Auburn collector transforms succulents into artistry

By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
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For Auburn resident Alisa Greenhill, gardening is an art form. Greenhill’s deck is her garden canvas where she creates color and texture with dozens of succulents, most of them in hand-made pottery and surrounded by figurines, tinted rocks and unusual elements. She’s been amassing her collection for 15 years, browsing through local nurseries to find interesting and eye-catching specimens. “I like (succulents) because there’s such a variety and they are so unique,” she said. Among her finds are “string of bananas,” with flowing strings of banana-shaped leaves, and “string of pearls,” with round pearl-like leaves. There are kitten ears and donkey ears with fuzzy leaves soft to the touch. A large flourishing Medusa is filled with thin, snake-like stems. There are several split rock — also called cleft stone or living rocks — and pencil varieties as well as groupings of hens and chicks. She’s arranged the plants into display areas — some on tables, others in “greenhouses” Greenhill designed especially for them. One area has the succulents showcased in pots she made during “her pottery year,” she said. The dozen or so pots are in earth tones and have unusual shapes. The location — perfectly situated for the plants — gets bright, filtered morning sun but is shaded through the afternoon, thanks to a large fruitless mulberry tree. “The house is a tree house in summer because I’m surrounded by leaves,” she said. “In winter I can see the American River canyon.” Greenhill describes the succulents as easy to care for and not prone to insects. “These plants thrive on benign neglect,” she said. She cautions against over-watering and leaving them out in the cold. Over-watering will cause them to turn yellow and droop. Freezing will cause the cells to explode, she explained. Too much water can also cause the plants to develop mold. The ideal time to water the plants is on a day with no clouds in the morning. “Then you don’t have to water again for two weeks,” she said. Her two small greenhouses have transparent sides and doors and tops that she leaves open in good weather and closes when it gets chilly. Auburn Master Gardener Linda Ewing is also an avid collector of succulents. Her favorites are aeoniums. “They look like big roses,” she said. “They get really big. The stem gets really long.” Ewing estimates she’s collected 50 or so in her travels, and they vary somewhat in cold and heat tolerance. “The ones that are not hardy stay out for the summer,” she said. “I put them in some huge pots. Then I just dig them up and put them in smaller one-gallon pots in the greenhouse for the winter and they are perfectly happy because they don’t have extensive root systems.” She echoes Greenhill’s caution to not over water, but adds that the plants like a little moisture in the air, so misting them from time to time is a good idea. In general they are easy to grow, even from a broken off stem. “For a few days, let it sit on a shelf,” Ewing said. “Once it calluses over, put it into a pot with some well-draining cactus soil or succulent soil and off you go. I’ve made a ton of babies.” Art is a lifestyle for Greenhill, who is a marriage and family therapist. She studied art at UCLA and taught it for 12 years after graduation. In 1969, when personalized car license plates came out, she chose “I’m artsy.” She still has it. “I’m artistic and I like the artistic,” she said. These days, she no longer paints, instead focusing her creativity on her home, her plants and cooking. “My creativity in food is just throw in a little bit of everything,” she said. “I feel that way about art, too — just throw in a little bit of everything.” To Greenhill, each of the succulents is an art piece and each has a special meaning for her. “It’s painting with plants,” she said. Reach Gloria Young at