Aloe, aloe as far as the eye can see. There’s aloe that dramatically droops and aloe that prominently points, aloe that’s green and aloe that’s red — and only a single one is Aloe vera. In our first-ever Show Us Your Garden reader contest for best garden, sponsored by Knapp Nursery, we picked Tom Cole’s garden for its exceptional drought resistance — he waters once a month; with some areas, he doesn’t water at all — and wondrous aesthetic appeal, strangely beautiful enough to befit a Dr. Seuss tale. Intermixed with towering Euphorbias and studded succulents, the garden displays a huge variety of shapes and colors for such a limited species spectrum. “I like a lush look,” says Cole, a garden designer. So strong is his knowledge of aloe that he is a renowned expert on the plant, with a book (Aloes of Uganda: A Field Guide) and his discovery of four new aloe species (one named after his late brother, Luke).
I asked Cole a few questions about his aloe garden.
How did you get into aloes? I see them in their habitat. I travel a lot in Africa and Madagascar, helping communities with food security and rebuilding from war. I first collected seed of Aloe excelsa 20 years ago in Mozambique. I’m an accidental botanist, and S.B. is the perfect climate for them.
What makes them good for gardening? They propagate easily and the fact that I can leave my garden for a month and travel 40 percent of the year and not worry about watering. And you could come here every month of the year, and it will be different; they flower in different seasons.
Are there any tricks to growing aloes? For aloes or any succulents, you need to know what they’re going to do. Lots of gardeners amass plants for form and color, but you need to know how it’s going to grow. It’s like a dog: Do you want a big bruiser or a little yappy one?
How about design recommendations? Plant something you appreciate looking at. I love them purely aesthetically. I like aloes with presence, like my favorite, the Aloe marlothii. They’re good foundation plants, and then I paint with succulents.