Care Of Cacti In Containers

Cacti are a group of succulent plants that do well in containers under the right conditions. They are native to the New World. These plants are diverse both in form and color, clumping or solitary. They can range in size from very small to more than 40 feet tall. Most cacti are best grown outdoors in filtered sun or on a bright patio. Some can tolerate full sun. Smaller species may be kept in a container. The larger varieties can start out containerized but will outgrow their pots and can be moved to the landscape, depending on the species, where they can enjoy more growing space.

SOIL: Most cacti should be grown in mineral-based soils consisting of a mixture of sands, silts, and gravel (good drainage) and which does not harden when dry. Cacti from tropical dry forests and high altitude regions benefit from a mix containing 25-50% decomposed organic matter. Epiphytic cacti such as Christmas cacti like a 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 mix of bark, pumice and decomposed organic matter. No peat should be used in any of these mixes. Organic matter consisting of well-decomposed plant material or worm castings is acceptable. If you wish to use peat-based soil mixes, you can, provided that you re-pot every 2-3 years. No commercial mixes come up to these standards as of this time, so you will need to formulate your own.

WATER: It is completely false that cacti need no water; after all, they are composed principally of water. What is true is that they require less water than violets, but more than a rock. Water cacti when they are actively growing or are wilting. Wilting appears as shrinkage of the plant or wrinkling of the surface. Most cacti grow actively in the spring and summer, but some grow in the other seasons as well so you will need to watch them carefully. Water only when the soil is nearly dry. You can test for dry sub-surface soil with your finger, a wooden pencil or popsicle stick (damp soil will cling to the wood), or (best) with a moisture meter. Water all of the soil thoroughly until the water runs out of the drain holes. Use only pots with drain holes, and if you use pots with saucers, be sure to empty the saucer after watering. The rule is ―no swamps.‖ The warmer the weather, the more frequently water is needed, unless the plant is dormant. In winter, little or no water is needed, even for cacti in active growth, because it is cool. Natural rain is very beneficial, and water may be applied from overhead (which helps clean the plant), at the soil line, or from below. Remember not to let the plant stand in a saucer of water.

LIGHT: Cacti, excepting epiphytes, are best grown outdoors. Interiors are usually too dark for good growth unless assisted by high-intensity lights. Cacti grown indoors very frequently develop pointy heads or other forms of stem stretching. Cacti should be grown outdoors in conditions ranging from full sun to 50% shade, depending on the species and on the size of the plant. If the cactus gets too much sun it will sunburn, which results in a yellowing of the skin, progressing to a browning (killing) of the skin on the sunniest side. If this occurs, provide shade immediately. Eastern exposures are gentlest, western sunlight is fiercest.

FERTILIZATION: Container grown plants need fertilizer because the soil will be exhausted of nutrients over time. The frequency of fertilization depends on how fast you want the plant to grow and the strength, or  concentration, of the fertilizer that you use. Remember that fast growth may produce weak cells, leading to over-tenderness. Fertilize at least once every four weeks during the plant’s growing season. Use the concentration recommended for ornamental plants on the fertilizer package. If you fertilize with each watering cut the strength of the solution accordingly. Use a low nitrogen fertilizer, such as 10-30-20. As a slow-acting organic fertilizer, fish emulsion is effective.

TRANSPLANTING/REPOTTING: Transplanting should be done when the plant has filled the pot, or, in the case of tall species, when the pot becomes top-heavy. If the soil in the new destination is the same or similar to that in which the plant is growing, simply shake the plant free of its container, keeping the soil ball intact if possible. Rough up the edges of the soil ball and then replant, keeping the soil level the same as the former location. If the soil/root ball collapses, wait a week to let the roots callus, then plant, using dry soil. If you are changing soil types from organic to mineral, first remove all old soil from the roots using an old toothbrush to get at the most stubborn bits. Cut off any broken roots and let dry until all wounds have callused over, then re-pot or plant using dry soil to fill in so that the soil will flow and fill in all air pockets. Wait a few days, then water in to settle the soil. It is best to transplant when the plant is actively growing, but if you must, you can do it anytime.

PESTS AND DISEASES: Cacti have few diseases and pests. Most problems are environmental. Pointy heads in globular cacti or stringy narrow stems in others–Etiolation caused by too little light–give more light. Yellowing or browning of the skin: especially on the sunny side—Sunburn—give more shade immediately. Wilting, wrinkling, shrinkage: dry soil, needs water. If the soil is wet, then roots have died due to swamping—remove from damp soil, re-root, and transplant. White cottony masses or white rice-like objects on plants: Cochineal scale or mealy bug—wash off with a hard jet of water, or apply alcohol or a pesticide for scale insects. Inspect plant often to check for recurrence. Very fine spider webbing in the spines: sometimes with red bead-size mites, and graying of the skin—Red spider mite. Wash off the water and use overhead watering to prevent reoccurrence. In severe cases use miticide treatment. Large larvae (grubs) tunneling inside stems, large black adults feeding on tips of plant: Longhorn beetle—remove adults at dawn and kill, or place them in a large prickly pear cactus clump some distance away.

Plant being eaten: Rabbit, rodent or javelina damage—Protect plant with a wire cage or move out of reach. Wet rot anywhere on the stem: Bacterial rot (Erwinia carnegieana)—Cut away all rotted tissue down to fresh, discolored tissue. Air dry. Do not fill in holes. Dry rot on tips or in the whole plant: Fungal dry rot (Helminthosporum cactivorum)—Cut away all dried and discolored tissue. Air dry.


Herb Garden Guide

Welcome to the Modern Botanical Garden’s


Herbs have been used for generations for many purposes from medicinal remedies to perfumes and culinary uses. Herbs also provide beauty and variety to our desert landscapes. We invite you to use this guide to learn about the variety of herbs that grow well in our Mojave Desert and how you can create your own herb garden at home.

The Herb Garden is designed with seven themed gardens. This guide has information about each area with plant recommendations and growing tips about herbs you can grow in your low desert garden.

Sensory Garden Wildlife Garden Tea Garden Mediterranean Garden Picante Garden Culinary Garden Medicinal Garden

A Walk Through Thyme, Carol Bulla Sundial Memorial St. Earth Walking, Sculpture by Robert Wick The Barbara B. Weisz Family Plaza

DEFINITION: herb: a plant that is useful in some way


Many herbs that thrive in our harsh desert environment are of Mediterranean origin. Soil types, low rainfall and over 300 sunny days a year allow these familiar herbs to grow easily in our low desert gardens. Many of these plants are favorites for cooking, but some have other uses that you may not know about:

Oregano: Oils from crushed leaves are used to polish furniture and leaves hung in closets scent linens and clothes. Oregano is believed to bring good health, longevity, and joy.

Sweet Marjoram: Cultivated in ancient Egypt as a symbol of honor and joy, sweet marjoram is in the same genus as oregano with leaves that have a very spicy aroma.

Sage: Ancient Chinese used sage in spiritual and healing ceremonies. Ancient Greeks used it as a mental stimulant. Sage is in the genus of Salvia and is associated with salvation and good health.

Thyme: There are over 400 varieties of thyme in Asia and Europe. In ancient Rome, thyme was used with garlic for energy. Rosemary: This Mediterranean native has been used for centuries for scenting and medicinal purposes. It is associated with remembrance and fidelity because of its long-lasting piney aroma. Rosemary is the symbol of friendship and loyalty.


Origanum majorana – Sweet Marjoram

Origanum vulgare – Italian (Greek) Oregano

Rosmarinus officinalis – Rosemary

Salvia officinalis – Culinary Sage

Thymus herba-barona – Caraway-thyme

Thymus vulgaris – English Thyme

Thymbra capitata – Conehead-thyme

GROWING TIPS: Most Mediterranean herbs need well-drained soil and a lot of sun. Many of them are quite drought tolerant. These low-maintenance plants allow more time for enjoying your garden and are a nice addition to desert landscapes.


A cornucopia of chile pepper varieties is displayed in this hot spot. Not only do chile fruits vary in size and shape, they also have a broad range of “hotness.” How hot is hot? The Scoville scale measures capsaicin levels (heat/spiciness) in chile peppers. The ‘Habañero’ is very hot while the ‘Jalapeño’ can be termed a mildly hot pepper. The spicy ‘Chiltepin’ is native to southern Arizona in a limited habitat. Chile peppers are colorful ornamentals in a garden.

Did you know that a medium-sized chile contains six times the vitamin C as an orange, and two times the vitamin A and betacarotene as a carrot?

Cooking tip: If you can’t stand the fire of hot peppers but still want the flavor, remove the seeds and white membranes, the parts of the pepper that hold most of the heat in the form of capsaicin.


Capsicum annuum – ‘Chiltepin’ Chile Pepper

Capsicum annuum – ‘Jalapeño’ Chile Pepper

Capsicum annuum – ‘Poblano’/’Ancho’ Chile Pepper

Capsicum annuum – ‘Serrano’ Chile Pepper

Capsicum chinense – ‘Habañero’ Chile Pepper

Capsicum frutescens – ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ Chile Pepper

Capsicum frutescens – ‘Tabasco’ Chile Pepper

GROWING TIPS: Chile peppers can be grown as perennials here in the low desert. They prefer a fairly organic, well-drained soil. Light afternoon shade and frequent watering will keep them more robust and productive through the summer. Chile peppers should be protected from frost through the winter.


This garden showcases that many herbs grown for culinary, medicinal or other uses can also be magnets for attracting wildlife to a garden. Wildlife such as butterflies, birds, ladybugs, and bees adds color, movement, and excitement to your yard. With the loss of so much natural habitat, it is good when we can provide some wildlife with food, shelter or nesting resources.

Special note for wildlife gardens: Many types of wildlife are extremely sensitive to pesticides. Their use will prevent these creatures from visiting your garden.


Achillea millefolium – Yarrow

Chilopsis linearis – Desert-willow

Lavandula multifida – Fern-leaf Lavender

Monarda fistulosa – Bee-balm, Wild Bergamot

Passiflora caerulea – Passion Vine

Salvia leucantha – Mexican Bush Sage

Tanacetum vulgare – Tansy

GROWING TIPS: Wildlife-attracting herbs vary in their sun, soil and water requirements. Many of the non-desert/ non-Mediterranean herbs benefit from an organic soil amended with compost, and midday through afternoon relief from summer’s intense sun. Passion vines, as well as our native desert willow, can help offer summer shade to accommodate these plants. At the same time, they do their part to attract butterflies and hummingbirds and provide color through the warm months.


Throughout human history, many different cultures have relied on plants for healing. Today, plants are the source of a quarter of all medicines, and many cultures still rely on plants as the primary source of medicines. The herbs in the medicinal garden come from around the world and from our own southwest region. To find out more about native Sonoran Desert medicinal plants and traditional uses visit our Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail.

The plants and information in this exhibit are primarily for reference and education. It is not intended to serve as a manual for self-medication or as a substitute for qualified medical advice. The visitor should be aware that any plant substance, whether used as food or medicine, externally or internally, may be harmful to some people.

Medicinal uses past and present:

Aloe Vera: The thick gel inside the aloe vera leaf is used today for burns, wounds and sunburn. Extracts of leaves were once used on children’s fingers to stop nail biting.

Horehound: This herb can be found today in candy and is also used as a cough suppressant.

Purple Coneflower: Native Americans used this herb as a compress to treat snakebite, fevers, and wounds. More recently, it is known for its antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties. It has also been used in AIDS therapy.


Aristolochia watsonii – Snakeroot

Aloe barbadensis (Aloe vera) – Aloe Vera

Bursera microphylla – Elephant Tree

Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower

Marrubium vulgare – Horehound

Tanacetum parthenium – Feverfew

Tecoma stans – Yellow Bells

GROWING TIPS: This wide range of plants varies in needs for sun exposure, soil conditions, and water. In the low desert, aloe vera and purple coneflower can both benefit from light shade during midsummer. Other plants such as horehound will endure full sun exposure. Horehound and aloe vera will thrive in our desert soil whereas feverfew and coneflower would prefer a richer, organically amended soil. In the heat of the summer, feverfew will need frequent watering, but aloe vera would prefer the soil to dry some between watering.


A sensory garden offers a place to relax, meditate, and rejuvenate. Many herbs in this garden offer enchantingly fragrant foliage or blossoms, stimulating texture, or scintillating colors that arouse the senses. Other plants create graceful movement and sound as gentle breezes pass by. A sensory garden is meant for lingering.

How many senses can you use in this garden?

Smell… scented geranium, sage, lavender, thyme

See…color, texture, shapes, distant vistas

Hear… gentle breezes, the rustle of grasses, the hum of hummingbirds and bees

Touch… soft leaves of dittany of Crete, the texture of the warm soil

Taste…savory sage and thyme


Hyptis emoryi – Desert-lavender

Lavandula dentata – French Lavender

Lavandula heterophylla – Sweet Lavender

Pelargonium graveolens – Rose-scented Geranium

Salvia clevelandii – Chaparral Sage

Santolina chamaecyparissus – Grey Santolina, Lavender-cotton

GROWING TIPS: These plants vary in their sunlight, watering, and soil preferences. Scented geraniums thrive with a bit of afternoon shade or filtered the sun, a fairly organic well-drained soil, and moderately frequent watering through the summer. The lavenders, many sages, and santolinas relish full sun exposure and infrequent watering and require excellent soil drainage. A variety of herbs fall between these extremes, with some able to perform well under a wider range of conditions.


Mint and lemon-flavored herbs are among the most popular for herbal teas. With the variety of these plants that thrive in our area, along with other flavored herbs, you can grow a tea blend to relax or stimulate your mood, or simply appeal to your taste buds. Some of the herbs can be harvested year-round while others can be picked at their peak and stored for later brewing. Herbal teas provide a flavorful, healthy and soothing drink. They are caffeine free, may act as a digestive aid, and many have a calming effect, promoting well-being. The part of the plant used to make an herbal tea varies with each plant. The flowers, seeds, leaves, stems, bark or roots can be steeped to make a drink.

Brewing tip: As a general rule, use one teaspoon of dried herbs, or two teaspoons of fresh herbs to each cup of boiled water for tea.


Aloysia triphylla – Lemon-verbena

Cymbopogon citratus – Lemon-grass

Ephedra spp. – Mormon-tea

Mentha spp. – Mints

Nepeta cataria – Catnip

Poliomintha incana – Hoary Rosemary mint

GROWING TIPS: Many of the non-native tea herbs require an organically rich soil and a good amount of water. These are best located in afternoon shade conditions for the summer. Some of the southwest natives are drought tolerant and thrive in full sun locations. Provide these with well-drained soil.


Several of these plants are old familiars to most gardeners. Try some of the less common herbs to experience new flavors to spice up your cuisine. Some culinary herbs are annuals, changing with the seasons. For ease of planting, designate an area for them in your garden.

Cooking tips:

  • Culinary chives can be substituted for scallions to achieve a mild onion flavor.
  • For a great salad add basil, garlic chives, black pepper and balsamic vinegar.
  • Place French tarragon sprigs in vinegar to preserve the subtlety of the fresh herb.



Allium ampeloprasum – Elephant Garlic

Allium cepa – Shallots

Anethum graveolens – Dill

Anthriscus cerefolium – Chervil

Borago officinalis – Borage

Calendula officinalis – Calendula

Coriandrum sativum – Cilantro/Coriander

Salvia columbariae – Desert Chia

Tropaeolum majus – Nasturtium

Viola tricolor – Johnny Jump-ups



Chenopodium ambrosioides – Epazote

Helianthus tuberosa – Sunchoke, Jerusalem-artichoke

Hyptis suaveolens – Summer-chia, Golden-chia

Porophyllum ruderale – Bolivian Bush-cilantro

Salvia tiliaefolia – Tarahumara Chia


Allium schoenoprasum – Culinary Chives

Crithmum maritimum – Samphire

Foeniculum vulgare v. dulce – Florence Fennel

Petroselinum crispum ‘Italian’ – Italian Flat-leaf Parsley

Sanguisorba minor (Poterium sanguisorba) – Salad Burnet

Tagetes lucida – Mexican-tarragon, Mexican-mint Marigold, Yerba-anis

Tulbaghia violacea – Society-garlic

GROWING TIPS : While many culinary herbs are perennials, some of them are seasonal annuals and must be grown in either the cool season or the warm season here in the low desert. For example, annual cilantro and dill can be planted in the fall to grow through the cool months. Epazote thrives in the heat of summer and dies off with winter’s cold. Some perennials such as culinary chives, French tarragon, and Mexican-tarragon may disappear underground for the winter, re-sprouting with fresh growth the following spring. Parsley, normally a biennial lasting two years, may not endure summer here. Basil, commonly an annual in other regions, can last well past one season here if protected from frost.


Annual: A plant that grows from seed, flowers, develops seed, and dies within one growing season.

Biennial: A plant that takes two growing seasons to complete its life cycle, flowering, developing seeds and dying in the second year.

Capsaicin: The chemical compound that gives Chile peppers their heat.

Compost: Decomposed organic matter.

Genus: A group of related plant species (one or more species); the first part of the botanical name of a plant.

Herb: A plant that is useful in some way. It may be used in food preparation, or for medicine, tea, cosmetics, aromatherapy, crafting, dyeing, construction, ritual, pest control, or many other things.

Organic matter: Decomposed plant or animal remains.

Perennial: A plant that lives more than two growing seasons, often flowering and producing seed every year.

Species: A group of plants that are alike and can interbreed; the second part of the botanical name of a plant.

The Low Desert Herb Gardening Handbook
Arizona Herb Association

Desert Gardening for Beginners – How to Grow Vegetables, Flowers, and Herbs in an Arid Climate
Cathy Cromell, Linda Guy, Lucy Bradley Arizona Master Gardener Press

The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia Of Herbs and Their Uses
Deni Brown Dorling Kindersley

Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting, & Root
Thomas DeBaggio Interweave Press

Arizona Herb Association 602.470.8086, ext. 830