To Your Landscape

Cacti create beauty with intriguing shapes,
dazzling flowers

July 23, 2009

by Lupe Cook
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Victoria County Master Gardner
The completed cactus garden boasts of more than 60 varieties with different shapes, sizes and flowering characteristics.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series detailing a first-hand experience of planting a new desert garden with cactus in the local area. Look for next week's article on various cacti planted in this garden.

Last August, my son, David, and I went to San Angelo to visit family. A few days after our arrival, we took a country drive and ended up at Big Bend National Park.

The beauty of the desert mesmerized us. The sun setting over the mountain, and a variety of cacti growing in an arid and rocky terrain, was a sight for sore eyes.

It's amazing that a plant that has so many thorns can create such beauty with its intriguing shapes and dazzling flowers.

The only things missing were the chuck wagon and campfire. Needless to say, the idea of a cacti garden crossed our minds.

Thanks to my husband, Roy, we started our own desert garden last October. Roy is also a Master Gardener, and he knows landscaping and soil preparation.


A cactus is a plant that can store water in fleshy tissues within its stems, leaves or roots. It survives the extreme heat and poor soil conditions in the desert when other plants do not. With our hot and dry summers, our region provides the environment that cacti are adapted to. So why not bring the desert to your landscape? Following the guidelines outlined below will lead to success.


Research the height, width, growth rate, spacing and sun exposure for each plant you want to include in your desert garden. Sketch ideas on paper and indicate where you're planting your plants, making allowances for pathways, large rocks, a water fountain or garden décor.

Draw several sketches so you have options to choose from, and make notations of structures or established trees. Use your imagination. You'd be surprised what you can create to make an attractive garden.

Keep in mind that the sun rises and sets on the horizon at different spots throughout the year. How do seasonal changes affect the exposure of sun to your garden?


The first rule of any gardener in selecting plants is to always choose healthy plants. Supermarket garden centers and nurseries stock quality cacti. Their choice, however, is limited. My son asks for the nursery center delivery day so we have a better chance of selecting plants we don't have.

Look for sales; some retailers have discount days on cacti.

If you want a variety of unusual plants and a bigger display, research the Internet for a cactus nursery near your home. Now that is a trip worth making. For your convenience, you can also mail-order from a retail cactus nursery.


Ready the soil with the following objectives in mind:

Choose a sunny location.

Till the area several times.

Rake out grass clumps, weeds and debris.

Incorporate coarse sand for a sandy loam soil texture if needed for better drainage.

Level the area.

Construct raised beds for better soil drainage, particularly if the area is low and holds water.


When planting your cactus, spread out the roots and place the plant in the hole at the same depth as it was in the pot it came in. Remove debris or dead pads from the cactus before planting. Refer to your sketch for the height, width and growth rate per year so you can plant accordingly.


When handling cactus it is very difficult to avoid thorns. It would be wise to have a few tools handy. Make a newspaper band by folding the paper in half until you have made a 4- to 5-inch wrapper to handle the plant. It is very resourceful when handling barrel or columnar cacti. For prickly pads, try using kitchen tongs. Gloves are also essential. Tweezers are great to remove debris from the plant or thorns from your fingers.

Keep tools clean to avoid rust and spreading diseases. Remove dirt from the tool and dip in one part bleach and nine parts water. Then oil the metal parts to prevent rust on the clipper.


Watering - Over-watering is the worst problem for cacti. During the summer, water when the soil is dry (typically twice a month except for newly planted cacti) about two inches below the surface and water less during dormant season, November throughout March.

Fertilizing - Cacti have low nutrient requirements. Fertilize during the growing season, April-October; do not fertilize during the dormant season. Remember to read the product label carefully. Too much fertilizer can cause salt burn, and not enough will cause nutrient deficiency. Covering the soil with mulch after planting may add sufficient nutrients. Getting a soil test is really the best recommendation for starters.

Preventing Pests and Diseases - Cacti occasionally have problems with two insects: mealybugs and scale. Again, research what can be used to solve the problem. But, good growing conditions and avoiding over-watering is the best prevention of insects and diseases.


I not only had a wonderful vacation, but a rewarding one that led me to start a desert garden with my son, who never had an interest in plants until we returned from our vacation.

As with any other new garden, you will learn by trial and error, but hopefully some tips provided here will help. Once you have established the environment that is best for your plants, all you have to do is watch them grow.

For this desert garden project, my son and I researched 104 plants, which included cacti, succulents and euphorbias. It was indeed a learning experience for both of us.

In next week's article I will share what cacti we planted in our desert garden and some of what we learned about the cacti plants. Check back to see what we planted and learned.
This Thelocactus leucacanthus growing in the Victoria area is an example of Mother Nature's amazing combination of a very thorny cactus plant, with colorful yellow flowers and red fruit.
The beautiful flowers of the Thelocactus leucacanthus grow from new areoles at the very top of the plant.
Master Gardener Roy Cook is preparing the large, raised bed by tilling sand into the soil for the cactus garden designed and planted by his wife, Lupe, and her son, David Gutierrez.
After research on space requirements for various cactus plants at maturity, David Gutierrez places them in the bed jointly designed by him and his mother, Master Gardener Lupe Cook

Leather gloves
Small and large trowels
Bristled typewriter brush to remove debris from plant
Hacksaw for cutting large pads or limbs
Sharp knife for small pads
Lots of newspaper for bands
Fishhook remover or kitchen tongs to handle small or medium plants
Check back with next week's column for information about the various cacti planted in the garden.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at