There used to be a secret garden in Yakima, Washington, but it’s not a secret anymore. What started as a backyard hobby has become the Hillside Desert Botanical Gardens, drawing accolades for its hundreds of cacti that bloom in late spring and early summer. Ron McKitrick planted the first cactus on his property more than 30 years ago, and now can say of his garden: “There’s nothing quite like it.”
This gradual work of art has been honed and refined over the last three decades and now encompasses 20 large raised beds on two-thirds of an acre. When Ron purchased his home in 1976, 200 dwarf apple trees filled most of the yard. But with the blossoming success of his cactus-growing hobby, Ron gradually replaced the fruit trees with various cacti. In addition to the nearly two-dozen raised beds, he also built two greenhouses to accommodate his growing cactus collection.
Originally from Topeka, Kansas, Ron and his family made the westward trek to Washington State in 1942. He graduated from Naches High School in 1954, and attended Yakima Valley College for a year. Then in 1959, after graduating from Washington State University with a degree in pharmacy, Ron began a 48-year career at Memorial Hospital, retiring in 2007. It was during his years as a pharmacist that Ron developed a green thumb. “I became more and more interested, and more and more confused when trying to learn about all the different cacti,” he said. But after all these years, he’s now a true expert.
Ron has been able to document the annual bloom cycle for several years with the help of wonderful photography by his wife, Jean. “We have literally hundreds of visitors during the blooming season each year from April through July,” he says. “As a result of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA) convention in Seattle in 2007 and subsequent tour to my gardens, we are known and recognized as one of the premier desert gardens in the world.”
In addition to seeing the explosion of colors, many visitors also want to learn about growing and caring for cacti. Ron offers free garden tours, which take about an hour or so. Many groups charter a bus to make the trip.
McKitrick’s garden retreat is on the north-facing slope of Ahtanum Ridge above the Yakima Valley floor in a rain shadow where annual precipitation seldom exceeds six inches.
“It’s usually three or four degrees warmer here,” says Ron. That extra heat helps his cacti bloom two to three weeks ahead of a friend’s down in the valley.
So what are some of Ron’s favorite cacti? Here’s a summary of his more colorful and hardy specimens. The accompanying temperatures are minimums in degrees Fahrenheit in which the plants have been known to survive, based on the experience of CSSA members, and Ron’s empirical research.
Prickly Pear Cactus: Members of this large group of flat-padded, upright cacti can grow between a foot and three feet tall, depending on the species. They bloom in shades of pink, yellow, white, burgundy and orange. (-40 degrees)
Mohave Mound Cactus: Native to the American Southwest, this beautiful clustering plant has pale pink flowers that bloom profusely. Its upright stems have a similar shape and color to King’s cup, but grow about two feet across and slightly less tall. (10 degrees)
King’s Cup Cactus: This upright cactus develops into large clusters over time. Ron’s measures five feet across and two-and-a-half feet tall after 15 years. It is a very free, early-season bloomer with flowers in shades of orange to red. (10 degrees)
River Cactus: These baseball-sized clumping plants feature magenta flowers. Native to the Yakima area, they are the earliest cacti to bloom in Ron’s garden. (-25 degrees)
The Hillside Desert Botanical Gardens will be showing off its colorful displays from now through July. To schedule a visit, e-mail email@example.com, or call (509) 248-1742. The gardens are located at 3405 Hillside Place in Yakima.
Rick Stedman, who writes the RV Golfer column in this magazine, lives in Yakima, Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org