Colorful cactus garden

Scott Calhoun’s The Gardener’s Guide to Cactus

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I moved to the desert and I bought a cactus. Four of them, actually: a squat golden barrel cactus for the front porch and three dainty pincushions for the kitchen window ledge.

I remember standing over a sea of potted succulents at my local, I am embarrassed to say, Home Depot, wondering what kind of cactus would best adorn my apartment. The one with a halo of faint fuzzy spines? The one with wavering purple pads waving hello from the safety of its plastic container?

If only I’d had Scott Calhoun’s The Gardener’s Guide to Cactus: The 100 Best Paddles, Barrels, Columns, and Globes.

Calhoun, a garden designer based in Tucson, Arizona, knows his cactus. (And, yes, Calhoun informs us, “cactus” is an acceptable way to refer to a cactus in the plural. Both “cacti” and “cactuses” are also grammatically correct.) The author of six gardening books and a monthly gardening column for Sunset magazine, Calhoun writes of all things cactus in a way that’s both accessible and entertaining to absolute beginners (ahem, me) while also offering more advanced advice and helpful how-to for the experienced cactus cultivar.

At first, the text was hard to read — my eye was enticed by page after page of beautifully-captured images of cactus in bloom. From the bursting pink of the Rayones hedgehog to the quiet symmetry of the blue barrel, Calhoun’s many photos capture the diversity and possibility of these spiny plants.

A prickly pear cactus blooms in early May just outside of Tucson, Arizona (photo by Megan Kimble)

Cactus are listed under their common names; paired with namesake images, this creates lovely revelatory moments of humor that reveal the reason behind a name like snowball pincushion, sand dollar cactus, or my favorite: viejitos—the gristly hair-like spines splayed across this hedgehog that make for the countenance of a grumpy old man.

But you’d be missing out if you only looked at the pictures. Each of the 100 entries are organized not according to taxonomy but by morphology — by shape, with a focus on the aesthetic over the technical. While each entry includes the information on native habitat, mature size, hardiness, and flowering season, Calhoun also explores the character of each cactus through extended descriptions about a plant’s culinary value, design suggestions, cultivation, and notable varieties, forms, and subspecies.

For those of us with no landscape to design, Calhoun offers useful advice for growing potted cactus. For those more experienced cultivars, he offers advice on pot or yard composition and specific plant pairings. This is, after all, a gardener’s guide to cactus, and gardeners new and old will close this book with an arsenal of ideas on how to take their cactus cultivation to a new level.

Calhoun’s easy confidence, gleaned from years of experience, offers inspiration to the cactus-coveters among us. “In terms of watering, pruning, and other sorts of plant maintenance, cactus are undoubtedly among the least-demanding group of plants on the planet,” he begins a short Planting and Care section. Anyone can enjoy a cactus, he says, but the most successful will be those who consider their native climate and landscape design before planting.

I may have chosen my cactus differently had I known what I know now. But armed with Calhoun’s charming advice and inspiration provoked by blooming photos, I know there will be more to come.


Header photo by Pexels, courtesy of Pixabay. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.