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!

More

Several good books on garden photography are available on the Amazon.com 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 amazon.com 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: gardenprograms@berkeley.edu, 510-642-7082.

Time to Plant Your Garden

Over the next few weeks, as we move into autumn, it is time to think about installing new plants in our gardens, and moving plants that should be in better places.

Installing or moving plants makes sense during this time of the year for two reasons. First, many plants that are good choices for Monterey Bay area gardens are entering into a dormant period, during which they can be moved with minimal trauma from one garden location to another, or from a nursery pot to a larger container or into the ground.

The second rationale for installing or moving plants now is that our familiar rainy season, beginning usually mid-October, will irrigate them during dormancy. The gentle rains of fall and winter have been a welcome gift to gardeners, who can attend to other tasks as plants develop their roots and generate new growth for the spring, as temperatures warm.

We still do not know if we will have a normal rainy season this year. Recent reports from International Research Institute for Climate and Society and the Climate Prediction Center, both trackers of the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, indicate a relatively small impact on our fall and winter weather, around 60 to 65% of the historical norm. In other words, we should expect rain, but not as much as we usually enjoy.

That forecast is more vague than gardeners would like, but now is still the time to plant. The worst-case scenario is that watering by hand or drip irrigation might be needed to keep newly installed plants adequately hydrated.

Gardeners might be inspired to bring new plants to their gardens in the spring, when garden centers are displaying plants in bloom. There are real advantages of planting in the spring: bedding plants are available in abundance, blossom colors are evident, and the weather welcomes outdoor projects. One downside of this schedule, however, is that customers pay for nurseries to care for the plants during their early growth. Also, plants that have been boosted into bloom with synthetic fertilizers often under-perform once they have been moved into typical garden soil.

When you bring new plants into your garden this autumn, choose plants that are drought tolerant and well suited for the local climate and growing conditions. Such plants are most likely to succeed under drought conditions with the only basic care by the gardener.

Remember: even drought-tolerant plants need water, just not as much and not as often.

Good opportunities soon will be available to find such suitable plants:

  • Succulent Extravaganza, September 26 & 27 (today and tomorrow); 2133 Elkhorn Road, Castroville. Info: sgplants.com, 831-632-0482.
  • Fall Plant Sale, UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, September 28; 200 Centennial Drive, Berkeley. Info: botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu, 510-643-2755.
  • Fall Plant Sale, UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & California Native Plant Society, October 11; High Street at Western Drive, Santa Cruz. Info: arboretum.ucsc.edu.
  • Fall Show & Sale, Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, October 18 & 19, 10 San Jose Street, San Juan Batista. Info: www.facebook.com/MonteryBayAreaCactusAndSucculentSociety

Gardening success depends on the selection of plants that are appropriate for specific locations and growing conditions. You might change where you garden, but external forces could change your garden’s growing conditions. Plan ahead!

Spring is Here

This year’s puzzling weather has produced a few days cold enough to promote dormancy in plants that don’t need a real winter chill, and nowhere near enough rain. We still hope late rains will replenish aquifers and reservoirs, but there’s little promise in the forecasts.

The arrival of spring does not cause abrupt change in our gardens, but it does bring warm weather that takes plants out of dormancy and stimulates new growth. Plants need moisture at this time but water restrictions demand reduction of our water usage. The middle ground for gardeners involves watering plants efficiently and only when they show need by wilting a little. This means drip irrigation if you have it, or moving a hose or watering can from plant to plant. Store your wasteful wide-area sprinkler!

If you have been preparing for drought conditions, you have emphasized summer–dry plants, a category that includes California native plants and other Mediterranean climate plants.

This is not the best year to add summer-dry plants, however: newly installed herbaceous or woody plants need regular watering for two years to establish roots.

A more appropriate strategic response to this drought is to add succulent plants, which have developed ways to minimize transpiration and maximize water retention in their leaves, stems or roots.

When added to a garden or moved within a garden, succulent plants come with their own supply of moisture, and need only minimal watering to settle their roots. They are quite resilient, but of course will need some water in time.

Succulents are far from compromises from an aesthetic perspective: they offer a range of blossom colors and foliage textures as well as low maintenance and drought tolerance. They have in fact become desirable specimens in garden beds or containers, even before our current weather concerns.

Happily, a major sale of succulent plants is less than one month away. The Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society will hold its annual, free-admission Spring Show & Sale from 9:00 to 5:00 on April 19th and 20th in the San Juan Batista Community Hall, 10 San Jose Street, not far from the Old San Juan Batista Mission.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 11.16.42 PM

The Society’s show will include members’ selected cacti and succulents, demonstrating plants that are very well grown and shown, and that display an amazing range of shapes, sizes and colors. The sale includes a great selection of mostly small plants grown by members or commercial growers, with reasonable prices. Society members also will be available to offer advice and answer questions.

Respond to this drought creatively: use this occasion to start or expand your collection of succulent plants.

More

If you are a beginning gardener of succulent plants, a helpful book is Debra Lee Baldwin’s newest book, Succulents Simplified. Her earlier books, Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, are a more advanced, but still accessible for casual gardeners.

succulent books

Visit Debra Lee Baldwin’s website for inspiring photos and practical information.

Some Garden Thugs You Want Around

A weed is simply a plant growing in the wrong place, while a garden thug is a plant spreading without apparent limit, and overwhelming other plants it encounters. Garden thugs could well be landscape assets, given freedom to expand. Here are three examples from my South African succulent bed.

Thug #1: Aloe maculata (Soap Aloe)

Aloe-maculata-Soap-Aloe

Some 550 recognized species are included in the genus Aloe. One of them, the Soap Aloe (its sap makes a soapy lather in water) is among the most popular Aloe species in California gardens. The plant forms a rosette about a foot wide, made of pointed fleshy leaves about eight inches long. In the spring it sends up a two-foot long stalk topped by orange-red flowers in a flat-topped cluster called a raceme. So far, so good, but it also sends underground suckers that soon create a dense colony. I lifted ten plants for this month’s garden exchange, then put another eight in the green waste.

Related species in my garden include A. arborescens (Torch Aloe), also a vigorous grower; A. plicatilis (Fan Aloe), a slow-growing small tree; and A. ‘Christmas Carol’  (hybrid), a smaller plant with vibrant red colors in the leaves. In this group, Soap Aloe is the real thug.

Thug #2: Senecio mandraliscae (Blue Finger)

Senecio mandraliscae

Senecio is one of the largest genera of flowering plants, with about 1,250 species that present many amazing forms. Blue Finger, which might be a hybrid, grows twelve-to-eighteen inches tall, with numerous four-inch long blue-gray leaves shaped like fat bean pods. It produces uninteresting white flowers in summer but the foliage is the main attraction. The leaves will drop easily from the plant, and root to form new plants. The spreading stems also quickly establish roots.

A nice-looking succulent plant and a welcome addition to the garden, but one that needs regular whacking to keep it within bounds. My other Senecios are S. rowleyanus (String-of-Pearls) (showing the variability of this genus) and S. haworthii (Wooly Senecio). There could be other thugs in this large genus, but Blue Finger certainly qualifies.

Thug #3: Cotyledon orbiculata (Pig’s Ear, Paddle Plant)

Cotyledon-LSCotyledon-CU

This striking succulent has gray-green fleshy leaves with red margins, and coral red, bell-shaped flowers on stalks in early spring. The leaves grow on stout branches growing any way other than straight. This attractive plant spreads over time, and is considered invasive in some parts of the world. The plant has medicinal uses, but its leaves are said to be toxic to livestock, poultry and dogs. It works well in containers, which might well be the best place for this plant.

These vigorous plants will prove you have a green thumb, but they require control.

Planting Succulents in Circles

Succulent wreaths are easy decorations for your own enjoyment or gifts.

Well-made wreaths can be very attractive. They can be bought or made in various sizes, with a selection of succulent plants, and an endless variety of designs. In addition, a wreath’s appearance evolves interestingly as the plants mature.

Evergreen wreaths are traditionally displayed during the Christmas holiday season, and we recently have added succulent wreaths to that tradition. There is nothing particularly seasonal about succulents, but why not establish a new tradition?

These items can be costly to buy because they take time to create. The required skill level is not great, however, so succulent wreaths are good candidates for do-it-yourselfers. Many people treat making such wreaths as a craft project, but I see it as a gardening project. Ultimately, it involves the propagation of succulent plants by planting cuttings.

Start early to have your wreath ready when you want to display it. If you want create your wreath for the holiday season, start now.

The basic components are the circular metal wreath frame with a nylon mesh tube filled with sphagnum moss. These items are often available in a choice of diameters in garden centers and craft stores.

I saved a fourteen-inch diameter frame from a long-gone evergreen wreath and found 12 x 48 inch green plastic floral netting in a craft store. I could wrap the netting around sphagnum moss or coir (coconut fiber) and secure it with copper wire to fabricate a tube for rooting succulent cuttings. I should soak the base in water to prepare it for the cuttings.

The next ingredient is a collection of small un-rooted cuttings, perhaps 100 for a 12-inch wreath. Popular choices are rosettes from such succulent plants as echeverias, graptopetalums, aeoniums, sempervivums and others. For contrasting forms, good choices include sedums, crassulas and kalanchoes.

The least expensive source of cuttings would be your own garden or a friend’s garden, but you could to seek them out at garden center or nursery. A good local source: Succulent Gardens—The Growing Grounds, in Castroville (http://sgplants.com/).

Insert the cuttings into the moss or coir, then keep the wreath still and shaded for several weeks while the cuttings develop roots. Keep it moist with occasional soaks. With very basic care it could last for several years.

For more detailed advice, search the Internet for “how to make succulent wreaths.”

The ultimate challenge is to make an interesting design for your wreath. Combining random cuttings is fairly easy, but creating a recognizable pattern involves more planning.

More

Here’s Martha Stewart’s instructions for making a succulent wreath.

Here’s the Living Succulent Wreath Tutorial by Succulents and Sunshine. This website includes lots of images and a time-lapse record of wreath development.

Another example—with good details—by Pretty Prudent.

Debra Lee Baldwin, author of fine books on succulents, favors buying a succulent wreath instead of making your own, mostly because of the retail cost of cuttings. Here’s her advice on maintaining a wreath.

Making More Succulents

Two recent events—the fall sale of the Monterey Bay Area Cactus and Succulent Society in San Juan Batista and the annual Succulent Extravaganza in Castroville—attracted throngs of gardeners who gained new appreciation for the variety and appeal of succulent plants, and brought home great numbers of plants.

By bringing hundreds of small succulent plants for sale at these events, the organizers provide an important service for gardeners. They also demonstrate that making more succulents is really easy. Anyone can do it!

Propagating succulents avoids the costs of buying plants, particularly for mass plantings or large arrangements that feature many of the same plants.

This practice also appeals to gardeners who want to renew a succulent plant that has grown leggy, or too large for the intended location.

A third reason for large-scale propagation is to create plants for giving or selling to other gardeners.

Popular methods for propagating succulent plants are based on stem cuttings or leaf cuttings. Today’s column focuses briefly on those methods.

Step One: Make the Cutting.

Any succulent plant that has an elongated healthy stem can be propagated. Using a sharp knife or razor blade, cut a two-to-four inch piece from an actively growing stem. Remove the lower leaves, if any, and dip the stem in rooting hormone (available in garden centers). Then, rest the cutting in a shaded location for up to a week while a callus (or callous) forms to protect the cut end from harmful microbial life.

Make a leaf cutting in the same manner: cut or break a full vigorous leaf from the upper half of the plant, dip it in rooting hormone, and allow it to form a callus.

Echeveria plants and some other succulents form rosettes of leaves. These can be cut from the plant with up to an inch of stem, and propagated just like a stem or leaf.

Step Two: Start the Cutting

Prepare a very fast-draining medium, e.g., 80% pumice or perlite and 20% potting soil, insert the cutting and place it in a warm location with indirect sunlight. Water with tap water that has had time to release it chlorine, or use distilled water. Pour gently from above or absorb from the bottom. Mist the cutting with distilled water daily and maintain a humid atmosphere with a plastic tent or other method, but let the plant dry out before watering.

Step Three: Plant the Rooted Cutting

After several weeks, when the cutting has developed roots, transfer it to a larger container filled with 75% pumice or perlite and 25% potting soil.

In a future column, I’ll describe other propagation methods, including grafting, and planting seeds, offsets or plantlets.

More

Here’s a project that calls for a large number of small succulents plants. I lifted this image from Debra Lee Baldwin’s newsletter, which has step-by-step instructions for creating your own similar display. I expect neither she nor Roger’s Garden will object to my use of this photo. (It helps to have a nice container on a pedestal, but Debra says, correctly, that the container should not be featured, but rather treated like the frame for the picture.

 

Designing With Succulents

Gardeners who become interested in succulent plants might become a bit puzzled by their unfamiliar character. They often bloom, but their flowers are short-lived and less important than their forms and textures. They grow in unexpected ways, sometimes with branches and sometimes without. They might seem native to hot, dry environments, but some thrive in partial shade and are even subject to sunburn.

Confused?

Many books about succulents are reference works, focusing on genera and species, but providing little guidance on how they can be grown successfully, propagated, displayed in the garden, or incorporated in creative works of art and craft.

Enter the succulent gardening expert, Debra Lee Baldwin, and her new book, Succulents Simplified: Growing, Designing and Crafting with 100 Easy-Care Varieties (Timber Press, 2013).

Baldwin describes this book as a prequel to her two earlier books, Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens. The new book is an overview and guide for novices in the world of succulents, and an introduction to design ideas from Baldwin and other specialists.

The book is organized in three parts. “Enjoying, Growing and Designing with Succulents,” begins with an appreciation of succulents’ shapes, textures and color, presents basic methods for the cultivation and propagation of these plants, and offers core concepts for designing succulent displays in containers and in gardens. This part alone will add greatly to the novice’s confidence in working with succulent plants.

The second part, “How-to Projects that Showcase Succulents,” includes step-by step instructions for eight imaginative craft projects using succulent plants or cuttings. Each of these projects could be varied by using different plants or accessory items, and thus does not constrain the crafter’s creative expression.

In the final part, “100 Easy-care Succulents,” Baldwin describes her 100 favorite succulent plants, based on her practical experiences in growing, propagating, and designing with succulents, as well as in teaching others how to succeed with these plants.

Large clear photographs show the plants, demonstrate design concepts and explain the development of craft projects. The photos, by the author and other succulent gardening specialists, are great resources for gardeners who learn from visualizing plants.

Baldwin expresses her enthusiasm for succulent plants, shares her extensive experiences in growing and designing with them, and provides ideas and tools gardeners need for enjoyable and successful work with succulents.

Succulents Simplified will be a valued addition to the gardener’s bookshelf.

More

The craft projects in this book are as follows:

Succulent Cake-stand Centerpiece – A display of succulent cuttings on an elevated plate

Succulent Squares – Symmetrical plantings in home-made shallow square containers

Living Picture Vertical Garden – Hanging displays of  succulents in boxes up to 18″ x 24″

Low-light Dish Garden – Succulents selected for low-light situations

Hanging Basket of Mixed Succulents – Using a wicker basket as a hanging planter

Succulent-topped Pumpkins – Growing succulents in a hollowed out pumpkin

Succulent Topiary Sphere – Techniques for a spherical planting of succulents

Special-occasion Succulent Bouquet – Using succulents in a corsage or boutonniere

Cacti of the Sonoran Desert

After a few days in the Sonoran Desert, my head is filled with thoughts of cacti.

I attended the annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association, attended by writers from many parts of the United States. This year’s meeting convened in Tuscon, Arizona, which is within the upper part of the Sonoran Desert’s 120,000 square mile area, most which is in Mexico.

We locate Tuscon in our southwest; Mexicans see it in their northwest.

The meeting included talks to inspire writing or teach up-to-date written and multimedia communication, numerous awards for outstanding writing, photography, videography and graphics, many exhibits by garden-related vendors, and bus trips to twelve public and private gardens in the Tuscon area. Visit ongardening.com for more of my travel notes and photos.

For me, the primary effect of this occasion was exposure to the distinctive plant life of the area, especially the Cactus family, almost all members of which are native to the Americas.

The most prominent local cactus is the stately Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which grows in the wild only in the Sonoran Desert. I saw specimens of about thirty feet high, but it can reach up to fifty or seventy feet.

Other cacti widespread in the area include the Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), Beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).

According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, these cacti could be grown in the Monterey Bay area, but we see them infrequently. This presumably reflects local gardeners’ preferences: with such a wide range of plants that thrive in our moderate climate, gardeners have many spineless horticultural options.

There are, however, important environmental conditions other than temperature that affect the growth of plants. Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the desert climate, characterized by a biseasonal rainfall pattern (late summer and early winter), and daily temperature ranges of about thirty degrees.

The Sonoran Desert also includes plants from the Agave, Palm, and Legume and other families. The large Legume family includes many varieties of peas and beans, plus alfalfa, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy peanuts, Locust trees, wisteria and the green-trunked Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeate), which grows throughout the Tuscon area.

I have had no cacti in my garden, but the friends who hosted my visit gave me two specimens: a hybrid Echinopsis ‘Los Angeles’, which will grow to about eighteen inches, and produce pink flowers in late spring and early summer, and a Echinocereus morricalii, which also will grow to about eighteen inches and blossom in May in bright magenta.

Many cacti would not fit easily in my garden, but these small plants will fit fine and provide gorgeous flowers. Travel could broaden our gardening tastes!

More to come

Cacti of the Sonoran Deseert

After a few days in the Sonoran Desert, my head is filled with thoughts of cacti.

I attended the annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association, attended by writers from many parts of the United States. This year’s meeting convened in Tucson, Arizona, which is within the upper part of the Sonoran Desert’s 120,000 square mile area, most which is in Mexico.

We locate Tucson in our southwest; Mexicans see it in their northwest.

The meeting included talks to inspire writing or teach up-to-date written and multimedia communication, numerous awards for outstanding writing, photography, videography and graphics, many exhibits by garden-related vendors, and bus trips to twelve public and private gardens in the Tucson area. Visit ongardening.com for more of my travel notes and photos.

For me, the primary effect of this occasion was exposure to the distinctive plant life of the area, especially the Cactus family, almost all members of which are native to the Americas.

The most prominent local cactus is the stately Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which grows in the wild only in the Sonoran Desert. I saw specimens of about thirty feet high, but it can reach up to fifty or seventy feet.

Other cacti widespread in the area include the Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), Beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).

According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, these cacti could be grown in the Monterey Bay area, but we see them infrequently. This presumably reflects local gardeners’ preferences: with such a wide range of plants that thrive in our moderate climate, gardeners have many spineless horticultural options.

There are, however, important environmental conditions other than temperature that affect the growth of plants. Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the desert climate, characterized by a biseasonal rainfall pattern (late summer and early winter), and daily temperature ranges of about thirty degrees.

The Sonoran Desert also includes plants from the Agave, Palm, and Legume and other families. The large Legume family includes many varieties of peas and beans, plus alfalfa, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy peanuts, Locust trees, wisteria and the green-trunked Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeate), which grows throughout the Tucson area.

I have had no cacti in my garden, but the friends who hosted my visit gave me two specimens: a hybrid Echinopsis ‘Los Angeles’, which will grow to about eighteen inches, and produce pink flowers in late spring and early summer, and a Echinocereus morricalii, which also will grow to about eighteen inches and blossom in May in bright magenta.

Many cacti would not fit easily in my garden, but these small plants will fit fine and provide gorgeous flowers. Travel could broaden our gardening tastes!

More coming soon