How to care for a spike plant

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How to care for a spike plant that is crowded out by the trees.

by Sarah Vreeland on October 2, 2013

Living in California, it’s not uncommon to see what I call “Los Gatos.” It’s a dense thicket of spiky plants–like olive trees and prickly pear–in the northwest part of the state. My friend’s garden is covered in the stuff. I just discovered that the Oakland area in California is home to some Los Gatos plants, too!

This post will give you some tips on how to care for your own spiky plants. You don’t need a permit to cultivate this type of plant, so you can just do it in your backyard or on your property if you have a fire pit. However, you can ask your local government to confirm the regulations.

Most of these plants are perfect for California climates. If you live in a climate with heavier rains and colder seasons, you’ll need to check for more details on climate requirements. You can also think about where you want to locate the plants to ensure that they receive adequate sunlight and won’t get smothered by any other vegetation.

Know Your Plants

Here are the Spiky Plants. I’ll give you a summary of each kind and then go into some additional tips:

1. Saguaro Cactus

This plant will tolerate less rain and higher temperatures than most other plants, but its shade tolerance is far from optimal. This type of cactus grows best in hot, dry conditions and grows up to six feet tall. But don’t try to plant it in your backyard because it has hard water-shedding skin that can easily crack.

2. Hedgehog Cactus

Although it is not truly a cactus, the hedgehog cactus will be the closest match to what you see in Los Gatos. These plants are smaller and do not grow taller than four feet. Their water requirements are easy–just water them weekly–and they can handle only medium-hot temperatures.

3. Prickly Pear

These cactus-like plants are actually really easy to grow. The largest types grow in the San Diego area and grow two to three feet tall, but many varieties are now grown in Northern California. They can be easily propagated by cutting and inserting roots into the ground. They’re just as easy to grow in pots and as in the ground, though–just make sure that the plant has enough sun. Water the plant weekly and don’t overdo it. Prickly pear is one of the only cacti that require fertilizer, so use fertilizer sparingly if you do decide to fertilize them.

4. Cholla

The cholla grows best in hot weather and is very susceptible to cold. Cholla must be kept cool at night and protected from sun, wind, and insects during the day. They’re really easy to care for: fertilize once a month, water weekly, and prune off any flowers. These plants are native to Arizona and can get up to ten feet tall.

5. Olive

You’ve probably seen Olive trees in pictures of Los Gatos, but they are not as well-suited to the climate in the Bay Area as they are to the sunny environment of Arizona. You can grow it in the woods, but make sure it’s in sun. These trees grow the tallest of all the plants covered in this post, usually in excess of 20 feet tall and can live to be more than 400 years old! Be sure to check for deer and be aware of the damage that they can do.

If you’re interested in planting some of your own Los Gatos plants, you can find varieties that are tolerant to this climate in nurseries or online. We have it on the menu for this year’s planting season.

Do you have any other tips for caring for your spiky plants? Share them with us!


I didn’t know what to make of this plant until I read your post, but I’m in love! I know the area where I am getting my trees from (California) is an olive-belt and the plants I have, both wild and cultivated, are a close match. Olive trees do very well as do cacti, it’s so interesting to see that so many different types can do well together.

Sarah, this is a fantastic post! This list is the best I’ve read so far. We’re not interested in cacti, but the spiky ones look amazing! We’re thinking of starting a green project in the winter here in Scotland as we can’t imagine the long, cold, winter with those temperatures!

Hello Julia! Wow, that’s awesome. I thought I was the only one who loved this type of plant. I love seeing how it can be adapted to a variety of climates. The good news is that you can have lots of them. It won’t be as big, though.

Thanks for this post. There is a side bar with a search box on the Salmagundi blog and if you search ‘olive’ you get lots of posts with suggestions on how to grow them.

Sarah, I love the article and I can relate to your being intimidated by this whole thing and I just thought I should point out to you that in San Francisco (which is a part of your article) where we live there are two little parks with these. My garden is all about cactus but one of them has lots of that and I really like it. It is like an archway and my landscaper is removing all of the orange stuff from all of the trees in our back yard. I thought I would be a good poster and find someone else here that might enjoy these.

I was just given two – one of which has its own profile (it is a long, thin, spiky plant) and the other which is just the standard spiky-cactus,

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