by Guest Blogger Pam Penick of Digging
When I consult with clients about their likes and dislikes
among plants, so often the first thing they’ll mention is that they hate cacti,
yuccas, and agaves—anything with spines or sharp leaves. “I don’t want those in
my garden,” they’ll say firmly.
I aim to please, so I’ll omit from their designs many
wonderful, sculptural, evergreen plants like sotol, twist-leaf yucca, prickly
pear, and numerous varieties of agave that grow so well in Austin. I’ve used
all of these as accents in my own garden, and they not only perform wonderfully
in our harsh summer climate but also act as foils to the lusher perennials,
antique roses, ornamental grasses, and bulbs that populate the majority of my
garden. Now that I’ve tried them, I can’t imagine gardening without them.
Spineless prickly pear at the Natural Gardener. Photo © Pam
So I was thrilled to read Dan Hinkley’s latest article in Garden Design, “Design with Spine,” on page 87
(Mar 2007). The renowned plantsman lauds the cactus as a valuable if
misunderstood garden workhorse. Impressed by its toughness, adaptability (even
to extreme cold), and year-round interest, he has incorporated many hardy
varieties into his own Pacific Northwest garden. In the
right spot—full sun, well-drained soil—cacti and other water-thrifty plants
will thrive even in a damp climate like his.
The idea is not to make your garden look like a desert
moonscape. “It is in the integration of cacti amidst a more traditional mix of
herbaceous plants and shrubs that the ocular strengths of these remarkable
plants lie,” he writes.
What I love about cacti, yuccas, and agaves is that they
work well with so many different garden styles. In my own Texas-style cottage
garden, they provide some of the bones of my garden, their evergreen (or
eversilver) pads and toothy leaves remaining attractive even when all else is
winter-browned. Their sturdy, sculpted forms contrast beautifully with billowy,
flowery salvias and other perennials.
Agaves in the author’s garden. Photo © Pam Penick
In contemporary gardens, a solitary agave or yucca stands out as a bold focal point, especially against a background of feathery, soft-textured ornamental grasses.
Yucca in a container at Big Red Sun. Photo © Pam Penick
In native-plant gardens that are increasingly popular in
spiny plants prove remarkably useful not only for heat-blasted hell strips but
also in dry, partly shady areas. If you stroll along the greenbelts in Austin,
you’ll find small yuccas and prickly pear making do in the shade of oak trees,
and even some agaves will take partial shade. Siting these plants as they would
grow in the wild makes sense for regionally native gardens.
Obviously, cacti fit in well with the Texas vernacular, but Hinkley advises that they can be successfully worked into
more-verdant gardens throughout the U.S.
The trick is to use them sparingly and as accents. I like to pair prickly pear
with tough-as-nails antique roses (not thirsty ones), and I enjoy the rounded,
symmetrical shapes of agaves and yuccas against upright grasses and loosely
shaped, flowering perennials.
Spineless prickly pear and roses in the author’s garden.
Photo © Pam Penick
Cacti and agaves also make great potted plants because you
don’t have to water them very often; just be sure to pot them in a cactus mix
(loose soil and gravel), not regular potting soil.
Hinkley sings the praises of the prickly pear’s flowers, which he describes as “the combined confection of peonies, camellias and
orchids—in soft yellows, reds and corals.” But I find the flowers, fleetingly lovely as they are, secondary to the cactus’s true worth—its unusual, evergreen, often Dr. Seussian “foliage.” If you haven’t already tried one or two that are hardy in your area, I highly recommend it.
Prickly pear, salvia, and cypress at Stone House
Vineyard. Photo © Pam Penick