Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
January, 2005
Regional Report

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Dish gardens can hold a colorful variety of sizes and shapes of cacti and succulents.

On the Dry Side

During a recent drive across the arid regions of the southwest and southern California, I was entranced by the cacti and other drought-tolerant plants growing wild along the roadside, installed in parking lot planting schemes, and even growing as container plants on patios and balconies. Not only is the scenery in this part of the nation varied -- sometimes seeming to change every fifty miles or so depending on elevation, topography, and geology -- but so are the plants.

Some plants grow along the roadway for hundreds of miles, such as tumbleweed along I-40 in Texas and New Mexico. Other plants are sporadic, growing only at higher elevations or in particularly sandy or rocky locations. Palm Springs was named after the naturally occurring palm groves in the area -- canyons with streams flowing through, lined with palms. Until now, I had assumed the name was to commemorate the many palms planted to decorate the golf courses!

At higher altitudes, with the highway reaching maximum elevations of over 7,000 feet, I was thrilled to see the desert plants shimmer under a layer of early morning frost, especially when nearby snow-covered peaks were in sight. I suppose I had not really understood quite how cold it gets in some parts of the desert, or how widely diverse the plants there can be. There seem to be a few plants, such as prickly pear, that are just so widely adapted that neither heat nor cold nor sleet nor snow will stop them (to borrow from the well-known postal service slogan).

Bringing Home a Cactus
At several roadside, tourist-trap souvenir shops I was surprised to see little preplanted cactus dish gardens for sale along with Cactus in a Box kits (literally a little cactus seedling tidily packaged in a cardboard box with a cellophane window). Even Grow Your Own Cactus From Seed kits were aplenty, containing a bit of gravel mix, a pot, and assorted cactus seeds. I am not sure how many of these plants survive the trip home and our sometimes misguided efforts at keeping them alive, but I am happy to report that the amazing cactus may be one of the first plants to catch the attention of new gardeners, old and young alike.

The wide variety of cacti (and succulents) make them great hobbyist collector's items, and their unique look invites their use as either architectural accents or purely decorative items inside the home (or in the garden where hardy). Care will vary according to type. Some do well enough as year-round houseplants, some appreciate a summer outside, some need at least a mild winter chill period. Certainly watering needs will vary widely from barely none at all to that seemingly oxymoronic "evenly moist yet well drained" recommended for many succulents.

If you can identify your cactus or succulent accurately and research its needs, you should be able to grow your own collection with relative ease. If you are new to this group of plants, perhaps a gardening friend would give you a start from a jade tree or other relatively easy-to-grow succulent. Did you know you can start a jade plant using just patience and a leaf laid out flat on barely damp potting soil? Once you try it, you are sure to be hooked!

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