9 Ways to Design with Cactus

Their needles and joints make cactus some of the most interesting—and drought-tolerant—plants to use in the garden. From accent plant to anchor point, here’s how to get it right

Johanna Silver
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Pot them

Though not technically a cactus but a part of the same succulent family, rosette-shaped Agave potatorum 'Kissho Kan' boasts variegated leaves and razor-sharp spines, giving it a hypnotizing symmetry, worthy of standing alone. Cactus and succulents thrive in containers, provided they’re planted in a fast-draining cactus mix, watered sparingly, and have proper drainage at the bottom of the container.

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Use them as an artful accent

In this Menlo Park, CA backyard, agaves (A.‘Blue Glow’) in the circular bed—edged with almost-invisible black steel—are widely spaced to show off their structural shapes (this also allow room for growth). Inside the circle, crushed gravel in grey further helps set apart the planting from the otherwise buff-colored gravel of the pathways. Succulents are just a part of this garden. Behind the circular bed, a trio of lacy-leaved birch trees provides the perfect veil of privacy for the master bath. Architect Keith Willig planted asparagus ferns (Asparagus aethiiopics ‘Myeri’), which have similar water needs, underneath. Design: Keith Willig Landscape Architecture and Construction, Menlo Park, CA; keithwilliglandscape.com.

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Mimic nature

Compact cactuses, boulders, and palm trees are all it takes to create an iconic landscape. “This garden represents the ultimate in desert landscaping: desert plant specimens displayed in natural-looking settings to provide a visual oasis with little or no water,” says Lauri Aylaian, Palm Desert’s director of community development. This public memorial garden in Palm Desert, CA features spherical barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and rosette-shaped Agave victoriae-reginae ‘Queen Victoria’ and sporadic boulders bordering a sandy path. Farther down the walk, larger agave and Dasylirion wheeleri accent the low-growing cactuses and echo the size and shape of the cluster of skirted California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). Design: Chuck Shepardson and George Sicre. Reported by Kimberly Gomes.

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Cluster them amongst boulders

Southern California’s rare rains provide the only water that Chris and Margaret Sullivan’s front yard gets. Yet its barrel and columnar cactus, Mexican blue fan palms, and Yucca rostrata all thrive. Arranged among boulders in randomly spaced groups like pieces of art, the plants grow in a decomposed granite–cactus mix blend, top-dressed with 3/8-inch Palm Springs Gold gravel. “This garden is 100 times less work than a lawn,” says Chris, who hoses off the barrel cactus in summer only if they’re dusty, and uses long-handled tweezers to extract weeds. “Rabbits eat neighboring gardens, but they’ve shown no interest in ours.” —Debra Lee Baldwin

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Plant them where their spines will glow

Though cholla spines are sharp as can be, their appearance of glowing in the sun makes them a star in a garden. Here, in the Fort Collins, CO home of designer Lauren Springer Ogden, a petite form of cholla (Cylindropuntia whipplei 'Snow Leopard') absolutely glows—as if they have auras—at dusk. Adding to the scene are the bright, ephemeral blooms of orange California poppies and pink Salvia greggii 'Wild Thing'. A handful of yucca, including Y. thompsoniana, miniature Y. harrimaniae, and a hybrid yucca in back, add year-round structure with their sword-like leaves. Design: Lauren Spring Ogden, Plant Driven Design, Fort Collins, CO; plantdrivendesign.com.

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Combine textures

The white spines of Cylindropuntia whipplei 'Snow Leopard'—a dwarf cholla, suitable for home gardens—look simply awesome against the bladelike leaves of a baby Yucca thompsoniana.

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Create a backdrop

Columnar cactus boast a tall, narrow footprint, making them perfect to hide a fence line or act as a divider for outdoor rooms. They need the bare-minimum of water and take next to no maintenance. Here, tall columns of Pachycereus marginatus create a dramatic backdrop for stylish butterfly chairs and The Midge Table (both available from pottedstore.com).

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Give them center stage

To extend the natural feel of the desert into the garden of this Tucson home, landscape designer Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery mimicked the surroundings, mixing prickly and pillar-like plants with soft and shrubby ones. Saguaro cactus and Agave parryi add structure and texture in front of the patio, while pomegranate, yellow rose and lavender add “Monet-inspired” color throughout. The potted cacti also add structure to the space, and a native velvet mesquite tree lends a feather canopy. The scene is as easy on the eyes as it is on the irrigation and upkeep—a once monthly cleanup does the trick, and only the trees and pots need supplemental water, and only during the hottest time of the year. Design: Elizabeth Przgoda Montgomery, Boxhill Design, Tucson, AZ; boxhilldesign.com.

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Play off their cool colors

Muted colors of teal, purple, and soft green visually cool down the desert heat and allow the textures to shine in this Tucson landscape. Feathery fountain grass (Pennisetum) adds softness behind a spikey artichoke agave (Agave parryi 'Huachucensis') and provides a natural transition to the grassland beyond. To achieve this subtle look, designer Elizabeth Przgoda recommends looking for plants “in Monet’s color palette” whose soft tones complement the natural landscape. The grasses and agave need little care and the blossoms on the Euphorbia rigida blossoms in the foreground can be trimmed after they bloom or left to fade for added interest. Design: Elizabeth Przgoda Montgomery, Boxhill Design, Tucson, AZ; boxhilldesign.com.