Garden Design With Cold Hardy Cacti & Succulents
By David Salman, High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturist
Here in Santa Fe and throughout the Western us, 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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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 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.
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 Cact & Succulents
Sedum rupestre ‚SunSparkler® Wildfire‚ PP#28621 (Stonecrop) blazes with ruby red petals edged in hot pink. Late summer brings clusters of long-blooming pink flowers. It&...Learn MoreSunSparkler® Wildfire Sedum SunSparkler® Wildfire Sedum Sedum 'Wildfire' PP#28,621As low as $11.99Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
This new cultivar of Texas Yucca blooms all summer with six-foot tall spikes of glowing coral-orange flowers. A cross between a yellow and red flowered variety, Hesperaloe parviflora...Learn MoreCoral Glow Texas Yucca (Hesperaloe) Coral Glow Texas Yucca Hesperaloe parviflora Coral Glow PP#29,626As low as $14.99Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
The softly shaded apricot and yellow tints of the large flowers of Alan‚s Apricot Ice Plant are a delight and keep the plant in color from late spring into late summer. Delospe...Learn MoreAlan's Apricot Ice Plant Alan's Apricot Ice Plant Delosperma Alan's Apricot PPAFAs low as $8.99Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
A carefree little succulent native plant, Phemeranthus calycinum ‚Judith‚s Favorite‚ (Fame Flower) has quarter-sized rose-violet flowers that open in the afternoon ...Learn More
Straight Up Red Texas Yucca PPAF is an everblooming yucca that produces a summer-long display of red-pink flowers held on strongly upright growing flower spikes. 2017 Plant of The Ye...Learn MoreStraight Up Red Texas Yucca (Hesperaloe) Straight Up Red Texas Yucca Hesperaloe parviflora Straight Up RedAs low as $14.99Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
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.
Recommended Companion Plants
Favorite Native Perennials:
- Thrift-Leaf Perky Sue (Hymenoxys scaposa)
- Skullcap (Scutellaria)
- Dwarf Sundrops
- Small-growing Penstemon species, such as Compact Pineleaf Penstemon
- Cold hardy Salvia greggii cultivars, such as ‘Furman's Red’
- Agastache species
- Fame Flower (Phemeranthus)
- Agave parryi and Agave utahensis
- Woody shrubs, such as Apache Plume (Fallugia paradoxa), blend nicely particularly with larger growing cacti
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
Persian Stonecress is a fragrant Old World wildflower with pink, late spring flowers held over attractive blue-green foliage. It thrives in heat and full sun in well-drained soils. ...Learn MoreFragrant Persian Stonecress (Aethionema) Fragrant Persian Stonecress Aethionema schistosum$9.99Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
‚Spring Carpet‚ Mount Atlas Daisy (Anacyclus depressus) is a wonderful early-spring-blooming groundcover. Blooming with cheerful white daisies, its petals feature strikin...Learn MoreSpring Carpet Mount Atlas Daisy (Anacyclus) Spring Carpet Mount Atlas Daisy Anacyclus depressus 'Spring Carpet'$11.99Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
Lavandula angustifolia ‚Wee One‚ (English Lavender) is a special dwarf variety that blooms with a wonderful display of short blue flower spikes only 10„ tall. It is...Learn MoreWee One Dwarf English Lavender Wee One Dwarf English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Wee OneAs low as $13.49 Sale $11.47Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
Agastache rupestris ‚Glowing Embers®‚ (Hummingbird Mint) is a fantastic selection of Licorice Mint Hyssop with fragrant foliage and glowing orange-red tubular flower...Learn MoreGlowing Embers® Agastache 'Glowing Embers®'Licorice Hummingbird Mint (Hyssop) Agastache rupestrisAs low as $13.99Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
Compactum is hands down one of the very best native wildflowers for water-wise gardens. This tiny shrub has a profusion of bright scarlet flowers in late spring and tidy, tight growi...Learn MoreCompact Pineleaf Penstemon Compact Pineleaf Beardtongue Penstemon pinifolius CompactumAs low as $12.99Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
Lavandula angustifolia ‚Thumbelina Leigh‚ (English Lavender) is a robust dwarf growing variety with plump, deep lavender-blue flower spikes, and a strong, sweet fragrance...Learn MoreThumbelina Leigh Dwarf English Lavender Thumbelina Leigh Dwarf English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Thumbelina LeighAs low as $14.99 Sale $12.74Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
For expert tips on how to grow cacti and succulents, including helpful videos with Chief Horticulturist David Salman, see our growing guide:
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.