When you think of the word ‘cactus’ what comes to mind? Prickly leaves, funny shapes, the desert? Many think of a cactus as being a plant you’ll only find in the southwestern United States or in other countries with desert like conditions, however that is not the case. Believe me, I always loved the looked of cacti, but being from the North eastern US, I never thought I would be able to have one. Boy, was I wrong!
Cacti, though typically found in very hot climates are actually very hardy plants that can survive in less than average conditions.
So the question is, how to take care of a cactus? In order to best answer that question we are going to divide in into two sections: How to take care of a cactus indoors and how to take care of a cactus outdoors.
How to take care of a cactus indoors
Potting: First off, selecting the best pot for your cactus is essential. Cacti need a shallow bowl or pot to really grow to their potential, so make sure to keep that in mind when picking out the accessories for your plant. They will do great in a plastic or ceramic pot, so it’s really your own preference.
Also, it is very important to have a drainage hole under the pot to let any extra water escape. If your desired pot doesn’t come with it’s own drainage hole, you can easily make one on your own. Be sure not to skip this step though as it is extremely crucial to keeping your plant alive and healthy. If there isn’t an area for the excess water to escape, it will cause a buildup of water which will start to rot the roots of your cactus. Now we don’t want that, do we?
Soil: Next, the right potting soil will not only provide the appropriate nutrients to keep your plant healthy, it will do most of the hard work on it’s own. I would recommend buying a soil specifically made for cacti, and if necessary adding some sand and perlite to the mix.
Since they don’t need to retain a lot of water, the best soil for your plant will have excellent drainage and be able to dry out rapidly after the plant has been watered, thus adding the sand and perlite will only help in this respect. I generally add 2 parts sand to your 3 parts soil and 1 part perlite to the mix. You can find cacti soil at most plant nurseries or gardening stores, however my personal recommendation is Miracle-Gro Cactus Potting Soil.
Watering: Once you have your cactus plant potted, you need to make sure it gets the right amount of water in which to sustain a healthy life. There is no specific amount of time that a cactus should be watered since things like soil, pots, climate and other factors vary, however remembering a few things can help us determine the best time for our specific plant.
First off, cactus have two seasons Spring and Summer vs. Fall and Winter. Spring to summertime is known as their active growing season, thus the most crucial part of their year. During this period, it is important to observe your plant well as it will generally need to be watered more often than in other months.
So how often should you water your cacti? It is best to water your plant only once the soil around it is completely dry. This includes the deeper parts of the soil as well. You can check the dampness of the soil with a moisture meter, or if you don’t have one available, you can even use a pencil end or chopstick. The idea is to see how much, if any, damp soil there is toward to bottom of the pot. Remember cacti are succulents with hard, fleshly leaves, so they retain water making the need to be watered infrequent. That being said, it is not good to assume that if it has only been one week, your plant is fine. Where you place the cacti in your home, and the amount of sunlight it gets are important factors as well, so for the first few months, be extra observant with your new plant.
During the fall and winter months, cacti go into a dormant state. This calls for less watering, less maintenance. This does not mean thought that you can just ‘give-up’ so to say during these months. It’s still very important to observe your plant to make sure it is keeping its appearance up to par. Nevertheless, you will generally only have to water your cacti about every few weeks or so during this period.
Sunlight: Now that we know how to properly water a cactus, it is important to know how much sunlight they need to maintain their lively nature. Once again, this depends upon the type of cactus you have, but generally speaking the majority grown indoors need at least 4 to 6 hours of strong, bright light to do well. This means placing your cacti on a curtainless windowsill or near an area that receives a large amount of light throughout the day.
As cacti are desert plants, it is important to maintain as much of a ‘natural’ environment for them as possible. Some cacti have been known to sustain themselves in a shady area of a home with minimal sunlight, but this isn’t advisable. If you have a cactus plant that you want to grow indoors, but just can’t seem to find the perfect sunny spot for it, try feeding it with artificial light. Though it may not be what you initially had in mind, artificial light can be a great alternative to sunlight and keep those plants looking healthy.
How to take care of a cactus outdoors
Outdoor care has it’s own challenges, but can certainly be achieved. For example, if you live in a generally cool area year round, you will have some work on your hands, but if you live in desert-like climate work will still be involved. As with any plant, you can never completely remake their original environment, however you can get pretty close.
There are some better choices for the outdoors (such as desert cacti or forest cacti) when it comes to these plants, so I would recommend doing some research beforehand, especially on what will thrive best in your area. One important thing to remember when choosing any plant, indoor or outdoor, is to check the health of each plant before purchasing. The best way to do this is to check how firm the flesh is on the cacti. The firmer, the healthier. This is a general rule, but a great one to remember.
Weather: As I mentioned before, the majority of cactus plants enjoy full sun, so they are great for the outdoors. As long as they can receive at least half the year with 70+ degree (F) weather, they should do fine.
Soil: Cactus roots are shallow, so it is crucial to position the plant in an area where it can dry out easily, thus avoiding a potential to rot. To ensure it will be able to dry out, try placing the edge of the plant on rocks (with the roots still being able to reach the soil of course),or adding some small-sized gravel to the mix. These rocky fillers will help with drainage. Generally speaking, you should have a half soil and half gravel mix around your plant. If you decide to use a fertilizer, be sure it is specialized in cacti care. The wrong type of fertilizer can actually harm your plants if you’re not careful.
Watering: After you’ve planted your cactus outdoors, it is best to wait to water the plant. This gives the plant a sufficient amount of time to get accustomed to it’s new residence as well as let the roots set within the soil. Since it is new to the area though, I would recommend checking on it daily to see how it is adapting to the new environment. In most cases, you will not need to water your plant for 2-3 weeks, however, if you observe an unhealthy change beforehand, by all means give it some water!
Once the ceremonial ‘first watering’ is done, you should be able to hold to the occasional watering schedule.Nevertheless, keep in mind the season. Spring and summer are the high seasons for cactus growth, so it’s important to make sure they are getting all of the water they need. I’m not saying to water them everyday, but they tend to need more than the usual amount of water during these critical months. Hence, instead of water every few weeks, you may need to water once or twice a week.
With that in mind, you still want to water your plant thoroughly,as you would anytime of year, yet wait until it is completely dry to re-water. As the year progresses, your watering routine should slow down. During the end of summer through the fall and winter months, water should be cut to a minimum, and in some cases, may not need to be done at all, depending on the weather conditions.
Winter months: You’ve worked all year caring for and protecting your plants and now come the dreaded winter months. Perhaps you’re thinking “Will my cactus survive?”
First off, it is noteworthy to mention that cactus will not do well in temperatures below 40 degrees (F). They are warm weather plants and need to be provided that type of atmosphere as much as possible.
Therefore, depending on where you live, you have two options:
Option 1: You can bring your cactus in for the winter. I know this may seem like a lot of work, but it really is the best option to preserve alive your plant and keep them as healthy as possible.
Option 2: Counting on the size of your plants, you can either cover them with a sheet or towel, or using a styrofoam cup to shield them from the cold.
Overall, cacti are very hardy plants, but it’s best not to take a risk. The better protection you provide for your cacti, the best chance of survival.
What questions or suggestions do you have about caring for cacti? Let us know in the comments below!