Grow a Cactus Garden
by Anneli Rufus
Everyone loves a garden. And these days it's totally uncool to admit that gardening can be a drag.
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|Pot them in sandy soil: not pure sand, as you might imagine, but a mixture.|
|The more light they get, the better. If keeping them indoors, place them near sunny windows.|
|Water sparingly once a week in summer, which is their growing season, even less the rest of the year.|
|Never let the plants or their pots stand in pooled water, such as after a rain. This can kill them.|
|A freeze can also prove disastrous; bring the plants indoors, if possible, when winter temperatures drop below 50 degrees.|
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|Top American Cactus|
But for some of us it can be. While pruning, weeding, mowing and spraying are fine for hardier souls — or souls with lots of free time — even the humblest swatch of lawn demands hard labor. OK, you can hire a gardener. Or you can plant cacti and succulents and let them fend for themselves.
Don't worry: That's the way they like it.
"For millions of years they've gotten along without fertilizer," says Richard Ward, who tends and propagates hundreds of specimens at the Dry Garden nursery in Berkeley, Calif. These plants might not smell like roses, but they ask for nearly nothing. Resolutely storing moisture within themselves, they need practically no water. Predatory insects cannot pierce their tough, almost humanoid hide. A single leaf, stuck into the ground bottom-down, can grow a whole new succulent. Even parts of leaves, torn off and allowed to dry for a few days, can sprout roots and grow.
"All you really have to do," Ward says, "is put them on the window sill."
He concedes that those of us bred among camellias often must struggle to see any beauty in plants that look like pincushions - or, if various species' nicknames are any indication, like hatchets, hot dogs, hatpins, crowns of thorns, hedgehogs and tongues.
It's a different aesthetic, and for some an acquired taste. (Speaking of which, you can cook and eat cacti: See our list of recipes). But with an open mind you can create an exotic and otherworldly garden — indoors or out, large or small, in a hot climate or a cool one — that requires practically no care.
"If you select your plants carefully," Ward points out, "you can reduce your watering time to almost zero."
Liberated from tedious chores, luxuriate in texture and color. Cacti and succulents come smooth and serrated, spear-leaved and soaring, striped and speckled. Ash-gray, lipstick-red and nearly every shade in between, they sprout spikes that can be fuzzy or finger-length, straight or hooked. Some species trail long silver hair.
But ultimately a cactus garden could end up saving you more than mere time.
When Ward first opened his nursery in the `80s, a drought was broiling California. New customers, bent on conserving water, took themselves in hand and learned to love cacti. Then, just as the drought was ending, wildfire wiped out dozens of homes on nearby slopes. Its aftermath launched a new wave of cactus consciousness: Built to withstand dry spells, these juicy species are far less flammable than other plants.
You can't spread a picnic blanket on them or make potpourri. But you can ignore them without a speck of guilt. And they'll still bloom in the spring.