Ken’s Interview With Banana Republic on Urban Gardening

Last month, our fearless leader Ken Shelf was thrilled to be interviewed by Banana Republic for an article about urban gardening and green California living. Check out the piece here, and find the full transcript of the interview below.

Taking Root

How much commitment do indoor plants require?
 They vary!  Some need a lot of attention, and some just a couple helpful words of encouragement every now and then.  Find the one that resonates with your style.

Where do plants thrive indoors? Under what conditions?  There are a lot of options for indoor plants.  All things living need a bit of light and water, and indoor plants are no different.  Just how much light and water they require is the most important detail. One thing is for certain, you can probably find something that will thrive in whatever conditions you have, which will brighten up your room and add some life to your environment.

What are the top three requirements for indoor plants?  Probably the most important thing is to know your environment.  Do you get a ton of sun? Not very much at all? That is crucial to picking a plant that will thrive in your home.  The next question might be one about your style. Are you a helicopter plant parent? Or are you more likely to leave something completely alone.  Another important consideration is the space. Do you have room for something that is going to get tall? Or are you looking for something small that will provide a bit of life to a small corner of your home.

What makes a good plant parent?  The same thing that makes a good human parent; attentiveness.  Check in with your plant. Is the soil dry? Are there new leaves?  Flower buds? Look how beautiful it is! The key to success with plants is paying attention to them.  Which is also the key to enjoying plants.

What plants are best for a frequent traveler?  Cactus don’t need a lot of attention, they may only get watered once a month.  If you have the light for them, they may be your best bet to having life in a space that you don’t spend a lot of time in.

The First Sprout

Best beginner plants?  Haworthia are a beautiful family of small, hearty succulents.  They make cute flowers that are sent out on a long stem. My first succulent was a haworthia fasciata given to me in December of 1994.  I still have it!

Best small indoor plants?  Aloe Vera is a terrific indoor plant friend.  It is hearty and easy to care for and has the added bonus of having medicinal properties, so you can break off a piece to treat a minor burn.  Some people even drink their juices.

Best big indoor plants?  Monstera deliciosa is a gorgeous and eye-catching plant.  It can get very large, and doesn’t need water much more than once a week (and even less in the winter).

Easiest indoor plants?  Pothos are simple.  They come in lots of color variations and if they are given steady water, they will grow steadily.  You can train them to trail around an entire room from a small pot.

Most rewarding (or fickle) indoor plants?  I am a huge fan of the succulent plant Senecio Rowleyanus, otherwise known as the String of Pearls.  Not only can they thrive indoors, sending their pearly stems 3’ and longer, but they have fascinating little Seussian fluffy flowers that smell deliciously!  They are one of the only succulent flowers that have a sweet smell.

Most perseverant plants for black thumbs?  Thick leaved succulents like gasterias are really hard to kill, especially in a bright indoor environment.  And they don’t need much water, which can help create confidence for a newbie plant parent.

In Full Bloom

What was your first plant?  Haworthia Fasciata, still going strong since 1994.

What plant made you want more? Tephrocactus articulates var. papyracanthus.  It is made up of loosely connected segments that are separated easily.  I got one, and soon after I had many. Now they are everywhere in my house.  And so cool looking! They need very little care, which helps!

What is your favorite plant?  I am a huge fan of the Ficus Lyrata, the Fiddleleaf Fig.  I wish I lived somewhere that I could have it outside, where it can be enormous!  But in chilly San Francisco, it is relegated to an indoor plant. Still, we have one at our shop with a 30-foot wingspan!  It is a truly beautiful tree, with gorgeous and gigantic leaves.

The secret to a thriving apartment jungle? Lots of microclimates!  That way you can have different families of plants everywhere.  A lot of sun will give you the most options. A nurturing personality will help as well.

What is most rewarding about being a plant owner?  I think having lots of plants around is relaxing.  The energy is great, and the health benefits are real.  Besides producing oxygen, the venation patterns in the leaves make your eyes send happy messages to your brain.


The holidays are always such an interesting time of the year. On the one hand, they are a time of connection and joy, and on the other hand, they can be divisive and isolating.

When I was a young man, I loved Hanukah. As an American Jew, my family didn’t celebrate Christmas, but we had 8 full days of Hanukah! We sang songs and ate special foods (mmm, Latkes!). My parents generally were modest with their gifts; a pack of cards one night, dreidles for all another night. Every few years we would have a big Hanukah and one year that meant receiving the original Space 1999 Eagle 1 spaceship! That year was memorable.

As time went on, and the differences between Christmas and Hanukah (and then eventually Kwanza) became apparent, this time of year lost a bit of its shine. It felt awkward and exclusive. Not being in the Christmas club was a challenge for a young teenager! I took those feelings into my adulthood and before I had kids of my own, I even dabbled in not celebrating any holidays at all. Of course, that changed with my own little ones came along.

At Succulence, the holiday season means so much to us. As anyone can probably guess, most retail stores do a very large percentage of their yearly business during the five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And we spend a lot of careful planning to offer the highest quality creations we can find and make.  At the shop, we experience a wide range of feelings. There is joy, and excitement; thrilling desire and cautious hope. There is also stress. That is a part of it.

As we gear up for the holidays at Succulence, our front window display is such a big part of our thoughts. How to say it all in our window? And what is it we are trying to say? This year, I found myself feeling clear with my statement.


While our differences are highlighted over and over throughout the year (take the 2014 elections for example), during this moment in time I want to feel inclusive. I want to be extended. I’m striving for ubiquitous. I want to be sweeping. Widespread. Comprehensive. Compendious!

People, maybe we can’t just “get along”. Because we don’t “just” do anything. We do it all. That’s what makes us beautiful. And unique. And rare. And uncommon.

If we can’t “just” do something, let’s make sure to do it “somewhat”. Let’s put time and effort and joy into sometimes getting along. Let’s say hi to strangers on the street. Let’s reach out of our age bracket and make a friend of a different generation.

Let’s make eye contact. Eyes are so beautiful. And rich. And succulent. Let’s look into each others eyes and remember that the only path to betterment is the path we all take together.

Happy Thanksgiving, people. Peace.


Love and kisses,

Full Sun? What does it mean?

Full Sun!

What does that mean? Why are my plants not thriving? I planted them in full sun, just like the plant tag said.

Well, funny thing about plant tags, and plant care instructions in general. They don’t know you, or where you live. Full sun is a perfect example of this. Full sun in San Francisco, CA means a completely different thing than full sun in El Paso, Texas. In fact, it means a completely different thing than full sun in Livermore, CA, a town just 90 minutes away.

How will that affect my plants?

Here is one way. Let’s say you just scored some beautiful Aeoniums (like the one in the picture above). These are plants that mostly come from the Canary Islands, a Mediterranean climate not unlike the SF Bay area.


Here in SF, they thrive like crazy! You don’t need to do much, as long as you are planting them outside here. The tag says full sun, so you plant them in full sun and away they go. Your 4 inch plant is a 2 foot monster in no time, with multiple offshoots and soon you are getting flowers from some of the offshoots (which probably spells the end of that portion of the plant – but that is a story for another blog). In the summer they may get a little stagnant, although if you are watering semi-regularly (I say “semi” because remember succulents want a little neglect – too much water can kill them) they may look great even though it is not their regular growing season. Then, once the winter rolls around, they may go sort of crazy, spreading their wide open faces to the sky and inspiring you to write poetry about their sunflower-esque beauty. Yes, full sun in the Mediterranean-like Bay Area is just perfect for Aeoniums.

However let’s say you live in Fresno, a hot southern California city southwest of the Sierra National Forrest where the summer temperature can easily be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You bought your plants in the spring and planted them in full sun, following instructions like the great gardener you are. Now it is July and your plants are disintegrating. The leaves curled up a bit first, and you were concerned so you gave them more water than you felt was appropriate, but you didn’t want them to die. Then the leaves began to burn and fall off, and soon your plant was looking smaller and smaller and very “leggy”. Not long after that, the leaves were all gone and even the stem was looking sad and falling over.

That is because all “full sun “was not created equally. So it is not enough to simply follow the instructions on the tag, a bit more research may be involved in buying the right plants for your area and keeping them healthy throughout the four seasons of the year.

If you are lucky enough to have four seasons.

Which sadly, in SF, we are not.

Succulent Gardening For the Future

Succulent Gardening – Is it more than just a fad?Echeveria at Succulence

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Glen Park Garden Club. They are a wonderful organization, filled with like-minded individuals who absolutely love to garden and have spent a lifetime growing a wide assortment of plants. When they asked me to talk at their meeting, I thought, “What better topic to discuss than the changing California landscape?”

As I considered our changing landscape, and the terrible situation we’re in with our vanishing water supply, and the worry and concern that this drought might last for much longer, and the drying and dying of the non-irrigated landscapes within San Francisco, and the photographic images and informational memes on the internet of the groundwater receding, and the water bills that appear to be growing exponentially, I began to wonder if there was more to using succulents in our landscapes than just being responsible and water-wise for the greater community.

It’s been easy for me to talk to people about using these plants to create xerophyte gardens. When soaring water bills hit our wallets, it helps us connect to the fact that there is a problem and that we would like to be part of the solution. Fundamentally, succulent plants can fill a yard and not need to be watered much, if at all. So if you are wanting to have plants in your yard, and you want them to be manageable, to not drop tons of detritus, to be elegant and architectural, colorful and sensual, to give you weird beautiful flowers that last a long time, and to not need much of that precious H2O, then succulents are going to provide you with a wonderful and passionate solution.

But if you are a different kind of gardener, such as the horticulturalists I met at the Glen Park Garden club; if you garden as a part of a lifetime of curious exploration of the world; if you garden as a peaceful means of meditation; if you garden to provide sustenance to yourself, your family or your community; if you garden as part of your personal mental health regimen, and to pack dirt under your fingernails for use as an anti-depressant; if you garden to nurture nature and receive nurturing from nature; if gardening is your way of sharing a deep communion with our earth; then succulent and other xerophytic gardening might be your best bet to continue gardening, even in the face of an actual lack of water. 

And, when you plant large agave and aloe near your home, you have the added bonus of having a whole aggregation of your own personal reservoirs, full of water, and ready to protect your home in case of fire!Enormous Agave Ruth Bancroft Gardens

Vertical Gardening – Is it for you?

Vertical Gardening. Is it for you? Here are some thoughts on it that we’ve been having. If you want to know more, sign up for one of our classes, or call/email us for a consultation. The link to sign up for our classes is at the bottom of this post. Happy gardening!

Vertical gardening has become very popular lately. And that is an awesome thing! What a cool way to bring art and gardening together. Whether we are looking to adorn an outside wall or an inside wall, there are awesome possibilities for framed or unframed living art on those walls.

In today’s internet world, we are seeing a lot of gorgeously made and photographed vertical gardens. Some of them are walls that nearly anyone can have in their home or garden! However, many of them are not quite as realistic as we’d like. It doesn’t take much to utilize one of the many vertical gardening products on the market in creating a lovely succulent garden. Whether you are using a Gro-Vert panel or a Plantasy wood-framed masterpiece (both of which we LOVE), or any number of other great vertical gardening products, you can fill these with succulents and hang them up and boom! You have a vertical garden. However, what happens a month later? Five months later? Next year?

Succulent plants and vertical gardening products are not inexpensive. Neither is your time or your professional gardener’s time. So when you are contemplating creating a vertical garden there are a lot of details to be accounted for. Where is your light? What are your parameters for measuring it? Are you willing to install special lighting for your garden? How about watering? Will you have automatic irrigation with a pump and a timer? Will there be a tank to catch your overflow once the garden has been watered? What is directly below your garden? Can that get wet? What plants will you use? Are you flexible with this desire?

Questions, questions, questions.

There are many ways to put up a vertical garden, and nearly every problem or difficulty that may be encountered has a solution. Some of those solutions are pretty costly. Some solutions are just about switching your mindset perhaps to different plants or different locations.

We will be addressing a lot of these thoughts in a series of posts over the coming months. We absolutely love to design and build vertical gardens and want to be your main vendor for this work. We also want to be as realistic as possible about the long-term growth of these gardens so you aren’t just happy the day we install, but long into the future.