South Africa in San Diego

An extension of the house, the entry courtyard is paved with the same tile as inside the house; Rosa ‘Cecile Brunner’ rambles over the pergola. Author's photographs

An extension of the house, the entry courtyard is paved with the same tile as inside the house; Rosa ‘Cecile Brunner’ rambles over the pergola. Author’s photographs

When people visit my garden for the first time, their initial reaction is frequently stunned silence. Then comes the question: “What were you thinking?” It’s a valid question, because most people are not used to seeing a profusion of such exotic, often bizarre plants—some of which only a mother could love.

Sometimes, when I come in from the garden at night, scratched and bleeding, I ask myself the same question. After almost sixteen years, I still do not know the answer.

The desert garden with a view to the pavilion; Aloe striata flowers to the left of the path

The desert garden with a view to the pavilion; Aloe striata flowers to the left of the path

My garden is in Fallbrook, in northern San Diego County (Sunset zone 23, USDA hardiness zone 9). My partner, Les Olson, and I bought the two-acre property in 1988. When we moved in, the “landscaping” consisted of remnants of a citrus grove and great swaths of ice plant and Vinca major, interspersed with clumps of agapanthus and dietes—what I fondly call “gas station plants.” A few forlorn queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffianum) and Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) were the only ornamental trees on the property.

January blossoms on a hybrid coral tree (Erythrina 5 sykesii) echo the colors of Aloe ferox

January blossoms on a hybrid coral tree (Erythrina x sykesii) echo the colors of Aloe ferox

Much has changed since then. Most of the fruit trees have been removed as the garden has expanded out from the house. Most of the gas station plants are long gone, and I continue to take large bites out of the ice plant.

Early in the development of the garden, I made a conscious decision to use plants suited to our version of a mediterranean climate. With this large a property, trying to make it look like a cottage garden, golf course, or tropical jungle would have resulted in ruinous water bills, not to mention the environmental irresponsibility of such a decision. And, while I love California natives and use them in my garden, I wanted to go further. I planted acacias from Africa, eucalyptus from Australia, and olives from the Mediterranean. And, I planted a succulent garden.

As a child, I caught the cactus and succulent “bug” from a neighbor who was a retired merchant marine. Among the treasures from his world travels was a remarkable collection of cacti and succulents, cuttings of which he generously shared with me. I left that first collection behind long ago, but, when I finally had a chance to make a real garden, I knew that part of it would be devoted to these strange and wonderful plants.

Aloe 5 ‘Hercules’ towers to the right of “Ventana,” by local artist Peter Mitten

Aloe x ‘Hercules’ towers to the right of “Ventana,” by local artist Peter Mitten

I never dreamed how large a part it would be until I began volunteering at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. I was more than inspired by their world-class desert garden. Add to that my special volunteer access to their nursery and plant sales, and the future of my garden was sealed. (This is, after all, the primary reason one volunteers at a botanic garden—first pick of the plants!)

My own version of a desert garden occupies a half-acre hillside in front of our home. It is a south- and east-facing slope, almost frost-free. The conditions were perfect for the lime grove planted by the previous owners; but, more importantly, it was also the perfect exposure and drainage for succulents.

In March 1995, we cut down the lime trees. We brought in a backhoe to remove the stumps and dig a dry streambed. I had envisioned my succulent garden adorned with rock—you cannot have too many rocks in a succulent garden—but, to my dismay, our hillside is completely rock free. So I drained the bank account and brought in tons of the largest boulders the backhoe could lift, many more tons of river rock for the streambed, and gravel for the paths. With the rockwork in place, I trucked in over thirty yards of soil amendment and started planting.

The foliage of Aloe cameronii colors the foreground, below “Revelation,” by Joseph Kinnebrew

The foliage of Aloe cameronii colors the foreground, below “Revelation,” by Joseph Kinnebrew

The native Fallbrook soil is a fine-grained loam, fertile when moist but akin to concrete when dry. I added a blend of decomposed granite and amended topsoil to improve tilth and drainage. In some areas, the sandstone substrate is only three inches beneath the surface; for those areas, I added additional decomposed granite to build planting mounds.

Selections of Echeveria, Aloe, and Gasteria edge a flight of stone steps leading into the desert garden

Selections of Echeveria, Aloe, and Gasteria edge a flight of stone steps leading into the desert garden

The garden evolved without the benefit of a design on paper, but rather from an overall vision in my head. My goal was to plant a wide variety of desert-climate plants to create a lush garden—sort of a dry jungle. The emphasis is on aloes, as they are my particular interest. I now have close to 300 kinds, either in the ground or waiting in the nursery for planting.

My aloe collection ranges from huge tree aloes to tiny clump-formers tucked amongst the rocks. While some bloom throughout the year, most of the aloes flower in winter, which makes January and February the garden’s most spectacular season. Even when the aloes are not in bloom, their sculptural beauty and brilliant leaf colors ensure year-round interest.

Agaves and euphorbias are also well represented in the garden. For a long time, I eschewed true cacti, thinking they were simply too thorny to have in the garden; but, I’ve had to eat my words as more and more of them work themselves into the composition. An ever-expanding colony of golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) looks particularly gorgeous when backlit by the low winter sun.

Agave parryi var. truncata and Aloe cameronii flank a boulder in the desert garden

Agave parryi var. truncata and Aloe cameronii flank a boulder in the desert garden

Not all succulents love the blazing sun, so I planted a number of small drought-tolerant trees that produce a light shade, and also contribute some needed height to the overall composition. Taking pride of place in winter is a hybrid coral tree (Erythrina x sykesii), which is covered in scarlet blossoms from December to March. Two species of mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa and P. pubescens) from Arizona were an experiment; I wanted to see if they would do well outside the Sonora desert. They have done beautifully, which leaves me wondering why they are not more widely planted in Southern California. Several beautiful acacias, most with wicked thorns, provide brilliant yellow flowers as well as protection for the many hummingbirds that visit the aloe blossoms throughout the year.

One of my rules about gardening with succulents is, “know how big the plant is going to get before you plant it.” Nothing makes me sadder than seeing a gorgeous agave planted next to a driveway and then pruned to look like a pineapple because it grew too large. I learned this rule the hard way—there are a couple of plants that encroach dangerously onto my own pathways, but I am not about to move them now!

Later afternoon sunlight highlights a variegated century plant (Agave americana), golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), and the flowers of Echinopsis ‘Apricot Glow’

Later afternoon sunlight highlights a variegated century plant (Agave americana), golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), and the flowers of Echinopsis ‘Apricot Glow’

Even a die-hard desert gardener craves variety, so not all of the garden is given over to succulents. Other large areas of the garden are planted with natives and Australian plants, and I have intentionally left a large “meadow” unplanted below the house.

I have kept plants with higher water demands to a minimum, and placed them close to the house. For example, our patio and swimming pool are surrounded by a more tropical-feeling combination of palms, plumerias, and bamboos. I planted the raised beds around the pool with an emphasis on foliage, avoiding plants that will drop litter in the water.

Yes, there is a lawn, because sometimes we just want to wiggle our toes in lush green grass. But the lawn area is smaller than the average Oriental carpet and, in fact, serves as kind of a throw rug for our outdoor living room.

The beds along the front of the house are my latest project; I have only recently ripped out the last vestiges of “traditional” borders. My goal here is to plant something a little more interesting and appropriate. At this writing, bare earth awaits my inspiration. The beds will feature a variety of South African bulbs, cycads, shrubs, and succulents, with the focus on drama, sculptural qualities, and foliage. There will also be plenty of flowers. My good friend Scott Spencer, whom Nan Sterman praised in the summer 2004 issue of Pacific Horticulture, is consulting with me on this project, which should be completed in time for our traditional winter garden party.

The Australian grove below the house, with numerous Eucalpytus species underplanted with other Australian and California natives

The Australian grove below the house, with numerous Eucalpytus species underplanted with other Australian and California natives

People are surprised by how little maintenance my garden requires. I do not fertilize the garden—ever. Amending the soil before planting is all the “feeding” any of my plants get, and they are doing fine.

As for watering, the desert garden is unique in that there is NO irrigation system. My esteemed colleagues at the Huntington are amazed at how infrequently I water it. Six months of the year, the garden relies on the rains (we normally receive about 11 inches during the winter months). In summer, I water every few weeks or so—or whenever I think about it. My favorite watering tools are a simple oscillating sprinkler and a hose. The higher water use areas around the house are on a computerized sprinkler system, the timing of which I adjust seasonally. At the risk of offending the purists, I do not believe in drip systems; I find that they deliver the water too narrowly, and they are a nightmare to keep up.

In addition to being a lot of fun, my desert garden is novel enough to have gotten some wonderful attention. Although I never set out to make a garden for the public, it turns out that people want to see it. Opening the garden occasionally has been an enjoyable by-product of my gardening efforts. I’ve discovered that sharing the garden with others is one of life’s great pleasures. The recognition I’ve received, in books and magazine articles, has also been fun, but it was never sought; my garden is, first and foremost, for me. But, through sharing my garden, I’ve discovered something else: an ever-widening circle of fellow garden fanatics whom I am pleased to call friends.

Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) naturalized below the pavilion

Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) naturalized below the pavilion