Darwin isn’t the only giant in our garden!

Despite the drought, or maybe it’s because of the drought, I’m spending even more time this summer in our garden than last. Most summers I’ve had an abundant vegetable garden requiring a lot of time and attention, but with severe water rationing I knew that to grow a few tomatoes and some squash would redirect water needed to save other garden areas from becoming severely parched.

It’s been challenging, but I’m not ready to concede my love of gardening to this drought. Not yet. I’m very happy when my hands are in the dirt. This fall we will have lived in our home for 42 years and I feel very personally attached to every living thing, and some have stories that make them even more special to me.

Pony tail palm

It feels like just yesterday I planted this ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) in the earth. It had lived a few years quite nicely in a plastic nursery pot, but when it started to strain against the sides it was time to let it spread its cramped roots.

I have three of these unusual beauties, and they are all going to get much larger. A ponytail palm can grow into very old specimens with over 20 feet of trunk, and trunks can branch multiple times with multiple heads of leaves.

It’s possible that at some point we may need to have them professionally relocated or even donate them to a botanical garden. Fortunately they are very slow-growing and require 50-100 years to achieve this height. I don’t think I need to worry about them right now.


My grandmother gave me a small Sago Palm “pup” at least thirty years ago. It has a very prominent presence in a far corner of our garden, and I don’t inspect it very often. But look what I found earlier this month.

Male sago palm


Sago palms are either male or female, with distinctly different reproductive organs. It takes 15 to 20 years for these characteristics to become prominent and then they don’t “flower” more than every few years. This male specimen still produces little “pups” at its base, and I plan to see if I can remove them successfully for propagation.

Sago and ponytail palms are not palms. Sago palms are cycads, primitive plants dating back 200 million years, and the ponytail palm is a native of Mexico classified in the Asparagaceae family.


This once small Golden Barrel cactus came home with me years and years ago, a simple garden center purchase. He’s been residing with other cactus and succulents very near the backyard railroad and needed to have more breathing space.

Golden Barrel Cactus

We moved him from the backyard to the front, giving him a lot of space to grow. I didn’t measure his circumference, but let’s just say he’s bigger than a basketball!

If I had more room I’d love to mass Golden Barrel cactus. But I go to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens and walk through the cactus and succulent gardens very often, imagining what it would be like to have all of this space–and the professional landscapers to help me take care of it.


Another once quite small agave moved from plastic pot to the earth a few years ago and is now a show-stopper.

Agave durangensis

Agave durangensis forms large rosettes of up to 6 feet across. My guy is well on its way, and is probably three feet across. How do you like the jagged, sharp edges and those thorns?

Agave thorns

Agave specimens are plentiful in the garden centers right now and featured in some spectacular drought-tolerant landscaping. I love the variety, but you would need a home with lots of space.

We seem to have a habit of bringing things home that will outgrow (and possibly outlast) our ability to care for them properly.

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Our African Sulcata is almost 8 years old now and weighs somewhere around 60 pounds.  I’m guessing at his weight, but I can still lift him…awkwardly!  In captivity tortoises may not live as long as in the wild, 80 to 100 years, and even size may be affected, but they can grow up to two and half feet long and weigh 80-110 pounds or more.

Darwin joins the family
Be careful what you bring home from the pet store (2008)

We’ll be home this weekend taking care of our jumbo responsibilities. There’s a slight chance of rain and thunderstorms…wouldn’t that be delicious! I’ll also plan to exhale a little bit…I need to take care of myself so that I’m able to continue taking care of all these giants!

Enjoy your weekend, too, my friends.


Garden learning curves and letting go of perfection

The birds like our back yard. They should. We provide a very dependable open buffet.


On the other hand, I haven’t been successful in creating the same open invitation to the highly endangered Monarch Butterfly. For the last two years I’ve tried to learn about native milkweed versus some varieties potentially disruptive to the monarch’s migratory path.

I didn’t want to contribute to the problem, but native milkweed has been hard for me to source, so I kept waiting.

Once again I was unable to find Asclepias californica (California milkweed), and I’ve learned that some natives are uncommon with very restricted  distribution, but I was able to find “suitable” substitutes for now, with the warning that in the fall I must severely cut them back so the Monarch will continue on her migratory path. In our hospitable climate the plant will not naturally die back and my failure to do so could harm the butterfly. I’ll keep learning and searching for natives, but I won’t forget my pruning shears.

I have been thinking about Einstein’s quote, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”  In a way I was paralyzed by too much research.

On the other hand, some people just jump right in and don’t do any research at all. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea, as this quote from a confused gardener would indicate.

Posted on Dave’s Garden, a favorite site, this gardener was very concerned about her milkweed plant.

“I’ve been trying to get a specimen established in my yard for several years now, but it never seems to get much of a chance except become an elongated green stick. Every time it gets to the point where it blooms, there is a species of butterfly (or moth?) that comes and lays eggs which hatch into larvae and devour each and every leaf on the plant, drastically reducing its stamina and basically halting all growth for a period of time.

I have tried my best to remain vigilant as to when it’s flowering, because I know that for the next several days afterward I will need to watch for eggs and/or larvae/caterpillars. If I see a batch of eggs laid near the flower, I spray them with a garden-safe insect spray. But often they hatch before I’m aware. Occasionally I manage to get rid of the larvae before they’ve done too much damage, but this is only a temporary reprieve, because as soon as the plant blooms again, the cycle repeats and it’s only a matter of time before the caterpillars get all the leaves before I get all the caterpillars! I occasionally see articles about this plant in the local paper or mentioned as a nice garden plant to attract butterflies, but I don’t understand how anyone would want butterflies to come and have their larvae eat every single last leaf off the plant! Perhaps other gardeners’ plants are more healthy/developed and are more able to withstand the caterpillars–perhaps being only partially devoured.”


I hope someone was able to impress on this milkweed lover that the point of milkweed IS the caterpillars, but if not, just to be sure the Monarch has a chance, won’t you spend some time researching how you might throw in your gardening support for this beautiful, but severely threatened butterfly?

As soon as I see caterpillars, you can be sure I’ll be back bragging blogging all about my success!

Fingers crossed!


Little bits of this and that as summer slowly fades…

I can better accept family and friends moving to new locations when they relocate to places I enjoy visiting. We went to visit family in the Bay Area and simply enjoyed a cooler climate and a change of view.  In just about six hours we can drive from our home to the San Francisco-Oakland area and I can indulge in exploring another California region.

I meant to let you know I was going out-of-town for a few days, but I ran out of time. So today I’ll share just a few of the reasons why.

Even though it’s been hot-hot-hot outdoors, or maybe it’s BECAUSE it’s been hot-hot-hot, we have been focusing on our outdoor living spaces. The “hot” comes into play because with drought conditions it’s a challenge to know what to do. I planted a vegetable garden and then struggled with watering it sufficiently. It didn’t do very well.

I don’t know that too many areas in my yard are actually thriving.

Take a look at some of the birds that regularly come to visit.


They are sweet little things that blend right into our drought-colored landscape. Truth is, they are the regular garden visitors even when there isn’t a drought. If our California gardens weren’t artificially “greened” by lots and lots of water from the tap our natural landscape would be the color of these birds.

I think our eyes are beginning to adjust to a different definition of landscape color. One of the biggest areas of water “waste” is caring for a lawn. I have a long, long way to go if I do decide to transform our entire piece of property into a water-wise landscape, but I am doing what I’m able and I am definitely fascinated with the many ways we are all being shaped and perhaps “forced” to adapt.



We certainly didn’t need to keep watering a section of grass that was primarily being used as Zena’s loo. With or without water we were losing that battle, so we dug up that portion of the lawn and replaced it with decomposed granite. It’s permeable–I remain hopeful it will one day rain again–and compacts to a nice clean surface.

If you’re unfamiliar with the “brown as the new green” look of this kind of landscaping, it may strike you as extremely stark. It took me a few years to begin to see the beauty in this kind of landscaping, but I have grown to love it. It isn’t second-best any longer, although I do “ooh and ah” over green, well-watered gardens. I’m just a bit more appreciative when that water originally fell from the sky.

As if water weren’t a big enough issue…then there’s this guy!


I don’t remember what was originally in this pot. It must have tasted good because it’s gone now! Darwin our Sulcata Tortoise is such a scavenger and has started to be very destructive. I don’t know his exact weight, but I know he weighs more than 50 pounds. And when he decides to stretch, he can bring his entire carriage taller, reaching over low borders–or plowing through them–eating anything he wants. He has managed to chomp through my succulents and low hanging hibiscus branches–yes branches, and I had to do something I didn’t at first want to do. Confine him!

We made another opening in our small greenhouse providing a connection to the back of the retaining wall that supports the backyard train, and he now has a very long runway with quite a bit of open space on the other side of the greenhouse. It isn’t the run of the whole place that he enjoyed for his first six years, but he has adjusted nicely. I have big plans for further enhancements and I’ll be sure to take photos as his playground evolves.

I’ve also changed his diet.

If he lived in the wild he would be eating more grasses. He’s spoiled and turns his nose up at timothy hay. So I add a little pumpkin and it’s a hit! I’m gradually reducing the amount of the pumpkin and increasing the grass, but he eats it with gusto! My plants are saved!

So now that we’ve had our trip to the Bay Area and returned, adapted Darwin’s diet and abode, as well as completed a few areas of garden management, I feel better balanced. I’m hoping to post a little more often and make more visits to the many blogging friends I have missed over this summer. Even though I’m not completely sure I want to say goodbye to summer, there are some routines that seem to return with fall, and I thrive when I don’t fight routine!

I must share one more thing. It’s mid-week already and you need a lift, don’t you? On the way home from work I was stopped at a freeway off-ramp and guffawed with laughter as I took a double take at this sign. I’m sure others wondered at my cruelty for laughing at a lost puppy!

IMG_4403 - Version 2

This poor “Springer Spaniard” has lost its owner.

Just let it sit …you’ll get it!

Have a mirth-filled rest of the week. I’ll be by to visit.