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For The Garden

The Cactus Garden

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: July, 2013, Page 48
Photos by Art Holeman

Jeanine and Dan Sudnick enjoy their mini-botanical garden. Dan wraps duct tape around his gloves to keep spines from poking through.

Transplanted Midwesterners Dan and Jeanine Sudnick Create a Backyard Botanical Showcase in Arizona

Dan is a bit of an artist,” says Jeanine Sudnick, in reference to the wondrous cactus and succulent garden that her husband created in their Casa Grande, Arizona, backyard.

Now retired, Dan was a plumber in Cleveland with wide-ranging creative interests, Jeanine points out. In addition to constructing kaleidoscopes, he customized a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that received 135 awards, was featured in 12 magazines and appeared on a Harley-Davidson trading card. When faced with the empty expanse in their new home’s backyard, it’s not surprising that his creative juices flowed to garden design.

A new home wasn’t actually in the couple’s plans. In 2007, enjoying an extended vacation around the western states, they stopped to visit friends in Casa Grande. “We had always loved the idea of living out West and just decided it was time to buy a home and move,” recalls Jeanine. Their new backyard was typical of those found in many housing developments—a fairly small space scraped flat and left bare during construction. As a lifelong cactus enthusiast, Dan relished the idea of transforming the barren lot into his dream garden.

The couple’s garden continues to grow, thanks to pad and stem cuttings taken from cacti on the property and used to create new plantings.
After having a swimming pool installed, Dan began the laborious prep work to shape the different areas and install hardscape before adding plants. He hauled soil removed during the pool’s excavation to places around the yard, shaping mounds and developing slight changes in grade. “I wanted it to have a natural appearance, so I just kept working at it until it looked right,” he notes. Over time, he also placed boulders, spread decomposed granite and cut and laid flagstone for the patio. “Phil Bond, from The Avocado Nursery in Casa Grande, helped me design the patio space.”

Planting a specimen garden from scratch without prior experience in desert growing conditions can be daunting for some, but Dan sought advice from an expert. “On an earlier trip to Arizona, I had purchased a saguaro cactus from Bach’s Greenhouse Cactus Nursery in Tucson to carry home to Ohio on the plane,” he recalls. “After moving here, I was lucky to meet owner Dan Bach, who has generously shared his time and knowledge with me over many visits. About 60 percent of my plants came from Bach’s Nursery.”

Dan keeps on the lookout for additions to his collection. If he drives by a landscape with a cactus that has tipped over, he stops and offers to clean it up for the owners in exchange for a few pads or stems. “Most people are delighted if I will just haul it all away for them,” he remarks. One woman no longer wanted a statuesque saguaro in her yard, so he rented a crane and flat bed to transport it home. Trading young offshoots (pups), pads and stems with other gardeners further expands his plant palette.

Photos - From left: Ladyfinger cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus) flourishes in a bright-blue ceramic pot. • Dan built this bench with a stucco frame and polished-wood seat and back. The unusual barrel cactus (Ferocactus peninsulae x rectispinus) on the bench arm produces 6-inch-long red spines. The blue ceramic vessel is a torch that can be lit at night.

Jeanine explains that Dan’s creativity also came into play when adding classic Southwestern elements to the garden. “After signing the papers to buy this house, we continued on our vacation and were in Carson City, Nevada, where a wooden wagon at an antiques store caught Dan’s eye. We both like things with a Western motif, but I was wondering, ‘Why do we need an old wagon? We don’t have furniture yet,’” she says good-naturedly. “But Dan had already envisioned how it was going to be placed in the garden.”

“I thought the wagon would look great with cactus growing through it, appearing as if it had been abandoned,” he explains. He dug the wagon into the soil, so it would look like the wind had blown dirt against it for years. Then he planted cow tongue prickly pear to sprawl up and through the slats. Carved wooden vultures from a Colorado artist cling to the wagon’s edge. Old wooden barrels, including a whiskey barrel they brought from Ohio, add to the desert scene.

Dan Sudnick inserted reinforcing rods (rebar) into the base of this saguaro skeleton. This allowed him to secure it without burying its unusual dried root structure.
Although just about every available space in the garden is filled with a cactus or succulent, Dan continues to fine-tune his display as he learns more about the plants’ growing habits. Some cacti grow much faster than he had expected. “I had a cactus indoors in Ohio that grew a few inches the entire time I had it, but after being planted in the ground here, it’s grown a couple feet, so it’s quite a learning experience,” he comments. “I move plants when they get too big for their area so that they don’t block views or paths.”

Attention to water needs has helped keep the plant collection healthy. Although Dan installed drip irrigation, he prefers to hand water, which helps him keep a close eye on plant changes. “I apply water from the base of the plant and out two feet to soak the root zone,” he says. This encourages roots to grow evenly outward to form a strong anchor. “If there is just one emitter on one side of a plant, then roots will grow only toward that water source.”

During last winter’s severe freeze that occurred four or five nights in a row, Dan and Jeanine covered every plant they could, topping columnar cacti with Styrofoam cups and draping burlap, sheets, towels and T-shirts over others. “We ran out of material, so Dan put a down jacket over one of his favorites,” says Jeanine.

“We lost six or seven plants, including thick aloes that contain a lot of moisture, as they freeze easily and turn to mush,” Dan explains. A dinner plate prickly pear, with its enormous round flat pads, also succumbed. “I was able to replant a few pads, and in a couple years, it will be another large plant. That’s the beauty of cacti.”

Jeanine and Dan appreciate the garden’s ever-changing variety through the seasons. “We like to head outdoors at sunset to take a walk around the Ponderosa,” jokes Jeanine. It seems the reality of their dream coming true is a constant source of enjoyment.

Soil removed during pool construction was used to create gradual elevation changes and planting mounds, which allow for better plant views from varied vantage points.
Arizona queen of the night (Peniocereus greggii)
Bishop’s cap (Astrophytum myriostigma)
Chinese fingernail (Tephrocactus articulatus var. oligacanthus)
Creeping devil (Stenocereus eruca)
Dinner plate cactus (Opuntia robusta)
Easter lily (Echinopsis oxygona)
Golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii)
Monk’s hood (Astrophytum ornatum)
Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)
Silver torch (Cleistocactus strausii)
Totem pole (Lophocereus schottii f. monstrosus)
Wooly torch (Pilosocereus glaucochrous)
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