In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
A sample of the cactus plantings at the Berkeley Botanical Garden.
Learning to Love Cactus
In the beginning of my gardening career, I wasn't a big fan of cactus. As a professional gardener for the City of Napa Parks Department, part of my job was to weed and maintain the cactus garden at Kennedy Park. It was low on the priority list for maintenance, so when a crew finally got out there, it was usually a weedy mess. Pulling weeds among thorny cactus plants is sticky business. After a few hours of hoeing and cleaning, the cactus were once again ready to greet their adoring public.
Cactus Are Survivors
When I moved to greener pastures, professionally speaking, I had the opportunity to learn about and care for a well-managed cactus patch. Many species were represented and I found with regular maintenance, these miraculous plants can be an elegant focal point in the landscape. The specimens in a cactus garden range in texture and size from low growing ground covers to towering pillars of fantastic shapes.
Now that I am undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I find I admire the tenacity and survival tactics of these hardy plants. Although cactus are perfectly adapted the most hostile environments on our planet, they can grow in more pleasant surrounding as well. With a little soil conditioning, they will adapt well to our soil, temperature, and humidity conditions along the coast.
I recently visited the Berkeley Botanical Garden where there's a large collection of cactus residing right next to a grove of redwood trees. It's hard to believe, but the cactus are happy with just a minor change in soil drainage, which is provided by adding crushed granite, sand, or even organic compost to the existing soil. The perfect cactus garden soil is actually a combination of all three mixed with a little ground limestone to increase the alkalinity.
Getting Started with Cactus
Before you plant, spend time selecting a site located in full sun. Many cacti don't have true leaves and photosynthesize through the green skin on the plant. Adequate sun light is imperative to the health of these plants. Plant taller varieties on the north side of the plot so that they don't shade the lower growing ones in front. Select your favorite cactus plants. I don't care for the aggressive thorns on the Jumping Cholla or Bunny Ears Opuntia, so my garden will never see the likes of those varieties. However, I'm partial to Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis) and the elegant Golden Barrel (Echinocactus grusonii).
Mini Cactus Gardens
Perhaps you don't have room in your garden for an area dedicated to cactus. I'd recommend a small dish garden for your patio table instead. Dish gardens are easy to construct and cost very little, especially when you purchase small plants from the nursery. A 2 inch pot will cost between $.99 and $2.99. At these prices, you can pick up several plants that grab your interest to begin your cactus collection.
Growing Cactus in Containers
It's always best to use a container with a drainage hole. It's most important you allow the soil to dry thoroughly between watering, no matter what type of container you decide to use. I like to use a commercially prepared cactus potting mix. It provides maximum drainage and the correct nutrients. To handle your prickly plants, lasso them with a collar of folded newspaper to move them from pot to pot. This prevents them from biting your fingers and frustrating you even before they're planted.
These hardy little plants also require a rest period during the winter months. Place plants in a protected sunny spot away from rainfall and frost through the winter and withhold water between November and February. You will know when the dormant period is over because the plants begin to grow. At that point, fertilize with ground limestone, start your watering program again and be patient. If you have done everything just right, your cactus will even reward you with a bloom or two.
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