Controlling a Garden Thug

I recently described the Alstroemeria, a Chilean plant, as an example of a passalong plant, one that is desirable and also prolific in growth.

I also mentioned that this plant “produces large numbers of tubers, so many that it can be difficult to dig into a long-established bed.”

Since then, I have confronted such a bed in my garden.

Alstroemeria

A Cluster of Alstroemeria (click to enlarge)

The Peruvian Lilies (the common name for Alstroemeria) had overwhelmed a border of Avens (Geum chiloense), smaller plants in the Rose family, which are also native to Chile.

Two Aven cultivars, ‘Lady Stratheden’, with rich yellow blossoms, and ‘Mrs J. Bradshaw’, with rich scarlet blossoms, have earned by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Over a few years of growth, the Astroemerias had taken over a ten by ten-foot bed. Their tall flower stems had flopped into the garden path, and their tubers had spread under an edging of Sonoma fieldstones.

This is a plant that has much to offer but needs controlling.

As it happened just then, my gardener brought a new assistant, a strong young fellow with gardening experience and a pressing need to be gainfully employed. Perfect!

He made short work of the Alstroemeria bed. Rather than being tentative, I asked him to dig the plants out entirely. I intended to have him reshape the bed, and then replant a few tubers in the spirit of starting over.

There were two varieties of Alstroemeria in the bed: pink (shown in the photo) and apricot. Red, orange, purple, green, and white varieties are also available, with some searching. My helper dug out the pink-flowered plants and left the apricot varieties, which were located apart and not yet causing problems.

This work filled a large green waste cart with foliage, and four garden tubs with tubers! A dozen or more lunch bags filled with washed tubers were snapped up quickly from the Garden Exchange’s giveaway booth at the Garden Faire. The plant will be able to pursue its destiny in several other gardens.

The garden bed appeared to be Alstroemeria-free and ready for a fresh start, but a quick examination discovered a significant number of loose tubers lurking in the bed. Only tedious sifting of the soil might banish this plant from the area.

Assuming a positive attitude, we concluded that this is really an attractive plant after all, and the loose tubers made replanting unnecessary. The tubers surely will sprout in the near future so ongoing control involves plucking out seedlings that appear in the wrong places.

Being something of a “garden thug,” the Peruvian Lily has been recognized as a garden-worthy plant. The Royal Horticultural Society had given its Award of Merit to several cultivars: ‘Apollo’, ‘Coronet’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Orange Gem’, ‘Orange Glory’, and ‘Yellow Friendship’.

The lesson learned from this experience is that some plants, like some people, require more attention than others.

Landscape Uses of Plant Containers

Plant containers are popular as decorative elements in the garden. A well-placed large pot can provide a focal point, and a strategically arranged series of pots can lead the eye throughout a planned tour through the garden.

The color of a container can also contribute to the aesthetic of landscape by complementing plants in or near the container or by creating a visual exclamation point in a primarily green environment. Many containers in the garden marketplace are neutral in color, but bright hues are readily available as well, and color patterns have been appearing in recent years.

Containers provide familiar artistic forms in the garden, and can also support plant growth. Empty containers can stand alone as artworks, as well. Containers of all sizes can function like sculptures at more affordable prices.

Gardeners also experiment with other low-cost alternatives to sculptures: bowling balls, wine bottle trees, farm equipment, and porcelain accessories of the home have been striking and even unforgettable sights in some gardens.

A novel use of plant containers could be as elements of a thematic landscape.

In these columns, I have from time to time advocated a thematic approach to garden design. Many possible themes could provide an identity for some or all of a garden, and thereby support a rationale for plant selection.

Garden themes oriented to a single plant genus, e.g., roses, irises, dahlias, are quite familiar. Other themes emphasize a color combination, or one color, like the historic white garden of England’s Sissinghurst Castle.

My garden has several thematic beds. The largest beds are dedicated to each of the world’s five summer-dry climates: the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, southwestern coast of Australia, the central coast of Chile, and coastal California.

These beds might need to be identified for visitors, because most will not immediately recognize the origins of plants. I have considered placing an identifying sign in each bed, but would rather avoid that institutional look.

Another method for identifying a geographically defined bed might be to place in the bed a large container from that part of the world. Assuming that the visitor will recognize the container’s country of origin, it might serve to identify the bed.

To date, that idea has succeeded in exactly one instance. A Talavera pot now marks a bed of succulent plants from Mexico, which is not one of the world’s summer-dry climates.

The accompanying photo shows this pot with a young specimen of Agave applanata ‘Cream Spike’, from Mexico.

Cream Spike Agave

Many garden centers have at least a few Talavera pots. Authentic Talavera pottery comes only from the very old city of Puebla, in southeastern Mexico, but many products come from other sources. Regardless of authenticity, Talavera pottery is strongly associated with Mexico.

A fairly good marker for the bed of plants from the Mediterranean basin is a terra cotta container that suggests a Mediterranean style, confirmed by an image search of the Internet. The casual visitor, however, might find its message to be ambiguous.

Garden centers offer a good variety of plant containers, but few refer clearly to a country of origin. For example, the city of Pomaire, south of Santiago, is famous for its pottery, but when taken out of context, the pots do not identify as Chilean.

My search for thematic plant containers has yielded information about the world’s pottery traditions, and concluded that there is no good substitute for a sign. My next step is to try hanging clay nameplates on the pots. I’ll report on that approach in a future column.

Gardening can lead us in unexpected directions!

Rediscovering Eco-cultural Gardening

Gardening is a very old activity. The word “garden” has its roots in an Old English term meaning “fence” or “enclosure,” and the earliest enclosed outdoor space discovered was created about 12,000 years ago.

We are still learning about gardening.

More accurately, we are rediscovering ideas that earlier gardeners understood thousands of years ago.

One of the earliest ideas, evidently, was that a fence keeps some hungry animals from the vegetables and (later) from the flowers.

The most basic principle for successful gardening is compatibility with Nature. We are advised occasionally that humans developed instinctive behaviors, e.g., Fight or Flight, at an early stage of our history, and evolved to thrive with a diet that consisted of a combination of foods that grew naturally in our local environment.

By the same token, plants and animals evolved over long periods to thrive in specific regions, together with each other. As a result of this co-evolution, we have interdependence between plants and animals that grow naturally within a specific environment. We even have interdependence between those plants and animals and certain aspects of the environment itself.

Ancient civilizations that understood these relationships intuitively gardened—and lived—in harmony with Nature. “Eco-culture” is today’s buzzword for the connection between ecological and cultural practices.

Some aspects of the environment appear not to interact with the plants and animals: the weather, elevation, and sunlight operate under their own rules, but the soil microbiota has close relationships with the flora and fauna.

Gardening is easiest and most successful when we recognize and respect these natural relationships. Good practices include gardening organically and growing plants that are native to the local environment.

The more recent history of gardening, however, has included many attempts to rewrite Nature’s rulebook. For example, as people traveled the globe, they added plants from exotic environments to their gardens and developed adaptive practices, including irrigation systems, greenhouses, and indoor gardening.

Also, as gardeners desired plants that would grow faster or larger, taste better, or look better, they developed hybridizing methods, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Such departures from Nature’s ways are often successful in achieving certain objectives, but they often have negative consequences, as well.

The clearest downside of attempts to “fool Mother Nature” is that gardening requires more time, energy and expense. If you find gardening to be burdensome, try converting to plants that are native to your environment.

When large-scale, commercial gardening (“agriculture”) adopts new technologies, the disruptions of Nature’s processes also grow larger in scale. Widespread applications of synthetic agricultural chemicals are damaging the soil biota, are poisoning the soil, killing birds, bees and butterflies, contributing to climate change and threatening our health.

Historically, ecological traumas began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated in the 1940’s (with at the start of World War II), particularly in uses of synthetic chemicals.

Today, a growing number of non-profit organizations are sounding alarms about these practices and advocating alignment with Nature’s ways. Consumers increasingly demand organic foods, and intuitively resist genetically engineering foods. These groups and individual gardeners are rediscovering eco-cultural gardening.

Our roots are showing!

More to come: links to consumer-oriented non-profit groups related to eco-cultural gardening.

Here’s a related article (with an inappropriate title), “The dirty little secrets of a Native American garden,” from the San Francisco Examiner.

A Not-to-Miss Event

As we enjoy the final days of winter, warmly, we begin thoughts of the arrival of spring and the reemergence of our gardens. With exquisite timing, the annual San Francisco Flower & Garden Show brings the season into focus and offers an unparalleled array of inspiration, information and products to help avid gardeners to launch the year’s gardening activities.

The SF Show began over thirty years ago as a fundraiser for the San Francisco Friends of Recreation and Parks, and soon evolved into a commercial event that features landscape designers, speakers on numerous topics in gardening, and exhibitors of plants and a wide range of garden products.

The Show ranks as one of the nation’s three largest annual events devoted to gardening and landscaping. The others are the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, which was held in mid-February in Seattle, and the Philadelphia Flower Show, which will be held March 5–13. Since 1829, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has sponsored the Philadelphia Show as a fundraiser.

The world’s most significant competitor to these three garden shows is the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, to be held May 24–28, 2016, at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (near London).

This brief survey of major garden shows indicates that the SF Show amounts to a major event for gardeners of the west coast, and a great and accessible resource for gardeners of the Monterey Bay area.

This year’s SF Show will include 125 free seminars by gardening experts who have been selected as effective speakers. The seminar speakers and schedule is available on the SF Show’s website. The seminars are scheduled in five different stages within the San Mateo Event Center, so your attendance requires a little planning.

The Show also includes over 200 exhibitors in the Plant Market and The Marketplace. If you need any new plants or tools or garden art, you are likely to find them at the SF Show. One of the favorite exhibits is the large display by Succulent Gardens, from near Moss Landing. Early word is that this booth will be larger than ever, in response to enthusiastic collectors of succulent plants.

I will bring a couple mail order catalogs of garden plants and supplies for reference in evaluating prices at the SF Show. The prices are reasonable, I believe, but I always appreciate bargains.

The highlight for many visitors will be the Showcase Gardens, which will include nine full-size garden displays of the talents of landscape designers and craftsmen from northern California. The gardens often dazzle visitors by providing elaborate presentations of beautiful plants, stunning settings and unique concepts. These gardens present thematic designs that incorporate many ideas that can be adapted for your own garden. The designers of course will welcome new clients, and most will also be on hand to answers visitors’ question.

A day at the SF Show is really close by, not expensive, and an exceptional opportunity to bring gardening ideas and riches back home. It should be on your calendar.

If You Go

What: San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

When: March 16–20, 2016

Where: San Mateo Event Center

Info: http://sfgardenshow.com/

Drama for the Landscape

 

One of the most spectacular plants from South Africa, in exuberant bloom at this time of the year, is Aloe arborescens. It can be seen throughout the Monterey Bay area, occasionally having spread into impressively large clusters of plants.

The specific name means “tree-like,” because the plant can grow to close to ten feet high. Structurally, the plant consists of several branches, each of which ends in a rosette of leaves edged with small spikes. Each rosette can generate several flower stalks that produce cylindrical inflorescences (racemes). The individual flowers, typically a bright orange-red, are tubular and attractive to hummingbirds. The clusters of flowers resemble the flame of a torch, leading to the plant’s common name: Torch Aloe.

DSCF0022 DSCF0023 DSCF0024 DSCF0025

Several years ago, I planted my first specimen of this succulent plant, a single rosette, in a well-drained bed. It grew rapidly and extended runners (stolons) that produced new plants, ready to take over the bed. Not knowing its full growth potential, but realizing that it was too productive for that small bed, I shovel-pruned it, replanted three rosettes in front of a nearby compost bin, and placed most of the rest in the bin.

The replanted rosettes grew readily into a dramatic presence in my garden, and also shielded the compost bin from view.

A. arborescens is related to A. vera, a smaller, more familiar South African native that is popular for its ornamental, cosmetic and medicinal values: its juices reportedly have rejuvenating, healing, or soothing properties.

The Torch Aloe also reportedly has value in promoting good health. Some people advocate a drink made from the pureed whole raw A. arborescens leaf, unheated raw honey and 1% certified organic alcohol. This drink is claimed to support immunity from a range of diseases and provide general cleansing for the whole body. It is reported to be “bitter, but unctuous and savoury as well, thanks to the honey.”

I have plenty of leaves but have not tried the drink. This is not a testimonial.

A. arborescens is one of about 500 species of the genus Aloe, which includes natives of South Africa, tropical Africa, Madagascar, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula and some islands in the Indian Ocean. Many grow well in the summer-dry climate of the Monterey Bay area. Most species, unlike A. arborescens, are stemless: the rosettes grow directly on the ground.

A smaller, yellow-flowered variant, called Golden Torch Aloe (A. arborescens lutea), can be found in limited numbers.

Another yellow-flowered form, Yellow Aloe, was discovered in a private garden in Santa Barbara. This plant might be a variant of A. arborescens, a hybrid with another species, or an entirely different species: A. mutabilis, which has red flower buds that mature into yellow.

Aloe arborescens can be an attractive and interesting addition to a landscape that has sufficient space.

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.

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.

 

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.