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A rock garden with lavender, oputina or prickly pear, yucca, rainbow hedgehog cactus or echinocereus, and more cacti and succulents.

Garden Design With Cold Hardy Cacti & Succulents

By David Salman, High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturist

Here in Santa Fe and throughout the Western United States, waterwise and xeric garden designs are becoming increasingly popular. Xeriscaping not only promotes water conservation but also emphasizes the importance of using plants that are well-suited to our rugged, arid climates. Indeed cacti are ideal xeric plants and will greatly enhance any landscape planting by adding colorful flowers and a year-round structural element.

Don't limit your thoughts on cacti and succulents to houseplants only! The cold hardy members of this large and diverse plant family have the potential for much broader use. They are very showy in outdoor plantings where their spectacular flowers, fascinating spination, and bold evergreen stems add interest and diversity to our plantings.

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Scarlet Hedgehog Cactus or Needle-Spined Claret Cup (Echinocereus coccineus)
Scarlet Hedgehog Cactus or Needle-Spined Claret Cup (Echinocereus coccineus)

Native Cold Hardy Succulents

Our selection of succulents is extensive and includes many rare and unusual varieties from South Africa and the Americas.

Our offerings of North American native succulents include Agave, Yuccas, Hesperaloe (also known as Texas Yucca), Agave, Dasylirion (also known as Texas Sotol), and Phemeranthus (or Fame Flower). North American native succulents range in size from small, almost miniature Agave, to towering tree yuccas that are the giants of the desert flora.

Native Cold Hardy Cacti

Cacti are simply a family, or subcategory of succulents. Cacti are found as native plants only in the Western Hemisphere. Occurring throughout North and South America, the greatest concentration of species is found in Mexico northward into Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. Many species have especially showy flowers and are excellent companion plants for many smaller growing xeric native perennials and ornamental grasses.

The largest genus of cold hardy cacti is Echinocereus, commonly known as Hedgehog Cactus due to its decorative spines. This is one of my favorite genera because of the vast number of subspecies and variants that can be found. In fact, there are many collectors who concentrate solely on this huge group. Important ornamental species in the genus include E. triglochidiatus, E. verififlorus, E. reichenbachi, and E. fendleri. However, there are many other species in the genus that have cold hardy members as well. 

Colorful Delosperma (Ice Plant) in David Salman's Santa Fe Garden
Colorful Delosperma (Ice Plant) in David Salman's Santa Fe Garden

Old World Succulents From South Africa, Europe, or Asia

There are many outstanding South African succulents, including Mesembs, Rabiea, Stomacium, and Cotyledon. Delosperma (or Ice Plant) are some of the best-known, from the cold, higher elevation deserts and mountain ranges of the Western Cape and Drakensberg region.

Even in arid climates of the US, they are most easily grown in rock gardens or as container plants. These fascinating succulents typically have huge roots that reach deep into the soil and are sensitive to wet soil over the winter months. In rock gardens or containers, these plants put on a memorable flower show in early, mid, or late spring, depending on the species. In containers, their small size allows them to be grouped together in interesting combinations to provide a wide range of foliage types and flower colors.

Discover Our Cold-Hardy Cacti & Succulents

 Delosperma, Veronica, Hymenoxys, and Lavender pair beautifully with the Cacti in this textural, colorful xeriscape.
Delosperma, Veronica, Hymenoxys, and Lavender pair beautifully with the Cacti in this textural, colorful xeriscape.

Incorporating Cacti & Succulents Into Landscape Design

The key to creating a satisfying garden design that includes cacti is understanding how they can be used in combination with other plants. In their natural habitat cacti are found growing among a variety of succulent and non-succulent plants. It is important to dispel the misconception among some gardeners that cacti can only be planted with other cacti.

Take advantage of the beautiful plant combinations possibilities, and avoid the negative cacti-only results that has sometimes been termed a “pincushion garden”. Gardening with cold hardy cacti and succulents is a great opportunity to explore different design philosophies, and allows you to create beautiful, educational, pollinator-friendly garden spaces.

Designing With A Native Plant Focus

  • From the philosophy of focusing on native plants, I recommend making a plant list based on species found in a given region of the Western US, or those recommended for desert landscaping, or high altitude.
  • For instance, this approach would replicate the landscape you might encounter if you are hiking in the Colorado Foothills or along a mountain path in the Chihuahuan Desert.
  • Done in an aesthetically pleasing manner this type of garden can create a sense of place. It can be beautiful, educational, and attractive to hummingbirds and other creatures that recognize the plants as home.

Creating A Cosmopolitan Garden

  • The other approach that I often suggest is to make a plant list that includes a variety of compatible cold hardy xeric plants, mixing native and non-native species.
  • This plant list could also include South African succulents such as Delosperma (Ice Plant), Ruschia (Creeping Shrubby Ice Plant), some Lavender cultivars and other interesting rock garden plants from the Mediterranean region of Europe, as well as some North American native plants, such as Agave and Agastache.
  • This design philosophy results in attractive, interesting gardens, that are appealing to native pollinators and non-native pollinators such as honeybees. It is also recommended for areas outside of the western us with climates that would be mismatched to the preference of xeric Western native plant species.
 Delosperma, Veronica, Hymenoxys, and Lavender pair beautifully with the Cacti in this textural, colorful xeriscape.
David Salman's xeriscape garden features a colorful array with Lavandula 'Wee One', a small Scrophularia, Oputina, Yucca, Echinocereus , Pterocephalus depressus in the front, and mature Hesperaloe in the background.

Recommended Companion Plants

Favorite Native Perennials:

Old World Plants:

Cold hardy Mediterranean plants, including Lavender and perennial herbs, offer many wonderful companion plants, and they are generally compatible with cacti and succulent growing requirements. Mounding rock garden perennials are also excellent companions.

Shop Our Recommended Companion Plants

Utah Century Plant (Agave utahensis) in the landscape on a mountainside in Utah.
Utah Century Plant (Agave utahensis) in the landscape on a mountainside in Utah.

Propagation & Protecting Cacti In The Wild

An important part of installing a garden is purchasing the plants. It has been an unfortunate fact that many gardeners infatuated with succulents have purchased plants collected from the wild. Over time, this has decimated the population species in their native habitat. It is of utmost importance to purchase plants from reputable nurseries that propagate and do not sell wild collected plants. Nursery propagated plants will transplant readily with few losses. 

Because High Country Gardens is such a large grower of cold hardy cacti and South African succulents, we propagate many of our favorite cacti and succulents from seed. The process includes hand-pollinating flowers with small paintbrushes to ensure that our seeds are true to type. This is a time-intensive process, but it provides us with high-quality seeds with which to grow our assortment of these xeric gems, while conserving the plants in their natural habitat. Growing our own seed also allows me to select for plants with improved characteristics, such as more brightly colored spines, larger flowers, or unusually colored flowers. 

Additional Resources

For expert tips on how to grow cacti and succulents, including helpful videos with Chief Horticulturist David Salman, see our growing guide:

The Legacy of David Salman | High Country Gardens founder David Salman was a pioneer of waterwise gardening, passionate plant explorer, and charismatic storyteller. His commitment to cultivating a palette of beautiful waterwise plants transformed gardening in the American West.