So why do we all love succulents so much? The enormous variety of shapes, colors and textures is surely near the top of every list. Sooner or later, every succulent-lover will come to appreciate the allure of the prickliest of all succulents — cacti. The colorful spines that add a whole new dimension! Cactus varieties are true succulents, but there are important differences between cacti and succulents. One critical difference is that cactus must be watered even less than succulents. So, you would think they couldn’t be planted together, safely, right? Surely, either the succulents would be under-watered or the cactus would be over-watered, right? Not so! Let me show you exactly how to plant cacti and succulents together so all the plants will thrive! You can use this technique in a planter or in the landscape.
Planting Cacti and Succulents Together So Both Thrive!
How to Plant Cacti and Succulents – Supplies
To make this arrangement and show you how to plant cacti and succulents together, I pulled together the following supplies:
- Pot with good drainage
- Fast-draining succulent soil
- Drywall mesh tape
- Scissors (I just love these for all gardening projects!)
- Tweezers (from my favorite set of succulent tools)
- Wooden chopstick
- Soft bristle brush (from my favorite set of succulent tools)
- Succulent plants
You’ll get a better view of the container I chose a bit lower down, but it is extraordinary. The very bottom is a wood-brown, with irregular striations through it, and the cute, pudgy feet of the pot are the same brown tone. The majority of the pot is a gorgeous blue glaze with green tones throughout and a beautiful leaf motif. The colors and the leaf texture of the pot inspired my choice of cacti and succulents as I’ll describe below.
OK – we’re ready to get started — let’s see how to plant cacti and succulents together!
Choosing a Cacti and Succulents Pot
I absolutely love the handmade ceramic containers of Donna Davis Taylor’s Succulent-Pottery. Each handmade piece is one-of-a-kind and loaded with whimsy and character. This is the first piece I have ever purchased, and I cannot wait to own more. This is a peculiar angle to show your her pot, but just look at the fabulous drainage holes! Every one of her pieces is specially designed to hold succulents, so she includes several generous drainage holes. I use drywall mesh tape to cover the holes. So handy, it keeps my succulent soil inside the pot, while allowing water to pour right through!
Add succulent soil, then it’s time to add the plants.
Planting Cacti and Succulents
There is no particular order for adding the cacti and succulents to the pot, though there is a technique, which I’ll show you lower down. For the purposes of my design, I started with my largest plant, an Echeveria colorata. Aren’t those red points wonderful? When you slide the succulent out of its nursery pot, the roots and the soil hold together in the shape of the pot. If you leave it intact, you won’t be able to add as many plants to the pot, because the root ball takes up so much room.
There is nothing wrong with leaving the soil and roots intact, just as there is no reason to plant so many plants in the container as I will do here. As long as the plant is not rootbound, with a lot of roots growing around and around in circles, it is safe to leave the soil and root ball together. It is purely an aesthetic choice. I particularly like the over-full look that I am going to show you, so I removed the excess soil and massaged the roots.
Before close-planting succulents and cacti, be sure to remove excess soil from the roots and massage the roots to loosen them from the soil. Now the roots are prepared to grow out, into the fresh soil in the container.
I placed this large Echeveria very close to the front corner of my pot, tilting it at an angle to overhang the lip of the pot. This was not necessary for the health of the plant, it just fit my intended design. And it in no way hurts the plant to be planted like this. I chose this Echeveria colorata because its pale blue color went with the azure glaze of the pot. And see how the shape of the Echeveria’s leaves mimic the shape of the leaf texture?
Dividing Succulents Prior to Planting
I dearly love the fuzzy, furry brown leaves of Kalanchoe tomentosa ‘Teddy Bear’ and I think they are perfect to pick up the brown color in my new pot. There were three plants growing together in the pot I chose, so when I removed the excess soil and massaged the roots, they easily came apart for me. I planted them behind and sort of curling around the large Echeveria.
Now, its time to add my main cactus, so we can see how to plant cacti and succulents together.
Removing the Cactus from the Pot
I chose this Mammillaria elongata ‘Copper King’ to echo the brown color at the base of the pot. The plant itself is a lovely olive green with an intricate arrangement of coppery-brown spines in many starbursts across the plant. When the sun backlights this plant, the spines seem to glow. Gorgeous!
I’ll soon be doing a post all about handling cactus without getting poked. For now, let me introduce you to one of the tools I use for handling and planting cacti — a newspaper! Take a piece of newspaper, folded over and over, lengthwise.
Fold the newspaper length in two, and now you have a flexible but sturdy collar to pick up the cactus, remove it from its pot and place it where you want it. Use more paper for a larger, or heavier plant as needed.
The paper cushions the plant nicely, preventing it from harm as you handle it. Most importantly, the paper keeps you from getting stuck with those spines! Now, for the secret to how to plant cacti and succulents together!
How to Plant Cacti and Succulents Together
When planting cacti and succulents together, the succulents’ roots should be entirely under the soil. But plant the cactus with just the lower 1/3 of the roots under the soil. Leave the top 2/3 of the cactus’ roots above the soil line.
You will add soil to cover the cactus roots above the soil line and use other plants to disguise them from view. But because the top 2/3 of the roots are above the soil line, the plant will take in far less of the moisture in the soil. In the photo above, I overexposed the root zone, trying to make it easier to see. The yellow line shows you the roots above the soil line.
I know this seems like a radical idea, and you will be afraid of damaging your cactus. I promise you — this works! Check out my post on rejuvenating a succulent and cactus dish garden. You’ll see how much the crested cactus I used grew and flourished over an entire year’s time, with the top 2/3 of its root ball above the soil line, because I planted it with succulents!
So, I planted the Mammillaria elongata ‘Copper King’ at the back right corner of my container, with the top 2/3 of the roots exposed above the soil line. I set it at a bit of an angle away from the center of the pot, similar to how I planted the Echeveria.
Planting Around a Cactus
I wanted to add a punch of color with an Anacampseros ‘Sunrise’ and I love the way the bright pink sparks off the bright red tips of the E. colorata. And I wanted to add some bright, white “thimble cactus” — Mammillaria gracilis fragilis. To be able to safely plant in and around the prickly cactus, I again used a folded sheet of newspaper. I wrapped it around the planted ‘Copper King’ cactus, as I added in the Anacampseros. This protected both the cactus and me from injury. I was expecting to find 2-3 plants in the Anacampseros pot and intended to divide it and plant it in 2 spots. But it is one, large, colorful plant. I set it to spill over the edge of the pot. Isn’t that color incredible?
Next came the adorable little thimble cactus plants. Again, the plant itself is an olive green but it is loaded with short, semi-soft, pure white bristles in intricate and overlapping starburst patterns. It forms many, many round Succulent offsets are the baby succulents that form at the b..., looking like a cluster of white bubbles. It’s a wonderful source of bright white color and texture to add to a succulent and cactus arrangement.
These thimble cactus pots did each have multiple little plants, making them easy to divide. Read up on succulent division. I used the tweezers from my toolkit to hold the base of the plant as I removed the excess soil, divided the cacti and placed and planted them.
Cover Cactus Roots with Extra Soil
I continued to add the cheery little thimble cactus in several spots. The white seems to sparkle, and adds lovely highlights to the arrangement. I used the scoop that came with my tool kit to add soil just where I needed it to cover the cactus roots that I left exposed above the soil line. The soil protects the roots and the cactus themselves hide the roots from view.
Once I had most of my plants set into place, I decided my large Echeveria colorata was too large for the scale of the pot and the cactus and succulent arrangement. So, I removed several of the lower leaves to make it a bit smaller. And of course, I set those leaves aside to propagate more Echeveria!
Then, I took a small division from a Cotyledon pendens to use as a trailing plant and tucked that behind my Echeveria.
Cacti and Succulent Arrangement (Nearly) Finished
I thought I was finished with my cactus and succulent arrangement at this point. I had followed the succulent arranging design principles and elements that Cindy Davison of The Succulent Perch teaches in our Facebook group. I started with the gorgeous Donna Davis Taylor pot as my inspiration. I repeated the colors of the pot in my composition, with attention to balance and scale. I am really pleased with it, then I showed it to Cindy.
Cindy was very supportive and offered a very encouraging evaluation. She is just amazing at design! She encouraged me to make a few, small tweaks. I did, and I wonder if you can find them?
Caring for Cactus and Succulent Arrangement
Here is my final cactus and succulent arrangement. The squeeze water bottle with the long, slender neck came in my set of succulent tools and it is invaluable! It allows me to water a very full arrangement like this perfectly, and directs the water exactly where I need it! I expect the entire arrangement to flourish in bright, indirect sunlight.
From left to right, I used the Cotyledon pendens as the trailing plant. In front is the Echeveria colorata, with the Kalanchoe tomentosa ‘Teddy Bear’ peeking out behind it. The white Mammillaria gracilis fragilis ‘Thimble Cactus’ is threaded throughout the arrangement. The bright pink, yellow and green Anacampseros ‘Sunrise‘ adds excitement to the look, I think. Then, the Mammillaria elongata ‘Copper King’ adds height and drama in the back right.
Cindy had suggested I tuck in the trailing Cotyledon just a bit more to better keep the whole of the arrangement in balance. She also suggested that I make the Kalanchoe a bit more prominent. And that rather than having a thimble cactus right next to the ‘Copper King’, where the textures were so alike, she suggested that I nestle that little cactus into the curve of the Anacampseros. I am so pleased with the results!
You can learn all about succulent care AND design in our Facebook group. We’d love to have you join us!
Design a Cactus and Succulent Arrangement from All Angles
Even though my cactus and succulent arrangement has a definite front, I wanted to be sure it looks good from all angles. Continue to turn your pot as you plant, so you can fill in any empty spaces. Cindy uses a lazy Susan as she plants, and I think I need to get one too. As you can see, the leaves of the Kalanchoe tomentosa ‘Teddy Bear’ are shorter and rounder than those of the more common ‘Chocolate Soldier’.
Isn’t the handmade ceramic pot by Donna Davis Taylor fantastic? I just love her work! The little feet are so cute, and the pot is wrapped, with the edge showing. So clever. There is also a cool button, under the Anacampseros. I should have thought it through and not let that get covered. Guess I need another one of her pots for a re-do, right? 🙂
To see more of Donna’s work, check out her business page on Facebook. She releases new pots every couple of weeks, and they sell out fast! You can check out more of her beautiful work on Instagram, too. Support a small business and expand your hobby — it’s a win-win!
You Can Plant Cacti and Succulents Together
There you have it! How to plant cacti and succulents together, step-by-step! What do you think? Remember, you do not have to plant your arrangement as full as I like to do. But when you plant cacti and succulents together, be sure to leave the top 2/3 of the cactus roots exposed above the soil line. That is the key to keep them from getting over watered.
I would love to hear what you think, or to answer any questions you might have. Please take a moment to leave me a comment — I will get right back to you!
P.S. For more information about all things succulent, please subscribe to The Succulent Eclectic. You’ll receive my FREE e-course, 7 Steps to Succulent Success! Thanks!
P.P.S. Why not join my Facebook Group for succulent-lovers? We talk succulent care, propagation, identification and design. It’s a warm and welcoming group that would love to meet you!