GardenSmart :: EPISODES :: 2003 show20
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Show #20

This week we visit with Tom Harvey at The Atlanta Botanical Garden. Tom shows us their Succulent Garden, talks about the installation and maintenance of this garden and introduces us to several of his favorites.

A succulent is any plant that stores vast amounts of water in its leaves, stems or roots. These plants normally live in a water restricted environment, what we usually think of as a desert environment. However, they do live in other parts of the world. They live in the Southeast, the Southwest, the Northwest, they come from Africa or Asia, all over the world. Typically when talking about Succulents one is talking about Cactuses, Agaves or Daisy Lerions. They have massive root systems that often extend out yards in every direction. They must mine water from the environment where they compete with other plants. As always, the strong survive. The roots aren't necessarily big and they aren't deep. They're shallow rooters because in their environment, when there is rain there may only be a quarter of an inch or so and that amount doesn't go deep into the earth. Since they store water, their leaves are usually uniquely shaped.

Most don't attempt to incorporate Succulents into an annual bed, it just doesn't look natural. However, Tom has seen environments where Agaves were growing with Hostas. As well, Agaves and Yuccas can provide visual emphasis in a traditional perennial or annual border as accent plants. Whether you like the combination or not, it will cause one to look further, because it is different. It draws your attention to that area. Succulents look good when grouped together, they play off one another. They look good in a rock garden, in an area with a lot of masonry or rock mulch.

When working with Succulents one needs to be slow and deliberate because they have thorns on them and those thorns will stick you. The thorns are barbed, when stuck they're like a fish hook coming out.

Tom has created a beautiful Succulent garden. To do so he has employed methods entirely different than with a traditional garden. Organic matter and double digging isn't required. Tom had a flat space next to a building and wanted some relief, something different. He literally added construction materials- rubble, bricks, concrete, dry wall and rocks. They were piled up to provide the ideal terrain and environment for these plants roots to grow. These materials help with drainage and aid in root growth. On top of the construction rubble, Tom added what would normally be soil media, but in this case he used various sizes of stones and sand. It was back filled to ensure all cracks and crevices were filled. This creates a similar environment to their native environment, allowing their roots to move and bring in nutrients and water. Tom has bermed up the bed and Dr. Rick thinks it provides a nice design effect. It not only is attractive but it is effective. If the soil underneath is clay, for example, one doesn't need to dig up the clay, just add the rubble on top.

How do you care for these plants? Succulents require a very low Nitrogen source. Tom usually fertilizes one time per year.

Everybody loves a beautiful green lawn. Studies suggest that a green lawn and trees are the two most desired landscape elements. Lawns typically require a lot of water and many parts of the country are experiencing drought conditions. Therefore selecting a grass that requires less water is important. Zoysia, once established, provides an excellent summer turf that doesn't require a lot of watering, fertilization or mowing. Since it's a warm season grass it has no water requirements during winter dormancy. Zoysia thrives during hot summers and tends to go dormant during long, dry summers.

Bermuda is another great turf for low water use. It has the same low water use as Zoysia but it's more susceptible to winter kill. Bermuda is another low maintenance turf. It can be invasive, so planting it next to a flower bed or other areas where it might creep is not advised. It works well as a roaming turf, in large non-irrigated areas, in parks or in isolated areas such as parking medians.

Buffalo Grass is also well suited for arid and low water use areas. It only needs mowed about twice a month particularly if it is kept about 2 1/2 inches high. It tolerates drought, in fact it's rarely bother by lack of water.

Regardless of the turf selected, drought stress most likely will occur with all turf at some point if it isn't irrigated. Be on the look out for browning on the tip of the leaves, that is a sure sign the plant isn't getting enough water. It doesn't mean the plant is dying. Many warm season grasses go into what is known as summer dormancy. This means the plant actually stops growing. When this happens do not mow as often and don't fertilized as heavily. In case of a severe drought some turf may be lost, but these grasses are fast growing and should come back and establish themselves as soon as water returns.

Tom shows Dr. Rick one of his favorite Succulents, the Prickly Pear, or Opuntia. This one is thornless, it has a smooth look. Tom likes it because it doesn't have thorns, therefore it doesn't hurt him. The plants with thorns are hurtful, often times just by brushing against the plant, one gets stuck or cut. Thus the thornless variety is nice to have around, particularly if children or pets are present. Thorns are normally a protection mechanism to keep predators and animals away so this variety is a hybrid. It was developed for its' lack of thorns. This plant is edible. The fruit and small pads and the pear itself can all be sautéed. The fruit part or the pear part turns a burgundy color when ripe, rub off the spines, slice it and sauté it. It is wonderful. It flowers are a golden yellow blossom. All Succulents have incredible blooms, they're bright, vivid almost electric. This is its way of attracting a pollinator. They have an ephemeral bloom. Some last for a day, others several days, it varies from plant to plant. The blooms on the Prickly Pear last 2 or 3 days but it blooms so prolifically that it can be covered with blooms. Although this plant has yellow blooms others may have a purple, pink or lavender blooms. This plant has three seasons of interest. Dr. Rick spots a dark brown area at the bottom of the plant. Tom assures us this is just an old plant, the stem has become woody. It has been cut back 3 or 4 times, otherwise it would have taken over. This is normal bark, its been shaded and getting old. The stem is very fibrous, the veination of the fibers is what allows water storage. They can be hacked back pretty hard and it doesn't hurt them, although they may not look great afterwards. They do recover quickly, typically by the middle to end of the next season, by then no one will know the plant was cut back dramatically.

Opuntias take different forms. One is called Chain Link Opuntia. Where the other plant had pads this develops a chain link or joint. It too produces a fruit, although not as edible as the first plant. It is more upright plant providing interest from that respect. It has an electric, almost magenta bloom.

Plain's Opuntia, Optuntia Polyacantha, is a more prostrate form. It spreads, then little pads fall off and root, thus it regenerates itself. It sprawls and rambles almost like a ground cover. It can be found in Texas, Arizona and as far north as North Dakota, which provides an idea about plant hardiness. Tom has these plants somewhat grouped together, the upright forms, the Chain Link and the prostrate, all have a variety of habits which makes an interesting grouping.

Georgia this week visits Rose Court, a very special home on the east coast. Rose Court at one time was a plain jane and was totally transformed into this magical setting. The gates were an important part of the transformation. Gates at the front of a home or garden add a sense of mystery. One is called to look through and see what's on the other side. As well they create a beautiful, formal entrance to this grand home. Columns have been added which provide a great architectural look. Combining the columns with lattice creates a wonderful trellis. When the plants start to take over the trellis, as the Roses have done, it becomes magical.

Bob Rich shares with Georgia the thought process behind this beautiful restoration. Bob wanted to create a sense of privacy. And he wanted to create a number of outside rooms. It is captivating when coming through the gates and under the pergola. Looking to the left Bob created a sunken garden. This became a very welcoming, inviting, private space. It was sunk two feet, which according to building code, allowed the wall to be 8 feet tall rather than 6 feet. On top of that is a foot of lattice, giving in effect a 9 foot wall of privacy. This is particularly important because the lot is 60 feet wide making it close to the neighboring home. When entering the property you come through the gate and under the pergola and you're headed towards the front door. Suddenly, once you come to the wide opening, accented by the end of the lattice work and with the steps on the left, you look down. Bob has often seen this happen, people stop and look in. It is an inviting place, people are drawn in. As well it provides a sense of surprise, all of a sudden a New England courtyard and garden, it's unique. As well from the inside of the house looking out, its inviting from the terrace, from the french doors on the first level and the french doors on the second level. Bob has created a spectacular oasis. Georgia thanks him for sharing his home and creative ideas with us.

Agave, Parryi is another of Tom's favorites. It doesn't look mean, the color looks almost ceramic or plastic. Tom thinks it's a compliment to a plant when we say it doesn't look real, because it's so beautiful. This has an ice blue color and stays that way all the time. It has black thorns that are wicked, but it makes for an unusual, very striking color combination. Agaves put up a gigantic bloom stock that may reach 6-8 feet tall. The plant uses so much energy blooming that it dies after blooming. It does produce pups, little offsets, and that is its primary means of reproducing. These pups can be prolific and some may need to be removed from the ground to keep it from overrunning an area. Therefore it requires a little more maintenance but it has a long interest. Tom leaves the bloom stock for over a season and a half because woodpeckers peck holes in them and nest. Other animals may use the bloom stock as a food source or a nesting area.

Agave Victoria Reginae is one of the most spectacular of the Agaves. It has white edges around its green leaves which makes a dramatic show. It is striking in texture and form. It would go well with a ground cover or something upright. This plant is native to Mexico but works in zone 8 and 9, as well.

Agave Americana is majestic. It needs a lot of room to grow and live. It is almost other-worldly, something from a science fiction movie. Tom started this plant from a small pup and it has grown to this size in 5 years. They are vigorous growers. They need full sun, but depending on your location could live in partial sun depending on what's hardy in your area.

If space is a consideration try a Succulent container. Tom has a trough garden made from hypertufa. It would work well on a deck or in a pool area. The plants can often be purchased at a grocery store or certainly a garden center. Stick the plants in the ground and they grow well. Tom used 3 or 4 different Cactus, a barrel type, a post cactus, a cat tail, the choices are unlimited and you don't need to spend a lot of money. Top dress by using permatil, which is an expanded slate, this will increase drainage and creates a wonderful contrast between the plant and the permatil.

Tom has several important tips for growing Succulents. Make sure that you have good drainage. Secondly when putting these plants together keep the design simple. By that Tom doesn't mean don't have plant diversity because there is an incredible amount of diversity in Succulents; instead don't make the area cluttered, determine how you want to organize your plants. Keep it simple, then it will look striking.

Dr. Rick thanks Tom for educating us on Succulents. We appreciate his time and talents.

Link: Atlanta Botanical Garden

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