When renowned British horticulturist Christopher Lloyd visited Southern California two years ago, he asked his hosts to show him gardens he wouldn't see back home. "How about a Japanese garden?" they suggested. Lloyd's response was polite but firm: "If I wanted that, I'd go to Japan." His opinion of some local landscapes, with their endless lawns bordered by evergreen shrubs, was equally withering: "It's astonishing you do so little with what you've got," he exclaimed.
His attitude changed dramatically when he and his hosts strolled through the Fallbrook garden pictured here, owned by succulent fancier Patrick Anderson and his partner, Les Olson. The 1/2 acre hillside garden is filled with aloes and agaves in soft hues and sculptural shapes. Aeoniums, euphorbias, and crassulas add texture and fill in the gaps between them, along with African daisies (Arctotis hybrids), Mexican blue palms (Brahea armata), golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), organpipe cactus (Lemaireocereus marginatus), pindo palms (Butia capitata), blue-flowered pride of Madeira (Echium fastuosum), purple-flowered Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), and brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), a native California shrub with silvery leaves and profuse sulfur-yellow flowers. In midwinter, when perennial gardens snooze, the 200-plus aloes in Anderson's collection blaze with candelabras of red, yellow, orange, and cream. Clearly, it's a garden suited to the region's arid landscape and to the summer-dry climate; plants that grow here need little water once established.
Sculpting the land
All this beauty took preparation. Five years ago, Anderson and Olson sculpted the land--a former lime orchard--with a tractor. Then they amended the soil with decomposed granite to enhance drainage, fashioned dry streambeds, covered pathways with pea gravel, and added redwood bridges. At the top of the slope, they built a white stucco pavilion; its orange tile roof echoes the color of aloes in bloom. To provide shade, they planted lacy, drought-tolerant trees, such as Acacia karroo, Cassia nemophila, and mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa and P. chilensis).
They aimed for lushness. "You'd never see these plants growing so closely together in nature," Anderson says. Though the aloes and agaves started out small, by the time Lloyd visited, many had grown to human size and larger.
Anderson's admiration for giant succulents' form, texture, and quirkiness began at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, where he works as a volunteer. Much of his collection came from Huntington plant sales, but he also shops in large nurseries and those that specialize in cactus and succulents.
Giant aloes and agaves are the stars of his collection, but they're also the thugs of the plant world. Their sprawling leaves menace with spikes, points, and serrated edges. "These are not plants for children," Anderson says as he examines a small puncture wound he got while weeding. "You're wise to approach them wearing goggles and leather gloves." So why on earth would anyone want to grow them? "Because they're otherworldly," he answers.
When gently squeezed, a sun-warmed, gel-filled Aloe striata feels like a human arm. The plant's gray-green skin is subtly striped with cream, its edges are translucent crimson, and its blooms resemble scarlet feather dusters. The plant looks stunning with a carpet of red lava rock around it. "That's just one plant," says Anderson, adding that a single aloe or agave may be all a patio garden needs.
Not for the faint of heart
When you buy one, just make sure you know how big it's going to get, he advises. Palm-size gray-blue rosettes of Aloe brevifolia make good ground covers. Agave parryi huachucensis (gray with black edges) looks like an oversize artichoke and grows to basketball size. Aloe arborescens (famous for rimming Laguna Beach's cliffs) reaches the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Aloe marlothii is not for the faint of heart: Its brutish leaves are spiked like a giant cheese grater. Yet its blooms, which float horizontally above the plant, are worth the effort; they're several feet long and clustered with scorching orange florets. Less intimidating is A. cameronii, which forms a brick red mound of foliage that resembles overlapping starfish. "The more sun, the redder it gets," says Anderson.
And what about his British guest? When Lloyd returned home, he wrote Anderson: "I would love to have a garden of cactus and succulents, but as I can't, there's no use being envious. Whenever I come to Southern California, I can just enjoy yours."