When wandering around Joe Rockwell’s backyard garden, you have to be careful where you tread. After all, you may encounter a moose, or a lion, or even a panda bear.
This is his botanic menagerie.
Row after row of plastic animal figurines filled with soil are now sprouting succulents. There are roosters with Haworthia fasciata fanning out for a tail, a panda with a Mammillaria elegans for a head, and a moose with two elegant Crassula ovata serving as antlers. They are fun, fanciful and fascinating.
The Santa Barbara resident, 46, has been making his imaginative creations for about 10 years. Working under the name of Succulent Zoo, he is now selling his creatures at the Maker’s Market on the first Saturday of the month at Paseo Nuevo. The next appearance there will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 2 near the cinema. He also has some of his works at Plum Goods, 909 State St.
“When people see my plants, it takes them a while to figure them out,” Mr. Rockwell told the News-Press during a recent visit to his home. “A lot of people think they’re fake or air plants, but when they take a closer look, they realize that the animals are filled with dirt and that they’re real plants. People are used to plants being in a pot, not a toy animal, and they haven’t seen anything like these before. I love watching their faces as they discover the different animals.”
The idea for Succulent Zoo came from a love of such plants. Mr. Rockwell, who also works as an online trader of vintage rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts, moved from San Diego to Santa Barbara, where he started filling his backyard with succulents.
“It got the point where they had taken over my garden completely,” Mr. Rockwell said. “I grew up in Arizona and I took plants like succulents and cacti for granted. When I left Arizona, I found a succulent called ‘Mother of Thousands,’ which kept on producing more and more babies. It was really magical and I was completely fascinated with it.”
Raised in Scottsdale, Mr. Rockwell relocated in the late 1990s to San Diego, where, after finding the “Mother of Thousands,” his fascination with succulents grew. After he moved to Santa Barbara to be near family in 2003, his fascination quickly became an obsession.
“They really grew on me,” Mr. Rockwell said with a laugh. “Once you get into them and see the range and variety, it’s easy to get addicted to them. I started challenging them, growing them in different ‘pots’ and places, and really started to admire how determined and forgiving they are. Because they adapt so well to their conditions, you can do so much with them.”
Mr. Rockwell first started growing his succulents in objects he found during walks along the beach — driftwood and bamboo, in old long-lost tennis balls that he’d cut open, rusted cans. He then branched out into more creative vessels, making pots out of old vinyl records by heating them in the oven, then warping and shaping them.
“I’ve always liked things that are kitschy,” Mr. Rockwell said. “Normal doesn’t really do it for me, so I don’t like terra-cotta pots — they’re too boring. I love things that are odd or awkward. I saw that someone had put succulents in shells, so I started experimenting with things I found on the beach.
“The first toy I used was an old tiger I found and I had a succulent growing out of his mouth. Then I did a pony and used succulents for its mane. That’s when I knew I was on to something and I became obsessed with animals. Since then, I have taken my obsession up about 10 levels.”
While Mr. Rockwell propagates most of the succulents himself, the toy animals typically come from eBay. Next to his outdoor workbench are piles and piles of plastic toy animals. Every toy he uses is repurposed, and they come in every shape, size, color and species. To Mr. Rockwell, each is a blank canvas.
“The thing I love about working with the animals is that the plants make a natural connection with an animal,” he said. “A lot of the time both the animal and succulent tell you what to do. There’s a succulent called an ‘Elkhorn’ because it looks just like an elk’s horn, and another is called ‘Shark Jaws’ because that’s what it looks like. I’ve used them in elks and sharks.”
Among the succulents are cactuses, which he incorporates into dinosaur and bear figurines, and even uses for the ears of a tiger.
“Taking the cactuses to market can be tricky, especially because people want to handle the plants,” he said. “So I take a pair of tweezers with me.”
He added, “I got into the cactuses a couple of years ago when I had this idea of using them for eyeballs. Then I realized that I could use them in lots of different ways, especially for the reptiles. Because they’re spiky, they’re perfect for things like dinosaurs.”
In addition to selling his Succulent Zoo creations, which start at about $15, at the Maker’s Market and Plum Goods, Mr. Rockwell posts photographs of them on Instagram (@succulent_zoo). While the next step is to produce a book of his work, Mr. Rockwell’s ultimate goal is to create his own whimsical public garden.
“I want to create my own Lotusland,” he said. “It’s a wild and fantastic dream, but that’s what I ultimately want to do.
“I want to create a botanic garden that’s different and artsy and that hasn’t been done before. There are so many projects I would like to do, but I’m having so much fun with these animals that I don’t think I will ever be done with them.”
Succulent Zoo will be at the Maker’s Market 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. the first Saturday of the month at Paseo Nuevo near the cinema. The next appearance there will be Feb. 2. Items are also available at Plum Goods, 909 State St.
For more information, check out www.instagram.com/succulent_zoo or @succulent_zoo on Instagram.