Evaluate the Effort

What is easier to maintain: cacti or native plants?

March 2023. By JT Wilkinson: Low water, low maintenance landscapes are all the rage, yet what the “low-low” means to each person and the aesthetic they envision can be really different. I got the scoop on two go-to water and time saving options in a conversation with Elaine Kaufman.

The Kaufmans, whose property includes Garden 18 on next month’s Native Plant Garden Tour, maintain their own expansive property with a little annual support from us. In addition to their tour-worthy native plant garden, their high desert cacti garden is also awe-inspiring.

Here is what Elaine shared about maintaining these two distinctive, beautiful spaces.


Which garden uses less water?

Well, we just never water the cacti – twice a year. We use a hose once in summer and once in fall. We have irrigation rings around the trees in that garden, so the cacti close to the rings may see some of that water.

The native plant garden is on low-flow, subsurface drip on weather based irrigation controllers.


How are the gardens handling the rain?

Toby measures the rain with a sensor his sister gave him eight years ago. We’ve had 30 inches. The average is 14. One year we saw only four.

What we notice is that there is no runoff in the native garden. It’s not just the foliage – we have expansive bioswales. We closed off the drains that would overflow to the driveway with large rocks and let them fill up. This means the water has a little more time to make it into the soil. Within a half an hour of the rain stopping, they are empty. No runoff.

The cacti can handle no water, but they don’t like this rain. They just look unhappy, but they’ll survive. Water will stay in the low points of the decomposed granite for awhile, but it does absorb. We have very sandy soils.

In both gardens, the foliage bloomed early.


What kind of supports do you use?

We know cactus farmers use horse manure as fertilizer. The gentleman who helped us install the front garden used that to start them in their first year. We’ve talked about it, but we never applied any. When it is really hot, we also set up shades for the cacti and succulents not under the tree canopies. They can get a little burned or turn yellow when the sun is too much.

In the native plant garden, we use mulch. Sometimes Toby will apply Neem Oil if he sees something with White Fly. We deadhead to keep Indian Mallow and the Buckwheats blooming, but we leave most of the sages to provide seeds for the birds. Sometimes we’ll pick off dried leaves.


What else do you do to maintain the gardens?

It takes more effort to care for the bougainvillea along the fence than the whole native plant garden! We maintain the full space year round. Still, we don’t actually spend much time working on it. Toby will use a dried enzyme in the steams once a week, and we clean the pine needles out of it. Everywhere else, we leave the needles as mulch.

We propagate the cacti – including all the full sized plants lining the property. Toby deals with the edible gardens in the raised beds every day.

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