Cold-Weather Cactus Garden

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Grass is terrible. It’s needy, it grows fast and needs frequent mowing, and it sucks up gallons of water. Now that we’re a homeowner, I have an even more acrimonious relationship with grass. I’ve spent time on most of my summer weekends either reseeding, cutting, weeding or watering my front lawn. I only do this so the neighbors don’t think I’m a derelict slob (which I am).

Ever since we started collecting succulents and cacti a few years back, I’ve dreamed of a xeriscaped landscape instead of a turfed lawn. But I live in hot and humid/cold and biting Nebraska, so that option doesn’t make much sense. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost!

I’ve started an experiment this summer. Taylor and I hit the River City Cactus and Succulent Society show back in May. While there, we met a vendor from Oklahoma who offered a variety of cold-weather cacti. “Why not?” I thought. Cacti grow primarily in hot, dry climates, but the real key word is dry. You can find cactus varieties in the wild in the United States from the southwest to as far north as eastern Montana. You can find some of the most amazing cactus and succulent gardens in the country in cold, snowy Colorado, even.

On a whim, I bought four plants: two opuntia humifusa (pricky pear), an echinocerus reichenbacchi (lace hedgehog cactus), and an echinocerus viridiflorus (nylon hedgehog cactus). Each is about 6-12 inches tall and maybe a year or so old. All of these varieties bloom big, bright flowers once they emerge from hibernation when the ground begins to thaw. I’m hoping mine live up to their reputation come spring 2017.

However, I still had the challenge of getting them into the ground. I live in Hardiness Zone 5 (at least until the zones get revised up thanks to climate change). Plants must be able to survive temperatures as low as -15ºF here. All of mine should survive if planted right and protected over the cold winter. But it will take a little work.

Last year, Taylor gifted me Leo Chance’s “Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates“, and I’ve been digesting it ever since, waiting for my chance to plant a cold-weather cactus garden. Therefore, when I bought my plants, I was more than ready. Here are the steps I took to prepare the rich, loess-y soil in my backyard for my spartan spiny friends.

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One Week in Galapagos

In June of 1831, Charles Darwin arrived in a small archipelago off the coast of Ecuador looking forward to taking some geologic samples and confirming the emerging theories on plate tectonics. When he left, he had collected hundreds of flora and fauna samples; observed strange and wondrous animals such as the giant tortoise, the marine iguana and the blue-footed booby; and had noticed the peculiar, subtle differences between species of animal from island to island. What would follow would literally change scientific knowledge and cement Darwin as one of the greatest minds the world has ever known.

In June of 2016, Taylor and I arrived in that same archipelago, and said, “Holy crap! We’re in the mother-flippin’ Galapagos Islands!”

Ok, so maybe we weren’t as ambitious as Darwin, but we still found ourselves in one of the world’s most unique and storied locations. Galapagos still inspires as a pristine paradise with dramatic implications for science, ecology and the way we think. And it’s beautiful to boot. However, few visit Galapagos because it had a reputation of being remote and inaccessible.

I’m here to tell you it’s accessible, and it’s not as difficult to see as you might think.

There are two ways to see the islands and its treasures. Most people see Galapagos via cruise. You can make brief stops at multiple islands and truly see a large portion of the archipelago. Heck, that’s how Darwin saw the islands, and it was inspiring enough to prompt his theory of evolution and The Origin of Species. Tickets for these trips tend to be fairly expensive, though, especially when you still have to factor in airfare. We opted for a less expensive, but still awe-inspiring, route. After all, whether by boat or by land, you’re still in Galapagos. Seemingly every square inch of the islands have something incredible worth seeing.

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We planned to spend a week in Galapagos, visiting two of the major islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela. The only way to get to Galapagos is by plane, and you have to fly from mainland Ecuador. Our plane from Quito flew into Baltra, an old U.S. air base from World War II. We spent three days staying in Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement in Galapagos, before taking a ferry to Isabela’s tiny Puerto Villamil for four more days. From both towns you can take day trips to a great variety of excursions and sites. I’ve outlined the highlights of our trip below.

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Dining in Galapagos

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Look tasty?

Maybe if you’re a sea lion or a pelican. Here at the Puerto Ayora fish market, while fishermen and fisherwomen haul in their catches and prep them for sale, those two animals watch closely for any falling fish parts or unattended piles like these. While in town, Taylor and I even watched one young sea lion nudge a woman slicing up fish until she threw him some juicy scraps.

If you’re not into the scaly, raw offerings of Galapagos, don’t worry. The island towns offer a variety of delicious dishes, all of which blend island offerings with the traditional tastes of South America. Taylor and I opted for the land-based method of seeing the Galapagos, so our trip included visits to Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil. It also means that when we weren’t venturing into the highlands in search of giant tortoises or snorkeling volcanic reefs in search of penguins, we were searching for a one-of-a-kind dish. We found a ton of great Galapagos dining, day or night. Below are our recommendations on where to eat and where to skip in two of Galapagos’ largest ports.
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Joel vs The Volcano

On Sierra Negra Volcano in Galapagos

I know what you’re thinking: Is this post just an opportunity for a pun headline referencing a terrible ’90s movie? Yes and no.

On our trip to Galapagos, we saw unique wildlife and had once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling adventures. But the Galapagos Islands exist because of a volcanic hotspot along the Nazca plate, meaning we spent half of our trip sleeping at the base of an active volcano. Did you really think we wouldn’t take a look inside!?

If you want to see a Galapagos volcano, Sierra Negra awaits you. Taylor and I stayed four nights on Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands. Isabela is actually a collection of six still-active volcanoes. Puerto Villamil, it’s largest/only settlement, sits on the southern end of Sierra Negra. The caldera is only about 20 miles from the port, although it rises to about 3600 feet in that short distance. It last erupted in 2005 (video), when it spewed lava and ash for about a week down its northeastern side. It’s also the largest of the Galapagos calderas – 5.7 miles across at its widest. It’s big is what I’m saying.

Our hike lasted about six hours, and while it can’t compare with our trek just a week earlier on a portion of the Inca Trail in Peru, it holds its own wonders for those willing to explore. Dozens of tour companies in Villamil will take you up to Sierra Negra. Our AirBnb hosts also owned their own tour company, so they took care of everything for us, which was nice. At about 6 a.m., a driver picked us up at our house and drove about 30 minutes up the mountainside. At the head of the Sierra Negra trail, we met our tour guide. He gave the tour in both Spanish and English.

Our Sierra Negra hike had two phases – first, we walked along the rim of the caldera, then we traveled down the northeast side into the freshest areas of new lava flow. As you first begin the hike, you might not feel like you’re on an active volcano. One of the most interesting aspects of Galapagos is the incredible variation of climatic zones in such a short distance. From open ocean to shallows to shore to sulfuric desert to grassland to dense jungle to mountaintop, Isabela features so many different environments. The hike starts in the misty forested zone of the island. At first, you’re surrounded by trees, ferns, and wildflowers. However, as you climb up to the rim, the view transforms quickly. As we reached the edge, the dense green gave way to expansive black:

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