Tuesday, June 1, 2010


A couple or three years ago, I enjoyed the privilege of developing an extensive plot of land in Old Topanga. It is set in the Santa Monica Mountains, and it really is quite an escape from Los Angeles. The property had been formerly owned by a couple who were dedicated to choosing rare and interesting plants that would survive with little irrigation. Between owners, the house was vacant and the drought tolerant flora was truly put to the test. Many of the trees looked god awful. It had been eight months since the last rain. But for the most part, everything survived.

The most lush and prevalent plants were these huge, light green rosettes. They were growing everywhere beneath the beautiful California Peppers. I was impressed with them, and coveted them. During the course of the work, we transplanted many of them to more prominent places. I used the same method, so successful with jade, which consists of simply sticking a cutting in the ground. I made a promise to myself to take some cuttings back to L.A. I didn't particularly feel the need to ask permission of George and Rebbecca. They were a lovely, romantic couple, who fell in love in art class. George was the teacher, and Rebbecca the student. Their bohemian temperaments suited this environment. They remodeled the house and hired us to create a handsome, Proven├žal terraced perennial garden. They loved the adventure, other than George's dislike for building inspectors, and Rebbecca's fear of snakes.

It was two years later that I found the opportunity to be true to my goal of harvesting some of these fascinating succulents. I was not sure how possessive George would be of his happiest plant, but that didn't really matter, because he wasn't around, and I was in authority as the landscape designer! I would decide what plants should be thinned. Nobody likes it when plants crowd each other out. So, with a casual, but deliberate and thoughtful manner, I snipped off these lovely green rosettes, never once glancing over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching.

I could only think of how successful and lovely they would be in my own garden. I was sure I would be able to impress my new bride. She has little tolerance for things that don't work, so I was sure I was safe with these indestructible plants; aeoniums by name, which comes from a Greek word meaning "immortal."

I showed them to my wife, and she was most intrigued.  So I proudly proceeded to plant them.  She seemed skeptical when I plugged them into the ground, but true to form, they grew and made a handsome addition to our distinctive modern-industrial home in Sherman Oaks.

My wife, Jenny, became very fond of these pristine, light green, magical plants, and was inspired to try her hand at creating a succulent garden all by herself.  She had tried her hand with "snaps" and pansies and Icelandic poppies, but they had always seemed a bit fickle and transitory.  Conversely, these succulents were highly cooperative, and tenacious.

The front walk was overwhelmed by Heavenly Bamboo.  To me, a nice enough plant, but to Jennifer, all wrong for this application.  She had actually become rather disgruntled with them, and on occasion refer to them as "un-Heavenly Bamboo."  So she banished it, and over the course of the year, created a succulent garden which was quite an art installation.  She had put together what we call a "jewel box" garden.  It is actually more like a hundred treasure chests!  She went mad!  Like anyone who has success with something, she just wanted to do more, and more, and more...

There has been many a visitor who has been arriving, or trying to leave, and has been trapped in an unsolicited tour of her succulent garden.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard the words "Alastair showed up with some Aeoniums which he nicked from an unsuspecting client, and he just stuck them in the ground, and they grew and grew".  In fairness to Jenny, people are most impressed, and express interest in her creation.

Much of her gardening endeavors she considers an experiment, and she's given me free reign to experiment with interesting plants.  Her experiments have been a great success, partly due to the nature of succulents.  They have all been growing and producing young.  Each of the rosette type succulents quickly become surrounded by babies.  And the popular common name, "hen and chicks," seems so perfect.

She would spend many hours lovingly caring for the succulents, and redistributing the chicks to other parts of the garden.

Beside my wife's own interest in succulents, I have had many requests from clients for them.  They are a very suitable plant for dry, shady places.  So I selected aeoniums for a Griffith Park hillside home, with Oak trees. I was loathe to buy 100 aeoniums after my success with the Old Topanga harvesting raid, so I scoured my memory for where I had seen them.  Jenny mentioned that her bagpipe teacher, the Scotsman, John McLean Allan, had a whole "forest" of them.  So I traded some plumbing for a bushel of the beauties, and a few other varieties to boot.  With these lovely, large, aeoniums, I was able to impress my client for a very nominal cost.

One of my other memorable associations with blessed Crassulaceae (Cra-sula-see-eye), was at the garden of a dear client, Nancy McCook.  She enjoyed all kinds of cacti and succulents, that we had planted,  including Blue Agave, Aloe, Prickly Pear, Autumn Joy Sedum, Senecio (commonly known as Blue Chalk Fingers), and Hen and Chicks in a lovely bluish green color as shown above.

These cacti and crassulaceae were combined with Sages, Ornamental Grasses, Lantana, Rosemary, and other drought-tolerant plants.  In her lovely way, she expressed her appreciation so warmly for the garden we had created.

The garden thrived, and the plants propagated.  The Hens and Chicks developed into dramatic mounds of crowded rosettes.  The Star Jasmine and the Purple-Leaf Acacia tree grew beyond her roof.  Sadly, Nancy became ill and spent less time in the garden.  Because of Nancy's desire to be of no trouble to anyone, she never mentioned anything about her health. I knocked on her door to discuss some final details of the work and she appeared, frighteningly short of breath and had to sit on the porch. Although I was not finished my work, she was determined to pay me. I learnt why through my immediate inquiries. Friend and neighbor, Dan Conroy, informed me of the severity of her condition. She had little time left. This was three weeks before Nancy passed away from lung cancer.

She had been determined to complete the stone patio in an attempt to leave things in order after she was gone.  The Arizona Flagstone was laid on top of an old concrete slab that Nancy played on as a child. She recalled the day it was poured fifty some years prior and knew that a few corners were cut explaining the gaping crack across the middle that we were able to hide with the new layer of stone. The finished product was beautiful. She had us trim up the garden as always, and she encouraged me to thin the Hen and Chicks.  So again, I was faced with the redistribution of this unstoppable plant.  I had the perfect place for them. In preparation for my wedding I filled the cracks in the ruined walls of the garden I had created specifically for such events. The handsome and striking blue green Echeveria are ideal for the places where plants struggle due to lack of water.  So I planted them everywhere and gave the garden's owner, Susann, a wonderful introduction to this family of plants. She saw them thrive in spite of her fitful gardening style and ultimately created some beautiful succulent pots to replace more perishable plant choices that had gone before.

Every time I visit this garden these plantings serve as a sweet reminder of a truly dear woman. Although Nancy is gone now, I feel that much of her warmth and goodness remains and endures in the form of fond memories kept alive by the sight of those clusters of ever multiplying aqua plants with distinctive pale lining to every petal.

Southern California does not have an easy environment for many of the plants that we love and desire. The soil is alkaline the water is scarce and we plant trees that cast shade everywhere. There are many  disappointed Los Angeles homeowners who live with gardens suffering from high PH, too much shade and punitive water rationing by the Department of Water and Power. Succulents do not need acidic soil, do not need much water and many do perfectly well in shade. They thrive with benign neglect.

I would encourage everyone to consider introducing succulents. They are all the rage. Beyond the aforementioned key merits, they also provide continuous striking but tasteful colors that are very complimentary of each other.  They have the visual strength of cacti without the hostile spines. The dramatic strong structure of succulents goes well with modern and industrial architecture in particular, but this radical and intriguing family of plants, Crassulaceae, can be a great addition to any garden. Whether it is a crack dwelling minute Sedum, which survives under a month of Scottish snow, or a big green Agave Attenuata that likes climates similar to Central Mexico, or anything from the myriad of variations in between, GET INVOLVED WITH SUCCULENTS.