In the backyard of Carol Brant’s vintage 1892 home on Florence Lane in Sebastopol, grassy pathways lead from the deck into the garden where a dazzling array of yuccas, cacti, aloes, fleshy rosettes, Japanese Maples and even a Pinus strobus ‘Angel Falls’ decorate the landscape.

Four years ago Brant’s one-third acre was all about roses, but she wanted a garden that looked wonderful all year-round. She turned to succulents and cacti, mixed in with dwarf conifers. The effect is stunning. Shuffling 15 sheets of paper, Brant gives out their Latin names. “I use many of the standard varieties,” she explained, “but I like to add a rare find here and there.” That’s why she buys locally from Lone Pine Gardens and Peacock Horticultural Nursery in Sebastopol. “You buy it, bring it home, and this is what happens,” she said, giving up a wide smile.

“Money spent on an unusual variety is like buying a piece of art,” she said, looking down on a spiraling Aloe polyphylla ‘The Gem of the Drakensberg.’ The leaves of this species, which evolved in the high elevations of the Drakensberg mountains of southern Africa, have a spiral arrangement that make it a very striking succulent. “Of course,” she said, laughing, “a new plant in the garden, especially if it’s larger, is like putting a new chair in your living room. Now the sofa looks tired.”

According to Sonoma County Master Gardeners, succulents can withstand long periods of drought. They store large amounts of water and food in the spongy tissue in their leaves, stems or roots, which is released when needed. Succulents need four hours of sun each day. As to winter, Brant has chosen plants to withstand temperatures down to 20 degrees. Succulents need some water to get established and then occasional watering through the summer.

When asked about her biggest challenge in keeping a garden of this size, Brant thinks a bit and then replies in true gardener fashion: “Challenge is the same thing as joy, because it keeps things interesting.”

In an area of the garden “under construction,” where Brant recently cut down an old walnut tree, she notes that everything growing underneath it is now suffering from too much sun. “I’m always changing and shaping the garden. You have to do this—weed out the old, add new. Otherwise, you’re just a janitor,” she said.

Wandering about the garden, there are constant surprises, like a 6-foot-tall Aloe plicatilis—or Coral Fan Aloe—with large orange blossoms and a thick trunk. Also from South Africa, this succulent’s flowers bloom on branching stalks. “Surprise is important in a garden,” Brant explained. “You don’t want to know everything at first brush.”

Brant passes a large Aralia japonica and an Abutilon ‘Frieda Dixon,’ its little lantern heads bobbing with color. Her nearby greenhouse is loaded with succulents, like creatures from the sea and just as interesting. “Some were in there recovering from a too-wet winter, others were too small to be planted in the garden, and others just hadn’t found the right spot yet,” Brant said. Since then, they have been moved into the garden. Some of the group includes Echeverias ‘Black Knight’ and ‘Afterglow,’ Aeoniums ‘Zwartkop’ and ‘Cyclops,’ Aloes ‘Rudikippe’ and ‘Delta Lights,’ Dyckia ‘Naked Lady’ as well as the “pups” of Agave ‘Quadricolor,’ Agave ‘Monterrey Frost,’ Echeveria “Latte Rose’ and Echeveria ‘Lipstick.’

Besides hiring someone to dig the big holes and to help with the pruning, Brant maintains the garden by herself. Thinning out is the most fun, she said, because “succulents are easy to share. You break off a branch, harvest some pups, or dig up a clump and put it in a pot to set out on the front walk for folks to take,” she said. That certainly sums up Carol Brant and her beautiful garden—joy and sharing.

Lone Pine Gardens
Next stop is Lone Pine Gardens, a nursery specializing in succulents, bonsai, cacti and unusual ornamentals, located off of Gravenstein Highway on Lone Pine Road, past Shetland ponies grazing in green pastures. Owners Steve and his son Ian Price sit at a picnic table down from the house, under the filtered shade of a Siberian elm with deeply rutted (fissured) bark. The view looks out over their 4-acre nursery. Lilly, a gray-haired Schnoodle Poodle, bounces around their feet. Lone Pine is a family business, and includes Steve’s wife Amy and Ian’s wife Janet.

Ian was born in England where he got his Bachelor of Arts from the University of London, then a master’s degree from Arizona Horticultural School. He and Janet lived in England for five years and opened a Bonsai nursery, showing at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show. When they returned to the US in 1975, they opened Lone Pine Gardens, now in its 47th year. Steve has been working in the nursery since he could toddle after dad, and today he’s the manager. “The nursery business is in my DNA,” Steve said.

What keeps Steve busy is keeping up with the broad variety of plants the nursery offers. Half of the business is wholesale, and three days a week Steve delivers around the North Bay. “We label our plants with the actual names, something you don’t get at the big-box stores,” he said.

Steve has every size and flavor of succulent in his nursery, from blue-fronded Agaves and various cacti to several greenhouses bulging with green exotic growth. He explains that gardeners have turned to succulents in the face of the drought. Also, when days shorten and cooler temperatures set in—a time when most plants are on their way out, looking tired and blooms gone—succulents just keep on giving. On a special patch of land that Steve has been cultivating for many years—breathtaking—there are succulents and cacti 20 feet tall, with geometric thrillers swirling upon themselves.
Lone Pine also specializes in bonsai trees. Seed propagation is a big part of their activity, growing hundreds of ‘starter’ trees, groomed for bonsai. Advice from Steve for those taking home a bonsai plant, “Don’t kill it!” he said, laughing.

The bonsai is considered the pinnacle of the horticultural world. The first 10 years of its life are spent in the ground, being shaped to grow ‘just so.’ Then, it lives at least two years in a bonsai ‘training pot’ with branches wired—sort of like braces on teeth but a lot more fun.
“A bonsai plant is never really finished,” Steve explained. It needs to be periodically repotted and sometimes rewired. How long do they last? Hundreds of years, he noted. “Family treasures handed down generation to generation.”

Ian points to a lovely Atlas Cedar Bonsi and smiled. “That plant and I are both 80-years-old.”
There is something special about working with the land, with those you love. And here comes Lilly bounding up to add her goodbye. Yep, special.

Peacock Horticultural Nursery
Have you ever wanted to have late afternoon tea in a ‘secret garden?’ Robert Peacock and his partner Martin Waldron are sipping Perrier as the sun filters through shade trees onto planting beds, pathways leading here and there. It feels more like a home garden, than a nursery.
Robert runs the nursery. “What makes us different is we don’t have rows of the same plants lined up like soldiers.” His nursery is full of areas where he’s planted varieties to show off how they might look in someone’s garden.

“We specialize in plants that are rare,” Robert said, while still offering standards. He points out a Blue Glow Agave that, with the sun warming its fronds, actually does glow.

Much of Robert’s time is spent sourcing—that is, looking for interesting plants, some he propagates. He quotes a wisdom familiar to succulent gardeners: “All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti.” This means that succulents are a group of plants identified as having cells in parts of their body that retain water. Cacti also have this ability and that is why a cactus is a succulent, but not all succulents are cacti. And don’t get fooled into thinking that a cactus is a cactus just because it has spines. Some don’t. Let’s just say that like all of nature, it’s both complicated and beautiful.

Surrounded by the sweet signs of spring, how romantic it might be to string a few lights and invite friends to enjoy this wonder. In fact, Martin said, “We did just that to celebrate our 10th year in business.” Some people brought plants they’d purchased years before; some told plant stories, while others swapped plants with each other.

“People who love plants have a passion for life,” Robert added.
Robert has a business degree from UC Davis and was a banker for 10 years. One day, “I decided that rather than making tons of money, I wanted to spend my time doing something I loved,” he explained. He quickly obtained a degree in Horticultural from Oakland Merit College and has never looked back.
Martin and Robert ran into each other, literally, smashed into each other, on their bikes while riding in Golden Gate Park 20 years ago. Martin is an architect working for a global firm designing hospitals. Robert operates the nursery with Martin’s assistance on weekends. “I’m chief mulcher,” Martin said, laughing. Soil for succulents must drain well. In the ground, some pea gravel or lava rock bits will help; when potted, be sure there is a drainage hole. Once established, they need less water than most plants. In warm months, water once a week or when soil begins to dry out.

The nursery sits on a 2-acre parcel on Gravenstein Highway. The property included a 100-year-old home built of redwood. On move-in day they discovered the bedroom ceiling leaked, the electrical system blew, and the furnace wasn’t heating. “I didn’t care what was going on with the house,” Robert said. “I saw this land, the old barn… I loved it all.”

It’s so peaceful that Robert tells of customers who have stopped to rest in one of the chaise lounges provided, only to fall asleep. One lady comes every couple of weeks to walk the paths in meditation. Martin adds, “We feel fortunate to live in West Sonoma County, a place that is full of wine, cheese, antiques and plant lovers.”

Shopping at a nursery is not your typical buying experience. People are not in a hurry; they smile and life slows down. They are here to enjoy nature, stopping to admire this or that agave or flower. What they want is to bring some of this peace and beauty home to enhance their own or someone else’s life. How nice is that. SD