Looking for Light- Lessons from a Crowded Yard
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 8, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)I have a lot of experience growing plants outdoors, thanks to my marvelous Californian climate and my endless thirst for new plants. You would think that eventually my vast experience (over a short 15 years) would gradually seep in or rub off on me, and I would stop making the same mistakes over and over again. I have indeed learned a lot. I can even seem downright educated on the subject of growing cacti and succulents, palms and cycads, or just about 1000 other species of hapless plants that have come into my grasp over the years. I have visited hundreds of other gardens and collections, learned even more about at least another five to ten thousand plants, seen others landscaping and cultivational mistakes and successes, and have come away from it all with a brain simply crammed, albeit in a totally unorganized fashion, with mountains of facts, figures and mental images. I can spout endless gobs of flowery wisdom, making seemingly deft suggestions and coming to what sound like cleverly insightful conclusions. But it is odd how all that ‘knowledge' and experience rarely have much influence on what I actually do in my garden. I may have, at any one time, well over 2000 living individual plants surviving in my dinky California yard. One only has to peruse my on-line journal to notice that the largest single group of plants in my entire glorified collection is my long and painful list of dead ones. My wife would often quip (and still does) that all the plants would shake and tremble in terror whenever I happened upon them at a nursery or other sale situation, and if you could just understand and verbalize their fears, you would realize they would all be saying ‘Take Him/her... not me!'
shot of back yard about a year ago... even in this photo, packed full of healthy looking plants, are plants that today are no longer with us.
It is true I have killed a lot of things. Sometimes it has not been my fault. Some of these plants simply had some sort of death wish. Some hardly anyone can keep alive. However, most were killed by laziness, carelessness or a misguided attitude that ‘survival of the fittest' was a reasonable philosophy when it came to collecting tropical or otherwise fastidious plants and ‘letting them loose' in my little garden of horrors.
light is becoming more scarce
Bougainvillea are nice, but can create way too much shade in their own battle for ownership of the sunlight
But as I look over this long and distinguished list of dead or missing plants (often, some plants seem to just vanish without my knowledge, with my only realizing this fact years later when I come across another one and begin to wonder what happened to the one I already had), I notice one common theme to many of their disappearances over the years: the lack of light. Yes I have lost my fair share (more than mine, actually) of plants to over watering, under watering, parasites, cold, heat and even theft. But the lack of light has had a hand in a large majority of the senseless deaths in my California death camp.
This wonderful pot of cacti did great until they started to have to deal with a bit of shade. Only one survives now of all these cacti (center plant who seems to be able to tolerate some shade); right is an Echeveria subrigida just to show there are still some plants that want MORE shade than I give them (fried in the sun)... but these are definitely exceptions now.
If there is one thing that many plants can be expected to do, should they live long enough, and that is to grow. This single very plant-like behavior has been the downfall of many other plants in my collection, notably the ones that grew less. Growing plants invariably grow towards the light (a common cause for the lopsidedness of many of my plants). But in my yard, I have taken this natural behavior to extremes by basically pitting all my unwilling captives in some death race for space against each other. I suppose this is a natural consequence of having over a thousand growing plants in a small space perhaps more consistent with the survival of hundreds of individuals, not thousands. They just start out so small most of the time. I plant this one here, that one there, inches apart... often with so much space in between I can still see the surrounding soil or top dressing for months, if not years. But the inevitable growing that these non-static entities do ends up taking all the carefully planned and neatly organized space I artfully created around them all and smothering it with darkness. And darkness kills.
planter just created and planted... lots of room and light... but years later, not so true... very silly to think this wouldn't happen
Planter with lots of carefully planted smaller plants that did great for a few years... until they got bigger and light was less accessible...
Now this same planter looks as full as ever (even fuller) even though over half the inhabitants have 'left'
Darkness is particularly bad for cacti and succulents, but not necessarily palms, at least initially, which is why my meager collection of palms is still relatively healthy and active. But even their ultimate existence is dependent upon their own growing limitations and the surrounding individual's superior or inferior growth rates. Unlike the situation with most cacti and succulents, canopy is often a life-saver for palms, particularly in my marginal and unpredictable climate in inland California. And though not all cacti and succulents relish the blasting full sun of our often 100F plus summers, canopy is rarely a good thing when it lets in too little light to sustain health and vigor.
Cactus on left rot from lack of sunlight, and right are what was once a great colony of flower producing Stapelias that now are rotting and succumbing to massive scale infestation (not seen this on any in full sun). Oh well... more space to plant something else.
Canopy in the static form of shade cloth can sometimes be the perfect situation for many a cactus or succulent. But my canopy is made up of an ever-changing life form. And so my careful placement of this or that plant based on their individual needs for space, sunlight, shade etc. only works for the plant's advantage while the surrounding environment remains the same. And though I sometimes go out in the garden and wish this or that plant to grow faster (like pots of boiling water, plants never seem to grow while you're staring at them), invariably something does grow and almost always too much leaving the other plants with far too little room or light.
Here is a planter with a lot of cacti planted at one end... Some of these actually had burn on them from excessive sunlight in summer. But...
now there NO cacti left (Beaucarnea and nearby bamboo shaded them to death). Still, the space is now being occupied by other plants with less need direct sunlight, so the space is not wasted.
another side effect of lack of light, despite most of my aloes dealing OK with the increasing shade, is lack of flowering. For the first few years of the garden, nearly every aloe flowered. Now less than half of them do, and I am certain it is due to less light exposure. This Aloe claviflora flowered wonderfully a few years in a row, but hasn't for the last two as larger plants are shading it now.
I learned a new word after planting in a small space, a word which those that try to grow all their plants indoors quickly learn: etiolation. For a short definition of this word, see the link below. Basically it is the weakening of a plant due to lack of light. But my plants that found themselves in relative darkness in the yard often did not have the time to truly become etiolated the way a carefully maintained house plant does. With less than the healthful level of light, succulents rot quickly. They succumb to overwhelming mealy bug and scale infestations (which I rarely see on my plants in full sun). They quickly become the victims of many environmental bad guys from fungus and bacteria to all sorts of bugs. Etioliation is waiting for them if they make it that far, but rarely is that the case. ‘Survival of the fittest' kill them off too soon for that to happen most of the time.
Euphorbia jansvellensis growing in a pot looking like it's supposed to (left), but a few years later in a shaded pot (right) severely etiolated, and weakened
When I first started planting plants, I put them about the three dimensional space of my complex back and front yards as though I was arranging a collection of models. In the past I have collected coins, comics, books and even little creatures. When I ran out of space, I would stop collecting. But this new collecting phase of growing life forms quickly outpaced me and the next thing I knew my wife was planning on calling one of the programs on hoarders to get me under control. It's not so much that I had more plants than the yard could contain. But I had more plants than the yard could contain in subsequent years.
Careful planting and spacing of plants in this plant did keep them from growing literally on top of each other (left), but eventually taller plants were all one could see in just 3-4 years of this 'growth' phenomenon... and most all the small stuff, having to live in shade, are no exist, some having just 'vanished' without a trace
I was getting pretty good at creating artful and ornamental arrangements of plants in pots, planters and in larger areas around my yard. My wife was becoming particularly successful creating beautiful containers of all sorts of weird and exotic succulents and cacti. These artistic creations were often inspired by the arrangements we saw at the various nurseries about town. But there are several huge advantages a nursery has when creating artful arrangements in pots and their gardens. Those are a seemingly endless supply of replacement plants, and ever-changing display areas. We would often notice that the fantastic arrangements we would see at the nursery every time we visited were suddenly not there anymore (replaced with new, equally fantastic arrangements, of course). At first we would be envious of those container's new owners. But later we learned that the containers just outgrew their ‘artfulness' and they no longer looked that good. Always some plants outgrew their neighbors or even the container itself, leaving no room for the others and shading them out of the available light. They never tell you that when you visit and admire such arrangements at these nurseries, though. By keeping us ‘in the dark' these nurseries were part of our problem, not the solution to it!
typical pot creation as one might see in a nursery, and then 6 months later (that you never see in the nurseries)... this pot eventually ended up containing one plant as it shaded out all the rest.
So the true art of landscaping when one has a gazillion plants to keep in pots or the yard is to arrange them in such a way that those that need full sun, keep it, and those that need partial shade, keep partial shade... and those that like full shade really luck out in the long run. One needs to plan ahead, as well as create something nice for the moment (NOT an easy task!). All plants grow at different rates and all situations change. If one can plan ahead accurately for all that, one is a certifiable genius. Me, I'm just a plant collector. And my plant collecting days are pretty much over... until enough stuff dies that there's room to fill the void with something new...
Before and after of front yard succulent strips. Thankfully there is still plenty of sun for all... but maybe not for long...one of few places I could not overplant to the extent that sun was no longer available (thanks to this driveway) and most of these plants are still doing quite well (some actually would like a bit of shade now and then)
But despite the downturn in collecting (conveniently timed with the downturn in the economy) I still have plenty to do in the garden, only now it is thinning and weeding things out, rearranging plants, potting stuff up and giving tons of it away (some to the compost bin, some to the city's ground cover supply and some to neighbors and local plant societies). I am in a constant state of creating light in the garden, something that was in great abundance when I first started planting, but now something I strive endlessly to make more of.
even running out of places to put pots
time to start thinning out the palm garden, too
Some may argue that water is the most important ingredient in gardening. But many of my plants can live for months and even years without water. But nothing, short of a bacteria or a blind salamander or some deep sea worm can live without light. Light is truly the life of the garden.