Cacti

Are you dreaming of transforming your backyard or an area of your garden into a stunning oasis of prickly wonders? Growing a cactus garden in Australia can be a rewarding and low-maintenance venture, adding a touch of unique beauty to your outdoor space.

These plants need little in the way of food and water, so they’re a great choice for both beginners and gardeners who lack a green thumb. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the essential steps to create and look after a flourishing cactus garden that can thrive in local conditions.

The country has diverse climates, so be sure to select cacti that can thrive in your specific region whether you live in the arid desert region or a more temperate coastal area. The good news is that you have lots of options since these versatile plants can adapt to most zones. Check with your local hardware or garden centre for advice and varieties to suit your garden.  Review these popular choices to start your search.

  • Brain Cactus (Mammillaria elongata cristata) If you want to know what this cactus resembles, just look at its unusual name. The brain cactus comes from Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. In the blooming season, from late winter to early summer, you’ll experience a colourful array of flowers in bright yellow, red and pink shades. The brain cactus is a manageable size for most gardens, growing to about 30 centimetres wide and 15 centimetres tall.
  • Bunny Ears Cactus (Opuntia microdasys) As the name suggests, this cactus looks like a rabbit, but you might also hear it called the angel wing cactus or polka dot cactus. It can grow to about 60 centimetres tall, and each of the “ears” is about 15 centimetres wide. The bunny ears cactus doesn’t need much water, but it does need lots of sunlight for best results. It’s also a good cactus to grow indoors since it’s susceptible to frost damage, as long as you give it a nice spot next to a window.
  • Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera) This festive cactus, a Brazilian native, does well in planters and pots. The Christmas cactus produces white, red and pink flowers during its winter blooming season. During the rest of the year, the plant’s oblong, flat leaves have a soft, hair-like texture.
  • Cowboy Cactus (Euphorbia acrurensis) You can form a resplendent green wall of foliage with these tall, sturdy cacti. The cowboy cactus makes an eye-catching display when planted in the ground thanks to its clustered thorns. It can grow up to about 60 centimetres wide and 2 metres high, and it’s quite tolerant of drought conditions. Fans of this species love the classic desert aesthetic it brings to a garden or yard.
  • Desert Cactus (Euphorbia ammak) If you love the look of tall cacti, consider this towering, ridged variety. These plants have a pale colour and thorny steps. The desert cactus grows quickly and tolerates drought well. Make sure you have plenty of space since this variety can reach up to 3 metres wide and 6 metres tall when fully grown.
  • Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) If you’re looking for low-maintenance plants that will do well in pots, consider the Golden Barrel variety. This Mexican native stands out for its dome shape, which provides a cute counterpoint to tall cacti species. The golden barrel can reach a maximum size of about 90 centimetres wide and 60 centimetres high. It needs lots of direct sun, so it’s not a great choice if you’re planning to grow your cacti garden indoors.
  • Golden Rat Tail Cactus (Cleistocactus winteri) This medium-sized cactus can grow to about 1 metre wide and 30 centimetres high. The long, golden leaves resemble a rat’s tail, which explains the unusual name of this eye-catching plant. Left to grow long enough, the spines will begin to cascade downward, so the golden rat tail makes a cool addition to rock gardens and hanging baskets. During the summer months, you’ll find tube-shaped blooms that range in hue from orange to peach.
  • Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis) A Mexican native, this distinguished cactus gets its name from the long, fuzzy white hairs you’ll find all over its stalks. The towering stalks produce big white blooms during the growing season. This old man can spend plenty of time indoors, though it can get up to 5 metres tall when fully mature.
  • Peruvian Torch Cactus (Trichocereus macrogonus) This cactus variety is known for its large white flowers and tall, column-like stalks. A mature torch cactus can reach about 5 metres in height, with branches of about 16 centimetres in diameter. This species has long been used for medicinal purposes in its native Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.
  • Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria) This adorable round cactus is an ideal addition to a mini garden. It only grows to about 20 centimetres wide and 40 centimetres high. Despite its small size, it makes a big impact with its red, yellow and pink flowers. More than 200 different types of cacti fall into the Mammillaria genus, and many have colourful names like “birthday cake cactus.” It’s worth exploring the wide array to find the pincushions you like best.
  • Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) You may have heard of or even eaten the sweet fruit of this cactus before. The prickly pear variety comes from Mexico and features distinctive flat, spiny leaves. In addition to fruit, this cactus produces large, vibrantly coloured blooms. It’s also one of the most maintenance-free cactus species, so it’s a smart choice for beginners. On the other hand, the prickly pear species isn’t for you if you’re looking to start with small cacti. These plants can grow up to 3 metres wide and 7 metres tall, with a trunk diameter of up to 1 metre. If you want to highlight one showstopping plant in your cactus garden, the prickly pear could be the one.
Growing Cacti Care Guide: Tips for how to create and look after a striking cactus garden
Growing Cacti Care Guide: Tips for how to create and look after a striking cactus garden

Growing Conditions

Aspect Most cacti thrive in full sunlight and dry air, so Australia’s climate provides a perfect fit, however, there are a few that are sun-sensitive, so check the plant tag before planting. Survey your outdoor space and choose a spot for your garden that receives at least six hours of direct daily sun. Try a sunny corner of your backyard, a north-facing slope or even a windowsill if you’re planning an indoor potted cactus garden.

Planning & designing a cactus garden Before getting your hands dirty, sketch a rough layout of your cactus garden. Consider the size, shape and arrangement of your plants, considering their eventual growth. The planning stage allows you to create an aesthetically pleasing and well-organised space.

Become familiar with the basic principles of landscape design to create an attractive cactus garden. Some tricks to try include:

  • Highlighting a single eye-catching cactus species
  • Grouping a tall cactus collection to create a green wall
  • Scattering plants of different shapes along with other succulents and shrubs
  • Building a terrarium that showcases your favourite plants along with stones and rocks
  • Lining your window sill with tiny cacti in terracotta pots

Gather cactus garden ideas from sources like magazines, online photos and garden centres. Look for arrangements that would fit naturally in your available landscape for inspiration.

Spring and autumn provide the ideal setting for cactus gardens. The milder climate during these seasons allows your cacti to establish their roots without the stress of extreme temperatures.

Steer clear of planting during the scorching summer or freezing winter months. The intense heat of summer can lead to dehydration and sunburn. Frost during winter can damage the delicate tissues of your cacti.

Once your cactus garden has fully rooted, it should be able to withstand the entire spectrum of temperatures. As an evergreen perennial, the plant will thrive throughout the year.

Soil Your location should also have excellent drainage. Sandy or rocky soils work well for cacti, preventing water from pooling around the roots. If you’re using pots, make sure they have drainage holes and use a premium potting mix for succulents and cacti.

Cacti generally prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil. Test your soil’s pH of your soil and amend it with lime to adjust the acidity levels. Maintaining the right pH helps the plant absorb essential nutrients and promotes overall health.

Potting If you use pots, transfer your plant to a larger home when you begin seeing roots pushing against the sides and bottom of the container. Most varieties require repotting every two to three years.

Repotting a cactus is easy:

  • Gently remove the cactus from its pot and place it in the hole.
  • Backfill with a premium potting mix for succulents & cacti.
  • Water it in with Seasol sparingly to settle the soil and help aid plant establishment.

If you’re planting a terrarium cactus garden, line your container with a thin layer of gravel. Then, add your cactus soil on top before incorporating your plants.

Climate Most cacti prefer an arid, semi-arid climate but will adapt to most zones. Check plant tags for individual plant requirements.

Growing Cacti Care Guide: Tips for how to create and look after a striking cactus garden
Growing Cacti Care Guide: Tips for how to create and look after a striking cactus garden

General Care

Watering While cacti are renowned for their ability to withstand drought, they still need regular watering. Water your plant deeply but infrequently. Many species don’t need hydration during the first month after you plant cacti, but check the care label to make sure.

Overwatering is a common pitfall, so monitor the moisture levels closely. In the summer, you may only need to water your garden once a week, especially if you live somewhere that gets plenty of rain.

If your cactus isn’t getting enough water, you’ll notice that the plant starts to shrivel. The leaves will also dry out, beginning at the tips, and may eventually fall off. In this case, providing plenty of hydration as soon as possible typically rejuvenates cacti.

Feeding & mulching Don’t forget about fertiliser when planning your cactus plant care. A liquid or granular fertiliser can be used for optimal results. Apply granular  PowerFeed Controlled Release All Purpose including Natives once every season. It combines a premium mix of nutrients, seaweed, and microbes for all cacti. Supplement or apply a liquid fertiliser such as PowerFeed All Purpose including Natives every month at half strength (mix 20mL of PowerFeed concentrate per 9 litres of water) from spring to autumn and less often in winter.

Mulching is a secret weapon in maintaining a healthy cactus garden. Apply a layer of mulch such as gravel, rocks, stones or coarse pinebark around your cacti to conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and regulate soil temperature. Just be sure to keep the mulch away from the base of the cacti to prevent rot.

When you’re done, add finishing touches like a layer of small stones or a border wall made from several larger rocks. These accents make your garden stand out.

Pruning Prune dead or damaged segments to encourage new growth and maintain the overall health and appearance of your cacti. Many species need pruning toward the end of the winter or early in the spring. Using a sterile knife, gently remove old and extraneous branches. You can also use healthy cuttings to grow new cactus plants.

Watch for Cacti are low-maintenance, so a little care goes a long way. Periodically inspect your garden for signs of pests, diseases or dead growth.

  • Overwatering It can lead to root rot and other fungal diseases. If this occurs, you may notice that parts of the plant turn black and soft, especially around the base of the cactus. While watering is important, remember that cacti are built to withstand dry conditions. Allow the soil to dry out completely between watering sessions. During the winter, your cactus garden may only need water once every few weeks.
  • Poor Drainage Inadequate drainage can also claim the life of your cacti. Proper drainage prevents waterlogging. Incorporate sand or perlite into your soil mix and choose well-draining containers as simple yet effective solution.
  • Ignoring Climate Considerations Australia’s climate varies greatly from region to region. Avoid the mistake of selecting plants that aren’t well-suited to your local climate. Match the needs of your cacti with the conditions of your area for optimal success.
  • Neglecting Soil pH Cacti have specific soil pH preferences. Ignoring this factor can impact their overall health. Test your soil and make the necessary adjustments to create an environment where your plant can thrive.
  • Overcrowding Resist the temptation to pack plants into the garden too tightly. While it’s exciting to have a variety of cacti, giving them ample space ensures proper air circulation and reduces the risk of disease. Consider the mature size of each cactus and plan accordingly.
  • Limited sunlight The cactus is a tough plant, but it can develop issues in a shady spot. Too much shade can also keep your plants from flowering, stunt leaf growth and lead to pale, thin branches. You may notice the stalks start to stretch as if they’re seeking the sun.
    Without enough sun, your garden can develop disease and encourage pests like mealybugs and aphids. Mealybugs appear as fluffy white spots on the leaves and spines. At this stage, you can treat the plant with EarthCare Enviro Oil insect spray. Left unchecked, this pest creates a sticky substance, which attracts ants that further damage the plant. When you move plants into a sunnier spot, take it slow. Rotate the pots by about a quarter-turn every week to prevent hot spots caused by direct sunlight. Sun damage shows up as a whitish discolouration on the cactus stems. Limited sunlight commonly causes problems for indoor cactus gardens. Moving your pots closer to the window can help with this situation.