My Cactus Garden

By Felice Prager

My Cactus Garden

To some, a garden must be lush and green with flowers and plants, a manicured lawn, bushes, hedges and trees. We had one of those when we lived in New Jersey. Our summer chores were focused on mowing, raking, trimming, cutting back, removing weeds and maintaining various projects we started. It was a labor of love, and it looked beautiful.

When we moved to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, however, we were aware that maintaining a garden would be nearly impossible. How could we get color in a backyard when water was a precious commodity and daily temperatures would burn most plants? When we built our house, the landscapers we hired tried to recreate New Jersey in our backyard – and we tried to maintain it. We had a lawn that we mowed when it was 110 degrees in the shade. We filled in dried patches with seed where the sun burned through what had been there. We covered it with burlap to protect the seed. We planted things only to eventually realize that if something isn’t indigenous to this area, it will be difficult to keep it alive. We had a drip system to keep our bushes and plants healthy, but one by one, everything we planted died. We thought our neighbors had more luck than we did with their yards, until we saw them putting in new plants – just like the old ones.

Then, we had a revelation. The revelation was fifteen years in the making, but we decided since WE saw beauty in the desert, we should try to focus on THAT instead of trying to recreate what we used to know. With the teal blue sky adorned by wisps of clouds as a backdrop and burnished mountains sweeping the horizon, we decided to create a picture-postcard paradise in the desert right in our own backyard.

The concept is called xeriscaping – planting with little or no need for water. According to the State of Arizona Department of Water Resources, xeriscaping can take on many different looks depending upon the gardener’s taste. The idea is to decrease the harsh effects of the desert climate and increase energy efficiency by understanding the challenges and options available. We opted for the most minimalist approach. We wanted our yard to look natural – like the desert it used to be before man decided to cut it into developments. We wanted people to see our yard as a continuation of the desert arroyos adjacent to it.

We started by removing the lawn. It was not environmentally correct by any stretch of the imagination to use so much water. In its place, we decorated with sand, stones and boulders. We transplanted cacti that had outgrown pots and put them into the ground. We did a great deal of research and learned which plants required full (intense) sunlight and which required shade or defused sunlight. Everything required little or no watering. The concept was – if it needed more than a bucket a month, it didn’t fit into the plan. In fact, after planting the cacti, I became very aware of rain or lack of rain. I watered each plant (in the hot summer months) on the first of the month – unless it had rained. What I noticed over time was that I didn’t have to water anything if it belonged in the desert. Nature would provide. Over-watering tended to rot out the roots. To my surprise, everything produced by nature gave back presents. Cacti that just grew a little in pots grew huge in the ground. Some even flowered when they hadn’t in pots. What started as rocks and some little plants is now a cactus garden of enviable proportion. In addition, each of our plants attracts birds and our bird population increased. We now have hummingbirds, finches, cardinals, Gamble’s quail, Gila woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers and dozens of other bird species visiting. We even attract migrating birds just flying through our little corner of paradise.

Many cacti also have another positive trait. If a cactus becomes overgrown, you can carefully remove a piece of it and plant it elsewhere. These cuttings grow into brand new plants. In fact, if someone is visiting and comments on my cactus garden, I say, “Which is your favorite?” and I send them home with a cutting from it.

Like most Arizonans, we also have a swimming pool, which most of us who live in the desert find to be a necessity when it’s 115 degrees outside. Having xeriscaping helps me feel less guilty about the water a pool uses.

My favorite of all my plants is my cereus in the front of my house. When we planted it about twenty years ago, it was about eighteen inches high and only had one stalk. I have a photo of my sons standing next to it on the first day of school – both looking pretty miserable since vacation was over. In the photo, both boys are taller than the plant. Today, the plant is taller than my house and has about twenty arms. I watch this plant more than all the others. It often gets scattered buds on the various arms. As these become larger, they bloom. The last time the cereus flowered, we had 61 flowers – yes, I counted. It takes about ten days from start to finish for one bud to become a flower. The flower opens slowly at sunset to a five-inch white flower. I’ve read that bats like them, but I haven’t gone out to see them because I’m not a bat fan. In the morning, bees are drinking their last taste of cereus nectar, and by about 8 am when the sun is on them, they have completed their life cycle. Then the flowers wither and die – and from the root of the flower, a piece of cactus fruit forms – more food for those who live in the desert.

This morning, I went out to get the newspaper, and there was one flower opened on my cereus. As I stood and admired it, a new neighbor walked by with her dog. She asked me what type of plant it was, and I told her. She told me she planned to re-landscape her property with a more natural look than the previous owners had. I just went to her house and handed her a small cutting from my cereus. I told her the plant’s history, and together, we planted it in her front yard. When she asked me what she had to do to keep it alive, I told her the truth: “Leave it alone. Admire it. Appreciate the beauty of the desert.”

About this writer

  • Felice Prager Felice Prager is a freelance writer and multisensory educational therapist from Scottsdale, Arizona. She is the author of five books: Waiting in the Wrong Line, Negotiable and Non-Negotiable Negotiations, TurboCharge Your Brain, SuperTurboCharge Your Brain, and Quiz It: ARIZONA. Her essays have been published locally, nationally and internationally in print and on the Internet. Learn more at

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