The John Kuden home in SLO: A love for cacti and succulents

Though he didn’t understand them at first, John Kuden’s garden shows his passion for these desert landscape plants

Special to The TribuneNovember 28, 2012 

  • JOHN KUDEN’S CACTUS AND SUCCULENT TIPS

  • Keeping succulents in pots enables you to rearrange your displays, and hide any that are not looking their best.
  • Rocks, gravel, and animal bones can add interest to both potted and in-ground plantings.
  • If in doubt about watering, it’s better to under-water than to over-water.
  • When you love cacti and succulents, there’s no such thing as “too many.”

John Kuden acquired his hilltop home site in a roundabout manner. About 40 years ago, he explained, he was one of eight developers who invested in 120 acres west of San Luis Obispo, intending to develop it as a scenic cemetery.

However, the Los Osos mortuary and cemetery was established soon afterward, and the group decided that a second cemetery on Los Osos Valley Road would not be successful. Because San Luis Obispo’s building regulations hindered housing development beyond the city limits, each of his partners moved on to other projects. As they opted out, John bought their shares, eventually subdividing the property into 18 plots, ranging from five acres to two-and-a-half acres.

He reserved the uppermost 13 acres for himself and his wife, Marilyn — and the site is now included in the city of San Luis Obispo. Initially, Marilyn was reluctant to leave their longtime home on Mill Street. But her attitude changed as she became instrumental in designing their new house. In 1980, they moved in.

John’s interest in succulents was sparked when he attended monthly meetings of the SLO Cactus and Succulent Society, while they still lived on Mill Street. He began acquiring cacti at that time. Fortunately, those early specimens were still small and in pots, so they were easy to move.

John says that for the first 20 years here, he didn’t do much gardening , other than planting a few oak trees.

“I don’t really know how to landscape with cacti,” he said.

However, some of his early succulent plantings, on a steep slope beside the driveway, are thriving in the rocky native soil. Their naturalistic appearance belies John’s declaration.

Although Marilyn readily adapted to their new location, it took her some time to appreciate John’s fascination with cacti and succulents. John concedes he can’t resist purchasing succulents that are new to him, so the collection continues to grow. He can’t explain their appeal, simply saying “I just kind of like them — it took me a few years to understand them.”

Succulent-filled pots line the upper driveway and the deck that wraps around the house. Although some of his specimens are enormous, John still prefers keeping most of them in containers that can be rearranged to maintain attractive displays on the deck, especially around the entrance area. Another area of the front deck is dedicated to propagation — John still can’t resist making new plants.

Having previously lost plants during rainy winters, John recently acquired a small greenhouse to protect some of the more delicate and/or valuable plants that are vulnerable to winter weather. He already regrets that he didn’t buy a larger model; this one will soon be filled.

As he ages and copes with ailments that drain his energy, John feels lucky to have a weekday assistant, Donna, who cheerfully manages tasks ranging from making pots of coffee to moving pots of cactus. Donna had assisted Marilyn during her final illness. Now she’s helping John accomplish his daily routines, both indoors and out.

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