Tim EntwisleA sucker for succulents

Attila Kapitany loves succulents: loves writing about them, loves growing them and above all, loves talking about them. Attila’s a great advocate for anything with a juicy stem whether it be a cactus, euphorbia or even a juicy wattle.

Succulents in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

On the weekend I visited his decade-old garden in Narre Warren North, on the south-western edge of suburban Melbourne. There is farmland in the distance but new housing blocks, with houses (generally), are fast filling in the checkerboard.

Attila and his wife Michele bought this 0.4 hectare property in 2002, but found after buying the land they couldn’t afford to build a house. At least this is what they say – I think it was a great excuse to create a landscape with textures and colours like no other. And I for one am glad they did.

Succulents in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

Aloes in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

Ground covering succulents are not as popular as they should be. They are a plant for the extrovert and, to my mind, need to be planted not only on mass but with plenty of different colours blended in. You need to be bold and brassy, and confident. I remember a spectacular display of local South African plants at the Karoo Desert National Botanic Garden near Cape Town, where nearly every conceivable flower and leaf colour blazed out at you from the red dirt. Unforgettable.

Flowing through Attila’s kaleidoscope of succulence is a sinew of blue-grey Chalk Fingers (known botanically as Senecio talinoides subspecies mandraliscae these days I think). Attila has designed this to be live a river running from the highest point, where the garden started, down towards the council lake which lies outside their property but forms an critical part of the landscape. (There is just a billabong towards the right of this picture.)

Succulents in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

Attila and Michele have grown all but one of their 10,000 plants from seed or cutting. The only exception is the largest of the bottle trees (a Brachychiton rupestris). Atilla, past President of the Cacti and Succulent Society of Australia and editor of their journal Spinette, has a delightfully catholic definition of a succulent, including any plant with specialised water storing tissue.

Doryanthes palmeriSo in addition to the usual suspects you get Gymea Lillies – with this wonderful Doryanthes palmeri in flower at the moment – bottle trees (their trunks store water) and, as I said, even wattles if they are juicy enough.

Succulents in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

Succulents in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

Brachychiton rupestris bootle tree in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

One plant that even Attila wouldn’t call a succulent is the Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Castewellan Gold’ forming a protective hedge around three sides of the block. Even there the Kapitanys find a way to add a quirk. There are two large viewing holes so passers by can look through the garden to the lake, while still protecting their garden from drying winds. (Attila in the first pictures, two onlookers in the second…)

Attila Kapitany Photo Tim Entwisle

Onlookers at Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

Every part of the garden has a story, and Attila is the one to tell them. The basalt stacks in the next picture are quite beautiful and fit in well against the succulent backdrop but apparently this is exactly as they are were arranged in the nearby hill side. The rocks were extracted and reconstructed in the same vertical piles to create sculptures reminiscent of say Chris Booth from New Zealand.

Succulents in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle

The Kapitanys garden on weekends, barbecuing in the evenings near a group of carefully chosen seat-shaped rocks, looking across the succulents and lake to the sun setting over distant hills. It was hard work at first, adding tonnes of mulch to the hard, dry soil, and they are clearly still working hard at adding detail to their artwork. On the day I visited, with hundreds of others equally thrilled by this stunning garden, you could see the pride in the faces of Attila and Michele.

Aloes and succulents in Attila Kapitany garden Photo Tim Entwisle



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Tim Entwisle

About Tim Entwisle

Dr Tim Entwisle is a scientist and scientific communicator with a broad interest in plants, science and gardens, and Director & Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Previously he was Director of Conservation, Living Collections & Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and prior to that, Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens for eight years. Read Tim's full blog at Talking Plants

19 thoughts on “A sucker for succulents

  1. I went to Attila’s garden when it was open a couple off years ago and it’s certainly grown since then I sent this post onto my daughter too as she is a big fan of Attila’s and has his books. Thanks for the great photos and story Tim.

  2. What a fantastic looking garden – and a wonderful collection of succulents. Thanks for the story – I hope to be able to see this garden in person one day.

  3. Hello Tim,
    Thank you for the wonderful information.
    In this article, I noticed a plant which looks extremely similar to a plant which I used to have in my garden, before it was stolen, it was a tree-type succulent from Africa I think (it was a gift).
    I cannot find it anywhere on the internet, it looks like a tree-type aloe however has a large, singular, red and yellow tulip-shaped flower on a 25cm stem. Is there a way I could please send you a picture of it or do you know of anyone who may just be able to identify it??
    Any help is very much appreciated, thank you.

  4. Thanks for your kind words Kait. I’d suggest you get someone with a bit more expertise in succulents to help out – I’m sure to struggle! However I’d be interested in seeing it so do copy me in. I’ll get Catherine to make direct contact and give you a suggestion of who might do it…
    BTW, there was a nice article about Attila’s garden in last weekend’s The Age, and at least SMH on-line (http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/homestyle/championing-flora-of-the-desert-20140220-332fe.html).

  5. Beautiful garden ive seen an ad for people to come get plants from your property as you are doing work on it. Are the plants free or do you have to pay for what you remove?

    • Hi Lynnene – Garden owner Attila Kapitany says: “We are having a huge plant clearance SALE of both plants in pots and bare rooted. Thousands of empty pots too – cheap or make us an offer. Cheers, Attila

      • Hi Attila I want to collect all the varieties of succulents and cactus from you. Only a little bit of each would be enough for me. How much it will cost? If it is too much expensive then I can not afford it. Please let me know. Is it cheaper than Bunnings?

  6. Hi Attila, How difficult would it be to grow these plants in central queensland where we are coastal, and soil is black sand. Thank you, M. E. D?

  7. Hello M.E.D,
    Many of these plants will grow in your Queensland location. I was recently visiting the Rockhampton botanic gardens where they had a great range of cacti and succulents. Also I know two ladies in Mackay and Townsville who do markets on weekends and sell a good range of succulents well adapted to humid, tropical coastal conditions. So visit local markets near you as a starting point.
    Cheers Attila

  8. Oh well, who needs a house if you can have such a garden ! I used to dislike succulents, but seeing Attila’s garden and Townsville’s dry tropical climate (we live on Magnetic Island) made me change my mind.

  9. Hi Attila are you doing anymore open days in your beautiful inspirational garden? I’m also looking for a copy of your care and propagating of succulents? I have all the others on how to use succulents in the garden.

  10. Hi Tim,

    You have a beautiful garden! I would like to know of you sell cuttings from your succulents? If so how can I contact to buy some off you?


  11. Hey Doc
    your garden drove me crazy. Not to mention my classmate, who is in love with succulents she is still wetting herself. We are dying to grow some of the plants in your garden. I have a Jungle Du Indoor. We are in northern Canada, and months of the harsh winter caused depression. I have tried to mitigate that with an indoor garden. We are university students and oh boy! We envy your plants for sure. Keep gardening.

    • If only it was mine! I have a few hardy succulents in pots but otherwise satiate my own love of the genre by visiting gardens like this one – owned, created and cared for by my friend Attila (see a link to a site where he sells his many books above). Having lived in London for a few years I understand what it’s like to have succulent-toxic winters, although I suspect yours are far worse… I used to be amused (as an Australian) by the cacti and succulents being wheeled out each summer in their pots, then dutifully wheeled back into the glasshouses for the winter. So yes, we are very lucky in Melbourne, Australia, for all kinds of reasons. Not the least of which is the ability to grow these great plant outdoors, but also including the opportunity to visit gardens like Attila’s. Many thanks for the comment. Tim

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