10 Creative Ideas for Cactus and Succulent Gardens

Arrange cactuses and succulents amid salvaged treasures, against a vibrant painted wall or in terraced beds

By Laura Gaskill  / Courtesy of Houzz.com

All cactuses are succulents, but not all succulents are cactuses. Confused? Don’t worry  no matter what they are called, many cactuses and other succulents work well in plantings together, thanks to sharing similar features and preferred conditions. Keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to purchase your plants from a local nursery with knowledgable staff, as they will be able to guide you toward the plants that will perform best in your climate. Here are 10 beautiful cactus and succulent gardens to inspire your next planting.

1. Outdoor bath. High walls painted charcoal create a sophisticated backdrop for a shapely tub and towering prickly pear cactus. Most cactuses with a columnar or treelike growing habit would also work well in a compact outdoor space — and if you are planting in the ground (not in pots), be sure to ask what the mature size of the plant will be before making your choice.

2. Terraced beds. Mixed materials including stone, metal and wood come together to create a strong structure in this outdoor living space. Cactuses and other succulents, like yucca, have a sculptural look that complements the clean lines of modern and contemporary architecture.

3. Recycled art garden. There is something untamed about cactuses that makes them feel right at home alongside funky upcycled art. In this eclectic urban yard, old signage, metal parts and junk shop finds have been creatively reimagined as seating, artwork and privacy screening. Potted cactuses and succulents fill in the patio with vibrant green life, and a leaning mirror makes the small space feel bigger.

4. Colorful backdrop. Brush a vibrant hue on an exterior wall, shed or fence, and plant a bed of spiny, spiky cactuses and succulents in front to show off their forms. Try warm, spicy hues or vibrant blue to set off the green and silvery color of the plants, and aim for a mix of plant shapes, from tall and slender to short and spiky. Don’t want to (or can’t) paint a wall? Consider hanging a colorful, large-scale piece of outdoor artwork instead — it’s removable, so it’s ideal for renters.

5. Sunken garden. This steeply terraced garden design makes good use of a tricky sunken space. Cactuses and succulents have a modern, sculptural look that works well in a city garden, and they’re very low-maintenance. Even if your garden gets only partial sun, there are plenty of succulents that can thrive there — just ask at your local nursery for suggestions.

6. Sculptural courtyard. Play up the artistic quality of tall cactuses by pairing them with other sculptural objects, like these faceted cubes designed by architect Frank Gehry. Try this in a contained courtyard, atrium or patio — anywhere you will be able to enjoy the view from indoors as well.

7. Lawn alternative. When you want to save water but don’t love a gravel yard with sparse plantings, look to native grasses as a ground cover instead. In this Los Angeles front yard, large agave plants, which are succulents, punctuate a water-wise grass meadow for a lush look.

8. Prickly pear forest. The opuntia cactus produces edible fruit (known as prickly pear) and paddles (called nopal or plural, nopales), so if you enjoy cultivating edible delights in your garden, this is the cactus for you. (Just be sure to handle with care.) The fruit can be made into jelly or agua fresca; and the paddles, once cleaned of their spines, are very tasty in salads, tacos and egg dishes. Opuntia likes to grow in dense clusters, as seen in the rambling “forest” of prickly pear shown here.

Cactus: Opuntia

9. Painterly pots. These bright pots planted with cactuses work with colorful furniture, handmade crafts and richly colored walls to create a vibrant, folk art-inspired interior scheme that’s reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s famous Blue House in Mexico City (now a museum). Make your own indoor potted cactus garden by painting a group of assorted pots the same saturated hue, and plant them with a mix of cactuses from your local nursery. When potting cactuses, be sure to use a cactus potting mix, which has the proper balance of nutrients and drainage.

10. Statement saguaro. The saguaro cactus grows incredibly large, making it a good landscaping stand-in for a tree in climates where water is in short supply. Be sure to position your saguaro far enough from pathways and entrances that you won’t run the risk of bumping into it, even after it has grown to full size — which can be over 10 feet wide and 40 feet tall!

Cactus: Saguaro

Tell us: Are you a fan of cactuses? Do you prefer a few in pots or a full cactus garden?