If you never thought you would want to grow a cactus garden, or want to have cactus plants in your yard, then let us change your mind! (And if you already love them, join the ride!) We had an opportunity to visit one of the best desert botanical gardens on the West Coast, and we learned two things that we want to pass onto our readers. Growing cactus plants is easy. (Really!) And cactus gardens are amazing, gorgeous, and nature’s miracle all in one. If you don’t happen to live in an area where you can grow desert cactus, no problem. Learn how to have a cactus garden in your own yard or home no matter where you live. Small or large, indoors or out! Because, whether you call ’em cacti or cactus, they are beautiful, architectural, dramatic, and drought resistant plants. They are great xeriscaping plants, exceptional versatile, and many of them can even tolerate the cold. Did we mention beautiful?
First, let us show you some tips & tricks on how to grow a cactus garden or plants yourself. (Can’t be said too much, it’s easy!) And then we will get you inspired with our visit to Moorten’s. (BTW, this awesome place is a world famous “Cactarium” in Palm Springs, California, it has been featured as one of the best West Coast Gardens in Sunset Magazine and USA Today, and is one of the most Instagrammed places on the West Coast!)
Grow a Cactus Garden
Our Favorite Desert Cactus Plants
We are starting off with some of our favorite desert cactus. If you live in the Southwest or Western US, (or a similar climate) these all might be possibilities for you in one way or another. If not, several of them can be grown indoors. (We do it, and they are the easiest houseplants we have!) Not to worry, keep reading for how to grow cactus in cold winter areas.
Agave (Century Plant)
The Agave plant is one of our favorite desert plants! Ironically, it is not a cactus, but a succulent. We felt it was really important to include here because it has the same growing needs as cactus plants, and is so important in the desert garden. Oh, and the tips are very spiky, so there is that similarity too! Its is strikingly architectural, and comes in many different sizes and forms. The blue agave is the very plant they use to make tequila. Agave also has forms that can be grown in colder temperatures. ‘High Country Gardens‘ has several especially frost resistant Century Plant varieties that are hardy down to Zone 5! Agave plants are slow growers, and can be grown easily indoors. (We grow several!)
Photo by ‘Gardenia‘.
Blue Agave, photo by Steve Bates.
The Golden Barrel Cactus is my personal favorite cactus. It grows in a cushion shape with an intricate pattern of spines. It catches the glow from afternoon sun in way few other plants can, with a halo of light. They can be used in a natural desert cactus garden, a modern garden, or easily grown indoors with bright light.
There are so many cactus plants that fit into the “columnar cactus” designation that we can’t even attempt to cover them all here. From “Peruvian Torch” to “Hedge Cactus” and everything in between, these are the backbones and workhorses of any good cactus garden. Which by no means makes them less beautiful!
Another great aspect of cactus gardening is what they can look like at night when properly lighted. Here their texture and form are highlighted, making your home look like a high end resort.
Ocotillo is actually not a true cactus, but a shrub. This amazing natural miracle looks like a dead stick when dormant. But one good spring or summer rain and almost overnight they turn into a blooming, green leaved shrub of substance. Much beloved in the desert gardening community for their hummingbird luring flowers and their strong upright form.
Photo from ‘Houzz‘.
When most people think of the word cactus, they think of the mighty Saguaro cactus, with branched arms. It is practically synonymous with cowboys and the Old West. But what many don’t realize is that is can take 40 years or more for a Saguaro to reach that size. And, the older and larger they are, the more expensive they cost for a backyard garden! You can plant younger Saguaro cactus plants in your garden that are smaller and have not yet branched out their “arms” for a lot less. And as you can see below, they are amazing. And, you will have planted cactus for the generations to come, as well. Saguaros can live up to 200 years old!
Photo from ‘Houzz‘.
This is great photo of a front yard cactus garden with blue agave, barrel cactus and small Saguaros. Color, form and texture!
How to Care for Cactus
Ok, now it’s time to find out how easy it is to grow a cactus garden. Here are the main tips you need to remember when growing cactus plants in your yard.
Check Your Zone
As you will read farther down this post, there are cactus plants for almost every zone. Make sure you buy plants for your cactus garden that will work for your area, or grow them indoors.
Where to Plant Cactus
Not every cactus wants to be in full sun all day long. There are some varieties that would prefer to have some afternoon shade in areas with strong summers. You can plant them where they will get a shade shadow from a wall or a fence later in the day. Check your varieties’ requirements carefully.
Have the Right Tools
Whether planting a larger cactus in the yard, or a smaller one in a pot, the nature of a cactus plants’ spines require that you have some specialty equipment. A good, heavy pair of leather gloves used only for cactus are a must. Also, we use tongs for moving smaller cacti. We wrap the ends of the tongs in plastic wrap to pad them. When transplanting large cactus, aside from the leather gloves, use bubble wrap or carpet padding to wrap the cactus in before moving it. This will give you something to grip to make the move easier, and will protect you.
Have the Proper Soil Conditions
One thing cactus plants will not tolerate is poor draining soil. You must add grit and sand to your soil if it has any draining issues at all. Poor soil will do fine as long as it drains.
How to Water Cactus
In nature, cacti are designed to withstand long periods of drought, followed by intense and sudden rains that come all at once. For this reason, try to give them the same in your yard, to a degree. Allow the soil to dry out, then drench with water thoroughly. Simple as that to grow these drought tolerant plants!
Other Tips for Your Cactus Garden
Do NOT plant a cactus plant in full shade. It will not thank you with a healthy plant.
Do NOT ignore our advice on well draining soil.
Do NOT Assume that a cactus needs NO care or NO water. They do want a little attention!
Other Types of Cactus Plants & Gardens
Cold Hardy Cactus
For those of you who don’t live in the Southwest and can’t grow a true desert cactus garden, don’t give up! There are truly cold hardy cactus plants that you can grow even as far north as Canada. Check out ‘High Country Gardens‘ for their great article on how to grow cold hardy cacti, and what the best varieties are for your zone. We have grown “Opuntia” (Beavertail Cactus, below) which is a variety of Prickly Pear in our own garden in the Pacific Inland Northwest. We get regular snow and temperatures down to 20 in the winter, and it comes back even spring with gorgeous pink flowers.
Indoor Cactus Garden
And of course, you can grow almost any cactus indoors in containers. Give them bright light, but don’t leave them in a window with baking direct sun. They will need a very well drained soil to thrive in pots. We purchase a cactus mix potting soil and it works fine for us. Water once every couple of weeks in the summer, less often in the winter. When you do water, drench the plant well and then let it dry out throughly. This replicates their natural watering with monsoonal rains. That’s all there is to it! One of the secrets we use with transplanting and maintaining indoor cactus is a set of kitchen tongs and the end of wooden spoon to pack soil around the base. They work wonders!
Moorten Botanical Garden Visit
Steve & I love Palm Springs. So much that we are building a home there, so we are always looking for garden design ideas every time we visit. The Moorten Botanical Gardens were established in 1939 by Patricia and Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten. It is run today by their son, Clark Moorten, who is a cactus expert extraordinaire. (NOT an understatement.) This is a one of kind garden and something that should not be missed if you are visiting the area. Their greenhouse is so well known and appreciated that is is used for everything from engagements to high fashion shoots. They even have weddings here! Steve and I visited in the hottest month of the year, which in Palm Springs is “Slow Season”, and it was packed on an afternoon that was 110 degrees! Here is a snapshot of our visit. We hope it inspires you, too!
If you want to read more about the gardening lessons you can learn from Palm Springs from our previous trips, read about our Desert Garden Nursery visit or our Lessons in Desert Gardening! (Fun Fact: Both of these posts have a romantic ending!) Also, we can strongly recommend a book called “Desert Gardens of Steve Martino”. Steve is an outstanding designer who specialize in desert & cactus gardens and his book is full of inspiring photographs of xeriscaping and amazing garden design.
Another desert botanical garden in the Palm Springs area you can’t miss is The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens. Not only do they have amazing and varied gardens, they also have a full zoo with giraffes, wolves, cheetahs… Yep, the real deal, in the desert! A must on your Places to Visit in Palm Springs List!
We hope you were inspired by this post on Growing a Cactus Garden. And we hope you will get to visit the Moorten Botanical Gardens! We think you will also love our posts on 10 Gardens to Visit Before You Die , Alternatives to Grass : Front Yard Landscaping and 10 No Fail Perennials for Low Water Gardens!Image Credits: Gardenia, Houzz, Houzz, High Country Gardens