Tucson Lifestyle Home and Garden — March 2014
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Stuck On Cactus
Judith Ratliff

At the center of an eastside home’s makeover is a garden based around a trending plant.

Janet Hale’s fascination with trichocereus cactus started innocently enough. She and her husband Johnny moved to their dream acre on Tucson’s eastside in 1997, and she had a big backyard space to fill. She bought a few of the big blooming South American natives — often sold as torch cactus — and stuck them in the ground without much thought. They grew quickly and bloomed at a young age. Pieces that were broken or knocked off the mother plant re-sprouted in new locations. Soon Janet had a little bit of a theme going.

Fast forward to 2010 when she decided it was time to get serious about finishing up the shade tree and cactus garden she had always wanted. The majority of the natural desert vegetation had been more or less wiped out by drought and insects. It was then that her trusted handyman Brian Hurd, of Bear Canyon Services, pitched the idea of creating an all-trichocereus garden. Janet went for it. She knew the plant stalks came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and that hybridizers had created dozens of different flowers, including multi-colored, multi-petaled, and some the size of saucers.

“Brian has his passions,” she laughs. “He has a trichocereus collection himself and knows other growers. We got a lot of plants from expert hybridizer Mark Dimmitt, and from Carol Scannell at Tanque Verde Greenhouses. Our idea was to create mounds throughout the yard and to display the trichs on these.

Trees are placed strategically because the plants generally don’t want to be in blaring sun all day long. We worked for two years on the backyard. I think we’re at a point now where I can call it finished.”

Today probably 70 percent of the plants in Janet’s rambling backyard garden are trichocereus. Recently, she’s started working with agaves, prickly pear, ocotillos, Spanish broom and totem poles, for example, as accents. She’s also begun adding plants such as birds of paradise, blue euphorbias and salvias to soften her planting beds.

“We tucked a small patio out in the landscape surrounded by planting beds,” Carol says. “Johnny and I can sit out there during flowering season, May through July, and have 360 degrees of blooms. The flowers come in waves. Different types of trichs have different bloom periods, so if you’ve mixed the plants well, the bloom effect lasts quite a while. That part sort of worked out by accident for us. It’s really wonderful! I couldn’t be happier with the yard.”

Janet and Johnny have never been a couple for half measures. Before starting In the yard, they completed “an incredible amount of work” on their house. They converted the existing garage and back porch into living space and built a four-car garage and extensive new porches all around the house. They also added a master bedroom and bath addition that includes a mid-size indoor pool fitted with a swim-against-thecurrent device. The roof is covered with a full solar panel array that heats the pool, among other things. And in a final bit of ecologically minded improvement, two 3,000-gallon cisterns for collecting rainwater are buried on the property and attached to the irrigation system.

The patio and gardens received special attention. A newly built primary patio with a cook center and outdoor dining area looks out over the trichocereus garden. Turquoise-streaked chrysocolla stones featured in many of the landscape walls, are prominent in the patio construction. She even lined some of her pathways with leftover chrysocolla. A storage shed flanking the patio looks like a vine-covered cottage, and throughout the area, Janet is experimenting with lusher plants in raised planters. She also tucked in a small lawn and several fountains near the house.

Another passion vividly displayed on the Hale property is the couple’s love of desert critters. Metal artwork everywhere bears animal likenesses. The Hales also actively rescue birds and injured javelina and get them to experts who can help. Faced with a pair of desert tortoises that nobody else would take, the couple built a large enclosure for them in their westside garden in compliance with Arizona Fish and Game standards.

“We were warned that the female might be pregnant — that’s why no institution would take her,” Janet says. “Well, they were right. We ended up with babies in a special terrarium and had to build a second tortoise enclosure on the eastside of the house so we could keep the males and females separated. I don’t know what we’ll do with more tortoises. We really can’t build more tortugas casas. We’re finally out of room.”

Cactus Tips From an Expert

Carol Scannell, the owner of Tanque Verde Greenhouses, says the current trichocereus craze is one of the many cactus booms she’s seen in her nearly 50 years as a local grower. Trichocereus have been coming on strong for about 10 years. But Carol also has seen rebutias, mammalarias, lobivias and echinopsis, among others, have their day.

“People love cactus that begin blooming when they are young and still small,” Scannell says. “Everybody wants flowers and with these species, they don’t have to wait. All of these cacti are nice plants. They do extremely well here. They bloom beautifully in many different colors. And there’s another trait that some of the most popular cacti have in common: the bases make offsets that can be removed and planted separately. You get more and more plants you can share with friends. You can collect them easily and relatively quickly and really have something nice.

“For me and the other growers, we know that eventually trichocereus will quit selling this well because everybody is growing their own. But they’ll come back — they always do. Plant crazes cycle, just like fashion. And the truth is that cactus gardening overall really has taken off. We got started out here as tomato growers but switched to cactus just as the big cactus surge started in the early 1970s. Back then we were the only growers in Tucson. Now we’re part of a community of local growers.”

The hardest thing for beginning cactus lovers is to learn not to baby their plants to death, Scannell says. Another important issue is to realize that many of these plants want some protection from full, all-day sun in the summer. Not all the cactus sold locally are native plants that evolved to thrive in local conditions. Planting in pots that can be moved around according to the season works out well for many people buying non-natives. Also, never underestimate how handy a native mesquite can be for providing just the right dappled shade that many cacti love.

Judith Ratliff, MLA, is a Tucson landscape designer. She can be reached at 577-7391 for comments.

Sources:

Cacti and Succulents: Tanque Verde Greenhouses,
www.tanqueverdegreenhouses.com
Metal-and-Glass Garden Art: Pattie and Mark Johnson,Glass Illusions Studio, www.glassillusionsstudio.com
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