After abundant winter and spring rainfall, local wildflowers have made a spectacular show and home gardens are exceptionally lush.
But realists know that it’s only a matter of time before the sprinklers will be needed. Many water-wise gardeners are considering cacti and other succulents to reduce water usage.
The Cactus and Succulent Society’s annual plant show and sale later this month offers an opportunity to see prize-winning specimens, consult experts, and purchase plants at reasonable prices. Last year’s show was so successful that additional space has been reserved this year.
Gardeners who can’t envision how tiny potted specimens might appear at maturity could visit the SLO County Office of Education, where these photographs were taken. This veritable demonstration garden of mature succulents, complete with an arroyo, was installed in 2001 to match the building’s Southwestern style.
Landscape architect Casey J. Patterson of CJP Productions in Atascadero designed the garden, including the large raised planter beds that counterbalance the building’s bulk, and a pergola with trellised vines.
The garden was planned to appear mature from the beginning, installing 14 century plants and 20 other agaves from 24-inch boxes or 15-gallon containers. Forty-four additional plants, including cacti, yuccas, trees and shrubs, also came in those sizes.
A naturalistic appearance was achieved by planting the large specimens among the same species in smaller sizes. A variety of native plants, including ceanothus, coyote bush, acacia, manzanita, toyon, and matilija poppy, helped the garden blend with its natural environment. The pea gravel mulch helps conserve moisture and makes weeding easier.
While touring the garden with David Keil, facilities manager and director, he expressed some concerns about maintaining the garden’s healthy appearance. He wondered how to deal with the huge, blossoming century plants, which will die after blooming. And he was worried about some yellowing cacti.
Nick Wilkinson of Grow, the Nursery at Moonstone Gardens, and current vice president of the Cactus & Succulent Society, was willing to consult with Dave and take the photographs for this article. Nick’s advice follows:
• Fertilizing with iron just before a good rain (or a watering) will help yellowed succulents and cactus green up nicely.
•Many agaves will die after they bloom, though some species live on. Take care in removing dead or dying agaves. Their fibrous leaves, when shredded with a chainsaw, will burn like acid, so cut down large leaves with a hand saw, then remove the body of the plant as you see fit.
• It is a myth that desert gardens don’t require maintenance. To keep a consistently full appearance, periodically take cuttings of plants that are outgrowing their space and use them to fill open areas.
• The beauty of succulents is how forgiving they are. Unlike many of their perennial counterparts, both large and small established specimens can be transplanted to better locations.
Sharon Crawford is a freelance writer who lives in Los Osos.