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For The Garden

A Love of Aloes

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: May, 2013, Page 65
Photos by Art Holeman

Vanessa and Robert Dearing have transformed their yard from a gravelscape to an inviting botanic wonderland. Ozzie, the dog, enjoys their efforts.

Vanessa and Robert Dearing Create a Lush Retreat Filled With Shapely Succulents

Although Vanessa and Robert Dearing have planted a mini botanical garden around their Tucson residence, their water bill for home and yard is impressively low. “We average $30 per month,” states Robert. Over the years, they have transformed their landscape into a lush and serene retreat featuring desert-adapted plants, including dramatic aloe specimens that hold center stage when in bloom. Robert tends more than 40 aloe species and hybrids, ranging from low-growing Aloe bowiea to treelike Aloe speciosa.

“Our landscape grew around Robert’s love of aloes,” says Vanessa. “He figures out the best conditions for them to thrive, and we design around those needs.” Their yard also includes a small pond, a patch of grass enjoyed by their dog, and a structure that performs as a greenhouse in winter and shade house in summer.

Robert traces his passion for aloes to a chance meeting at a Christmas party more than 16 years ago. The Dearings struck up a conversation with Gene Joseph and Jane Evans, owners of Tucson’s Plants for the Southwest, and the subject turned to aloes—succulents native to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Visiting the nursery shortly thereafter, Robert bought a couple of the plants because he “liked their shape.” They thrived, so he went back for more. And more. “A few years later, Gene was rearranging some aloe stock and he made me a deal, so I bought a truckload,” Robert recalls with a smile.

Flowering Aloe marlothii
In addition to their sculptural silhouettes, aloes produce flowers in vivid yellows, oranges, reds and corals that lure hummingbirds. In large plants, a bloom stalk (called an inflorescence) may tower two to three feet high and appear as a single spire or branching candelabra. The prime bloom period begins in late winter (January to February) and extends to early summer (May to June). However, some species may flower in the midst of summer or at other times. “Throughout the year, we usually have at least one aloe blooming and some are repeat bloomers,” Robert observes.

Managing Water Use
Robert prefers to keep his aloes as close to their natural growing conditions as possible, which means he provides limited supplemental irrigation. “I may water young aloes because they are able to absorb it; but the older they get, the less I water,” he notes.

“Also, I believe that overwatered succulents retain too much water mass and are more susceptible to freeze damage,” says Robert. He tested this theory by reducing both the frequency and amount of water. It seems to have worked because during this past winter, when severe freezing temperatures stretched over several consecutive nights, his aloes all survived with the aid of protective covering.

During the aloe growing season—October through April—Robert waters about once a week, unless there has been a soaking rain. In summer, when aloes go dormant and temperatures are above 90 degrees F, he waters every third week. “During intense summer heat, people may notice that their aloe leaves shrink and lift upward, which is the aloes’ natural reaction to control moisture loss. Unfortunately, believing their plants are experiencing stress, people apply too much water,” explains the gardener. “When it’s over 100 degrees, I stop watering because excess soil moisture can promote root rot.”

Photos - From left: An Aloe capitata v. quartziticola bloom • Aloes thrive in filtered bright light beneath palo verde trees, which lose their leaves quickly in fall, offering more sunlight just as aloes are beginning their growth cycle.

Cold Protection
Although their bloom stalks may be killed during cold weather, most aloe plants will survive temperatures into the high 20s, especially if they are in a sheltered microclimate beneath a tree canopy, says Robert. “Two winters ago, temperatures dropped to 15 degrees in our yard, and we lost a lot of aloes. I noticed that the most damage occurred near ground level, so that motivated me to include a light at their base when we cover the plants before a freeze. Since adding lights and reducing supplemental water, we haven’t lost any.”

He and Vanessa have fine-tuned their frost-protection system. They wrap dense closed-cell foam (used in upholstery) around bloom stalks, securing it with duct tape. Next, they drape large swaths of frost cloth over the entire plant (or a group of plants situated close together), secure with binder clips and place a 60-watt bulb at the base. It’s important, they say, to leave the frost cloth open at the bottom, which allows heat from the ground and the light bulb to radiate up and around the plants beneath the cloth.

A steel mining bowl is repurposed as a planter in this succulent garden.
Year-Round Color
Although Robert performs the bulk of the planting and maintenance, he credits Vanessa with creating attractive plant groupings in the protective microclimates beneath tree canopies. Aloes, agaves, cacti and other succulents offer endless combinations of leaf color, shape and texture. Pretty vignettes are found throughout the yard, even in winter when many landscapes are devoid of color. “I reap all the benefits of her eye for design and placement,” comments Robert.

Vanessa also created the eye-catching mosaic artwork that surrounds the patio doors facing the pond. When she started the project, her vision was to create a simple mosaic tree on either side of the doors. “I’d been collecting broken pottery, and when friends heard about my project, they gave me their broken ceramics, so the design evolved and spread as I worked,” she recalls. Because most of the mosaic pieces were not flat, she had to “back-butter,” or apply adhesive mastic, to each piece.

“Although labor-intensive, working on it became addictive, so the project took only a month of weekends,” comments Vanessa. Her mosaic won the “wild card” category in a local do-it-yourself contest and the Dearings used the prize gift certificate to purchase a Buddha head for their garden.

When installing a landscape, Vanessa says it isn’t necessary to install everything at once. Adds Robert: “Our yard evolved and naturalized as we lived in it and learned what worked in our exposures. Making observations and adjusting is what gardening is all about.”

An Aloe ferox hybrid produces a candelabra of red blooms.

Vanessa Dearing’s mosaic artwork won a local award for do-it-yourselfers.
This front yard garden puts on a show of color in the middle of winter. Plants include orange-flowering Aloe mudenensis, fire barrel cactus and purple prickly pear.

Tried and True Aloes
All have survived for many years in the Dearings’ landscape.

A. ciliaris—Green trailing aloe reroots along its stem. Delicate small flowers.
A. glauca—Takes cold to upper teens if well established. Produces many pups (offshoots) that are best transplanted in late fall/early winter.
A. globuligemma—Reliable mid-December bloomer that starts out red and turns a pale white. Resistant to aloe mites.
A. greatheadii v. davyana—Blooms reliably every February. Resistant to aloe mites.
A. marlothii—Large aloe with unusual flower stalk that grows horizontally. Can take a lot of light and a fair amount of cold, if dry.
A. mudenensis—Spreads prolifically with offshoots. Its orange blossom lasts up to four weeks, if temperatures stay cool.
A. petricola—Colorful flower stalks start out orange and open into a pastel yellow. Resistant to aloe mites.
A. reitzii—Blue-gray leaves hold shape and color. Deep-red flowers in late summer. Will not tolerate afternoon sun.
A. speciosa—With its twisting red-tinted leaves, this one reminds the Dearings of a Dr. Seuss plant. Gets large, so give it plenty of room to grow.
A. striata—Flowers reliably and profusely just about every year. Coral flowers last for at least four weeks.
A. striata ssp. karasbergensis—Grayish-green leaves with wide white lines. Blossoms during summer.
A. vaotsanda—Downward curving leaves turn reddish when allowed to thoroughly dry out between waterings.
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