As you’re driving down a residential street in the area of Baring and Sparks boulevards, Charles Barnum’s neat but colorful front yard will catch your eye. Look more closely, and you will see it is landscaped not with grass, shrubs and perennials but with cactuses, yuccas and a few other succulents.
According to Barnum, low temperatures coupled with wet soil are what kill cactus, not necessarily the cold. To amend the soil to keep it from being too wet, he adds potting mix, garden lime and pebble pumice to clay soil (which is common in the Truckee Meadows) mixed with sharp contractor’s sand–never gravel.
Barnum has about 300 kinds of plants in his garden. He has obtained them from all kinds of sources including other cactus growers and construction site waste piles. He grows many from seeds and cuttings and says he doesn’t worry about the poor odds of success. “Buy three if you want one,” he jokes.
He’s willing to experiment. Rather than assuming cactus roots would freeze in containers, Barnum grew them in containers for years before beginning to plant them in his front yard.
Against the advice of those who say shredded rubber mulch will rot cactus, he’s begun using it and is very happy with the results. In fact, he says, wet organic mulch rots and kills cactus if it comes in contact with the stem. He says he even digs the rubber mulch into the soil to keep the soil loose.
Barnum goes through the garden every day and kills any blade of grass that appears, and he does the watering by hand. It’s not as labor intensive as it sounds, though—unlike most local gardeners, he says he can go on vacation whenever he wants without worrying about his plants.