Annie Calovich

August 2, 2013

Wichita gardener rekindles his passion for cactus 30 years after thief stole his collection

Wichita gardener rekindles his passion for cactus 30 years after a thief stole his collection.

I knew better than to do it. But I felt compelled, as a representative of Wichita gardeners, to ask Ronnie Hardesty how he knew when to water his hundreds of potted cactuses, succulents, hens and chicks, their roots socked away under an inch of tiny river rock, their moisture sucked out through the pores of terracotta.

Hardesty, a throwback of a gardener who lives in a plain ranch house in southeast Wichita, may have opened his mouth to try to answer me. But if he did, nothing came out.

That’s because, of course, he waters by instinct.

“You got to live with them. If you live with them, you know when to water them,” Hardesty finally found the words to say.

A member of the East High Class of ’65, Hardesty has been living with this collection of plants – pointed, prickly, cauliflower-cushioned and tucked into an equally eclectic collection of containers – for two years. They stick out on his humble cul-de-sac despite their relative infancy, testament to the fact that Hardesty had amassed and cared for a pristine cactus collection before a thief backed a white van up to his old house and stole the containers, right out from under the noses of the neighbors, one afternoon in 1984 while he was at work.

“There’s like this 30-year gap,” Hardesty said of the intervening years when he found himself too busy to build a new collection. “It’s like it never happened. Two years ago I had to start over,” once he’d retired from Cessna. Now he’s finding that the names of some of the cactuses, and of a lot of the employees at the garden centers, have changed in the interim. Hybridizing has only expanded how far he can reach to rebuild his plant posse.

“He knows his cactus,” said Hardesty’s neighbor JoAnn Carlton, who called to tell me about him. “I took a cactus to him to re-pot, and when he gave it back, he had put a tag in it with the name on it. I didn’t even know the name.”

With a long white ZZ Top beard flowing down his chest and a bandana tied around his head, Hardesty fits Carlton’s characterization of “my hippie friend.” But beyond all the charming nostalgia that entails, Hardesty at 66 years old is a soul-satisfying gardener’s gardener who at the first threat of hail starts filling his empty two-car garage as fast as he can with pots of cactus, and who thrills at the rapid growth of a piece of prickly-pear cactus that he’d recently tucked into an empty little container.

“I was down to Raymond’s and this piece fell off one of his plants, and it’s already got three pads,” Hardesty said, lifting the pot to show me. “Raymond” is Raymond Sharon, the zone-breaking gardener at First Church of the Nazarene off East Kellogg and North Ellis who also sells plants at the Kansas Grown Farmers Market. “It’s just fun. It’s fun.”

Plants with spines

Alternating between self-assurance and self-deprecation – “I have this down to a science,” and “I’ve probably been lucky. That’s the truth” – Hardesty has a story about every plant and every pot, pan and colander arrayed in front of his garage and on what used to be the lawn alongside his driveway. The story may be about the pot or the plant, or the story may be about him, or one of his cactus-hunting buddies from the old days.

“Cactus hunting, you got to watch for two things,” Hardesty said, holding up the peace sign. “You got to watch for scorpions, you got to watch for snakes.”

He picks up a so-called horse crippler cactus crowned with eye-popping cherry-tomato blooms. “Look at those hooks,” Hardesty said of the spines that encircle the low-growing plant. “They’re like complete barbs.”

Some of the cactuses indeed “can put the hurt on you. The other day I felt something and asked my wife and she said, ‘You got a spine on the back of your arm.’ ”

Hardesty cautions against talking with your hands in his garden.

“Do not do this,” he said, demonstrating a gesture of wide-open arms. “I’m not telling you how to live your life, but don’t do that.”

Pot combinations

In what seems a soft spot in a tough cactus hide, Hardesty used to collect McCoy glazed flower pots with attached saucers, and still has some of those in his garden, along with terracotta pots he bought in Mexico, mini strawberry jars from Big Lots and yellow-labeled Cain cans from his personal black-coffee drinking. “I go to estate sales and the DAV. You don’t wanna do same-old, same-old,” he said of his containers. Hardesty has no plastic pots, preferring terracotta that breathes, because that’s what he’s used to, and he can control the moisture better. There’s the hazard of the terracotta breaking by being out in the wintertime, but so far so good.

But even terracotta can get boring, so he drills holes in the bottoms of white enamel bowls, the bed of an old wheelbarrow, a large pretty mixing bowl tilted to spill hens and chicks to the ground.

“I like to cascade. I’m big on blowing stuff out of the pot.”

He tucks little hens-and-chicks plants in the top and pockets of strawberry pots. “I love it when it completely covers the holes and they’re pressed up there like a wall. I like that look.”

I like hens and chicks dangling their babies over the lip of a broad pot like earrings.

Another striking combination is a hatched-pattern burgundy McCoy pot holding a burgundy cylinder of rainbow cactus that Hardesty ordered from California.

“It’s also called lace cactus. You can call it rainbow — that’s fine.

“It’s just dang attractive.”

Hardesty’s favorites may be the mound- and cluster-forming mammillarias, one of the largest genuses in the cactus family, “because I did it so darn well. I used to have four dozen varieties. ...

“When I get into something, I get into it.”

Travelin’ man

While the variety of succulents has exploded at garden centers locally, and drought-tolerant plants have been encouraged since the drought, “this is not a cactus/succulent town,” Hardesty said of Wichita. He points to being among the first people in the door for Johnson’s annual Midnight Madness sale in July and being the only one to head to the cactus section of the garden center, where “of course I went ape-o. I got 11 things,” including a Brazilian columnar cactus covered in a glowing sheath of fine gold needles. Hardesty recounts proudly bearing it through the store with other shoppers gawking. That was a steal for $25.

About half of his collection – most of the cactuses and the succulents – must come inside for the winter, but the hardy cactus and hens and chicks stay outside, displaying their first signs of new green as early as February. Hardesty likes the hardy stuff, and he mostly has to travel to get it. He and his wife, Nancy, are planning a trip to Denver in the spring to attend the botanical garden’s annual sale there.

Hardesty reads The Eagle every Saturday morning while drinking his coffee to keep on top of garden happenings. He seems to be open to everything – he may show up at a hosta society meeting because “you never know what’s gonna happen over there.” He could run into somebody he knew at East. The people are right up there with the plants.

“I used to know the people in the rose society, and the geranium club – we had a geranium club.” Who knew?

Hardesty’s attention is suddenly caught by a light green, soft-leaf agave, and he reaches out to touch it. It’s soft, after all.

“I just found out this comes in a variegated leaf,” he said, almost fondly. “I have to have it.”

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