Cactus & Succulents Workshop: How to care for your dish garden

“People trample over flowers, yet only to embrace a cactus.”

James Joyce

Fortunately, no Conservatory blooms were caught underfoot August 11, 2019 as an intrepid group of cactus devotees trekked over to join Karen Summers of the Cascade Cactus and Succulent Society (CCSS) of Washington State. They came to this “Rootcamp” to hone up their skills in caring for these hardy desert denizens. Armed with that knowledge, attendees left the two-hour workshop with dish gardens they designed and planted.

Karen has a long and thorny love affair with cactus that began in 1975, when she received her first cactus. As she recalled, that was an echinopsis, also known by its warm and fuzzy name, the hedgehog. That successful love affair continued through the years, in the not so desert-like Northwest.

Figure 1. Karen shares her 40+ years of experience

cactip: The CCSS holds their annual “Odd Plant Show & Sale” at Sky Nursery on Sept 14-15. A record 25 sellers will display their cactus and succulent wares in 2019.

Cactus Care

Note: The terms cactus and succulent are sometimes used interchangeably. More accurately, succulents are the larger plant family of about 60 different species that adapted to living in dry situations by storing water in their stems, roots and leaves. Botanists include cactus as one of those families (BTW, the accepted plural is cactuses, cacti or even cactus). What makes cacti unique among succulents is that they are the only one with areoles, small round, cushion-like mounds of flesh where the spines and flowers grow from. Unless specifically relating to a particular succulent, we will refer only to cactus here.

So much of cactus care is specific to the locale where they are grown. Karen shared the most important principles of growing cactus (and succulents) in our damp Northwest climate with its low light winters. With proper care, this is easy and plants will thrive.


There are so many great ways to display cactus—painted pots, animal shaped pots, etc. The main point to remember is that cactus rot from too much moisture. Pots with drainage holes that allow water to escape are preferable. If you find a pot you love that does not have that hole, all is not lost. Try to drill a hole. Or just limit your watering to compensate for the slower drainage.

cactip: Clay pots are usually the best: They “breath,” providing an additional escape route for excess moisture.


Cactus love light, even in the Winter. Normally, you should encourage your desert cactus to go dormant (stop growing) from November through March. If they continue to grow in the winter, at least above the 30th parallel (Seattle is way up there, at the 48th), days will be too short for them to receive the best illumination. That may cause them to etiolate, ie, elongate, and grow weak and pale. Visually that may look like the plant has a “conehead.” All is not lost. If a cactus etiolates, you can cut off the elongated part, dry it off and repot it.  That said, some succulents, like aloe, haworthia, sanseveria and gasteria do better in lower light. Know your plant’s light needs! If you can, give your plants a summer treat and let nature take over. Move them outdoors in May or June. The light and heat of our Summer is like a four-month spa vacation. Make that move gradual. Like us, even the tough-skinned cactus can burn from an immediate exposure to sunlight. And, as the summer ends, try to dry your plants out before they come back inside. By mid-September, move outdoor plants (if you can) under eaves so they get some sun but less rain.

cactip: LED lights are an excellent replacement for the fluorescents of yesterday. They are inexpensive to operate and ensure that your cacti get adequate light, especially in winter months.


There is a reason cacti live in dry places.Don’t overwater them.When the soil is dry, soak your plant, and empty the saucer underneath. Wait until the soil is completely dry before the next watering. Outside, cacti forgive everything! A plant dries out quickly in the summer sun. During their normal months of dormancy in Winter give the plants a rest. You can water cactus as little as every two months. You may notice the plants shrink during colder months. That’s normal. Remember watering instructions are different depending on the part of the country cactus are raised.

cactip: As one member of the Cascade Cactus and Succulent Society says, “When you think you should water your cactus…don’t!”


Like chefs, growers make their own favorite recipe…for soil. Karen uses a combination of 50% pumice and 50% potting soil. Pumice absorbs moisture, the bane of cactus, while also releasing it back into the soil at a steady rate. Some prefer perlite, which like pumice, is a form of volcanic rock. Over time, perlite may float to the top of the soil. 

cactip: Some growers add some sand to the mix, or even a touch of Turface, an additive used on ball fields!


Before planting, get in “cactus mind.” Barerooted you will see some have long taproots, others miniscule roots growing close to the body. Looking at the roots will give you a feel for the type of pot to use. Once you get a feel for watering, you may be more comfortable experimenting with glazed pots that retain moisture. Many cactus and other succulents can be grown from cuttings. Wait a few days to allow it to scar over where the cutting was made. After transplanting, hold back on the water. The delicate little roots that form seek out water and need time to grow. Watering immediately may damage them.

cactip: Don’t use too large a pot. One a little wider than the cactus is perfect. You can always repot later as it grows, to prevent the plant from becoming root bound.


Mealy bugs are the most common pests that infest and kill cactus. They are more frequently encountered indoors in the Winter. These small white bugs spread quickly from plant to plant and literally suck the life out. Fortunately they are easily eliminated. One way is by spraying undiluted isopropyl alcohol, the kind found in a pharmacy, directly on the bugs. Pay special attention to where the cactus meets the soil. (You may want to repot the plant to make sure the bugs are gone). When adding new cacti to your collection, isolate the plant for a while to make sure that they are not harboring mealies or other pests.

cactip: Cinnamon (yes as found in buns) is an effective antifungal for some plant diseases. Some growers also find it to be an effective stimulant for rooting.

Designing a Dish Garden

After reviewing the basics on Care, the group advanced to the hands-on part of the day (more accurately, the gloves-on part, gloves being the essential formal wear for potting cactus). Treat cactus gingerly. Even plants with little hair-like spines can be uncomfortable and itchy.

cactip: Most offices are at the desert level for dryness. With adequate light, a cactus garden will grow, hopefully along with your career.

Before everyone moved to the potting tables, Karen shared a number of creativity-stimulating thoughts to think about when creating a desert garden.

A cactus garden can be as simple or as elaborate as time and imagination dictate. Some people throw a few small cactus in a dish, add some rocks and pebbles and they’re done. That’s fine. Still, there is so much more that may be done. Here are the basic things to think about.

Figure 2. The essential elements of cactus gardens

Height Different sizes planted together are more appealing to the eye.

Color Succulents and even cactus are not all the same colors. There are shades of red, green, brown, etc.

Texture: Whether cactus with spines or hair, or smooth succulents, you can switch it up.

Shape: Cactus and other succulents can be round, fat, tree-shaped. Mix ‘em up!

Spacing: You are not planting tomatoes! Planting in neat rows is not necessary or even desirable.

Let your imagination run wild. Rocks of different shapes, sizes and colors add interest. Want a prehistoric theme? Buy a tube of dinosaurs at a craft store and let your inner ankylosaurus wander past an astrophytum. Or get some zombie figures. Make a “Night of the Living Desert,” with the undead poking out from behind the rocks… But before you begin, remember this: You will be removing cactus from the pots they came in. There are so many ways to safely do that. Some enthusiasts use newspaper, folded into bands they wrap around a plant after they tip the pot until the soil loosens (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Using newspaper to unpot cactus
Figure 4. Plant me with a spoon

cactip: Kitchen utensils make great tools: Salad tongs are great for picking up depotted plants. Spoons are great for adding smaller amounts of soil (see Figure 4).

cactip: Try to use plants that need the same amount of water—if their needs are different, use a dropper for the one that needs water.

Moving to the potting tables, the fun began. Everyone was supplied with a dish, live plants and soil, and created their own dish garden they took away as a memento of an informative and fun session.

Karen summed up the day. “Participants were able to share some of their own experiences in growing plants. That made the workshop more participatory. The dish gardens they created were varied and expressive of personal styles.”

Want to create your own desert dish garden? Come to the Conservatory, join the CCSS and get started!

Cascade Cactus and Succulent Society (CCSS) of Washington State ( meets monthly at Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave N (or offsite). On Instagram: @cascadecss

Reported by Jeff Apton, Volunteer Docent and cactus lover
Photos by Lou Daprile

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