A Succulent Oasis at Sherman Library & Gardens

By: Matthew V Maggio

Matthew V Maggio has been passionate about horticulture from his childhood days in the vegetable garden through an educational process…

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View from the gate into the Succulent Garden at Sherman Library & Gardens. Author’s photographs - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/a-succulent-oasis-at-sherman-library-gardens/#sthash.ENSgHg81.dpuf

View from the gate into the Succulent Garden at Sherman Library & Gardens. Author’s photographs

This article catalogs the 2005-2006 renovation of the succulent section at Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar, California. The section was designed and installed by the author, with the help of Garden employees. This piece is dedicated to Sherman Library & Gardens, its Volunteer Organization, and associated staff, past, present, and future.

I treasure one particular day at Sherman Library & Gardens. The Succulent Garden had undergone a rebirth many months prior, and I was back for its monthly tune-up. While I tended to some weeds an ear’s distance from the conversation, one cheerful visitor remarked to another, “I never really liked succulents until I saw this garden.” A reticent chuckle accompanied my immediate pause. I realized that my original intent was being fulfilled. My weeding then resumed with an elevated sense of purpose, as I reflected upon the Succulent Garden’s genesis.

Stone canyons allow visual and maintenance access into the larger beds of succulents

Stone canyons allow visual and maintenance access into the larger beds of succulents

Succulent Oasis: A Young Man’s Quest

I was no professional designer at the time, just a horticulture student with a vision. Sherman Library & Gardens was the place where dreams found opportunity, and its founder’s legacy and my aspirations first converged in 2004. Each year, the Arnold D Haskell Memorial Scholarship Program is offered to two prospective horticulture students at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. I received the award two consecutive years prior to graduation. The program included a six-week paid summer internship at the Gardens. During my two summers there, my passion for succulents became obvious.

The channel for expression of this ardor was the existing Cactus Garden, a roughly 1,200-square-foot collection with specimens dating back to the Garden’s founding. The garden had grown old and tired; one fellow employee characterized its composition as “incongruous.” It needed serious help, perhaps some fresh ideas. As the sun set on my second internship, a job offer arrived. “Of course I’ll do it!” Thoughts of renovation were already dancing in my head. I returned from a plant expedition to South Africa (with Pacific Horticulture), and, by October 2005, I was hired. The following six months would usher in an epic transformation, beginning with the design process.

What process? Nothing about the design was drawn on paper. Ideas flowed spontaneously, perhaps at the expense of my colleague’s patience. I set forth both aesthetic and functional objectives that kept nonconforming whims in check. The unofficial plan was guided by a few fundamental goals: (1) shatter conventional views about succulent plants, (2) engender lasting excitement over succulents, (3) inspire design creativity, and (4) leave the old wagon wheels and cow skulls on the Hollywood movie set where they belong.

The root of most of the problems in the existing Cactus Garden, including its lackluster appearance, lay in a general misunderstanding of succulent plants: that all succulents are cacti, cacti love the desert, and therefore all succulents prefer a hot dry environment. This mind-set led to the Cactus Garden’s traditional desert visage: individual plants spaced apart like stars in a lonely galaxy, with the occasional boulder passing for a wayward asteroid. No wonder this was often noted as a visitor’s “least favorite section.” The public deserved better.

A container of mesembs (Aizoaceae)

A container of mesembs (Aizoaceae)

A Name Change

First came a meaningful name change, from Cactus Garden to Succulent Garden. The term succulent extends much further, covering numerous plant families wherein certain genera have succulent features. Any plant with water-storing capability in roots, stems, or leaves is deemed a succulent. The cactus family (Cactaceae) is but one family of succulents. A dozen or more other families include succulent genera; even the sunflower family (Asteraceae) has a succulent member (Senecio). Popular opinion favors other succulents over cacti, so our emphasis in the Garden shifted to the former, in both name and practice.

To foster public appreciation of a xeric garden, we amplified the soft whispers of desert beauty. The concept was to concentrate 1,200 square miles of desert splendor into 1,200 square feet, erasing any empty voids between points of interest. Every square inch was carpeted with detail—no barren soil left at all. Concentrated in this tiny microcosm were years of inspiration from personal travels to arid habitats, including South Africa’s Succulent Karoo, which burned brightly in my memory.

Exciting features to lend depth, undulation, and punctuation supplanted the flat, two dimensional character of the original Cactus Garden. For example, great “geologic forces” now divide the large central bed into three distinct mountainous areas capped by stately specimens. These high points are separated by a newly formed series of “canyons,” rendered as seasonal washes, complete with the occasional flashflood warning. The central canyon provides access for maintenance, as well as visual guidance through the bed’s central vista.

To build excitement for succulents, the new plantings had to be bold and dramatic—altogether jaw-dropping. Harmony was required among plantings and inanimate features, as well as between the Succulent Garden and the adjacent grounds. A great garden is like a well-orchestrated symphony, with each element lending rhythm, melody, and tone to a pleasing composition. To these ends, we employed mass plantings of contrasting colors and textures. We also organized the plants, by type, into sweeping patterns, with the objective of emphasizing particular visual qualities. This also helped maintain an orderly appearance instead of a busy, incoherent stew. For example, agaves and aloes, with their distinctive forms, were underscored within special groupings. We diminished the cacophony of clutter by digging and repositioning valuable specimens for a better balance. Other plants that had outgrown their space were converted to green waste.

Masses of color were critical in relating the new Succulent Garden to the overall character of the surrounding garden areas, in order to demonstrate an equal attractiveness between succulents and other ornamentals. For instance, we laid expanses of vibrant echeverias in a mosaic fashion to compliment the seas of annual color elsewhere in Sherman Gardens. In the years following the initial renovation, we incorporated terrestrial bromeliads, such as Neoregelia and Aechmea, among the echeverias to mimic Sherman’s tropical collections. Everything flowed, and the most illustrative example was the “river” of blue Senecio. This iconic planting already existed in the garden, but we improved upon the design by replacing the rambunctious Senecio mandraliscae with the dwarf Senecio serpens. Molding succulents into a metaphor of water was no accident; I wanted a garden so packed with latent moisture that it could be deemed a water garden. To counteract widely held misconceptions about xeric plants, we used the dwarf blue senecios to represent a river, with “water” cascading into it from a massive terra cotta basin. If such opulence did not suggest a succulent oasis (rather than fabricated images of desolation), all hope would be lost amidst the swirling desert sands.

A purple, silvery-edged terrestrial bromeliad (Dyckia cultivar)

A purple, silvery-edged terrestrial bromeliad (Dyckia cultivar)

Horticultural Foundations

Although aesthetic enhancements were vital, the longevity of the new garden depended upon a strong horticultural foundation, beginning with a fundamental understanding of the local environment. On the macro level is the region’s mediterranean climate, with its warm dry summers and cool wet winters (Sunset zone 24). Sherman Library & Gardens sits within walking distance of the cool Pacific Ocean, which moderates temperatures year round. Reliable ocean breezes and the marine layer maintain average summer high temperatures in the low 70s F, a mere ten degrees above the average winter highs. The Gardens fall within USDA hardiness zone 10b—the same as Miami, Florida. But, unlike Florida, annual precipitation here averages only twelve inches and occurs primarily in the cool season. The site for the Succulent Garden also possesses its own set of microclimates—definable sunny and shady spots that migrate throughout the year; all required attention.

Such a benign climate allows for a rich horticultural experience. The temperate, subarid environment provides a basis for great succulent diversity. Yet, many of the plants in the existing Cactus Garden performed poorly. Several problems lay at the core.

Some of the original succulents were inappropriate for the local climate. Succulents are a diverse group of plants, many expressing distinct dormancy cycles and variable requirements for heat and moisture. Their native environments can vary from true desert to subarid. Some regularly experience triple-digit temperatures, while others revel under a maritime influence. Most from subtropical latitudes experience strictly summer rainfall, while most living adjacent to cold oceans receive strictly winter rainfall. Others rely on a mix of seasonal precipitation; regular ocean fogs sustain a select few. Each biome comprises sheltered microclimates that harbor more luxuriant flora, as determined by elevation, slope aspect, and soil conditions. Succulents have adapted to this spectrum and timing of moisture, with a common ability to survive extended periods of dryness.

As an experienced succulent grower, my job was to pinpoint the most climatically suitable candidates. I eliminated numerous miniature cacti, some euphorbias and subtropical caudiciforms, not because of their requirement for spring/summer moisture, but because of their intolerance of damp mediterranean winters. Some plants had grown weak and diseased, in part because of inadequate heat and dryness. We ousted these misfits during the demolition phase. Yet, an entire botanical smorgasbord beckoned. True desert denizens, like the giant saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), yielded to more winter-growers, opportunists, and succulents that favored a maritime atmosphere. Winter-growers included members of several succulent families: Crassulaceae (Crassula, Cotyledon, Dudleya, Aeonium); Azioaceae (mesembs and ice plants); and Asphodelaceae (Gasteria and many species of Aloe). Other featured groups included Agave (Agavaceae) and Echeveria (Crassulaceae), a host of terrestrial bromeliads (Bromeliaceae), many more aloes, some cacti, and some euphorbias (Euphorbiaceae). A few borderline plants—winter-growers from the dry end of the spectrum and succulents requiring a bit more heat—were nudged into submission by altering their terrestrial environment.

Poor soil was the next major issue, and the problem was two-fold. Drainage was horrendous because of a layer of almost pure coarse sand—to which plants clung precariously—that overlaid a compacted silty clay loam. This abrupt soil interface left the sand excessively damp atop the underlying hardpan. The sand also held little nutrient value, which resulted in widespread health defects among the incumbent plants.

Determined to radically alter the soil environment, we removed almost everything, plant-byplant and rock-by-rock. Although the original pathways and borders were preserved, little else was sacred. Only a handful of large specimens escaped my wrath. Size was a tiny obstacle: some key specimens, such as a fifteen-foot-tall Euphorbia ingens and an ancient Dasylirion longisissima, were relocated by crane. Plants of future value were relegated to the pathways, and some were temporarily planted into large boxes using the newly delivered soil blend. We brought in twenty-five cubic yards of new soil media: ten yards of pumice, ten yards of loam with some compost, and the balance from decomposed granite and soil from my own backyard. I would accept nothing but the finest quality amendments, which were trucked in from Agromin Soil Products in Camarillo. When tilled into the existing sand and mixed with fertilizer (Osmocote 14-14-14), gypsum, and a mycorrhizal inoculum, the new amendments contributed to a proprietary blend that was loose, crumbly, porous, and yet rich in available nutrients. The underlying hardpan was homogenized somewhat. We rationed the organic matter content differently beneath certain plant communities, with the least for the mesemb collection, and the greatest amount of humus for the echeveria section (about thirty percent). To prevent both root rot and shrinkage of the newly formed mounds, we kept organic matter in the remaining soils below fifteen percent.

Another flaw in the original garden was a failure to anticipate the ultimate size of mature plants. Vistas were obscured by the overgrowth, plants jostled for headroom, and some cast too much shade. One tangled group of four specimen tree aloes required a week of backbreaking labor to carefully separate and relocate them. Other relics, such as a group of thirty-foot-tall Euphorbia ingens had grown so top heavy that they were a serious liability. This particular assemblage was completely dismantled by crane and chainsaw. Although we planted the new garden densely for maximum impact, we exercised great care to allow adequate space for specimens to mature.

Several species of Conophytum highlight the mesemb collection

Several species of Conophytum highlight the mesemb collection

Geologic Wonders

No story about the Succulent Garden would be complete without mention of its rocks. They are everywhere in this garden! Many existed, but thrice as many were added in the design, much to the grumbling of my helpers. Altogether, I reassembled a once incoherent jumble of random stones and boulders into distinct, stratified, geologic formations. Just as the plants were grouped by type, so were the mineral elements. A specific type of stone mirrored each plant pattern—agaves with granite, for instance. The Garden’s geologic diversity includes basalt, schist, slate, sandstone, mudstone, rose quartz, granite, weathered marble, and more. Some existing sandstones were unique in offering numerous pockets for planting little gems; some nooks were made usable by drilling drainage holes through the rock. In addition, an entire section of schist rubble was created from some abandoned steppingstones that had lain forgotten in the back prep area, waiting for someone like me to come along with a sledgehammer.

Beyond their obvious cosmetic role, the rocks serve many vital functions. They act as mulch by suppressing weeds, regulating soil moisture and temperature, and preventing erosion of the mounds. The largest boulders keep some plants from crowding each other and afford maintenance personnel (including me) a sure footing without compacting the soil. Darkly colored rocks help create warmer microclimates for plants favoring more heat than the coastal climate provides. We planted the mesembs among light-colored quartz to protect these delicate species from the occasional heat wave—an idea borrowed from quartzite habitats observed in South Africa.

A dramatic container of succulents, suggesting the origin of the “river” of blue Senecio serpens

A dramatic container of succulents, suggesting the origin of the “river” of blue Senecio serpens

Plant Communities

If specimen plants provide punctuation in a garden, plant communities frame the story. In addition to conveying an aesthetic statement and streamlining maintenance, the sectioning of the garden into groups of similar plants reveals the myriad diversity within a single type of succulent. For example, within the genus Aloe, there are hundreds of species ranging from forty-foot-tall trees to clumpy dwarfs, with another thousand or more hybrids. Other representative plant groupings included agaves (200+ possible species), echeverias, terrestrial bromeliads, mesembs, gasterias, euphorbias, and cacti. We used bromeliads, such as Neoregelia, to demonstrate colorful succulent companions; we combined silvery purple selections of Dyckia with blue gray schist rubble, to dramatic effect. We grouped echeverias for hue and playful patterning. To the observant visitor, a pattern emerges in the juxtaposition of aloes and euphorbias in one planting bed, with agaves and cacti mirrored in the opposing bed. This subtle, yet strategic placement intentionally highlights the concept of convergent evolution, wherein unrelated plants in different regions evolve similar designs in response to similar environmental stresses; agaves and cacti represent the New World, while unrelated, but similar-looking aloes and euphorbias represent their Old World counterparts. The story holds for the “spiny forest” as well, with North American ocotillos and their Madagascan relatives planted side by side.

A grouping unique to Sherman Gardens is the mesemb collection of ice plants and their relatives in the Aizoaceae. It is easily the most diverse outdoor assembly of these succulent gems on public display anywhere in North America. This was made possible by the delicate combination of careful soil preparation, the creation of a quartz outcropping, and the temperate coastal, winter-rainfall climate. A similar collection could not have been attempted twenty miles inland because of the heat. This is the only outdoor botanical garden in the Western hemisphere where one can photograph members of the genus Conophytum as if they were growing in their natural habitat. Other genera from the family on display are Cheiridopsis, Cephalophyllum, Faucaria, and Glottiphyllum. From autumn through early spring, this collection erupts into pulses of fiery orange, yellow, and magenta flowers.

The mesembs lead to the final groupings worthy of mention: the Succulent Garden’s container displays. One container is nestled within the mesemb collection and functions as an intimate microcosm for these tiny jewels. The largest container forms the climax of the long echeveria bed, and is the imagined “source” of all succulents in the garden.

An elaborately ornamental succulent bed adjoining the Garden’s other colorful planting beds

An elaborately ornamental succulent bed adjoining the Garden’s other colorful planting beds

Enduring Preservation

Although this garden was renovated in 2006, the novelty endures, and the evolution continues. Specimen plants are gaining more character with each passing year, while some foreground plantings are reconfigured yearly. New succulent hybrids hit the market constantly, and Sherman Library & Gardens promises to be on the receiving end. I return once a month for specialized care to guide this evolution and maintain the collection in pristine condition. Much of the work involves hand watering, feeding, deadheading, and occasional weeding. With my continued management and the steadfast support of the Garden’s dedicated staff, the Succulent Garden should be in good hands for many years to come.

The cactus collection

The cactus collection

Garden Oasis: A Founder’s Vision

While the citrus groves gave Orange County its name, fields of orange tile rooftops may be the modern-day equivalent. Much can change in a half-century: from orange trees to orange lattes, from barns to botox . . . but, perhaps the reality TV image is unfair. Delve beneath the satire and stereotypes, and hidden treasures abound. Sherman Library & Gardens is one shining example. The Gardens occupy a roughly two-acre city block in the charming seaside district of Corona del Mar, just south of Newport Beach, California. Though modest in size, the horticultural caliber rivals the finest botanical gardens worldwide. As an antidote to the summer heat or a brief respite from the suburban jungle, this garden oasis is the place to be.

Offering an escape from the stresses of urban life was the intent of the Gardens’s founder, Arnold D Haskell (1895-1977), a distinguished businessman and a tremendous visionary. Considered a humble man, he attributed much personal success to his beloved mentor and benefactor, Moses H Sherman (1853-1932), a successful developer and real estate pioneer who gave his name to some prominent pieces of the San Fernando Valley (Sherman Way Boulevard and the town of Sherman Oaks).

Haskell’s dream of a library and gardens stemmed from his love of history and horticulture, coupled with a desire to convey such knowledge through a tranquil community setting. In 1966, Haskell dedicated Sherman Library & Gardens to the public, and the transformation of the original two-acre property greatly accelerated. Major construction and remodeling continued until 1974, when most present-day features were in place. Noteworthy among these were the Tropical Conservatory with indoor koi pond, a Gift Shop, the Tea Garden, a Research Library devoted to Pacific Southwest history, the Central Patio bursting with annual color, and the Cactus Garden.

Today, Haskell’s vision of a unique cultural center is re-affirmed with each passing visitor, and by an expanding array of attractions. Beautiful weather is typical at the Gardens, and such conditions routinely entice cavalcades of guests. Many wander freely, while others find themselves the captivated audience of a qualified docent. With a combination of comfortable weather and floral exuberance, the grounds frequently host processions of newlyweds. A relaxing afternoon at the Gardens can easily entertain all five senses: after savoring a delicious lunch at Sherman’s Café Jardín, visitors may feast their eyes upon a rose-filled courtyard, waves of annual color, a fern grotto, and the California native garden. In the Tropical Conservatory, a lush foliar experience accompanies the babbling waterfall and koi pond. The Discovery Garden offers the fuzzy-leafed lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) to melt away stress with the slightest touch. The heavenly scent of sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) beckons from a curious pathway, luring strollers to something even more profound. Peeking from the other end of the path is a succulent with outstretched limbs . . .

Sherman Library & Gardens is located at 2647 East Pacific Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, CA 92625. The gardens are open daily except major holidays. For information on programs, volunteer opportunities, or membership, call 949/673-2261

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A Succulent Resource Guide