Category Archives: Cactus

Apprenticeship and the Know-Nothings

An emotional dichotomy of actual knowledge vs. expectation.

Image by monica_vatalaro via McKenna Hynes

Hello friends. My name is McKenna, and I’m a plant murderer. There. I said it. Got it out of the way. It’s the sentiment that creeps on me whenever I find myself in the company of OG MG’s. I often feel fraudulent, or like I won’t ever have enough information, or that I’m simply wrong. Vulnerability can be quite uncomfortable, can’t it? So, in this maiden post, before I can publicly embrace my love for gardening, and how I’m still pretty bad at it–I’ve just got to get this one out of the way. Mastery is a misnomer, I’m here to learn and connect, and grow–ideas, feelings, and hopefully some plants.

I am a 2019 Apprentice Colorado Master Gardener and have been patiently awaiting the new growing season (I think we’ve finally made it, right?) by stewing in my own self-doubt and wild ideas. What about moss instead of lawn? Why do my houseplants always struggle–let’s be real, 50/50 shot of survival–after I transplant? I’ve wanted to be a Master Gardener for ten years, and when I finally acquired a flexible schedule, I dove right in and devoured the curriculum. When classes were over, I took pause and thought I don’t feel any smarter. Or better. In fact, I feel like I know less now because now I know the breadth of how impossibly huge the knowledge base for this light, relaxing, and joyful “hobby” can be. Merely dabbling in entomology, ornithology, edaphology, biology, and botany. No worries. No things to be worried about here. Just taking on some of the most vast and complicated sciences for fun on the weekends sometimes. Gulp. Cue the continued fraudulent feels.

Image via McKenna Hynes

I acquired my first hours as an apprentice CMG at the Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society’s annual plant show in April. I knew no one and wasn’t a member, but somehow got word of the show and volunteered anyway. The show is magnificent; put it on your calendar for 2020. There was a cactus that was over 20 ft tall, cacti over 25 years in the making, blooms in every shade of wow, and some of the finest ceramicists slinging their genius with complimentary repotting. Ten minutes before the doors opened for the mob to pillage the room, I hear a man in a brightly colored, southwestern-ish shirt and a funky Australian-looking cowboy hat start shouting that he needed a volunteer. I don’t recall his name, but he was one of the vendors who raised and planted gorgeous succulent baskets. He needed assistance in applying the price tags to several flats of plants. While quickly pricing the items, he abruptly asked me if I was a biologist. I nearly guffawed at the thought and said no, but I am an Apprentice Master Gardener. He had no idea what that was and asked what I like about plants. I blurted that I liked knowing about them and learning how to care for them, and I experiment somewhat unsuccessfully. He stopped, made deliberate eye contact with me, and stated with the seriousness of Stalin, that “plants have been thriving for millions of years without us. If there’s something wrong with your plants, it’s your fault.” I was a bit dumbfounded… then embarrassed… then conceded. He’s totally right. What a relief! Somehow, I still find this comforting, and use it to further propel my desire for more discourse. It’s that just keep swimming idea.  

I work full-time so, out of necessity, I needed to find alternative ways to get some hours. I connected with this blog and decided to put my insecurities and self-doubt aside to start posting. I’m going to write about my own path to the garden, Colorado, water-wise gardening, creativity in design and functionality, mindfulness and plant identification, and lawn removal! I flooded my own inbox with ideas and links and resources and then stared into the chaos without blinking for several minutes wondering how a person gets started.

And then, I procrastinated. I sat down to write and couldn’t. Ah yes, again, hello incertitude. All of a sudden, the struggle to get anything down was perpetually defeated by my own insecurity that I have no expertise, I don’t know anything, I have nothing to offer, and I can’t write. And I’m probably a terrible human being. Hold. Up. Take pause, woman! This isn’t real, and it certainly isn’t true. A quick rabbit hole visit to explore Imposter Syndrome, and I’m back in the saddle. Blog post or not, here it comes….

The title [Apprentice] Master Gardener holds a lot of expectation, maybe for ourselves, but also for our community. A shift at a farmers market will show you that folks see our sign and make a beeline to talk plants–or honeybees without stingers in Costa Rica; or relatives who work for the Extension Office in another state; or to ask the world’s most complicated diagnostic question, to which you have no idea where to even begin except to breathe and look about furtively for another CMG for backup. But we are also volunteers, and many of us are quite new to the field; armed with eagerness, child-like wonder, and a passion to share what we’ve learned. I’m always amazed when a fellow CMG comrade can pull the most perfect answer out of their hat that is informative, accurate, and easily digestible. So grateful to be in this with folks like you.

Hello, my name is McKenna. I’ve killed a lot of plants. I’ve also learned a lot about them. I’ve shared bold ideas, and resources, and connected with new friends with the information I’m learning. Did you know there is a magical woman in Denver who has a hydroponic garden on top of a building downtown where she is growing oodles of greens to be used in her restaurant? (As far as I’m concerned, she is a mythical creature that I’m trying to track down. PM me with serious leads only, please.) I’ll be posting on this blog here and there to supplement my own education, to investigate some of my wild ideas, and to encourage others to talk to one another and connect and share. That initial writer’s block was plain and simple fear. But I’m finding just noticing it and calling it what it is, helps me realize my goal as a(n) [A]CMG is not at all to be an expert or to provide expertise. I’m here to explore and share what I’ve found. Happy Monday, folks. Let’s do some learning.

By McKenna Hynes

Apprentice Colorado Master Gardener since January 2019

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It’s Winter and, Yet, I Dream of Cactuses

It’s January.  As I write, it’s cold.  It’s snowing.  The garden is frozen solid.  There isn’t much that can be done out in the garden.  But indoors, we can do a lot of thinking about and planning for about our gardens.  For me, this also includes thinking back to what has already been achieved. My special joy has been planning, making and planting my “desert garden”.

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Prickly pear peeks out of the snow

Having gained my gardening skills and horticultural knowledge in the temperate south of England, I was excited on moving to Colorado to try my hand at growing these interesting, drought tolerant plants.  Cactuses in England are generally small prickly jobs which sulk year-round in dry pots on the windowsill, gathering cobwebs.  I knew virtually nothing about them when I came to live in the USA.  My husband wasn’t much better; he told me he knew his cactuses had been over-watered when he saw mushrooms growing in their pots!

Call it what you will – rock garden, trough garden, crevice garden, desert garden. From big deserts to tiny tufa troughs, cactuses and succulents can be grown and enjoyed in many situations.  I know it’s the middle of winter right now, but I’m thinking of the sunny joy of seeing the Community Heroes Crevice Garden in Arvada and the new steppe gardens at Denver Botanic Gardens in the summer of 2016.  These showed me what could be achieved.  And as I gaze at the tips of Opuntia (prickly pear and cholla) plants poking through the snow in my front yard today, I am in awe at the extremes these amazing plants can tolerate.

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Opuntia x pinkavae

 

 

Our front yard faces north, not auspicious for cactus growing, but safely out of bounds to the dog and small grandchildren, and raised up above the sidewalk, so safely out of reach of passers-by.  The area I designated to be the “desert garden” is about 20 x 10 feet, bisected by the path from the sidewalk to the front door.  Despite its northerly aspect, this area does get a lot of sunshine from spring to fall.  A minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily is recommended for cactuses.  When we moved in, this part of the garden was just a boring flat patch of clay soil with rather elderly wood mulch strewn over it.  Again, not exactly the well-drained, lean (in terms of nutrients) soil usually associated with cactuses.  But I like a challenge!

To get things started, I raked off the wood mulch and underlying landscape fabric to reveal a flat, compacted, grey soil surface covered in the wriggling, white stems of bindweed like ghostly spaghetti.  I pulled as much of the bindweed as possible. Then to create some height and slopes I dug and shaped the soil into small hills sloping down towards the sidewalk.  We inherited hundreds of large granite boulders with the back yard, so my son and husband hauled a couple of dozen out to the front for me.  I chose the most attractive boulders and made sure they were of similar or complementary colors.  These were placed on the slopes, either singly as “specimen boulders” or in groups forming little “canyons” in which I could plant.

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Rocks, soil, river rock and neighbor’s turf

The slopes help to ensure rain (when we get it) runs off quickly so the plants don’t sit in puddles.  Pockets of water are trapped by the boulders giving little damp areas against the boulders and allowing water to slowly trickle down into the soil below.  To improve the soil drainage further, I dug in a couple of trailers’ worth of “squeegee” to a depth of approx. six to eight inches.  This is the name around here (I gather) for crushed gravel.  It is pinkish in tone and halfway between pea gravel and sand in size. Areas of small river rock (obtained for free from a neighboring garden which was being “re-done” – I love a freebie!) were laid as a transition from the “desert” to the greener area of the yard and the sidewalk.  After planting, a thick layer of pure squeegee was used as a mulch over the whole area.  This has been very effective at keeping the bindweed at bay, helped by merciless hand pulling of any little shoots that do make it to the surface.

The choosing of plants followed considerable book research, web browsing and advice from local nurserymen.  I used a mix of cactuses, succulents, grasses, small drought-tolerant perennials and bulbs.  Naturally, none of these are hot-house types.  They are all cold hardy down to at least Zone 4.  For many of them their natural environment is arid mountain-sides in Arizona and New Mexico where they bake in the summer and freeze in the winter. A couple of dwarf pines provide year-round green and structure.  (I had to remind myself that these two needed regular watering, unlike the rest of the desert garden, as they are young trees, albeit small.)

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Pinus mugo var. pumilio

Planting took place in June 2015, so these plants are now “enjoying” their second winter in our garden.  They spent two and a half months under snow in winter 2015/6 and came up smiling in spring 2016.  There were just two losses, both small Yuccas which had rotted at the crown.  Fortunately, I had extras safely potted up behind the house, so they were immediately replaced.

For the first summer, I watered maybe twice a week, using the mist spray on the hose head.  The second summer, 2016, I did not water at all.  The winter snow that laid on the area for two or three months or more, had provided a good reservoir of moisture which saw the garden right through the summer.

The immediate effect after planting was of a lot of very small plants stranded in a gravelly desert.  I believe in buying small and being patient for a year or two while the plants bulk up, seed around and acclimatise to their environment.

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Just planted, June 2015

 

And, now, after another summer, they are starting to do so.  I see little “pups” on the Echinocereus.  There are Sedum and Stachys seedlings. The stars are the Opuntias (tree chollas and prickly pears) and the Delospermas.  These have grown quickly and the Delospermas were carpets of jewel-like flowers for months on end.  Dianthus and Artemisias are soft foils to their prickly companions. Groups of Nasella tennuissima provide a feathery backdrop and transition to greener and moister plantings at the rear.  The gentle movement of these grasses is a nice contrast to the static cactuses. The little species tulips ‘Persian Pearl’ popped up beautiful purple-red blooms with yellow centers in spring.  I hope to see more of these this coming spring.

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Tulipa pulchella @Persian Pearl’

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Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’

 

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Summer, 2016 (after the hail storm had knocked off all the flowers!)

 

Now it is getting established, it really doesn’t require a lot work.  No watering if we have enough snow in winter.  Minimal weeding.  A gentle blow-off of leaves and some careful extracting of same from the Opuntias’ prickles with the kitchen tongs once in the fall.  That’s it.

I love my desert garden and see passers-by enjoying it too and that just adds to the pleasure for me.

PS:  Cactus? Cacti? Cactuses?  Who knows … ?? Who cares … !!

Anne Hughes/a Denver County Master Gardener

https://communityheroesgarden.jimdo.com/

http://www.botanicgardens.org/

www.coloradocactus.org

Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate by Gwen Moore Kelaidis. Publisher: Storey Publishing.

Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates by Leo J Chance. Publisher: Timber Press

Plant List

Cactuses

Echinocereus coccineus

Echinocereus triglochidiatus ‘White Sands’

Escobaria forcottei ‘Koenesii’

Agave utahensis var. kiahabensis

Tree cholla – Opuntia imbricata var. arborescens ‘White Tower’

Tree cholla – Opuntia arborescens var. viridifloa ‘Santa Fe’

Creeping cholla – Opuntia clavata

Prickly pear – Opuntia x pinkavae

Texas red yucca – Hesperaloe parviflora

Yucca flacida ‘Bright Edge’

Herbaceous perennials, bulbs and grass

Dusty miller/artemisia – Artemisia ‘Beth Chatto’ & Artemisia absinthium ‘Silver Frost’

Woolly thyme – Thymus pseudolanuginosus

Yarrow – Achillea sps. various

Sedum- Sedum spectabile various

Pinks- Dianthus sps. various + garden cuttings

Rock rose – Helianthemum sp.

Ice plants – Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’ &  ?

Two row stonecrop – Sedum spurium ‘Tricolor’

Other stonecrops – ‘Vera Jameson’, ‘Lidakense’, ‘Angelina’

Mullein – Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’

Lambs ears – Stachys byzantinus

Feathergrass – Nassella tenuissima ‘Ponytails’

Species tulip – Tulipa pulchella ‘Persian Pearl’

Trees 

Dwarf mugo pine – Pinus mugo  var. pumilio

Dwarf mugo pine – Pinus mugo ‘Teeny’