For inspiration from or indoctrination into the amazing world of succulents, look no further than the Desert Garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Its 10-plus acres are home to 4,000 different kinds of cacti and succulents, grown in a naturalistic landscape setting. (Succulents are plants that store moisture to survive drought; most cacti are succulents.) With parts of the garden nearly 100 years old, the collection has long been a plant proving ground for garden designers.
Appeal: Call it living geometry—the dramatic shapes of cactus, the elegant arrangements of succulent spines are endlessly fascinating. Also prized are such things as the soft pastel colors of kalanchoe and shimmering sheets of flowering “mesembs” (from mesembryanthemum, meaning “noonday flowering”), in the dead of winter. Perhaps best of all is a dull-looking cactus bursting forth with spectacular red flowers that attract more photographers than insects.
Zones: The Huntington is in USDA Zone 10. Most succulents are good outdoors in Zones 9-10. Some yuccas and opuntias tolerate winter conditions typical of southern Canada. Consider cacti and succulents for movable containers in colder climates.
Exposure: Full sun is best for hardy Southwest natives. Soft-leaved succulents (such as kalanchoe) prefer filtered afternoon light. In general, select a site offering full sun in the morning, light shade in the afternoon.
Soil: Most succulents prefer raised beds or rockeries. Sandy loam is ideal, allowing water to drain quickly. Improve heavy soil by adding equal amounts of coarse builder’s sand and gravel.
Care: The rule of thumb is, water when soil is dry. But unthirsty barrel cacti require water at intervals of just one to two months and none at all during the winter. Fertilize in spring and summer with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer.
TIPS FOR USING SUCCULENTS
1. When transplanting or potting cacti, use the thickest welder’s gloves you can find.
2. Check with your neighbors before setting out prickly or large specimens, such as opuntia, on property lines.
3. On a similar point, be sure you know the size to which your plants will grow. Provide plenty of room for agaves and yuccas, and don’t position them close to paths. Ouch!
4. Subtropical types, such as kalanchoe, look best in tropical situations rather than hot, dry regions. Work them in with shade-loving plants.
5. Agave, aloe and opuntia—planted as large accents—add sculptural drama to a waterwise garden.
Photography by Jennifer Cheung.
Huntington Botanical Gardens: (626) 405-2100; www.huntington.org