It’s easy to get hooked on cacti as their spiked, ridged, tall, squat and hairy forms are very collectable – especially with children as they are often sold at pocket-money prices in small pots containing a single curious-looking specimen.
These quirky plants make ideal room-mates as they are very undemanding and will withstand most maltreatment, except for heavy-handed watering and feeding.
In fact, they are pretty easy to grow indoors because they thrive on neglect! All you need to do is check on them and give them water about twice a month and that’s it.
Cacti are like succulents, having fleshy, juicy stems, but differ in that they always have prominent spines and barbs, or bristles, and some have woolly hair, which makes them much more interesting.
The desert types are especially collectable as they come in a vast range of interesting shapes and textures, which can be highlighted when arranged in a group display. Among the most popular types are the descriptively-named star cactus, golden barrel, bunny ears, rat-tail, pincushion, ball cactus and Turk’s cap.
Moon cactus are colourful crowd-pleasers. They are small, grafted plants, made up of a round-top cactus that is a mutation that lacks chlorophyll, so are naturally red, orange or yellow above a taller green base specimen.
All these cacti have the same requirements and are very happy to sit in a sunny window for most of the day. In summer you can put them on the patio, but remember that the more sun they get, the more water they’ll need.
Ideally, cacti should be watered with tepid rainwater whenever the compost dries out fully from your last watering. When this happens, water well again and don’t give any more until the compost has dried out once more.
Give less water if the plants are growing in a colder or shady position, and in winter give them a rest by cutting right back, giving just enough to keep the soil barely moist.
Just remember, cacti only need sufficient water to prevent them from shrivelling.
Humidity can be a killer unless ventilation is good. In hot, steamy bathrooms you should grow jungle cacti that are native to rainforests such as epiphyllums, or orchid cacti, and the Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera truncata. These jungle cacti tend to trail and have large flowers so can be grown in hanging baskets, saving counter space.
Desert cacti will also flower given the right conditions, and while individual flowers may only last for a day, the flowering period usually lasts for months.
Blooms may be pink, white, yellow or orange, and trumpet or bell-shaped. Some, including echinopsis, bloom at night and are scented, but unfortunately most types don’t have a fragrance.
Feed them in spring or summer with a tomato fertiliser, using only one-quarter of the amount recommended on the label, to encourage flowers.
Never feed in winter, as plants must have a rest. Most cacti don’t mind being a little pot-bound but if you need to repot after three to five years, wrap a folded piece of newspaper around the spiny plants to handle them without injury and use a gritty, well-draining compost.
If you do happen to get spines stuck in your fingers that won’t come out with tweezers, use heavy-duty duct tape, placing the sticky side to the spines to pull them out.
To keep plants in peak condition, you should also consider putting them outdoors in summer. Stand them in a sheltered spot and don’t just move them from lower light indoors to a south-facing patio. Also, don’t let them get soaked during rainy weather. Protect the plants from slugs and snails, otherwise they’ll gorge on their juicy stems.
Pests can be a problem, especially mealy bugs, which occur as white woolly patches on the leaves – these sap-sucking parasites can be removed using a cotton bud soaked in methylated spirit. Other pests to watch out for are red spider mites and scale insects, which tend to piggyback into your home from poorly plants bought from the garden centre.
Rots are the biggest bane for owners of cacti and occur when plants are overwatered and temperatures are low.
Lack of light will produce weak and misshapen specimens and corky patches of oedema is a condition brought on by high humidity and overwatering.
Be artistic and use cacti to make a bold statement in your living room. They suit a variety of interior design from modern to rustic and complement any colour scheme, so if you’re updating your decor to trendy metallic, or a neutral colour scheme, they’re perfect.
Tall specimens can be used as an impressive stand-alone piece, while if you can only afford to buy smaller plants, choose several plants in a range of interesting shapes and textures that can be highlighted in a tabletop, group display.
For best effects, choose a collection of plants that are all about the same size with similar care requirements.
A shallow dish container works best and putting a layer of fine grit over the compost will give an attractive, yet dry surface.
To reinforce the desert effect, consider placing some pebbles between the plants.
If you’re styling a narrow shelf or windowsill, look for petite plants of the same variety, each with the same type of pot, and line them up. White pots will create a look that is perfect for a modern interior.
Remember, when picking pots for cacti, they must have drainage holes as soggy soil will rot the roots.
Photo The unadorned storefront of the Cactus Store in Echo Park, Los Angeles.Credit
“A lot of people walk by and ask, ‘Is this a gallery? Can we come in?’” says Carlos Morera, a co-owner of the Cactus Store, which opened late last winter in L.A.’s blossoming Echo Park neighborhood. It’s no wonder passers-by are a little confused: The tiny storefront has no sign out front, and sells only cacti (and a few other plants), the bulk of which are displayed in unglazed terra-cotta pots perched on cinder blocks.
“People just started calling it the Cactus Store,” says Morera, who was originally opposed to the idea of naming or branding it. “We didn’t want to impose that on the neighborhood. It was more about just having this little shack full of cacti.” Given California’s current historic drought, it’s hard to imagine better timing for such a shop, which specializes in handpicked, rare and exotic cacti. But, as Morera will tell you, it is not to be confused with a nursery.
The Cactus Store’s plants, which range from about $20 to $700, are intended to be singular works of art rather than to provide general landscaping. “Those drought-tolerant cactus gardens that people do in their front lawn that are just a bunch of gravel and a cactus? That’s disgusting,” Morera said. “There’s a way to create lush, intricate environments using drought-tolerant natives — cacti mixed with different sages and ocotillos, and that sort of density and lushness that requires less water. It doesn’t need to be stark and barren. The desert is complex. The cactus is a complement to all of that.”
Inside the store, artful pots of cacti are displayed simply on cinder blocks.Credit Andy J. Scott
Morera, a graphic designer who grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Parsons and Central Saint Martins College in London, advises that cactus care very much depends on the plant and the situation. For example, he says, “You can have a desert cactus indoors — you have to be very cautious about the amount of light and water. You always want to under-water indoors because you run into the issue of rot when there’s too much water in the soil for too long.” Below, he shares other tips for maintaining artful desert plants at home.
Create an urban oasis — with succulents
For city apartments, the Cactus Store recommends the euphorbia family (these are not technically cacti, but succulents), which can require a bit less light then other varietals and are better suited for indoors. Place plants as close as possible to the window and provide good air circulation, rotating them once a month to ensure even light.
With indoor cacti, it’s better to under-water, about once a month, rather than over-water. A cactus can survive without water for many, many months; but rot is an instant killer. Using a moisture meter will eliminate all the guesswork; otherwise, you can water whenever the soil is completely dry.
Find a spot in the sun
If you can, leave your cacti outside during the growing months, from March to September, for a happier, more robust look. (Be careful to introduce them to their new outdoor conditions gradually, otherwise they can get sunburned.) Return the rejuvenated plants indoors for the winter, when they can go dormant.
Drainage is key
Make sure to have a pot with drainage at the bottom, and include an inch of pumice or a small rock to aid in it.
Cacti do not like to sit in wet soil — or regular potting soil. Use only a specialized cactus mix, and after repotting in the new soil, do not water for two weeks. Planting typically breaks a cactus’s roots, and you don’t want to expose cut roots to water, as it can create rot.
Watch for warning signs
Early detection, and action, is a must:
– Thinning of the top growth means not enough light.
– Yellow scarring or splotches of extremities exposed to bright sun can mean sunburn.
– Thinning of overall cactus ribs means under-watering.
– White clumps or scale means insect infestation.
Cactus Store, 1505.5 Echo Park Ave, Los Angeles, hotcactus.la.
- 5 Need-to-Know Tips for Mastering Indoor Succulents and Cacti
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- How Often To Water Cactus Plants Indoors
- 1. Size Of Cactus
- 2. Size Of Pot Affects How Often To Water A Cactus
- 3. Type Of Pot And Drainage
- 4. Type Of Potting Media
- 5. Ambient Temperature And Airflow Impact How Often To Water Cactus Plants
- 6. Humidity Impacts How Often To Water Cacti
- 7. Light Conditions
- 8. The Species Affects How Often To Water A Cactus
- 9. The Time Of Year Will Affect Water Requirements Of Cactus Plants
- How To Tell If Your Cactus Potting Mix Is Dry
- How To Water Cactus Plants Indoors
- How To Tell When To Water Cactus – Signs Of An Under-Watered Cactus
- How To Tell When To Water Cactus – Signs Of An Over-Watered Cactus
- What To Do If You Suspect Your Cactus Has Root Rot
- Common Mistakes When Deciding When To Water Cacti
- Last Word
- How to Water Succulents and Cacti: The Ultimate Guide
- How to Water Succulents and Cacti
- How Often to Water Succulents and Cacti
- How to Tell When it’s Time to Water Your Succulents
- How Much to Water Succulents and Cacti
- Watering Technique
- EXTRA THINGS
- Indoor Cacti Varieties
- Outdoor Cacti Varieties
5 Need-to-Know Tips for Mastering Indoor Succulents and Cacti
Erin Doherty of Philly-based Field shares her green-thumb advice for cactus and succulent care. By Emily Leaman· 5/5/2017, 10:00 a.m.
Photos courtesy @Shop.Field on Instagram
I do not have the best track record with plants. I’m a serial overwater-er, and as such I’ve had many a plant wither under my well-intentioned flood conditions. I’m the absolute worst with cacti because I just can’t seem to help myself when I’m wielding the watering can.
So when I found out that Field owner Erin Doherty has a cactus in her house that she hasn’t watered since October — October, people!— I nearly keeled over with shock. “It’s beautiful and thriving,” she says.
Well. I certainly have a thing or two to learn. Lucky for me, Erin’s the gal to turn to: Her pop-up shop specializes in succulents and cacti, and she has a house full of thriving plants to prove her green thumb is no joke. If you’re reading this so far, I’m going to assume need some help, too. Check out Erin’s top tips for mastering potted succulents and cacti below, then go check out the goods at her upcoming pop-ups, tonight at Lululemon in Fishtown from 6 to 8 pm, and on Mother’s Day weekend at Vestige.
1. Know your angles.
Erin says one of the first things she asks prospective plant owners is which way their house faces. “If you’re north-south that’s great — you get all that southern exposure,” she says. “If you’re east-west, it’s going to be trickier.” That’s because, she explains, the east-west sunlight is not as bright or as hot. For those in north-south homes that are positively soaked in sunlight, you should study the light for a few days and notice how many hours of unobstructed sunlight you get. Some cacti, like the blue cactus, need several hours of unrelenting hot sunlight every day; Doherty likens them to tomato plants in this way. For those with less light, such as folks in east-west homes, Doherty recommends darker varieties of cactus plants: “The darker the cactus the less light it needs.”
2. Don’t feel bad about neglecting them.
When it comes to watering these plants, the best rule of thumb is to forget about them. Almost completely. I wasn’t joking when I told you that one of Erin’s cacti hasn’t been watered since last fall. She said the best thing you can do for your cacti and succulents is to repress all of your nurturing, watering desires. “You’re thinking it’s a plant and you want to water it, but if you water too much it’ll die,” she says. If you absolutely must water your cacti and succulents on some kind of regular schedule, don’t do it more often than every two months. They need even less in the wintertime when they go dormant.
3. Make sure you’ve got drainage.
Drainage is especially important if you overwater, like me. The easiest form of drainage, of course, are pots with holes in the bottom. But if you’ve got a hole-less pot that you absolutely need to use, or you’re planting cacti in some sort of terrarium, make sure you create a draining soil by utilizing layers, starting at the bottom: rocks, sand, more rocks, then the soil.
4. Don’t re-pot them, well, for a good long while.
Did you know these plants like to keep their root systems tight? “That’s how they keep their stability and grow really tall,” Erin says. “They will live for a really long time in the same pot.” She says you could re-pot them maybe every couple of years, and make sure the new pot is only two inches bigger than the old one. You need to keep it feeling cosy in there so the thing doesn’t topple over.
5. Think “three.”
Hooray! Your plants are thriving. Now, how the heck do you arrange them? “I like to think of cacti as the minimal aspect and succulents as the maximal,” says Erin. “If you’re looking to spruce up a little corner of your space, I would get a cactus. But if you want to fill it in with lots of green or color, get succulents because they get fuller.” To create a vignette, Erin says to start with three plants at three different sizes: a 10-inch pot for the central focal point, then six- and four-inch pots to fill in and stagger the height. Just make sure, of course, that all your plants have the same light requirements. (See #1.)
If you are looking for a low maintenance houseplant and a cactus has caught your eye, you are in for an absolute treat. Cactus plants make fantastic houseplants and are generally easy to care for. The one thing that can be challenging with cactus care is knowing how often to water cactus plants, as it is so easy to be over-enthusiastic with the watering can.
How often to water a cactus? Most cactus should be watered once the soil has completely dried out. Don’t water on a schedule, but monitor the condition of the plant and dryness of the potting mix to know when to water a cactus. Factors such as size of cactus, size of pot, temperature, humidity and season will all affect how often to water cactus plants.
Understanding the water requirements of your cactus is important. Cacti are succulents and are designed to store water in their roots and stems, to help them survive periods of drought. While each cactus has different water requirements, there are a number of techniques you can use to make sure you always know when to water your cactus.
How Often To Water Cactus Plants Indoors
Most people have the misconception that cacti only need a few sips of water here and there, and while it is true that they are drought-resistant, they most definitely need a regular supply of water.
In fact, they thrive when they are watered sufficiently. Cacti tend to do best when they are watered thoroughly, and then left until the potting media has dried fully before being watered again.
There are many factors which can affect how quickly the potting media will dry out, and as a result, how often to water your cactus plants.
Here are 9 of the top factors that influence how often to water cactus plants.
1. Size Of Cactus
You might assume that the larger a cactus is, that the more frequently it will need watered. However, younger, smaller cacti typically have higher growth rates and will require and use more water in relation to their size.
Larger cacti also have a a smaller surface area to volume ratio, which will decrease evaporation of water from the surface of the cactus. Typically, you will need to provide substantially more water to a larger cactus when you do water it, but you may find that smaller, faster growing cacti, planted in smaller pots actually require closer attention and more frequent watering.
2. Size Of Pot Affects How Often To Water A Cactus
Large pots contain more potting medium and it takes longer for a cactus to absorb the water in the potting medium, or for the water to drain or evaporate.
Larger pots also have smaller surface area to volume ratios. As a result, a cactus planted in a large pot may only need watered every 4-6 weeks or more, whilst a cactus planted in a very small pot may need to be watered once a week or less.
Most cacti do better in smaller pots, as they don’t like sitting in water for too long. It can be really difficult to avoid root rot if you have a cactus planted in an oversized pot, so if you are having problems, repot your cactus into a pot that is just large enough for the cactus and no more
3. Type Of Pot And Drainage
For cacti, the best strategy is to provide a lot of water and then have the excess drain rapidly and the potting media dry quite quickly. Plastic pots will trap moisture, increasing the time it takes for the potting media to dry out.
Terracotta pots are porous and the water in the potting media will slowly pass through the walls of the pot and evaporate into the air, dramatically reducing the time it take for the potting media to dry out.
Similarly, pots with plenty of drainage holes are much better, as these allow the excess water in the potting media to drain out of the pot rapidly. Trying to grow cacti in pots without holes is generally a miserable experience. It can be done, but is much more likely to lead to root and stem rot. I speak from bitter experience!
4. Type Of Potting Media
For success with growing cacti, you should ensure the potting medium is fast draining. Any commercial cactus mix will do, or a DIY combination of potting soil, coarse sand and perlite will do a great job. A well draining mix will allow excess water to drain easily and allow the soil to dry quickly. Obviously, this will mean you will need to water more frequently, but your cactus will thank you for it.
5. Ambient Temperature And Airflow Impact How Often To Water Cactus Plants
Warmer temperatures lead to increased evaporation from your cactus and from the soil surface. Higher temperatures also usually mean the plant will be actively growing and will be using more water.
During the cooler winter months, when your cactus isn’t growing much, you may only have to water the plant every 4-6 weeks, but during hot summer months, with the plant putting on growth, you may need to monitor the dryness of the potting mix every few days.
The great thing about cacti is they will tolerate being underwatered really well. So if you’re a bit slow with the watering can, the cacti won’t suffer too much, but being over-enthusiastic is where all the problems start.
In addition to temperature, increased airflow increases evaporation. Bear this in mind, particularly if you move your cactus outside in the summer, where ventilation will be much higher and water requirements will increase significantly.
6. Humidity Impacts How Often To Water Cacti
Evaporation levels will be higher is arid conditions. Wet potting mix will dry much faster as the air will have plenty of capacity to take up more water.
Keeping an eye on the humidity levels is generally a good idea when caring for most indoor plants and can help you to predict water requirements. Cacti do much better in arid conditions, but even in a humid interior, as long as you monitor soil dryness, you can still have great success.
7. Light Conditions
Direct sunlight will increase the rate of evaporation and the speed at which your cactus soil dries out. If kept in a south facing window, you will need to water your cactus much more frequently, compared to a cooler north facing room.
8. The Species Affects How Often To Water A Cactus
Every plant has its own watering requirements and it is much the same with cacti. The type of cactus that you choose to grow at home will determine will impact how often you need to water it. Some Cacti like a bit more water than others and you should refer to the specific species for advice about how often to water your cactus.
9. The Time Of Year Will Affect Water Requirements Of Cactus Plants
During summer and the active growing season, Cacti need frequent watering. Cacti typically need less water during the colder, dormant months of winter. You can cut back watering by at least half or even more during this time.
I’ve got another article which goes really well with this one about how much water to give your cactus when you water it. It’s really helpful to know about how cacti respond to water in their natural environment and this can help you to get watering right every time.
How To Tell If Your Cactus Potting Mix Is Dry
There is a fairly easy way to determine when your Cactus needs water, regardless of the season. As a general rule of thumb, the soil should completely dry out between watering.
But how to check the soil at the bottom of the pot for dryness?
There are a few options.
- Poke a finger into one of the drainage holes at the bottom to feel for moisture.
- Push a stick or skewer gently into the potting mix to the bottom. Leave it for a few seconds before removing it. If the stick looks or feels damp, you know to leave it a while longer before watering.
- Use your finger to poke into the top few inches of potting mix. If the soil feels dry right the way down, you can add water. If the soil is wet and clings to your finger, you can wait a while longer for it to dry out some more.
How To Water Cactus Plants Indoors
Once houseplant owners know that their Cactus needs watering, they are often unsure about how much water the plant requires.
When you water your cactus, make sure that you give it a decent soaking until the water runs out of the drainage holes. Only do this once – you do not want to flush the soil. You can use a weak fertilizer to feed your cacti during the growing season.
Mix a fertilizer that has equal amounts of Potassium, Nitrogen, and Phosphorous to ¼ of the recommended strength and add it to your watering can during growing season watering. There is no need to fertilize your cactus during the rest/dormant phase.
When the rest period or dormant period comes around, you can lengthen the time between each watering as the plant needs less water and nutrients when it is not actively growing. During this time do not overwater the plant. Only give the plant enough water to prevent it from shriveling up.
How To Tell When To Water Cactus – Signs Of An Under-Watered Cactus
A thirsty cactus (one that is under watered) will show signs of distress in the following ways:
- The Cactus will usually pucker or shrivel as it uses up the water reserves that are stored within it.
- The Cactus will start to discolor. This is usually evident as the Cactus turns brown or the natural darkness or brightness of the color fades.
- The Cactus will start to become dry or calloused as it runs out of moisture.
Many people panic when they see their cactus houseplant displaying these symptoms. Luckily, under watering a cactus is far less harmful that over watering it.
If your cactus is showing signs of under watering, you can rectify the problem by thoroughly watering the cactus as soon as possible. The plant should plump up fairly quickly with the color returning to normal over a short space of time. Under watered Cacti bounce back faster and easier than over watered Cacti.
I’ve got a really helpful article which goes into more detail about how to identify when indoor plants need watered. I truly believe that the only way to get better at caring for houseplants is to learn to spot the signs they are giving you, and getting it right is so rewarding.
How To Tell When To Water Cactus – Signs Of An Over-Watered Cactus
Over watering a Cactus is much more damaging than under watering. In most cases it should be fairly obvious that the cactus has been over watered.
If your Cactus is mushy and puckered, it is a sign of over watering. When the Cactus absorbs too much water, it quite literally runs out storage space and this can cause the cell walls to rupture which results in a mushy feeling when you gently press or squeeze the plant. This is the most important difference between an over watered and under watered cactus: the mushiness.
An over watered Cactus will usually present the following symptoms:
- The Cactus stems and leaves will start changing color. Usually black or brown.
- The base of the Cactus will start turning brown or black.
- The Cactus will become mushy and start leaking.
- The Cactus will start to appear as if it is rotting or decaying.
As with most plants, the reason for these symptoms is usually root rot. Cacti have very sensitive root systems that are susceptible to root rot. When the roots rot, the plant is unable to absorb sufficient water and nutrients and get it to the rest of the plant. As a result, the plant starts to change color and sometimes leaves become soft, wilt, and even fall off.
When root rot sets in, it is not always immediately evident. While your plant may look normal on the outside for some time, one day you may discover that the stem towards the lower end of the plant is black and going somewhat slimy. This is really bad news!
Interestingly, sometimes an overwatered cactus can sometimes show signs of underwatering due to the death of the roots caused by root rot. Overwatered roots will die, preventing water from being transported to the rest of the plant, so much of the plant can in fact be dehydrated.
What To Do If You Suspect Your Cactus Has Root Rot
You will need to inspect the roots. Remove the Cactus from the pot or container and take a close look at the roots. They should be white in color. If the roots are black, brown, or mushy, they have root rot.
If there are still some healthy-looking white roots, the plant can be saved. You will need to use clean shears to cut the contaminated roots off the plant. Make sure that you clean the shears after cutting the root rot off, to avoid spreading disease to other plants.
You can replant the Cactus in dry, well draining potting mix and let it settle for about a week before watering. Make sure that you discard the contaminated soil and use fresh soil when you replant your Cactus.
A serious case of cactus rot
Common Mistakes When Deciding When To Water Cacti
When getting a new Cactus as a house plant, there are a few mistakes that you need to avoid. Below are a few common mistakes that people make when it comes to watering an indoor Cactus:
- Over Watering Or Under Watering
This is usually due to lack of know-how. Knowing what type of Cactus you have will help you to better understand its water requirements. Watering the plant too frequently will lead to root rot while watering too infrequently will result in the plant drying up, puckering and dying. The trick is to get a careful balance.
- Overlooking The Nutritional Needs Of The Cactus
It is a common misconception that a Cactus requires no added fertilizer to thrive. This is probably because the plant is considered hardy and drought resistant.
Adding a bit of diluted fertilizer to your water can be the trick to growing healthy Cacti. Of course, don’t overdo it. Only add diluted liquid fertilizer to your watering can during the growing season and make sure that it is mixed to only a quarter of the recommended strength on the bottle.
Too much fertilizer can burn the plant or result in build-up in the soil which can damage the root system and result in leaves turning brown/yellow and falling off.
- Using The Wrong Container
Cacti need containers with sufficient drainage holes so that no water can trap in the bottom and lead to root rot. While you can plant a Cactus in a container with no drainage holes, you will need to be extra careful with how much and how frequently you water.
The best choice is a container that breathes easily such as a terracotta container. For the ultimate convenience, choose a pot that already has drainage holes that do not become clogged with Cactus mix.
- Using The Wrong Growing Medium
Cacti need growing medium that drains quickly. People often overlook this because they believe that the Cactus is the hardiest plant of all and can grow in almost any conditions.
If you use the incorrect potting soil, you could find your Cactus suffering from root rot. Buy a succulent or Cactus potting mix or make your own for the best results.
- Using The Wrong Water Source
While some tap water sources are just fine, other sources have high quantities of dissolved minerals and chemicals such as fluoride, chlorine and chloramines that can affect the health of your cactus.
If your cactus is struggling and you can’t work out what is wrong, it may be good to try collected rainwater or distilled water to help your cactus thrive.
Learning when to water cactus can take a bit of trial and error. Watching the Cactus for signs of distress is an important part of being a Cactus houseplant lover. The most important thing to remember is to monitor your cactus and the potting mix to know when to water a cactus and don’t water on a schedule. Once you develop the techniques to identify when your cactus needs watered, you wont look back and your cacti will be thriving.
How to Water Succulents and Cacti: The Ultimate Guide
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Table of Contents
How to Water Succulents and Cacti
I thought watering plants was easy… until I killed my first couple (dozen) succulents.
Since then I’ve learned a lot about caring for succulents and cacti. How you water them is especially important. Watering incorrectly probably accounts for 90% of all succulent deaths!
Once you figure out how to water properly, it’s almost impossible to kill them!
It’s not that watering succulents is difficult at all. You just need a different approach than for most other plants.
Read on to find out how to keep your succulents and cacti happy and healthy!
How Often to Water Succulents and Cacti
The frequency with which you water succulents is the difference between life and death.
No pressure, right?
It’s a common misconception that, since succulents and cacti usually live in dry climates, they don’t like water very often. That’s not entirely true. While succulents can survive long periods of drought, they’re usually happy to get a drink on a more regular basis.
So, we come to the obvious question: “How often should I water my succulent?”
While I can give you some pointers, there is no single correct answer. Your watering schedule can depend on many factors:
- What species of plant is it?
- Is the plant in its dormant period?
- How much light does the plant receive?
- Is that light from the sun or is it artificial?
- How much organic matter is in the dirt?
- What temperature are your plants kept in?
- How humid is the air?
- Is there airflow or wind around the plants?
- What season is it?
- What’s the weather like?
Honestly, I could go on… but that’s not the point. I’m trying to convey that there is no silver bullet. There isn’t an answer that will always be correct.
That being said, I know it’s not helpful to simply say “Water it when it needs to be watered.” So here is my personal rule of thumb:
Water your succulents about once every 10 days.
Keep in mind that all the factors above can affect that estimate. The best policy is to pay attention to your plants and learn how to identify their needs.
The reason that the frequency of watering is so important is because of the danger of root rot.
Much like people, plants don’t want to be submersed in water all the time. If your friend was thirsty you wouldn’t dunk them in a pool and say, “There’s water all around you!” Sure, they could maybe drink a little bit, but it would quickly be more of a problem than a solution.
Here’s a little-known fact: Plants primarily breathe through their roots. They take in oxygen and carbon dioxide both through tiny roots called root hairs. If the roots, or the soil around them, are wet then air can’t get through.
Without air, the roots die. Without roots, the plant dies. No bueno.
To avoid the untimely demise of your succulents, you need to give them time to dry out between watering. This gives them time to breathe in between gulps.
Is your soil staying wet for more than a day or so? The soil probably has too much organic material in it. Ingredients like coconut coir or peat moss retain water, keeping the soil damp for longer.
But don’t worry about the dirt just yet; we’ll talk about it later.
How to Tell When it’s Time to Water Your Succulents
OK, so, if it’s inadvisable to just water your plants every ten days like clockwork, how can you tell when it’s the right time?
Fortunately, it’s not too hard. There are several methods I use to prevent overwatering.
The Finger Test is the first one. It’s the fastest, the easiest, and one of the most accurate. Heck, it’s so intuitive you’ve probably done it before without realizing that you’re using an ancient, artful technique.
Simply stick your finger in the dirt and feel if it’s wet or not. Is it wet? Don’t water. Is it dry? Water.
There’s a bit more to it, of course. The surface of the dirt can dry in as little as 20 minutes if it’s hot out. Be sure to stick your finger down at least 2 inches. Is it obviously wet, or even just damp? Forget about watering. Bonus tip: If the dirt seems uncharacteristically cooler than the soil on the surface, that means it is still a little wet.
If the dirt is too compact to stick your finger that deep, you’ve got a problem that isn’t watering-related; you’ll need to repot it with fresh dirt. Also note that if you’re using a gritty mix, a soil mixture with little or no organic matter, this method probably won’t work. Gritty mixes drain water very quickly, so they’ll be dry pretty much 100% of the time.
Wait for Wrinkled Leaves
The next way to tell if your plant needs a drink is to simply look for slightly wrinkled leaves. Very fleshy, plump plants like Aloe or many kinds of Sedum will begin to wrinkle as they get thirsty. It’s not unhealthy or dangerous to let them get that dehydrated. It’s just like a person eating when their stomach starts rumbling.
If you water the succulents when you see this sign, you should see them begin to perk up within a couple hours (or certainly by the next day). The leaves will re-inflate and be back to their regular fat-plant selves.
This doesn’t work for all succulents, of course. Cacti don’t have leaves, after all. Other succulents, like Sansevieria, have a very thick cuticle (that waxy “skin” of the plant). Since the leaves are so rigid they don’t show wrinkling at all… until just before they die.
Although I wouldn’t usually recommend it, another version of this method is to wait until the plant starts drooping. Drooping indicates that the stem is losing turgor (rigid structure caused by water pressure). The stem only begins to lose water after the plant has already cut water to the leaves… so it’s very thirsty at this point.
This only works on plants that have a tall, skinny stem. There aren’t too many succulents that fit the bill. An example might be a few species in the Kalanchoe genus, like K. tubiflora.
Soil Moisture Meter
Lastly, you can use a soil moisture meter to see how wet the soil is. I guess this is a good option for people who don’t like to get their hands dirty (why are succulents your hobby, then?).
They’re dead-simple to operate: just stick the metal ends in the soil and wait a minute for the device to display the level of moisture. You’re looking for a reading of zero moisture, or very close to it.
There are some pros and cons to moisture meters. On one hand, the metal probes can go much deeper into the soil than your finger will, so you can be sure the dirt is dry all the way through. On the other hand, cheap moisture meters are often too finicky or just plain wrong… and your plants will take the hit.
If you want to go this route, I’d suggest investing in a nice moisture meter. The high-quality ones come with some cool bells and whistles, like being able to measure soil pH as well.
It goes without saying that your watering habits should change as the seasons do – especially if your plant is outside.
The conditions will differ depending on your location and climate. Do you have hot, dry summers like the southwest US? You’ll need to increase your watering dramatically. Summers in Arizona might have you watering your succulents every day.
Summers on the east coast of the US are totally different. They’re hot, yeah, but they’re also humid as all get-out. (Seriously, I’m drowning over here. Send help.)
Even if the temperature is 100 degrees Fahrenheit like it is in Arizona, that 100% humidity will prevent water from evaporating quickly. In this case, you water your succulents less often. During summers in Virginia, I usually water every 5-7 days.
Fall and winter are the opposite, of course. Cooler temperatures, shorter days, and less intense sun mean the plants don’t need as much water. In the case of succulents, many can’t survive frost and snow anyway. They should probably be inside (unless you have hardy succulents).
For my outside plants during the winter – I water them once every few weeks. You’ll need to consider the weather too – watering right before a freeze might cause damage. If snow (or any precipitation) is happening at least once a month, I probably wouldn’t water them at all!
Seasonal Plant Dormancy
But climate isn’t the only thing to consider during changing seasons. Many plants, succulents included, undergo a dormancy period as part of their yearly cycle. It’s a lot like bears hibernating, only it doesn’t always happen during the winter!
In their natural habitat, plants sometimes adapt to unfavorable conditions by going into a kind of “power-saving” mode. A cactus in the desert can expect that there won’t be any rain during the dry season, so there’s not much point in trying to grow.
So, it goes dormant every year at that time. The cactus slows down its metabolism to a trickle, only expending enough energy to stay alive.
If you were to stumble upon a dormant succulent in the wild, you might think it was dead! Sometimes they look so dried out, so desiccated, that you can scarcely believe there’s any life left. Still, a little drink of water and they’ll perk right up!
I hear you asking, “When is my ____ dormant?”
If only it were that simple!
Every species could have a different dormancy period since it is usually determined by the climate of their natural habitat. That means every individual Echeveria species can potentially have its own dormancy period!
In reality, we generalize plant dormancy periods on a genus-level. That means that we assume that all Echeveria are roughly the same in this regard. That mostly works pretty well, barring a few outliers.
Here is a table of a few genera (plural of genus) and their dormancy periods:
|Summer Dormant||Winter Dormant|
Plant dormancy adds a whole ‘nother level of complexity to succulent care.
Honestly, though? It’s not super important.
Plants don’t actually know what the date is, right? They don’t know if it’s technically winter or not. And, chances are, your succulent is actually native to a different continent anyway. It’s not in the climate it’s adapted to, so the dormancy thing might not even be necessary.
Plants do take cues from their environment. Is the temperature dropping? Are days getting shorter? That’s the kind of things that a plant notices, and that’s how they know the season is changing.
However, a lot of us keep succulents inside for one reason or another. And guess what? Thanks to the miracles of central air conditioning our houses stay pretty much the same all year. Plants inside never experience weather or climate differences.
Keep in mind that the windowsill, that classic perch of plants, is an interesting combination of inside and outside. It experiences slight temperature shifts and all the slow shift in light levels throughout the year.
The takeaway here is that, unless your plant is outside, don’t worry about seasonal dormancy. Even if it is outside, don’t stress out about it. For almost every plant, it isn’t a significant issue.
How Much to Water Succulents and Cacti
A million-dollar question, eh? There’s lots of conflicting information and different methodologies, so which should you follow?
Like every other aspect of succulent care, we look to nature first for a guide. Many succulents come from areas that have low annual rainfall. A typical desert or arid region will only have a handful of rain showers per year.
Instead of an inch of rain every couple of weeks, the sky dumps several inches all at once – and does that a few times a year.
That pattern is a good one for most succulents: they like to be thoroughly drenched at infrequent intervals.
In other words – a lot of water all at once, but not very often.
That runs counter to intuition for a lot of people. Since there isn’t a lot of rain in the desert or whatever, your succulents and cacti shouldn’t get a lot of water. This leads to underwatering (which is pretty hard to do with succulents).
So, here’s what you do: keep pouring water until you see it start to drain out of the bottom. That’s how you know the soil is fully inundated.
Your chubby little plant will be grateful for the big gulp and be satisfied for a good while after.
We know how often to water succulents and how much to water them. What about the actual application of the water. Surely, it’s as easy as pouring water on them?
Well, yeah, it is that easy for the most part.
Let me start by pointing out the wrong way to water. Don’t use a spray bottle. No misting, either. No matter how many times you squeeze the trigger, you’re only going to wet the top few centimeters of the soil.
There aren’t any roots up there to drink the water!
In fact, it can be detrimental to your plant if you only water the surface of the soil. The succulent will be forced to grow roots towards the surface, rather than down and out. You’ll end up with a weak root system that doesn’t support the plant.
Instead, we do the opposite. Make an effort to fully drench the soil all the way through to the bottom. The best way to do this is to pour water on the dirt near the base of the plant. It shouldn’t be a trickle of water, either. Pour like you’re pouring tea or coffee.
If you’re able, wet all of the soil in the whole pot. That encourages a wide, healthy root system. If I’m able, I usually put my plants in the sink and soak ‘em through. Outside, a generous hosing works quite well.
I only use a hose because I have a lot of plants and not a lot of time. Ideally, you would be careful not to get water on the leaves.
Strong water pressure (or touching) can remove the fine white powder that is present on the leaves of some succulents (which is called the farina – it’s like sunscreen for plants). Water drops on leaves can also magnify sunlight and cause spots of sunburn in harsh light.
In Pots Without Drainage
To be clear, I don’t recommend planting succulents in containers without drainage.
But… you’ll probably ignore that advice. The recent popularity of succulents has seen them integrated into all kinds of cute, artsy crafts. Cacti in teacups, succulent birdbaths, terrariums – that kind of stuff.
While adorable, it isn’t the best circumstance for your succulents. Not having drainage puts them at very high risk of developing root rot.
And don’t think that a layer of pebbles at the bottom will create drainage, either. It doesn’t. It actually worsens the problem, because of a phenomenon called “perched water table”. We’ll talk about that later, though.
If you’ve gotta plant your jade in that boot or whatever, there’s really only one way to approach watering. You simply water less. A lot less.
Rather than drenching the soil, you pour a small amount (probably about a teaspoon-full or so) directly at the base of the plant.
You also want to try to stretch out the amount of time between watering as much as possible. Keep the container in a dry place with lots of light. You want to dry out the soil as much as possible, but the reality is it will never really be fully dry.
Your goal is to find the balance between parched and permanently damp. Good luck!
Although it’s not ideal, many succulents and cacti can and do survive in this situation. They are some of the toughest plants on the planet. They will endure a lot of hardship if they have to.
Just so you know, you have options to avoid or rectify the no-drainage situation.
You can use a cachepot. A cachepot is just a smaller plastic pot that goes inside and is hidden by a larger container. You plant your succulent in a cachepot that has holes, then place it inside of that porcelain elephant knickknack.
It looks like the succulent is planted directly in your whimsical container, but when its time to water you can just remove the cachepot and water. Plant is safe, tchotchkes are safe. Everybody wins.
Another option is to drill drainage holes into that “World’s Best Dad” mug. Drilling holes in ceramic or even glass isn’t very difficult. With a standard electric drill and a diamond-tipped drill bit, you can get through any material in a couple minutes.
Getting Plants on a Schedule
This is the ultimate goal.
Eventually, your collection will swell from a single moon cactus to dozens of succulents occupying every inch of your house. It’s inevitable.
But watering all those plants can be quite the chore. Remembering whose turn it is to be watered today, how much and how often, etc. can get exhausting. Heck, the half the reason we like succulents so much is that they are low maintenance.
For this reason, I slowly adjust all plants to the same watering schedule.
It’s tough since they all have different needs. I’ve found that jades and Kalanchoe get thirsty a couple days before the rest of my plants. They have to suck it up, though, because relationships are all about compromise.
And suck it up they do (the water, anyway). You can condition your plants to all drink at the same time. Just water the new plants a couple days later each time you water until they sync up with the rest of your collection.
The trick here is to err on the side of drying out, rather than watering them early. Eventually, you’ll be able to water all your plants on the same day, and simply enjoy looking at them the rest of the time!
That’s all there is to watering! The key takeaway is to water succulents infrequently but use plenty of water. Try to water directly at the base of the plant, not on the leaves. Use every ten days as your baseline, but watch your plants and adjust accordingly based on the weather, the season, and the species.
- Cactus and succulent plants prefer a WELL DRAINING mineral rich cactus soil.
- Imagine spending your life on the coastal plains of Peru and then relocating to a windowsill on the 10th floor of an nyc apartment building. you get it right? adequate air circulation is essential to the health of these plants. This is especially true for leaved plants.
- If your plant grows to be too top heavy, or if its roots start to grow through the bottom of the pot, it is time to repot your plant.
- Misting your plant is not necessary, but it’s fun.
Signs of stress
- If your plant starts turning orange, pink, red, or purple around the edges, that means it is stressed out (either from sun exposure or from the cold). stress is not necessarily a bad thing. These plants are built for stress. If the green part of its stem starts turning yellow, that means your plant is nitrogen deprived. When nitrogen deprived, it is time for more fertilizer.
- If your cactus starts elongating (etiolating) at the tip, this means it is looking for light. Give your plant more sun to avoid etiolation.
- Slowly transition your cactus to a sunnier position over several weeks to avoid scorching the stem
- when temperatures dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it is wise to move your plant indoors, or in a location less exposed to cold and frost.
- Shriveling happens for two reasons…
1: Not enough water- In the growing season make sure to water regularly to prevent shriveling.
2: Mealy bugs in the root: if you’re watering regularly and your plant is still losing weight, chances are you have mealy in the root. When this happens, change out the soil and lightly spray the root of your plant with a 3-in-1 mite and mealy spray.
- Columnar cacti grow vertically and are typically human scale or taller. columnars are more adapted to all day sun exposure than other cacti.
- Geophytic plants grow close to the ground and are usually diminutive in size. Geophytes tend toward sun sensitivity, especially when ambient temperatures exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Epiphytes are tree climbing species that come from the jungle. Epiphytes are generally more adapted to low light conditions than other cactus species.
- Opuntioid cacti grow in segments where Each segment (pad) connects to another to form a chain, or in a candelabra formation. Opuntias are extremely hardy and will tolerate a wide variety of growing conditions.
Leafy Euphorbias and other leafy succulents
- When a leaved plant has new growth, that means it is thirsty. When it is drops its leaves in summer, that usually means it needs more sun, and you should move it to a new position. If it drops its leaves in winter, that means it is entering dormancy, and that you can taper off its water.
The cactus, known by its family name of cactaceae, is a very unique and popular plant. It’s known for its wide variety of species, each very distinct in appearance. They thrive in dry, hot climates. Unlike most plants, cactus need very minimal amounts of water, thriving in well-drained areas. They store what water they do get, allowing them to survive droughts.
Cacti and succulents are terms that are often used interchangeably, however they are not always the same. All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti. Cacti have structures called areolas, small cushioned shapes that grow spines, branches or hair, that define their family. Many succulents don’t have areolas and so are classified in a different plant family.
While Cacti are commonly thought of as desert plants, they can thrive in a home environment too. We’ve divided the species up by indoor and outdoor cacti. To help you decide on which plant is the best fit, take a look at each one’s appearance, water intake and sunlight needs.
Indoor Cacti Varieties
Although cacti are known for their love of sunlight, many thrive as indoor plants. Add one to your windowsill or living space for some unique decor. Indoor cacti tend to need less light and are smaller in size, making them the perfect houseplant.
Bunny Ears Cactus (Opuntia microdasys)
Originally from Mexico, the bunny ears cactus is named after its appearance. It has two pads that are bunny ear shaped. They are covered with glochids or brown prickles and should be handled with care. The bunny ears cactus grows to two or three feet, making it the perfect house plant. It produces white flowers and purple fruits in the summer if exposed to enough light.
Chin Cactus (Gymnocalycium)
Popularly known as the chin cactus, the gymnocalycium is a South American species of cactus. It’s name means “naked kalyx” in Greek which refers to the lack of hair or spines on the flower buds. Depending on the variety, some chin cacti seek shade while others thrive in sunlight.
Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)
The Saguaro cactus can grow to forty feet, but it grows slowly. This means it can be used as an indoor plant for years before you need to move it outdoors. It has a barrel-shaped body, giving it the classic cactus appearance. Native to the Sonoran Desert, this plant requires a lot of light. If kept as an indoor plant, be sure to place it in direct sunlight.
Old Lady Cactus (Mammillaria hahniana)
The old lady cactus is a type of pincushion cactus in the mammillaria family, which has 250 species. It has hairs and spines and is known for its halo of tiny pink or purple flowers that bloom in spring. The old lady cactus should be planted in a sandy potting mix and watered every other week.
Star Cactus (Astrophytum asteria)
Also known as sea urchin cactus or sand dollar cactus, the star cactus is identified by its round body that’s sectioned into eight slices. It is covered with white hairs and tiny white dots. In the spring it blooms a yellow flower. The star cactus only grows two to six inches in diameter, making it an ideal house plant.
Easter Cactus (Hatiora gaertneri)
Native to Brazil, the easter cactus blooms in late winter and early spring. Its flowers vary from whites to oranges to lavenders. The plant’s spines are stacked on top of each other, giving it a unique shape.
Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii)
Often confused with the Thanksgiving cactus, the Christmas cactus blooms in late winter. It has vibrant red flowers and is a common holiday gift. The Christmas cactus does well indoors, in moderate home conditions. Avoid watering too much because this will cause the roots to rot. This plant can adapt to low light environments, but blooms excel with more light.
Moon Cactus (Gymnocalycium mihanovichii)
Also known as chin cactus, the moon cactus varies in size, shape and color. A popular variety is the hibotan cactus. It originated in South America and comes in bright reds, pinks, yellows and oranges. These small plants thrive on window sills that get partial light.
Outdoor Cacti Varieties
When you picture a cactus, you probably imagine a huge structure in the dessert. Although many varieties thrive in the wild, some do well in the comfort of your backyard. Depending on what climate you live in, an outdoor cactus could be the perfect addition to your yard.
Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus)
The barrel cactus is named after its barrel or circular shape. Ribs line the sides of the plant and spiky spines grow from them. Some popular varieties include the golden barrel, california barrel, fishhook cactus, blue barrel and colviller’s barrel. Flowers bloom in May and June, showing off red or yellow colors.
Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)
Also known as the crab cactus, the Thanksgiving cactus blooms around the time of the holiday. It continues to bloom into the winter months, needing cooler temperatures to flourish. This outdoor plant does well in cooler climates, but must be in a region that does not have frost.
Queen of the Night (Epiphyllum oxypetalum)
Also known as dutchman’s pipe cactus, queen of the night is an epiphyllum cactus that grows on trees. It’s native to Brazil and produces large white blooms. This cactus is named after its tendency to be a night-blooming plant. Using slightly acidic soil will encourage the queen of the night to bloom more frequently.
Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia)
The prickly pear cactus is a genus that is very popular in drought-prone areas. Some common variations are the beavertail prickly pear and the Indian fig prickly pear. The prickly pear does well in backyards, but sheds its spines, so may not be for everyone. This cactus produces yellow, red or purple flowers.
Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia fulgida)
Native to the American Southwest, the cholla cactus has a round stem with sharp spines. There are more than 20 species in the plant family that come in a variety of sizes. They produce green or orange blooms. The cholla cactus doesn’t need much water, but requires ample light.
Totem Pole Cactus (Pachycereus schottii monstrosus)
The totem pole cactus gets its name from its tall stature, growing to be ten to twelve feet high. The totem pole cactus is textured with wrinkles. Although it thrives in light, the noon sun can burn the plant.
Cacti are a unique addition to any home or garden. Whether you decide to plant an outdoor cactus in your backyard or add a cactus and succulent arrangement to your windowsill, they are low maintenance plants that are easy to care for.
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