I have always loved cacti and how easy they are to manage. They are your ideal room-mate as they are easy to grow with less attention. The most exciting part is when they bloom! Depending on what type your cactus is, they may have red, pink, blue, yellow, or white flowers.
As a beginner, it’s important to note that you need to know how to care for your cacti. If you overwater them, they may end up rotting. Keeping them in the right conditions will see them thrive and live for decades.
We have compiled a beginner’s guide on caring for cactus, here are 11 easy to do tips:
1. Start with a bang – the potting mix is everything
The truth is, different cacti species live in different conditions. There are those that prosper in dry sandy soils while others do well in tropical rainforests. When you decide to purchase your cacti, ensure you know its species and what type of conditions make it thrive.
After buying it, you need to get a potting mix that is appropriate for it. If you get a potting mix designed for tropical cacti but use it for the arid plant, it will not thrive.
The ideal tropical cactus soil
Epiphyllums are a species of cacti found in the tropical rainforests. If you decide to go with such species, ensure the potting mix is ideal for it. Tropical cacti will drain quickly as they are usually suspended in trees so that their roots don’t rot due to too much water.
For such a cactus to thrive, it needs soil that drains well. For tropical cacti, they need a little bit more organic matter in the potting mix than the arid cacti.
The arid cactus soil
Most of the cacti that grow in arid areas, if they grow in poorly draining soils, they will eventually not grow. Most of these cacti will thrive in purchased potting mixes specifically for cacti.
A few steps to making the best cactus soil
There are available potting mixes in the market that are ready for use. You can purchase such and skip all the processes of making your own potting mix. However, making your own mix helps you have the right nutrients for your young cacti.
To make the potting mix, follow the following steps:
- Use equal portions of ground fir bark and peat moss in a bucket for either arid or tropical cacti.
- For a tropical cactus, use the mix above to add builder’s sand because they require more moisture. You can also use vermiculite or pumice instead of the sand for the desert cactus.
- Ensure you mix everything to make sure the mixture blends evenly.
- You need to water the mixture before transferring it to the pots where your cacti will grow. Leave it to absorb for an hour such that even when you squeeze the mixture, no water droplets form.
- Don’t add any fertilizer at this point because cacti have minimal nutrient requirements.
2. When should you water your cacti?
Even as some of the cacti are usually in arid areas, they require water. Therefore, even when you purchase a cactus that’s designed for such areas, you need to have a watering schedule.
Cacti are naturally juicy, which means they store moisture. One of their adaptations is that they store water so they can use it during the dry seasons. They can stay for quite some time without water, but most often you’ll tell when it is insufficient as they start yellowing.
Most cacti experience growth during the warmer seasons. During this time, you need to water them adequately. In cold seasons, winter and spring, they require less moisture.
Watering depends on where your cactus is placed. If it is outside in direct sunlight, you may need to water regularly as compared to when it’s indoors.
On average, during spring/summer, you can water once a week or even more, depending on whether the soil dries or not.
A water gauge can help in determining the soils moisture — only water when the topsoil is dry. Overwatering cacti will make its roots rot, and the plant will start turning pale. Another alternative would be using a stick to poke the soil to see if the bottom has water. If soil sticks on the stick, then there’s still water.
There is also a downside to underwatering. The cactus turns pale, and it bends in a particular direction.
The idea with watering cactus is ensuring you strike a balance and avoid under or overwatering.
Tips to guide you through watering cactus
- The cactus size
You’d think that a bigger cactus in size will need more watering, but in the real sense, the smaller, younger ones have a higher growth rate, which means they need more water. The smaller ones will need frequent watering than large ones.
- Pot size also affects how frequent you water
Small pots are necessarily ideal when watering because cacti don’t love sitting in water as they are more likely to rot.
Large pots will take time for water to drain, which make the cactus susceptible to not thriving.
Get a pot that’s just enough for your cactus.
- The type of pot you use
Even as we consider the kind of pot that’s ideal for growing cactus, what matters the most is if the soil is aerated.
Plastic pots can be used but take time to dry out as compared to terra cotta pots. They ensure there is maximum air movement and drain excess water faster, reducing chances of the roots rotting. Make sure to use a pot that removes the excess water thoroughly.
3. Is using a fertilizer necessary?
A plant needs nutrients to thrive. For proper care, you need to purchase a fertilizer designed for cacti. They need additional nutrients for them to grow well. For most cacti, their growing season is usually the warmer months.
When looking for fertilizer, ensure you get a low-nitrogen one but high in phosphorus. This helps in maintaining the healthy looks of the cactus.
Always ensure you inspect your cacti during spring to monitor any new growth. Only apply fertilizer when you notice the growth.
The fertilizer should be in the ratio of 1 tablespoon of the low-nitrogen fertilizer with 1 gallon of water. Use this solution to water the cactus. Use this every eight weeks during spring/summer.
If you recently potted or repotted the cactus, don’t use fertilizer until the plant establishes itself in the new pot. This can take up to two months.
Some cacti such as the Christmas cacti bloom in winter and remain dormant during summer. In this case, fertilize them in winter.
4. Give your cactus the sunlight they need
Light is a necessity when caring for cactus. Desert cacti love direct sunlight and would do with four hours a day of some direct sunlight. The tropical cacti such as Christmas cacti prefer partial shade. During winter, tropical cacti such as Rhipsalis would ideally need direct sunlight because that’s when they bloom. If possible, expose them to direct sunlight for their growth.
Get to know your cacti well and know what works for them.
For indoor cacti, to get adequate light, ensure they are 4 feet of the window if it faces the east or south. Keep rotating the plant because too much sunlight will make them turn yellow or white.
During winter and autumn, cacti will need temperatures of between 8-10°C. In summer and spring, even as they require proper ventilation, they can do with higher temperatures.
If you are growing your cactus indoors, it is important to rotate it preferably every month. This is because cacti will tend to grow towards the light. Rotation strikes a balanced growth. Rotate the pot a quarter turn.
Can using grow lights work?
In the case that you think you won’t be able to provide sufficient sunlight, you can buy grow lights.
Grow lights are artificial lamps designed to help with indoor plants that require light but is insufficient in the growth of plants.
A Russian botanist first discovered them.
We have three types of grow lights: light emitting diodes (LED), fluorescent lights, and high-pressure sodium (HPS) or high-intensity discharge (HID).
- Fluorescent lights are used to grow herbs and vegetables indoors.
- For the HPS, you need to place your cactus a distance away from them as they produce quite high amounts of heat. They also require you to invest heavily in setting them up and having a system that will manage the temperature.
- The LED is more efficient than the other two types, and the light is far more focused. There is also very minimal heat produced if any.
A grow light will be able to imitate sunlight, which will help the cactus during their growing stage and help them to bloom.
5. Be on the lookout for pests as they are a major concern
In most cases, the most common cacti problems are bacterial and fungal diseases caused by overwatering. However, once in a while, pests such as mealybugs will attack them. Controlling these pests may be difficult because they may keep recurring or become stubborn and end up damaging the cacti.
Mealybugs and scale
These two insects are the most common insects that manage to get past the cactus spines and can do a lot of damage that may end up killing the cactus.
Mealybugs are usually in clusters and have a white, waxy and cotton appearance. They are not easy to spot because they stay in hidden parts of the cactus. They are mostly found on the underside of the leaves and hidden joint areas.
They mostly attack the leaves and stems. There are those that attack the roots and will usually suck the root juices causing the cactus rot due to bacterial infections.
Scale insects are dome-shaped, and just like mealybugs, they also attack the leaves and stems.
To know if spider mites have attacked your cactus, the first indication is usually webbing and some small brown dots on the plant. They are quite small and only noticeable when you tap the affected area with a piece of paper because they resemble dust.
These particular pests resemble mosquitoes. They mostly hover around the soil. The larva lives in the soil, which ends up consuming the organic matter, which deprives the cactus its nutrients. If you were just starting and you had planted cactus seedlings, they may end up not growing.
How do we manage these pests?
In as much as cacti don’t need much care like some other plants, it’s essential to ensure you observe them keenly for any pests. They may be the reason your cactus is not growing.
- Practice measures to prevent pests
How you nurture your cactus also contributes to its health. Ensure your plant gets the right amount of water, sunlight, and drainage. When it thrives, it has a lower risk of pest attacks. Keep the cactus pots free from any dead leaves as they may end up attracting pests.
- Control the new cacti plants
Sometimes, you may end up having an old infected cactus, ensure that it is not near the new cacti as you risk the pests transferring to it. Quarantine them until you confirm they don’t have any pests. You can even choose to discard the old infected cactus.
- Use cotton swabs to deal with mealybugs
If your cactus is already infested, use cotton swabs that are dipped in alcohol to remove mealybugs and scale insects.
Spraying the plant with an alcohol solution diluted in water may ruin the plant’s epidermis. You can test the solution on a small area before spraying the whole area. The solution will help you get rid of unnoticeable pests as well.
- Washing off spider mites
Wash away the spider mites with water. Make sure you cover the pot to avoid overwatering.
- Using insecticidal soap
Insecticidal soap can be used to wash off the pests. However, note that it can damage the plant as cacti have wax that could be damaged by the soap. Make sure you read the label to ensure that it’s safe for use on the cactus.
- Safe insecticides
Insecticides are also an option but should be used sparingly. Always read the product’s label before applying to see if it’s safe to use on your plant.
Some insecticides are oil-based, meaning oil remains on the plant, and exposure to sunlight could make the cactus have a tan. Limit the sunlight by placing the cactus in a dull place until the pesticide works then you can return it to its usual place.
6. Observation is key
You know how delicate babies are and you have to keep checking what works for them and what doesn’t? The same applies to cactus. Keen observation in their growth helps you know what works for them. How they grow will tell you what they are lacking.
For example, when you see the leaves growing towards sunlight, it is a clear indication that they are not getting enough. Change their location and get a place that has better lighting or consider investing in grow lights.
If the cactus seems faded, it means it is getting too much light. Move it to a place with less light.
7. Profile your plants
As a beginner, you probably don’t know much about cactus. When you decide to purchase one, you need to know the basics. Like what species is it? Where was it picked from? What were the living conditions?
The idea here is to ensure you have a little background about your plant so that you can mimic its old living conditions. Ask the person in charge during the sale to give you their contacts in case you need advice on how to nurture the young plant. Some stores will provide you with an overall guide on what you should and should not do.
When purchasing the cactus, inspect it to ensure that it looks healthy. Remember that an old cactus will have a bit of scarring which should not worry you. However, if the plant seems discolored, don’t buy it.
Once you know a bit of the cactus, research more on success stories. The internet should be your best friend here. It’s incredible how much information you can get online. After you have all the information, get started with growing it and trying to follow what you know.
With time, you get accustomed to the cactus. Every plant is unique, along the way you will learn how to treat it to get it growing and even blooming. The biggest advantage of cacti is that they live for decades some going even up to 200 years.
For example, for the Christmas Cactus which is commonly grown indoors, the best time to propagate is late spring because that’s when they grow. Some cactus never bloom at all. However, to trigger the Christmas Cactus, the nights need to be 14 hours and days 8-10 hours for about six weeks. You may need to cover your cacti at night if there’s light.
Know when you need to fertilize your cactus and when to water it.
8. Joining groups of people who care for cactus
Sometimes, doing this alone is not as effective as when you have a group of people helping you. Find people who grow cacti and get to learn from them. It can be as simple as getting our Facebook group or checking your neighborhood for people who have similar interests.
Take the chance to ask as many questions as possible for people to help. You may be surprised to find that you are also helping them because there must be some things that will work for you and feel the need to share.
9. Repotting should be at the top of your mind
When you start noticing roots finding their way out of their pot, it’s time to report. Since cacti are not very demanding, you may think that they don’t need repotting, but the truth is, you need to take care of them for them to have proper growth.
It’s advisable to repot every 2-4 years. If you fertilize, do so after every four years but if you don’t, repotting every two years is ideal.
Follow these steps when repotting:
- Get the necessary tools
Before you begin the process, have a unique potting mix in a pot that’s a size up the previous one. Since most cacti are spiky, you could wrap the plant in layers of newspaper and secure with tape. Alternatively, get leather gloves to avoid the cactus pricking you.
You will also need a good pot (clay ones are perfect) that quickly drains any excess water.
- Loosening the soil
Using a blunt/dull knife, loosen the soil until you are able to remove the cactus. Be careful not to damage the plant. Using your leather gloves or the wrapped newspapers around the cactus, gently pull it out. Pulling the cactus out with barbecue tongs can also work.
Put into consideration that different species have different sizes of spines. For example, the Prickly Pear has tiny unnoticeable spines that break easily and can easily stay lodged in your skin. Therefore, ensure you have gloves that will shield you from any spines.
- Cleaning and inspecting the roots
After you’ve pulled the cactus out, brush off any lumps of soil on the roots. It’s important to you check the roots for any rot, or pests.
If you notice any pests, use insecticides that are safe for the cactus. Check the label for instructions.
If there are any dead roots, cut them off as well.
- Drying the roots
Letting the roots dry is an essential step before transferring the plant to a new pot. Leave them for about three days.
When removing the cactus from its previous pot may have damaged some roots and if you transfer it immediately at its state may prevent it from thriving. Letting it reduces the chances of infection.
- Use an appropriate pot
Once your roots are dry, the next step is transferring it to the next pot. Always choose a container that’s just slightly bigger than the previous one to allow growth. The danger of using a large pot is water retention is high, which increases the chances of root rot.
Species such as Ariocarpus and Aztekium are more susceptible to rotting.
- Adding soil to the pot
Before adding soil to the pot, add some gravel or crocks for easy drainage when watering the plant. Purchase a potting mix or make your own enough to keep the cactus planted. Try to avoid putting excess or less soil.
- The planting process
After you’ve added soil, use the barbecue tongs or newspaper you had when pulling the cactus out to place it at the center of the new pot. Place it gently on the soil in the soil and don’t forcefully place it as this could cause damage to the roots.
Pour in more soil to hold the plant. Ensure it entirely covers the roots. Add some compost to help maintain the soil’s acidity.
- Allowing the plant some recovery time
Most importantly, once you’ve repotted, don’t add water immediately. Wait for some days before you water the cactus so that it dries and recovers.
If you have a particular species that rots quickly, wait for a week or two before watering. After that, you can smoothly go back to your routine of caring for your cactus.
Repot during summer because it is easy for the roots to break or rot during winter.
10. Proper air circulation for the growth of your cactus
Let’s face it; cacti hate stiff breezes. They grow well in places where there is sufficient fresh air. If you grow your cactus indoors, then make sure the conditions are right to do so.
Open your vents and windows during summer and incorporate ceiling fans for better air circulation.
11. Put your potted plant outside sometimes
For you to keep your cactus at its peak, if you strictly do indoor growing, place them outside during summer. Make sure they get the light they need to avoid edema. Select a sheltered spot. During the rainy season, ensure they don’t soak in rainwater and be on the lookout for snails as they may end up destroying the juicy stems.
The idea of having cactus on your patio or indoors is exciting. As a beginner, you don’t have things already figured out. However, the above tips should help you get started on how to care for cacti.
Cactus is great indoors because you can use it as part of the decor. Some cute white pots with a Christmas Cactus makes the house look alive. Whether you want it in your bedroom or the kitchen, it is a great addition. With the findings above, you can be sure that your cactus will grow healthy.