Omaha’s gardens are adopting a Southwest flair.

Spiky cactuses and an array of other succulents are taking root in the area as the easy-to-maintain plants give gardens 
a fresh look without costing much time, money or water.

“It just kind of hit this year,” said Sarah Cross, an Earl May Nursery & Garden Center assistant manager. “It’s so low-maintenance and there are lots and lots of varieties. They’re hip, they’re new.”

Most succulents require little water because of their fleshy leaves. Typically, they can go a few weeks without it. In extreme circumstances, some have lasted years without a drop.

But they aren’t invincible. Succulents generally need low water and high sunlight, and when there’s an imbalance, the slow-growing plants aren’t quick to recover.

Underwatering and lack of direct sunlight will usually lead to an underdeveloped or misshapen plant. Too much sunlight can give the plant a sunburn, stunting its growth. Overwatering leads the plant to rot into a pile of mush and invites pests, such as mealybugs, to take over.

Compared with most plants, however, they’re tough, especially against garden-robbing critters like rabbits or squirrels.

“No animal is going to take a big old bite out of a cactus,” said Cross, who has her own cactuses and a pot full of “living stone” succulents. And if they do, they never return for a second helping.

Kathy Schrum, a lifelong gardener and employee at Indian Creek Nursery, attributes much of the higher demand for succulents to the struggling economy. When people have less money, they tend to search for a cheaper pastime.

“It’s a relatively inexpensive hobby to start with,” Schrum said, “… then it becomes very addictive. We call it ‘crack gardening.’”

Kathy Bokelman Zeeb is one of those addicts.

The longtime officer for the River City Cactus and Succulent Society planted her first cactus when she was 20 years old. The cactus pup was a gift from a friend in Columbus, Nebraska, who noticed how much she liked the plant. In the 40-plus years since, she has filled her Papillion garden and 12-by-16-foot greenhouse with many different styles.

As a member of the society, she scouts plants at nurseries, personal gardens and shows, searching for something offbeat to plant. Just like tech-savvy folks strive to get the newest and most exciting devices, she’s always in search of a newer plant.

“You just get caught up in them,” Bokelman Zeeb said. “They are so unusual.”

When she meets a new succulent gardener, she often finds that they, like her, became enamored with the variety of the plants. Gardeners who don’t want another style of geraniums often turn to succulents for something new.

“It never gets dull,” she said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1734,

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