Cold-Weather Cactus Garden

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Grass is terrible. It’s needy, it grows fast and needs frequent mowing, and it sucks up gallons of water. Now that we’re a homeowner, I have an even more acrimonious relationship with grass. I’ve spent time on most of my summer weekends either reseeding, cutting, weeding or watering my front lawn. I only do this so the neighbors don’t think I’m a derelict slob (which I am).

Ever since we started collecting succulents and cacti a few years back, I’ve dreamed of a xeriscaped landscape instead of a turfed lawn. But I live in hot and humid/cold and biting Nebraska, so that option doesn’t make much sense. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost!

I’ve started an experiment this summer. Taylor and I hit the River City Cactus and Succulent Society show back in May. While there, we met a vendor from Oklahoma who offered a variety of cold-weather cacti. “Why not?” I thought. Cacti grow primarily in hot, dry climates, but the real key word is dry. You can find cactus varieties in the wild in the United States from the southwest to as far north as eastern Montana. You can find some of the most amazing cactus and succulent gardens in the country in cold, snowy Colorado, even.

On a whim, I bought four plants: two opuntia humifusa (pricky pear), an echinocerus reichenbacchi (lace hedgehog cactus), and an echinocerus viridiflorus (nylon hedgehog cactus). Each is about 6-12 inches tall and maybe a year or so old. All of these varieties bloom big, bright flowers once they emerge from hibernation when the ground begins to thaw. I’m hoping mine live up to their reputation come spring 2017.

However, I still had the challenge of getting them into the ground. I live in Hardiness Zone 5 (at least until the zones get revised up thanks to climate change). Plants must be able to survive temperatures as low as -15ºF here. All of mine should survive if planted right and protected over the cold winter. But it will take a little work.

Last year, Taylor gifted me Leo Chance’s “Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates“, and I’ve been digesting it ever since, waiting for my chance to plant a cold-weather cactus garden. Therefore, when I bought my plants, I was more than ready. Here are the steps I took to prepare the rich, loess-y soil in my backyard for my spartan spiny friends.

Step one: Dig out a drainage trench.

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I picked an already raised area in my back yard, which sits at one of the highest points of my property. I’m hoping this aids in drainage, because keeping the roots dry is one of the most important parts of raising healthy succulents. Coincidentally, this area is also on the southern part of my house, which should protect the plants from the worst of the winter northern winds.

Dig about 12-18 inches into the dirt We’re going to need a lot of room, but we’re mostly going to fill it up again. Succulents and cacti need surprisingly little depth for their roots.

Step two: Line your trench with rocks.

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I bought a couple of bags of egg rock and dumped them into the bottom of the trench. The rocks filled about 3-4 inches of the trench. This will help with drainage in the wet, rainy months of the spring and summer, even with the sponge-like soil we have here.

Step three: Remove big organic matter from the soil

While most plants would love a little fertilizer and nitrogen in their soil, these things actually can harm cacti roots. Remove as much of the old roots, dead plants and large chunks of anything decomposing from the dirt. This will also help to keep the roots and soil dry.

Step four: Mix the soil with sand and pebbles

Pretty self explanatory. How much depends on how clumpy/compact/clay your soil is. For me, it was about a 50/50 mix. It should be enough so that the soil starts to feel sandy/crumbly to the touch. Again, it’s all about drainage.

Step five: Form a nice berm or mound

Fill your trench with the soil/sand mixture, and mound the soil so you get about a 6-8 inch berm. I angled mine so any rainwater would drain down the downhill side.

Step six: Plant your cacti and succulents.

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Plan out your landscaping, then go ahead and plant! Make sure the plants have about 12 inches of space in between them for cacti and succulents. However, if you have sedum, agave, yucca or anything that might get bigger, spread them out a little more. Then again, if you’re worried about wind, it might be best to group plants together or incorporate some rocks or features that will shield cold, dehydrating gusts.

Beside the four cacti, I opted to include a couple ice plants, some sempervivum hens and chicks and some assorted sedum. All of these drought-hardy plants will eventually create a nice ground cover around the cacti.

Step eight: Cover the soil with pebbles, rocks or sand.

Which you choose depends on personal preference. I went with pea-sized river pebbles – just enough cover to ensure no exposed dirt, but enough to trap heat and reflect it back up at the plants. In the winter, this will also help insulate the roots and protect against ice and critters while the plants are dormant. Whatever you do, do NOT cover with mulch or anything organic! Again, we’re trying to avoid excessive fertilizers and nutrients. Cacti apparently hate nourishment, water and anything else that serves as a building block of life. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Step seven: Enjoy!

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You’re done! Water right away pretty well, but after that, avoid it if possible. The plants should take care of themselves even in the most drought-like conditions. That’s kind of the point! My plants have unfortunately endured a deluge this summer – one of the wettest in recent years. Nevertheless, they’re growing, blooming and flowering, so the drainage must be working as intended.

I did have some issues with some small mammal nibbling on the pricky pear paddles. This especally distressing (for me and the plants) because they grow so slowly, and can’t really recover once damaged. I’ve since fenced in the area with some chicken wire.

I should note, though, the cacti have only been planted for three months, all in hot, humid, wet weather. We’ll see what happens when the intense cold of Nebraska winters comes. There’s a good chance that one or more of these plants won’t survive. That’s entirely ok – this is an “experiment” after all.

I do plan to protect the plants over the winter by covering them with some dry leaves. The two biggest threats to cold-weather cactus gardens are dry winds that dehydrate dormant plants and too much sun, which can sunburn them in the winter. The leaf cover will help both insulate and shade.

If I’m able to keep these four cacti alive, I should be rewarded in the spring with pink and yellow blooms. And maybe someday, I’ll cover my entire yard with a cold-weather cactus garden and never mow again.

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