Cacti are having a moment. You need only check Pinterest to see the phenomenon unfold before your eyes—a quick search will bring hours of inspired images. No one, it seems, can resist their charms, especially not our cacti-crazy mayor, Annise Parker, who’s known this day was coming for a long time.
“Over the years I have grown ferns, orchids, and cactus,” she tells us via email. “I have been a member of the Houston Cactus and Succulent Society for 25 years. I love the variety and the fact that they are easy to grow.”
Notice the distinction Her Honor and the HCSS make. While all cacti are succulents, a succulent isn’t necessarily a cactus, and though the differences between the two have likely occasioned hours of heated debate and/or cactus-hurling at the HCSS, it impacts the average gardener not a jot. The thing to remember is that succulents store water in their plump leaves or stems to survive dry conditions. Very hardy in the right environment, they’re known as “zero care” plants—magic to the casual gardener’s ears—and local nurseries say they’re selling faster than ever.
But Jack Casey, the Texas landscaper known as Cactus Jack, cautions against taking those words literally. “With the drought we’ve been in in the last couple of years, my name comes up with ‘zero care.’ I get people calling me up, asking, ‘What is xeriscaping? Doesn’t it mean no maintenance, no water?’ But everything has maintenance.”
A buzzword in gardening circles these days, xeriscaping involves creating a garden out of drought-tolerant plants that are slow to grow. It saves water (succulents need far less than other species), time (they don’t need to be pruned or pampered nearly as much), and money (they require less fertilizer, fewer pesticides, less water). With more than 20 years of experience caring for palms, cacti, yuccas, agaves, and other succulents, most native to Texas, Casey knows a thing or two about xeriscaping, especially where cacti are concerned.
Despite the recent drought, he says, the challenge in Houston is making sure they’re not overwatered. “Cactus, they like to get wet, but they don’t want to stand in water.” They should be planted in raised beds with moss rock around the edges, and in sandier soil that allows water to filter.
Gumbo notwithstanding, planting cacti makes plenty of sense in Houston. “Water is becoming more and more valuable of a commodity,” says Casey. “People that have St. Augustine grass and azaleas need added volumes of water in order for them to stay healthy. With your succulents and your cacti, blended with other materials and shrubbery, you can create a beautiful garden and landscaping that’s going to take 20 to 30 percent less water than most gardens.” “You take a handful of fresh soil and squeeze it like a snowball,” Casey advises. “When you open your hand, if it stays together, it’s too tight for you to grow cactus. It should have sand or pebbles. Most of Houston is gumbo—you can’t just plant them in the ground and expect them to be healthy.”
Needless to say, Mayor Parker is a fan. “The office building my partner and I own on Montrose is landscaped with yuccas and cacti,” she says. “We have worked to eliminate as much grass as possible at every house we have owned in Houston. If more Houstonians would give up on the idea of broad green spaces and, instead, plant flowers or gardens that attract butterflies and bees, it would be better for our environment.”
Those with limited space should know that cacti and succulents also work well in potted containers, sometimes even indoors. (Increasingly, interior designers are using them as “green” centerpieces.) Cacti-stocked terrariums are popping up everywhere from fancy furniture stores to avant-garde art galleries to farmers’ markets. Buy one or make your own. Thanks to cactomania, instructional videos are proliferating on YouTube.
Just don’t tell Cactus Jack that cactus gardening is in fashion. “It’s not trendy,” he insists, citing as evidence the fact that he’s been into it for so long. He does admit, however, that back when he got started, “the guys that were dealing with native plants were considered weird.”
Well, not anymore.