Design a Brown Thumb Garden with Cacti and Succulents

CACTUS-SUCCULENTSGardeners with brown thumbs are no longer limited to silk or plastic vegetation in their home.  Instead, live low maintenance vegetation is available in the form of cacti and succulents.

Anatomy of Brown Thumb Plants

Plants that fall under the brown thumb family consist of cacti and succulents.  While the growth requirements for both of these plants is very similar, there are differences in their structure.

Both cacti and succulents are found in the natural environment where the soil is very sandy and rain is very scarce.  To compensate for this environment, both plants have come up with their own strategies.  Typically, cacti have developed a shape that reduces water loss through the epidermis of the leaf.  This strategy is the folds and the barrel shape.  The folds reduce moisture loss from a flat surface and the barrel shape makes the folds more efficient.

Succulents, on the other hand, have a waxy coating that covers their leaves.  This coating reduces moisture loss through the epidermis of the leaf.

Having these two characteristics is what allows a plant to become part of the brown thumb family.

Creating a Brown Thumb Garden

While many cacti and succulents can be grown successfully in the outdoor garden space; one may consider creating an indoor version.  This type of garden can take shape as a dish garden, container garden or even vertically as a wall planter.

To begin the process, one must first plan what type of container is going to be used and what type of plant material.  Small cacti do well in dish and container gardens.  Both these types of planting can contain more than one type of cactus.  Large cacti do much better in large pots and should be used as a specimen plant instead of mixing varieties.

Succulents, on the other hand, do well in all containers and can be mixed with cacti.  A traditional display for succulents is in a strawberry urn.  But, for a more unique display consider a wall planter.

Regardless of the type of container you choose, remember that the container must have a drainage hole.  To aid in the drainage, make sure to add a good amount of drainage material to the bottom of the container.


Soil is a very important component to this type of planting.  A traditional all-purpose soil is too heavy and retains too much moisture.  To lighten up the soil, mix one-part all-purpose soil to one-part sand and one-part small pebble.  This combination allows the water to run through the soil quickly.

If you do not want to make your own cacti/succulent soil, there are very good commercial blends available.

Creating the Brown Thumb Garden

The first step in this process is to prepare the container by cleaning it and filling it with some form of a drainage material.  Once this is done, fill the container between one-half and three-fourths full of soil.

Now it is time to begin the planting process, but if one is planting a cactus a trick does exist to prevent one from getting thorns in their hands.    To handle a cactus without getting stuck by thorns requires newspaper and a pair of scissors.  Cut strips of newspaper longer than the diameter of the cactus you are trying to plant.  When ready to plant, simply wrap the strips of paper around the cactus and position where needed.  Hold on to the cactus with the strips until the soil is filled in around the cactus and pressed down.  Continue with this process until all the cacti have been planted.

Succulents, on the other hand, do not have thorns and so do not require this type of treatment.  If the plant is going to be planted in a flower pouch or some other type of vertical planter, then a different planting technique is required.  Succulents have long taproots that will secure the soil in the planter if left horizontal for at least two weeks after planting.  Once this time period has passed, it is fine to hang the vertical planter.

Care for the Brown Thumb Garden

Plants either die from over-watering or not watering at all.  To prevent this takes a two-stage approach.  The first stage is to place your brown thumb garden on a plant saucer and only water from the bottom but do not allow your planter to set in water.  Pour off any water that has not been absorbed in one hour.

The second stage requires one to always test the level of moisture in the soil before watering.  This is done by very simply pushing a pencil all the way to the bottom of the container and pulling it back up.  If the pencil comes up clean, then you need to water.  On the other hand, if it comes up with soil on it, then you do not need to water.

The type of water one uses for their brown thumb garden is also another consideration.  Tap water has chemicals in it that are harmful to plants.  When possible, only water your brown thumb garden with rainwater.  This type of water provides many different types of nutrients for the soil.  If rainwater is not available, one can use distilled water or tap water with vinegar mixed in at a ratio of one capful of vinegar to five gallons of water.

Both succulents and cacti grow slowly and only require fertilization during the growing season.  Also, both types of plants do better in filtered light but always check one’s individual plant needs.

A brown thumb garden is a great addition to any indoor space and can create that much needed texture for any room.  While it is designed for the inexperienced gardener or those with brown thumbs, it can still bring enjoyment to the experienced gardener through the vast assortment of plants that fall into the cacti and succulent family.

Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.

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