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Varni garden in Oceano: A taste for succulents

A ‘layered earth’ pot by Charles Varni stands out among the succulents growing above the mixed rock retaining wall.
A ‘layered earth’ pot by Charles Varni stands out among the succulents growing above the mixed rock retaining wall. The Tribune

Charles Varni says he’s always been “a nature boy.” As a child, he sometimes went to work with his father, a gardener at Lotusland in Santa Barbara. He particularly recalls his fascination with the succulent gardens that the estate’s owner, Ganna Walska, was developing at the time.

But Charles’ interest in succulents lay dormant during many of the 40 years that he taught Sociology and Human Services at Hancock College. It was rejuvenated only after he took some courses in handbuilt pottery at Hancock for his own enrichment. He soon became adept at pot-making, and his favorites were pots that were suitable for succulent plants.

When Varni moved to his current half-acre location in Oceano in 2001, he created his pots in an unheated greenhouse. After retiring from teaching in 2003, he became a full-time potter, and began growing the succulent plants that seemed appropriate for his pots. He also installed a photovoltaic system that produces electricity for the kiln in which the pots are fired, as well as for his house.

Garden improvement projects have been ongoing since 2004, when he installed the flagstone patio and covered deck, and built the rock terraces that stabilize the soil along the property’s upper slope. Nearby, a retention basin was dug to control winter rain runoff; it becomes a vegetable garden during the dry summer.

As a later project, wide, poured-concrete benches were added around the front patio. They serve both for seating and for display; currently, they’re filled with rows of succulents in pots. Other display shelves of various heights and materials throughout the garden are also lined with Varni’s succulent-filled pots. Most of them are for sale.

Initially, the backyard was dominated by a neighboring grove of unhealthy evergreen trees that dropped their debris over his fence. Charles was relieved when the trees were removed, allowing sunlight onto his back patio. His wooden fence, with its attached planting bed, is ideal for displaying wallhung planters.

Charles finally built an enclosed potting studio in 2006. In this separate building, he can work comfortably in any weather. The greenhouse in which he previously worked now houses his personal collection of succulents that are not for sale. A former prob lem with ants invading the plants was solved by sitting the concrete blocks that support the plant shelves in plastic dishpans that contain a few inches of water.

A longtime member of the Central Coast Cactus and Succulent Society, Charles sells pots and plants at the society’s annual shows and sales in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. He especially enjoys helping customers select pots for plants they have purchased, or suggesting suitable plants for his empty pots. He also sells locally at the Garden Gallery and the Gallery at the Network.

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