Cacti are great plants for Spanish gardens.

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe – active gardeners and authors in Spain

Cacti are very useful plants for both gardens and apartment terraces whether you are an absentee or resident property owner and especially if you are not particularly green fingered because many need little care and attention.

Reasons for the popularity of cacti in Spain

The main reasons that they are popular are as follows:

The amazing variety available. These range from dwarf mammillaria dwarf or snowball cacti to medium sized ball like echinocactii and ferocacti to tall and spreading cereus and, opunta cacti and of coarse there are the various coloured Christmas cacti.. We illustrate some twenty of the most popular families of cacti and also six families of the related succulents agaves and aloes in Part Four of our book Your Garden in Spain

The fantastic flowers even if short lived. At the time of writing we have a most amazing red flower opening on a epicactus on our dining terrace. It’s so exotic it’s worth sitting and watching it unfold for several hours over a good bottle of wine. The final flower is between 15 and 20 centimetres long and in diameter. Earlier this year five opened on one plant in one evening. Just down the road there is a fifty year old cereus cactus some ten metres high, eight wide and with twenty column like trunks budding up to flower. We counted nearly two hundred flower buds when passing this afternoon . We will be back to photograph it when all open up. Unfortunately most cacti flowers only last twenty for hours.

The little attention they need once established provided they are planted in suitable soils and microclimates. The best growing medium is one which is humus rich, free draining, open structure and gritty or sandy. A soil rich in ancient larva chippings is ideal. Also all cacti can benefit from a mulch of crushed volcanic larva or stone chippings.

The ease of multiplying from offsets or cuttings. With patience they can also be raised from seed.

Their ability to store water in order to survive months of drought. They require infrequent watering or feeding.

Apart from rotting off if waterlogged they rarely attract pests and diseases.

The possibility of planting them as either individual specimens in containers or in the garden or the building up interesting collections in window boxes, in greenhouses, on rockeries or raised beds or in a dedicated area or entire garden. So if you live on a golf complex with kept gardens you can still develop an interesting collection on a terrace or roof top.

A prickly pear cacti hedge or large bed of large mixed plants can act as a windbreak or even a useful firebreak but we suspect not on golf courses if you need to look for lost balls.

In the vegetable garden two ears broken off a prickly pear cacti and pushed into the soil at ninety degrees to each other can act as a useful windbreak for young plants such as squash and melons.

Interesting jams and liquors can be made from the fruit of opunta indica or prickly pear cacti.

They can be easily trimmed to shape so that they do not outgrow the size of container, raised bed or garden.

A good choice for absentee or lazy gardeners.

Some potential problems with cacti

But there are a few potential problems with cacti:

  • Most cacti have prickles and spikes that can penetrate even the toughest gardening gloves. A cacti garden is not recommended where children will be running round or infirm people using the garden.
  • Prickly off shoots can be broken off tall plants by gales, so take care if you have a cacti hedge..
  • The roots of large varieties can become evasive if the plants are against garden or house walls.
  • Some are not frost hardy.
  • Many do not like their roots to be waterlogged. If they are they soon rot off particularly if small plants.

Hopefully some readers already have or will soon develop cacti collections approaching those of botanical gardens open to the public!