Caring for Cacti and Succulents
Hopefully this guide will help you to give your Cacti and Succulents a basic level of care. Much of my experience has been gained by 20 years of ‘Trial and Error’ but I have always had good reference material around.
My aim is to consider the plants’ natural home and try to replicate it to the best of my ability.
In the case of Cacti and Succulents, most inhabit hot arid areas and typically have low water requirements, but high light and temperature needs. However, many succulents inhabit more tropical regions and have different needs.
Buying Cacti and Succulents
Select Cacti and Succulents that are healthy and are showing signs of growth. If the plant you are buying is mature, check for signs of flower development.
Avoid plants that have bruised or damaged segments and keep away from any that appear flimsy or thirsty.
Choosing the right plant is a big decision. Do not be tempted into buying ‘Reduced Price’ plants that are not in good health. Whilst you may well be able to nurse it back to good health, it is always a risk, and it is worth paying a pound or two more for a healthy specimen.
Cacti and Succulents can pose an injury risk, so it is important to know how to handle them properly.
Cactus Spines and glochids (the detachable hairs / spines on Cacti like Opuntia) can cause ‘Actual Bodily Harm’ as well as itching and irritation.
Many Cacti and Succulents also have sticky sap that may irritate your skin, or even be extremely toxic. Some Cacti and Succulents have hallucinogenic properties, so do your research before leaving Cacti and Succulents within reach of children or pets.
Most will do no more than prick your finger, but I feel it is worth stressing the possible hazards of these plants.
Use good, thick gloves to handle those with big hard spines, and when taking cuttings of sappy plants.
Another method is to use kitchen tongues, but I prefer gloves.
Planting Cacti and Succulents
I keep all my Cacti and Succulents in pots, but there are several other ways that you can home your plants.
You can quite easily create a box, or raised bed in which to display your Cacti and Succulents. A gentle slope from back to front aids presentation and drainage.
The bed does not have to be too deep, but make sure you use plenty of free-draining substrate, especially if you plant to situate it outside. A few inches of gravel below the topsoil will ensure adequate drainage.
Choose healthy specimens and remove any dead material. Don’t forget to check the roots and remove any that are dying or diseased.
Place your plants in pre-shaped holes in the bed, making sure they are level with the surface of the bed’s soil.
You can leave the plants in their pots until you are happy with your arrangement. When they are ready to go in permanently, carefully place the new addition into the hole and mulch with a layer of gravel of similar free-draining material.
Water sparingly when it has settled in, increasing watering until you see new growth and signs that is has established.
A Cactus bed can be very attractive and replicating a desert scene gives a very natural look.
Some plants are particularly well suited to hanging baskets. This can be an excellent way to display Christmas Cacti, as their habit naturally trails.
Use attractive baskets and line them with moss or one of the modern alternatives. Fill the basket with Cactus Soil and make a hole big enough for the new plant.
Place the plant in the hole, firming soil around it to avoid any air gaps, then wait a few days for it to settle in before watering.
The result is a lovely rich foliage head with the classic bright pink flowers trailing down. Superb.
I prefer to keep my Cacti and Succulents in pots. This allows me to move them around easily and give each individual plant its own dedicated care regime.
Many people advocate the use of clay pots as this provides aeration to the roots. Because clay is porous, it also allows faster water evaporation through the sides of the pot.
Clay pots are great if you tend to over-water Cacti and Succulents.
I use a mix of plastic and clays pots, along with a variety of recycled pots. Read Recycling Tips here. Your plant does not care what colour the pot is, and if the plastic pot is going inside a nice ceramic pot, why not use something ugly? No-one will see it!
Always make at least 3 drainage holes in your pots and place some polystyrene chips or crocks in the bottom of the pot. This will help ensure good drainage.
Re-potting Cacti and Succulents
A good rule of thumb is to re-pot when the roots of your plant are emerging through the drainage holes.
This will be every couple of years, depending on the type of cactus. Some slow-growing varieties will not need re-potting for many years, where some faster-growing succulents may need moving every year.
When re-potting, always make sure the soil surface is level with that of the plant.
I make sure the pots aren’t too big as this helps prevent over-watering, but please bear in mind that some tuberous plants will need a bit more pot space. Mother in Laws Tongue, for example, has a fleshy tuber that needs accommodating.
After adding a bottom layer of crocks or poly chips for drainage, fill the pot nearly to the top with Cactus Soil. I always tap the pots to help the mix settle in and fill in any air gaps.
Make a hole large enough for your cactus, taking as much of the current rootball as possible. Gently tease a few of the roots out of the root ball to help them establish in the new soil.
Then place the plant in its new home, filling in around the edges with the new mix. Firm it well before allowing it to settle in for a day or two. Then water as normal.
Use a good Cactus Soil. You can buy pre-mixed soils, but it is easy to make your own.
This is among the most important aspects of Cactus Care.
Many people advocate the use of peat to help maintain a slightly acidic soil pH, but peat is a finite resource and needs to be conserved.
I think there are enough alternatives not to have to use peat, so look for peat substitutes and peat-free compost.
Add some citrus peel to your compost heap if you want to make your own acidic compost.
I use a 1/1/1 mix of potting compost, Perlite, and Sharp Sand.
This makes sure they have good drainage, and that the pots are heavy and stable enough for my larger specimens.
Opuntia, or Prickly Pears, can start out small but will grow into impressive specimens within a year or two, so make sure you have some big pots around!
Most Cacti can cope with very bright conditions and as such are a great addition to a bright windowsill or conservatory.
In fact, many Cacti and Succulents NEED full sun to induce healthy growth.
If you see your plant leaning towards the light or becoming pale and thin, it is not getting enough! Supplemental light can help to provide the correct levels, as well as making a nice feature.
Some species do prefer shadier conditions though, so take time to read the individual care notes for the plant you are buying.
Watering and Feeding
If there is one rule in Cactus Care, it is IF IN DOUBT, DON’T WATER!
Allow the compost to become completely dry between waterings. Plunge the pots in rain water several times in the growing season, then allow to drain.
This replicates a natural downpour and should provide them with the majority of their annual water needs. This also makes sure the leaves don’t come into contact with water. Many soft-skinned Cacti and Succulents mark easily and can show water marks. They can also show sun spots if left in direct light with water droplets on the leaves.
Keep an eye on them in summer, as many succulents will benefit from a bit more water and needs will vary depending on conditions.
I know people who rinse their plants each year to remove any dust and pet hair. If you do this, make sure the sun is not bright and let it dry in the shade to prevent scorching.
Feed your plant sparcely with weak cactus fertilizer. I feed mine just once in April / May and again during any blooming period.
Many cacti and succulents can cope with low temperatures, but only if they are kept dry. In fact, a cold dormant season encourages stronger growth and flowering in many species.
All my Cacti have been exposed to cold dormant periods each year. This promotes strong natural growth.
Even desert temperatures can drop below zero at night time, which shows how amazing these plants are. They can cope with so much!!
Although many cacti can stand freezing or near-freezing temperatures if kept dry, I keep my cacti and succulents at over 10-15 degrees celcius in the winter. They can cope briefly with over 40 degrees celcius in the greenhouse in the height of summer.
Generally, maximum temperatures should not exceed 30 degrees celcius. If temperatures do get this high, for example in your summer greenhouse, please pay attention to your plants. Some may need moving, whilst others may simply need a drink!