By Donna Mallen.
Meeting photos and screenshots by Janet Ward.
Gabriel Frank is the author of Striking Succulent Gardens: Plants and Plans for Designing Your Low-Maintenance Landscape.
Don’t let the title of our May speaker’s new book, Striking Succulent Gardens, lead you to the assumption that this may be just another succulent book like the others you’ve already got on your shelf. The photographs illustrating some of the gardens created by Gabriel Frank’s landscaping firm in the San Luis Obispo area, and those shared with us in his slide presentation, demonstrate that beautiful, yet thoroughly pragmatic, results can be accomplished with a strategic mix of succulents, natives, and other plants that are suited to our own yards.
Mr. Frank’s mastery of landscape design and plant cultivation arose from his life-long passion for growing plants and his studies at the School of Professional Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. After graduating, he interned at the Coast Botanical Garden in Mendocino and made his home on the Central California Coast, developing his successful Landscape Design and Installation business, Gabriel’s Gardens. He has an artist’s eye and a botanist’s mind.
He wants to enable you to use simple design principles to organize your plants into a landscape that is both striking to the eye and successful in our “water challenged” climate.
In his gardens, pops, or in some instances, blasts, of color, burst out within a flow of contrasting gray or green Agaves. Horizontally-veined rocks are placed next to vertical spikes and sprays of Aloes or Beaucarnias. Below lies a carpet of Dymondia or Senicio.
The artful execution of design principles – scale and rhythm, texture and contrast - draw the viewer’s full attention to stunning compositions throughout the gardens. Within the range of plants that are suited for the site, those of a particular size, shape and texture are carefully selected with consideration of their visual relationship with their neighbors.
As the subtitle of his book indicates, the projects demonstrated in his book show you, in specific detail, how to re-create the same effects in your own garden. He teaches you the elements of the design principles and the processes used in creating each project – site preparation, planting in deliberate layers, shapes and colors, taking the growth habit of each plant into consideration and offering alternate plant selections for your site.
He helps you plan for success by allowing for sun exposure and drainage appropriate to your soil, site and frost zone when planting. He advises the use of gopher cages to fend off ravaging rodents from the start and devotes a page of his book to Calculating Your Soil, Compost, Mulch, and Stone Needs to plan your new landscape.
He also covers propagation (including instructions for harvesting bulbils and offsets, as well as by leaf and stem cuttings) and maintenance, container planting, and tips for gardeners who live outside of the magical Mediterranean 3% of the Earth’s growing space, with a list of cold-hardy succulents.
Standing out in many of the gardens are his “build-your-own” corrugated sheet metal containers, particularly effective when rusted to a copper color, contrasting beautifully with blue-gray Agaves, or lime green leafy plants. These were an audience favorite.
He strongly encourages the incorporation of non-succulents, such as the Proteaceae family, Coprosma, Calliandra, Acacia, Acanthus, drought-tolerant sages, grasses and other low-water plants from around the world, into your succulent gardens. He includes a Quick-Reference Guide to Companion Plants for Succulents in the book, as well as a very good index of plant names to page references to assist you in developing your shopping list. As I look at his photos, I ask myself why my garden is deprived of the lovely rosettes of variegated Agave attenuata “Sun Ray” that create such an elegant display, seen at the time marker 21:29 of the YouTube video of his talk. Gabriel Frank has inspired me to do some editing to my yard.