2 cactus gardens thrive with — and without — tending
This is a tale of two gardens. Of two nooks that hold the best of plants and sometimes, the accursed of plants.
Of an oasis of tiny, intricate desert hidden in the lush hills of central Boulder. And a garden that grew by accident into a gorgeous demonstration of what’s possible on scant water, only to be mangled by last year’s July hailstorm — one that is beginning to bounce back.
It’s a tale of prickly persistence. Of barbed beauty. And a group of plants that seem to have as tenacious a grip on their fans as their spines can achieve in human flesh.
On the Hill, south of the University of Colorado campus, trees grow tall, houses grow huge, and decades of dense and layered life stories make for a complex, large-scale green world — California poppies, lilacs, lawns, great spreading shade trees.
And then there is the south-side yard at Steve Miles’ house.
Tucked against the dark, heat-retaining brick of his 1920s home is an astonishing pocket of bloom and spines, a miniature museum for cold-hardy cacti and succulents. His years of work have made it look as if it was always meant to be a secret cactus garden.
“I tried vegetables. I tried fruit trees; nothing seemed to work,” Miles says. “And I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of cactus, the Fibonacci spirals, just the makeup of them, the spines. When I discovered how beautiful and fluorescent the flowers were, well . . .” and his voice trails off into a wide grin.
He built every inch of the pocket paradise by hand, 10 linear feet per year.
“I’d go out to Tribble Stone Company and I’d fill up my station wagon with as much as I could carry — which was only about 800 pounds per trip,” says Miles. “The majority of the rock is underground, and the rocks take heat down into the soil, which was part of the plan.” Then he began filling the canvas he’d created.
“The more xeric plants I discovered, the more
excited I got. These” — some of the specimens on the garden’s east side, “are all plants from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. There are some cold deserts all over the globe.”
Agaves and aloes form a backdrop for tinier species, like flowering rebutias and the nonflowering, rock-mimicking “stone face” cacti. Delospermas, or ice plants, add color and texture.
On the garden’s west end, embraced by the back wall of his porch, “There’s a North American section” — punctuated by a few other plants. The eye scans a tree yucca and flows to a hardy geranium from Turkey, which is next to a columbine that’s just burst into bloom — a gift from the neighbors, whose seeds blew into the garden, and then a 2-foot-tall, shrub-form peach tree that’s native to California and Arizona.
As Miles talks, a hummingbird swoops in, diving repeatedly into the scarlet blossoms of a Claret Cup echinocereus. “This is an experiment to see what will do well and what will work,” he says. He shares his results, his plant starts, and his know-how with fellow members of the Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society, and cross-pollinates a few of his own.
“It’s a joy to watch a garden change and evolve,” Miles says, pointing out the work to be done this year — and quailing at how much he believes that there is. “There are plants that have got to come out because they’ve gotten too big, and I knew this when I planted them. But some of these things came from little cuttings
that I stuffed back in there.”
Miles, 61, has back problems and can’t hop around the rocks like he once did, but he has young helpers who are learning the ways of the bizarre, sometimes convoluted and alien-looking plant group.
One thing Miles learned was to avoid the temptation to make the soil too quick-draining. “I found I’d gone overboard,” he says, “so I put in a little more clay.”
He watches the plants carefully for fungus during spring and applies a systemic antifungal, sometimes with a needleless syringe, right into the infected plant.
Other than that, he finds the spiny species lend themselves well to a dense parade of diversity.
“They don’t mind being crowded; they almost seem to like being snuggled together,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve created a monster, there are so many plants.”
Far from that secret, sheltered Boulder garden, a cactus berm at Arvada’s Timberline Gardens is exposed, surrounded by the bustle of the busy garden center. It’s also recovering from July 2009’s killer hailstorm.
So this year, there isn’t as much to see. Nature’s violent weeding process thows the quiet, patient response of Timberline co-owner and Kelly Grummons into sharp relief.
“I grew up on the prairie, so this doesn’t really bother me,” says the northeast Wyoming native, looking at the garden’s many labeled stakes that now serve as botanical grave markers. “We used to lose sheep and cattle to hailstorms. Now that’s heartbreaking.”
Grummons’ super-dry demo garden came about completely by accident. To hold the various types of landscaping rock Timberline sells, concrete blocks as big as loveseats form a line of small bays, large enough for a Bobcat or tractor to dump or scoop up a load. In the course of delivering rock, that heavy equipment was shifting the blocks, rearranging the bays.
“So my thought was, reinforce the blocks with mounds of the poor soil we couldn’t sell. And I mean, it was terrible soil — it was full of asphalt and rocks; we found old license plates in it,” Grummons says. The trick worked. But then those heaps of soil attracted all of the worst weeds.
So Grummons put landscape fabric and rock over the berm. “That’s something I never do in a garden; it’s just not my style. Well, then I got the idea to move some of my hardy cactuses from the house into that soil.”
And the cactus thrived. The soil was clay, but it was clay on a slope, so it drained. The clay also held the moisture through the heat and drought. The fourth year, Grummons began adding companion plants, especially manzanitas, which proved such spectacular sellers that now Timberline has trouble growing enough of them.
“By the sixth year, it was starting to look like a garden,” he says. “We started mixing in grasses, things like prickly poppy, sand verbena.”
And then? Hail. He lost 30 percent of the plants at the garden center, including a “Golden Carpet” prickly pear mother plant — a specimen used for propagation through cuttings. “She was so full of seeds when the hailstorm hit.”
Propagation fuels a huge part of Grummons’ business — and his website, coldhardycactus .com. A special greenhouse at Timberline, set back from most of the activity, holds mothers and babies — new echinocereus hybrids he carefully pollinates with paintbrushes; and hybrid prickly pears, or opuntias, that he is growing to check for bloom color, cold-hardiness and other prized qualities. There, the children of that “Golden Carpet” specimen are beginning to bloom in a wild variety of tropical- fruit colors — “orange, papaya, salmon, peach.”
His berm garden has offered him many lessons about which plants and cultivars can survive on no supplemental water and shrug off both erratic winters and hail: manzanitas; junipers from Wyoming; chollas from Colorado, but not from Texas; and a Canadian plum tree called “Mount Royal.” Two of those plums offer shade at the end of the berm and produce bushels of fruit each year.
And then there’s potato cactus, a spineless prickly pear whose hail-shedding, round pads — unlike the flat, many-barbed leaves of most opuntias — look just like new potatoes.
“Look at this one: You can’t see a hole in it,” Grummons says, marveling at how well the plant survived the killer storm. “It’s amazing. I don’t understand it.”
Getting some spine
A few cactus, succulent and companion plants to investigate:
Opuntia (prickly pear). Many colors, shapes, sizes, cultivars, bloom colors. Timberline Gardens owner Kelly Grummons’ tip for tending them: barbecue tongs. He gets his cheap at thrift stores.
Echinocereus (spiny candle). Check out “Claret Cup” and “Purple Candle.”
Cholla. They add vertical interest but, sometimes, an ouch factor.
Manzanita. Evergreen shrubs covered with pink flowers in March. Says Grummons: “How can this not be the shrub of the future?”
Agaves. Great structural form, many different foliage shades but very slow-growing, so they can be expensive.
Rebutias. Beautiful blooming miniatures, great for a pot garden or a small-scale vig nette.
Yuccas. The tree varieties add height, structure and scale; check out a wide variety of foliage types.
Aloes. A wide variety of colors, shapes and scales — plus some of them bloom.
Tricks for a cactus garden
Think lean in your soil mix. Timberline Gardens’ Kelly Grummons uses half clay and half pea gravel, and then adds 10 percent compost.
Maximize microclimates. Place rocks to capture the sun’s heat and pull it into the soil; take advantage of reflected heat from walls or other heat-absorbing barriers.
Watch for spring dampness. Succulents don’t like to sit in water. The plants at the bottom of Grummons’ berm garden rotted out the first year while those at the top thrived on the drainage, even in clay. Apply fungicides if needed.
Healing from hail. If your opuntias are punctured by a hailstorm, let them go dry. The punctures can invite fungi, but the plant is programmed to harden over such injuries; drought stress will actually help this happen.
Watch the water. The first year, help the new cactus get established; after that, let the sky do it.