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Tabletop Cactus Garden

The Martha Stewart Show, September 2009

A cactus is a perennial, succulent plant that has evolved with distinctive physical characteristics that allow it to thrive in arid and semi-arid conditions, such as the beautiful desert city of Palm Springs.

Follow these instructions from expert Francisca Coehlo of the New York Botanical Garden to make your own contemporary cactus garden. Be sure to handle the cacti very carefully, using special gloves and spring-loaded thongs with ends wrapped in duct tape. If you do get pricked, use tweezers to get the spines out of your skin.


Tabletop Cactus Garden How-To
1. Select a container to plant the cacti into: The container should be shallow with drainage holes; terracotta or porous material is best. Cover drainage hole with a pottery shard or a small piece of landscape fabric.

2. Use a growing medium specific for cacti, or you can make your own. To make your own, mix together 2 parts potting soil, 1 part sand, and 1 part perlite. Fill your container with a shallow layer of this soil mixture.

3. Arrange cacti in the container. Fill container with the soil mixture, firming it down around the roots of the cacti. Surface mulch with a thin layer of fine gravel or stones, and lightly water.

Tip: Cacti need water when they are actively growing. Watering should begin after their period of dormancy, when new growth begins to show due to higher light levels and warmer temperatures -- this is usually around late February to early March. Watering should be slight at first then more regular through the spring and early summer months. As growth progresses, watering should be about once a week for small plants and once every two weeks to a month for medium and larger plants. In mid to late summer, when growth begins to slow down due to higher temperatures, watering should be lessened to about every eight to 10 days for small plants and longer for larger ones.

Proper light, temperature, humidity, and air circulation are necessary for optimum cacti growth. Cacti will thrive in warm temperatures of 65 degree nights and up to 90 degree days with good air circulation. They need very bright light -- a south-facing window in a home will suffice for some species. For optimum growth, humidity should be 25 to 40 percent.

Cacti grow in semi-dry and dry areas in deserts, savannah areas, and under the canopy of tropical rainforests in North and South America. Cactus leaves are modified into spines, bristles, and hairs that reduce transpiration or water loss and shade the plant from strong sunlight.

A unique characteristic of cacti is the appearance of specialized organs called areoles from which flowers and modified leaves originate.

Cacti seen on the show:
Carnegiea Gigantea
Native to Arizona, California, and Mexico, this is the largest and most protected cactus of all 2,000 species, growing to 46 feet tall or more and living for about 200 years. The stem is columnar with 12 to 24 ribs. The areoles are positioned at the top of the stems and produce blooms of white that open at night in early summer. This cactus grows extremely slow and is not a suitable houseplant due to the extremely high light requirements year round.

Stenocactus Multicostatus syn. Echinofossulocactus Multicostatus
Native to Mexico, this is an unusual bluish-green globular plant that features about 30 wavy ridges. The plant is small, growing to about 3 inches high and 4 inches wide in its natural habitat. The areoles are yellowish with many white spines and about four larger brown weapon-type ones protruding from the center. It blooms in the spring in the daytime with pale pink to whitish flowers, and each flower has a solid purplish line down the center of each petal.

Cactaceae Espostoa Melanostele
This unique cactus has leaves modified into hairs to reduce transpiration and shade the plant.

Melocactus Oreas
Native to Brazil, this is one of the few cactus species with a cephalium. The melon thistle has a globular shape and at maturity is about 6 inches high and wide. It is dark green in color with about 13 ribs, nine red or brown radial spines, and four central spines. This cactus blooms in early summer with flowers that are small and pink to red in color.

Coryphantha Calipensis
This is a flowering cactus. Most cacti tend to flower once a year after their rest period in the winter, blooming in spring and early summer, some for more than a period of a month or more. Many are day-flowering, but a few species, especially those native to South America, tend to bloom at night.

Astrophytum Myriostigma var. Columnare
Native to north and central Mexico, this is a beautiful, columnar-shaped cactus that has no spines. The plant grows up to 10 inches high and about 4 inches or more wide. There are about seven to eight prominent ribs along the stem, which is covered with whitish-gray scales. This cactus blooms in the early summer, in the daytime, with flowers that are about 2 to 3 inches long and wide when fully open and yellow with a red blotch in color.

Pereskia Aculeata var. Godseffiana
Native to Florida, the West Indies, and Brazil, this is the only cactus genus bearing true leaves -- they grow to 3 inches long. It is a climbing, trailing plant with stems that can grow beyond 33 feet. The plant blooms in the daytime in early summer and has whitish-yellow flowers that fade to pink.

Comments (3)

  • mouselover 1 Mar, 2011

    Hi melissatinkler, if you live in NY, go into Chinatown and go into one of the Chinese cookware shops look around at all the clay items, think outside the box,or if you live in the" burbs" go to Lowes,Home Depot go into the garden centers,look for lg. saucers, you've found you're planter, something porous, shallow, with a drain [filtered word]..Good Luck. Mouselover

  • melissatinkler 3 Jun, 2010

    Hello,
    Please could someone tell me where I can get a suitable container from? I've looked all over but can't seem to find one!
    Thanks!

  • moken58 13 Apr, 2010

    I;m glad you made a garden with only cacti and not with a mix of cacti and non-cactus succulents. In the winter, from Oct. to March. I'd put the garden in a cool, dry place with natural light and not water at all, gradually restarting watering in March. I find this natural period of dormancy produces the most spectacular blooms.