Looking for attractive landscape plants that are easy to care for,don't need much water, have spectacular flowers, aren't bothered by many pests and rarely need to be pruned? Cacti are your answer.
"Cacti are almost like art sculptures," says Stanlee Phelps of Laguna Hills, who has a container cactus garden in her front walkway. "Set potted cacti against a light-colored wall and you have a dramatic contrast."
Many cacti also have breathtaking flowers in a variety of striking colors.
"Most cacti bloom in the spring and summer months, although some do flower in the fall and winter, like the Christmas (orchid) cactus, which comes in white and pinks," says Toni Garretson, president of the Orange County Cactus and Succulent Society.
Phelps has a Christmas cactus which she says gets loaded down during the holiday season with pink "fuchsia-type" flowers. There are even some that bloom at night, such as the Cereus peruvianus, a tall, branching, tree-like cactus. "Its white, large, nocturnal flowers appear in the summer at night and are gone by 6 in the morning," says Garretson.
Other cacti include the popular golden barrel, a tall barrel-shaped cactus with bright yellow flowers 1 to 2 1/2 inches long. There are also varieties with orange, red, yellow and purple flowers.
Mammillaria cacti are attractive, including the pincushion cactus with spines that look like pins and bright yellow and pink flowers. According to Richard Hipp, owner of the House of Cactus in Stanton, the Mammillaria gymnospena is a real showpiece with its multiple heads of red flowers.
And there is the uebelmannia, which is unusually colored. It is a reddish, blackish brown and has really straight dark spines. There are also the popular Gymnocalyciums, which have a red cap on top, and opuntias, including the beaver tail cactus, which has a rose-colored flower that appears in the middle of summer, and Opuntia cholla, which is a shrub-like plant that has dull green joints and rose pink flowers that bloom in midsummer.
In addition to their unusual features and beautiful flowers, cacti are very easy to grow.
"The only time you may have problems growing cacti in Southern California is if there is a sudden heat wave or frost," says Garretson, who has been growing about 100 cacti in the front yard of her Garden Grove home for the past six years.
Because freezing can kill cacti, causing their cells to expand and split open, Hipp suggests planting cacti in containers so that on cold winter nights you can move the plants to safety.
"Most cacti do very well in containers," he says. "If there is danger of frost, you can move the plants indoors or under the eaves of the house."
Because of our winter cold and wet, not every cactus is suitable for ground planting, warns Hipp. "Many cacti come from areas that have warm, dry winters," he says. "Check with the nursery where you buy the cactus about planting requirements."
If you are going to plant a cactus in a pot, it's important to buy cactus potting soil and to make certain that the bottom of the container has large drainage holes because cacti need excellent drainage.
When you bring home a new cactus from the nursery, don't think you have to immediately repot it, says Garretson. "Cacti are often fine in their containers for a year or so after buying them," she says. "You don't need to replant unless the plant is bulging over the sides."
If you want a prettier container for your cactus, place the existing pot inside another. This is often a better choice than repotting, which can be cumbersome and painful.
When you repot, Phelps suggests breaking the existing pot or wearing very heavy gloves so that you don't get stabbed by the cactus's thorns.
"Gradually increase the container size when you repot because cactus like to feel snuggled," says Garretson. "If the pot is too large, the roots will grow, but you'll get little top growth. Replant a cactus that has been in a three-inch pot in one that is no larger than 4 or 5 inches."
When planting in the ground, it is very important to make the soil as fast draining as possible. Garretson generously amends her soil with a mixture of potting soil and vermiculite or pumice.
"Whatever you do, don't add sand," she warns. "Contrary to popular opinion, sand holds water instead of promoting fast drainage. It will cause water to collect around your cactus's roots and rot the plant."
When planting a cactus in the ground, make sure to place the plant at the same soil level it was at in the container--no higher or lower, says Hipp.
Also make certain to leave enough room for your cactus to grow, as some eventually become quite large.
"We've had several areas in our yard that have become too crowded, and we've had to move a few cacti," says Garretson.
When planting, also keep in mind that most cacti do best in direct sunlight.