Hillside surprise

Outside San Diego, Patrick Anderson combines patience, thought, and sheer joy in plants to make a startlingly lush desert garden


BEHIND A WROUGHT IRON GATE AND UP A LONG TREE-LINED DRIVEWAY is a spectacular garden where the sun shines most days and plants are happy with little irrigation and no fertilizer. Here, Patrick Anderson chooses plants that are likely to thrive in the dry summers and mild, sometimes rainy winters of Southern California’s Mediterranean climate. He arranges agave, euphorbia, and aloe in dense groupings beneath an airy tree canopy of acacia, cassia, mesquite, and melaleuca, creating a sense of lushness rare in dry gardens.

The succulents’ exotic shapes give the illusion of a sculpture garden all year round. In January and February, this fanciful garden turns flamboyant. Close to 300 species of aloe explode in blazing color. Spikes of orange, yellow, and red tapers glow almost brazenly. Adding to the show, a hybrid coral tree (Erythrina xsykesii) is blanketed in scarlet blossoms. There is nothing of the stark desert garden here.


Two decades ago, Anderson and his partner, Les Olson, bought a house on two acres in Fallbrook, California. The weekend retreat was an easy drive from their condo in Pasadena; in less than two hours, they were among the citrus and avocado groves of northern San Diego County. By 1990, the ease of rural life and the dream of having a garden persuaded them to make Fallbrook their full-time home. Anderson took early retirement, traded his suit for jeans, and his gardening adventure began–slowly.

Anderson revels in the process of gardening. A voracious learner, he studies and thinks, sometimes for years, before he pushes a spade into the ground. His enthusiasm for gardening began early. He was six when his grandmother gave him his first epiphyllum. When he was 12, his neighbor, a cactus collector, gave him his first succulent and taught him how to propagate. However, he says, “It wasn’t until I started working at the Huntington Botanical Garden [in San Marino, California] that my education began.” For three years he volunteered once a week, propagating, potting, and helping to maintain the nursery and organize the renowned plant sale. There he got first pick of the plants, a perk that helped him build his magnificent collection, and in a further example of “give and you shall receive,” the Huntington desert garden became the inspiration for his own design.


By 1996, Anderson was ready to make a succulent garden on the southeast-facing half-acre slope in front of his house. Good drainage and the hillsides situation above the frost line made it a perfect site. Before he could finalize his plan, however, he had to remove 40 citrus trees from the gentle slope. Once the hill was bare, the paths became obvious; all would meander to the highest point, where he would build a pavilion. Anderson marked the paths using a hose, then powdered lime. To divert rain from gushing through the garden, he outlined a dry streambed that, during a heavy downpour, would empty into a settling basin halfway down the hill. Below it, he drew the outline of a pond.

Soon, trucks rumbled in with enormous boulders to punctuate the slope, tons of tumbled pea gravel to fill the paths, and river rock for the dry streambed. Anderson chose yet another rock, of mottled red and brown, to line the walls of the pond and edge the paths. His last task was to amend the silky fine-grained loam soil. Though he could easily slide a spade into it when it was wet, when dry it was like stone. He trucked in more than 30 cubic yards of soil amendment, a mix of topsoil and screened decomposed granite. (Screening eliminates the fine powder that can turn soil into concrete.) To make planting easier, he used the amendment to mound berms in those areas where a shelf of solid sandstone runs four inches below the surface of the hillside.

Anderson remembers the first plant in the garden: Aloe ‘Hercules’, a hybrid of the giants Aloe bainesii and A. dichotoma. He gave it the star treatment afforded to all newcomers to the garden: fresh soil amendment and regular watering from a primitive but effective oscillating sprinkler attached to a garden hose. After a year, ‘Hercules’, like the rest of the garden, would get nothing more than summer water every four to six weeks.


Today, that first aloe is 15 feet tall. Visitors crunching down the gravel paths of the strolling garden can pause at seating that’s x always nearby, yet tucked subtly along the paths and hardly noticeable among the boulders and plants. Elegant redwood bridges, built by Olson, make it easy to cross over the streambed to another path. On a hot day, the 15-foot-square pavilion, painted rich golden yellow and topped by a red tile roof, offers a break from the heat. Inside, the air is filled with the sweet fragrance of mesquite flowers (Prosopisglandulosa). It is easy to reach out a window and pick a lime; the front two sides are open to a view of the garden and Mt. Palomar, which is known for its observatory. Anderson’s favorite time in the garden is twilight, when the golden barrel cactuses (Echinocactus grusonii) are backlit by the saffron light of sunset.

Patrick Anderson’s Top 10 Succulents

In warm climates, succulents grow easily in most garden situations. Where space is limited or the climate is cold, they thrive in the well-drained soil of containers. Most succulents are easy to propagate. Break off a branch or a pup, set it aside for a few days to heal over, plant and water sparingly until roots form.-Patrick Anderson

1. Aeonium decorum ‘Sunburst’ The showiest of succulents! Large rosettes of pale green and cream, lightly edged with pink, grow to 12 inches or more. This succulent does well in light shade. It will form side branches from time to time, which can be broken off and rooted easily.

2. Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ Dark maroon, almost black rosettes to six inches across, bring a color to the garden that almost no plant can match. For best color, it needs full sun. The plant can get leggy (to three feet tall); keep it compact by snapping off the tops-an opportunity to propagate more.

3. Agave attenuata (foxtail agave) Widely planted, and deservedly so, this completely spineless agave forms huge rosettes of pale green leaves. Mature plants form numerous pups on the trunk, which are easily broken off and planted. The variety ‘Boutin Blue’, a bluegray sport is more difficult to find but worth seeking out for its striking color.

4. Agave parryi Compact perfectly symmetrical rosettes are living sculpture. The silver-gray leaves are topped with wickedly beautiful black spines. The plant will offset freely and eventually form attractive colonies. Its small size makes this agave perfect for containers or smaller garden areas, but not around children.

6. Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ Brilliant lavender-pink rosettes grow to a foot wide. Makes offsets slower than other echeverias, but it will eventually produce pups. A great summer bedding plant and a standout in mixed containers, it should spend the winter indoors in cold, wet climates.

7. Echinocactus grusonii (golden barrel, mother-in-law’s cushion) Magnificent spherical cactus covered with bright yellow curved spines. For a stunning effect, place it where the afternoon sun can shine through the spines, One specimen in a pot is a great focal point; a colony of them in the ground is magical.

8. Euphorbia milii (crown of thorns) A shrubby plant whose branches are covered by fierce-looking but fairly harmless spines. Blooms, technically called bracts, appear every day of the year, in various shades of red, pink, yellow, or cream.

9. Kalanchoe beharensis (felt plant, Napoleon’s hat) Large arrow-shaped felted leaves on a sculptural branching plant. Provided that drainage is good, it responds to regular watering and feeding by forming huge leaves (to 12 inches].

5. Aloe cameronil A succulent fairly new in the trade and not easy to find, but worth the hunt. Bright light, heat, or drought turn the leaves a brilliant coppery red. It forms a low, mounding shrub to three feet across and provides a startling focal point in the garden.

10. Kalanchoe marnieriana (syn. Bryophyllum marnieriana) The tidy pale green foliage of this compact species is attractive year-round, but in January, pendent lipstick-red flowers cover the entire plant for a knockout punch of winter color. Propagates extremely easily from cut-tings.-PA

Last year, the West Coast magazine Pacific Horticulture held its annual garden party at the Anderson and Olson home. Anderson used the party as an excuse to redesign the garden bed just outside the house and to make two new structures. On the western side of the slope, he built a 15-foot-long, 7-foot-high cobalt blue wall, somewhat necessary after neighbors sheared their oleander hedge, opening a view of a chainlink fence and driveway. The wall, more sculpture than functional barrier, is an intense blue, and can be seen from all over the garden. Hidden in a corner on the southwest side of the garden is a circular bench he calls “the council circle.” Covered with stucco the color of ancient terracotta, it is set in a grove of black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) with coast rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) and a fragrant California bay tree (Umbellularia californica) screening it from neighbors.

Like all gardeners Anderson continues to be fascinated by new plants, but he’s often attracted to those that he says “only a mother could love.” Among his current passions are air plants (Tillandsia spp.), bromeliads whose overlapping silver-gray rosettes cover the tops of two standing metal planters on his front patio. These spiky mounds need no soil and only air and a sprinkle of water to make them happy.

With another acre still plantable, who knows what tomorrow will bring. H

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