Houseplants have never been my strong suit. I rarely get cyclamens or amaryllis to rebloom, and I even gave up my everblooming abutilon this summer. I simply could not get rid of scale. I had to put it out of its misery.
And yet I have kept succulents alive and in good shape for decades. My jade tree is over 20 years old. It survived being moved to my daughters’ houses while we were in China, and it survived a winter in our unheated Great Room which caused severe frostbite. However, with a little spring warmth, radical pruning and gentle watering it revived and remains beautiful and indomitable.
I also have an orchid cactus and Christmas cactus that are probably about 15 years old. Still alive and healthy, and blooming on schedule with very little help from me. So you can imagine my pleasure when I opened “Succulent Container Gardens: Design Eye-Catching Displays with Easy-Care Plants” by Debra Lee Baldwin ($29.95) published by Timber Press.
Who among us is not familiar with the sempervivium hen and chicks? This common succulent is only one of the 100 genera, 275 species, and 90 varieties of succulents that Baldwin presents, alone and in combination, in containers plain and fancy, large and small, indoors and out, in a book that will inspire everyone who has ever put aside the idea of keeping houseplants alive for more than a year or two.
Baldwin gives advice about how to choose attractive pots for various succulents, looking at form and color. It is the varied forms of all these succulent species that fascinates me. I may not have been familiar with the terms graptovenerias or pachyforms or aeoniums, but now I love the graptoveria rosettes, the amazing exposed root of the pachyforms, and the graceful string of pearls, a senecio. And we haven’t even begun talking about spiky cactuses or agaves or trailing sedums.
There are over three hundred photographs of succulents potted in every style from traditional, classical, whimsical and moderne. They can make a sculptural statement planted alone, or arranged in a miniature landscape.
I have always looked at group plantings of succulents and wondered about how to arrange them. Baldwin gives advice about planting mixtures, and most importantly for me, advised that any planting should be full. These plants grow slowly so to keep a container from looking kind of pathetic, enough plants, or a big enough plant should be put in at the very beginning.
Baldwin’s book makes me want to run right out and buy a big potful of succulents, but Helen Babbs’ charming little book of essays, “My Garden, The City, and Me: Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London” ($18.95 Timber Press) sends me to the armchair in front of the fire with a cup of tea to imagine her life in London where she lives in a gritty neighborhood and builds a garden in the three square meters outside her bedroom door.
Babbs is a young woman who is very aware of the ways that nature inhabits even the busy metropolis. Her London is set firmly within the greater natural world of plants and wildlife. She plants a garden in the hope that it will provide encouragement and sustenance for the birds and butterflies, for bees and other pollinators that are so important to her life, the life of the city, and the life of the planet.
Her book begins with a seed swap while winter is still ruling, then takes us through the seasons, through the days when, all unaware, she steps on her new seedlings and to full summer when she writes, “The roof has looked at its prettiest florally over the last few weeks. The flowering tobacco has been joined by yellow evening primroses, prongs of purple lavender and deep orange nasturtiums. I recently inherited a courgette plant that has five fluorescent flowers now.”
Her descriptions of the Thames and London’s historic parks and the wildlife she finds there are equally poetic. She writes about a damp autumnal ramble on the famed Hampstead Heath. “A sudden downpour left the leaf fall slick and gleaming, and the lichen on the tree trunks fluorescing lime green. Glossy droplets balled on fat, pink berries. When the rain returned, tree canopies made protective umbrellas over our heads.”
You don’t have to be a lover of English novels as well as gardens to enjoy this book, but it won’t hurt.
As her first year as a gardener closes she cannot help thinking of the coming spring and growing carrots growing in a pair of leaky red wellies and potatoes in a hessian sack. I can absolutely identify with that kind of dreamy planning.
Babb ends with a short list of Things to Read and a list of Places to Go. I, for one, would not mind following in her London footsteps.
Between the Rows - December 3, 2011