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Cultivating Cacti

Check out these tips on how to cultivate cacti in your backyard.

Cacti have a reputation for being a lazy gardener's dream come true, but they're not entirely no-maintenance plants. "If you're willing to do some gardening but don't want to work continuously, a cactus garden — once it's well established — is not a lot of work," says Patrick Quirk, a horticulturist at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

In the low desert, natives like the saguaro are by far the easiest to grow. But if you live in cold climates, odds are there's a cactus perfect for you; just choose a plant adaptable to your area. In fact, 47 states claim at least one native cactus species.

"If you live in other parts of the nation, you may find that some of the cactus varieties that come from South America, the high mountains or coastal regions may be easier for you to grow — especially ones that come from places that have severe frosts," says Quirk.

A healthy cactus will flower — eventually. The secret is good care and maturity. "If the plant is in good health and mature, it will flower," he says. "Some cacti mature in three years; some may take 50 or more years. It just depends on the species. But if you take good care of these plants and make them fat and happy, they'll bloom."


The foundation of good cactus care is soil. In the desert, the norm is sand, gravel, silt and such — a mineral-based medium without a lot of organic content. And that's the recipe that Quirk likes to duplicate in containers.

"Peat and cactus don't mix," he says. "I use a mixture of forest mulch for organic matter in the cactus soil."

Quirk's recipe:

three scoops of fine-sand mineral soil
one scoop of forest mulch

  • Mix thoroughly.
  • Put a piece of newspaper in the bottom of the container to prevent the medium from draining out of the holes (but still allowing water to drain).
  • Put the plant in, using tongs to protect against injury. Pour the soil around the plant's roots. This is best done with soil that is nearly or completely dry because it will fill in all the little pore spaces. Make sure the roots are adequately buried.
  • Water the plant well to settle in the roots. Although it's true that cactus plants have a well-developed water storage system and can go for long periods in the desert without it, water is essential to the life of the plant. During active growth in spring and summer, let the plants dry out thoroughly between waterings. In the winter, cut back on watering altogether.

    A final tip: Never let a cactus remain in standing water; that's another reason why well-drained soil is so very important. And in winter, if you notice your cactus shriveling up, don't worry; that's a protective measure the plant takes to make sure the water it has stored doesn't freeze. As the weather warms and the plant begins to grow actively, it will smooth out nicely.

    And a final tidbit: Is the plural of this plant's name "cactuses" or "cacti"? Says Quirk: "'Cactus' comes from a Greek word, not Latin, so the English rules of pronunciation would call for 'cactuses.' But the custom among most growers has been to say 'cacti' — a pseudo-Latin plural."

  • Resources(Hide)

    • Patrick Quirk
      The Desert Botanical Garden
      Phoenix, AZ
      Phone: 480-941-1225
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