Small cacti plants arrangement in a pot.

How to Create a Desert Bowl of Plants

Cacti have a reputation for sitting around in corners getting dusty and barely growing, but use them in a new way and they come to life. They look great planted in small groups, and given a sand mulch such a group becomes a funky and kitsch desert scene. All it needs is a miniature cowboy.

When to start: Spring.

At their best: Early summer.

Time to complete: 1 ½ hours.

You will need: Shallow planting bowl, crocks or pebbles, cacti soil, washed sand, newspaper, spoon, heavy-duty gloves, watering can.

Plants we could use: Cleistocactus strausii, Mammillaria hahniana, Opuntia tuna, and Rebutia species.

Before you start

Cacti famously survive on little water, but if you want them to grow and flower they should actually be watered regularly during the growing season. Giving them a thorough watering before planting will help the roots make good contact with the new soil, and they should grow very well.

Aid drainage

All cacti hate to sit in water, so make sure it will run freely through the growing medium, and out of the bottom of the pot. The container should have lots of drainage holes, covered by a layer of pebbles or crocks, to prevent the soil from clogging up the holes.

Set out the plants

Don your protective gloves and start arranging your plants. If you have chosen the position for each of your cacti before you start, planting will be easier and you are more likely to end up with a good overall effect. It makes sense to put smaller ones at the front and larger ones at the back, but also consider planting those with different habits, textures, and flower color next to each other.

Planting tips

Wrap a folded strip of newspaper around the top of the plant. This will help you slide it out of its pot and maneuver it into the larger planter without getting spines or fine hairs in your fingers. It also protects the plant.

Fill in the gaps

Once the plants are in position, use a spoon to carefully fill the gaps between them with a cacti soil. Add small amounts of soil at a time and keep firming it down with the back of a spoon to ensure that there are no air holes left around the plant roots.

Brush off soil

No matter how careful you are, some soil will inevitably get caught in the cactus spines and hairs. Use a soft brush to remove it and to keep the plants looking clean and neat.

Water in

Water all the plants in well. In summer, they can be watered whenever the surface of the soil dries out. In winter, they should be left dry; start watering again sparingly when you see signs of growth in spring.

Apply a sand mulch

Use the spoon to spread fine sand around the surface of the planter. This helps water quickly drain away from the surface, preventing rot, and gives the planter an authentic desertlike appearance. Set your arrangement in a bright, sunny position.

Tips: Watering overfilled pots

Cacti are often sold when the plants are almost overflowing the sides of their pots, making it tricky to water them properly before planting. Sit these in a container of water until the root ball is damp.