Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spineless Gardening

You may remember Marsha’s and my intention to “New Mexico-ize” our perennial beds (February Planters Punchlines).  Well, it is not going to happen.  I am just too spineless a plantsman to deal with all the spines on cactus.  “No pain, no gain” may be true in the gym, but not in my garden.

Botanically, "spines" are different than "thorns": the former being leaves that have strayed from the path of righteousness, whereas thorns are modified branches that have gone over to the dark side. 

Initially I was hoping for a crowded, overflowing, “Monet Garden” of various cacti varieties mixed in with the more conventional New England perennials that already are in place (asters, bee balm, lilacs, and various bird-attracting berry bushes) plus some other t/b/d stuff.  Then Marsha reminded me of the need for access to these other garden bedmates, and what my arms and legs looked like after even a brief workout at the Weston Rose Garden – as if I had been subjected to involuntary acupuncture by the Spanish inquisition.

I Googled “spineless” cactus and discovered that between 1907 and 1925, Luther Burbank (remember him from elementary school biology) introduced more than 60 spike-free varieties– all of which are on display at his historic “Home and Gardens” in hot ad dry Santa Rosa, California.  Not quite the climate within which we were planning to cultivate them.

So we went to Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society’s 31st Annual Show and Sale in Waterbury hoping to find some examples of the disarmed succulents suitable for the Connecticut climate.

And we happened upon the lecture “Hardy Cacti for the CT Garden” delivered by John Spain, a founder of the Cactus Society, and the man who literally wrote the book on the subject – “Growing Winter Hardy Cacti In Cold Wet Climatic Conditions”.

John Spain, it turns out, is to hardy cacti what Alan Lomax was to folk music.  “During the New Deal, with his father, famed folklorist and collector John A. Lomax and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress on aluminum and acetate discs.” (Wikipedia)  Without Alan Lomax, there would be no American songbook, no Bob Dylan or Joan Baez – and definitely no “Polk Salad Annie”. 

Forty years ago John Spain saw his first non-southwest cactus growing in Detroit Michigan.  (Actually it was in a nearby suburb, but the idea of a desert plant growing in the motor city is just too cool an image to ignore.)  When he moved to New Jersey and then Connecticut he gathered and  grew similar cacti in his new home environments – lots and lots of them.  There is, Spain says, at least one cactus variety native to (or suited for) every state east of the Mississippi River other than Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.  With one small exception – almost too small to be visible in the garden we were contemplating – none of these cacti are spineless.

Thus ends the grand scheme to convert our property to a mini New Mexico.  It hurts, but not as much as the alternative.


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