I like to grow vegetables in my container garden. But I also like to mix in some interesting plants to give it a good look. One such plant is the ocotillo that some may consider a strange one.
You can grow ocotillo in a pot that is 8 inches deep and wide or a 10-gallon pot. This is a hardy plant so you can provide it with decent potting soil and watering for it to grow well. Ocotillo grows well in a temperature of at least 75 Fahrenheit.
The good thing about growing ocotillo is it’s a hardy plant so you don’t need to water it as often. It can also withstand extreme heat as well as cold and grow without problems. I’ve written all the details you need to grow ocotillo in your container garden.
1. Pick the best time to grow ocotillo
Ocotillo plants are not like standard bushes or ornamental trees. They’re semi-succulent and very hardy in hot weather. While that’s great for keeping the plant healthy throughout its life, it does make planning a bit tougher.
Technically speaking, you can plant Ocotillo at any time during the year. As long as the temperatures are stable and not extreme in either direction, the plant is still capable of establishing itself.
That said, many gardeners recommend planting around April or May. Late spring planting tends to yield the best success. The weather is temperate and mild. Plus, you’re giving the plant some time to establish some roots before the sweltering heat of summer kicks in.
Experienced gardeners can manage at other times of the year. But if you don’t have a ton of experience with the Ocotillo, aim for late spring.
Where Does the Ocotillo Plant Grow Best
These plants are native to the Southwest United States. They’re endemic to the Sonoran Desert and the Chihuahuan Desert.
As you can expect, the Ocotillo does best in similar climates.
Gardeners in zones 8 to 11 will see the most success with the Ocotillo. It prefers dry heat and warm weather. In fact, the Ocotillo will typically display its unique blooms after a broken dry spell during the summer.
All that said, you can still appreciate the beauty of the Ocotillo in other regions. The biggest perk of planting in a container is that you’re able to move the plant to better conditions when the weather turns sour.
The plant will do just fine in Northern states as long as you bring it inside or move it to a greenhouse during the winter months. It may not grow as fast or produce as many blooms in these regions. But the unique foliage and tall stems should develop all the same.
2. Understand how long ocotillo takes to grow
These are not plants that will start producing tons of growth right off the bat. They are slow-growers that take time to establish.
Depending on how you plant the Ocotillo, you may be looking at six to 12 months before you start to see any substantial growth. Some plants can take as long as four years to start developing leaves and flowers.
However, you will see stem growth. On average, Ocotillo grows about six to 10 inches a year in good conditions. The thick and thorny branches are eye-catching even at a young age.
But it won’t be until later that you can truly appreciate what the plant has to offer. Ocotillo has an interesting growth pattern. The spiny stems grow wild and unruly. They don’t branch off. Instead, they grow as a single cane-like stalk.
Those stems get pretty long, too. Healthy mature plants can grow to 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide. That occurs even in containers. In the ground, it’s not uncommon to see Ocotillos reach heights of 20 feet or more.
Ocotillo is all about the long game. With proper care, these plants can live for 60 years.
When Do Ocotillo Bloom?
Blooming can start anytime after the Ocotillo grows leaves. As mentioned earlier, this can take several years in some regions. Generally, leaf growth will start faster if you live in a warmer climate.
The plant develops small oval-shaped leaves. They sprout along the entire stem, creating a unique look.
Blooms can pop up after that. They appear on the tips of the stem as bright clusters of red. Each flower is thick and tubular, producing tall stamens for hummingbirds to pollinate.
Typically, blooms will burst onto the scene at some point between March and June. Many plants will also bloom sporadically after a rainfall. The plant seems to produce flowers after rain that break extended dry periods.
3. Choose the right pot to grow ocotillo
The first step in your Ocotillo planting journey is to choose the right container.
Believe it or not, ocotillos don’t need a massive pot. The root system is relatively compact, making things much easier on gardeners.
Now, the right container will depend on your planting method. If you’re starting from seed, choose a medium-sized pot to get the plant started. A standard six or eight-inch pot works just fine.
If you’re getting a bare-root plant or young plant, choose a pot that’s only slightly bigger than the root ball.
You don’t want to get an excessively large pot to start. The extra soil in the pot will only increase your chances of waterlogging the roots. It’s better to start small and work your way to a bigger container with transplantation.
Weight and Material
There are no hard and fast rules about the type of pot you use. Feel free to get creative and use a decorative pot that works for your patio or terrace.
However, it’s a good idea to get a container with some substantial weight to it. Ocotillo can grow very tall. As a result, they can get top-heavy.
A lightweight plastic pot is good in the early stages of growth. But once the stems get taller, thicker, and heavier, you’ll need to move onto something else. A heftier container can keep it stable and prevent tip-overs.
Ocotillo plants do not tolerate standing water at all. You need to choose a pot that has at least one drainage hole. Containers with multiple holes are even better.
When the roots of the plant sit in water, they can easily rot. Root rot is a common problem with Ocotillo. The plant will start to wilt. In some cases, it may develop fungal problems or attract unwanted pests.
Choose a well-draining pot to avoid those problems.
4. Plant ocotillo in the pot
Planting the Ocotillo is a fairly straightforward process. But before you proceed, it’s important to choose the right soil.
Ocotillo plants prefer fast-draining loam soil. Good drainage is key here. Avoid anything that has a higher clay content, as that would only cause standing water. These plants may even benefit from a bit of gravel. Just don’t overdo it.
You can also use high-quality potting soil.
Whatever you choose, take a minute to work the soil. Remove any compacted lumps so that the roots are free to spread.
Your next steps will depend on whether you plant from seed or cutting.
Growing Ocotillo From Seed
Ocotillo plants can grow quite well from seeds. You can plant the seeds directly into the soil. However, it’s best to start indoors. Indoor germination will give you greater control of the growing conditions.
Plant the seeds about an inch below the surface of the soil. Then, put the pot on top of a warming germination mat. The plant should have plenty of access to natural sunlight. So, set it next to a south-facing window for ample exposure.
Set the temperature to roughly 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. At night. lower it to about 75 degrees.
Keep the soil moist as the seed germinates. You should start to see sprouts appear in a week or two. Let the sprouts develop on the warming mat for a couple of weeks more before moving it outside.
Growing Ocotillo From Cuttings
These plants are quick to grow from cuttings. You can obtain cuttings from most nurseries. The cutting should be of a single healthy stem.
To plant it, you’ll need to do some light prep work. Remove leaves about four inches from the bottom. This is the portion that’s going to be beneath the soil. Leftover leaves will just rot when buried.
Next, dig a hole in the soil that’s about four inches deep. Place the cutting into the hole and pack the soil around it.
You can cut off an inch or two from the top of the stem. This can promote growth while also making the cutting more stable.
Put the pot outside and keep the soil moist until you start seeing new growth where you cut the top.
5. Place the ocotillo plant in a good location
Ocotillo plants thrive in the sun. They are from the desert after all.
Put the potted plant in an area that receives full sun exposure all day long. In the wild, these plants grow in environments with average daily temperatures of around 90 degrees. So, the more sun the better.
These plants will get hardier the more sun they receive. Like any other plant, it does have its limits. Younger plants may not respond well to extremely hot spots at first. But, they will grow more sun-resistant as they get older.
If you’re planting transplants or established cutting, you have to consider the positioning. Older plants already have some sun resistance. Improper positioning could lead to damage.
Pay attention to which side faced the southern sky. The southern face of the plant is typically more resistant to hotter temperatures. In its new spot, the south side should still face the southern direction.
When to Bring Ocotillo Inside
If you live in an area that stays warm, you can leave the Ocotillo outside in the sun.
But, gardeners in colder areas might want to give the plant some more protection. Around the arrival of fall, bring the Ocotillo indoors where temperatures are more stable. You can also put it in a greenhouse or provide exterior protection.
Ocotillo plants are hardy down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. However, that tolerance only applies to established plants. If this is your first year, it’s better to err on the side of caution and bring it inside.
6. Provide sufficient water to the ocotillo plant
Watering the Ocotillo can be a bit tricky. There are a couple of different schools of thought. Some believe that you don’t have to water it at all.
There’s some truth there. Established plants are very drought resistant and can do fine with nothing more than natural rainfall.
However, it’s always good to provide some consistent moisture in the early stages of growth.
After planting, the goal is to keep the moist soil. New plants rely on a constant supply of water to produce new growth above and below the soil.
That said, there’s a fine balance with the Ocotillo. Like all succulents and semi-succulents, the plant will not tolerate any standing water. Excess watering will lead to swift death from root rot.
Luckily, well-draining soil will take care of most of the work when it comes to avoiding standing water.
Lightly water the soil every few days to keep the soil moist. Once the plant produces routine growth, you can scale back a bit. For cuttings, this will occur when new growth appears at the top of the stem. For seeds, you can scale back after substantial stem forms.
At this point, the plant has a reliable root system. So, it has the means to pull moisture from the soil without regular waterings.
Provide a light watering every seven to 10 days. As a good rule of thumb, wait until the top two to three inches of soil are completely dry before hydrating the plant. This can happen more frequently in the summer months, so always test the soil first.
When the cooler months roll around, waterings should be even more infrequent. You’ll only need to provide water every three to four weeks.
Lightly spray both the soil and the stem. Ocotillo absorbs some moisture through the canes. Do this in the early morning to avoid any burning from the midday sun.
7. Prune the ocotillo plant in the pot
In addition to infrequent waterings, Ocotillo plants don’t require a ton of pruning. They truly are a low-maintenance plant.
The only major pruning job you’ll need to perform is when stems start dying. Every once in a while, a stem will wilt. They will dry out and take on an ugly brown color.
You can remove those stems. Doing so will prevent the plant from wasting energy on dying segments. This promotes healthier growth. Plus, it makes the plant look much better.
When you prune, go all the way to the base. The stem needs to start anew. Partial cuttings usually don’t recover. Instead, they create a path for disease and pests to take over.
How Often Should You Prune?
Pruning the Ocotillo is not something you’ll need to do regularly. Use your discretion here and only prune when necessary. Take care of dying stems as they appear.
Beyond that, you should have no reason to prune the plant any further.
Should You Top the Ocotillo?
Topping is standard practice for tall trees. The process involves removing the whole top sections of trees. For a standard tree, topping can help promote fuller growth. New shoots usually emerge from the branches to create a better overall appearance.
With Ocotillo, you should never perform topping techniques. It’s tempting, as these plants get very tall. But gardeners who attempt to cut the tops of stems will only experience strange growth later.
Remember: Ocotillo does not have branching stems. The entire stem growth as one stalk. Topping the plant does nothing but remove the potential for blossoms to form. It can also lead to uneven and leafless growth.
If your Ocotillo does grow beyond a manageable point, you can remove overgrowth. But like pruning, you need to go all the way. Remove excessively tall stems at the base of the plant only.
8. Add fertilizer to the ocotillo plant
Generally, Ocotillo plants do not need fertilizer. They will grow just fine without it.
However, you can apply a light fertilizer once a year to promote lush growth. Fish emulsion is a good option. The natural fertilizer has a high nitrogen content, which can encourage leaves to come in. Specialty cactus and succulent fertilizer products work well, too.
If you plan on applying fertilizer, do so very sparingly. Too much fertilization can negatively affect the plant. It can cause the plant to focus too much on vertical growth and not conserve energy for bloom production.
Only apply a light application during the early summer. Sprinkle the fertilizer evenly on the surface of the soil where the rooting area is. Then, water the plant as normal.
Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to fertilize lightly. If you’re on the fence about fertilization, it’s best to forgo it. It’s better to experience slow healthy growth than fast aberrant growth.
Enriching the Soil During Planting
Regular fertilization isn’t necessary for Ocotillo to reach its full potential. But, early soil enrichment can do a lot to kickstart the plant.
When preparing the soil, add about an inch of organic compost. Mix it in thoroughly and proceed with planting as normal.
The compost will give the plant a boost of nutrients, which could result in faster and stronger root development. The compost will benefit freshly germinated seeds. However, you’ll see greater effects with cuttings.
The compost can encourage the roots to come in faster. As a result, leaves and blooms may appear sooner.
Beyond that, there’s no need to continue with fertilization or continued compost applications. Like commercial fertilizers, compost can do just as much damage by overloading the plant with nutrients. Limit compost applications to the early stages of plant growth only.