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Designing an Outdoor Cactus Container

An outdoor cactus container can be a lovely accent for a porch or patio, a centerpiece for outdoor furniture, or a flexible focal point to move around the yard. But how can you design the best container for these spiny succulents?

Why Use Containers for Cacti?

When many beautiful types of cacti will grow naturally in Tucson’s 9a/9b hardiness zone, why choose to keep these lovely plants in containers instead of directly in the landscape? A container can set cacti apart as unique specimens and draw attention to them, and depending on the size, shape, and color of the container, it can add more visual and textural interest to the yard. Containers can also be easily moved to position the cacti in the best sunlight at different times of the year. A suitable container will nurture the cacti it holds with the very best drainage and less competition for vital moisture and nutrients.

Many different containers can be used for cacti, from simple terra cotta or plastic pots to all types of decorative containers. Concrete bird baths, tiered fountain structures, tin tubs, and other unique containers also make great options. The container should generally be 2-3 inches wider than the cactus to provide adequate space without sprawling, and drainage holes are essential to ensure the roots don’t sit in water that will foster rot and disease.

Choosing the Cacti

Many types of cacti can thrive in containers, but it is important to note that different plants have different needs. Most are slow-growing and can be perfectly happy in containers for years, but be sure the pot has enough space to accommodate the root system. Consider the color, shape, and size of the cacti to coordinate with your chosen container, and also consider the overall look of the container. A barrel cactus, for example, will look fantastic as a single showpiece in the correct container, while smaller cacti specimens will shine in clusters. If you are planting several types in the same container, arrange them so each plant receives adequate light, and they aren’t too tightly packed but also not too far apart.

Planting a Cactus Container

Regardless of what types of cacti you choose for what type of container, it is important to plant them carefully so as not to injure yourself or the plants. You will need your container and cacti, as well as gravel or small stones, a cactus-specialized potting mix, thick garden gloves, and something thick, such as a burlap sack, to handle larger plants with longer spines.

To plant a cactus container…

  1. Add gravel or small rocks to the bottom of your container for weight and drainage. The container must have holes, but rocks add extra drainage, so critical for good cactus health.
  2. To provide the best drainage, fill the container with cactus potting soil, which will be looser and grittier than typical potting soil. Leave space at the top for the cactus.
  3. Carefully move the cacti into the pot, using gloves or wrapping the plants in burlap to cushion them and avoid painful pricks.
  4. Position each plant (if more than one) in the pot as desired, keeping the cacti at the same depth as in the original container to avoid smothering.
  5. Finish filling the pot with soil and press it down lightly with your fingers to provide adequate support for the newly planted cacti.
  6. Mulch the top with decorative gravel, sand, or fun accents such as painted rocks.
  7. Water the pot carefully and sparingly. Be sure to give enough water so that it flows out of the bottom of the container. Less is more when watering a cactus container, and the pot should be allowed to dry out between waterings. In winter cacti in containers require water much less frequently.

Where to Position Your Outdoor Cactus Container

Once planted, it’s time to position your outdoor cactus container in exactly the right spot. A very large, heavy container will be easiest to move if it is on a stand with casters, or you may want to plant it in the location where it will be displayed.

Cactus container gardens can look beautiful on a porch or patio, or several can be used to line a walkway or stairs – just be sure they aren’t too close to high-traffic areas that might cause painful contact with passersby. Large containers can look lovely around a pool or even positioned within the landscape for a pop of color and elevation that will draw attention to the cacti.

Take into account the plants’ sunlight needs when positioning a cactus container, noting that western sunlight is often the fiercest and might cause sunburn. Late-day shade can be best to protect the plants, but be sure they have the best light for healthy growth.

Proper Container Care

A cactus container requires minimal maintenance, but the right care can keep the plants healthy and thriving. Inspect containers regularly for signs of damage (to the plants as well as the pot), pests, or rot. Occasional fertilization is necessary to ensure the cacti have appropriate nutrients. Applying fertilizer in March, June and September is typically enough. Use a special cactus fertilizer, and reduce feeding during dormant periods. Water the container as needed when the soil is dried out, taking into account any water Mother Nature already provides. As the plants grow, be prepared to repot them into more suitably sized containers as needed.

With careful selection and proper care, an outdoor cactus container can be a lovely piece to enjoy for years, bringing beauty and distinction to your outdoor space.