Gardening with cacti

Cacti may be stuck with a prickly reputation, but there are spineless, scented and edible varieties as well.

Dean Fosdick/AP

Landscaping with cacti has been an acquired taste for many gardeners, but it appears the appetite for the robust plants is growing. Lingering drought, watering bans and low-maintenance requirements are making cacti more popular.

Their striking flowers, unusual shapes and longevity add to the appeal.

“There’s a high reward ratio with cactus,” said Scott Calhoun, author of “The Gardener’s Guide to Cactus” (Timber Press, 2012). “Take the aesthetics alone. They’re extraordinarily beautiful. Even when they’re out of flower, they have graceful patterns on them.”

Calhoun, who lives in Tucson, said he has encountered enthusiasm for cacti even in areas where people can’t easily grow them, such as Japan, Thailand and the Czech Republic. “They simply put them in pots and haul them in and out,” he said.

Cacti can live for decades, a real value, Calhoun said. “Some of these plants you can pass down to your kids and your kids can pass them down to their kids.” They also are durable, surviving in temperatures ranging from 100 degrees above zero to 40 below.

“They’re known to grow above the 14,000-foot level on mountains in Colorado and as far north as Canada’s Northwest Territories,” Calhoun said. “There’s a great diversity of cold-hardy cactus to be had.”

Cacti are succulents, native to the New World. Approximately 250 of the recognized 3,000 species are found in North America.

If you’re going to plant cacti, put temperature-tested plants, cuttings or seeds — preferably those native to your area — in places with Southern exposures, if possible. Give them at least six hours of sun per day.

Provide a bed of 8 to 12 inches of sandy soil, supplemented by granite or gravel mulch. Be stingy about watering, particularly in autumn when the plants are evaporating away any surplus moisture.

“Once cacti are established, they don’t need any extra watering and only a little supplemental watering when it’s extremely hot and dry,” said David Salman, founder and chief horticulturist for High Country Gardens.

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