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Becoming Obsessive

An expert's garden, designed around a plant collection

Written by Ethne Clarke
  • Edmund Barr

    When you begin to make a garden, it's all too easy to get carried away acquiring plants. One of this, one of that, and suddenly the garden has become a dotty collection of curiosities. One way to avoid this pitfall is to focus on collecting every species of a single plant genus. Like Patrick Anderson; for him, the revered genus was-and remains-Aloe; there are more than 300 species alone. "I do try to select them according to what they will look like in the garden, but I admit that I've never met an aloe I didn't want," says Patrick, a touch ruefully. He echoes the words of every collector who has ever pursued an object of desire down a long and dangerous road that, all too often, ends in a place called Obsession.

    Patrick's half-acre garden in Fallbrook, California, in the hills north of San Diego, began innocently enough. More than 20 years ago, he brought home a few specimens from a plant sale at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, where he worked as a volunteer at the plant sales and helped with plant propagation. His efforts soon became concentrated on the Desert Garden area. "I looked at it and thought, I can do that!" he explains, describing how his interest in plants for semi-arid conditions evolved from a childhood love of succulents. "I knew that I wanted to use plants that would be appropriate to the area and also adapted to low water." Unlike many water-wise gardeners, Patrick's preferred watering technique is to use a handheld hose and a simple oscillating sprinkler. He eschews soaker hoses, having determined that they water too narrowly and are a nightmare to maintain.

    Today, the main garden area occupies the south-facing slope that rises away from the front of the house. The land was previously devoted to avocado and lime trees, but in 1996, when Patrick decided to get serious about the garden, these were grubbed out and the slope was scraped clean of weeds and unwanted vegetation.

    Describing his design technique, he recalls, "There were a couple of trees that I'd planted a few years earlier that we had to work around, but otherwise it was just me observing the ground from various angles to figure out how to shape the garden." Using powdered lime and hoses to mark the way, Patrick devised a meandering path to slow people's pace as they stroll through the garden, thereby encouraging them to look at the plants they pass. Tons of rocks and boulders were brought in to edge the gravel walkways. "It was like arranging furniture, with me directing the guy with the backhoe who was shifting boulders around: 'Put one here, and another here.' It took two days, and by the time they were all in place, I wished I'd gotten three times as many." Never underestimate your need for boulders.

    Photography: Edmund Barr

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    The paths were leveled and covered in pea gravel, an ideal path surface for many garden settings, as water percolates straight through; plants germinate freely into it, too, so you can get lots of volunteer shoots to increase plant stocks. Weeds pull out easily, especially if the path is first lined with horticultural fabric mulch or a thick layer of newspaper. And gravel does have a pleasing crunchy sound underfoot.

    "The first plant to go in was a tree aloe," says Patrick. Nicknamed Hercules, this plant now towers above a cobalt blue accent wall that also screens a neighboring house from view. Patrick claims he did not consciously arrange his plantings, but, "I did have a picture in my head of how I wanted the garden to look overall-a lush jungle of plants that, although they share similar horticultural needs and belong to the same families, come from different places all over the world." Thus, plants like aloes from South Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean rub shoulders with euphorbias from Madagascar and agaves from Mexico and South America, so the garden is far from natural.

    There is no denying that planting in drifts has a very satisfying effect in the garden. Once the older plants in a garden are well-established, they begin increasing in number; agaves make "pups," and cacti and aloes make offsets, which can be separated from the parent and replanted in massed groupings, as Patrick has learned. "I don't want to have one of everything. I want drifts of things. Like the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii ) by the pavilion: One plant is eye-catching, but a swath is simply breathtaking!"

    As the garden has matured, it has taken on another role-as a venue for entertaining. The focus is the pavilion, located at the top of the garden overlooking the house. "From there we watch the sun set and the moon rise, then in the twilight make our way down the paths through the garden, finishing up at the terrace, where we serve dinner," explains Patrick. "We have candles in sconces along the paths to light the way, and it really is quite dramatic. We don't use artificial light in the garden ever-it's too stagey."

    There's no denying, though, that this garden has drama and its stars, like an enormous century plant, Agave americana, growing near the driveway. Patrick cautions gardeners to be sure to know how big a plant will be in maturity because "moving a plant that is covered in spines and weighs more than 100 pounds is not something you ever want to do!"

    But a garden is never static, and one day the huge agave will flower and die, allowing Patrick to acquire and place another perfect specimen in his beautifully collected garden.

    Patrick Anderson and Zelda, queen of the garden.

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  • Edmund Barr

    The open-sided garden pavilion was designed to frame views across the garden. Near the path, a swath of ball-shaped barrel cacti offers a counterpoint to the stiff upright shapes of aloe and agave.

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    The aluminum sculpture "Ventana," by local artist Peter Mitten, anchors a collection of flowering aloes and echoes the broad silvery-gray leaves of Agave attenuata 'Bouttin Blue'.

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    Cacti and succulents do well in containers. Patrick made this eye-catching display from square ceramic drainpipes. There are ready-made potting mixes for these sorts of plants, but Patrick prefers to improve on them with his own formula: To a commercial cactus potting mix, add one-third crushed pumice or turkey grit and a generous handful of a slow-release general fertilizer like Osmocote. Shallow, wide pots usually suit cacti and succulents best, as the plants are shallow-rooted. For deep containers, partially fill with rock or other clean rubble. Then spread a layer of horticultural fabric mulch across the top, and fill with potting compost. (The mulch prevents the soil from washing out.)

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    The rich gold color of the house complements the mostly gray-green and occasional dark red foliage colors in the garden.

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    Aeonium arboretum
    'Schwarzkopf' blossom

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    The pottery and table linens used to deck out the garden pavilion pick up the colors at work throughout the garden. Pot-grown specimens line the edges of the broad staircase leading up to the pavilion, and individual plants are brought in to accent the season.

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  • Edmund Barr

    Aloe plants have remarkable colors and markings, which make them particularly attractive for arid gardens.

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    A carpet of rust-red, starfish-shaped Aloe cameronii is one of Patrick's favorite features in the garden.

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    Bold plants and equally bold garden ornaments help maintain scale.

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    In the distance, beyond the golden barrel cacti, the spare white trunk of Hercules glows in the afternoon sun.

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