How to Grow an Unconventional Cactus Garden in Alaska
Growing a cactus garden in Alaska may seem counterintuitive, but with careful planning and preparation, it is possible! Here is a guide on how to grow an unconventional cactus garden in the harsh Alaskan climate:
Choosing the Right Location
Choosing the right location is crucial for a successful cactus garden in Alaska. Here are some tips:
Sunlight – Cacti need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day, so choose the sunniest spot in your yard. South or west-facing areas are ideal.
Shelter – Strong winds and heavy snow can damage cacti, so find an area protected by structures, trees or shrubs to provide shelter.
Drainage – Excellent drainage is vital to prevent rotting. Pick an elevated area of your yard that allows water to drain away quickly.
Soil – Cacti thrive in fast-draining, sandy or gravelly soils. Improve drainage in clay-heavy soils by mixing in pumice.
The best locations are against south or west-facing walls that provide warmth and protection. Also consider greenhouses to better control conditions.
Selecting Appropriate Cactus Species
Not all cacti can survive Alaska’s climate which can reach -40°F in winter. Choose cold-hardy cactus species that can tolerate the extremes:
Opuntia species – Prickly pear and cholla cacti are among the hardiest, surviving temperatures down to -35°F. Opuntia fragilis and Opuntia polyacantha are good choices.
Escobaria vivipara – Also known as the spinystar cactus, it is one of the coldest-tolerant species, surviving temperatures up to -58°F.
Pedioactylis – Members of this genus like Pediocactus simpsonii are native to cold, high elevation environments and can withstand Alaska’s winters.
Avoid most species from warmer climates like Saguaro or Barrel cactus which cannot tolerate extended freezing.
Providing the Right Growing Conditions
Cacti may be adapted to deserts, but they still need the following conditions to thrive in Alaska:
Light – Ensure cacti receive maximum sunlight. Supplement with grow lights if needed.
Soil – Plant cacti in a very porous growing medium that drains quickly. Mix in pumice, gravel, sand and compost.
Water – Water deeply but infrequently during the summer, letting the soil dry between waterings. Reduce watering in winter.
Temperature – Use cold frames, mini-greenhouses, and heating cables to protect cacti from extreme cold in winter. Provide ventilation on sunny days.
Fertilizer – Use a balanced fertilizer in the growing season. Don’t fertilize in fall/winter.
Pest control – Inspect regularly for pests like mites. Quarantine new plants. Control infestations immediately.
Caring for Cacti Through the Seasons
Adjust your cactus care through Alaska’s long winters and short growing seasons:
- Place containers outdoors in full sun once overnight temperatures remain above 32°F.
- Water thoroughly when the top 1-2 inches of soil are dry. Wait longer between waterings for cacti with swollen bases.
- Fertilize every 2-3 weeks with a balanced liquid fertilizer.
- Watch for signs of sunburn. Acclimate newly purchased plants slowly.
- Prune and repot cacti in late summer after the growing period.
- Begin reducing water in early fall. Time the last deep watering 2 weeks before first frost.
- Move containers to a sheltered spot protected from cold winds and heavy snow.
- Stop fertilizing 6 weeks before last frost to avoid winter rot.
- Cover cacti with cloches, cold frames or move to a greenhouse in late fall.
- Avoid watering at all in winter while cacti are dormant.
- Ensure cold season protection methods keep temperatures above -20°F.
- Insulate containers with mulch, straw or wrap in insulation blankets.
- Place heating cables beneath containers if temperatures plunge below -40°F.
- Uncover cacti and move back into full sun as soon as daytime temperatures are consistently above 50°F.
- Begin watering lightly again in early spring. Allow soil to dry between waterings.
- Resume normal watering and fertilizing when new growth appears.
Tips to Boost Success
Follow these tips to ensure your cacti not only survive, but thrive in Alaska’s harsh climate:
- Acclimate new cacti gradually to prevent shock in new conditions.
- Provide wind protection like walls, burlap barriers or shrubs to shield cacti from desiccating winds.
- Limit watering during short daylight hours in fall/winter to prevent rot.
- Choose cacti small enough to overwinter indoors under grow lights as added protection.
- Monitor for pests like spider mites which thrive in Alaska’s dry indoor conditions.
- Be prepared to offer extra protection during unusually cold snaps.
With the right cactus selections, locations, and care, you can add striking succulents to your Alaskan garden! They may grow slowly, but will reward your efforts with unique shapes, textures and flowers.