Cactus and Succulent Gardening: Exotic Desert Plants Add Beauty and Variety to Yards and Patios

The rewards are many for Southwest gardeners who choose drought-resistant and low-water-use cactus, not only environmentally and economically, but aesthetically.

With their unusual shapes and textures, cacti add an exotic touch to the starkest of settings. And while cacti can survive the most brutal summers, in spring their whimsical shoots and fantastical flowers never fail to delight.

For versatility and ease of care, cacti, in the ground or in pots, provide more value for money and time spent than almost any other plant. They also provide beauty and variety to yards and patios year-round. Many varieties are easy to grow from cuttings. A small collection can easily grow into a container garden of dozens of specimens.

Starting a Cactus Garden

While cacti can be grown from seeds, many varieties can be purchased at gardening centers for a minimal cost. Those with patience can purchase starter plants for two or three dollars each. Larger specimens are available ranging in price from about $20.00 for a 3-5 gallon container to hundreds of dollars for mature cactus. A ten-foot tall Saguaro, for example, runs upwards of $1000.00.

For those with more modest landscaping needs, other cacti grow rapidly and will provide volume to your space in a short time. While cacti can grow in a variety of soils, a loose, sandy soil is best. Good drainage is essential. For container gardening, potting soil for cactus and succulents is recommended. For planting cacti in ground with a denser or clay-like soil, mixing the dirt with cactus potting soil or with a handful of small rocks or pebbles improves drainage.

Recommended Cactus for Beginners

The most common and easiest-to-grow varieties of garden cactus are sold by their botanical names but often referred to by colorful names suggestive of their shapes. The following specimens are easy to plant and grow and provide a nice variety of shapes, textures, and colors.

  • The Old Man cactus is long and thin and covered with a fine growth of fuzzy white “hair.” It grows more slowly than many other varieties but is sturdy and reliable.
  • The aptly named “Pencil Plant” has a multitude of long thin branches in a cool green color. It grows very quickly whether in a pot or in the ground. Its tips take on a coral color at certain times of the year, adding a pretty contrast.
  • The Aloe Vera is a fast-propagating succulent which thrives in the worst soils. Rather like the top of a pineapple, its long waxy, pointed leaves in a blue green shade provide a cool contrast to other cactus. The “pups” that appear periodically can be gently removed from the main plant and repotted. It also does well in the ground.
  • The Elephants Food Plant is the most prolific succulent of all. With its small, waxy, tear-shaped leaves and profusion of growth, it adds interest and volume to a patio. It can handle full sun and cuttings transplant easily, making nice gifts.

Tools to Get Started

  • Inexpensive terracotta or ceramic pots in various sizes
  • Durable gardening gloves, preferably leather
  • Cactus and succulent potting soil
  • A length of cardboard and/or a towel which can be wrapped around prickly varieties of cactus when transplanting
  • A good fertilizer such as Superthrive vitamin-hormone mixture
  • Basic gardening tools – a small trowel, a garden fork, and pruners
  • Small pebbles to cover the top of the soil, and to keep the dirt down during watering while adding a decorative touch