Sonoran Desert Cactus soil mix

Last updated: 10 August 2017


I have always experimented with soil mixes -- I believe I have used just about every one that has been devised during my growing lifetime -- and I have found all those that were of coarse and gritty texture, thus providing excellent drainage and root aeration, contributed significantly to growing healthy and robust plants.

A great thing about being retired -- and old -- is that you have the time to do all the fun things you always wanted to do but, for one reason or another, couldn't when you were younger. I have always wanted to experiment using native desert soil (and desert humus) to grow cacti in containers. I make no claim for the soil mix I feature here as to whether it will grow healthier and more robust plants. The experiment is strictly unscientific. I just like the look and feel -- the light brown color and gritty texture -- of this soil mix.

Glossary for this web page

Cactus habitat photos

The following photos show typical Tucson area Xerophytic landscapes and vegetation -- Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), Ferocactus wislizenii, Opuntia engelmannii, Cylindropuntia fulgida, Cylindropuntia versicolor, Mammillaria microcarpa, Velvet Mesquite trees, Creosote bushes, bursage, desert bunch grasses, various desert shrubs and scattered organic debris, etc.

Velvet mesquite is one of the most common, and important trees of the Sonoran desert. It is useful to humans and essential to the survival of wildlife. Birds, insects, and mammals eat the beans, seek shelter under its canopy, and benefit from the leaf litter and nutrient rich soil beneath it.

Scattered organic debris -- juvenile Saguaro in foreground

Cylindropuntia fulgida, Cylindropuntia versicolor,
creosote bush, ragweed and other small Xerophytic plants.

Velvet Mesquite tree, Saguaros, Ferocactus wislizenii,
creosote bush and various small Xerophytic plants

Mammillaria microcarpa and scattered organic debris

Opuntia engelmannii, Saguaro, creosote bush,
bursage and other small Xerophytic plants

Recently fallen Velvet Mesquite Bean pods

Tucson area cactus habitat soils

Our Tucson area cactus habitat soils are very sandy and gritty and frequently contain substantial amounts of fine dust. They contain very little organic material due to the paucity of ground cover vegetation.

The Most Important Soil Amendment No One Ever Talks About

Research reveals desert ecosystems depend on soil crusts

The Cryptobiotic soil crust is an important source of nutrients. Our native moss tolerates very harsh desert conditions. It survives dehydration, extreme heat, and freezing. When it rains it quickly rejuvenates and immediately starts to supply nutrients to the soil.

Habitat soil components

Top soil with scattered pieces of Cryptobiotic soil crust.
The soil is sandy & gritty with substantial amounts of fine dust.

Desert humus scraped off the top of the soil under native Velvet
Mesquite trees. It mostly consists of decomposed leaves, bean
pods & sclerophyllous plant parts including roots, stems, twigs
and floral remains.

Constituency of my Sonoran Desert Cactus soil mix

Mixed Sonoran Desert Cactus soil

Old Johnson Cactus Garden Catalog excerpt

In Johnson Cactus Garden (Paramount, Calif.) 1963 Catalog.
I think their cactus leaf mold was similar to my desert humus.

Link to the Cactus Cultivation Directory