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GARDENING : Lovers of Cacti, Succulents Point to Beauty, Low Water

October 06, 1990|VALERIE ORLEANS | Valerie Orleans is a regular contributor to Home Design

In a neighborhood of manicured lawns and well-groomed flower beds, it's easy to spot Bart and Rosalie Palisi's Anaheim Hills home. Their yard features several varieties of the cacti and succulents they have nurtured from seedlings.

"We've always loved cactus and succulents," Rosalie explained. "When we moved to Southern California, it made sense to try to plant something in keeping with the desert environment. We wanted a yard that was low maintenance, yet attractive. At the time we planted cacti, we weren't necessarily thinking about the drought; we simply wanted something to go along with our busy lifestyle."

Planting drought-resistant plants such as farrow cactus, barrel cactus and yucca makes sense in an era of water shortages.

"In general, most cacti and succulents need only a light watering about every two days during the summer and no watering at all in the winter," said Lloyd Garretson, president of the 90-member Orange County Cactus and Succulent Society. "This is a step in the right direction when it comes to cutting back on water consumption."

Many homeowners may not be ready to give up their colorful flower beds in favor of a more prickly display.

Not to worry, according to Garretson. "There are many flowering varieties of cactus and they bloom at different times of the year. You can have blossoms year-round if you want," he said. "Some varieties even bloom at night and close their buds when the sun comes up."

There are more than 2,000 species in the succulent family--cacti is the largest group. Other succulents include milkweed, lilies, aloe and ocotillo. These plants are called succulents because they store water in their leaves, stems and roots. Succulents are generally the smoother-skinned versions of their prickly cacti cousins.

"Many people are surprised to learn that hibiscus and oleanders are also members of the succulent family," Palisi said. "A lot of people who aren't too crazy about cactus because of the thorns become enamored of succulents.

"In fact, we just finished planting a succulent garden for my mother, who doesn't care for cactus . . . but she loves succulents."

Like most cactus lovers, the Garretsons' interest in the plants started as a hobby.

"I've always been a gardener," Garretson admitted. "But most of my experience was with fruit trees and raising vegetables. Quite frankly, I thought a lot of cacti were ugly. Then my wife, Toni, started getting interested in cactus plants and succulents and that got me going."

Today, the yard of the Garretsons' Garden Grove home stands as testimony to their interest. Cacti grow in their front and back yards, and two separate greenhouses shelter their ever-growing collection of these hearty plants.

"What many people don't realize is that not all cactus and succulents look alike," Garretson said. "There are many varieties that don't even remotely resemble the commonly known images. The ponytail palm and the bursera look like trees, while the beaver tail cactus produces a large pink flower."

Rosalie Palisi has "what is called a pencil cactus in our yard that has very thin branches. It's an attractive plant and what has been an extra bonus is that it attracts hummingbirds who stop and rest on it."

The jade succulent resembles its Oriental cousin. Aloe comes in many varieties. Still other types of succulents resemble ferns.

"Once you get involved with these plants, it's hard to stop," Garretson said. His wife's initial purchase of a small gray succulent--commonly known as baby toe or living stone because of its smooth, round appearance--started the Garretsons' fascination with this species.

The ease of caring for cacti is probably one of its primary attributes. Once it has been planted, there is little maintenance involved. However, make sure to leave enough space between the plants since they can grow quite large. Succulents should also be planted in loose, rocky soil with good drainage. In keeping with the desert or Southwestern look, many cacti gardeners cover the ground with pebbles or white stones.

"Other than light watering . . . the only real maintenance is pulling weeds," Garretson said. "By scattering rocks or stones, you can better control the weeds.

"And they had better be pretty hearty weeds," he said with a laugh. "Because they aren't going to get much water."

Most varieties of succulents grow well together, and Garretson said it's not necessary to plant only cacti. In his own garden, he has flowers and other varieties of plants mixed in with the succulents. However, he does warn that cacti have a dominant tendency.

"If you want to keep your cactus plant small, keep it in a pot," he recommended. "Also, don't be too hasty in tossing out a cactus that looks like it's seen better days. Often cactus, especially during the winter months, may appear dead, when in fact it's just lying dormant for a few months.

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