If you are looking for a low-maintenance plant that you can keep inside or outside of your home, a cactus is a great option. These plants are easy to care for and require little expertise on your part to keep them growing and thriving. More importantly, they are resilient should they begin to weaken; you can usually bring them back with a little TLC and making sure you’re watering them correctly.
How do you know your cactus needs more water? Water, both too much and not enough, can be a massive problem with your plant. Some signs of underwatering are:
- Different, dryer texture
- Visual changes
- Watering that’s not adjusted according to the season
- Improper potting mix
In this article, we will discuss these signs that your cactus needs more water in detail and what you can do to remedy this before it is too late. Unfortunately, many cactus owners believe since the plants are from dryer environments, they can go without water for an extended period. However, your cactus still needs to be watered regularly.
The Importance of Watering Your Cactus
Before we jump into the signs that a cactus is underwatered, let’s talk about the importance of watering your plant regularly regarding its health. The main thing that sets cacti and similar succulents apart from other plants is their ability to store water for a relatively long period. Cacti plants have specialized cells in their stem that help them hold onto water when there is excess available.
These cells are designed to soak up water during downpours while in the desert but can also be beneficial for plants even in your home. When you water your plant, the cells will absorb water until every cell is fully hydrated. As time progresses, the plant will use water stored in the cells, which will reduce the hydrostatic pressure inside the plant.
If your plant’s water reservoir has not been exhausted, the cactus will continue to prefer dry and airy soil. However, should the plant run out of water in its cells, this can turn into an issue. Ideally, you will offer it more water when it begins to run low internally, but this is not always the case. Should the plant go for an extended period without you replenishing the water, it can be detrimental to its health.
How to Tell if Your Cactus Needs More Water
Luckily, if you are new to the cactus world, it can be easy to tell if your cactus needs more water. If, at any point, your plant begins to look a little off to you or even seems to be dying, you can almost guarantee there is something off with it internally. While underwatering may not always be the case, it is a common issue.
If you cannot remember the last time that you watered your plant, or you do not have a good water schedule in place, the problem could easily be a lack of watering. Some of the easiest signs to spot or things to look for when it comes to your plant are:
1 – The Feel of Your Plant
It may seem a little less than intelligent for you to squeeze your cactus to see how it feels, but the physical touch of the plant will alert you to the first signs of water issues. When your cactus has been freshly watered, it will be in what is called a “hard body stage.” Essentially this means that when it is fully hydrated, it should feel a little firmer or harder.
If you know that your plant has been watered recently, you can wear some protective gloves and give it a gentle squeeze to see how this feels. If you notice that the plant has started to soften due to a loss of water pressure, you can touch it to see the difference in physical feel. You should also note that a well-hydrated plant springs back quickly when squeezed, while a dry plant will not spring back as quickly, like a dehydrated human.
If you notice that your cactus feels excessively soft in some areas, this could be a sign of deeper problems. If your plant is softening unevenly and is very weak or even discolored in some spots, this is a sign of root rot. This is a deeper problem that you will want to address and deal with, as it can be fatal to the plant.
2 – Dehydrated Plants Will Begin to Pucker
Most cacti that have not been appropriately watered will begin to pucker, and this is an easy sign to look for. Healthy cactus plants will look plump and fleshy due to their stored water. However, if water is not offered to them at regular intervals, it will cause the flesh to shrivel and pucker.
You will often see that the puckering begins in the lower areas and then works its way up the plant. Ideally, you will supply the plant with enough water to bounce back before the entire plant has shriveled and puckered. In addition to the shriveling, you may also notice a small amount of discoloration such as a brown, dry, or calloused flesh.
Usually, once you notice this puckering, you can give your plant a drink of water, and they will be fine. Of course, you always want your cactus to be in a well-drained soil designed for succulents so that they do not become overwatered. If you catch them quickly enough, you will find that they should bounce back like new in no time.
3 – Look for Other Visual Changes
When a cactus is adequately hydrated and growing properly, it will stand at its full height and form. This is the classic cactus shape that you are used to seeing and is a clear sign of health. However, when there is a lack of water, you will be able to note some physical changes that are easy to see and diagnose.
Some cactus plants will literally fold in half when they are underwatered but will spring back to life when appropriately watered and hydrostatic pressure returns. Of course, any wrinkly skin, drooping leaves, sagging, or an overall change in shape can mean there is low moisture. Some other common visual changes you should note are:
- The skin will become dry when there is a lack of moisture, or all water reservoirs are used.
- They can become discolored due to insufficient water. They can turn a pale color or even become brown when dehydrated.
- The weight of the pot they are in can feel lighter than when they are well watered.
- The plant can start wilting, and the leaves will begin to droop.
- The plant will begin to wither when all the water is used.
While seeing your plant go through these physical changes can be difficult to see, it is often easy to restore them to their normal health. You will want to give your plant a thorough watering when you notice any of these signs. You should see that they revert to a healthy appearance within a day or two.
4 – Consider the Season
One thing that many forget when it comes to their cactus is that the difference in seasons can lead to a difference in water needs. Just like in the wild, your plant will need a change in watering patterns depending on the seasons. If your plant begins to look a little weak, you will want to pay attention to the season and make differences in your watering schedule accordingly.
Some basics to keep in mind when it comes to seasonal watering are:
- Fall – Your fall months will differ slightly depending on where you live, and you will want to adjust accordingly. If you live in a relatively warm climate during the fall, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you will want to water once weekly. If you live in an environment with a colder fall, watering can be a little more sparing.
- Winter – During winter, your cactus will just need an occasional watering because most are dormant during this period. They often stop growing with a drop in temperatures and will not need to be watered as regularly. A typical watering pattern during these dormant months is once a month.
- Spring – The spring showers can help serve as a guide towards your watering schedule. You will want to water the plants weekly to help wake them up from their dormant winter state. They will need a little extra water to survive and thrive during this period.
- Summer – The summer months are the most critical for water as the hot temperatures tend to dry out the soil. If you have your cactus near an overly sunny window, you may need to water it even more often as they will dry out more quickly. You will want to physically check the soil to see if it feels too dry or wet, watering about two to three times a week.
5 – Check the Potting Mix
One of the easiest ways to determine that your cactus needs water is to check the soil that it is in and water accordingly. A rule of thumb that most cactus owners follow is if the soil is completely dried out, the plant needs proper watering. However, you need to learn more about checking the pot for dryness and how to do so.
Some easy ways to check the potting soil of your cactus for dryness and to see if watering is needed are:
- Use a stick or skewer to gently push into the potting mix, making sure you reach the bottom of the pot. Leave the stick in place for a few seconds before removing it. If it looks of feels damp, the plant is well watered, and no more water should be needed. If the stick comes out dry, adding water is best.
- Poking your finger into one of the drainage holes is another good indicator. You will want to poke the bottom of the container and feel for any moisture. If the area feels dry, add water and, if not, leave the plant alone.
- You can use your finger to poke into the topsoil and feel for moisture as well. Of course, you want to be careful of any spines that may be present in the lower areas of the plant. If the soil feels damp and clings to your finger, the plant should not need watering.
Of course, you always want to pick a potting mix that works well for your cactus and is fast draining. There are many soils out there that are explicitly designed for cacti and succulents, making them the best choice for your plant. You always want to ensure that the soil is dry before adding more water to the pot.
If you have several cacti plants, you may want a more proper way of checking the soil to ensure that it is ready for watering. There are tools called moisture meters that can check the level of dryness in mixes. These devices record the soil moisture content, and you will be able to tell when watering is needed, but it often takes a more expensive meter to get an accurate reading.
Design a Good Watering Schedule
The best way to ensure that your plant is not under-watered is to establish a good watering schedule from the start. How much water your plant needs depends on the type of cactus that you are growing as no two cacti species are the same. To truly take care of your plant, you will want to do more in-depth research into the specific cactus that you have and how it should be cared for. Some things to consider are:
- The type of plant you have
- The average growing season for your plant
- The typical temperature, soil, and conditions they naturally grow in
- The conditions you are currently growing your plant in
If you do not know the type of cactus you have purchased, you can look on the container if it is still in the original. Most containers will have the plant species listed somewhere on the outside. You can also do a quick Google search of common household cacti and find which one most resembles your own.
If all else fails, you can take your plant or a photo of the plant to a local nursery for help. If you have owned the plant for a while, you may be able to take it to the original place of purchase to learn more about the type you purchased. You can even ask for expert advice on caring for the plant.
General Guidelines for Watering Your Cactus
While each cactus is different, there are some similarities between the different types that you can keep in mind. A basic guideline that you can follow when it comes to watering your plant are:
- As mentioned, always let the cactus’ soil dry out between watering. The top couple of inches of soil should be thoroughly dried out. You can follow the previously mentioned methods to see if the soil is adequately dry.
- Keep the seasons in mind! Do not forget the seasonal watering changes previously discussed as plants need more water during the hot season and less during the dormant months. During the summer months, water at least once a week!
- If your plants are indoors, they will need more water than cactus plants that have been placed outdoors.
- Many plants that rest in a semi-dormant state during colder months need much less water or even none. If you have outdoor plants, they may need no extra watering during this phase. You will want to monitor the plant’s appearance for signs of watering needs.
- Always watch for the signs that we discussed and give the plant a thorough watering should you notice any puckering, wilting, bending, deflation, or color changes. Make sure to water them effectively and do not overwater the plant. Too much water can be just as bad as too little, if not worse.
- If you live in an area that has hard water, you may want to repot your plant regularly, and this can become an issue. Hard water can lead to a build-up of salt.
- Always ensure that your cactus’ pot is well-drained so that water does not build up. Improper drainage can cause the plant to get waterlogged and lead to root rot.
Ensure You Are Watering Your Plant Correctly
Now that you have a better idea of how often you should water your plant and what to look for when a plant is under-watered, you will want to ensure that you are watering it correctly. A good method to stick to for the majority of the year is to water your cactus once a week. However, you want to make sure that you are also watering your plant correctly.
The basic steps to watering your cactus are:
- You want to always provide a good amount of moisture without leaving too much water in the soil. Always soak the roots, but not so much that can lead to root rot.
- When it is time to water your plant, you will want to do so until the soil is saturated. A good sign of saturation is when water slowly drips out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.
- If you are watering an outdoor cactus, you will want to check the ground around the plant to ensure the soil is moist. You can also use a water gauge to ensure the soil is moist enough.
Some argue that watering your cactus from above is not the best option though it may be the easiest. When you use this method, the water will travel down the edge of the soil and to the bottom, which does not allow excess to get absorbed. This is why many plants develop rot at the soil line.
If you have the available amount of space and time, a great option is to set the cactus pot in a pan of water so the plant can pull water in from the bottom rather than the top. This allows the soil in the pot to absorb as much water as possible. This also boosts the plant’s absorption rate, and the moisture will move up to the surface of the pot. After some time, you will want to take the container out of the water pan and let it drain.