Hooked on cactuses, succulents as drought busters

SUN CITY ROSEVILLE, Calif. — For two decades, a small strip of property sat vacant between two homes in Sun City Roseville. Weedy and needy, the parcel had been dubbed “green space” with a patch of unused turf and lanky shrubs. But during the prolonged drought, it turned into an unloved water-hogging eyesore.

“It was awful!” said Sandie Garcia, who has lived next to the plot for 15 years. “It was very high maintenance and used a lot of water. It had lost its beauty.”

Then, a group of gardeners got an idea. Wouldn’t this be a perfect spot for a cactus and succulent garden?

Almost overnight, a no man’s land turned into a desert-themed oasis. And Sun City Roseville got its newest demonstration garden.

“I love it,” Garcia said. “We get to look at it every day.”

This desert garden also serves as a showcase for how the naturally drought-tolerant plants can create an interesting low-water landscape for residents’ own homes, noted succulents expert Pat Allen, who joined local garden club members in donating plants for the project.

“We were thrilled to death to help,” said Allen, a longtime member of the Carmichael Cactus and Succulent Society. “We love it when people want to grow our favorites.”

After four years of drought, such water-wise makeovers have become increasingly popular.

Sun City’s landscape staff wholeheartedly endorsed the idea.

“We’ve been transitioning these little spaces into themed gardens,” said Jim Ferrin, Sun City Roseville’s director of landscapes. “We’ve been pretty successful trying to block out a variety of garden types such as a Mediterranean garden or butterfly garden.”

After Ferrin saw a new cactus garden in a Sun City frontyard, he was hooked. “I thought, that looks really, really cool,” he said. “And I had this particular area in mind.”

Ferrin got together with Dave Breninger and the members of the Sun City Roseville Garden Club. They were game, but had little experience with desert plants.

“Then, we found these wonderful cactus experts, the best working in Sacramento,” Ferrin said.

“This was a case of two garden clubs coming together and helping each other,” said Breninger, president of the Sun City Roseville garden club.

For the demonstration garden, Norm Klein of the Carmichael cactus club donated several large specimens from his own collection. Klein, who grows thousands of these plants at his home in Rancho Cordova, also drew up the garden design.

“They let me play in their ballpark,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

“Obviously, Norm did an incredible job,” Ferrin added.

Members of the two garden clubs took care of transplanting. Cactus club members such as Klein and Allen donated most of the plants. Sun City’s landscape crew took care of the heaviest lifting. Large boulders were relocated from Sun City’s golf course.

The biggest expense (and chore) was spreading tons of decorative rock as mulch and ground cover. The 1,200-square-foot garden needed 10 cubic yards of “Sonoma Gold” rock.

“Our original budget was about $10,000,” Klein said, “but we came in way, way under; about $3,500.”

Just six weeks after transplanting, these yucca, agave, golden barrel, prickly pear, echeveria, cereus and many more specimens have become established in their new home.

“Just look at all those flower buds,” said Klein, who coordinated the planting. “They’re already blooming, they’re so happy.”

Klein prefers to transplant cactuses and succulents in early spring after the threat of winter storms usually has passed. Too much water can rot these desert natives.

“Two days after we planted, we got six inches of rain,” Klein said. “I was so worried; I thought they were goners. But they really surprised me; they look great.”

Cacti and succulents aren’t too picky about soil, he noted. “We didn’t have to do anything special; they’re just planted in plain dirt. I’ve got hardpan at my home and my plants do fine.”

This 3,100-home retirement community uses reclaimed water for almost all of its outdoor irrigation, Ferrin said. But for this new garden, there’s no drip system; the cacti don’t need it. Irrigation by hand every other week is plenty.

“I water by hand like it’s raining on them,” Klein said. “Not too much; just enough to get the dirt off them.”

Once people become familiar with these plants, they’re hard to resist, noted Allen, who grows hundreds of succulents at her home.

“We’re very excited about the reaction to this garden,” she said. “A lot of people are going, ‘Wow!’ ”

That includes Richard Lindsay, one of the garden volunteers. A member of Sun City’s garden club, Lindsay helped plant the new demonstration garden. Then, he asked the cactus and succulent experts if they could come over to his own house and transform his front yard, too.

That’s exactly what they did.

“It took us five hours,” Klein said with a smile.

Lindsay already had pots of succulents to accent his home’s entryway. After catching the cactus bug, he joined the Carmichael club, too.

“We expect about a 15 percent total water reduction from the new cactus garden, more after the plants are established,” Lindsay said. “My yard has already had blooms.”

With the popularity of the new Clearview garden, Ferrin invited the club members to tackle other spots at Sun City Roseville. They just planted a swath of succulents in what had been turf in the community’s contemplation garden. Next winter and spring, they plan to tackle more makeovers.

Said Ferrin, “I expect to see more gardens like this in Sun City. People really like them.”