Southwest Gardens — With or Without Cactus

A Southwest garden in the Pacific Northwest — is that possible? Well, maybe not a true cactus garden, but a Southwest-style garden can be achieved with many plants that will survive the Rogue Valley's cold wet winters.

"There is at least one true cactus here," says Rob Griffiths, manager of Southern Oregon Nursery in Medford — a huge patch of prickly pear cactus growing on a hillside above Applegate Road just before you reach Star Ranger Station. He says it's been there for many years and has survived temperatures down to 15 degrees. Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) is found not only in the desert, but also in mountainous areas on steep, dry, rocky slopes.

succulent propagation

You can share most of your Southwest-style plants with admiring friends and gardeners. Though difficult to start from seed, the prickly pear cactus can easily be propagated by taking cuttings off its thick, fleshy pads. This is best done in dry weather to prevent fungus. Let the cut end dry out of the sun for 10 days to form a protective callous, then plant in cactus soil or sand. Water these and other seedlings when dry.

Agave and yucca tubers and offsets can be divided and replanted after allowing the cut surface to callous over. If you're a seed grower, agave seeds can be collected from the pods after they have been allowed to dry.

The hardy ice plants (Delosperma) and sedums are among the easiest to start from simply cutting off a piece and rooting it in water, moist sand or straight into soil. Rooting compounds may be used, but are not necessary. The proliferous "hens and chicks" can be shared by merely separating the offshoots, or "chicks," from around the original rosette, which is the "hen." The chicks may have already rooted around the hen, but if not, are easily rooted in their new home.

If you keep your eyes open, a number of Rogue Valley homes have used the hardiness of the prickly pear to create cactus gardens. In addition, a Southwest-style garden can incorporate a fabulous assortment of succulents, ice plant and stonecrops (Sedum) readily available in the Rogue Valley.

Brightly colored ice plant (Delosperma) has evergreen, compact, fleshy foliage and is hardy to minus 15 degrees. D. nubigenum has yellow daisy-like flowers and its foliage turns a beautiful bronze-red color in the fall. D. cooperi's flowers are purple. 'Starburst' has 2-inch purple flowers with a dazzling white center, says Griffiths. All hardy varieties of ice plant like well-drained soil, full sun, and are drought-tolerant.

A patch of prickly pear cactus lives on Valley View Drive in Ashland, according to Victoria Eckart, houseplant specialist at Ray's Garden Center in Ashland, but she agrees most true cacti need to be brought inside for winter. She sells beautiful 'Golden Barrel' cactus, (Echinocactus grusonii), but warns they are not winter-hardy.

"If you want the look of cactus outdoors," she says, "look at members of the agave and yucca families." Agave schidigera is a very spiny plant with very sharp tips that look (and feel) just like a cactus. The variety 'Durango Delight' has a tall flower stalk loaded with purple flowers. Agave is hardy to 15 degrees.

Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is another spiny, cactus-like native of the desert. Hardy to zero degrees, it sends up beautiful stems of red flowers attractive to hummingbirds. A yellow variety is also available.

Your succulent garden can include any of the hundreds of varieties of sedum. "We have lots of sedums in lots of colors," says Griffiths. From thick, fleshy leaves to fine fern-like foliage, sedums can be blood red or lime green, variegated and bi-colored. 'Angelina' variety starts out green, turns yellow, then bright orange in winter. 'Coral Reef' also has lots of lime green and red color, according to Griffiths. 'Tricolor' stonecrop has green rosette leaves edged in pink and sports pink flowers.

Perhaps the most familiar sedum is commonly called "hens and chicks" from its habit of growing little baby plants all around the center plant. It's not exactly invasive, but "needs to be planted in a place it can spread nicely," says Eckart.

Add some boulders and gravel around your plants and you might feel like you're in the desert Southwest. Eckart says the gravel not only serves as dramatic desert-like background for the plants, but is also good for drainage. All of these plants must have excellent drainage, especially in winter. They like hot, sunny areas and are mostly drought-tolerant, although they will appreciate a little water in the hottest weather.

So, you'll have to do without a towering saguaro, but a succulent garden will set a scene compatible with our triple-digit summer temperature. Now, a cool iced drink anyone?

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