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For The Garden

Mixing Business With Passion

Author: Lori A. Johnson
Issue: June, 2017, Page 44
The splashy pink blooms of Berlandier’s hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus berlandieri) put on a show every spring in Jana Sweet’s greenhouse.
In Southern Arizona, a desert plant aficionado makes her living doing what she loves

Technicolor desert sunrises, city lights by night and sweeping panoramic views by day: For Jana Sweets, a home in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains west of the city has its advantages. And for this self-employed horticulturist, her remote desert outpost provides not just a home but a way of life.

Some of her tiniest blooms are from this equally diminutive pincushion cactus (Mammillaria carmenae), which is just a few inches tall.
Jana’s morning commute is a leisurely stroll past the lush desert garden adjacent to the screened-in porch of her 1950s-era brick home, and down the hill through native desert vegetation to her “office,” which consists of three greenhouses where she makes a living growing and selling a variety of cacti and succulents. The 8-acre property originally belonged to her parents, who allowed Jana to start her nursery, called Sticky Situation, on its grounds 27 years ago.

Judging by Jana’s thorough immersion in desert culture, one might never guess that she grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, where, as a small child, her mother encouraged her love of plants. “My mom found a cactus and succulent greenhouse out in the middle of farm country,” Jana recalls. “I was hooked after that. If the little old guy who owned it back then only knew what he started.” In 1978, Jana moved to Tucson and enrolled at the University of Arizona, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Agriculture while working at a cactus nursery. “It stuck—so to speak—and I started my own business. I changed locations around town a few times before settling where I am now,” she says.

Jana tends to some of the hundreds of species of cacti and succulents from around the world that she grows in her three greenhouses.
Lush Landscape
When Jana first moved to the expansive property, she wanted a personal garden that would fill in the bare dirt areas near the house and take shape organically over time. “Like an artist painting a picture, the land is my canvas, and I create as I go,” she says. She started by planting her favorite cacti and succulents and continued to add to the garden. Her list of current favorites is long and includes several species of mammillaria, at least three species each of agave and aloe, and two species of astrophytum. “Plus, I can’t forget about the golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii) and Mexican fire barrel (Ferocactus pilosus) for year-round color. Who am I kidding? They’re all my favorites,” she laughs. Some have been part of her personal collection for so long that she doesn’t recall exactly how she acquired them, but many originated from her own nursery. “Either you get so attached over the years that you adopt them, or something doesn’t sell and you end up keeping it,” she notes.

Today, the garden is so full that Jana must carefully follow a trail of rocks used as stepping stones when pruning or maintaining the plants. Even the javelinas have a hard time navigating the tight cluster of prickly cacti and stay on the pathway.

Some of Jana’s favorite species in her personal garden include golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii), Moroccan mound (Euphorbia resinifera) and a small form of Queen Victoria agave (A. victoria-reginae ‘Compacta’).
Creature Care
In addition to loving plants, Jana also has a fondness for tortoises. “They are very prehistoric looking and all have different personalities. Some are friendly, others are aloof,” she notes. “And they have the cutest little purple-smeared faces after eating prickly pear fruit.” While she’s had as many as 55 turtles and tortoises at one time, she currently has 10 box turtles, eight native Sonoran Desert tortoises, three African leopard tortoises and one South American red foot tortoise, all of which reside near the house in an enclosure made of recycled corrugated metals, chicken wire and stucco.

A huge blue palo verde tree shades both the tortoise enclosure and part of the garden. Jana says the tree is one of the largest she’s seen and that it drops huge branches every summer during monsoons. At one point, she thought she was going to lose the tree altogether but was able to save it. “It was going downhill, and then a friend cut it back severely to generate new branches. It worked. Now I keep it dense in the center for shading the torts,” she says. “That’s why I planted three other trees close by, but I’ll have a beautiful shade area in a few years.”

Carefully packed cactus are ready to transport to one of the markets where Jana sells her plants throughout the year.
All in a Day’s Work
Natural desert vegetation dominates the rest of the property. While Jana cultivates saguaros from seed and has many baby specimens growing in the greenhouse in 6-inch pots, the largest saguaros are in a ground-level bed between the greenhouses and the road. She also grows organ pipe and totem pole cacti, but overall, she doesn’t sell many native plants and prefers to cultivate unusual succulents from around the world. Jana especially loves euphorbias and tries to keep a good selection, but otherwise grows what she thinks will sell well at markets. “These days, succulents in general are hot sellers. It’s cyclical, so you always have to have cacti, too,” she notes. Traveling the circuit of flower and garden shows is a highlight of her job. She chooses plants to take to each show based on demographics, with consideration for size, exceptional appearance and bloom status.

While Jana loves running her own nursery, natural disasters have taken their toll. In addition to extreme heat and insect invasions, high winds are a major struggle. “Losing greenhouse roofs in a rain and wind storm is like being in an epic movie scene,” Jana says. “Then there are freezes. I literally lost half the nursery six winters ago. It almost wiped me out.”

Jana is content to continue with her nursery as is, with no immediate plans for expansion of her business. “I love the freedom to do what I think is top priority, which is to educate the public,” she says with fondness for her career. “This is my passion in life, and I try to share it with others.”

The soft, white spines of this small round cactus (Notocactus haselbergii) native to Brazil are offset by its brilliant orange blooms that can last for weeks.

Jana grows a few native cactus species but specializes in hundreds of small varieties from around the world, including one of the smallest hedgehogs (Echinocereus reichenbachii var. albispinus), which is native to the Chihuahuan Desert and is prized for its white spines and large pink blooms.
A mature blue palo verde (Cercidium floridum) provides branches for hanging pots. Much of Jana’s garden art consists of handmade pieces by her artist friends who also travel the plant show circuit.

One of Jana’s prized specimens is a spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla), the leaves of which take on a spiral formation as the plant ages. This unique plant is endemic to the Kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa.
Two of Jana’s native desert tortoises inhabit an enclosure located in the shade of a blue palo verde tree.

These lithops (Lithops fulviceps var. aurea) are commonly called “living stones.” The pebble shapes are actually the tops of the plants’ leaves.

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