Succulents–because to forgive is divine

Succulents are having a moment.  A fairly extended moment, which means garden designers writers are really reaching for ways to use them.  October’s pumpkin-as-succulent-container craze was a perfect example of this; I personally am gobsmacked that anyone has the discretionary time, especially at this time of the year, to fiddle with floral pins and sphagnum moss.  Though they do look pretty cool, and if anyone wants to make me one, I’m up for it.succulent-pumpkin-instructions-collage1But it is certainly great proof of how succulents will adapt to all kinds of creative situations; they’re a great artist’s tool.   Too, succulents will adjust to just about any container, which means if you’re the kind of person who can’t say no to a thrift-store find of a rusty Dutch oven or delicate teacup, you’re in luck.

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Now you can justify your habit because you can stuff succulent trimmings into your treasures; they’ll take root and flow down the sides, and people will admire your panache.  If you want more crafty ideas for using succulents, set yourself up a Pintrest board and prepare to be amazed.

In addition to these qualities, of course, succulents are also becoming more widely used both in landscapes and containers because of their relatively modest needs (good drainage; occasional water).  They’re really like the perfect dinner party guest—they quickly make themselves at home, they get along with just about everyone, and they’re not high maintenance.  But here’s the real reason I like succulents, and invite many to live with me:  They’re forgiving.  Really, really forgiving.  I like that in a relationship.

You see, just because I write a gardening blog doesn’t mean I can always spend a lot of time gardening.  In fact, in the whole month of October I am not sure I saw my own backyard more than twice, due to work demands and the usual shot-from-cannons pace of 21st-century life.   So succulents, which overlook my lapses of memory and failures to carry out my own good intentions, are the perfect garden partner for me.

If you haven’t had a lot of experience with succulents, let me show you what I mean.  Here’s one of my patio pots planted with aeonium “Schwarzkopf.”  Because it’s in full sun, on a stone wall and inconveniently far from a spigot, this pot often suffers from a double whammy of heat and neglect.  So when I did wander out a couple of weeks ago to see if the backyard was still there, the aeonium looked like this:  IMG_5933I was not alarmed; I just whisked by it on my way to something else.  And normally I would go right on ignoring it, because I know it can wait, and other things in the garden needed my attention, but it occurred to me that I could use this to dramatically demonstrate the Lazarus-like qualities of succulents.  So I took the picture above, and then went and got the dog’s water bucket.  I dumped the water over the pot, and came back the next day.

IMG_6425As Emeril says, “Bam!”

I don’t mean to suggest that succulents can be ignored with no consequences.  Drought and heat will alter their appearance.  But here’s the thing—I can live with that.  Sometimes the stressed look is actually cooler than the healthy look.  As soon as they’re watered again, either by rainfall (what does that look like again?  I’ve forgotten) or via the occasional dog bowl, all is forgiven.  The past is forgotten, and you’re moving forward.  And you can do this over and over again, and the succulent will never hold a grudge.  If only all relationships were so elastic.

So if your life includes long stretches of chaos, intense activity, or any other distractions which divert you from your gardening, consider succulents.  Adaptable, self-sufficient, easy to ignore, and always forgiving—they’re the perfect partner in a gardening relationship.

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Now is the winter of our Santa Ana event

I know the weather people like to call our episodes of high wind a “Santa Ana event,” but that always sounds to me as though it should be a giant sale:   “Come on down for our Santa Ana Event!  Stock up now on our huge inventory of uprooted trees, broken tree limbs, flattened shrubbery!  Don’t miss our special purchase of fallen palm fronds—downed power lines at selected locations.”

Calling it a “Santa Ana event” makes it sound like a lot more fun than it actually is.

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A familiar sight in our neighborhood in Santa Ana season.

If you’re a gardener, a Santa Ana event can be vexing, because there’s not much you can do outdoors besides duck, cover and hold.  You can’t even clean up the piles of debris shaken down from the trees, because more is Continue reading

Stealing home

People ask me sometimes where I get my love of gardening, and I don’t know what to say, because I don’t think of myself as a gardener.  “Gardener” has an official–hobby ring to it, and that’s not what gardening is for me.  I’m not really sure I can say what it is.  But I do say that whatever it is, I get it from my mother.

Mama black and white TC photo

Mama in 1974, uncharacteristically in the kitchen

Mama spent every available minute out of doors.  Back in the sixties, before rural North Carolina land was worth much, Buncombe county had lots of what she called “old home places”–where houses or farms had stood and then fallen away.  There was no one around to care or see what she did, so what she did was help herself—to old bulbs, violets, trillium, hearts a-busting with love; planted decades ago or springing wild from the ground; she knew every leaf and twig in the mountains.  She could reach through a tangle of brush growing in the stone foundation of a vanished house, find a sprout the size of a fingertip and recognize it as she would a neighbor.  Once identified, the plant would be liberated from its surroundings, placed in the back of our 1958 Chevy Nomad station wagon, and relocated to its new home in our yard.

Chimney

Often a chimney was all that remained of the abandoned properties that drew my mother.

Mama kept an old army shovel in the back of the Chevy; it was a handy small size with a pointed blade; left over from Daddy’s WWII service, it was ready to deploy at the first sight of a likely bulb or sapling.  We sometimes carried the shovel when we were forced into accompanying her on her excursions.  Today I’d give anything to go along, but as a child, trudging beside her down those unused, grassy tracks into long-abandoned, silent clearings to bring home still more daffodils seemed a tragic waste of an afternoon that could have been spent watching cartoons.

Daffodils

Untended for fifty years or more, the daffodils spread, and rebloomed
every spring.

Eventually land values appreciated and the old home places started to be bought up; deprived of her supply, she branched out to digging up daylilies, butterfly weed, money plant, and anything else that appealed to her on the roadside.  She even once, in a memorable episode, lifted some bedding plants from a McDonald’s parking strip.  By this time, I was in high school, and why the embarrassment didn’t kill me I’ll never know.  It was pointless to argue that this was stealing.  She’d wave such concerns away saying that no one minded.  When I returned home years later with my new husband, he joked that we should pay someone to dress up like a police officer and pretend to arrest her.  I knew it wouldn’t faze her; that she’d be able to argue even a real police officer out of the charge by her unshakeable conviction—it was a downright moral imperative—that this was not stealing because these plants were actually supposed to be in her yard.

The house, fairly light when we moved in, grew increasingly dark over the years as she refused to take out even the smallest tree.  She liked the privacy; she wanted to be shielded from the eyes she was convinced would peer at us from the road.  She was resolutely, intently moving the land into a new expression of itself; something older, something wilder—something that had communicated itself to her over the years of seeking and procuring.  How did she know what it needed?  She never said.  But she was absolutely sure of herself and never hesitated, never fumbled, never consulted anyone else for advice.  She just kept adding and moving and the yard evolved inevitably into itself; it was impossible for it to have looked any other way.

Slope front yard

Our house sat on two acres (“two acres more or less,” the deeds for mountain land read), and those acres were mostly wooded.  Wooded was the way she liked it.  Moss was plentiful; ghostly Indian pipe grew in the woods, where the leaf mold was inches thick.  We had lots of leafy canopy, but the only things that bloomed were the ones that flourished in the shade; native rhododendron, early spring bulbs, violets—blue, dogtooth, Confederate—and periwinkle in the spring, pushing through the snow.

The yard Mama had brought into being was full of layers, depth and texture; trees to sit in; spots for us to hide and imagine that we couldn’t be found.  It was quiet and seemed almost liminal, as though a child might step behind a tree into another, more mysterious reality.  Side of house winter view

Every other house on our street was much more conforming—an open lawn, some foundation shrubs, maybe some marigolds.  Their yards always looked too sunny and flat to me.   No stories could be made up in such a yard.

My mother wasn’t a gardener in the sense of gardeners who bring the same sensibility to the yard as they do to the interior design of their houses—decorating, fluffing, choosing colors of a unified theme, expressing their personal design aesthetic.  My mother had to garden.  It was the outpouring of her tremendous life force, of her sense of the natural world.  Her will was enormous and inexorable, but she wasn’t so much imposing her will on the landscape as she was birthing it—giving it the life it had been waiting for.  Even after she was ill with the heart disease that would eventually kill her, she would direct the yardwork with great conviction and assurance, operating out of her sure instinct of what should go where.  Mama late fall chair

Pulling around her oxygen tank, sitting on top of a five-gallon plastic bucket turned upside down, she’d issue directives to the biddable young man she’d hired, to plant this hosta and pull out that bittersweet vine.  I never heard whether she made Todd stop and liberate plants from the roadside—but it wouldn’t surprise me.  Not at all.

When my mother died, we held the service in the front yard, surrounded by all that she had brought into being.  It was October, and the leaves were changing.  On the porch, we placed a tall vase of flowers that we had—yes—stolen from the roadside.  Next to it, we propped the army shovel.

The L-bomb

“Lawn” is not a four-letter word.

Okay, maybe technically it is a four-letter word.  But it’s a four-letter word you don’t want to mention in conversation with eco-purists and sustainability warriors.  Mention “lawn” to the True Believer and you’ll get the same horrified reaction as if you’d dropped an f-bomb at a tea.

The thing is, while broad, estate-style sweeps of lawn are going the way of the dinosaur, there are good reasons why you might not want to eliminate your lawn entirely:  Kids and pets appreciate a spot to roll and play;  there’s the cooling effect; maybe you hail from an area which is lush and green, and home is not home to you without your small patch of grass.  Maybe it’s now a smaller patch of grass, but darn it, you still want it.

When we were first trying to figure out what should anchor our big, front-yard beds of perennial shrubs, we considered, and vetoed, many ideas—more shrubs, decomposed granite, gravel, ground covers like dymondia and myporoum.  Each one of these, though, while water-wise, had drawbacks.  I wanted to be able to walk across it barefoot (you can take the girl out of the country . . . ); we wanted a flat area so neighbors and visitors didn’t have to wade through knee-high shrubs; I’d seen a lot of lawn substitutes in my walks that just didn’t quite work.  So I was pretty sure that little circular area surrounded by shrubs was going to be occupied by grass.

Spending the amount of time we did in the company of sustainably-minded people, we were pretty cowed about even asking how we might go about this.  We knew we wouldn’t be using Marathon sod; even a small patch of the supposedly more drought-tolerant Marathon II is extremely demanding when it comes to water.  But just try to move on from there, to see what else might work.  We consulted with the usually-friendly Theodore Payne folks, and got the suspicious reply “Why d’ya want a lawn?”  (No one who asks you this is really interested in your response, by the way.  They just want to tell you why you’re wrong.)

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Buffalo grass

The TP people finally allowed as how we might use buffalo grass “If you have to have a lawn.”  Other professionals concurred that buffalo grass was the new turf substitute.   We really clung to that gleam of hope for a short while, but then our local Armstrong nursery made the mistake of actually bringing in a demo flat of it.  Yikes.  It’s a prairie grass, and after seeing it up close and personal, I decided that’s where it belongs.  (I should mention in the interests of fairness that it apparently behaves more like lawn in northern California.)

So after a lot of resource- and soul-searching, we took the step (which was advised against at almost every turn) of buying two $8 flats of St. Augustine plugs at Home Depot.  St. Augustine has a bad reputation, some of which is deserved:  It spreads by stolons (runners), which can get away from you.  It goes dormant in the winter, which offends some homeowners’ personal design aesthetic.

But it seemed our best option, so Ian spent an afternoon on his knees—Ian planting St. Augustine

two months later our little circle was completely filled.

St. Augustinei green and lush

Two years later, the lawn (Yes!  I said it!  Lawn lawn lawn!) does send out runners, which we alternately weedwhack or pull to keep within its borders.  It does go dormant, though it turns kind of a drab green, rather than the winter-white of Bermuda grass.  Which doesn’t bother me—coming from a four-season climate as I do, I expect grass to go dormant in winter.  And, the best part—it requires about 75% less water than the previous Marathon lawn.

So don’t be cowed by eco-purists.  You can be sustainable and have a lawn.  You can make it quite a bit smaller; you can replace parts of it with other things; you can use a different type of grass or even a ground cover.  Sustainability doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach; we can find some middle ground, and—who knows?—it might even be green.

Hundreds of ways to kiss the ground

“Let the beauty you love be what you do; there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”–Rumi

One of the many benefits to walking your neighborhood, in addition of course to getting closer to that elusive, healthy, CDC-recommended 10,000 steps per day, is that you get to see the infinite variety of expression possible in landscape design.  You could also peruse the tidal wave of gardening and shelter magazines, and/or spend a lot of time on HGTV.  But the advantage of your neighborhoods is you get to see what plants actually work in your area.  And just as importantly, you get to see the infinite range of possibilities out there.

Style arbiter Clinton Kelly says “If you’re pleasing everyone, you’re doing something wrong.”  But most of us are not as bold or confident of the fabulousness of our own tastes as Mr. Kelly is, so we second-guess ourselves to death.  And second-guessing robs us of a lot of joy.

Often when we think about our front yards in particular, we immediately worry about our neighbors to the left, to the right, and across the street–and maybe any random home tours which might wander, unannounced, into the neighborhood.  And there’s something to be said for that.  Property values absolutely depend on the condition of adjacent homes, and what you do will have some effect on your neighbors.  And you may even be—and if so, I’m sorry—in one of those neighborhoods whose HOA dictates down to the color of your annuals what you can and can’t plant.  That is a serious bummer, and I suggest you overthrow them in a bloodless coup.

But we are back again to your impetus for taking to the streets (and going back to your word list); think about what would make you happy.  I don’t think we give that enough consideration.  And whether or not we realize it, our physical space has a lot to do with our happiness.

On my neighborhood walks, I often pass a yard which is bursting with little arrangements and vignettes and an ever-expanding collection of what some might call tchotchkes–flocks of ceramic ducks and painted metal chickens and the occasional Buddha head, surrounded by hibiscus and angel’s trumpet and any number of flamboyant flowers.  I always stop and see what’s new, and recently, finally encountered the owner.  “Your yard is so happy,” I said.  “Did you do the plan?”  The owner, a 70-ish gentleman with a white beard that makes him look like Santa’s foreman, considered.  “Me,” he finally said.  “And God.”  He considered some more.  “And the 99 Cent store.”

Now I ask you.  Can you imagine a more potent design team than that?  His aesthetic isn’t going to work for everybody, but his yard makes him happy, and it makes me happy  because it so clearly expresses the designer’s joy.  My joy looks very different—yours will, too.  But do make sure you consider your joy an indispensable element of your landscape planning.

You can’t train a plant

The title concept bears repeating, so I’ll repeat it:  You can’t train a plant.  You can, if consistent and firm, train a dog; you can train your children (provided you start early), you can sort of, kind of, train a spouse.  But you can’t train a plant.  Plants lack the higher-order cognitive functions—not surprising given that they don’t have brains.  So you can’t plant them in areas which are radically different than the environments of their ancestral origins and expect them to plot out a survival strategy.  They will look at you in shock and surprise, and then in despair, and then they will cease to look at you at all and gaze directly into the ground–and then fall over.  Very dramatic.  A sad commentary on your efforts, and guilt-producing to boot.

And expensive, needless to say.  So if you have had trouble getting plants to “do” for you, consider whether in the past you have chosen a plant solely for its looks (and just a thought:  how well has that worked for you in your romantic life?) and then decided it would work, by golly, wherever you wanted to put it.  Just like picking a partner by looks and blind hope, that approach works, with luck, maybe 5% of the time.

Here’s a thought:  start by assessing your actual, physical, real-world needs (this really is starting to sound like relationship advice–the parallels are striking!  I may write a book!) and then search for your plant based on that. Do you have a corner that is in shade all day?  A hot, sunny balcony?  A tree whose roots have lifted up above the soil, spreading in every direction?  How often—truthfully, now—will you be checking the progress of your plantings to adjust water and care as needed?  How much money are you willing to spend on water monthly?  Ask these questions, don’t judge your responses, take a little time to think, and then it’s time to sally forth to the singles bars, um, nurseries, to pick out your right plant for the right place.

You can, of course, read widely and educate yourself about plants; you can take your next neighborhood stroll with an eye to noticing what plants are working in the kind of spots you’re planning for; and last, which might be first, you can seek expert advice.  Start by finding a nursery close to you.  Though the big-box stores are ubiquitous and value-priced, the staff is often not especially knowledgeable, so seek out local counsel, which can be far more accurate and useful.

You may have to find the manager—some nurseries seem to cycle through employees, so you want someone who’s worked there long enough to amass some knowledge of subject matter and region—but it’s absolutely worth your while.  Describe in specific detail the space you’re shopping for (low water, morning sun, deep afternoon shade, living room windowsill, e.g.), and then pay careful attention.  And then buy something from them.  If we expect these places to stay in business against the cutthroat competition and enormous buying power of the Home Depots et al, we have to be willing to do our part.

Whatever you plant, though, here are your mantras:  You have to water consistently till the plant is established.  Always.  And you can’t train a plant.

Marthas and statice

This hedge of pelargonium and statice is a good example of right plant, right place–
which for them is full sun and little water.

Piecework

Often when we think about going sustainable, we picture tearing out everything we have and starting all over again.  The prospect can be so exhausting that the project simply never begins, and so we just keep watering our lawns and cursing the water district.

We imagine that changing our landscape will be like organizing our closets, another large chore that no one leaps to do because it seems so monumental, so overwhelming, such a Hercules-cleaning-out-the-Augean-stables undertaking.  For this myth, I blame the shelter magazines and their photo spreads featuring makeover magic—the spaces utterly, and sometimes unrecognizably, transformed in the final reveal.

The truth is that you don’t have to take a closet or an outdoor space down to the studs; doing so is enormously time-consuming and expensive.  You can instead take it one corner, one bed, one patch of ground at a time.  You can chip away at the lawn without the chaos and rumpled look of a work in progress.

One way is to consider putting in big things (plants, pots, hardscape) where once there were thousands of little things (blades of grass).   Taking out a few feet of lawn and replacing it with a bed of larger, waterwise plants can be strikingly beautiful and will reap benefits almost immediately (do keep in mind that plants have to establish first).  If you have money and the inclination for hardscape, it’s another way to take up large amounts of space that won’t require water.  Covering an area with bark, mulch, or gravel is another option.

One of our neighbors is taking the little-bit-a-time approach by cutting big curved beds into what used to be lawn, and planting the new spaces with New Zealand flax (phormium), grasses, and succulents.  You can see by the photo that the owners really have a good eye for what works; as a person who doesn’t necessarily have that same gift, I look, and remember, and try to incorporate the principles into my own little-at-a-time planning.

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Beds of flax and grasses occupy space that was formerly lawn,
and soften the front of the house

These artistic neighbors, Matt and Denise, very generously let me take pictures and told me how they’ve gradually gone more sustainable over time.  Matt says the reduced lawn requires almost 50% less water, and the beds of flax and grasses (obtained for free from a friend—my favorite kind of plant shopping!) get no supplemental water at all.  Water-wise, money-wise, and still beautiful–that’s the best kind of sustainable.

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New Zealand Flax, fountain grasses, myoporum (ground cover) and strategically placed rocks require little to no supplemental water (especially the rocks).

The benefits of walking your neighborhood really can’t be overstated.  You get ideas of what to do (and the occasional insight on what not to do); you see for yourself what really works in your immediate location, and you realize you can change to a more sustainable gardening style a little bit at a time.  And best of all, you meet the nicest people.