August 12th, 2008
Can a Prickly Garden Be Inviting?

cactus and succulent garden
Jeff and Ray’s garden is below street level made of terraces built into steep hillside.

I grew up in two extreme climates: the desert of the American southwest and the tropics of the Philippines (and semi-tropics of Okinawa). On the various Air Force bases on which I lived, we had no gardens. The aesthetic (quite similar to modern American suburban) was what I call “parade ground aesthetics”; it consisted of large expanses of short mown grass (for parades) ringed by white painted rocks.

My idea of a garden came solely from books. I’m a woodland sprite at heart and in my mind a garden is enclosed by tall mossy stone walls, draped in green ivy and ferns, filled with white heavily-scented flowers, with some small water feature and a place to read or write or meet one’s lover by moonlight.

The reality of my garden in Austin is none of those things. We must garden where we are. Still I’ve always pushed the limits (and paid the price) in my plant choices. I’m too much a lover of the exotic to ever be a dedicated locavore. I grow plants because I find them interesting and not because I’m sensible. Austin has a split-personality climate-wise. If we plant bananas, cannas, and elephant ears in a wet year like 2007, they’ll sear in a dry hot year like 2008. If we plant Mediterranean-style plants, like rosemary and lavender, they get mildewy or rot in really wet years. On a really hot, dry year, desert plants look more and more like an interesting alternative.

Too bad I’ve never been fond of cactus and succulents. Looking out at my prickly pear cactus just depresses me. I detest my yuccas and am fond of only a few agaves. And yet, I’ve visited two gardens this year that have made me look at cactus and succulents with a more forgiving eye. The first was my visit to the Spring Preserve, which I wrote about here and here.

cactus and succulent garden

The second was on the 2008 Austin Pond Society Pond Tour. The garden of Jeff and Ray was my favorite on the tour and not because of the pond. Jeff is the current president of the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society. Not only does he have an amazing collection of plants but he has that ability to arrange them in pleasing ways (a knack I lack and covet).

Look at that top photo again. I love the curves, the balance of forms, shapes, textures and colors of the plants. I think that the problem with most cactus and succulent gardens is that the plant materials require a really strong underlying design. The plants themselves are so architectural and spare. They need an expert designer to arrange the pieces in a pleasing way. I have absolutely zero design sense but with my floppy, cottage garden I get away with a lot because the exuberance of the plants hide the lack of design (when they’re in bloom, anyway).

I’m actually drawn more to the geometry of this garden than I am to the careless approach of my own. I would like to live in this garden but I can’t imagine making it.

cactus and succulent garden

The terrace with disappearing fountain is a very pleasant spot to read a book over morning coffee.

cactus and succulent garden

The entire garden is below street level. It is surprising shady for a cactus garden. I’m guessing that the huge terraces provide the appropriate drainage. Descending the driveway is one of pleasantest approaches to an Austin house I’ve ever seen. To answer my own question, some prickly gardens are inviting indeed.

cactus and succulent garden

by M Sinclair Stevens

15 Responses to post “Can a Prickly Garden Be Inviting?”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    I’m so glad you showed us this garden. I met Jeff at the Oracle Gorge cactus sale. He was helping Bob at the register, and I had a chance to speak with him and look at a photo album of his garden. He told me it would be on the pond tour, and I regretted that I would miss the opportunity to see it. I thought the architecture of his garden was beautiful. So I’m pleased to hear that you thought so too.

    Now if I could just see it in person.

  2. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    This a beautiful garden, designed well beyond anything I could come up with, but I don’t know if I could work with a garden where the plants seem so untouchable.

  3. From Jane Marie:

    I’m with Carol. I need to get friendly with my plants. Not a prickly kind of gardener.

    Me, three. — mss

  4. From Fern:

    I like how he mixes in containers into his beds. And I really love how he used different types of flooring material.

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    Hello MSS,
    Jeff & Ray’s terrace with the disappearing fountain seemed very inviting when we were there last month and Philo thought this stop on the tour used the hilly land well. The shade made it seem different from other cactus-type gardens.

    I went back to the beautifully structured Las Vegas garden via your links and it also looks like a great place to visit. Not to live, mind you! Just to visit.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    That’s how I feel about it…nice to visit but not to live in. I like to touch my plants. — mss

  6. From Robin at Getting Grounded:

    MSS, I’ve discovered a joy this year to some succulents with some really interesting foliage; I decided I couldn’t water my containers every day and threw everything out and put succulents in them. I’m learning to like Agave – mostly it’s the blue color of them I enjoy. But the cactus – I grew up with cactus, getting thorns in my tender feet when I played outside is what I mostly remember. While it is interesting when someone else does it, I need to touch and pet my plants, and I need to see them move in the breeze (what little we have). Cactus gardens feel like what you do when you’ve given up trying…though obviously, that isn’t true with the pictures you showed.

    “Cactus gardens feel like what you do when you’ve given up trying.” Brilliant observation! In the hand of us lesser designers, I think that’s true because a lot of cactus gardens look like nature has won, rather than a garden has been made. But more and more designers are demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be the case. I just haven’t figured out how to make it work for me. — mss

  7. From Dee:

    MSS, thank you for the tour. After seeing your shady garden, I can’t imagine you in this one, but I can understand its appeal. I’m sorry Austin is having such a rough gardening year.~~Dee

  8. From Julie:

    Dear MSS,

    I am drawn to this, a kind of intensive realism about our climate. Having plants die is wasteful and too disheartening. I want to cheer these gardeners on for their boldness and survival instinct.

    “Prickly” is a compliment in my lexicon!

    Thanks so much for show this to us.


    With enough good examples, I might learn to be sensible myself and embrace cactus and succulents. — mss

  9. From joey:

    Your delightful tour indeed proved ‘A Prickly Garden’ can be most inviting.

  10. From Jenny Austin:

    I’m really sorry I missed the pond tour. Jeff and Ray’s garden looked wonderful. We are just going to have to quit this traveling- although come to think of it the bonus is getting to see lots of other gardens. But M you really must get on with the agaves and the succulents. They are not as temperamental as those other plants. Don’t want to drink or eat or demand fertile soil. Perfect for a spot in the Austin garden. Just remember I grew up in the lush gardens of England and I did it.

    You and your garden remain an inspiration. I think my problem is that I didn’t grow up in a lush, wet (damp and cold, AJM would interject) climate. I grew up in the desert. And thus, I long for something mossy and green in my life to make up for the deficiencies of childhood. — mss

  11. From Lori, Austin TX:

    There’s a house down the road from me with the most amazing, sculptural garden next to their driveway, and it’s mostly made of several agave varieties and other xeriscape plants. It changes only subtly through the seasons, but I love that it looks so incredible year-round. I’ve been tempted for months to go knock on the front door and ask for permission to take some pictures to post on my blog. And I really want to know whether they designed the garden themselves, because I am wildly envious!

    So yeah, I can like agave and cactus gardens, but only if they’re planted lushly and with a strong emphasis on texture and color contrasts.

    Go talk to them, Lori. (Or send them a little note in the mail.) You know the way to win a gardener’s heart is to compliment his or her garden. I bet they’d be proud that you noticed how nice it was. And if they used a designer, it would be interesting to find out who is doing such good work. — mss

  12. From Bob Pool:

    I’m surprised that you got a picture of that upper patio with out some one on that bench. While we were there, when some one got off the bench, some one else would immediately sit down. It was as if they could not resist it, as it was that nice a place to be.

    I knew that this was the garden I wanted to see and got there 15 minutes before the gate was open. I was the first person through the garden and had a very nice chat with the owners as well before anyone else showed up. — mss

  13. From Sally, Washington Co.:

    I cannot imagine having all that concrete in our climate. It makes me hot just to look at it. And I am not a fan of ‘prickly’ things other than roses. One can find structure without thorns. But, to each, his own.

  14. From Angelina:

    Normally I dislike succulents and cacti too. I have to admit, though, that this garden makes me envious. It seems really interesting and is the first time I’ve seen “desert” landscaping appear to be lush and rich.

  15. From kate:

    What a gorgeous garden … I’d love to see it. It is beautifully designed. I’m sending some rain vibes your way … we’ve had more than enough.