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California cactus garden: 112 plants of prickly, potted beauty

Gardening

When author Kurt Kamm is not writing firefighting mysteries, you can find him on his terrace pacing among his pots of plants: 112 cactuses and succulents, at last count.

“I often come out when I have a thorny issue in a plot I'm trying to work out,” he said with a grin.

When Kamm moved into the two-story, 1960s home on the hillside bluff overlooking the Malibu Colony, the 100-foot-long terrace had not a single plant. Because he had a severe brown thumb and had never cared for a garden in his life, he began buying cactuses and succulents: “the biggest, cheapest, least troublesome thing I could plant,” he said.

His first purchase, a 2-foot-tall, single-stem Myrtillocactus cochal cactus, has grown to 5 feet. Some plants are rescues. One exotic mutant from Anawalt Lumber in Malibu had languished in front of the store for two years; another in a vacant lot just seemed lonely and in need of a drink, he said.

“Some people rescue dogs. I rescue cactus,” he said. “Whenever or wherever I find a neglected, broken, dehydrated cactus, I take it home.”

The plants seem to come in every size, shape, color and texture, and despite their reputation as heat seekers, they are thriving on the deck's southern exposure with ocean breezes and mild temperatures.

“It offers an ideal microclimate for the plants,” says Tom Cosentino, owner of the eponymous Malibu nursery where Kamm purchased many of his succulents.

Although an ardent devotee of the low-water, low-maintenance plants, Kamm knows almost none by name.

“You don't have to know to grasp if they are exotic or interesting,” said the writer, who is certain the two most important ingredients he showers his plants with are water and love. “Although if I went away on a vacation — which I never do, but if I did — they wouldn't miss me and would probably do better than ever.”

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