Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dangerous Gardens, on Garden Designers Roundtable

The topic for this month's Garden Designers Roundtable is “Dangerous Gardens” and I've been invited to guest post, what an honor! Since dangerous gardening is my passion I do have a few things to say on the matter, I’m sure you’re not surprised.
Agave utahensis

I believe a truly dangerous garden includes multiple layers of perilous essentials…..first up is monetary danger; any gardener that hopes to build a "Dangerous Garden" must be able to throw financial caution to the wind at a moment’s notice and buy a trunk-load of plants whenever the opportunity arises.
the trunk of my car after a fabulous day of plant shopping with friends...

The word “budget” has no place in this style of gardening. Of course you won’t want to spend your actual mortgage payment on plants, that would be fool-hardy…you need a plot of land on which to put your plants after all! But if your goal is to have a spectacular dangerous garden there’s nothing wrong with putting off investing for retirement, or even that new roof you should be saving for.

Secondly, what is more dangerous than the possibility of death? It’s very important for any dangerous garden to have several poisonous and carnivorous plants.
carnivorous Sarracenia

Take the genus Euphorbia, it’s a garden mainstay in many parts of the world, yet lurking just below the surface is a caustic, poisonous milky sap. This sap has the potential to not only irritate any skin that it comes in contact with, but also cause permanent blindness. Use care when handling!
Eryngium  agavifolium (left)  Euphorbia excalibur (right)

Next, forget the commonly accepted parameters of your climate zone, what fun is there in playing is safe? Embrace the danger; push that zone, after all how do you really know that plant isn't hardy in your garden until you've killed, it at least twice?
unknown Cylindropuntia from my in-laws in New Mexico,
is it hardy in my garden? Only time (and the upcoming winter) will tell...
Hybrid Echinocereus triglochidiatus v. gonacanthus (left), Yucca rostrata (right)...the Echinocereusis
hardy to temperatures colder than it will experience in my garden, but can it handle the winter wet? 

But the most important (and my favorite) component for a truly "Dangerous Garden?" The spikes!
Agave gentryi 'Jaws'

Whether they be the obvious spikes found on Yucca, Agaves and Cactus or the more unexpected tips of Mahonia, Phormium and Poncirus nothing beats a few carefully chosen spikes to really make a garden memorable!
Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Seriously though, beyond any other type of plant I think it’s the spiky ones that cause the average gardener pause. I've been told that since they look so different from “other plants” they are intimidating. As though anyone can grow a daisy but it takes special knowledge to grow an Opuntia or Agave.
Blooming Opunita humifusa with Cotinus 'Royal Purple' 

Actually, in some ways they’re right; it all depends on where you’re gardening. Many of the best spikes are dry sun-loving plants; you've got to make sure the soil around these plants will allow water to flow away. Here in winter-rainy Portland I make sure to work in enough grit (pumice, small gravel or chicken grit) with the surrounding native soil that it’s impossible to make a ball of soil in my fist without it breaking apart when I open my hand. Secondly I mound up the area around the plant so it sits on a mini hill, to keep the rain streaming away. Also I tilt the plant a bit, so that water can’t collect in the crown, which can be the kiss of death for an Agave. Finally a little gravel mulch helps keep the plants clean and allows you to cover the neck of the plant with a material that lets it stay drier than if you brought the soil all the way up.
Agaves in my garden planted on a small hill and tilted slightly for rain run-off


Another factor that I believe intimidates people from planting spiky plants is the question of where to plant them? You can’t just plop a cactus down in the middle of a perennial bed; you need to have a designated area, a rock garden!

Or so the thinking used to be. Thankfully that’s changing and more and more people are realizing how beautiful a few spikes can be mixed in with the rest of the garden.
Agave parryi 'J.C. Raulston' with Ceanothus gloriosa ‘Pt Reyes’

In fact their pointy tips and dangerous look can be the perfect counterpoint to a soft billowing grass or a big leaf.
Puya coerulea in the center surrounded by blooming Grevillea molonglo, with a tiny Agave ovatifolia
in the foreground (left) and Nassella tenuissima (right)
Opuntia with Yucca whipplei on the left and the big leaves of an unknown Canna on the right
Rosa sericea ssp. omeiensis f. pteracantha (Wingthorn rose), a big red spike for you rose lovers out there!

So go forth, embrace the danger…buy that expensive plant you've been eyeing, push that zone, and remember the spikes! Oh and don’t forget to read what the regular bloggers of the Garden Designers Roundtable have to say about Dangerous Gardening:

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Alburquerque, NM

(Wingthorn rose, close up)

58 comments:

  1. I like your take on the term 'Dangerous Gardens' and 'Dangerous Gardening'...humorous and true! There's nothing boring about danger gardening indeed, it is fun, exciting, and attention grabbing. And as you've said, this style could be dangerous for both your wallet and your health!

    I remember someone saying to us before that, there are no dangerous plants, only careless gardeners. True to a good degree, and depends on which angle you take it. And with this type of gardening, yes it is the spiky plants that takes centre stage! Nice post :)

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    1. I of all people found my self backing up into a Cholla the other day trying to get a good picture of another pant. Ouch! Careless indeed. Those spikes can go right through a tough pair of jeans.

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  2. Great food for thought.

    On the face of it, Dangerous Gardens is a self-contradiction. Gardening is one of the most hidebound leisure activities of the middle classes. And leisure activities are an invention of the middle classes. It's almost as naff as golf. And that's really saying something.

    But, I am in love with the idea of using natural, living things (that'll be plants then) to create something that looks entirely unnatural in it's surroundings. That's my idea of dangerous gardening.

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    1. I suppose all of our gardens tucked into small urban lots are quite unnatural. C'est la vie! I wouldn't want it any other way.

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  3. Great post. I particularly like the idea of being ready to through the budget out the window.

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    1. Glad you understand. Really...it is just money after all!

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  4. loved it, i'm definitely getting some more spiky things this week

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    1. I realize talking to you about spiky plants is a little like preaching to the choir....

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  5. I won a audio book on plants and their history and how truly dangerous some of them are and how they were used to kill people and tribes. Would you be interested in it?

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    1. Yes definitely I would! Have you just listened and you're done with it, or not even interested?

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  6. Congratulations on your invite to guest post on GDR! Love this post, oh dangerous one. When the roof caves in, you can just put plants in the attic and call it a conservatory or a green roof.

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    1. But how will I keep the winter wet off of them? That is the real question...

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  7. I love your 'multiple layers of dangerous essentials' theory to gardening and am all for it! I haven't tried the Wingthorn rose yet but am definitely adding that to my list of must-haves. Thanks for joining us today - it's been our honor!

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    1. Oh Rebecca you need to check that one out in person. It is an amazing plant!

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  8. Great ideas and thoughts on a fun topic. Your approach is working, the more I read your blog, the more dangerous plants appear in my garden.

    Congratulations on an excellent turn as guest on the GDRT.

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  9. Love that utahesis! We have a main designation spot for our spiky plant-in a succulent garden on a sloping corner. Also of course sprinkled under windows as well as next to the fence.

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    1. I love the idea of spiky plants as a theft deterrent. The first time I ran into that in Fillmore, CA, I fell in love with the idea (I was taking pictures and being watched, the guy came out and said "what are you doing" - I confessed my love for Agaves and he explained they just kept them around to keep people from breaking in). That is until there's a fire and you need to climb out of that window.

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  10. That wingthorn rose --- to die for (ha-ha!). Seriously, I love your advise to mix it up and avoid the garden ghetto syndrome. Thanks for your dangerous insights today!

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    1. Thank you Jocelyn, and the Wingthorn surely has a proper "bloody" Halloween look to it. Glad I've planted it right near my front door!

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  11. I'm constantly being accused of having a "dangerous" garden, and not meant as a compliment, so I'm saving this post up in my defense. Not a happier sight than a trunk full of plants, is there?

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    1. No there is not, especially when you can go right home and plant them!

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  12. Congrats on making it to the Garden Designers Roundtable! I love following your blog and enjoy, so much, the contributions of the "table". This recent topic of "danger garden" or, more important, your take on the subject has answered a nagging question for me. My husband occasionally works nights and I've considered getting a handgun for protection. I've decided to strategically place a few of my spikey agaves around the house and if needed, lift and throw these at my attacker. While they are thrashing about in agony, I'll brake a piece of my euphorbia and rub it on the wounds and in their eyes. Thanks so much! I'm set!

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    1. Perfect! I see a book in your future...

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  13. I love the plant combinations you showed. Even people who aren't true danger gardeners should embrace the hard-soft concept.

    That wingthorn rose is spectactular, by the way. Gotta read up on it.

    Is your Agave utahensis the straight species or is is var. eborispina? I'm asking because eborispina has particularly long terminal spines.

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    1. You know I went searching for the label of the A. utahensis because I suspected that was the case, but I can't find it! (haven't yet organized this seasons labels, they are a bit of a mess). I hated to give out less than complete info, but also HAD to include that picture.

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  14. Well written, and beautifully illustrated. Of course I love my spiky plants, but you identified another dangerous gardening aspect I hadn't realized I shared: I kill plants over and over, and then plant another right back again. Dangerous gardening, indeed!

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  15. It's an honor to have you on the Roundtable. Your blog is fab. I'm a sucker for unbridled horticultural enthusiasm--and this blog has that in spades. It's always a great reminder--particularly for designers--to embrace whimsy and those idiosyncratic details that make gardens special. Very enjoyable. I look forward to following you more. Thomas Rainer

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    1. "unbridled horticultural enthusiasm"...guilty as charged I'm afraid. Thanks for stopping by Thomas!

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  16. DANGER!!!!!! epic post. that's some bad ass gardening done right! Lessons in danger - with danger - for the sake of danger.

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    1. You're another one of those already converted types that I love knowing truly understands the path to danger...and isn't afraid to walk down it at night with no shoes on.

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    2. ewww, never shoes! let those toes run wild! Actually, you are absolutely right. I make nighttime meanders through the garden in the bare feet to harvest bay leaves, rosemary, and basil (while it lasts) on a regular basis. I was Italian in another life after all.

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  17. I disagree about not spending the mortgage payment on plants: as long as you've got the best ones in pots, moving house (forced or voluntary) is easy! ;-)

    I really need to get a wingthorn rose I think. I dreamed last night that I found a rose growing in my garden that I didn't know about, so maybe that's some sort of sign.

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    1. I really think you do...it's an amazing plant!

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  18. Grand-slam home run, spiky one! Quotes including, "multiple layers of perilous essentials", really make my day.That Agave gentryi 'Jaws' speaks of the unspeakable. So glad you were our guest poster on this month's roundtable, so enjoy some Portlandia microbrews later! (like I needed to give you permission)

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    1. Thanks DD, so glad to have been asked. May I go for some Portlandia vine rather than brews? I'm really a beer lover only in the high summer, and unfortunately that's over for this year.

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  19. You had me at "budget has no place here." But thumbing your nose at your climate zone! Now that's living dangerously. :-)

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    1. And I've got the receipts to prove it...

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  20. Loree:
    A brilliant post to introduce the unexposed to your amazing style of 'danger' gardening. Here I just brought DL Agave in for the coming winter months. I am already considering a tufa trough next year so that I can consider spiking more than just my hair in the morning...... congrats on your guest post.

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    1. I have a feeling that once you get started on the tufa trough just one will not be enough...I see several in your future!

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  21. I completely agree -- mix the spiky plants in with the rest of the garden. Growing them in containers is an excellent way of accomplishing this. Also I love your statement, "nothing beats a few carefully chosen spikes to really make a garden memorable!" So true!

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    1. Rebecca certainly had some great "Agave in containers in the garden" photos in her post yesterday didn't she? Made me want to rethink a few areas...

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  22. You know how much I hate Euphoria sap. (Maybe. Maybe not.) I have to say that I bought a new cardigan that I LOVE with synthetic fibers (or something) in it and I exploded in an allergic rash. Grrrr! I am a Danger to Myself in gardens. What about people like me? I'm shocked I've never tripped at your house and required my EpiPen, (Yes, I have one on me now. Smart.) I still love your plants though. I just need to admire them from afar.

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    1. Good point, next time you're here I'm definitely going to make sure you stick to the "safe" areas...now I just have to figure out where those are.

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  23. Outstanding post and lots of eye candy and food for thought. Congratulations

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  24. I keep picking up new tips from you that keep me in the game. Latest example: tipping the plant to encourage runoff. That one I have not tried.

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    1. I try to remember to do this...sometimes I forget. Or sometimes when I do remember the pesky plant goes and pulls itself level by the power of its roots!

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  25. danger will robinson! danger! i kept saying that the entire time i was reading your post and i didn't even grow up watching lost in space... i hear the crew often battled native plants and wildlife but had a killer hydroponic garden... talk about danger.
    anyhoo... love the combos you shared - especially the optunia and cotinus - and that wingthorn rose! do i recall you pointing that out to us in seattle? so cool!
    thanks for sharing your fun perspective on gardening - and congrats on the roundtable feature!

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    1. I've never seen Lost in Space but you're making me think maybe I need to!

      Yes I believe Lorene had a killed Wingthorn Rose in her garden...I love that plant (and it's the subject of tomorrows post!). Thanks for stopping by Andrea, hope to see you at the Fling in SF next year...

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  26. Love your guest post and all your dangerous combinations!

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  27. you should totally watch some of the episodes, if only for the costumes - they were so high tech! see you in san fran!

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  28. Wow, I am totally diggin' that wingthorn rose. My partner has banned anything thorny from the garden unless it produces food. I may just have to prevail upon him to change his mind on that!!

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  29. I don't think I have ever looked at plants and seen them as so alive (read: animated) before, especially that 'Jaws' Agave. A true testament to your love of this ghoulish genre of gardening. Thanks for a great post Loree, for joining us this month, and for the great tips you've included!

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  30. I just ran across this, but as it's spring, maybe it's more appropriate now. Don't forget the annuals. Solanum atropurpureum, Solanum pyracanthum, & S. quitoense, for example. I'm in NY (4b), so only one Opuntia species, and one Yucca species are possible Have to stretch a bit ( & bring the houseplants out) to go dangerous. :)

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