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DESERT BLOOMS : Watertight Case : Cacti and succulents come in a palette of shades and make landscaping sense in dry times.

January 31, 1991|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another rainy season has just about passed without substantial precipitation. And water conservation is a reality. So those pondering a springtime landscape make-over will want to consider flora that thrive in dry weather and require little watering. Topping such a list is, of course, the cactus.

A plethora of shapes, sizes and colors is available to would-be landscapers concerned with drought-tolerant vegetation, and Ventura County residents won't have to go far to find these desert plants.

There is a cactus nursery in Ojai, the only one of its kind in the county, that offers more than 1,000 varieties of cacti. The plants are raised year-round in greenhouses and outdoor plots.

"Cactus sales are getting stronger all the time," Desert Images owner Richard Bogart says. "People from drought-stricken Santa Barbara have been coming down for some time, and more and more local people, too, are starting to think about cactus for landscape alternatives."

Bogart said cacti are actually members of the succulent family.

"All cactus are succulents, but not all succulents are cactus," he said.

"There are several things that make succulents drought tolerant," Bogart said, citing the plant's water storage capability and the hardy skin which protects it against being dried by wind and sun.

The cactus, whose sharp spines are actually a type of protective leaf, also conserves water because in cacti, transpiration--the process of giving off moisture through the surface of the plant--takes place during the night, Bogart said. "With most other plants, this happens during the heat of the day."

Grown from seeds and cuttings, Bogart's cacti come in many sizes, shapes and forms.

"They have a lot of individual character," Bogart says, "and there is a definite sculptural value to them."

If you're worried that cacti won't provide your yard with enough of a variety of color, Bogart would like to ease your mind.

He said many varieties flower quite brilliantly and are themselves of beautiful hues.

"Some are quite bluish," he said, "and there are varying greens and reds and burgundies."

A favorite of his is the bright purple Opuntia Santa-Rita.

"People can vary the colors like a painter using his full palette and not just have a monochrome color," he said.

A cacti-predominant landscape should be supplemented with other "water thrifty" non-cactus succulents, Bogart said. "They also are available in a wide selection of varieties and colors."

Have you decided to transform your yard to include such desert flora? Then you need to be aware which cactus and succulent varieties are best for your location.

Given the county's micro climates, Bogart said, the plants need to be chosen depending on how cold it gets in your area. "Some are more cold tolerant than others," he said, while many will succumb to more frigid temperatures.

Bogart estimates that he lost up to a third of his cacti and other succulents when last December's freeze blew through.

You need to be concerned mainly with plants that are native to Africa and with the aloe varieties of succulents, which are not cold tolerant.

"Any variety will be fine for the warmer areas," Bogart said.

For those not blessed with a green thumb or who haven't sufficient time or motivation to care for landscaping, you'll be happy to know that cacti are easy to care for.

Bogart said there are very few pests that threaten cacti--so there's little need for pesticide use-- "and they're very tolerant of neglect."

Ultimately, Bogart suggests that a well-rounded desert landscape should include several forms of cacti and other succulents. "You want different sizes to give dimension," he said. "I personally place more emphasis on form, but color contrast is also important."

As for ground cover, he said it "looks dressier to cover with wood chips or bark."

"Your ground will also stay cooler and retain moisture much better," he said.

The plants will vary in cost depending upon the varieties chosen.

"Some are more expensive because they are harder to grow or they are more exotic," Bogart said, "and size, too, is a big factor."

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