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Cactus and Succulents in Your Garden


At one time when we thought about succulents, we planted ice plant and perhaps some other type of ground cover such as ”hens and chickens”.  Not any more. I have 10 books in my library that talk about succulents and cacti.  Their only enemy, except for a few aphid and squirrels, is water and poor drainage.  The other problem that can occur would be temperatures that drop below 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  Even though we have suffered these rare untimely temperatures in the Bay Area, most of these plants survived and are now still thriving in our yards.  Succulents are found world wide.  Cactus is found only in the western countries from Alaska to Argentina.


For me to write an article on the botanical nomenclature of cactus and succulents would be an insult to botanists world wide.  With this in mind I will limit my discussion to some wonderful uses for them.  If you wish to delve further I will include some references at the end of this article.  Forty some odd years ago I purchased a nursery in San Rafael and the number one ground cover at that time was ice plant.  (Mesembryanthemum)  also known as Hottentot Fig. the new name is Carpobrotus edulus.  It was sold as a ground cover for hillsides because it was cheap and plentiful.  It could be started from cuttings that made it even less expensive.  For this reason, CalTrans, also known at that time as the California Road Authority, used ice plant along most all of the roads in the state.  There was one major problem with the planting of ice plant on slopes.  In winter the foliage became so full of water that it would pull its own root system out of the ground.  It wasn’t until it caused major sliding of hillsides that its use ceased. The use of Algerian ivy was substituted.  Unfortunately it too became a weed and required a lot of water to get started.  CalTrans now has reverted to shrub like plants on drip irrigation that is far more practical than a homogenous planting.  It is also more pleasant to look at. 


Let’s talk about the needs of succulents and cacti. Not all of them need full sun, in fact many hens and chickens” can tolerate almost complete shade.  I don’t recommend they be planted in shade in most cases, but it is a landscape idea. You may have inadvertently planted them in full sun only to have the pattern of the sun change so as to put them in the shade at different times of the year.  Planting succulents in containers will prevent such problems in that they can be moved. 


To start with I recommend several of the aloes.  These have outlandish bloom spikes and are winter hardy to 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  Aloe arborescence creates a large mound of grey foliage that can reach 10 feet tall.  It becomes drought tolerant after the first year.  It blooms in the late winter with large spikes of brilliant red spikes.  Aloe maculate is a shorter mass of succulent foliage with spikes of pink to red flowers.  Aloe vera is the medicinal aloe with healing power over burns and other skin and other ailments.  Another succulent group that I am fond of is echeveria, also sometimes called “hens and chickens.”  All form fleshy rosettes and bloom at various times of the year. These plants can be used in containers very effectively and require next to no care except occasional dividing.  I have mixed emotion about cacti in that they can get rather large, but for those who like prickly pear fruit, this is the one you should grow.  They take a lot of space so should be placed in the background of any garden, The Spanish missionaries planted  cactus as barriers around gardens to keep deer and cattle at bay.  Opuntia ficus-indica is the fruit bearing cactus pear.  Sedum is another succulent to consider for the garden.  Sedum ‘Autumn Glory’ is a favorite of many landscapers throughout the United States.  Sedum morganianum Donkey Tail is a very common variety found in many hanging baskets.  Several other sedums are collected for their wonderful foliage.  They all bloom at different times of the year. 


I should warn you, if you start looking at different cacti and succulents, you will be hooked and there is no saving you.  In certain parts of California they are the best landscape choice, especially if you live in areas where fire can ravage the country side.  In the recent fires in the south many succulent landscaped homes escaped the fires.  This is something to think about.  Here are some references you may wish to look at. 


Public Gardens

The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek:

The San Francisco Botanical Garden:

University of California Botanical Garden:




Succulent Gardens Castroville 831 624 0426



Designing with Succulents/ Baldwin/Timber Press

Hardy Succulents/Kelaidis/Story Books

Succulents/ Illustrated Dictionary/Timber Press

The Cactus Family/Anderson/Timber Press

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