Cactus gardens are amazing, gorgeous, and nature’s miracle all in one. If you think that growing cactus plants in your garden isn’t possible, think again. Cactus and succulents are one of the hottest garden trends going on right now, and we all should give them a little look. Live in a northern climate and don’t think you can grow them? We cover that too. Here’s how to grow cactus, how to care for them, and some great inspiration in using cacti as a modern design element to update any garden or landscaping .
How to Care for Your Cactus Plants or Cactus Garden
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
First of all, when most of us think of cactus, we think of the varieties meant for desert environments. While there are many beautiful ones that grow down south, most people don’t know that there are several hardy varieties as well. Check with your local nursery, then check out our guidelines for growing in northern gardens. So number one is that they need to be well matched with their planting zone.
Where to Plant Cactus Plants in Your Garden
The general rule is lots of sun. But 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. If growing in containers, use a commercially available cactus mix.
How Often 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. Good practice is to simply let mother nature do the watering for you. But, if you get several weeks of hot, dry weather, you should probably water them. It’s as simple as that when growing cactus in your garden.
Growing Cactus Plants in the North
So besides following all the normal guidelines for growing cactus, the main trick to growing cactus plants in the north is to grow the proper varieties. For instance, ‘prickly pear’ or ‘cholla’ cactus. Better Homes and Gardens has a good article on just that right here.
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!
Cactus Garden Ideas
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!)
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 “Mexican Fence Post” 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‘.
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!) Below is an Agave Americana – Blue Agave.
Heres a great example of how a garden does not have to be a full on total cactus garden, and how inserting a few cactus plants and agaves can really add texture and variety to your garden. Photo below from Houzz.
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 every spring with gorgeous yellow flowers.
Isn’t this gorgeous? A really good example of what you can do if you live up north. These large containers really showcase the cold hardy prickly pear cactus plants and is a nice contrast to the flowing mexican feather grass in the garden below them! Photo below from Houzz.
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! Check out our post Indoor Cool Cactus & Succulent Projects.
Well that’s it. Hope you learned a little about how to grow cactus plants and were inspired by some of these cactus garden ideas for your yard or home. You might be interested in our visit to Moorten Botanical Garden in Palm Springs. You might also like our post on 13 indoor plant shelf ideas on our sister site OhMeOhMy.