Dr. Camille Newton surveys her garden, the day after the Lilac Fire stopped at its perimeter.
Can landscaping protect a home from wildfire? Camille Newton, M.D., of Bonsall, CA, says yes. Dr. Newton started her six-year-old succulent garden mostly from cuttings. “It’s my go-to place after work,” she says, noting that gardening is a stress-reliever. The land’s nutrient-poor, decomposed-granite soil serves as a coarse, fast-draining substrate that she top-dresses with composted horse manure. (From another hobby: breeding Andalusians.) Irrigation is by overhead sprinklers. The land slopes, so densely-planted succulents also provide erosion control. On Dr. Newton’s frost-free, west-facing hillside grow swaths of jade (Crassula ovata), aloes, agaves, aeoniums and brilliant orange, ironically-named Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’.
A house next door burned to the ground. The only green thing left was a semi-cooked Agave vilmoriniana.
Dr. Newton, whose garden is in my book, Designing with Succulents (2nd ed.), was initially surprised that her garden “stopped the fire in its tracks,” she says, adding that houses next door and across the street burned to the ground. “You’d think succulents would burn, but they don’t.” This is likely because wildfire, which travels at around 15 MPH, doesn’t linger. Plants with thin leaves catch fire immediately and are carried aloft by strong winds, further spreading the blaze. In contrast, succulents—which by definition store moisture in thick, juicy leaves—cook and collapse. They may sizzle and char, but succulents don’t transmit flames.
When Dr. Newton and I were on TV, the segment was called “Saved by Succulents.”
In December 2017, soon after the Lilac Fire destroyed eight neighboring homes, Dr. Newton and I were interviewed on local TV news for a segment titled, “Saved by Succulents.” It’s available on my YouTube channel along with two other videos about succulents as fire-retardant plants, including a post-wildfire tour of Dr. Newton’s own garden.
Because succulents are colorful, waterwise and low-maintenance, I hope landscape professionals in wildfire-prone, mild-climate regions consider adding firebreak installation to their services. It takes a lot of succulents to surround a house, but here’s good news: It’s possible to do so without buying plants. Numerous Southern CA succulent gardens are becoming so well established that owners have plenty of trimmings that they hate to throw away. “I’ll give cuttings to anyone who asks,” Dr. Newton says, adding with a laugh, “and hopefully they’ll take some manure, too.”
Plant aloes in well-draining soil and “they’ll soon become your favorite succulents,” says Bill Schnetz, one of Southern CA’s most sought-after landscape designers. Bill uses aloes of all sizes in mild-climate residential gardens. For a natural look, he suggests mixing one or two kinds with tough, drought-tolerant ornamental grasses and flowering perennials. For a contemporary look, he recommends planting similar aloes “in rows and geometric blocks.”
Bill’s 14 Favorite Aloes
I asked Bill if he’d share which aloes he uses most often in clients’ gardens, and why. This list was compiled by Schnetz Landscape, Inc. with Rebecca Simpson.
Small aloes. These tough, toothed aloes handle adverse conditions. Height: 8 to 18 inches.
Aloe x nobilis, Aloe aristata, and Aloe humilis all grow tight and stay low.
Aloe ‘Rooikappie’ is Bill’s favorite small aloe. It gets a little bigger than the three above and is a good fit for small and large landscapes. It’s a repeat bloomer and transplants easily.
Mid-size aloes are good for borders and large-scale massing. Height: 18 to 36 inches.
Aloe striata has nice plump leaves and good floral color.
Aloe vera is dramatic planted en masse, and yes, the gel is useful for burns and cuts.
Aloe x spinosissima is a 2- to 3-foot sprawler great on hillsides and rocky soil.
Aloe cameronii is Bill’s favorite 2-foot aloe. Stays red all year if given full sun.
Tree aloes tend to be slow growing and may not look their best in cold winter months. Don’t plant them near foundations or under eaves—they do get big.
Aloe bainesii is a moderate grower, 15 to 30 feet tall. Leaves may turn yellow and get black spots, but with summer warmth and feeding they’ll green up.
Aloe dichotoma is slow-growing to 15 to 20 feet. It has nice gray leaves and is very drought tolerant.
Aloe ferox is slow growing to 6-10 feet with a single trunk that holds dead leaves.
Aloe ‘Hercules’ is a faster-growing hybrid with a thick, strong trunk. Give it plenty of room.
Shade-tolerant aloes useful as firebreak plants are fast-growing and spreading.
Aloe ciliaris is a sprawling succulent that will climb palm tree trunks. Take care that it doesn’t get buried in leaves and melt away. Sometimes called ‘Fire Wall’ aloe, when grown on a slope, the plants form a 3- to 4-foot mat of fire-resistant growth.
Aloe arborescens is probably the most commonly grown aloe in the world. If you have room for it, you can’t go wrong. It solves a multitude of landscape problems, and thrives everywhere—coast, low desert, foothills—from Mexico to San Francisco. Originally from South Africa, it’s also found all around the Mediterranean. This multiheaded aloe makes a good background plant and tolerates filtered shade beneath tall trees. For a dense barrier, plant 6 to 8 feet apart in a line or triangles. Height: 4 to 8 feet and spreading.
I first suspected that agave snout-nosed weevil had arrived in my rural community north of San Diego when I noticed a collapsed Agave americana in a friend’s yard. I could barely believe it. She lives atop a rocky hill surrounded by acres and acres of chaparral. Either the weevil had arrived via infested nursery stock (on a different agave most likely, seeing as the dying plant was part of an old colony), or it had walked in. Yes, walked. It’s a flightless beetle.
Not long afterwards, I saw telltale signs of snout weevil infestation a block from my home: An agave’s center was upright but its lower leaves had collapsed. (It’s shown here between two healthy ones.)
I’ve since observed that it takes a captive weevil ten days to die despite receiving no water nor food. “Mine” traveled about 4 inches per second and was a good climber.
Consider: If a dying agave hosts dozens of grubs that turn into beetles, and they scatter in different directions, one or more will certainly find another agave.
This fast-spreading pest prefers variegated (striped) Agave americana (century plants) but will go after other species and members of the Agavaceae family. It leaves behind collapsed plants with gooey, grub-infested cores.
If you live where agaves thrive in landscapes and gardens, snout-nose is likely in your area or soon will be. Because the beetle is most active in spring, now is the time to pre-emptively treat healthy agaves. Find out what experts recommend.
Go to my website’s Snout Weevil page for…
How to tell if you have an infested agave. How, when, and why the beetle attacks. How to protect your plants from infestation. Which varieties are most and least at risk. Safe ways to grow agaves in weevil areas. How to remove an infested agave. Updates on weevil controls.
Here in California, a spring garden’s most vivid blooms often are those of succulent ice plants. Aloes, bulbine and numerous arid-climate companions are bright and beautiful from March through mid-May. Increasing temps tend to put the kibosh on delicate spring flowers. If you live near the coast, you’ll enjoy a longer spring, but you may not get the sun and heat that makes many flowers blaze.
Spring is the season of flowers, so get outside and enjoy them. Soon enough, come summer, those hot colors will fade and your garden will go back to being mainly shapes and textures—which of course succulents do best. What many people don’t realize is that flowers are ephemeral—they flash and fade, and then you’re left with foliage. (I like to say that sentence in my talks. Try it. The alliteration is luscious.)
Above: A normally uninteresting corner of my garden is stunning in spring because of all the flowers. Red ones at center are Sparaxis tricolor, a bulb from South Africa. Easy-grow shrub daisies (Euryops pectinatus) echo the yellow margins of Agave americana ‘Marginata’—which though nearly engulfed, still makes a bold statement.
California poppies pop in spring. These bright orange annuals reseed every year. Behind them is Drosanthemum floribundum (rosea ice plant). Adding contrasting form is spineless opuntia. Almost incidentally, fruit on citrus trees repeat the poppies, and elevate their color to eye level.
Scilla peruviana, returns every March. It produces large, purple-blue snowflake flowers and then disappears for nine months. It was planted by the previous owner and I don’t do a thing to keep it going. But like all bulbs, it leaves behind droopy, messy foliage which you need to leave because it feeds the bulb for the next g0-round.
And as for ice plant, don’t plant just one variety. Combine several—not curbside, though, lest they cause an accident.
Becky Sell of Sedum Chicks plants cold-hardy succulents in repurposed wood-and-metal containers, hypertufa pots, wreaths and more. She grows the plants, too, where she lives in Turner, Oregon, near the Washington border.
Becky’s compositions can overwinter outdoors in northerly climates (Zones 4 to 8), providing the potting medium drains well. Cold-hardy succulents such as stonecrops and hens-and-chicks will also grow in Zones 8 and 9 if protected from heat in excess of 85 degrees and scorching sun. Some varieties, notably shrub sedums, die to the ground in any locale and come back the following spring.
In her designs, Becky often combines sedums (stonecrops), sempervivums (hens-and-chicks), and Delosperma ice plants. Of a little-known Rosularia species with soft, light green leaves, she says, “When people ask which plant is my favorite, this is definitely on the list.”
There are about 35 species in the genus Rosularia. The sempervivum-like succulents come from Europe, the Himalayas, and northern Africa.
Find more photos of succulents for Northern climates—including many of Becky’s favorites—on my website’s new Cold-Hardy Succulents page. I photographed the designs shown here during the Northwest Flower & Garden Show at the Sedum Chicks booth, which won an award for outstanding visual appeal.
Below: This bright red vertical container was a hit. At right, I darkened the photo to make plant IDs, in white letters, stand out, so you can see them better.
Below: Sempervivum ‘Jade Rose’ repeats the teal blue of a Sedum spathulifolium cultivar.
Below: In a cold-hardy wreath, Becky surrounded a large sempervivum rosette with smaller sedums, Delosperma cooperi (at lower left), and Sedum confusum (lower right).
Below: I’ve ID’d the three sedums in this wreath at right. Becky gives her plants “hair cuts” to keep them compact.
“I like its dark edges,” Becky says of Sempervivum ‘Black’, shown below in dramatic contrast with chartreuse Sedum ‘Lemon Coral’. At lower right is a succulent native to Oregon: Sedum oreganum.
Becky and husband Paul create planters from repurposed wood and metal. The bronzy succulents below are Sedum confusum, which blushes red-orange in a sunny location. When less confused, it’s bright apple green.
For wreaths and vertical gardens, Becky uses sphagnum moss to help hold plants in place. She emphasizes the importance of good drainage, which is true for all succulents, but especially those in rainy climates. Succulents from cold climates tend to have thin or small leaves and want a richer potting soil than thicker-leaved varieties from desert regions. Becky recommends Black Gold’s organic mix.
Melissa and her mom, Susan, had a floral shop in Solana Beach, CA when I met them in ’07. Then Susan retired, and Melissa (with partner Jon Hawley) launched CW Design & Landscaping, specializing in gorgeous in-ground gardens.
— Picks succulents in scale with their containers.
— Repeats plants’ colors and/or forms in her container selections.
— Uses lines and shapes of pots to lead the eye and frame the plants.
— Plants densely for a lavish look and uses topdressing to conceal the soil.
— Sets a container atop a table that becomes part of the composition.
— Expands her palette with non-succulents. A pink-striped cordyline adds drama to a tall pot; crypthanthus bromeliads create a wreath’s “bow.”
— Jazzes up gift arrangements with real bows of satin or velvet.
See Fresh Chic’s succulent designs at San Diego’s Spring Home/Garden Show, March 2-4, in the outdoor vendor area. Btw, social media really “likes” Melissa’s innovative, photogenic combos, so have your cell phone handy!
Fri., March 2 at noon and Sat., March 3 at 11:00, join me in the Bing Crosby exhibit hall in the presenters’ area (southwest corner).Also enjoy display gardens by top designers. The Show’s all about helping you make your home and outdoor living spaces your own private paradise.
Don’t pay admission! Come as my guest/s. You’ll still have to pay parking, but my VIP pass for two lets you waltz right in. (Print it out and bring it with you, like you would an airline boarding pass.) Hey! It’s worth $18!
Enter to win a copy of The Less is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard, simply by leaving a comment below. (To qualify, you must be 18 or older and have a mailing address in the US or Canada.) The winner will be chosen at random and notified via email Sat., Feb. 10. I’ll also put the winner’s name at the top of this post. Best of luck!
Here’s Morrison’s “less is more philosophy” of garden design:
— Less space, more enjoyment
— Less effort, more beauty
— Less maintenance, more relaxation
— Less gardening-by-the-numbers, more YOU.
In The Less is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard, Morrison’s practical, readable style expands on key points via case studies and illustrations anyone can relate to. The book is full of light-bulb moments. You find yourself thinking, “Why, yes, of course,” while wondering why such terrific insights on gardens, design, and outdoor enhancements hadn’t dawned on you before.
Mediterranean Blue Palm in summer-dry garden – Leaning Pine Arboretum.
For a garden photographer in California, seeking landscape settings for mature, appropriate plants adapted to the summer-dry climate, Leaning Pine is just about perfect. It is designed as a horticulture display garden for the ornamental horticulture program of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, so beauty has been a key criteria for introducing plants to the collection.
Agave attenuata (Fox Tail Agave), flowering succulent, Leaning Pine Arboretum
I see my work as trying to changing the aesthetic of what Western gardeners expect to see in garden photographs, to present gardens that do not fit the typical English or East Coast style. Don’t get me wrong, I love that lush style – where appropriate; but if the media only shows that style, gardeners in summer-dry climates will think that is the best model, and try to mimic it.
Sometimes mimicry is possible, by using cultivars adapted to the formal style often seen in traditional gardens. For that, Leaning Pine has a demonstration garden with shrubs that can take formal pruning.
Pruned boxwood hedges; Leaning Pine Arboretum, San Luis Obispo.
But more often the garden presents garden beds in a more naturalistic style with looser arrangements.
Pathway through Mediterranean section of Leaning Pine Arboretum.
These gardens are designed with water conservation in mind. Water is certainly important everywhere and most gardeners recognize it as a resource that must be managed carefully in a world with increasing population pressures, but in California and other summer-dry climates (sometimes called mediterranean), water is especially precious.
It does not rain here in the summer. That’s not drought, that’s normal; and the plants that have evolved to grow in this type of climate don’t require summer water. They often look better and are more firesafe with some supplemental water, so the craft of gardening is figuring out which plants can be adapted into cultivation.
This is the beauty of Leaning Pine Arboretum – the gardens are organized by plants native to summer-dry regions, the Mediterranean, Western Australia, Central Chile, the Cape of South Africa, and of course California. Within each of these sections, garden worthy plants native to their region are organized for horticulture inspiration.
The South African garden with Ice plants and Aloe, Leaning Pine Arboretum
The responsible gardener wants to use plants adapted to his or her own climate. This is a key element of sustainability. So it is no wonder Leaning Pine has been a great inspiration in my work. I can see plants from all over the world thriving under the same sunny, dry summer conditions.
Mediterranean Collection at Leaning Pine Arboretum, California garden
I especially love the California native plants that for too long were not considered garden worthy. Leaning Pine has done a great job disproving that idea and has combined native grasses, succulents, and shrubs into classy mixed borders.
Californa mixed border native plant garden, Purple Three-Awn grass, Agave parryi, Fairy Duster shrub at Leaning Pine Arboretum.
All parts the garden are inspiring and I know any photo I take in any section can be useful to gardeners.
From Italian Stone Pines:
Gravel path under Italian Stone Pine trees, Pinus pinea at Leaning Pine Arboretum, California
To California Desert Willows:
Chilopsis linearis – Desert Willow, Californa native tree in morning light at Leaning Pine Arboretum, California
I’m proud and pleased to announce that the winter issue (now shipping) of Garden Design, the premier magazine about the aesthetics of gardening, features my “Stunning Succulent Arrangements” online class and includes a photo of one of its seven projects—the Succulent Color Wheel.*
Method: Remove plants from their nursery pots and pack them tightly in a wide, shallow pot saucer so no soil shows. Place taller plants in the center, shorter around the rim, and arrange according to color. Water sparingly and give your Succulent Color Wheel plenty of bright light so hues stay vibrant.
Garden Design has no ads, so there’s nothing to distract readers from the beauty of the photos. You can immerse yourself in gorgeous gardens without someone staring back at you trying to sell you something.
It’s 148 pages of beautiful gardens and plants delivered each quarter. Many of the stories unfold over 8 to 20 pages—all behind-the-scenes look at topics we care about most: designing with plants, landscapes, container gardens, kitchen gardens, houseplants, and more.
This creates what publisher Jim Peterson calls a “bookazine.” Each issue is collectible and coffee-table worthy, with articles that are timeless. Everything about Garden Design, from paper and binding to the writing is quality. I’m honored to contribute occasionally for Garden Design, too—not only in print, but on their excellent website as well.
If you don’t get Garden Design yet, the Winter 2018 issue is a great one to start off with. My friends get their first issue free when they subscribe! Go online to https://www.gardendesign.com/dlb or call (855) 624-5110 Monday – Friday, 8 – 5 PST and mention this offer.
As I photographed California landscapes in 2017, I found myself composing lots of panorama photos.
Dawn in the Sonoran Desert at Anza Borrego California State Park
I visited a number of expansive landscapes in my quest to find inspiration for gardeners in adapting to our summer-dry climate. Using panorama cropping to evoke a sense of wide open spaces, my journeys started in the early spring when I went to Southern California for the wildflower superbloom.
Anza Borrego State Park in the Sonoran Desert is about as wide open space as you could imagine, and it was carpeted with wildflowers.
Desert Sunflower, Geraea canescens, wildflowers on desert floor of Sonoran Desert at Anza Borrego California State Park
Perhaps you remember my post The Wild Desert Garden and the glorious shrubs and perennials that were part of the Sonoran Desert superbloom.
Then, a few weeks later, I went on to see Carrizo Plains one of the last grassland preserves in California. It is even more expansive than Anza Borego. I loved seeing the road disappearing into the horizon through a field of Monolopia wildflowers.
Carrizo Plains National Monument, California carpeted with wildflowers in the superbloom 2017
I made a post about making panoramas at Carrizo on my PhotoBotanic blog where you will find some of these photos shown as before and after.
Poa secunda, One-sided Bluegrass, flowering grass in afternoon light Carrizo Plains National Monument, California
Spring superbloom 2017, Carrizo Plains National Monument, California
The only real trick about making a panorama crop out of the traditional camera rectangle viewfinder, once you pre-visualize what you are seeing, is to line up the horizon line in the middle of the frame to reduce lens warping.
Panorama framing – Autumn landscape panorama West Bijou Ranch, Colorado.
Then, when you crop to panorama size later, you can compose the final composition where the horizon line is not dead center, but in the original capture, by putting the horizon line in the center you will keep it straight for the final photograph after cropping.
Autumn landscape panorama West Bijou Ranch, short grass prairie.
In Oklahoma, I visited The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, another vast grassland, suited to panoramas.
Prairie Milkweed flowering in Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma
I am studying native prairies, meadows, and grasslands to help understand the role of a healthy soils and healthy vegetation to carbon sequestration in the rhizosphere underneath our feet. More on the Tallgrass Prairie Rhizosphere.
Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma with Rudbeckia hirta and Wild Rye.
At the end of the year I started documenting the recovery after the wildfires in Northern California.
Fire damage and recovery from Nuns fire Sonoma Regional Park, California
Burned Oaks backlit, California native landscape panorama, recovery after 2017 Sonoma fires, Pepperwood Preserve
Late afternoon light makes the burned trees seem as if they have fall color. The panoramas lend a majestic quality, perhaps unfairly for this devastation, but there is a certain determined beauty to this landscape and I sense nature is grand in all its aspects. Full post on the fire recovery at PhotoBotanic.
Whatever the natural processes our landscapes evolve with, we gardeners can observe what has been sustained, and learn to compliment Mother Nature’s work with our own.