Home & Garden

Plucked from the gutter, cactus proves why you might want its kind in your garden

Pat Allen’s first cactus was a foundling. It’s survived 28 years since she retrieved it from the street.
Pat Allen’s first cactus was a foundling. It’s survived 28 years since she retrieved it from the street. rbyer@sacbee.com

Succulents and cactuses can grow on you.

Pat Allen knows that. The longtime Antelope resident has more than 400 in her collection.

“I still have the first cactus I ever got,” she said. “I found it in the gutter in the street, just a little piece of a thing, but I couldn’t pass it up. So, I brought it home and put it in a pot.”

That was 28 years ago. That little cactus still grows in a pot in a place of honor in Allen’s desert-inspired garden.

“It’s probably the ugliest cactus you’ll ever see,” she said with a chuckle, “but it just shows how tough cactus can be.”

Allen is not alone in her devotion to these unusual plants. Succulents continue to be one of America’s hottest gardening trends. Cactuses, their more prickly cousins, are gaining in popularity as well.

Hundreds of varieties will be on display Saturday-Sunday, May 20-21, during the 41st annual Carmichael Cactus and Succulent Show and sale at the Carmichael Park Clubhouse. It’s a great opportunity to learn about different varieties – and bring some home, too.

Like these low-water plants themselves, their allure is multidimensional. In temperate climates such as California, succulents and cactuses are the ultimate in easy care. Most varieties grow very slowly and need little (if any) pruning, trimming or maintenance. With fleshy leaves or stems, they have built-in drought resistance. Naturally long-lived, they can thrive on neglect.

“If you want to plant plants that you don’t have to worry about, grow agaves,” Allen said, referring to her favorite succulents. “They’re tough.”

Their sculptural form makes them an interesting contrast to other plants as does their foliage, which ranges from ice blue to virtually black. Their colorful flowers look like neon-hued fantasies.

As for water needs, succulents and cactuses need only a sip.

“The amount of water they need depends on the time of year,” Allen said. “In the heat of summer, I water every eight days; just a little, don’t flood! Right now, I’m watering every 10 to 11 days. I use a water sensor to see if they need it at all.”

As easy as these plants are to grow, this last winter was challenging for succulent and cactus lovers. It was too wet.

“I lost a lot of really good plants,” said Rancho Cordova’s Norm Klein, a renown cactus collector and another member of the Carmichael club. “There was too much rain. They rotted.”

Allen spent many hours moving her potted plants to spots under eaves or overhangs where they were protected from the winter deluge. The potted cactuses all went in her garage.

“We really needed the rain,” she said, “but it was awful.”

However, some succulents benefited from winter storms, particularly those planted in the ground.

“My agaves have never looked this good,” she said. “My opuntia (prickly pear), it’s the first time in four or five years that it’s put out a new spur. The sempervivums went absolutely nuts; they’ve grown like crazy. The dasylirion (spoon yucca) looks incredible; it has to be the rain.”

Succulents and cactuses demand good drainage. If they can avoid sitting in water, they survive rainy seasons just fine.

According to succulents expert and author Debra Lee Baldwin (“Designing with Succulents”), rotted leaves can be a problem after a wet winter. Remove those mushy leaves before the rot spreads to the stem and crown.

“I use premixed cactus and succulent soil for my pots,” Allen said. “They like a sandy soil but no moss or peat; that retains too much water. That creates rot.”

Frost is the other major threat, Allen noted.

“The jade plants and several of the other common succulents … can’t take a freeze,” Allen said, “but agaves could care less.”

Succulents with thinner leaves tend to be more susceptible to frost damage than those with thicker leaves, she noted. But be careful how you take this measurement. Succulents, particularly agaves, can have sharp spines and edges.

“After heavy frost, cut the dead parts off in spring,” Allen instructed. “New growth will take its place.”

Most succulents – even those that look extra crispy from frost burn – will come back, she added.

“If we have four days with nights at 26 degrees or below, we’ll sustain a lot of loss,” she said. “But usually, you can still save the plant after frost. People give up, but hang in there with your plant. Give it a chance.”

Keeping her collection mostly potted also keeps her plants from becoming too large, she noted.

“They tend to get a lot bigger when planted in the ground,” Allen said. “Some of the agaves such as the common blue Agave americana can get as big as a house. By restricting their roots, they stay a lot smaller.”

For beginners, Allen recommends echeverias and sempervivums. These succulents look similar, forming neat rosettes with their rigid leaves.

“Echeverias have to be the easiest thing there is to grow,” Allen said. “There are at least 20, 30 different types commonly available with different colors, form and flowers, each a little different. Sempervivums are almost as easy and just as pretty.”

The most common mistake? Too much sun, Allen said. The leaves can become brown and sunburned.

“People think succulents want full sun, but actually they prefer something less,” she said. “My plants get two to three hours of sun a day, that’s all.

“My biggest problem is not the sun but wind; wind can dry plants out faster than anything,” she added. “So, I try to keep my plants protected from too much wind.”

Allen moves her plants around until they find the right mix of sun and shade. She knows she’s found the sweet spots for her succulents by the way they look.

“Sometimes, they seem to sulk if they’re getting too much sun,” she said. “In the shade, they’ll perk right up. I know then they’re happy.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

41st annual Carmichael Cactus and Succulent Show

Where: Carmichael Park Clubhouse, 5750 Grant Ave., Carmichael

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, May 20; 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 21

Cost: Free; free plants to first 100 guests each day

Information: www.ccandss.com