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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Plants start to go in!

By: Jim Bishop.

This is a continuation of columns from September, October, and November 2015 newsletters about filling in our swimming pool and replacing it with a garden. The previous articles were about the construction and garden hardscape. This month’s is about the planting of the former pool area.

In the late winter of 2003, we were finally ready to start planting. I had been thinking of what we would plant since we bought the house in 1998. I watched the sun and shadow patterns carefully for several seasons and decided on the following for one area.

The garden to the northwest of the casita is one of the sunniest locations on our property. It is far enough away from the house to not be entirely shaded in the winter. In the summer, it gets very hot on sunny days and the old pool wall that surrounds the swimming pool area keeps out of the ocean breeze and also gophers. Two large glass windows in the corner of the wall allow in lots of light. We had also built a fountain in the area using the old bathtub that was left over from the house renovation. I had been dreaming of a succulent garden for years and decided that this would be the best place. I had already been buying succulents from Exotic Gardens (then located in Hillcrest) and selected the following large plants for the area:

Aloe thraskii - a large trunked aloe with long draping leaves

Aloe bainesii (now Aloe barberea) – a multi-branched tree aloe

Euphorbia ammak - a large pale green tree euphorbia

Euphorbia cotinifolia – Tree aloe with maroon heart shaped leaves

Furcraea foetida 'Mediopicta' – A large agave relative with variegated striped leaves

Euphorbia tirucalli ‘sticks on fire’ – A brightly colored bush shrub to small tree

Aloe plicatilis – a large shrub aloe with strap like leaves arranged in fans at the end of thick branches

Kalanchoe beharensis – the large leaf form with just a few trunks.

Agave bracteosa – squid agave

I had Carl from the Exotic Garden deliver the plants and he told me they would never fit into the space I allocated. Not be deterred, I planted them anyway. 17 years later the large plants are all still there. The A. thraskii today has grown to about 10 feet tall with 3 foot long draping leaves and a stout trunk. It blooms reliably each February. The A. barberea has slowly grown into a husky 20 foot tree with eleven ‘arms’. It seems to struggle a bit and has never bloomed. The Euphorbia ammak has been the biggest success story and looks to have over 100 arms. It grows 2 to 3 feet a year and today is close to 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. I’ve removed probably 50 or so outer ‘arms’ over the years and have many plants in the lower garden. It is quite spectacular when viewed from the living room window above.

Another great success story is the Euphoribia cotinifolia. I relocated an existing, but struggling Euphorbia cotinifola that had been elsewhere in the garden for several years but never grew much. After relocation it grew quickly and to today is about 25 feet tall and wide. It has small blooms in summer and many volunteers sprout near it which I weed out of the garden. It is a bit brittle and large branches have been blown out, so it gets some reshaping each year. Also nice that it is deciduous which allows for extra sun into the garden in winter. I much prefer this tree to more commonly used Cerris ‘forest pansy’. Both have a similar look, but the Euphorbia needs less water and the leaves retain their maroon color throughout the growing season.

Today the Frucraea is about 8 feet by 8 feet and nicely accents one side of the fountain. It gets scale insects in the summer on some of the lower leaves and is easily scarred, but still a focal point. The Sticks on Fire did too well and quickly grew to over 8 feet. The garden is shadier today and it doesn’t color up as well as well as ones in full sun. Each year it is a debate whether to keep it or remove it. I’ve trimmed it up high to keep it narrow and have rooted many more plants from the cuttings.

The Aloe plicatilis has grown to about 3 feet by 3 feet and sends up lots of inflorescences with candy corn-like flowers late each winter.

Originally there were 2 Kalanchoe beharensis, but one died a few years ago. The remaining one leans over a bit towards the fountain with 2 large knobby seven foot long trunks topped by very large triangular shaped fuzzy leaves. I’ve debating removing it…but so far it has survived being edited out.

Planted near the walkway, the Agave bracteosa was the highlight of the garden for a number of years. With its long recurved spider-like leaves it looked as though it was going to pull itself out of the garden and walk away. For many years it pupped like crazy and I started many new plants and gave countless others away. It started changing from green to purple and sent up a massive bloom several summers ago. It was fascinating to watch it grow and unwind each day. The final bloom stalk was about 8 feet tall and covered with yellow flowers. Today a remaining pup grows out vertically between the blocks of the retaining wall, and I still have many more pups in pots and the garden.

There was another unknown hybrid garden aloe in the area that bloomed with yellow and red flowers in the spring, but as the garden filled it, it became too shady for it and it was relocated to the garden down the hill. I replaced it with a nice green cycad that looks like a palm. Each year it sends up a big set of new fronds and is now about 6 feet tall and wide. In a slightly sunnier spot, an Aloe ferox was planted and has gotten quite large and blooms reliably in early winter.

I used the local rocks as mulch between the plants. Over the years many other succulents, annuals, bulbs and perennials have come and gone. Today there still remain several South African bulbs and smaller aloes and other succulents as groundcovers. More recently, I’ve been planting lots of different species of brightly colored bromeliads.

On the wall at the back of this garden I originally planted a Thumbergia ‘blushing susie”. I loved the multicolored flowers, but was surprised to find out that it produced viable seed that came up all over the garden. I removed the plant and have been trying to eliminate the seedlings for years. Today it is replaced with an Australian Hibbertia scandens vine, which blooms annually with nice big clear-yellow flowers.

Originally, just to the west of this area outside the pool wall was a Monterey pine tree. It looked like it had been a live Christmas tree that was planted in the ground. It grew quickly and was starting to shade the area. It rained pine needles continually which took hours of time to pick up from between the plants. It eventually got both white mildew and the borer so became an eyesore and was removed and replaced by two tall Euphorbia ingens. These quickly grew to 30 feet. However, half rotted and fell over in the wet winter of 2010. The remaining plant has a significant lean away from the constant seabreeze. I cut out about ½ of the plant trying to right it last year. However, the 70 mph wind storm in January snapped off about ½ of the remaining arms. I’m still trying to determine whether to leave it or replace it with something else that can better tolerate the windy location.

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