By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Most cacti are thought of as desert dwellers that thrive in baking hot sun and punishing, nutrient poor soils. While much of this is true, many cacti can thrive where brief freezes occur and some even in areas with snow. Cacti for zone 9 will find average low temperatures in Fahrenheit of 20 to 30 or -7 to -1 Celsius. Some of the more hardy groups are Echinocereus, Mammilaria, and Opuntia, but there are many more subspecies in semi-hardy families which are useful to zone 9 gardeners.
Zone 9 Cactus Info
Cactus and other succulents are easy to maintain and have few special care requirements once established. They perform beautifully either in the ground in warmer climates, in containers outdoors in summer, or indoors year round.
Using cactus for zone 9 can provides a desert themed landscape with drought tolerance and often brightly colored flowers and fruits. Most specimens suited for the region are smaller plants but mixed with yucca or agave for vertical appeal, they can bring a note of Saharan splendor to your backyard.
Before even selecting plants, the right conditions need to be developed for growing cacti in zone 9. Cacti need freely draining soil and do nicely in gritty mediums. In garden beds, you can add horticultural sand, gravel, or other gritty material to enhance drainage. Potted plants prefer a cactus mixture or a 50% mix of sand and potting soil.
Most prefer sun all day long but should be protected from the hottest rays of the day to prevent sunburn. Contrary to popular belief, cacti do need water. Plants with pads will wither and pucker when cacti are drought stressed. Barrel cacti and those with needles fare better due to adaptations in the skin and needles that help conserve moisture and prevent burning. Most cacti for zone 9 should be watered once a week in summer and once or twice per month in winter.
Choosing Zone 9 Cacti
Pretty much any containerized cactus can be grown indoors in zone 9. It’s the varieties for outdoors that need to be vetted. Some of the better cactus for zone 9 might be in families from regions that do experience some freezing and are often higher elevation.
Monk’s Hood is a cute little barrel cactus with spirally arranged spines. Over time it will achieve 4 feet in height (1 meter). A super cold tolerant plant from the Sonoran Desert is the Saguaro cactus. This classic example can grow to 50 feet tall (15 meters), adding elegant height to the cactus garden.
Several Cholla are very cold hardy such as Chain Fruit, Bush Pencil, and Giant Tree cholla. Echinocereus is another group of plants that can withstand freezing temperatures. Try Claret Cup, Golden Barrel, or Lady Finger.
When growing cacti in zone 9 you cannot go wrong with specimens from certain families. Many of the Opuntia, Ferocactus, Euphorbia, Stenocereus, and Trichocereus will thrive right in the ground in zone 9 regions. Below are some of the more popular varieties:
- Engelman Prickly Pear
- Tiger Tongue
- Orange Bunny Ears
- Cow’s Tongue
- Elephant Ear
- Blue Barrel
- Red Spines
- Pencil Bush
- Moroccan Mound
- Wax Plant
- Mexican Organ Pipe
Mix in some ice plants, aloe, or low growing succulents and you will create a dreamy desert landscape.
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Read more about Zone 9, 10 & 11
How to Grow Cacti in Cold-Winter Climates
Cold-weather cactus plants that grow in northern regions prefer much the same conditions as their southern counterparts. Place them in sunny, dry locations they need sun to bloom.
How to Plant Cacti
Cacti require soil that drains quickly but avoid growing them in pure sand, which doesn't hold enough nutrients. Add 40-60 percent coarse sand and up to 10 percent compost to garden soil or purchased topsoil for a nutrient-rich, fast-draining mix. Or add pea gravel in place of some of the sand. Avoid using fine-grain sand it gums up the soil instead of adding drainage.
Raised beds are recommended to provide excellent drainage. The more rain your area gets, the more drainage you need. In super-wet regions, grow cacti in pots under shelter such as a roof overhang. Likewise, never plant cacti in regular or clay soil as they can easily get too much water and die.
Watering Cactus Plants
Cactus plants do need some water. The best practice is to simply let Mother Nature do the watering for you. However, if you go for several weeks in hot, dry weather without rain, feel free to water them. If the weather has been hot and dry and the plants look limp or are beginning to droop, they're telling you they need water.
Avoid watering cactus in the fall or winter. Cactus plants begin to shrink and take on a wilted, off-color appearance to prepare themselves for the coming weather. If you water them then, the excess water freezes and the plant dies.
Cactus plants grown in the ground don't need much fertilizer but they benefit from spring applications of compost or a liquid fertilizer designed for bulb or vegetable use. Avoid fertilizers with a large nitrogen component (the first number of the three shown on the package). Nitrogen causes rapid growth, but the plant may be too tender and become susceptible to winter damage, especially late in the growing season.
After planting cactus plants, avoid disturbing the soil around their shallow roots. Pea gravel or other small rock mulch prevents soil from blowing away, assists with weed prevention, and keeps the soil temperature even.
Protecting Cactus Plants
In areas with plenty of snow cover, hardy cacti easily survive. In areas with harsh winds and sun but little snow, cacti can become sunburned or frostbitten. To prevent damage, carefully cover the plants with burlap as late in the season as possible. The burlap allows the plants to breathe while protecting them from sun, ice, and wind. During warmer winters, carefully place a structure such as a canvas tent over the cactus plants to shelter them from excess moisture.