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Cactus: Drought-tolerant plants need little care and add an exotic feel to gardens

Joe Hawksworth began his garden in 1974 with a small back corner of his quarter-acre back yard. Now, the cactus garden takes up most of the space. (DIANA BALDRICA / THE FRESNO BEE)
Joe Hawksworth began his garden in 1974 with a small back corner of his quarter-acre back yard. Now, the cactus garden takes up most of the space. (DIANA BALDRICA / THE FRESNO BEE)

When Joe Hawksworth began planting a garden of cactuses and succulents at his home, he started with a 5-foot square in a corner of the backyard.

Now, almost 35 years later, the entire quarter-acre is filled, from towering 25-foot agaves to tiny, 2-inch pincushions.

“The yard was all almond trees, and I decided to take them out, and one thing led to another,” Hawksworth, 78, says with a laugh.

Cactus gardens require little care, making them ideal in today’s busy world.

They also are drought-tolerant, requiring very little water even during the Central Valley’s hot summer months. And, although many consider cactuses and succulents homely, the plants can add a splash of color and be paired with rusty wagon wheels or small windmills for a rustic garden.

“It’s not the common thing to have, and it’s very low-maintenance,” says Charlene Stebles, a member of the Fresno Cactus and Succulent Society. “To me, it’s pretty. There’s almost always something blooming.”

Hawksworth has 50 varieties of cactuses and 12 types of succulents. He has no idea how many plants he has, but he says he lost 300 in the deep freeze of 1990. Rocks, rusty wagon wheels and ore buckets, an old cash register, an ancient gasoline pump, a small windmill that turns in the slightest of breeze and assorted signs are just some items that give Hawksworth’s garden its appeal.

“I’m still adding cactuses,” he says. “I have to be a little more particular now because I’m running out of room. I really enjoy it out here. It’s a different world to me.”

Stebles has about 50 varieties of cactuses and 30 types of succulents growing in raised beds and pots around her home. She also has about 80 more varieties in a greenhouse.

A pair of old wagon wheels marks the entrance to Stebles’ backyard garden. Rocks, cow skulls, a rusty cultivator, plow and shovel, oak tree stumps and lanterns can be found in the garden. Stebles brought in five truckloads of soil to create the garden seven years ago. She says raised beds and sandy loam soil are ideal for cactuses and succulents, which require good drainage to prevent roots from rotting.

Cactuses and succulents can go for long periods of time without water because they store it, says Don La Mont, a Fresno County Master Gardener and member of the Fresno Cactus and Succulent Society.

He says there are a few do’s and don’ts when planting a garden of cactuses and succulents:

Do provide afternoon shade during the hot summers or plants can sunburn. If you must plant in a location that receives afternoon sun, drape shade cloth over plants.

Do water newly planted cactuses and succulents once a week for the first few months.

Do bring in topsoil and create raised beds if you have hardpan.

Do remove offshoots from plants that produce them, such as agave and aloe vera, or your garden can get out of control.

Don’t put plants with sharp points near sidewalks; it’s dangerous.

Don’t water plant cuttings until roots form.

Don’t plant under rain gutters.

Don’t transplant or make cuttings during the summer; the heat is too much for the plants.

“Once they’re established, (the gardens are) low maintenance,” says

La Mont, who has cactuses and succulents growing, mainly in pots, around his home.

“I like the look of some of them. It’s interesting to bring all the different shapes and sizes into a kind of dish garden.”

Although some of Hawksworth’s cactuses are in pots -- he also has a six-headed Golden Barrel in a rusty Salvation Army soup pot and a peruvianus in an old ore bucket -- most of his plants are in the ground.

He estimates it took 15 years for the garden to reach its current size. He now has third- and fourth-

generation plants of the yucca that started it all. He also has four Golden Barrel cactuses he planted from seed 21 years ago.

“It looks like a lot of work, but at the time, I didn’t think it was,” Hawksworth says. “I used to spend all day out here, and I’d just get lost.”