Sunday, May 22, 2011

Logistics of Building Materials for our Xeriscape Garden

I'm the director, engineer, laborer, janitor, curator, gardener you name it. So I get right to it. I looked into irrigation systems; sprinklers, drip irrigation and the likes and decided that I'm going to hand water my plants since selecting drought tolerant plants will greatly reduce the need for frequent watering. As for drainage issues, I think that using 60% cactus mix and 40% pumice as a planting medium will be enough without me having to install french drains. Besides, it doesn't rain that much here in L.A.

I visited three companies that sell rocks to check prices and gather samples.

This is what we decided to use for the center gravel area. It's called California Gold 3/8" crushed rock.

I need to cover a little bit less than 510 square feet with 2" of California Gold 3/8" crushed rock. I needed 3.15 cubic yards worth of crushed rock according to a gravel calculator. I found a building supply company that sells to contractors but is open to public. I ended up using 82 bags (7/8 cubic yard) bags of crushed rock for the front yard, and 3 tons of 3/4" pea gravel for the side path. My crushed rock was only $4.73 per bag. Note that the side path is going to be packed four inches deep with the pea gravel ($55 per ton). I used half of it on the side path. I plan to use the extra for the backyard later. I bought two rolls of weed block landscape fabric with staples to hold it down. For the edging; I used 4" x 4" pressure treated wood in 8 feet lengths for the straight edges and a flexible plastic edging I found on Amazon for a very reasonable price. Some people said using wood stakes would be cheaper but I decided to give the plastic ones made by the same company a try.

Now I remove the organic top layer which was mostly weeds and a couple of wild mushrooms. I removed about 6" worth of soil just to make sure that I clear all of the roots of the weeds. This took me two weeks. I spent about 40 hours doing it. Then I sprayed weed killer in the gravel area, making sure to stay at least one foot away from the planting areas. Then I pin the weed block landscape fabric down. The company that sold me the gravel was quick to deliver my purchase on the next day after I placed my order. The delivery fee was only $65.

Their fork lift barely fit into my small driveway.

I sprayed the dirt with marking paint where my edgings were going and installed all of the edging first. I finished the gravel path to the side yard first because that was the easiest. My friend Yuho helped me fill the space in with 3/4" pea gravel.

Then the weed block landscape fabric was installed. I got excited and planted some plants in the front corner. Things are starting to look good.

I actually only put 74 bags of the crushed rock down and saved the extra 8 bags in anticipation that it will settle and sink a little bit over time. Done with the crushed rock! Man, that was HARD WORK! But well worth it. :)

Euphorbia Xantii: The Cherry Blossom of the Desert Garden

Euphorbia Xantii: The flowers, close up!

What I love most about the Euphorbia Xantii is how it reminds me so much of Japanese Cherry Blosoms (Sakura). The little pink flowers cluster on the branches and create sweet, delicate clouds. And while the flowers are much smaller than a regular sakura blossom, the 5-petaled bloom is reminiscent in shape. The branches are thin which give the overall plant a sort of airiness. And also, because this plant is also a rhizome, it reminds me of bamboo as well.

Sakura Blossoms: The Flowers Close Up!

I was so happy when I found this plant for sale. While I think it's common to see in the wild in Baja California / Mexico, I don't think it's very often seen in collections. Naturally, I had to grab this darling desert plant for our home. Since it has the potential to grow tall and shrub like, we intend to keep it in a skinny container and display it in the courtyard. Our hope is that it will grow in height while inhibiting it's sideways growth. Imagine a dreamy umbrella of little pink flowers! ::happy sigh!:: The best feature of the Euphorbia Xantii is that the flowers appear in spring and will last through until summer! (That's quite a long time!)

It is a drought tolerant plant which will require little watering and is native to Baja California. The common complaint is how invasive the plant is which is why we opted to keep it contained. If planted in the ground, it is not hard to remove excess growth, but the milky sap is difficult to avoid. (Remember, euphorbias contain a sap in their branches which is harmful to humans!) I think it is a rather scary looking shrub -- I couldn't imagine trying to maintain this mess:

To learn more about invasive desert plants, there is a great article on You can read it at this link: Invasive Succulents in My Yard by By Geoff Stein

Our plant ID tag says:
Euphorbia xantii
HBG 27819 ex Virginia Martin
Ed Gay coll.: Mexico, Baja Calif., Bahia
de Los Angeles. Shrub 2 to 3 m tall & wide.
Showy pink spring fls. Sun. Hardy 20's $12.50

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Xeriscaping Ninjas

Xeri is Greek for dry. Xeriscaping refers to a method of landscape design that minimizes water use.

We decided that our main goal was to create a beautiful garden without using as much water. Saving water is saving money, and our local law doesn't let us water often enough to keep the grass consistently green anyways.

We are ninja because we work in the night. Our neighbors wake up and see something new every once in a while. We thought it was a more fun than being Gnomes anyway.

Our first landscaping call to adventure comes from the need to improve our front yard. During a big rain storm, one giant branch from our Maple tree fell on the garage roof and put a two feet wide hole through the shingles. After I patched the roof up we saw that the tree was hollowed out by a gigantic bee hive. We didn't want to maintain the giant maple so we hired professionals to remove it. Then it was time to do some landscaping!

Other than looking at our parent's homes for inspiration and ideas, I bought some books to learn about drought tolerant plants. My favorite three are Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin, and Desert Gardens by Gary Lyons. These books were essential to teaching me not only what the names of each plants were, but also how to care for them, and how to display them in a setting. In addition, we looked at everyone's yard that we drove past. We looked at how businesses and schools had their landscape designed and looked at their plant selections.

My wife bought us a one year family membership to the Huntington Botanical Gardens. The funny thing is that one of my friend's father is the current curator for their Desert Garden. This happens to be the most important Desert Garden in the world!

We visited there often and took lots of photos and notes. This place was our main source of inspiration for designing our own private desert garden in the front yard. Our next step was to make a list of plants that we absolutely loved and had to use. We tried to choose plants with different shapes, sizes, textures, and colors. My wife wanted a very vibrant and colorful landscape design and I agreed. So we decided to use orange and blue because we loved this set of complimentary colors. The other options were red and green, or yellow and purple. Our main blue plant is senecio mandraliscae (blue chalk sticks) which we decided to place in the front and contrast it against our main orange plant which was euphorbia tirucalli (sticks on fire), the smaller shrubby form that often shows more orange. The plan was to place this orange plant in the back. There were two other plants we immediately knew that we must have, the Krauter Vesuvius (purple leaf plum) and the manzanita native to our area of Southern California. Both are very drought tolerant once established in the ground. The other plants we chose were more flexible depending on our budget.
So off to the drawing board I went! Here's what I came up with.

The next stage is plant aquisition, materials, budgeting, and construction. We needed plants, edging, and gravel. I provided the labor. We were on a shoe-string budget so we had to be flexible when it came to the secondary plants choices in our drawn out plan. More on this later.

Dad's Collection

Dad had LOTS of plants! Euphorbias, cacti, traditional Bonsai trees, and even common nursery plants. Look at the amazing purple wisteria Bonsai! This was home to me for so many years until I moved out at the end of 1999. I don't ever remember a struggling plant. Home was always green, lush, and healthy. It was a mystery to me how he did it because I had no hand in it. It's funny because back when I was still living with my parents, I didn't know the names of the plants and now that I bought some for our own house it appears that we have the same tastes. I acquired many of the same kinds of plants my Dad had coincidentally. The only plant that I bought that I knew my Dad had was Old Man Cactus. I believe he had Old Man of the Mountains cactus, while I preferred Old Man of the Andes.

To the right with orange sticks on top is a tree form of Euphorbia tirucalli, related to the smaller sticks on fire shrub but this form will grow into a big and tall 15-20ft. tree if put into the ground. It is more green than sticks on fire also. Heat will make the sticks turn orange. On the left with the red flowers is Euphorbia Milii (Crown of thorns). Euphorbias will ooze a milky sap called latex when it is punctured or cut and that liquid is poisonous so don't eat it or rub it into your eyes.

Dad had plants I don't even know about.

Purple was Mom's favorite color.

Me and Dad. To the left in the back is Golden Bamboo. Between us is a Euphorbia Lambii. You can only see the top of it. To the right of the red leafed plant in the back is an Aloe plicatilis (fan aloe)

Look at the size of this beautiful Wisteria Bonsai!

This is called a Beaucarnea recurvata (bottle palm)

Growing up in this environment must have subliminally influenced my own interest and certainly gave me the seed of inspiration to create my own garden.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Succulent Window Box: How To DIY!


Let's revisit that sad little window box, shall we? It's empty and IT NEEDS SOME PLANTS! Need some advice? Here's a photo gallery of how we did it.

Here are our cuttings of choice. A few large rosettes to offset the smaller cuttings. This is "xGraptoveria 'Fred Ives.'" "Graptopetalums work well as cascaders, providing they are shelter from wind and passerby. Their leaves fall off readily, which is one way the plant reproduces: roots form at the stem end! Fred Ives form large (up to 6") rosettes. Depending on the lighting, they can go from blues to rose or yellows. (In the shade, expect cooler colors, in full sun, expect warmer tones!) And in spring, they'll bloom pretty yellow flowers.

This second group of cuttings I found in our collection are: Crassula marginalis f. rubra. A cascading mass of thick pink, green and lemon variegated leaves. Wonderful in a hanging pot. White flowers. Sun/part sun. A couple long stemmed jade rosettes and baby aloes.

We filled the bottom of the window box with volcanic rock for easy and fast drainage. The cactus mix soil (which for this batch, we purchased from Home Depot) is mixed with more perlite. I mixed it into the soil well with my scoop.

Large plants first! First I placed the large Graptopetalums in first. Since they're large and focal pieces in the pot, I wanted them to be strategically placed. In the end, I placed one large "rose" on each end, with a smaller one closer to the left. Later on, you'll see that I place another in the middle.

Next, place your medium sized cuttings. I draped the bright green jade plants near the two rosettes on each end. I LOVED how the bright colors stood out against the white of the box.

Accent with draping succulents. We accented long stems of sedeveria around all sides of the box. These were given to us by a generous relative. They did have rosettes at the ends, but transport cause many of the "leaves" to break off. (While that is sad, many of the broken leaves have already started to root and sprout! So we're excited about that.) When it fills in, it should look fantastic. :)

Add a few more accent plants to balance the colors and space and you're done! We filled in the space above the sedeveria with a the deep pink sedum to give it a neat layered look and to also break up the large rosettes with bright color. I hope it won't weight the sedveria down too much, but we'll see how it holds up! I threw in an ice plant in the back (you can't see it) as well as a few aloe pups, so it should fill in nicely sooner than later! YAY!


Whew! Thanks for reading! Ninja out!

Tech Specs:

Box size is 40" wide x 12" deep x 12" tall and can be bought at Home Depot but if you build your own, try to use cedar or redwood because they are rot resistant. Pressure treated boards are treated by chemicals so they are not the best for your plants to make contact with. We used heavy duty metal brackets and weather proof deck screws.

One bag of 3/4" .75 cubic foot red lava rock will fill the bottom half of the box keeping the whole box light-weight and speeds drainage.

Succulent Window Box: Inspirations!

Our front yard design just isn't complete without a garden box in front of our lonely window. Right now, it looks just like this:

Pretty lonely and lame! (And I need some new shutters!) We do have quite a few cuttings from friends and family that I'm sure will look fabulous in the box, so I've got to go put my creative hat on now!

In any case, I still wanted some creative inspiration. So, I scoured the internet and came across these gorgeous photos:

I'm sure it's part photography skills that makes this photo a stunner, but the combination of zwartkop aeoniums, blue senecio and bright green aeoniums makes this a colorful delight. I'm sure even without Photoshop, this design would be breathtaking in person.

I particularly love how this one turned out. It looks like it is one of those half-oval iron baskets you can purchase at Home Depot. With a good helping of sphagnum moss, you can plant into the sides of your window box for a real Earthy look. I do love how that heavy echeveria is hanging out of the bottom. To me, it gives the basket a floating feel.


I don't know about you, but I took a great big gulp at the sight of these! I mean, look at this one! The way the senecio just drapes down over that wall? It's epic and so lush! The blue is just beautiful against the green. It's amazing how simple it is but it can makes such a great statement.

So, with inspirations like these, I'm pumped up to give it a try...

1. Unknown Source. 2. bwisegardening: Day 91 - A Succulent Sensation 3. Garden Dancing: The Amazing World of Succulents

A New Hope

"In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them." ~Aldo Leopold

Win and I emptied out a box of succulents today and I was delight to find that some of the fallen leaves have rooted and sprouted. There is no greater joy than finding hope for life in a little seedling in the palm of your hand.

The beginning

My wife and I bought our house in Van Nuys, CA in November of 2009 and this is what it looked like from the front at that time. On the left is a Chinese Juniper, center was a giant green leaf maple, right is a chinese yew. The grass was yellow and when it grew back, we had a massive weed problem. In addition, random mushrooms would pop up out of the ground. Later on, I learned that there was a massive beehive in the maple and huge portions of it's thick branches were hollowed out because of the bees. The mushrooms were popping up because some of the maple tree's roots were rotting below the ground. Crabgrass and dandelions grew wildly and spread very aggressively.

Our yard was the ugly duckling in the neighborhood for a long time while I was fixing the interior of the house. At the end of May in 2010, my parents and Sister came to our house and stayed over for a night. My mom was very happy to take photos all around the house because she was excited and proud that we owned property. I felt bad because the landscape was terrible. From that moment even though I had no landscaping or even gardening experience I became very motivated to make things nicer outside so that she would be able to come back and take nicer photos. My Dad had a love for all kinds of plants but some of the most memorable to me were the bonsai and desert potted plants. This was my starting point.

Below are photos of Mom, Dad, and my sister at our house the summer of 2010.

My sister is on the left, my wife in the center, and Mom on the right.

2011 Annual Plant Sale at the Huntington Library

Win and I joined the army of other plant enthusiasts Saturday morning for the Huntington Botanical Garden's Annual Plant Sale. It was ALARMING at how incredibly long that line becomes at 10:30 a.m.! (They don't kid around when they tell you to arrive as early as 8 a.m. if you REALLY want first dibs!)

The plant sale is set-up right at the entrance giving it perfect access to the parking lot. This makes toting your plants home alot easier. I found the event to be very well organized. They even set-up a "holding area" for non purchased plants in case you feel like visiting the main gardens before heading home at the end of the day.

It seemed alot smaller than I expected, but the selection was unbelievable. I do suggest doing research on what you really want for your home and garden prior to visiting. Dilly dally too much, and someone will definitely snatch up the good specimens! They had separated areas for plant types: cactus/succulent tables, herbs & edibles, bromeliads/air-plants/orchids, annuals, perennials, shrubs, etc. After getting the lay of the land, it was easy to navigate the floor.

Try not to freeze in shock upon entering. You might waste precious time!

Roses to whet your appetite. These are a HUGE seller. Judging by the color variations alone, I can't blame them.

Look at the head on this one. Lovely.

Azaleas in bloom. I had to resist bringing a gallon home.

Edibles and noms! I kill fragile, edible plants, so I stayed away. They did, however, offer "Chocolate Mint!" I carried this plant around for a while before I wistfully put it back.
In case you're hoping to go next year, here are a few tips:
1. Bring a cart! Don't have one? No worries! We saw wheelbarrows, library book carts, tea carts, radio flyers, a dolly with plastic bins bungee corded to it. ::eyebrow raised?:: Pretty much, if it's on wheels and you can cart away your purchases on it, it's A-OK! The only trick is maneuvering yourself around tables and plants while not running into people's ankles.
1.5. DOH! Forgot your cart? No worries! They have a stack of boxes at the entrance for your shopping needs. Great for toting around smaller plants.
2. They do take credit card, so don't fret if you couldn't make it to an ATM!
3. Not sure if you like that plant? Cart it around for a while and give it some thought. If you walk away from a plant, it might not be there a few minutes later! If you decide against a purchase, just go put it back where you found it. (All of the plants come from the Huntington! You can pick up a plant and visit a different table if necessary. There's only one check-out and exit area, anyway. So, don't think you look suspicious leaving the table with a plant in hand!)
4. Some of the table volunteers aren't plant experts! Ask for the curator who might be around (and available) to answer your questions.
5. Bring a snack and some water! If you plan on being die-hard to stand in line at 8 a.m. before walking around at the sale, chances are you'll get hungry and thirsty!
6. Don't underestimate the size of your vehicle! They sell everything from large golden barrel cactus to Japanese Red Maple trees! Make sure your vehicle has proper storage room for your taller or wider purchases.

What is up with the colors on this one? Fantastic! (Cleistocactus Ferrari)

Win and I did come home with new treasures, but that's a post for another day. :)