsizeoutput_97d as I could really only buy whatever succulents are locally available and most of those are labeled only with the genus name or possibly just a common name. Wherein my book had descriptions of hundreds of Echeveria, many very different from one another, my ability to narrow down the labeled Echeveria at my local Home Depot to anything more specific was pretty pitiful. I abandoned my traditional desire to plan my plantings and keep detailed records and labels of everything and reduced my hunt to the lowest common denominator. I bought the smallest pots of as many different shapes and colors variations as I could find.  Now the learning curve began!

My first attempts were in rather shallow broad dishes which I set out on the patio tables around the pool. These bowls were lovely when planted in the late spring but as the summer set in I quickly learned the difference between succulents and cacti. Almost all cacti are succulents but all succulents are definitely NOT cacti. I fried the whole lot in short order. I suppose had I actually read my book rather than just looking at the photos I would have learned that many succulents are not very tolerant of strong sun. And again the meagerness of accurate labeling weighs in to make it a challenge to determine whether what you are purchasing is a cast iron performer or prefers its sun to be filtered.

Somewhat chastened by this experience I put my sumptuous succulent planter dreams away for the season. Not to be outdone by these pesky but perky plantlets in their 3″ pots I gave it a go the next year, keeping my bowls in bright light under the covered patio and was rewarded with plants that quickly outgrew their containers.  I transferred all of them to an empty concrete fountain, left by the home’s previous owner, which had enough fine cracks in it to make it unusable as a fountain but perfectly drained as a planter. Here you see that effort:


Upon the initial transfer of the plants into the fountain the center was quite flat and uninteresting. Several days later Dave came across a display of tall rectangular plastic pots at Costco which were preplanted with a variety of succulents and brought one home on a whim.  We pulled out the smaller plants from the fountain’s center area and literally set the entire pot into the soil about 3″ so it would be stable. Height and importance were added instantly to the planting! The plastic planter remains in place as I write this some 3+ years later–a long term bang for our $12.99. Specimens have waxed and waned in the bowl through the seasons. I break off bits and tuck them in here and there. The fountain is sited in a morning sun only area and is protected enough to have avoided most loss from freezing winter cold.

Above you see a few bits from the bowl as it looked yesterday–overall a successful venture! I planted a second unused fountain in the front garden the next year. Sited in full southern sun it has been more challenging to keep going. It has become an “only the strong survive” site. I pop in a few new little pots each fall to give them the best chance of settling in and then it is up to them to hang on.  A couple of specimens have flourished in that area of searing sun, including this very structural pencil like selection and the pebble shaped blue green mat in the foreground. Sooner or later I’ll hit upon just the right ones to acclimate to the spot but it clearly is not happening in an organized fashion. You live–you stay, you die–oh, well!


Because the ground freezes in the winter, local gardeners striving to maintain broad swathes of interesting succulents planted in the ground rather than pots face more challenges than our lucky gardening friends further south and in the more temperate Bay Area. Specimens need to be identified which can tolerate the proposed site in terms of summer sun and winter cold. I know I’ll be seeing many fine examples of these gardens as I travel south for the spring tours and I’ll post as many photos as I can. Let me tease you with a bit of the front garden pictured below. These photos were taken in Pasadena the first week of December. The low slung historic Spanish bungalow is a charming backdrop for a front garden chock full of mature succulent specimens and other unthirsty selections. Its charm was equal to any white picket fenced English garden I’ve seen.

2017–Best garden year yet!

I have been writing this encouragement on the January page of my calendar for more years than I can remember! Gardeners are by nature hopeful people with full faith that each new year will bring them garden miracles in abundance. This will be the year my soil, after many seasons of amending and turning over, will reach its peak friability and provide all the nutrients my plants require to perform their best. This will be the year perennial selections added in the last couple of seasons, having slept a year and crept a year, will leap with abandon. This will be the year the aphids will find my neighbors’ crape myrtles more hospitable than mine. This will be the year of a world wide snail and slug extinction event…


For the first time since Thanksgiving I have spent a bit of time in my garden assessing what needs to be done and reflecting on changes I would like to make this year. We have had an incredibly wet and quite cold last 6 weeks. At this midpoint mark in January we have had almost 10″ of rain since October with over 4″ of that in the last 2 weeks. These numbers will not sound like much to gardeners in other parts of the country but here in the Central Valley of California our average annual rainfall (July 1-June 30 being our rain year) rarely exceeds 11″. We are in a historic 6 year drought in an area whose best rain years would constitute emergency conditions for residents in states blessed with naturally wetter weather. We have prayed for rain and now, of course, don’t know what to do with all this water!

Don’t misunderstand me–I am excited to have the low areas of my dormant lawn look vaguely like weedy duck ponds. The water will eventually soak in and give me a little better start when the heat comes. What we really need is more snowfall in the upper elevations of the Rocky and Sierra Mountains. The spring melt of the mountain snowpack is the source of most of the water which fills the California  reservoirs and carries us through the summer–many parts of this state receive zero rainfall from May through October. So it is more than likely that even this very wet winter will not change any of our water restrictions, residential or agricultural, and we will continue learning how to live in this new normal world of lawn free landscapes and unthirsty plantings. Of the 4 areas from which we removed lawn in 2016 two have been replanted and are prospering, one remains untouched and has a lovely covering of bright green winter annual weeds and the last is about 3/4 renovated. We were only about 5 feet from having all the tilling and amending done on that bed when my sweet Dave got out his big, bad axe to remove an especially large root adjacent to the driveway. Unfortunately there was a labyrinth of unseen sprinkler pipe under the root and well…you know the rest of the story. When the water finally drains out of the very large trench he had to dig to make the repair we will be back on the road to completion–look for pics of this very large bed in a future post.

So everything looked pretty much as I would expect at this time of year. It’s time to start pruning the roses. The weeping standard ‘Renae’ roses in the front are so top heavy I fear they may crack at their grafts and the climbers on the pavilion trellis have gone mad! My roses have always been incredibly forgiving and even in years when I feel as though I have just hacked at them they have rewarded me with wonderful bloom seasons–maybe they are ever hopeful that they will get a new gardener who knows what she is doing!


This time last year one of my planned changes was to remove this row of Prunus laurocerasus, common cherry laurels, which grow behind the pavilion in a very narrow bed up against our side fence. These fast growing evergreens are prolific reseeders and have to be constantly pruned to keep them out of the canopy of mature Bradford pears growing on the other side of the fence. I only got as far as cutting them down to bare trunks last spring. Even these plants have forgiven me and offered me another chance to decide in their favor. Hmmm…


Through heat, drought, rain and wind this rosemary soldiers on. It looks exactly the same now as it did in 110 degree weather with no water last July. The tag on this warrior said Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’, commonly know as creeping or prostrate rosemary. Last summer I cut it back by half and it did not even blink. It is about waist high now and clearly not prostrate. In the ground now for almost 6 years and yet to produce even a single  blue flower. I am hoping that 2017 will be its year!

I’ll continue to keep you updated on what is happening in my garden and I have many fun garden road trips planned that you are invited to come along with me through posts and photos. The Mary Lou Heard Garden Tour in Southern California is back on my calendar this year after a few years absence. I also hope to do at least 3 of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days this year: LA, Marin County and San Jose. I am looking forward to seeing the offerings on this year’s Gamble Garden Spring Tour. I am very excited to be participating in the Garden Bloggers Fling being held in the Washington DC/Virginia area in late June. I will have the opportunity to tour a number of public and private gardens over several days and get to meet garden bloggers from all parts of the country. I also hope to bring all of you along to a series of classes I am taking at Filoli in Woodside. If you are unfamiliar with Filoli now is the time to check them out at –you will be amazed. There are 16 acres of formal gardens as part of a large country estate established in the early 20th century, a lovely historic home and a full schedule of garden events and education. I will participate in their A Year in the Garden program which includes classroom instruction and hands on experiences in a wide range of horticultural topics. It is always fun to meet gardeners from other areas–no matter the differences in climate or growing conditions we all speak the same language of excitement, enthusiasm and hope that THIS will be our garden’s best year yet!

Every winter’s enduring promise–the Hellebores are almost open!