Just Deserts? No way! Cacti are for every garden


by Guest Blogger Pam Penick of Digging

When I consult with clients about their likes and dislikes
among plants, so often the first thing they’ll mention is that they hate cacti,
yuccas, and agaves—anything with spines or sharp leaves. “I don’t want those in
my garden,” they’ll say firmly.

I aim to please, so I’ll omit from their designs many
wonderful, sculptural, evergreen plants like sotol, twist-leaf yucca, prickly
pear, and numerous varieties of agave that grow so well in Austin. I’ve used
all of these as accents in my own garden, and they not only perform wonderfully
in our harsh summer climate but also act as foils to the lusher perennials,
antique roses, ornamental grasses, and bulbs that populate the majority of my
garden. Now that I’ve tried them, I can’t imagine gardening without them.



Spineless prickly pear at the Natural Gardener. Photo © Pam


So I was thrilled to read Dan Hinkley’s latest article in Garden Design, “Design with Spine,” on page 87
(Mar 2007). The renowned plantsman lauds the cactus as a valuable if
misunderstood garden workhorse. Impressed by its toughness, adaptability (even
to extreme cold), and year-round interest, he has incorporated many hardy
varieties into his own Pacific Northwest garden. In the
right spot—full sun, well-drained soil—cacti and other water-thrifty plants
will thrive even in a damp climate like his.

The idea is not to make your garden look like a desert
moonscape. “It is in the integration of cacti amidst a more traditional mix of
herbaceous plants and shrubs that the ocular strengths of these remarkable
plants lie,” he writes.

What I love about cacti, yuccas, and agaves is that they
work well with so many different garden styles. In my own Texas-style cottage
garden, they provide some of the bones of my garden, their evergreen (or
eversilver) pads and toothy leaves remaining attractive even when all else is
winter-browned. Their sturdy, sculpted forms contrast beautifully with billowy,
flowery salvias and other perennials.


Agaves in the author’s garden. Photo © Pam Penick


In contemporary gardens, a solitary agave or yucca stands out as a bold focal point, especially against a background of feathery, soft-textured ornamental grasses.


Yucca in a container at Big Red Sun. Photo © Pam Penick


In native-plant gardens that are increasingly popular in
spiny plants prove remarkably useful not only for heat-blasted hell strips but
also in dry, partly shady areas. If you stroll along the greenbelts in Austin,
you’ll find small yuccas and prickly pear making do in the shade of oak trees,
and even some agaves will take partial shade. Siting these plants as they would
grow in the wild makes sense for regionally native gardens.

Obviously, cacti fit in well with the Texas vernacular, but Hinkley advises that they can be successfully worked into
more-verdant gardens throughout the U.S.

The trick is to use them sparingly and as accents. I like to pair prickly pear
with tough-as-nails antique roses (not thirsty ones), and I enjoy the rounded,
symmetrical shapes of agaves and yuccas against upright grasses and loosely
shaped, flowering perennials.


Spineless prickly pear and roses in the author’s garden.
Photo © Pam Penick


Cacti and agaves also make great potted plants because you
don’t have to water them very often; just be sure to pot them in a cactus mix
(loose soil and gravel), not regular potting soil.

Hinkley sings the praises of the prickly pear’s flowers, which he describes as “the combined confection of peonies, camellias and
orchids—in soft yellows, reds and corals.” But I find the flowers, fleetingly lovely as they are, secondary to the cactus’s true worth—its unusual, evergreen, often Dr. Seussian “foliage.” If you haven’t already tried one or two that are hardy in your area, I highly recommend it.


Prickly pear, salvia, and cypress at Stone House
Vineyard. Photo © Pam Penick





  1. Leave it to Pam to change my mind 🙂 I have always eschewed cacti and succulents because I don’t like the “desert garden look.” Seeing the way she uses them makes me actually want to try them out!

  2. Beautiful, beautiful, inspirational photos! There’s a neglected old garden down the street from me that has a few yuccas–this is something you don’t see much of in upstate New York. You’ve made me think that they might be the perfect thing for a dry, sunny spot I’m trying to fill.

  3. Lovely photos! If I lived in a southern location, I would plant them but other than yuccas they look really out of place in the New England garden. Food for thought though and perhaps I will find a way to use, at least, the prickly pear as it is hardy here.

  4. If you had just said that you like prickly pear cactus with antique roses, my eyebrow would have shot up in disbelief. I’m so glad that you included the picture–it really does look great together!

    And your gardens, with the agaves mixed in with “billowy perennials” and such… well, I drool over those enough at Digging, so I’ll stop myself from doing it here, too. *grin*

  5. I recognized the photo of the Natural Gardener before I saw your byline, Pam, and I was a bit startled. Congrats by your guest-blogging gig.

    I’m still not a big fan of agaves and yuccas but more and more of them are creeping into my garden. I am fond of my variegated American agave. It’s dramatic and it reproduces like crazy. I may plant one in every spot I lost a rose bush last year.

  6. You use these plants so well in your designs, Pam! Mine are just bunched up, more for safety than beauty.
    On my spreadsheet there’s an area listed as the “Spiny Garden”. It has a brick wall as the background for two agave, some prickly pear and some sedum, planted between two hollies that love to attack the gardener.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  7. The best way to sell the spiny plants is to use them in the display garden like the picture of The Natural Gardener. These plants are often too bold in the nursery can for most people. They need to see them growing with other plants. It’s easier for people to see how they are used and that they don’t have to be planted anywhere they have to “touch” them.

  8. Here in Zone 5 on my heavy wet clay, cacti don’t play much of a role. But I can’t resist growing a few in hypertufa. (I had some in the ground where I’d built up a small sandy area, but I was afraid that the dogs were going to take a shortcut through the area.) I’ve forgotten the species. But one of our local gardeners specializes in them and has extensive plantings. That’s where I got my starts. I’ll get some pictures when they flower this year. Right now, the containers are under a foot of snow.

    I also have half a dozen containers of tender cacti and succulents that I scatter around south-facing windows at work. I’d love to find an agave that I could grow in a container and leave outside all winter. I haven’t looked hard. But if you have suggestions, let me know.

  9. Ellis Hollow, you might look at High Country Gardens’ catalog to find hardy cactus species. Also, Dan Hinkley lists several varieties of cacti hardy to Zone 3 in his Garden Design article.


  10. Combining roses with cacti, the things you learn on GardenRant eh?

    Excellents pics as usual Pam, and a well written article too.

    I used to run away as soon as I spotted a cactus in the garden centre. Next time I’ll give it a good look, and then run away. 😉

  11. Agaves seem to be my obession plants for this year (it was salvias last year) – thanks for encouraging my addiction! And a second for High Country Gardens — and don’t forget Yucca Do

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