Many Utah gardeners believe that growing cactus plants outdoors is impossible, or that cacti only do well in the states of the Desert Southwest. Fortunately, this is not the case.
While cacti do thrive on light and heat, many varieties can thrive just as well in cold-winter climates. In fact, cacti can thrive as far north as some portions of Canada! So, if you would like to add some of these perennial beauties to your garden, it’s simply a matter of choosing the right cactus plants.
Step No. 1: Choose Cold-Hardy Cactus Plants for Utah Gardens
Not every variety of cactus is well-suited for growing outdoors in Utah, but surprisingly many are. Before choosing your plants, check their hardiness rating, which indicates their ability to tolerate cold conditions. Most of the Salt Lake City area falls into Zone 5, although some portions can range into Zone 4 or 6 depending on elevation.
Many of the cacti in the Opuntia or prickly pear family are known to be cold-hardy, and they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Most have paddlelike pads and red, pink or yellow flowers.
Opuntia fragilis, or brittle prickly pear, is the toughest in the family, able to withstand temperatures as low as -35 degrees. Opuntia polyacantha, or plains prickly pear, is a close second, as it is cold-hardy to -25 degrees.
Several cacti in the Cylindropuntia (cholla) family also grow well outdoors. Buckhorn, silver and whipple cholla are large, shrub-like spiny plants that are able to withstand cold winter weather.
Other varieties that can survive Northern Utah’s cold temperatures include Echinocereus engelmannii or coccineus, both commonly known as types of hedgehog cactus. Escobaria vivipara, known as the beehive cactus, is also cold-hardy enough to grow in your yard or garden.
Step No. 2: Learn the Optimal Conditions for Growing Cactus Outside
Cactus plants grown outdoors here in Utah have the same basic needs as cacti grown elsewhere.
First and foremost, cacti require sunlight to bloom, so you’ll need to plant them in a spot where they’ll get plenty of sun.
Good drainage is also a must for growing your cactus plants outside. Rather than using basic garden soil or sand, create a nutrient-rich, fast-draining soil mixture by adding 40 to 60 percent coarse sand or pea gravel and up to 10 percent compost to your regular planting mix.
To boost drainage, consider planting cacti in raised garden beds. Or, for even better moisture control, choose containers instead. With container gardens, you’ll be able to move the cacti out of the wet weather if necessary, saving them from overwatering.
Step No 3: Learn How to Care for Your Cactus Plants
Cacti do need a drink of water now and then but, whenever you can, let Mother Nature handle the watering. If several weeks pass without rain and your plants begin to droop, you can help nature along by giving them a little water.
Avoid watering your outdoor cacti during the late fall and winter, however, because excess water can freeze and kill your plants.
Fertilizer isn’t necessary for most cactus plants. If you do opt to fertilize, avoid any products with a large nitrogen component. Nitrogen will help your cacti grow but it leaves them vulnerable to winter damage.
Cold-hardy cacti can survive our Utah snowstorms and, in fact, snow accumulation provides a layer of protection. If the weather forecast calls for harsh winds or icy conditions, you can cover your cacti to prevent any structural damage.
The expert staff at Millcreek Gardens can provide a wealth of information to help you select the right plants for your garden and landscape. For more advice on growing cactus plants, visit our Salt Lake City garden center today.