Gay Gardens: Easy Patio Plants, Flowering Cacti (and Other Succulents)

We’re heading into dry season. Here’s how to have fabulous patio plants year round and not worry about water.

by PQ Staff
Share This Article

by Dan Lynch

In my last column, I showed you how easy it is to grow attractive homicidal patio plants. We heard from a bunch of you and, well, we listened. Today’s column on easy patio plants doesn’t include any plants that systematically murder.  These all merely draw blood. That’s right, we’re talking about cacti.


Shangela wore it better, Vivacious. Maybe include Ornacia next time?

You don’t normally think of cactus and the Pacific Northwest in the same sentence, but if you provide them the right conditions, they’re a delightful combination. And your sunny patio is an easy place to provide the right conditions.


There’s just something irresistible about spikes, right Sarah?

To make it through our wet winters, cacti need two things: excellent drainage and the right soil. A patio pot is exactly the right place to provide both. For soil, you either want to buy a specialized cactus soil, or mix one part potting soil with one part sand and one part pearlite to ensure drainage.


Mature Optunia in large pots.

A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

The best part of cacti as patio plants is that, unlike virtually any other potted plant you leave in full sun in August, they are immensely tolerant of going bone dry once established! After planting mine, the total extent of my care has been an optional splash of water two to three times a summer. They’re the perfect plants for the lazy gardener.


A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

Optunia flowers are one of the most spectacular sights in the garden.

Prickly Pears are the easiest option

Optunia (Prickly Pears) and their taller, more slender cousins the Cylindropuntia (Cholla cacti) are both great patio options. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, are mostly winter hardy in the Portland area, look great 12 months a year and feature two rounds of particular interest: when they send up new (adorable) pads in the late spring, and, once mature, when they flower in early summer.


Then, um, don’t stand so close to the prickly pears, Laganja!

Depending on the variety, these flowering cacti may take a few years to bloom, but the blooms are amongst the most spectacular sights of the June garden. Each one lasts no more than 12-36 hours (depending on species and temperature), but full grown plants will put out enough buds for days worth of blooms. Moreover, planting multiple varieties mean your season of bloom is likely to last longer still.


A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

This is the most classic prickly pear flower color and shape

While I’ve grown my plants in large pots, I’ve seen them grown well in the ground as well. The tricks here are the same as for planting in pots—you need gritty soil and sharp drainage. In the ground, I’ve seen them perform nicely in sidewalk strips, on slopes or on raised portions of a garden bed. Put another way, cacti (and other succulents) are ideal solutions for spots that are likely to be trouble spots for most gardeners.


A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

Flower color is variety dependent, but options include cream, yellow, orange, red and, if you pick carefully, rose pink

Other cactus and succulent options that may work well in an Oregon garden or as patio plants include:  Maihuenia poeppigii (a Chilean cactus with yellow flowers) and many Agave species/varieties (but check the hardiness—many will either freeze to death or require being brought indoors/into a garage or sheltered area on the coldest nights). Many aloe and cactus-like Euphorbia species will also fit the bill as patio plants, if you’re willing to drag them inside (or at least someplace that stays above freezing) on nights when it’s going to stay below freezing.

Know your zone—but you have plenty of options.

Here in Portland, we are in Zone 8a (in the hills)/8b (most of the rest of the metro area). Plants that are hardy to zone 8 will survive most winters here in town (although Zone 8 plants in pots may benefit from a bit of protection on the coldest of nights, since their roots will get colder quicker out of the ground). Most tags at good nurseries will tell you what zone they are hardy to—and as long as your number is equal to or higher than the one on the tag, you’ll be fine in most winters. Look up your zone here.  

If you find a succulent you love that is just outside of your zone, it doesn’t mean you can’t get it—but it does mean that you shouldn’t put it in the ground unless you only want it as an annual, and that you will have to bring it inside for the coldest parts of winter. The one surefire way to kill a plant in this week’s column is to get it below its freeze point—you’ll end up with a deflated pile of mush.


Baby prickly pear (Optunia and Cylindroptunia) pads are so freaking cute.

A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

Click through to Instagram to see more baby pads

While there are many Optunia and Cylindropuntia that will freeze to death in a Portland winter, many are hardy to zones as cold as 4 (think Upstate New York or Idaho). I’ve had my collection of outdoor cacti for several years now and the only significant damage was from ice storms. My mature plants lost a few pads, but sprung back nicely the next spring.


A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

Creamy Optunia with an orange-red heart

Shoulder plants are awesome

I love my prickly pears, but that’s not all I have planted with them. There are quite a few hardy options for succulent, low growing plants that do great planted as companion plants. Delosperma (ice plant) varieties are hardier than they look, and provide sporadic blasts of bright colored daisy flowers from spring until fall, in virtually every shade but blue. (They also make a great groundcover for sunny, dry areas.)

Sempervivum (Hens and Chicks) are another awesome shoulder plant option that look great year round.  Each individual plant is a tight rosette of leaves and lives two to three years before dying in a burst of flowers.  The flowers are bluntly not that spectacular, but the foliage options are nearly infinite with plants available in every possible shade of blue, green, chartreuse and purple. The fact that each plant is shortlived is nothing to be afraid of, since mature plants regularly shoot off offsets (baby clones) next to the parent plant.


Optunia with blooming Sempervium shoulder plants.

A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

Many sedums are also wonderful shoulder plant options for cacti; they do tend to benefit from water in the summer months, and many of the hardy varieties go winter dormant. Sedums are easily found in pretty much every nursery, and the variety of options are nearly endless.


Maihuenia poeppigii, a Chilean cactus that gradually spreads into a wide mound.

A post shared by Dan Lynch (@gaygardenspdx) on

Lots of local nurseries have great hardy cacti, but there are two must visit stores in the Portland area for hardy (and not-so-hardy) succulents—and both are queer owned!  Cistus Nursery on Sauvie Island has an awesome selection of cacti in their entryway greenhouse and is heartily recommended as a place to visit just to tour the facilities.  They have a fairly large selection of (not for sale) specimen plants in their main greenhouse complex and a consistently awesome selection of plants from around the globe you won’t find anywhere else.  Xera Plants, as their name suggests, specializes in low water plants, and while you can frequently buy their plants at other nurseries via their wholesale business, a visit to their SE PDX retail nursery is definitely worth the visit.

Something you’d like to know more about, or the right snarky gif to insert in a future column?  Let me know. I’m on Instagram