Inspirations for a Smaller Garden

Little pots of succulents had been gathering for years, completely covering the bench (intended for seating) and all other horizontal surfaces in my garden. Experiments with a few on the hillside had shown that most were less amenable to a total lack of summer irrigation than are the native and mediterranean-climate plants, including South African bulbs, that thrive there on natural rainfall alone. Other areas once set aside for succulents had since grown shady from maturing trees and larger shrubs.

Matthew Maggio’s brilliant manuscript arrived on my desk in late June. A quick review of the text and the images of his new Succulent Garden at Sherman Library & Gardens provided just the inspiration I needed to do something with those poor succulents waiting to be set free from their pots. A small, flat, relatively sunny area at the bottom of the garden, directly outside my office window, was immediately cleared of overgrown perennials and sprawling shrubs, leaving a roughly twelve-square-foot patch of ground for my long-awaited succulent garden.

Head-size chunks of the native chert—the rock that underlies our hill—were used to create a mounded bed, deepening the soil above the shallow bedrock. Following Matt’s model, the native mineral soil was amended with sand, red volcanic rock, and a small amount of succulent potting soil; the goal was to keep the percentage of organic matter to a minimum. Excess water now drains through in an instant. More rocks and some driftwood provided nooks and crannies for the smaller succulents. Few of the plants are likely to get more than a foot across. As might be expected in a collector’s garden, the composition is best described as “generous drifts of one,” but the effect pleases me.

The test will come with this winter’s rains. Experience at The Ruth Bancroft Garden has proven that many succulents in Northern California suffer more from winter’s wet soils than from its cold. Since winter temperatures in my San Francisco garden rarely drop below 40°F, it remains to be seen if the soil preparations were sufficient to maintain the new succulent plantings through a wet winter. Stay tuned…
RGT