Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
April, 2008
Regional Report

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Many succulents, such as these sedums, thrive in rock crevices.

Succulents and Cacti for Colder Regions

Cacti and succulents are generally considered landscape plants reserved for warm climates. This may well be true knowing their tenacity to stand up to the most wilting of summer heat. However, if you look around our region you will soon discover that some of these plants are well adapted to colder zones as well. Perhaps the most widely known is the prickly pear cactus that grows in zones 5 through 10. It has the distinctive clumps of pad-like sections. Like other cacti it does best in well-drained soils and full sun.

Although cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti. Cacti have sharp spines; succulents do not. What they have in common is their ability to retain water the heat and for prolonged periods of drought. Both have thick outer skins or epidermis; the cuticle is often waxy, which aids in the retention of moisture and in the reflection of the heat of the sun. Some plants have a covering of white hairs, which also reflect the sun.

Choosing the Right Spot
If you plan to add these interesting plants to your landscape, make sure they are planted in full sun. Cacti and succulents do not do well in shade. The more sun they have, the more they will produce flowers and spread.

I like to top-dress the area where they are planted with a coarse sand or pea gravel to keep down the humidity and keep the soil warmer. Unlike many other perennials that may need winter watering, the combination of wet and cold is a sure way to kill succulents and cacti. During the winter, some cacti and succulents become limp and shriveled. This is not necessarily a sign that they are dying, but it is a protective mechanism to ensure that the water inside them doesn't freeze. The plants will plump up again in the spring.

Choosing the Right Plant
Many varieties of sedums are hardy in our northern zones. Shorter sedums can be planted as ground covers or used in rock gardens. For height, the showy stonecrop is highly useful in the garden. Hardy in zones 3 to 10, showy stonecrop cultivars bloom with dense clusters of brightly colored flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

One of my favorite hardy succulents for ground cover and containers is hens and chicks. The attractive, flat, fleshy leaves can store water for months at a time. They work perfectly tucked in between rock crevices, planted in the rock garden, in decorative terra cotta pots, for edging, and even as a dense ground cover.

As you get ready to design and plant a more water-conserving landscape, consider cacti and succulents. There are many choices for our region.

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