Blind Man Grows Cactuses

beaver tail cactus (Opuntia sp.)

beaver tail cactus (Opuntia sp.)

Philip Bickley might be blind, but that hasn’t stopped him from growing more than 75 cactuses in his back yard – even when it means his wife, Mildred, has to pluck the needles from his hands.
The Granada Hills resident started his garden about seven years ago and has been blind for 25 years. Bickley wanted to grow a garden that didn’t require much water or maintenance. He already had a few cactuses in pots, some of which were destroyed by the earthquake, so he added more.
“The garden just grew that way,” he says. “Now I have a really big assortment,” including species from Madagascar and Mexico, as well as California.
But like all plants, cactuses can succumb to weeds. When they appear, Bickley has to kneel and carefully feel around the plant to find them. No matter how carefully he feels around, he usually ends up with a few needles in his hands.
But he remains dedicated. He even has an old wagon wheel and steer skull propped against a wall, to make the garden “reminiscent of the old desert,” despite the Route 66 sign propped nearby.
“The garden is one of those things that I don’t know if anybody would want to do who really can’t see,” Bickley says. “I enjoy it, though – especially when the cactuses are in flower. I really can’t see, and they don’t smell very well, but I can feel them.”
– Mike Chmielecki

January is a month close to the hearts and minds of gardeners everywhere, but not because of anything growing in the garden this time of year. January is the month those luscious plant and seed catalogs arrive in the mail.
In January, it is easy to be a great gardener, at least in your imagination. Just open a catalog and you will brim with confidence that creeping speedwell (Veronica “Blue Reflection”) will soon be overflowing your terra cotta pots, those multi-colored penstemons (Penstemon pinifolius “Shades of Mango”) are about to blare their trumpet flowers in triumph all along your entryway, that golden perennial sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) – blooming 30 to a clump – will perennially and majestically brighten up that normally dingy side yard.
Or you might wish to consider cascading ornamental oregano (Oreganum libanoticum). Spicing up your pasta is the last thing you will think of when observing this plant in bloom. Its delicate pink flowers extrude from “pendulous paper-lantern-like bracts,” reminiscent of those seen on the more familiar shrimp plant.
All these plants are among the exotic selections offered by High Country Gardens, a mail order nursery in New Mexico. This catalog – devoted exclusively to flowering perennials – contains valuable information on designing and caring for gardens in our climate.
“In inland southern California (which would include the Valley), even sun-loving plants benefit greatly from afternoon shade. Plant them in the shadow of a building or under a shrub or tree. Regular watering during the heat is essential, even for xeric (water thrifty) species. Planting must be done in the fall, winter or early spring months – mid-October to early March. Plants need six to eight weeks to establish their root systems before the summer heat!”
We can find welcome solace in these remarks. In the Valley, work now, when the weather is cool, and do nothing more than enjoy your plants when it gets hot. Here, the intelligent gardener will plant from October to March and spend the extended summer smelling and gathering flowers, harvesting and snacking on garden fresh vegetables and fruits.
On the subject of growing your own food, the catalog of choice would be the one offered by Seeds of Change. All the seeds listed have been produced through open-pollination, which means they generally come from heirloom vegetable varieties (not hybrids) that cannot be found in mainstream seed catalogs or at retail nurseries.
Seeds of Change carries seeds of eight different cherry tomato varieties, including peacevine, gold nugget and yellow pear. Red currant is a mini-tomato only a halnch in diameter that is grown ornamentally, dangling chains of bright red “tomato beads” from hanging baskets.
Several unusual sweet corn varieties are available through Seeds of Change, including the phenomenal “Baby Chires,” used in Chinese cooking, that produces up to 40 miniature ears per plant! “Black Aztec” has jet black kernels and “makes a delicious purple cornbread.” Nineteen different chile peppers are available through Seeds of Change, including the colorful “Bolivian rainbow” and “Peruvian Purple,” the latter being violet-purple from head to toe, including foliage, flowers, and fruit.
High Country Gardens can be found on the Internet at or reached at (800) 925-0097. Seeds of Change is at or call (888) 762-7333. Both companies send free catalogs upon request.

If you think you might have a “garden wonder,” send the information along with your name, address and daytime phone number to: Garden Wonders, L.A. Life, Daily News, P.O. Box 4200, Woodland Hills, CA 91365-4200; via e-mail to dnlalife(at); or via fax to (818) 713-3545.

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