When I was a little girl, growing up on a farm in Indiana, I wanted a Barbie Dream House for my birthday desperately. Actually, I wanted a real Barbie doll desperately. I knew, as the fourth of five kids (in a family on a budget), a brand new one was out of the question. I rarely got anything but hand-me-downs, even on my birthday. My older sister didn’t like dolls, so there were no hand-me-down Barbies. Every once in awhile, a friend would take pity on me and give me her old Barbie. On these occasions, I’d be so excited that I would race home and begin playing immediately. Then my brother would come along, grab the doll, and pop the head off. Every. Single. Time.

Dad wasn’t going to waste good money on new dolls for me, much less a huge house for them. So one year, he steered the gift idea a different direction. He decided that we would make a miniature cactus garden together. It would be a great birthday gift for me, and I’d learn all about Nature and such.

I remember we had a crafts book that had a really pretty ceramic container planted with gorgeous plants, with quirky accents like colored rocks and beads. It showed step-by-step instructions how to make one just like it.

It was no Barbie Dream House, but I remember thinking, ok, yes, let’s make something especially for me!

Right away, things went awry. Instead of an elegant ceramic planter, he got a yellow tub. And he didn’t want to bother with pretty colored gravel from a crafts store – he just used gravel from the driveway.

That’s where the story stopped in my little girl head. I know we had that planter for awhile, but I don’t remember becoming enchanted like he promised. I probably just ignored it after that initial disappointment.

Even though it didn’t work out then, I appreciate how Dad tried instilling a love of Nature in me from an early age.

Recently I was exploring ways I could make a modern version of the cactus garden I remember from that crafts book.

Here’s what I came up with – it’s a Desert Fairy Cactus Garden:

This one has rhinestones. That has to make up for my lost childhood dreams, right?

I made this garden mostly with found items, so it would be hard to duplicate exactly. I’m going to show you how I made it, in hopes that it inspires you to make one with your family, or just for yourself. If you get the general idea of how to make a miniature cactus garden, you should be able to make one out of practically anything, based on your personal tastes and what decorations and cacti you have access to. I do not recommend yellow tubs or gravel from the driveway.

How To Make a Desert Fairy Cactus Garden

Imagine being seven years old. Remember when you were little and everything was magical? When fairies were a part of daily life, as monsters in the closet were a part of night time? When you could spend hours playing with toys, making up stories and characters? Can you remember?

Even if you don’t see the world like a seven-year-old does, you can still appreciate creating something beautiful for your home.

Today I’d like to show you step-by-step how to create a Desert Fairy Cactus Garden.

What’s a desert fairy? Desert fairies are similar to other fairies, except that they accept cacti for who they are, thorns and all. They make their homes anywhere cacti grow together.

If you create a cactus garden for your home, chances are the desert fairies won’t be able to resist coming to live there.

Step One: Choose an appropriate container.

For my garden, I used a tv tray that I found on clearance sale at Target. Here’s what it looks like:

The glass bottom was for putting photos inside to make the tray more personal. I didn’t care for that. It’s a little beat up because it sat outside for a spell, it was used briefly as another planter last summer.

It’s a wooden frame that seems pretty sturdy. Will it last for 50 years? Probably not. But because cacti require little water, it’s a good choice for a planter and should last a nice long time. Here’s the view from the bottom:

The key to a good cactus garden is to reduce the chance of root rot, the most common killer of cactus. To do that, you want good drainage (the handles on the side of the tray are good for that) so that water can’t collect near the roots. It also doesn’t hurt to add a layer of pebbles, stones, marbles, whatever you want, at the bottom of the container to provide an extra layer of protection.

Step Two: Limit Risk of Root Rot

I had lots of stones that I hadn’t recycled yet and/or couldn’t bring myself to actually wash. They had originally gone out as gifts in containers with a flowering bulb on top of them (click here for more Nature-inspired gift ideas). I didn’t expect to see them again, but lots of people gave them back to me after the flower died back, hoping I could reuse them.

It’s really not a good use of time to scrub the water marks off, but they would work great as a buffer at the bottom of a plant container. So I used ’em for that:

They’d been in a craft box in my office so I dumped them all into the tray. Then I discovered a dead bee body in the mix:


That meant, unbeknownst to me, a bee had at one point been happily buzzing around my office. It’s super to know that now.

Please, feel free to skip the bee carcass step if you’re playing along at home.

At this point, I remembered that I wanted to staple mesh over the handle holes in the tray-turned-planter so the soil would stay in but water would drain out. I should’ve done the mesh first – oopsie. I’d show you a close-up of the mesh but my stapling skills are laughable, so I’m not gonna. You’ll have to trust me when I say that the mesh is secure and it’ll help with drainage.

We’ll skip to the photo where I added a floral mat of sphagnum moss I found at the crafts store:

That’s to provide a layer of separation between the soil and the colored stones. It’s another layer of protection against root rot.

Step Three: Add the Potting Soil Mix

For indoor gardens like the one I made, it’s important to use high-quality potting mixes, the kind you find at your local nurseries. I found a small bag of Ferti-Lome cactus mix at Rehm’s Nursery here in Albuquerque.

The bags of soil at the big box stores, like the Miracle Gro they sell at Lowe’s and Home Depot, get left out in the rain, where they get infected with fungus gnats. It’s annoying. By spending a little more for high-quality soil, you save yourself the hassle of having gnats flying around your home.

I usually use FoxFarm potting mix, but Rehm’s didn’t have the size bag I wanted. (Rehm’s has lots of good brands, including Black Gold soil and Uni-Gro soil mix.)

Add the soil mix, pressing as much in there as you can:

Keep the soil below the lip, to prevent spillage when you go to water the planter.

Step Four: Start Adding Plants and Bling

I found some small bottles at a thrift store that I thought would add an otherworldly look, and placed them down into the soil:

Oh, the flower shaped candle holder is going to be the fairies’ swimming pool. Because everyone knows fairies need pools.

I checked out plants from a few different nurseries in town. My goal was to find a handful of compatible plants. They didn’t have to have exactly the same water needs, so long as they were similar. I was looking for different textures and shapes, and varying degrees of thorniness. Cacti and succulents tend to have shallow roots, so it wasn’t difficult to find suitable plants for the thinnish planter.

I found this Dyckia ‘Burgundy Ice’ at Osuna Nursery. It was grown at McLain Greenhouses in Estancia, New Mexico:

I cleaned the excess soil off the roots, then she went into the planter. I like how dramatic the planter looks already:

Also from Osuna Nursery, this Opuntia (of some sort, I think, it wasn’t labelled) has soft glochids and therefore didn’t hurt to handle. Very delicate though, so I had to be careful as I separated the two plants growing in the small container:

I planted each in different parts of the planter:

I had picked up three tiny cacti at Lowe’s a few weeks back because they were on sale and fresh off the truck. A Chamaelobivia ‘Rose Quartz’, Mammillaria elognata ‘Goldilocks’ and a Pilosocereus. Each were gently placed into the planter with the help of tongs and thick gloves.

Here’s the garden once the planting was finished:

The planter was big enough to give each plant its own space, and a little room to grow.

Step Five: Decorate!

Now the fun part, decorating! Beginning with decorative white sand from the crafts store:

When I poured the sand in, it naturally made dunes and valleys, which I kept rather than combing the sand even. It’s like a miniature White Sands, New Mexico!

Then I sprinkled lots of shiny things, including colored pebbles and rhinestones, throughout the planter. Because everyone knows fairies love shiny things:

Voilà, every seven-year-old’s dream garden. Well, most little girls don’t dream of thorns. But even so, this planter can be a great way to instill a love of Nature in kids of all ages.

So what do you think? Do you think you might try making a Desert Fairy Cactus Garden with your kids? I hope I gave you enough information to rev up your imagination to the possibilities. Let me know if you do make one, and please, take lots of photos.

I’ll be back manana with an all-new Ask the Experts panel. Tomorrow’s question is “Which, if any, houseplant would make a good gift for a college-bound kid?” Tune in to see how they answered, and for an all-new plant puzzler as well. Hope to see you here.


In case you were wondering: The plural of cactus is technically cacti, although cactuses is accepted, as is cactus. I like to use cacti only when it’s really obvious I mean more than one plant (because I don’t like how the word cacti sounds in my head), and cactus the rest of the time.