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Dry Ideas : What better for Southern California scenarios than a thirst-quenched garden? A cactus oasis is no barren landscape.

March 15, 1997|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Martin Colver suggested installing a cactus garden in an unused area of his parent's Costa Mesa backyard, his father, Frank, was uncertain. Planting the cactus would mean removing a 25-year-old pomegranate tree.

Once his son installed the garden, however, Colver's reservations quickly disappeared.

"The resulting garden is really worthwhile," said Frank Colver. "Until my son put the cactus garden in, we rarely used that space. Now we sit out there more than any other area of the yard. It's surprising what a peaceful feeling the garden generates."

When they hear the words cactus garden, "many people picture the Mojave desert and a barren wasteland," said Martin Colver, a groundsworker for Newport Beach Parks Division. "There are actually many different types of cactus, and they can make a stunning display."

Over 2,000 species of cactus exist, and they come in many shapes and sizes, agreed Richard Hipp, owner of the House of Cactus in Stanton.

"Some cactus are very large growing ones that make a good showpiece in the landscape, while others are miniatures more applicable for a small garden or containers. Some grow like trees, with branches, while others have a more traditional barrel shape."

Many cactus flower in spring and summer, some even blooming at night and closing before morning. Night bloomers tend to be fragrant.

Most cactus grow well here, taking to the warm, mild weather. They are also very low-maintenance plants, rarely requiring pruning.

In his parents' cactus garden, Colver installed more than 40 species and varieties of striking cactus, including a golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), which is a dark lime green with yellow spines and, when in bloom, a yellow fuzzy top. Nearby he put a red barrel cactus (Ferocactus stainesii), which is a dark green with red spines. For height, Colver planted an 8-foot candelabra tree (Euphorbia ingens). The tall succulent has a main trunk and several branches projecting from the top.

To add to the peaceful feel, Colver installed a fountain and a bench. He and his father hauled in a number of multicolored granite rocks.

The younger Colver became interested in cactus about seven years ago, when he and his father took a camping trip to Baja, where a variety of very large cactus grow. After the trip, he began collecting large cactus, purchasing from nurseries across Southern California and special cactus plant sales.

But Colver lives in a condominium in Santa Ana and had to put them all in containers.

Eventually, many of the cactus outgrew the pots, so he approached his parents. It took about 15 months to complete the garden, although he is constantly adding new plants.

Complete landscaping with cactus isn't necessary, Hipp said.

"I don't suggest that people try to make their whole yard look like Phoenix," he said. "Cactus also make really good accent pieces. They contrast well with most plants, including palms, hibiscus and bird of paradise. And they're especially striking when in bloom."

Although cactus tend to be low-maintenance once planted, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Contrary to popular opinion, cactus don't require a scorching area of the garden that gets full sun all day, Hipp said.

"Even cactus in the desert are protected by rocks and other tall plants in the afternoon, or they don't survive," he said. "Choose a location that is warm and bright. If the cactus are containerized, make sure that the sun doesn't hit the container all day, or the roots may cook."

Your most important task when planting cactus is proper soil preparation. Because they originally come from areas with soil high in sand, cactus tend to rot in the heavy clay found throughout much of Orange County.

"Most cactus need a rich, well drained soil," Hipp said. "If you have a sandy, loamy soil, you can plant directly in it, but most of us don't."

If your soil is hard clay, you must plant in raised beds or containers. Fill raised beds with sandy loam, which can be purchased at a landscape supply yard.

Colver's parents have a hard-clay yard, so he built raised planters in order to get good drainage.

"I think the raised beds have been the key to our success," he said. "Without good drainage, our plants would have died during the wet winter we just had."

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To plant cactus in containers, use a ready-made cactus mix found at nurseries. Colver said he has discovered that these mixes dry out quickly, so to retain some moisture, he adds a small amount of clay soil to the mix before planting.

In general, when repotting, don't go up more than two pot sizes. Cactus can be repotted at any time of the year.

Water cactus sparingly during their dormant months, November through February. At other times of the year cactus should be watered more frequently.

"Cactus need water during the summer months because that is their growing period, and it tends to be very dry and hot here during that time of year," said Hipp, who suggests watering at least once a week during warm weather. Potted cactus may need more frequent watering.

Don't go overboard with watering, however. Cactus are drought-tolerant; over-watering will cause cactus to split. Make sure that soil dries out between waterings.

Fertilize cactus monthly only during the growing period with a fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in phosphorus and potassium.

"Too much nitrogen will create a flabby cactus vulnerable to disease," said Colver, who uses a flowering fertilizer that is a ratio of 0-10-10. Hipp suggests using a fertilizer that has no higher than a 10 for the first number.

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