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A Full Order of Plump, Juicy Succulents
updated: Jan 15, 2011, 9:30 AM

By Billy Goodnick

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I throw my head back as sinister rumbles of laughter well up from the dank caverns of my black heart. I rub my scaly hands while the rest of the nation cowers under the wrath of the WINTER WEATHER BOMB burying the rest of the country.

I just finished watering Lin's collection of potted succulents, the ultimate symbol our benign Mediterranean climate. Oh, and I was wearing shorts. Eat your hearts out!

I mean it's not like spring is sproinging throughout the 805 just yet. Most of the showy garden plants are biding their time, waiting for longer days and consistent warm temperatures. But that doesn't mean there isn't anything going on in the garden right now.

A few weeks ago, dear reader Mitzie suggested I write about "succulent gardens in winter," a topic I haven't covered. So that's where we're going, folks.

"Succulents" is a catch-all term for any plant that stores water in its roots, stems and leaves. They're not all desert plants - some Sempervivum species grow in rocky crags in the Alps, though many will turn to mush in a heavy frost.

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I started my fact finding at Ganna Walska Lotusland, world renowned for its exotic collection of rare specimens and eclectic plantings. When Virginia Hayes, Curator of the Living Collection and deep-knowledge columnist for the Independent, met me in front of the main house, the first things that caught my eye were succulents in bondage - like a scene from Gulliver's Travels.

Sure, we all tend to put on a bit of weight over the holidays, but in this case, it's excessive water weight from December's rains that's putting these giant cacti and Euphorbias in danger of toppling. Hence, the guy wires.

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If Vincent van Gogh had been a garden designer as he descended into batshit crazy-ville, I think he might have created Lotusland's Aloe Garden. It's wild, tormented, sublime.

This section of Madame Ganna Walska's horticulturally epic estate has an otherwordly essence, a mash-up of angular octopi reaching skyward and masses of hummocks crawling across red and black lava rock. The signature elements are the giant clamshell fountains.

"This area was flat," Virginia told me, as we entered the topographically voluptuous Aloe Garden. "The pool was here and probably some of the larger plants." That's when Charlie Glass, 70s-era garden director and cofounder of Abbey Gardens, undertook this brain-straining vision. "He got Madame's permission to haul in tons of rock and soil, and created the contours." The process was intuitive and organic - no surveying, sketches or blueprints.

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Another alluring trait of succulents is their enormous range of foliage colors. Ghostly gray Echeveria doesn't need coddling. Here they are clinging to a crag on a boulder at Lotusland, thriving in a bellybuttonful of soil.

The cool-colored rosettes fit into any style of garden and make a great edging around perennial beds. If they get too leggy, snap off the top of the plant, discard the woody stem (sounds like Martha Stewart prepping asparagus) and replant the rosettes.

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The original entry road was closed to automobiles years ago, but it's easy to imagine arriving on a dreary winter day and get figuratively poked in the eye by a fiery orange-red torches of Aloe arborescens (torch aloe).

I'm always impressed by the simplicity and restraint of this composition. Three distinct, uninterrupted layers: Sedum ground cover, blue-gray explosions of Agave attenuata, and torch aloe as the muscular backdrop.

Here's the aloe flower up close and personal.

:: :: :: :: ::

Whether you're a long-time lover of succulents or are just getting up the nerve for a first date, you can't find a better source of information than the books of author and gifted photographer Debra Lee Baldwin. Her first book, Designing With Succulents (Timber Press), is seductively illustrated and overflowing with practical information to help gardeners select from a spectacular range of low-water-using plants. (They make great firebreaks, too.)

Debra and I share the design philosophy that great gardens don't just rely on fleeting floral color for interest. "The more sophisticated gardeners appreciate structure over flowers," she says.

What if you don't have a garden? Her follow-up book, Succulent Container Gardens might be just what you need. "If you don't have room in the garden for a succulent bed, put them in pots. Even gardeners with just a small porch or balcony can design a dramatic grouping of pots as a catchy focal point."

Check out Debra's YouTube video, How to Plant Succulents, to get you started.

She provided me with this picture of a killer combo, featuring a striped Agave americana ‘Marginata', with the conical yellow flower spikes of Aeonium in the foreground and torch aloe stirring things up in the back. Notice the little dapple of blue-flowering statice in the back, making this composition a perfect study in primary colors in this winter display.

:: :: :: :: ::

Warning: Put on your shades before you scroll down.

Agave americana (century plant) is spectacular all on its silvery own, but surrounded by a royal carpet of Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart', it takes on an eye-popping lead role in the garden.

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If you keep up with gardening trends, you already know about vertical gardening. Lots of plants can be trained to grow up, spill down or cling to an upright surface, succulents included.

This masterfully rendered wall hanging at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco makes me giddy. It covers an 8-foot-wide by 6-foot-high space and contains hundreds of little rosette-shaped succulents in rainbow colors. The plants are poked into a plastic honeycomb filled with lightweight potting mix and thrive in filtered light, with an occasional sprinkling. Just make sure you're wall or fence is structurally up to the job.

:: :: :: :: ::

If you're not sure about such a heavy, ambitious undertaking, do what I do. Repurpose your worn our Crocs.

:: :: :: :: ::

While I've got your attention, my 6-week landscape design class, Through the Green Gate, will be offered starting Wednesday, January 19. I teach at the Wake Center on Turnpike and we start at 6 pm. Check the link and sign up. It's worth $5, maybe a little more.

 COMMENT 137831 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-01-18 04:33 PM

Yay Lotusland!


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