Ron McKitrick surveys his raised garden-beds filled with a mind-boggling array of cactus and says with a grin, “It’s a cult.”

His Hillside Desert Botanical Gardens feature cactuses he’s nurtured from seed, including species some mistakenly believe are too heat-needy for our cold winters, and succulents from around the globe. Through dogged experimentation, McKitrick has created what many botanical experts call one of the finest cactus gardens in the world. And because of his delight in sharing what he’s learned, people throughout the northwest have joined his “cactus cult.”

McKitrick, 77, is low-key but has a big smile and is a font of knowledge. He says it all started with a simple appreciation for growing things.

After his parents divorced early in his childhood in Topeka, Kansas, he and his sister were brought to Naches to live with an aunt and uncle. “They became our parents. That’s where I learned to love plants.” He worked around his uncle’s fruit orchard and helped his aunt with her garden.

Despite that agrarian upbringing, his career was in pharmacy. McKitrick spent 48 years as a pharmacist, all of it at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital. He enjoyed his work, but the desire to nurture plants remained.

The house he bought on the north slope of Ahtanum Ridge in the mid-1970s was surrounded by nearly 200 dwarf apple trees planted by the previous owner. With the yard already full, McKitrick turned to indoor gardening.

“I put up some shelves and grow lights in the living room and bought whatever houseplants were at the supermarket,” he said. Before long, he needed more and more shelves. Rather than displace his wife and kids, McKitrick dug out a few apple trees by hand and put up a small greenhouse in 1978. “That’s when I decided I wanted one of every plant in the world. Why limit yourself?”

While he didn’t have one of everything, there were enough plants to fill the greenhouse. Despite being heated, all the houseplants died that winter except for a few small cactuses.

“After that, I bought every type of cactus the grocery store had, which wasn’t a lot. That’s when I started ordering by mail.”

An obsession was born.

Quickly the greenhouse was filled anew with a wide array of cactuses. McKitrick dug out more apple trees in 1981 to put up a second greenhouse. That was filled within a year.

Instead of erecting a third building, he looked for a suitable planting spot. A flowerbed on the south side of the house seemed apt, snugged against the foundation and too hot in summer for anything else.

He selected a couple of chollas (cho’ yahs), a hardy cactus native to the American Southwest, and stuck them in the ground. “It was a total experiment.”

For the first few winters, he protected the cactuses with heavy plastic. By the fourth year they were getting big and it was hard to wrestle the covers in place. “I decided to let them fend for themselves.”

They thrived. That’s when McKitrick dug up the remaining apple trees and installed raised beds. He researched cactus varieties and cultivation, developed a soil/sand formula for a growing medium, and learned about the microclimates created by subtle differences in altitude and landform, even within a single yard.

“I figured I’d see what I could get away with growing,” McKitrick said.

He discovered that cactuses from zones as far south as the Texas-New Mexico border would make it here. “Those areas have cold winters, too, so the cactus are hardy.” Varieties from Patagonia in southern South America also grow here.

“Most people think that cactus consists entirely of Prickly Pear and Saguaro. They have no idea of the diversity.” Of the 3,500 known varieties of cactuses, Ron has 300, most started from seed.

“They’re slow to germinate with a slow initial growth rate. At the end of the first year, most are the size of a pea. At two years, they’re marble-sized, then like a golf ball at three years. They can be transplanted into the ground at that point and grow faster.”

With many of his cactuses outdoors, the greenhouses are now lushly crowded with exotic succulents notable for their colors, textures and growing habits. Touring the gardens with McKitrick is like globetrotting in place.

The venerable Cactus and Succulent Society of America featured Hillside Desert Botanical Gardens on a field trip during its 2007 conference in Seattle. Nearly 50 cactus aficionados arrived at McKitrick’s garden during late May’s prime bloom.

“All the big names who write the books came over. They were like little kids on an Easter egg hunt! Everyone had big cameras and lenses,” he said.

One of those “big names” was Graham Charles, internationally-recognized expert and editor of The Cactus Explorer. Even six years after his visit here, Charles remains impressed.

“There are many cactus gardens created in ‘desert’ environments where the climate is ideal to grow a large range of species without protection, but [Ron’s] dedication to finding suitable species and providing the necessary protection is remarkable,” said Charles. “He grows these plants to perfection.”

While he enjoys the accolades, McKitrick’s greatest delight comes from introducing others to the pleasures of cactus gardening.

“People track us down for advice. We’ve planted over 100 cactus gardens around the Northwest and in the process have created a lot of friendships.”

One convert to desert gardening is Jim Whiteside, former Yakima businessman and state legislator. Now 88, Whiteside said he was looking for something to replace the tennis, golf and mountaineering he can no longer do. Whiteside was skeptical about raising cactuses until he saw the diversity at Hillside Gardens.

“My wife and I have always enjoyed gardening and find the cactus fascinating — the variety of shapes, colors, blooms! Ron helped us pick out the best spot and brought us some hardy varieties to get started,” he said.

Before he knew it, Whiteside had more than 50 types of cactuses. Besides his successful outdoor garden, every windowsill inside his house is now occupied by hot climate specimens.

“Ron is the kindest and most thoughtful man who just loves to share his knowledge,” Whiteside said.

McKitrick does, indeed, love sharing his knowledge. After all, he’s launched a Cactus Movement in the Northwest. Converts are always welcome.