Can you overwater a cactus

Am I Watering My Cactus Too Much: Symptoms Of Overwatering In Cactus

Because they need so little maintenance, cacti ought to be some of the easiest plants to grow. Unfortunately, it’s hard to accept just how little maintenance they really need, and plenty of cactus owners accidentally kill them with kindness by watering them too much. Keep reading to learn more about symptoms of overwatering in cactus, and how to avoid overwatered cactus plants.

Symptoms of Overwatering in Cactus

Am I watering my cactus too much? Very possibly. Cacti aren’t just drought tolerant – they need some drought to survive. Their roots rot easily, and too much water can kill them.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of overwatering in cactus are very misleading. In the beginning, overwatered cactus plants actually show signs of health and happiness. They may plump up and put out new growth. Underground, however, the roots are suffering.

As they get waterlogged, the roots will die and rot. As more roots die, the plant aboveground will start to deteriorate, usually turning soft and changing color. By this point, it may be too late to save it. It’s important to catch the symptoms early, when the cactus is plump and growing quickly, and slow down watering considerably at that point.

How to Prevent Overwatering Of Cactus Plants

The best rule of thumb to avoid having cactus plants with too much water is simply to let the growing medium of your cactus dry out a lot between waterings. In fact, the top few inches should be completely dried out.

All plants need less water in the winter, and cacti are no exception. A cactus may need to be watered only once per month or even less during the winter months. No matter the time of year, it’s essential that your cactus’ roots not be allowed to sit in standing water. Make sure your growing medium drains very well, and always empty the saucer of container grown cacti if any water pools in it.

Hello Thea,
you are correct with your statement about some kinds of cacti just sitting there and you do not know whether or not they are dead or alive. This is especially so with the plants that have a very dense spination, e.g. some Echinocereus, Echinomastus etc. species. If you are able to see the actual stem color you will not have too much difficulty figuring out how your cactus is doing, because there will be a change where the “healthy” green will be permanently displaced. I had a number of plants die and noticed either a cracking of the epidermis, a change to a grey-green body color, general shrivelling of the plant that could not be reversed by giving the plant water, plants starting to lean abnormally, no new growth during the active growing season, cessation of flowering, etc.. A lot of time the plant was actually hollow while still standing when I finally pulled it up and destroyed its remains. I think Daiv has a good technique with his pencil check. If the plant is hollow and you poke it with a pencil it will either tipp over if the roots are gone or the pencil will actually penetrate into the hollow cactus.
Sometimes though, cacti may be surprising you. Some of the images I have seen on this forum showed plants that I would have thought were dead. They looked all shrivelled up and showed absolutely no green coloration. However, a few weeks after the image was taken they had all plumped up and were a healthy green again. This happens for plants in outdoor plantings, especially in environments where the temperatures drop below the freezing point, including here in El Paso, Texas. Real survivers are the prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) cacti. Sometimes a shrivelled pad will root and produce a healthy plant once more. One of my rainbow cacti with seven or eight stems was in severe decline. Four of the larger stems – five to six inches long – started to lean and they lost their plump appearance, while the remaining stems are still upright. I cut the dead stems off and do hope, that the rest of the plant is going to survive. Most likely I will know by next spring if at least part of that nice clump is still alive. I have not ever had any plants “fall over”, because my growing medium – regular garden soil – packs a bit and the plants are deep rooted. Thus I am waiting to see, if my cacti will show that they are alive by responding with new growth and/or flowering to the stimulus of available water next spring.

“I love succulents. They’re the only plants I keep alive.” We hear it every day. But then again, we also hear, “I hate succulents. I always kill them.” This may seem like a paradox, but succulents and cacti can be the very easiest or the most challenging houseplants, depending on your environment and the care you give them.

When it comes to how to care for succulents and cacti, there are three main factors that affect their rate of survival: light, water and temperature. Too dim or too bright light, too little or too much water, or too cool or too hot temperatures (and often a combination of all three) will make your succulents and cacti unhappy and start behaving strangely. Depending on the type of succulent or cactus, symptoms of mistreatment vary dramatically. They can be challenging to diagnose and often confused for one another.

When we put out the open call for Pistils Rx submissions, many of you sent in photos of your succulents and cacti, wondering what could be done. Though, unfortunately, it’s often too late to save an overwatered succulent or cactus, many problems can be reversed, and identifying issues is the first step in making sure your other plants don’t fall to the same fate.

How to Care for Succulents and Cacti: Troubleshooting Common Issues

Here are how to identify a few common issues that many plant-owners face when figuring out the best way to care for succulents and cacti.


Too dim

Succulents and cacti love light. Though some species (for succulents, try haworthia or gasteria; for cacti, try epiphytes like rhipsalis and hatiora) can tolerate lower light, no succulent or cactus we’ve ever met wants to sit on your dark office desk. These guys need to be near a window to thrive, preferably with a south-facing exposure to really maximize the day. Finding a bright spot in your home is a first step in knowing if you’re ready to care for succulents and cacti.

Succulents behave strangely when they don’t get enough light. Often, you’ll see discoloration in your succulents if they need more light – deep green will fade to pale green, and bright pink, purple or yellow colors will often revert to just plain green.

Too little light also affects the growth habit of succulents. Succulents will try to reach for light, often growing long and spindly. Succulents that normally grow in rosettes, like sempervivum and echeveria species, may suddenly start growing tall – literally reaching for more light:

The same goes for cacti. What was once dark, healthy flesh can grow pale as the cactus reaches for light. In addition, like the “reaching” succulents, cacti not receiving sufficient light will also put out strange growth patterns. This is called etiolation; new growth will typically be much smaller than the rest of the plant; sometimes new branches will come out that are long and tendril-like, or the new growth on the top of the cactus will be unusually skinny.

While succulents and cacti can recover from receiving too little light, the etiolated growth habit will be permanent. Many succulents and cacti recover will to pruning; if the weird growth pattern bothers you, try clipping it off. So long as you move your plant to a location in which it will receive adequate light, the new growth that emerges should be “normal” and non-etiolated.

And finally, not having enough light also leads to root rot, because soil will stay moist for too long. Check out the root rot images below to see if your plant might be suffering from this due to low light.

Too bright

Most succulents and cacti can handle direct sun. That said, too much can be harmful, especially if your plant isn’t accustomed to it. For example, if you move a succulent or cactus out onto the porch for summer (highly recommended!) and it suddenly goes from receiving no direct sun to getting 3 or 4 hours of direct sun per day, it’s definitely going to get a sunburn.

Burn generally appears as browned or calloused flesh on your cacti and succulents. Looking for discoloration, especially on the side of the plant facing the window, is your best bet in identifying burn. The burned leaves or flesh will also get a rougher texture than the rest of the plant.

There’s no way to repair burned leaves once it happens; you can prune them off or just simply adjust the environment so your plant receives more appropriate light.

When moving succulents and cacti outdoors for summer, make sure to gradually allow them to become adjusted to the increased light. Have them start in a shaded outdoor location (which will still probably be brighter than your living room) and expose them to more light over the course of a week or two.


Too little
In the scheme of care for succulents and cacti, providing too little water is definitely a safer place to be than providing too much. That said, succulents and cacti decidedly do need water, especially in spring and summer when they’re in active growth.

The tricky part is that too little and too much water often look similar. But, if you err on the side of less, you can be pretty confident that you’re under-watering when your plant behaves as follows.

Succulents getting too little water will often pucker. Succulents (and cacti, for that matter) are plump and fleshy because they store water in their foliage. During times of drought, the plant calls on these reserves of water to survive. The flesh will then begin to shrivel or pucker, as the plant literally drinks its water reserves. This usually starts on the lower leaves and works its way up the plant, as seen in these jade species:

Here’s another example of thirsty succulents (a few of which often happen to be etiolated from low light). See how they appear slightly shriveled?:

An under-watered cactus may also pucker or shrivel, but can also discolor (usually getting brown and dry, or calloused).

If your succulents and cacti are showing these symptoms, give them a nice thorough watering. Always use well-draining cactus or succulent soil, though, because your plants won’t want to hang out in wet soil for long. The leaves should plump back up in no time!

Too much
It’s often hard to determine whether a cactus has received too much or too little water from just a photo. For example, without knowing how much water it received, it would be pretty hard to tell whether this opuntia cactus got too much or too little water, since the symptoms often look the same:

An over-watered succulent or cactus will feel mushy, though, rather than just puckered. These plants are able to store large amounts of water, but once that storage space runs out, the plant will literally fall apart; roots rot and cell walls rupture. This causes them to get mushy, and is a key difference and can be the key in determining over vs under-watering, while also examining your own watering habits and environmental conditions.

Key signs of overwatering include browning or blackening leaves or stems, browning or blackening at the base of the plant, mushy or leaking plants, and plants literally rotting before your eyes.

If you suspect rot, gently pull your succulent or cactus out of its pot and examine the roots. Brown or black roots mean that the plant is


Too cool
Most succulents and cacti (save for jungle cacti, for example) are well suited to cold night time temperatures, because they come from desert climates. Especially in winter, many succulents and cacti crave cold nights; in fact, cold temperatures encourage blooming in some plants such as jade, christmas cacti and epiphylum.

However, low temperatures can be problematic indoors, because they tend to go hand in hand with high humidity. When you water your succulents and cacti in winter when temperatures are cool, the soil its going to stay wet much, much longer than it would in the heat of summer. Cool wet soil means, you guessed it: root rot.

If your house is very cool during winter, pay extra attention to your watering schedule for your succulents and cacti. Depending on the size of your pot, whether it has drainage, and the type of plant, you might only need to water your plants once a month or even less. Plus, we’d recommend erring on the safe side when it comes to winter watering and just giving the plant a small dose, rather than thoroughly saturating soil.

The best way to identify if temperatures that are too cool are affecting your succulents and cacti would be to follow the over-watering identification steps, above.

Too hot
For the same reason cacti and succulents can tolerate low temperatures, they’re especially adept at handling high temperatures, too! The desert is a place of extremes, after-all.

However, temperatures that are too hot in an indoor growing environment tend, again, to lead to watering issues. If your plants are outdoors during summer, they’re going to dry out really fast. You might need to water your succulents and cactus twice a month, or even every week, depending on the heat and exposure.

The other time high temperatures can be an issue for succulents and cacti can be when placed in a window. The heat of the sun through the glass tends to be intensified, and can burn your plants. Check for burn, following the identification steps above under “too much light.”

What problems have you faced with your cacti? How do you care for succulents? Share with us in the comments – there’s so much to learn, and we’d love to learn from you. Have questions? Feel free to ask in the comments, or send us an email with photos for a chance to have your question answered in the next installment of Pistils Rx.

How NOT to kill a cactus (or succulent)!

What kind of cactus or succulent should you start with? I would say any except for living stones, the string of pearls, or baby toes. I’ve found all of these to be very temperamental. You’re going to want to make sure to buy some cactus soil, and pots with good drainage. When you’re ready to re-pot your plant, make sure to shake off as much of the soil it was potted in. Water your new soil just a little bit so you’re able to work with it, and transplant your plant. And you’re done! You don’t even have to water it today. I always wait a couple days after transplanting any new plants to give them a full water because I don’t know the last time they were watered, and I want to give the roots some time to settle. Just give them a full water a few days later then LEAVE THEM ALONE! Make sure you place them wherever you get the best sunlight in your house, like a windowsill. Now just enjoy their presence, and give them a good soak every couple to few weeks. If you want to get really fancy, you can fertilize your cactus or succulent every few months too. I will write a blog going into more details about fertilizing your plants, so look out for that!

This is a foolproof method that I follow now after A LOT of trails and errors, which is how I came up with the name Succulent Rehab! Ultimately I had to rehab all my plants back to life after I almost killed them all.

Ok, guys let’s Recap:

•Stop watering your plant!

•Leave your plant alone.

•Water every couple to few weeks depending on size and species. (Do a little research on your new Plant!)

•Pay attention to your plant and look out for changes. (Look out for future blog post on what to look for specifically!)

•Enjoy them!

I hope you guys try these tips, and please ask me anything in the comments below. I would love to help!

A man is met by the devil at the gates of hell with a greeting: “You killed 30 succulents. Do you know how hard that is?” When this viral meme floated across my timeline, I’ll admit I cracked a smile, but to me it also highlights one of the great indoor gardening myths: the idea is that cacti and succulents are universally easy to grow. Trust me, under the right conditions killing cacti and succulents is really quite easy, at least eventually.

Fortunately, getting it right with these plants is almost as easy as getting it wrong, as long as you understand a few basic facts about their native habitat and how to replicate this at home. So here are two incredibly simple tips for success with these beautiful, popular and surprisingly forgiving plants.

Cacti and succulents are species that have evolved in the arid regions of the world. Millions of years of natural selection have bestowed on them the remarkable ability to handle searing UV radiation, unrelenting drought and huge fluctuations in temperature. However, the very modifications responsible for these “superhero” abilities often make these plants susceptible to the opposite environmental stresses, such as very low light levels and excessive moisture at their roots. Sadly, in most living rooms it is precisely these latter conditions that they are most likely to be subjected to, exposing them to their horticultural kryptonite.

Most spots in everyday homes have nowhere near enough light to fuel their growth, especially in winter, causing the plants to react by stretching out their stems or leaves in search of the sun. If your once beautifully compact, dark green plant is starting to get long, pale and lanky, that’s what’s happening.

The solution is to place the plant as close to a window as possible, preferably a sunny, south-facing one. If you don’t know which way your windows face, just click on any “Maps” app on a smart phone to find out. And when I say “close’” I mean really close. A maximum of 1m away from the glass is almost certainly the only spot where cacti and succulents will be truly happy in the average home.

Curiously, the most common cause of houseplant death is overwatering rather than underwatering. Being natives of arid climates, cacti and succulents are especially vulnerable to this. It is particularly the case when their growth rate slows down in winter. Many commercial growers will, in fact, not water their plants at all for months on end between October and March, to avoid any chance of their roots rotting in cold, wet earth. As modern living rooms are far warmer than commercial cacti growers’ greenhouses, I tend to split the difference and water them sparingly, perhaps just once a month, in this time period, slowly building this up to once a week in the summer.

And if it makes you feel any better, I have killed far more than 30 succulents over the years, so I am certainly heading straight to The Bad Place. But with these two simple tips, you could spare yourself the same fate – and enjoy keeping your plants safe and healthy, too.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

If you own a cactus, then you’ll be keen to know how fast it will grow and how large it will get with time. It’s good to know this so you can plan where to put your cactus and decide what plants to grow alongside it. So, how fast do cactus grow?

Most cactus grow slowly, sprouting to the size of a large marble after 6-12 months, and to a few centimeters in height after 2-3 years, depending on the species. After this, most cacti grow 1-3 cm in height per year. There are a few notable exceptions that can grow up to 15 centimeters or more in height per year.

  • Echinocactus such as the Golden Barrel Cactus grow 1-2 cm per year in height on average.
  • Ferrocactus species grow approximately 2-3 cm in height per year on average
  • The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) grows 2-15 cm per year, depending on the growth stage, and can reach heights of 75 feet.

Growing your cactus to full size will indeed be a waiting game for most species. In this article, we’ll give you a growth timetable as well as tips that may be able to speed up growth. Be sure to read on!

Why Do Cacti Grow So Slowly?

To understand why cacti grow slowly, there are two main factors to consider.

The first is that cacti are highly adapted for survival, in climates with unpredictable and infrequent rainfall. As a result, they focus their energy on survival, rather than rapid growth. Read more about the amazing ways that cacti are adapted for survival.

A cactus may have to survive many periods of drought and extreme heat. Without prioritizing survival, cacti would die due to the harsh climate before having the opportunity to reproduce.

It is important to mention that not all cacti live in arid climates. There is a subset, called jungle cacti, which have different adaptations to those we commonly associate with desert cacti.

The second factor is leaves, or rather the lack of them. Most plants and flowers have leaves. These may be various sizes, shapes, and thicknesses, but they are there. Leaves contain a high concentration of chlorophyll, which is the chemical that converts sunlight into energy for the plant to use. With plenty of energy production capacity, most plants are able to grow quickly and strongly.

Cacti have no leaves or branches. Instead they have areoles and spines, which have no role in energy production for the plant. Leaves are less suitable for a hot, desert environment because they cause plants to lose too much water too quickly.

As a result, cacti have much less green tissue compared to other plants, which retards their growing abilities, according to the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

How Fast Do Cactus Grow?

Let’s begin by discussing the various growth stages for most cactus species and how long they take. These milestones are assuming the cactus is in an environment that’s not too cold or too warm, the plant gets the right amount of sunlight, and it’s watered and otherwise tended to when needed.

…In A Month?

Cacti, like many plants and flowers, begin their lives as seeds. It can take between several weeks and several months for the germination process to occur in seedlings, so don’t expect much if any growth in the early days.

If you’re lucky, you might notice the spines of the cactus will begin to grow within a month. That said, not all species of cacti have spines. What you’ll be looking for in those species is seedlings popping up from the dirt.

If you don’t see anything growing after a month, be it spines or seedlings, then keep waiting. In many instances, growth of this level can take two or three months to occur. With a cactus, waiting is key.

During this growth phase, it’s important to take off any coverings you have over the cactus during the day. This lets it get more ventilation. You’ll also want to water the cactus every time the soil gets dry. We’ll touch more on both these points later.

…In Six Months?

As you continue to care for your cactus, it will grow, but still not very fast. Once six months have passed, your cactus may be no larger than a slightly big marble. Compared to many other plants and flowers, this may seem like an abnormally slow growth rate, which might make you nervous. In a cactus, this slow growth is typical, so there’s no need to panic.

…In A Year?

It’s also not abnormal if your cactus is still marble-sized after 12 months. Upon achieving that milestone, no matter how long it takes, your cactus should be moved from a propagation tray to a separate pot. Move them to a bigger container so their growth can continue.

…In 30 Years?

Cactus growth may vary over the years depending on the cactus species you have. For instance, the Saguaro cactus, which comes from Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, can grow quite tall. Over its lifespan, a Saguaro can grow as tall as 75 feet.

During the lengthy growth process, Saguaro cacti can sprout their own flowers. This will typically happen within 30 to 35 years. We weren’t kidding when we said growing a cactus is a waiting game!

What Can Impede Growth Even More?

While it’s true that cacti are generally slow growing, there are some things you may be doing that can make them grow even more slowly. Here are some trouble areas to be aware of and correct.

Leaving It In A Container That’s Too Small

When your cactus becomes the size of a big marble, it needs a new home. Not doing this is bad news, as your cactus needs nutrients to survive and grow. A container that’s too small limits how many nutrients it can get. That will definitely cap its growth potential if the cactus doesn’t die.

Remember that the cactus must be moved more than once as it continues to grow, so you’ll rehome it several times.

Overstressing The Cactus

Just like we people go through an exhaustive process when moving our homes, so do cacti. They need time to recoup once they arrive in their new container. Keep them away from direct sunlight for a few days. This lets the cactus roots latch to the new home. Then, put the cactus back in the sun for a while each day, increasing the time incrementally.


You can’t really underwater cacti unless you never water them at all. They require much less water than most plants and flowers due to their native desert environment. You may be able to go a month before you have to water the cactus again depending on its age and species. I’ve got a useful article about how to water cacti if you want to learn more.

Overwatering will impede growth if it doesn’t kill the cactus outright. It can be hard to tell if you’re overwatering your cactus, especially if this is your first one. That’s because, within the first few weeks or months, the cactus will be asymptomatic even if it’s getting too much water. In some instances, the cactus grows more or gets bigger. That gives you the impression that you’re doing everything right.

Very quickly, it all starts to go wrong. The roots of a cactus cannot get too much water or they’ll rot and then die. Your cactus may look like it’s doing great, but behind the scenes, it’s slowly dying on you.

A few roots dying may not be a big deal, but the more dead roots, the higher the chances of your cactus not surviving. You may notice the color of your cactus is different as it begins dying. It may also be soft to the touch. The whole plant will die from here, and unfortunately, there’s no way to turn it around.

Once you get more experience raising cacti, you’ll learn to recognize that them growing fast and large is often a bad sign.

Keeping Your Cactus Covered For Too Long

It’s generally best to cover cactus seedlings during the germination and early growth phase. This will increase humidity and keep the seedlings warm, improving their chances of successfully germinating.

However, failing to remove the cover at the right time can harm your cactus, especially if it’s just starting to grow. The seedlings need ventilation. A lack of ventilation can stunt growth and possibly even kill the cactus.

How To Speed Up Cactus Growth

If you avoided the above pitfalls and your cactus still isn’t growing quickly enough for your liking, you have a few options to speed up the process. Here are our suggestions:

  • Always make sure your cactus has a container that’s more spacious than what it requires. This way, it has more than enough room to grow. You’ll also have to move the cactus less often, which reduces stress. That keeps the growing process going slowly yet surely.
  • Use a well draining potting mix. A mix of potting soil, coarse sand and perlite is ideal. This will reduce the risk of overwatering, which can significantly damage the plant and slow growth. As you remember, too much moisture is a cactus root killer. Read my article about choosing the perfect soil for your cacti.
  • Sunny environments are ideal for cactus growth. Find the brightest area and put your cactus there. Every week, turn the cactus so the whole plant gets sunlight.
  • Maintain the right temperature for cactus survival. Indoor cacti will thrive in temperatures of between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Just be careful about excess heat and direct sunlight if your cacti and kept in a south facing window. For outdoor cacti, a wintertime temperature of between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit is fine. Once summer hits, the threshold increases to 65 degrees on the low end and 85 degrees on the high end.
  • Throughout the spring and summer, use a succulent fertilizer on your cactus. This should be a liquid, low-nitrogen product.

If you want to learn more about growing and caring for cacti, there is one great book that I recommend in my resources section.

You may also be interested in some of my other articles.

  • What Soil Do Cactus Need?
  • How Much Water Do Cacti Need?
  • How Long Do Cacti Live?
  • What’s The Difference Between Succulents And Cacti?

Plant Fact Sheet: Saguaro Cactus

Identifying Features

The saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is one of the defining plants of the Sonoran Desert. These plants are large, tree-like columnar cacti that develop branches (or arms) as they age, although some never grow arms. These arms generally bend upward and can number over 25. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer.


Saguaros are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert. The most important factors for growth are water and temperature. If the elevation is too high, the cold weather and frost can kill the saguaro. Although the the Sonoran Desert experiences both winter and summer rains, it is thought that the Saguaro obtains most of its moisture during the summer rainy season.


You find this cactus in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. At the northern portion of their range they are more plentiful on the warmer south facing slopes. A few stray plants can also be found in southeast California.

Wild Status

The saguaro is not currently listed as threatened or endangered. Arizona has strict regulations about the harvesting, collection or destruction of this species.

Life Span

With the right growing conditions, it is estimated that saguaros can live to be as much as 150-200 years old.


Saguaro are very slow growing cactus. A 10 year old plant might only be 1.5 inches tall. Saguaro can grow to be between 40-60 feet tall (12-18m). When rain is plentiful and the saguaro is fully hydrated it can weigh between 3200-4800 pounds.

Quick Facts

  • The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States.

  • Most of the saguaros roots are only 4-6 inches deep and radiate out as far from the plant as it is tall. There is one deep root, or tap root that extends down into the ground more than 2 feet.

  • After the saguaro dies its woody ribs can be used to build roofs, fences, and parts of furniture. The holes that birds nested in or “saguaro boots” can be found among the dead saguaros. Native Americans used these as water containers long before the canteen was available.


Compare with the Desert Bloodwood Tree of the Australian Desert.

©Copyright 2008, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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