Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
January, 2011
Regional Report

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Its rosette form and silver-blue color makes an agave a welcome addition to any cactus and succulent garden.

Create a Cactus Haven

Winter may seem like an odd time to be talking about a cactus garden, but a well tended succulent bed adds interest and texture to a sunny corner any time of year. Besides being extremely drought tolerant, cactus and succulent plants are both beautiful and hardy.

Ideally, a cactus garden will be located in a sunny, well drained location. Mounding the soil will improve drainage. However, if you are blessed with our typical California clay soil, you can combine equal parts of potting soil, leaf mold and coarse sand to build a raised planting area. If you are planting desert cactus, add one part of fine gravel to the soil mix.

Once the mound has been built, cover the soil with black landscape fabric to prevent weeds from growing and to trap heat from the sun. It's very important to do everything possible to keep the weeds at bay. If you have ever spent time weeding in a cactus garden you know what I mean! A pair of kitchen tongs comes in very handy for pulling weeds from tight spaces between thorny plants.
Once the bed has been planted, mulch the entire area with natural colored gravel.

Watering & Fertilizing
Cacti and succulents will require water during the summer months, especially when planted in fast draining soil. Fertilizing should be done in small doses. Cottonseed meal, bone meal, or liquid fish may be applied at half-strength during the growing season only, with no other applications necessary.

Protection from Frost
In areas that frequently drop below freezing during the winter it will be necessary to provide protection for the plants. A simple wood frame covered with clear plastic is what they use at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. Cylindrical cacti such as the cereus or old man cactus can be protected by simply placing a paper cup over the growth tip. They may look rather silly with their protective caps on, but they'll be protected from the cold.

The Collection
There many types of cactus plants suitable for growing outdoors in our region. The Opuntia genus, including the jumping cholla, is large, and the plants can be identified by their flat, jointed pads and barbed bristles. The Mammillaria genus has a cylindrical form and can grow in clumps or as solitary plants. Agaves, such as the century plant, are incredibly hardy and can tolerate harsh conditions. They come in all sizes, but the form is basically the same. New growth forms in the center.

Crassula, echeveria and aeonium, including the jade tree and hens and chicks, have thick, fleshy leaves. Some are rosette shaped, others are trailing or ruffled. These are the work horses of a cactus garden and can be used as ground covers. Sedum, another great choice for a ground cover, is a member of the crassula family, which includes donkey's tail (S. morganianum) and pork and beans (S. rubrotinctum).

Do not disturb desert cactus during their resting period, which is usually in winter. No transplanting, fertilizing, or watering, please. Forest cacti such as epiphyllum and Christmas cactus do not need a dormant period and require water and nutrients all year long.
As with any new landscaping project, do your homework! The taller plants should go on the northernmost side to prevent them from shading the short guys. Incorporate interesting rocks or driftwood into your design and allow plants to trail over and around the hardscape. Use contrasting colors and textures, such as smooth blue-green aeonium against bristly golden barrel cactus. And don't be afraid to mix it up!

All cactus and succulent plants are specially adapted to a particular environment. Mimic that environment and you will have success. As always, start with a small collection and build on it. The thing I like best about these plants is that they are tough survivors and can fend for themselves.

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