Adventuresome Gardening

Regular readers of this column know of my interest in plants from the world’s summer-dry climates, also called the Mediterranean Basin regions. Many plants from these exotic regions will thrive in the Monterey Bay area, and provide attractive and exciting alternatives to the garden center’s humdrum horticulture. Cultivating such plants is the enterprise of adventuresome gardeners and seekers of botanical thrills.

There are countless examples of such plants to be discovered among the selections of mail-order nurseries, either in published catalogs or online. To be fair, local garden centers also might have a few offbeat offerings; it’s worth asking the staff to mention any unusual plants.

One candidate for a featured position in the landscape is the Puya, which is one of about fifty-seven genera in the Bromeliad family. Just about all bromeliads are native to the tropical Americas. About half of the species are epiphytes (growing on air and rain), some are lithophytes (growing on rocks), and the rest are terrestrial (growing on earth). The most familiar of the terrestrial bromeliads is the pineapple (Ananas comosus).

Another terrestrial bromeliad is the Puya. This genus includes about 210 species, several of which are native to Chile, where they have the common name chagual.

One of the Chilean Puyas is the Blue (or Turquoise) Puya (P. berteroniana). This plant grows a flower spike about six-to-ten feet tall, and has exceptional landscape value because of its extraordinary 1.5” waxy, metallic blooms of an unearthly emerald-turquoise color, with contrasting bright orange stamens. The blooms hold blue, syrupy nectar that attracts hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators.

Puya berteronianas

The Blue Puya can be found in some public gardens. I viewed several fine specimens, and took this photo, about one year ago, in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, in Canberra.

Locally, the Blue Puya is in bloom now at the UCSC Arboretum. The blooms do not last long, so to see one of nature’s most extraordinary flowers, visit the UCSC Arboretum soon. For information and pictures, visit and click on “What’s Blooming.”

The Chilean bed in my garden includes two quite young examples of this genus: a Blue Puya (P. berteroniana) and a Silver Puya (P. coerulea). These are slow-growing plants, now years away from blossoming in my garden. While they are not yet pleasing my eyes, they are already trying my patience (a little) and piquing my imagination.

Annie’s Annuals lists nine Puya species, but current availability includes just three. Similarly, the wholesale nursery San Marcos Growers lists eight Puya species, with just three currently in production. Your local garden center could special-order plants from these nurseries, or another preferred source. Search the Internet by botanical name for information to share with garden visitors.

You certainly can keep your garden’s tried and true selections, but consider adding exotic plants to enrich your landscape.

Landscaping with Succulents

As we await El Niño rains, the Monterey Bay area’s familiar rainy season is already late in starting, and we feel the pull of long-term perspectives on gardening.

Let’s consider landscaping with succulents plants, which are gaining appeal for their interesting foliage forms and colors, ease of cultivation and propagation and of course drought tolerance.

Many succulent plants can hold their own in the garden as specimens or aesthetic statements, but when we group several plants, they relate to one another in various ways and we have a landscape, either by design or by chance.

Tiered Succulent Display

Tiered Display of Succulents in Sidney, Australia

Landscaping by chance is often popular, but with a little planning, gardeners can succeed with more deliberate methods.

Designing with plants involves individual preferences and styles, which we always respect. There are, however, a few broad guidelines to consider.

The first of these is “taller plants in back,” which is about visibility. Take the time to learn the mature height of each plant. Here is information sheet from succulent expert Debra Lee Baldwin, listing popular succulent plants by height: Instant Gardens.

Another organizing guideline is to group plants by their watering needs. This technique, called hydrozoning, works with nature (always a good idea!) and makes garden maintenance easier.

Using this technique requires knowing the watering needs of the succulent plants in your landscape. All succulent plants need some water, particularly during their growth periods. They need much less during dormancy.

The two broad categories of succulent plants are the “winter dormant,” i.e., plants that grow during the spring and summer, and the “summer dormant,” i.e., those that grow mostly during the fall through early spring. Here is a link to winter dormant and summer dormant succulent plants.

The landscape designer also could group plants by county of origin. Such grouping is a step toward creating plant communities, which are combinations of plants that are found in natural settings. Such combinations reflect the plants’ common needs for soil, exposure, climate and other factors. Gardening in this way involves detailed cultivation methods. Grouping plants by country of origin is relatively easy, while respecting nature and developing an interesting landscape. The avid gardener can discover a plant’s country of origin from some books and plant labels, or by entering the plant’s botanical name in

Finally, consider combining succulent plants with grasses, which are another category of drought-tolerant plants. Grasses typically respond to severely dry conditions by going dormant, rather than by storing moisture, and grass-succulent combinations are seen in natural settings. The benefit of combining succulents and grasses is primarily in the aesthetic effect of contrasting the succulent’s fleshiness with the grass’s wispiness. To learn more about grasses, see the book, The American Meadow Garden (2009), by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt.

For more comprehensive guidance, Debra Lee Baldwin’s book, Designing with Succulents (2007), provides inspiring ideas for planning your own succulent garden area.

Preparing for long-term water shortages certainly includes defensive strategies, but your preparations can include landscaping with succulents as an absorbing and creative exercise.

The Ageless Aeonium

Today, we introduce the genus Aeonium, which includes 35 species, most of which are from the Canary Islands, northeast of Africa.

These plants are characterized by the development of rosettes of leaves on basal stems, i.e., stems that rise from the plant’s roots.

The generic name, Aeonium, comes from an ancient Greek word that means “ageless.” In fact, for most species, the rosettes die after producing a flower, although the entire plant lives. A few species are monocarpic, meaning that they produce a single rosette without a stem, and then the entire plant dies.

Popular Cultivars

  1. A. ‘Zwartcop’ (Black Rose), a cultivar of A. arboretum, develops rosettes with very dark reddish-purple, almost black leaves, on stems that can rise to four feet. This plant produces effective displays in the landscape or in a mixed container, especially when contrasted with yellow flowers like those of the plant’s own blossoms.
  2. A. ‘Sunburst’ (Copper Pinwheel), a cultivar of A. davidbramwellii, is a variegated form, with large rosettes with variegated green and white leaves edged in bright, coppery red. The stalks rise up to 18 inches. ‘Sunburst’, like other variegated plants, can provide pleasing contrast in the garden.

Aeonium 'Sunburst' best

  1. 3. A. nobile (Noble Aeonium) produces a single, stemless rosette up to nearly two feet in diameter, making it entirely distinctive among the aeoniums. The leaves are yellowish, with a reddish edge when grown in bright light. This is one of the monocarpic aeoniums: it dies after producing its reddish blossoms.
  2. A. tabuliforme (Saucer Plant, Dinner Plate Plant) is another monocarpic aeonium that provides a single, unique, nearly flat stemless rosette.


Aeoniums will be dormant during the summer months and resume growing in the early autumn.

They are very easy to grow in containers, where they flourish with their shallow roots and occasional watering. Use a normal potting soil, rather than a fast-draining cactus mix. In the Monterey Bay area, they prefer bright morning sun and afternoon shade. Fertilize only when the leaves become yellowish, indicating nitrogen deficiency. Too much fertilizer will promote too-rapid growth and weak stems.

When grown in the garden in this area, aeoniums require little care. As with container plants, avoid very rich soil and fertilizers.


All aeonium species and hybrids can be propagated from seeds, but most are propagated easily from stem cuttings. This might be done to produce additional plants or to bring a rangy plant into a more compact form. During the plant’s normal growth period, from autumn to mid-spring, cut a rosette with up to five inches of stem (shorter for smaller, shrub-like forms) and place in a cool shady place for at least three days, to heal over. Then, place the cutting in a normal potting mix, in a small container, and in a shaded, windless location to reduce moisture loss. After the plant has established roots, place in a container or in the garden.

The monocarpic species are not propagated from stem cuttings, but from leaf cuttings, which are more successful with A. tabuliforme than with A. nobilis.

Aeoniums are drought-tolerant plants that are easy to cultivate and interesting additions to the garden.

Water Storage Tricks

With our persistent drought, and the possibility that it signals a long-term change in our climate, gardeners are becoming interested in succulent plants. They warrant a closer look.

All plants store moisture in various parts of their anatomy. Succulent plants store more moisture than plants in general, having adapted to surviving in areas of irregular rainfall.

Succulence is a characteristic of plants, rather than a taxonomic category. As a result, identifying succulent plants can be an arbitrary exercise. For example, some gardeners will group succulents apart from geophytes and cacti, although both store moisture. That’s OK, because “succulent” is not a formal definition, but it’s still appropriate to think of geophytes and cacti as good at storing moisture.

Succulents are found in about sixty plant families, and a wide range of genera within those families.

One unusual group of succulent plant is the caudiciforms, which store moisture in a caudex, which is a woody stem structure that typically develops just under the surface of the soil. Gardeners who enjoy growing these caudiciforms in containers often adjust them to display the caudex above (or partially above) the soil surface. The caudex, also called a “lignotuber,” is not attractive in the conventional sense, but by any name it is an ingenious adaptation of the plant to unreliable moisture conditions.

My garden includes two caudiciform plants. One is a Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvate), from Mexico, which is not really a palm. The cultivation advice for this plant is to never water. This might seem harsh, especially for gardeners who equate watering regularly with nurturing the plant, but it indicates that the plant is epiphytic, meaning that it derives moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris that accumulates around it.

Ponytail Palm

Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvate). Click to enlarge the photo, and make more visible the caudex at the base of the plant.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 8.30.44 PMMy other caudiciform plant is a Beautiful Serpent (Agapetes serpens), which is from the Himalayan mountain range north of India. It is in the Ericaceae (Heath) family. The plant’s specific name refers to the snaky growth of its stems, but its blossoms are more distinctive, in my view.


I have not seen the common name, Beautiful Serpent, online, but that’s what I call this plant.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 8.31.19 PMMy plant is A. ‘Ludgvan Cross’, which is a cross of A. serpens and A. rugosa, both from the Himalayas. This hybrid has distinctive chevron markings on the blossoms.


Both photos of Agapetes serpens are from Strange Wonderful Things: Rare and Exotic Plants which is a fine website for gardeners to visit.

I found this rather rare (or at least uncommon) plant in a local garden center, then found online cultivation advice that emphasized bright but cool conditions, with protection from the afternoon sun. This seemed appropriate for a plant from the Himalayas, so I put in a container of about 1.5-gallon size, filled with good potting soil, placed the pot in a bright shade location, and watered it regularly.

The plant grew well enough, but has produced few stems and blossoms, compared to photos I have seen online. It didn’t seem happy.

With a bit more research, I learned for the first time that this plant is a caudiciform. The caudex is below soil level, so this was a surprise. Then with further research, I learned that it is also epiphytic! This is a game-changer.

Not all caudiciform plants are epiphytic, but they use available moisture very efficiently, so irrigation should at least be limited.

My cultivation plan for this plant now involves keeping it in the same bright shade location, and discontinuing irrigation. Reportedly, it prefers humid conditions, so I might mist it occasionally.

The first takeaway from my experience with this plant is to find more than one source of information on unusual plants that you bring to your garden. The Internet holds an amazing wealth of information of value to gardeners, and we should draw upon it routinely.

An important first step in researching a plant is to learn its botanical name. A search based on a common name often will lead to good information, but the botanical name is more accurate and preferable.

Try one or more caudiciform plants among the succulents in your garden. A rich source of information on these plants is the website Hint: when you browse to the home page, click on the image immediately after “.com.”

Incidentally, you might enjoy exploring this website, which has many images of flora and fauna, in several categories. The author, identified only as Bihrmann, has travelled extensively, taken an enormous number of photographs and lived a rich life. Some of the pages are in Danish.


Restoring Soil

Several people commented on last week’s column on the carbon cycle. All endorsed the concept of restoring garden soil, to support its natural ability to sequester carbon.

One reader had questions about how to go about restoring garden soil. This is a Big Topic and you, good reader, might have your own questions, but you also might share his interests. My brief responses are below. Visit for more details, including plant suggestions.

Q. Plow the grass under?

A. Losing the thirsty lawn is a good first step, because such monocultures are not appealing to wildlife. Plowing, however, could both promote re-growth of the grass and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface. A better approach is to kill the grass over several sunny weeks by covering it with clear plastic (solarization), or with newspaper or cardboard (smothering).

For information on Soil Solarization for Gardens & Landscapes, visit the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management webpage on the topic. The presentation emphasizes pest control; in this context, unwanted turf grass amounts to a pest.

The California Native Plant Society has Detailed lawn removal advice.

Q. Plant different grass?

A. Yes! California native grasses can provide the basis of an attractive meadow, which is more casual than a manicured carpet of turf grass. A meadow has unique aesthetic appeal; supports a variety of wildflowers and wildlife; requires little water, infrequent mowing, and no chemicals; and helps to restore the soil.

Kids on Native Grass Lawn

Lily Baker’s front yard in San Jose
features a native grass lawn.
California native grasses help restore the soil.

For information on several California native grasses, visit the Tree of Life Nursery’s web page, “Masses of Grasses.”

A very good book by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien is Reimagining the California Lawn: Water-conserving Plants, Practices, and Designs (2011).

Q. Grow more trees?

A. Absolutely! Trees and large shrubs are attractive additions to the landscape, valuable participants in the carbon cycle, and welcomed by all forms of wildlife. Invest a little research to select trees will thrive in your climate, and grow to an appropriate size for your landscape. Again, California natives are good choices.

A good introduction to California native trees and larger shrubs is available from the non-profit Nipomo Native Garden, which has produced a web page, “Native Trees for Landscaping and Wildlife.”

Q. Eliminate ground cover in favor of something with deeper roots?

A. Ground covers are any plants that hug surface or rise to any height up to four feet. Most importantly, they protect soil and soil microbiota from baking in the sun, or eroding. During the fall and winter, plant seasonal cover crops that draw nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots. Examples of such “nitrogen-fixing” plants include peas, beans, and clover. In the spring, before your cover crop sets seed, till the plants under to decompose and release their nitrogen into the soil to support the growth of other plants.

Deeper roots mean better drought-tolerance: deep-rooted plant can find moisture far below the surface. Such plants are generally preferable in the landscape, all other factors being equal.

The depth of roots varies among plants, reflecting adaptation to the plant’s environment. Among weedy grasses, for example, Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua) has roots only about right inches deep, while Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) can grow to 60 inches deep in search of water.

Infrequent, deep irrigation encourages all plants to develop deep roots and drought tolerance. A common error with automatic irrigation systems is to schedule frequent, brief periods of watering. This practice encourages shallow roots, ultimately increases overall water usage and leaves plants vulnerable to dry periods.

Q. Shallower roots?

A. The advantage of shallower roots is that plants growing in arid climates have immediate access to occasional rains. Succulent plants have adapted to such conditions by developing shallow roots and the ability to store scarce moisture in their leaves, stems or roots. For this reason, gardeners often appreciate succulent plants for both drought tolerance and landscape appeal.

The New California Garden, which we envision here, features meadow grasses and succulent plants: a good time to start is now.

Echeverias: Mexico’s Gift to Gardeners

After a recent silent auction of succulent plants, I brought home a fine specimen of Echeveria agavoides, which is one of the most popular species of the genus Echeveria, which includes 130 species. Plant hunters are finding and identifying additional species in Mexico’s mountainous terrain, where the plants are difficult to access and study.

The generic name honors Mexican botanical artist Atanasio Echeverria, who made some of the first drawings of the plant around 1787. My plant’s specific name, agavoides, means “looking like an agave.” The common name for this plant is Molded Wax Agave. Note that agaves are members of an entirely different botanical family.

Echeveria agavoides

Echeveria agavoides


The fleshy, succulent leaves of all Echeverias form rosettes, but the genus includes plants of many different sizes, leaf and blossom colors and special characteristics, e.g., frilly or bumpy leaves. The plants grow during the summer months, and are dormant from November through February. Plants may be evergreen or deciduous, and all are polycarpic, meaning they may flower and set seed many times during their lifetimes. (Monocarpic plants die after flowering.)

Many gardeners’ first contact with this genus is with “hens and chicks,” which is a common name for E. elegans, E. secunda and other plants.

Echeveria species are generally easy to propagate by separating offsets, rooting leaves, or planting seeds. The species also can be crossed easily with each other and even with species from some other genera, e.g., Graptopetalum, Pachyphytum and Sedum.

Growers have created many hundreds of generic and intergeneric hybrids. Hybridizers have named and formally introduced the more attractive cultivars, but have also released many of the less successful cultivars into the market. Hybrid plants are not propagated from seeds, but only by asexual methods, i.e., rooting offsets and detached leaves.

Selected variants within a species also can be cultivars. E. agavoides, for example, includes two popular cultivars: ‘Lipstick’, which has a rosettes in clumps that are 6 inches tall by 8 to 12 inches wide with apple-green leaves with vivid red-pink edges, and ‘Ebony’, which is similar in size, with gray-green leaves that have vivid red edges that, when grown in bright sun, blend in a dark red terminal spine.

‘Ebony’ is a natural hybrid that can be difficult to grow and propagate. In the silent auction ‘Ebony’ attracted more and higher bids than my choice, which looks to me to be ‘Lipstick’.

Excellent books about Echeverias include “The Genus Echeveria” (2008) by John Pilbeam and “Echeveria Cultivars” (2005) by Lorraine Schulz and Attila Kapitany. Another good source of information is the website of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society. The Society is the local affiliate of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Echeverias are available in a variety of forms, and all are easy to maintain and propagate, drought-tolerant, and interesting in color and form. They can be a fine addition to the garden, where they will develop the best colors, or an indoor container. Look for them in your local garden center or online.

Gardening Close Up


We garden on different perspectives: specific when studying individual plants, and general when designing a landscape. We can regard gardening as a continuum with many points between its ends. This range of possible perspectives deepens our interest in gardening.

With all that in mind, where does the survey of a genus belong on this continuum? That thought came to mind during a recent talk by Brian Kemble, Curator of The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, specializing in succulent plants.

Ruth Bancroft established this extraordinary garden in 1972 as her private collection. It was the first garden supported by the Garden Conservancy, and in fact inspired the formation of that nation-wide organization. The garden was opened to the public in the early 1990s and soon became managed by a non-profit corporation.

Brian Kemble 3-2015

Brian Kemble, Cactus & Succulent Horticulturist

Kemble has been involved with the garden continuously since 1980, and has brought his considerable knowledge of horticulture and his expertise in succulent plants to the cultivation and development of the garden. Ms. Bancroft, now 106 years of age, maintains her interest in the collection.

Kemble spoke to the Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society, in Watsonville. His talk focused on the genus Gasteria, a South African member of the Aloaceae plant family, which includes other popular genera: Aloe, Bulbine, Haworthia and others.

The name of the genus Gasteria reflects its flowers, which to some observers are stomach-shaped (“gaster” is Latin for “stomach). The flowers hang from inclined long racemes, which can includes clusters of 100 or more flowers. The flowers range in color from pink to vermillion with yellow-green tips.

The genus includes 22 species, with rosettes ranging in size from the diameter of a nickel coin, to those with leaves a meter long.

Gasteria acinacifolia

This is a Scimitar-leaved Gasteria (G. acinacifolia), displayed at the meeting of the Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society, as part of the monthly mini-show. (It won a prize in its category!)  This is the tallest of the Gasteria species, native to the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Kemble showed examples of several Gasteria species, each of which is native to a specific area of South Africa. He also showed several hybrid forms, including at least one that he developed himself.

Gasterias are relatively easy to propagate from seeds, divisions or leaf sections. They are also readily crossed with other plants in the Aloaceae family, so we have cultivars called xGasteraloe or xGasterhaworthia.

Kemble provided an expert overview of this interesting genus Gasteria. Some members of his audience might have been inspired to collect different species of the genus, but others most likely learned about how any given Gasteria fits into the larger botanical context. This knowledge adds in subtle ways to the enjoyment of gardening.

To learn more about Gasterias and other succulent plants, visit the web site of the Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society, and click on
Specific Resources. Gasterias, as you will recall, are in the plant family Aloaceae.


Unknown Plant (Echeveria)

Q. I was given this plant for Christmas without a name or how to care for, can you help me?the lady who sold it to my daughter-in-law didn’t even know the name.


Thank you in advance.
January 2015


Your plant is Echeveria gibbiflora var. carunculata, a member of the Crassulaceae family, from Mexico.

It develops stems up to 50 cm high, topped with rosettes up to 30 cm wide, each with 15-20 gray green leaves 15-30 cm long, flushed with blue to pink hues. It also has inflorescences (lower heads) to 1m tall, with pink flowers.

Each leaf develops a group of bumps, “carunculae”, on upper surface of leaves. As the plant grows the carunculae will grow large and add more beauty to this rare and unusual plant.

Likes fresh air with bright light or full sun. Drench thoroughly, then allow to become moderately dry between watering.

Here’s a picture of this plant, from the Internet.


Gardening with Succulents

The continuing popularity of succulent plants is based on several kinds of appeal, beginning with drought tolerance and including interesting shapes and an amazing range of colors.

This diversity occurs because plants in many genera have developed the capacity to store water in their roots, stems or leaves. Their common characteristic is that they live in areas where drought conditions happen often enough to make water storage essential to survival.

Succulent plants have a reputation for being easy to cultivate, relative to other perennial plants. In addition to needing water only occasionally and in small amounts, these plants are have few problems from pests and diseases.

The native environment of a succulent plant can be important to its cultivation. Most gardeners know that succulents need fast-draining soil to avoid root rot, and grow well, if slowly, in nutrient-poor soil. These plants have evolved under such conditions, and now depend upon them.

Another consideration is the elevation of the plant’s native environment. Succulent plants that have evolved on mountains are accustomed to those environmental conditions, and could have unique leaf anatomy and photosynthetic characteristics.

Good gardening practice often involves matching—or approximating—the plant’s native environment, but changing the elevation of one’s garden is not among the options. Happily, most succulent plants from high elevations can grow well at lower elevations.

Succulent plants grow in many areas of the world, and an important issue of native environment is the hemisphere in which the plant evolved. This determines the plant’s dormancy, which influences the gardener’s cultivation practices.

Succulent plants that have adapted to the northern hemisphere  are Winter Dormant:
they rest from November through February and grow from March through October.
Many plants also will rest for a few weeks of hot weather in the summer, and grow
again in September and October. Popular succulent genera that are Winter Dormant include Agave, Echeveria, Euphorbia, Lithops and Pachypodium.

Succulent plants that have adapted to the southern hemisphere are Summer Dormant, which also means that they are winter growers. Their rest period continues from May through August; they grow slowly during the winter months, and then grow actively during autumn and spring. Examples of Summer Dormant succulent plants include these popular genera: Aeonium, Aloe, Cotyledon, Crassula, Dudleya, Gasteria, Graptopetalum, Haworthia, Kalanchoe, Pelargonium, Sanseveria, Sedum and Senecio.

The gardener should avoid disturbing succulent plants during their dormant periods. So, repotting, pruning, or taking cuttings should be done in March for Winter Dormant plants and in August for Summer Dormant plants.

Watering succulent plants is another practice that is dormancy-related. When plants are dormant, they stop growing but continue to transpire, and therefore need replacement moisture. Not watering succulent plants while they dormant is the most common cause for failure.

The amount of moisture needed during dormancy depends on the dryness of the particular environment. Winter Dormant plants might need watering once or twice per week. Summer Dormian plants, which rest during the hottest time of the year, could need more frequent watering.

Also, remember to group plants with similar water needs. Such grouping can be important when combining succulent plants in containers: keeping Summer Dormant or Winter Dormant plants together will enable more convenient and more appropriate irrigation.

Mixed Succulents in Pot

Mixed Succulents in Container
(click to enlarge)

These guidelines could need adjustment for individual species; as always with the plant world, general rules are subject to variation.

Sharing Your Garden with Photos

This year’s Succulent Extravaganza exceeded its already high marks for learning about succulent plants and buying plants and garden containers. Experts from throughout California presented interesting talks on the practical care and use of succulent plants, and innovative uses of these fascinating plants in the landscape.

This column space isn’t enough for comments on each of the many specialists that Robin Stockwell attracted to Castroville, so I’ll feature just one: the prolific artist of garden photography, Saxon Holt, whose work appears in numerous books.

Photography and gardening have a perfectly complementary relationship: plants live in a constant state of change, while photographs store moments in time.

Gardeners often feel the urge to capture especially pleasing blossoms or landscape vignettes in photos, whether for their own viewing, or for sharing with family and friends. A few garden photographers, like Saxon Holt, can make stunning pictures and publish them for larger audiences to enjoy. For most gardeners, however, their photographs fail to satisfy for one reason or another. Today’s “point and shoot” digital cameras manage focus and exposure automatically, but performing those important functions well does not guarantee satisfactory results.

For that reason, Saxon Holt’s talk at the Succulent Extravaganza was a rare opportunity for gardeners to upgrade their photographic skills. Here are highlights of Holt’s advice.

Know your purpose. A close-up might showcase a plant’s shape or texture of the leaves or petals; a wider shot might demonstrate the interplay of shapes or colors. There are many possible purposes, making it worth the time to explore why you are taking the photo.

Control the light. Direct bright sunlight produces deep shadows and bright highlights that hide important details from the camera. Better results are achieved by photographing in early or late in the date, or by using a translucent panel to diffuse the light. Holt demonstrated the dramatic improvement provided by a collapsible disc designed for the purpose.

Fill the frame. Casual snapshots often include too much of the area surrounding the subject of the photo. The picture will be more effective when the photographer brings the camera close in, so that the subject occupies all the space.

Compose the image. Position the camera for an interesting view of the subject. Well-composed snapshots can become artworks!

A valuable—and really old— guideline for image composition is the Rule of Thirds. When looking through the viewfinder, imagine two lines dividing the scene into thirds vertically, and two more lines dividing the scene into thirds horizontally. Placing important elements of the image along these lines or at their intersections will produce a more dynamic and interesting composition. On the other hand, centering the subject in the frame tends to yield a static image.

The Rule of Thirds guided the composition of this photo of a group of Aloe polyphyllas,  seen at the Succulent Extravaganza. These fascinating plants are endemic to the Kingdom of Lesotho in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa. (Click to enlarge).

Aloe polyphylla

Aloe Polyphylla

Holt emphasized the use of a tripod while composing the image, and recommended bringing the camera down to the level of the plant, rather than looking down on it from a standing position.

Successful photographs can extend the pleasures of gardening. As always when developing other skills, give your best effort to each session of garden photography and then study the results!


Several good books on garden photography are available on the website, and might be found in your local library or bookstore.

Visit Saxon Holt’s website to enjoy a selection of his photographs.

His impressive work also is represented in several garden-related books, which can be found by searching for “Saxon Holt.”

On Tuesday, November 11th, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., at the University of California Berkeley Botanical Garden, Holt will present a hands-on workshop, “Composition and Balance,” This class is intended for serious photographers, who should arrive early with camera and tripods to work with Saxon as he tours the Garden. The morning shoot will be followed by a presentation, download of the morning’s work and an afternoon critique. Enrollment fee ($90/$75 for members) includes a copy of the Holt’s e-book, The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop.

Info:, 510-642-7082.