Color in the Winter Garden

A good practice is to walk through your garden occasionally to see what is succeeding, and what might need changing. It’s rewarding to visit your plants in the spring, but the winter months (now) are when we look for dormant season instances of attractive color, form or fragrance.

In the Monterey Bay area, the dormant season brings nothing like the severe conditions experienced in some other parts of the United States, but our gardens still rest at this time, and might present only limited interest.

It doesn’t have to be that way! There are many plants that can enhance our gardens while other sleep, when we plan for all season interest.

A first step is to take note of plants that are already in your garden, and looking good right now. They might be providing attractive blooms or interesting foliage, taking the center of attention while others have dropped their leaves or died to the ground.

You could supplement the tour of your own garden with a walk through your neighborhood to see what looks good in nearby gardens. That approach automatically identifies plants that would thrive in the climate and soil conditions of your garden. It can also be a good excuse to meet new people, to ask them about their gardens.

My garden, while not a true all-season display, still has several plants that are attractive during the winter months. For example, succulent plants, which have done well during our drought period, can maintain their appearance during dormancy.

I recently renovated a small bed of Mexican succulents, and the plants are looking good. They will produce blossoms later in the year, but the forms and colors or their foliage works well year-round. The recent addition of a large Talavera bowl, recently added, serves to mark the bed’s Mexican theme.

Talavera pottery, offered by many garden stores, is a style of glazed ceramic pottery that dates to the Italian Renaissance. Authentic Talavera items are from the Mexican city of Puebla and nearby communities, but imitations (which includes my own piece) are widely available. Imitations from other parts of Mexico are properly identified as Maiolica, which refers to the decorative style.

Other plants that are starring during the winter include a Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violacea), an Australian native, now covered with small violet flowers; an enormous Candelabra Plant (Aloe Arborescens) from South Africa, blooming later than others in the area, and a favorite, a Variegated Winter Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’), which offers both colorful evergreen foliage and a sweet fragrance that highlights the season.

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

When provided good drainage and afternoon shade, daphnes are reliable performers for years until they suddenly and without apparent cause, give up. An older specimen recently showed arrested development: flower and leaf buds simply didn’t mature for months. After quizzing three knowledgeable friends, without success, I removed the plant (making space for another fuchsia). By this time, I already had three replacement daphnes growing nearby, so I still could enjoy the wafts of fragrance this year.

Prepare now to bring new interest to your garden for next winter with more seasonal bloomers and evergreen foliage, either adding specimens of existing plants that you like or bringing in good performers that you have seen in nearby gardens. Winter gardens can be very pleasing environments.

More

A quick Internet search or a visit to your local library or bookstore could lead to useful lists of winter-blooming plants. For example, one good source of information is Dan Hinkley’s book,  Winter Ornamentals.

Waiting for Organic Pot

A young friend recently took a look at my garden and suggested that I could grow a few marijuana plants for personal use.

I looked into it, out of curiosity.

Long before I searched for sources of seeds or seedlings, or cultivation advice, I learned that, unless I had a genuine medical need for the herb, growing marijuana (Cannabis sativa) in my garden would be illegal. The related regulations at the local, state and federal levels are full of contradictions and different perspectives, and are in flux.

I’ll wait.

Many hundreds of illegal marijuana “grows” exist already in the Monterey Bay area, and thousands in California, including many in California’s “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. The numbers are growing, and it is not difficult to find pot, if one were to be inclined to try it.

Last week, at the 36th annual Eco-Farm Conference, in Pacific Grove, Dr. Andy Gordus of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, described and illustrated the impacts of illegal and therefore unregulated marijuana grows in California. The growers are illegally clearing forest lands, damming streams, digging wells that drain streams that wildlife depend on, polluting waterways and killing wildlife with pesticides, leaving mountains of trash, and otherwise being really bad neighbors.

Marijuana plants, like other plants, are subject to a variety of pests and diseases, and growers use a variety of synthetic agricultural chemicals, including some highly toxic materials that are being smuggled in from Mexico. Such chemicals may be sprayed on growing plants, or applied systemically. Also, because rats and other animals chew through plastic irrigation lines, rat poisons are often used.

Marijuana products may be used by inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through the skin. These diverse forms of use mean that users should ensure that their marijuana does not contain toxic substances. Consumers of marijuana products ideally could rely on the organic label, but at this time there is no such label for these products. Consumers can only rely on trusted sources.

California does not approve any aspect of marijuana cultivation, including pesticides, because it continues to be illegal at the federal level. The federal government also does not recommend pesticides for illegal crops.

In this bizarre environment, California has provided informational guidelines that include a short list of organic pesticides and natural rodenticides that “may be used in and around marijuana cultivation sites consistent with the label.” Visit www.waterboards.ca.gov and search for “Legal Pest Management Practices for Marijuana Growers in California.”

For more information, visit the websites of the Santa Cruz County’s Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee, or Organic Cannabis Growers Society.

For now, I’ll wait.

During four days last week, the Eco-Farm Conference provided updates about a wide range of organic gardening and farming practices, and related state and federal policies. The short story is that organic, sustainable and regenerative gardening is healthy and expanding steadily. I’ll have more to report in future columns.

Labels are Important

Our gardens are mostly dormant during the winter, but government regulators never rest! This column offers a brief update on three current debates over garden-related regulations.

Labeling Foods as Genetically Engineered

Almost all consumers, when responding to surveys, have said they want labels on foods that are based on genetically engineered plants or animals. I wrote about this issue in late spring of 2015: go to ongardening.com to read “GMO Controversy.”

Consumers in several states, including California, have tried to require labels on such foods, but industry groups have argued against the related ballot measures. Vermont succeeded in adopting this labeling requirement, to be effective in July of 2016. Since then, opponents lost their legal challenge of the requirement, and failed to persuade Congress to ban such requirements (the House approved, the Senate didn’t).

Most recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding to pressure4s from both side of the debate, issued “Guidance to Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants.” In brief, the nonbinding recommendations of this Guidance allow voluntary labeling that is truthful and not misleading (as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938).

The FDA is currently accepting comments on its similar draft guidance for labeling genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.

An increasing number of food producers are voluntarily labeling such foods, but the ultimate resolution, a uniform federal requirement, would benefit all parties.

Labeling Foods as “Natural”

FDA, responding to another set of pressures, has requested comments regarding “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products.” The issue becomes more complex than it would seem at first. Long-standing federal policy interprets “natural” food to mean that it contains nothing artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America want to label as “natural” foods derived from genetically engineered plants or animals.

The Consumers Union wants to prohibit the use of “natural” on any food labels, indicating that the large majority of consumers believe “natural” means no use of artificial materials, chemicals, ingredients, colors, toxic pesticides or genetically engineered plants or animals.

Labeling Garden Chemicals as Toxic

The World Health Organization has found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used pesticide RoundUp, is a probable carcinogen to humans. In response, consumer groups have asked California’s Environmental Protection Agency to label RoundUp as a carcinogen. The agency received comments on this action until late October of 2015, and is now considering those comments.

Most recently, the agency is currently receiving comments on proposed changes to clarify existing requirements for “clear and reasonable” warnings of a variety of exposure situations.

Another chemical that is under fire is imidacloprid, one of the neonicotinoid insecticides (called “neonics”) that has been linked to risks to honey bees hives. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved agricultural uses of this chemical, but in response to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, and recent scientific studies by the State of California, has released a “preliminary pollinator risk assessment” that imidacloprid use potentially poses risks to bee hives. This assessment focuses on agricultural crops and does not consider this chemical’s risks to bees when used on ornamental flowering plants!

Chemical companies that produce this chemical insist that bees are not at risk when this company is used correctly.

The EPA is inviting feedback during 60-day comment period. It is continuing assessment of the risks of this chemical and three other neonics, with more findings to be released in December of 2016.

Irrigation for a Small Greenhouse

Another rainy day project in the garden!

Several years ago, with the help of a friend, I installed a greenhouse in a corner of my garden. This is a typical backyard structure, just ten-by-twelve feet, not an expansive “plant factory” like those on the annual open greenhouse event hosted by local nurseries for mostly flowers.

Greenhouse-large

My greenhouse, although small, has ample bench and shelf space for an ambitious program of propagating and maintaining plants. Plants will assume the primary role of growing, and a greenhouse can easily exclude deer and gophers, but operating a greenhouse still requires investments of the gardener’s time for planning, planting, monitoring and controlling climate, diseases and the smaller pests.

Best intentions aside, other priorities can leave the greenhouse unattended. When that has happened to me, my plants have tended to expire.

In addition, my greenhouse developed another problem. I had installed a sprinkling and misting system to irrigate the plants, using an inexpensive battery-operated timer. It worked fine until the battery died when the irrigation valves were open. The timer did not have the power to close the valves, so they ran for days, unobserved. This resulted in soggy plants, a huge water bill and attendance in a water conservation workshop.

I turned off the system in favor of watering by hand, but because the greenhouse is away from the house, it was easy for me to neglect the watering schedule. Except for some succulents, my plants did not do well under that plan. A clear need existed for a reliable automatic irrigation system.

Working with another gardening friend, we are installing such a system, with the longer-term objective of starting seeds, growing new plants to garden-ready size, and maintaining surplus plants for giving to other gardeners. (I could also grow plants for sale, but the small-scale nursery business would seem uneconomic.)

The irrigation system includes a professional grade controller, capable of scheduling four irrigation valves, and two valves plus capped connections for two future valves. Wires running the length of the greenhouse support flexible tubing over plants, which will be on tables or shelves (not on the ground). The tubing will have multiple emitters that will either spray or drip water on the plants. Spray is best for groups of seedlings or small plants while drip is more effective for larger plants.

Some gardening friends use their greenhouses to maintain collections of succulent plants that require warm, dry conditions, or orchids or other tropicals that require warm and moist conditions. Greenhouses in public gardens often focus on one or the other of these plant groups.

When planning a greenhouse for the home garden, a good first step would be to decide which plants are to be grown, and what climate those plants will need: cool/moderate/warm, or dry/tropical. To learn about these options, search the Internet for “types of greenhouses.”

My greenhouse is intended to moderate temperatures, year-round, and to control moisture levels through scheduled spray and drip irrigation. This growing environment will support a wide range of plants, excluding only those that require extreme conditions. Plants that require a winter chill, for example, grow poorly in the coastal Monterey Bay area, whether in a greenhouse or in the ground.

The home gardener can use a greenhouse to extend the growing season, protect against larger pests, and control the environment for either specialty plants or general gardening. Greenhouse management can be an engaging and satisfying form of gardening; it can also be more expensive and time-consuming than conventional gardening. Enter with eyes wide open.

 

Gardening Events – 2016

Let’s survey the gardening events of the New Year. The following list includes recurring, mostly free annual events in the Monterey Bay area. The list includes the currently available date information, and identifies organizers for more details.

I invite readers to provide additions. I will post an updated calendar, suitable for display, on my website.

Winter Quarter

Fungus Fair, Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, www.ffsc.us, January 8, 9 & 10

Scion Exchange, California Rare Fruit Growers, monterey_bay@crfg.org, January 10

Eco-Farm Conference, Ecological Farming Association, https://eco-farm.org/, January 20-23

Solstice Fest, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/ , January 23

Hummingbird Day, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, March 5-6

Phenology Walk, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, January 16

Flower & Garden Show, San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, http://sfgardenshow.com/ , March 16-20

California Naturalist Program, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, begins March 24

Spring Quarter

Plant Sale, UCSC Arboretum, April 9

Plant Sale, California Native Plant Society, April 9

Dahlia Sale, Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, early April

Garden Fair, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, early April

Garden Fair, Santa Cruz Earth Day, April 16

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society April 23-24

Garden Fair & Plant Sale, MEarth, late April

Iris Show, Monterey Bay Iris Society, late April

Plant Sale, Cabrillo College Horticultural Dept., May 8

Garden Tour, St. Phillips Church, early May

Rose Show, Monterey Bay Rose Society, early May

Garden Tour, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, mid-May

Garden Tour, Santa Cruz Baroque Festival, May 22

Consulting Rosarian School, Monterey Bay Rose Society, early June

Greenhouse Open House, Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers, late June

Garden Fair, The Garden Faire, late June

Boot Camp, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, mid-June

Summer Quarter

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Iris Society, August 6 & 13

Plant Show, Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, late August

Succulent Extravaganza, Succulent Gardens, late September

Fall Quarter

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society, October 1-2

Plant Sale, UCSC Arboretum, early October

Plant Sale, California Native Plant Society, early October

Orchid Show, Santa Cruz Orchid Society, mid-November

Adding Unexpected Plants to Your Garden

This column presents a case study of adding an unexpected and unfamiliar plant to one’s garden.

A friend gave me a plant that had outgrown its container, and no longer had a place in its previous home. My friend didn’t have a name for the plant, but a neighbor’s garden has a related species: the photo shows much longer leaves than my gift plant, and the potential to grow rather large.

Dyckia

I had never grown a plant like this one, so I was immediately interested. Here is a suggested intake process.

First, inspect the plant visually to check that it is healthy and free of disease or pests. This plant had some dieback from normal aging and outgrowing a large container, but otherwise looked healthy. I gladly accepted the gift.

Identification should be the next priority. I had seen this plant in four-inch pots, and knew it as a Dyckia, but learning the genus and species of a new plant can be challenging. This plant doesn’t appear in Sunset’s Western Garden Book, a convenient reference. In such cases, asking other gardeners or garden center staff can be the best strategy.

Then, examine the plant’s size and characteristics. This Dyckia develops several rosettes eight-to-twelve inches in diameter. Each rosette is comprised of many thin leaves up to eight inches long, with very sharp terminal spines and numerous sharp teeth on both sides. (My neighbor’s magnificent Dyckia has leaves up to two feet long!) The plant is attractive, but neither welcoming nor easily handled!

Considering both this plant’s mature size and hazards, I concluded that it should be should be three feet from any walkway, but still close enough to appreciate its intricate leaf structure.

Also, it should not be under a tree, as it would be difficult to groom dropped leaves from the Dykia’s spiny cluster.

Then, learning about the plant’s cultivation needs will guide planting and future care. An Internet search for “Dyckia” brought me these websites: Wikipedia; Bromeliad Society of Houston; Yucco Do Nursery; Annie’s Magic Garden; and Dyckia Brazil.

Dyckias, I learned, are native to Brazil, members of the Bromeliad family, and related to pineapples (Ananas comosus), Puyas, Tellandsias, and Bilbergias. There are some 158 species of Dyckias.

After comparing my specimen’s appearance with others on the Internet, I concluded that it is D. fosteriana, which is a popular species. This plant hybridizes easily in nature and in human hands, so many cultivars are available. Confident identification requires a specialist.

The Dyckia lacks internal water storage tissue, so it’s not a true succulent, but it will go dormant in response to a lack of moisture. It prefers full sun but will manage partial shade, and has exceptional tolerance for freezing weather. It is pest-free, although snails will nibble at tender flower shoots. Generally, the Dyckia is a sturdy and trouble-free plant.

Dyckias reportedly do not like transplanting during the winter, but I proceeded still to separate and pot up six offsets (”pups”) for gifts to others, and to put my new plant in the ground. I’ll learn how well it responds.

My garden lacks a bed for Brazilian plants. I accommodated this unusual new plant by redefining my existing Chilean bed as Chilean/South American.

Avid gardeners should welcome unexpected, unusual and attractive gifts to their gardens. A systematic process can help to place the plant well and to provide the care needed for its success. New plants are gardening adventures!

Twelve Ways to “Plant-Mass”

An important guideline for amassing plants in your garden is to plant when seasonal rains will water the plants as the establish roots and prepare for blooming in the spring. So, a good time to add plants to your garden (or to find a late gift) is right now.

Here are twelve ways to succeed in that enterprise.

  1. Plan to fill an existing space in the garden. Impulsively buying plants that catch your eye in the garden center can result in specimens that are too large or too small for spaces that need filling, or won’t complement plants next to those spaces.
  2. Focus on plants that will add to your landscape style or theme. There are many alternatives to randomness in garden design. An explicit theme or style in your garden provides direction in the hunt for new plants, and adds coherence to the look of the garden.
  3. Choose plants that will thrive in your garden’s environment. Most important is your U.S. Dept. of Agriculture climate zone, but also consider elevation, sun exposure and soil type.

    Crassula argenta

    Jade Plant (Crassula argenta) in a one-gallon nursery can

  4. Select plants of an appropriate size for the spot where they will grow. A common error is to install a plant that will outgrow its location.
  5. Look for plants that are pest resistant. With fuchsias, for example, a good choice would be a variety been bred to resist the Fuchsia Gall Mite (Aculops fuchsiae), a pest that’s difficult to control.
  6. The logical corollary is to examine plants that you might buy to check for any evidence of “livestock.” The symptoms (e.g., chewed leaves, creepy-crawlers or their eggs on the underside of leaves) are usually unmistakable, but if you have any uncertainty, choose a plant that’s symptom-free.
  7. Similarly, look for plants that are disease resistant. Several varieties of roses are both beautiful and resistant to powdery mildew and black spot. Why would you want to struggle with those diseases?
  8. Again, before buying a plant, check for any sign of disease, or anything other than good health. Garden centers screen their plants diligently, to protect customers and their own reputations, but problems can be missed. This is most possible with amateur plant sales.
  9. More and more, gardeners prefer plants that are free of toxic synthetic chemicals. Growers are beginning to label plants that have been grown without the use of neonicotinoids (“neonics”), for example, which appear to be harmful to bees. If the label doesn’t give assurance, ask!
  10. To minimize your plant-buying expense, favor the garden center’s smaller plants. They should be well rooted, rather than freshly transplanted. In your garden, they will grow quickly to reach the size of more expensive plants.
  11. On the other hand, to achieve an immediate effect, favor the larger plants. You will be paying the nursery for caring for the plant for months or even years, but the results may be worth the cost. An added benefit is seeing a well-grown plant’s structure.
  12. Before buying a plant, especially one that fills its container more than others, check for healthy roots. Gently pull the plant from its container to examine roots for healthy color (usually white) and ample space in the container. Plants left too long in a container become root-bound, which can hamper their growth. On the other hand, such plants often could be divided into two or more for the price of one.

 

Gardening Indoors During Rains

We have entered into a fairly normal rainy season, apparently, and we are expecting extraordinary rainfalls, beginning in a few weeks. Avid gardeners will need ways to enjoy their horticultural pursuits without getting wet.

One form of indoor gardening involves surfing the Internet for interesting and informative websites about plants, landscaping and related topics.

There are many websites that meet this broad standard. A web search for “garden” yields 1,570,000,000 URLs to consider. In this universe, it would be tempting to list 50 or 100 websites for gardeners, I have just three to suggest as worth visiting.

DIRTIER….The Every-So-Often Garden Memoir

This individual effort reflects the Dianne Benson’s enthusiasm and hands-on knowledge of style in gardening, drawing on the principles of fashion: form, pattern, shape, color, textures and layers. The author’s commercial website includes this blog, which presents her observations and comments in a well-designed, one-window scroll, illustrated with personal snapshots. The result is a low-key wander through Dianne B.’s most recent gardening adventures in East Hampton, which is on the south shore of New York’s Long Island. Gardening practices must relate to the garden’s location, but the appreciation of gardens and gardening is universal.dianneb

Dianne B., from www.diannebbest.com

Peony’s Envy

I remember the peonies in my mother’s garden, and the ants that crawled over the flower buds in search of nectar. Peony blossoms are among the most appealing of all flowers, and this website presents them very nicely. The website is beautiful, very well designed and clear in its helpful advice on peony varieties and cultivation. Browse through the site’s major sections—Peony Care, Plan a Garden, and Bloom Sequence—and you’ll soon be well-informed and ready to add peonies to your landscape.

My garden includes a couple tree peonies and a couple intersectionals, which are created by crossing a herbaceous peony and a tree peony. Herbaceous peonies, which are also gorgeous, need more winter chill that the Monterey Bay area provides.

IMG_3073

Tree Peonies, from www.peonysenvy.com

Pinterest

Pinterest is a photo-sharing website described as a “catalog of ideas,” rather than as a social network, that inspires users to “go out and do that thing.” The site is a vast trove of snapshots provided by a large number of participants with ideas to share.

The site includes photos on many, many topics, including images about gardening and landscaping. The casual user should enter this site with a strategy in mind to avoid getting entangled in its temptations, which could consume your otherwise productive time before you realize you’ve been caught. When you have a specific topic to explore, enter it in the search window at the top of the Pinterest home page and see what pops up. Try a particular category of plant, e.g., rose, dahlia, orchid, succulent, or a topic, e.g., pruning, garden irrigation, propagation.

We should still have cold and sunny days between spells of rain, but when the rains come, the Internet has much to offer to keep your gardening spirit in vigorous growth.

Dormant Season Projects

The dormant season does not have an official beginning to mark on a calendar, but depends on a combination of factors, beginning with the individual plant’s biological clock, with which the plant responds to day-lengths.

Another important environmental factor is temperature: lower temperatures trigger dormancy, and higher temperatures can stimulate growth. Climate change has modified the annual cycles and geographic distribution of many plants, and will continue such changes. Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events

Rather than delving into the science of dormancy, let’s consider seasonal projects for the gardener. There are many priorities to schedule over the next few months.

Pruning

As the leaves fall, and the “bones” of your trees and shrubs are exposed, look for ways to improve them through pruning. In general, use sharp tools, begin by removing branches that are broken or diseased, and don’t remove more than one-third of the canopy in one year. As is often true in gardening, there are exceptions: for some shrubs, severe or renewal pruning is appropriate. Extensive pruning of roses, for example, stimulates new growth and abundant blossoms. Several other multi-branched shrubs, e.g., salvias, can be cut to their primary structure or to near the ground before spring growth emerges.

Many gardeners are hesitant about pruning, concerned that they could hurt their plants. Pruning can be done badly so a little time with a pruning book would be instructive. The positive perspective is that pruning improves a plant’s form and stimulates new growth.

pruning fig 1

Pruning during the dormant season

The photo is from the University of California publication, Pruning Small Trees and Shrubs, which is available free online.

A good approach includes observing pruning’s effects during the early spring.

Other Projects

  • Walk through the garden with a critical eye, to spot opportunities for improvement.
  • Transplant or give away plants that have grown too large, or not working in the landscape.
  • Install new plants now, to let the rains irrigate them as they establish roots.
  • Add mulch to cover any bare ground between plants.
  • Plant a cover crop in any fallow planting area.
  • Force a bulbous plant to bloom indoors. Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) are popular, but are so strongly fragrant that restraint can be prudent, i.e., don’t grow a lot.
  • Sharpen your garden tools, or have them sharpened professionally.

Mark your Calendar for the New Year

January 8, 9 & 10 — The 42nd Annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair, at Loudon Nelson Community Center, Santa Cruz

January 10 — Annual Scion Exchange, Monterey Bay Chapter, California Rare Fruit Growers, at Cabrillo College, Aptos

Late News: Broom versus Leaf Blower Challenge!

The broom versus leaf blower challenge between Ken Foster (on the broom) and Brent Adams (on the leaf blower) will take place Friday December 11th at high noon next to the Westside New Leaf Community Market, at the corner of Fair Avenue and Ingalls Street in Santa Cruz.

Gasoline-powered leaf blowers pollute our environment, disturb our peace, and change our climate. They might be justified for their seeming efficiency, but that too has been questioned. The Broom versus Leaf Blower Challenge, designed as a fair completion, is worth witnessing (sorry about the late announcement). I’ll report the results in next week’s column.

Rethinking a Planting Bed

There are a few reasons for a gardener to re-think a planting bed: inspiration for a new approach, boredom with the old approach, overgrown plants (and an invasion of weeds), or a desire to improve the aesthetics.

For one of the beds in my garden, I have the urge to edit the existing plants to satisfy to a thematic concept: Mexican Succulents.

At least ten years ago, I established this bed, which is not large (almost forty square feet) but prominently located in the garden. An edge of larger stones supports a raised planting area, which is ideal for succulent plants. Over time, I installed a variety of succulent plants.

When I look at this bed now, the mix of plants leaves me uneasy. During the intervening years, I have become interested in thematic collections of plants, with an emphasis on county of origin. From that perspective, this bed was a horticultural hodge-podge.

For some gardeners, that reaction might suggest an unhealthy obsession with order, but that’s OK. It’s my garden and I can do what I want.

This concern, which has been lurking in the background for a while, was activated recently by two events. First, at a meeting of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, I attended a presentation on Agaves, a southern California succulent. Then, a friend gave me an Agave parryi (Mescal Agave), which is also from southern California and northern Mexico.

I already knew most of the plants in this bed were Mexican or southern Californian, the featured plant being a Dasylirion wheeleri, also called a Desert Spoon.

Dasylirion wheeleri

Dasylirion wheeleri, a succulent plant from Mexico, with a large South African succulent, an Aloe arborescens, in the upper left background.

My concept of “Mexican Succulents” includes southern California, because plants don’t recognize political boundaries, and besides, historically, Mexico included what we now know as southern California.

My first step toward that objective was to inventory the existing plants, to determine which should be relocated. I identified plants from South Africa: Crassula tetragona (Miniature pine Tree), Crassula argentea (Jade Plant), and an enormous Aloe arborescens (Torch Aloe), which has been screening my compost bins.

I also found plants from the Europe and the Mediterranean basin: a self-seeding Euphorbia characias wulfenii (Mediterranean Spurge), a few unidentified plants: Sedums, Sempervivum, and Aeonium.

The task, then, is to move the South African succulents to another bed that already has that theme and to move the others to the bed for Mediterranean Basin plants. The biggest challenge will be to remove the South African Torch Aloe, which needs a larger space than is available elsewhere in the garden, and to find another screen for the compost bins. Aloes are hard to kill, so I could give away cuttings at the curb for other gardeners.

Then, I could assess the newly dedicated bed for Mexican Succulents and begin filling in the empty spaces with new plants, beginning with my one Agave parryi. I probably will avoid collecting agaves because they have sharp terminal spines, are monocarpic (they die after flowering), and produce lots of offsets (pups). There are many other Mexican succulents to explore.

A good practice is to tour your garden occasionally to consider if a bed could be improved by editing the plants, or starting over entirely. It’s best to focus on a limited area, rather than taking on the entire garden at one time. Renewing a planting bed should be a creative exercise and could lead you into a new area of gardening.