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Taft Midway Driller - Taft, CA
  • Succulents give grower his day in the sun

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  • Merlyn Lenear is a magician with succulents. He can fit a garden into almost any “container,” great or small.
    “My philosophy: If it can hold a plant, I’ll try it,” said Lenear, holding a delicate example no bigger than a bottle cap. “It could be a thimble or a teaspoon. There are succulents small enough to do it. I just go for it.”
    “They keep me out of trouble,” said Lenear of his gardens. “I get a thrill out of doing something different.”
    Lenear creates all sorts of imaginative containers for his favorite plants. He carves them out of pumice or molds them in concrete. Or he gets inspired by castoffs, such as a chunk of rusted metal found by the side of the road or an odd-shaped lump of cement.
    “A big truck ran over some wet concrete and created this indentation,” he said of a basin packed with aeoniums, crassulas and other succulents. “The moment I saw it, I said, ‘Merlyn, you can do something with that.’ “
    Succulents are his plant of choice. With shallow roots and low water needs, succulents are made for containers -- and Lenear makes container gardens to show them off at their best.
    “I try to do whatever comes to mind,” he said. “For 30 years, I’ve kept at it. I surprise myself quite often.”
    The gardens surprise those who see them, too.
    “They look very natural, as if they just grew that way,” said Jeff Applebaum, who hosted a display of Lenear’s work at his Rancho Murieta, Calif., home during a recent garden tour. “The colors, the mixture of forms and shapes; somehow, he brings it all together. It’s such an interesting array.”
    Lenear, 63 and retired from an academic career, now teaches succulent wreath making and other specialities. His Stockton, Calif., home and backyard are packed with gardens in progress.
    “I have so many at home -- inside and out and all around the house,” he said. “There’s so many, I don’t really ‘see’ them until I bring them out for a show. Then, I can appreciate their individuality.”
    A wire frame bent into the shape of a cello was discovered at a thrift store. Lenear stuffed it with moss, then studded the exterior with echeveria.
    He uses wire frames or driftwood to form the base of living wreaths covered with succulents. More plump echeveria look like garlands of dusty blue roses.
    Sometimes, his gardens contain gardens. Miniature sedums grow in a 1-inch seashell, part of a moonscape garden that Lenear carved from a large piece of pumice. Feathered with more sedum, small ceramic birds nest in another fantasy rock garden.
    Page 2 of 2 - “This is my life,” he said. “They don’t talk back. I speak to them, but they stay quiet.”
    Lenear also gives his gardens credit for restoring his life. He suffered a major stroke last year.
    “I was outside working all day in the heat,” he recalled. “I was smoking cigarettes, dehydrated, not eating — stupid stuff. I had six mini-strokes, but ignored them all. I just didn’t go to the doctor.
    “Then, I woke up at 2 a.m. It felt like something had hit me hard in the back of the head. If I hadn’t been in good physical shape to begin with, I wouldn’t be here.”
    With the help of his “support group” of friends and family, Lenear recovered.
    “My plants are my therapy,” he added. “It took a whole year for me to get back. Merlyn’s up sunup to sundown with his plants. This isn’t just gardening; it’s my lifestyle.”
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