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Persnickety
Protea

 

Persnickety Protea
By: Nan Sterman
Photography by: Bill Robinson

Valley Center is Garden to an
Astonishing Variety of Hard-to-Grow Shrubs

In the late 1800s, the Butterfield stagecoach ran through Valley Center, connecting Vallecitos to the Pala Mission. In the mid-1900's local ranch owner John Wayne rode his horse down the old stagecoach route on Sunday afternoons accompanied by Loretta Young. Today, the same thoroughfare is known as McNally Road and runs right through the heart of avocado country.

Tom Krumholz came to McNally Road in the 1980s when he bought one of those avocado orchards. After 20 years of growing avocados, Tom, and his wife Cindy retired and built a home on an isolated knoll overlooking their former grove. It is a lovely, comfortable and unpretentious house, with a view of the ocean on a clear day. Surrounding the house, however, is one of the most unusual gardens around. Tom and Cindy have a protea garden.

Though Gill typically works with commercial protea growers, he saw the Krumholz property as an exciting prospect.

“The first time I walked to the top of their hill, I could see that it was a fantastic place to plant protea,” Gill says. “There is good air movement and excellent drainage. I thought about how it would look over time. I could see that it would be pretty spectacular if we planted a diverse collection of proteas right where you came up the driveway. Sitting around the pool, you could look up at the rocks and see proteas.

Proteas are not easy to grow. In fact, Sunset Western Gardens describes pro­teas as “definitely not for beginners.” What the Krumholzes have going for them is excellent growing conditions and the willingness to try something unique.

"I am interested in proteas for their rarity and beauty. It’s something that the average person doesn’t have,” Tom says.

Proteas require excellent drainage, somewhat acidic soil, a constant breeze, dry conditions and no freeze. These drought-tolerant plants do poorly when planted in a traditional, mixed garden bed. Instead, Gill recommends growing proteas separately or even en masse on a bank or hillside as the Krumholzes do. That way, you can control the water, which is a very important factor in protea culture, too much water will kill a plant. Or, as Tom says, “proteas thrive on neglect.”

The Krumholz garden is on an auto­mated-drip irrigation system. Each protea has a single emitter that waters directly to the root of each plant. In years with normal rainfall, Tom runs the system only in the summer months. When temperatures reach 100 degrees and the sunlight is intense, the irrigation runs for an hour every other day. Earlier in the summer, it runs less often. Each massive plant gets at most 3.5 gallons of water for the four hottest weeks of the year. Unless we have drought conditions, the plants survive on ambient rainfall from Oct. 1 to June 1. Even with tight water controls, the Krumholzes lose about 5% of their plants each year, a fairly low rate of loss compared to most traditional gardens. Tom simply replants with other proteas, which start to bloom in the first year and reach maturity within about four years. Gill recalls that not long ago, he counted 1,500 orange blooms on just one of the Krumholzes' mature pincushion plants. Flowers, after all, are the reason for growing proteas. Bloom starts in late summer and peaks from March to May. At peak the garden, "absolutely looks like a florist's shop." Tom and Cindy do more than just admire all those flowers. "Tom loves to give flowers to the ladies wherever he goes," Cindy says. "Every time he goes to a bank, he brings a nice bouquet of flowers." Tom described how to get the longest life from cut protea flowers. "Flowers last for several weeks if you cut the stems at a 45-degree angle and trim them a half inch or so every other day. Add 1 teaspoon of bleach to the water in the vase. Change the water when it gets cloudy."

To dry the flowers, hang them upside down in the garage for two weeks or more. While proteas are the main actors in this garden theater, there are other players as well. Tom has an impressive cactus garden that includes two planters made from 100-year-old ore carts from the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah. Around the pool are buddleia and ocorillo, which, along with some hefty feeders, attract hundreds of hummingbirds -- so many that they are as dense as a swarm of honey bees. Butterflies, coyotes, and even a roadrunner, visit the house on a regular basis.

The Krumholz Protea garden is home to more than 50 varieties of spring-blooming cacti and at least 35 different plants in the protea family.

Tom Krumholz came to McNally Road in the 1980s when he bought one of those avocado orchards. After 20 years of growing avocados, Tom and his wife, Cindy, retired and built a home on an isolated knoll overlooking their former grove. It is a lovely, comfortable and unpretentious house, with a view of the ocean on a clear day. Surrounding the house, however, is one of the most unusual gardens around. Tom and Cindy have a protea garden.

Proteas are large evergreen shrubs from South Africa. While the foliage is not remarkable, the flowers are some of the most unusual in the world. Protea flowers look something like colorful, over grown artichokes. They have multiple layers of bright-colored, tube-shaped flowers, often surrounded by additional layers of bright-colored bracts. The tube flowers and bracts together form a ball or a cone, 2 inches to a foot in diameter.

The Krumholz garden is home to at least 35 different plants in the protea family - king proteas, which are the national flower of South Africa; Leucospermum, commonly known as pincushion flowers; Banksias; and more.

Some of their plants are unusual, even among protea growers. "I have more varieties of protea, I've been told, than anyone else in the U.S.," Tom says. "I've had visits from people who have been in the business for 25 years and they say, 'I've never seen one of those. I didn't know they existed in this country.'"

Red-Flowered Leucospermum vestitum (right), yellow-flowered Leucospermum 'Yellow Bird' (above) and Leucospermum 'Scarlet Ribbon'.

Tom has been experimenting with proteas since the early 1970's when he found some in a nursery and planted them at his home in La Mesa. When he and Cindy built their current home, they faced a significant gardening dilemma. The home sits on a pile of rock, 1,840 feet above sea level. Clearing a building pad required dynamite and patience. After hauling away tons of rock, Krumholzes took a hard look at the thin, rocky soil, the constant breeze and the 360-degree exposure. What could they grow? According to Ben Gill, owner of California Protea Management in Valley Center, the Krumholz garden is suited perfectly for growing proteas. Gill worked with Tom and Cindy as they planned the garden, selected and sited the plants, and installed the irrigation system.


This article was previously published in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.

 

 

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