Cactus Care: Growing Healthy Cactus Outdoors

Cactus plants can help you transform your outdoors into a beautiful and attractive space if you're keen on their lighting, soil temperature, and watering requirements

Growing cacti in your outdoor space can be a great way to give the external area of your home a unique look. These plants produce beautiful blooms during the spring and summer and have plenty of options that you can explore. 

The cactus flowers come in vivid and attractive colors that are guaranteed to be a conversation starter. In addition, cactus comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, giving you plenty of options to choose from.

Wondering how you can create intriguing landscaping designs using cactus for your outdoors? Here are some simple cactus landscaping ideas;

  • Scattering cacti amongst small shrubs or perennials
  • Using prickly bear or blueberry cactus as a specimen plant
  • Creating a desert-inspired theme by scattering stone and gravel where your cacti grow
  • Using tall cacti species to create a wall around your home

Cacti don’t require your care around the clock. Therefore, if you’re a frequent traveller or have a tight work schedule hence little time for plant care, this plant is an excellent choice for you. 

These plants also do not require intensive care, but surprisingly, they can outlive most plants, so long as you know how to care for them.

Although cacti plants require minimal care, it’s crucial to know what to do to, keep your plants healthy. Providing the right care for your cactus will ensure that they don’t die off, prompting you to restart the planting process once again. 

Before we look at how best to take care of our cactus, it’s critical to note that cactus falls into two broad categories. The two categories are;

  • Desert cactus
  • Forest cactus

Both types of cactus have a unique set of needs. Knowing how to differentiate between the two will help you know the type of care they need. Desert cactus has spines and can withstand direct sunlight for hours. 

Forest cacti, on the other hand, are natives of forests and jungles. These plants do not have spines, and are not as hardy, as desert cactus.

Besides knowing what type of cactus you want to grow, you also ought to consider where to plant your cactus. You might either prefer to pot your plants or plant them on the ground, depending on the look you’re going for.

It’s also important to consider whether you’d like to grow your plant from scratch or would just prefer to buy a potted seedling. Sourcing for a seedling that’s already growing might be easier than growing your plant from a seed. However, the latter might give you a first-hand experience on how to care for your plant from start to finish. 

If you buy a cactus from your local plant store, all you’ll need to do is dig a hole to plant your cactus. If you want to grow your cactus form a seed, you’ll need to get your seeds by cutting them out from the pod. 

Growing desert cactus

Desert cactus is a hardy and will survive all year round, in your outdoors, even during winter. Don’t let some varieties of the cacti like the prickly bear fool you when they flop to the ground during winter. The plant will surprise you by jumping back to life in spring and summer. 

A cholla cactus bearing fruits.
Desert cactus has spines and can withstand direct sunlight for hours. 

Watering needs

Do not kill your desert plants with kindness by overwatering. Cactus is a succulent that stores water in its stems, making the plant to look plump. 

Too much water might be misleading at first because it may make the lump appear plump and healthy. However, your cacti roots will suffer from overwatering. 

Only water your plants when the top part of your soil begins to feel dry. One way to check your soil is to put at least two inches of your fingers in the soil. If the soil feels dry, then you need to water your plant.

You can also lift your potted plant to check if it needs watering. If it feels light, then your plant needs watering. To use this method, you’ll need to check the weight of your plant after fully watering it, then do the same after a week or two, to notice the difference. 

Another way you check your soil is to use a moisture measuring device. The device will accurately measure your soil’s watering needs letting you know if it’s too dry or still too wet.

Choose the right container

Container choice may not sound like a big deal when growing cacti, but it can hugely affect your plant’s health. As opposed to using plastic containers which retain plenty of moisture, consider using the following materials;

  • Terracotta
  • Clay
  • Concrete

The above materials wick away any excess moisture, allowing your plants to thrive. If you don’t have access to the above materials, ensure that your pot has plenty of drainage holes.

As a rule of thumb, ensure that water completely runs through the holes every time you water. It may seem like your plant will remain with no water but your soil mix will ensure that there’s still some water left for your plant to absorb. 

If you can’t afford to buy pots at the moment, planting your cacti on your ground will do. Growing your plants on the ground is also suitable if you want to use the plants as a fence.

The best way to plant cacti on the ground is to plant it on a raised bed, rather than level ground. Planting the plants on a bed will help with drainage, especially if it happens to rain for a few days in a row. 

Else, grow your plants in containers if you live in an area that receives lots of rain throughout the year.

The obvious advantage of using containers is that you’ll be able to move your plants to a dry area to save them from overwatering during the rainy season. We’ll cover the dangers of overwatering, under the “watering needs section” below.

Cactus plants outside in the pot.
The above materials wick away any excess moisture, allowing your plants to thrive.

Soil type

Proper drainage is an important part of growing your plant. Soils that hold water for long can contribute to root rot. You might not have the right soil type to suit cactus growth in your area, but you can create it right in your garden.

Bear in mind that good cactus-growing soil should have a mix of both organic and non-organic material. Non-organic materials help with drainage while the organic materials help provide nutrients for your plants.

Cactus soil and requirements.
Soils that hold water for long can contribute to root rot.

You’ll need the following non-organic ingredients to help create holes in your soil, for it to drain properly;

  • Coarse sand
  • Turface
  • Pumice
  • Perlite

The following organic ingredients provide the perfect nutrient-rich soil and retain moisture to grow healthy cactus;

  • Coconut coir/shredded coconut
  • Bark
  • Peat moss

Organic cactus soils are available for you if you don’t have the time to experiment with different soil compositions. These soils are available in many shops that sell cacti. 

Lighting

Desert cactus loves light. Therefore, place your plant in an area with lots of sunshine. Focus on getting at least a minimum of 6 hours and a maximum of 8 hours of sunshine for your cactus daily. 

The beauty about growing cacti outdoors is that you don’t need to place them on your windowpane for sunlight. Window panes tend to amplify the strength of light which might end up burning your cactus. 

Move your plants to a shady area once the sun becomes too hot. 

Too much sunlight might discolor your plant. 

Temperatures

Desert cactus has adapted to dry climate, hence can do well in most dry areas. A temperature of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit will do.

When temperatures dip, such as during winter, avoid watering your plants too much as there’s already enough humidity in the air. 

Growing forest cactus

Soil requirements

Forest cactus survives best in humid areas. Therefore, choose soil that retains a little bit of moisture compared to that of desert cactus soil mix. 

The following soil proportions will work best for your forest cactus;

  • One part of sponge rock/perlite
  • Three parts of potting soil
  • One and a half tablespoons of orchid bark

Watering needs

Forest cactus loves water. Unlike desert cactus which require you to only water them when the soil is completely dry don’t wait for the soil to become too dry.

However, you should be careful not to overwater your plants because the results will be a cactus with rotting roots. Always check the soil and ensure that it’s moist but never wet.

Small cactus in a pot with a water container beside.
Be careful not to overwater your plants because the results will be a cactus with rotting roots.

 Another important thing to note about watering is to water your plants according to the season. During winter, water your plants once every two weeks. During summer and spring, water your plants every few days.  

If you’re growing your plant from a cutting rather than buying a young cactus plant ensure that you don’t water the cutting. Only water the cutting once it starts to root, otherwise it will rot.

Lighting requirements

Forest cactus love filtered lighting. To ensure that your plants get the right amount of lighting, it’s best to grow them in hanging containers. 

If your plants are growing under a tree, put up a shade made of lath or cloth. The materials will filter out the light to prevent sunburns, and promote blooming.  

Do not make the mistake of moving your cacti indoors during winter, then putting them directly under the sun when summer returns. Your plants require time to adjust. Start by placing them under a shade, and then slowly start exposing them to sunshine using an incremental approach.

Initially, place the plant under direct sunlight for about an hour, then moving it to shade, the first few days. Proceed to place it under the sun for two hours the next few days and so on. 

Cactus plant exposed to sunlight.
The general idea here is to avoid shocking your plant with extreme heat as this might eventually kill the plant

Temperatures

If you live in a tropical area, you won’t need to worry too much about temperature requirements for your cactus. This plant is a native of tropical areas where temperatures remain the same all year round.

 If temperatures in your area dip below 10 degrees centigrade move your plants to a warmer area. Your house could be an ideal location until temperatures return to normal. 

Alternatively, construct a shed that you can move your plants over the winter. A shed will ensure that you don’t bring plant bugs to your home. 

Fertilizing needs

Forest cactus gets a lot of nutrients from rotting leaves in the forest. Visit your local plant shop, and buy cactus fertilizer. Use this fertilizer every time you water your plants to promote absorption by the roots. 

You can also try using cow compost. Be careful to use only properly composted manure. Stay away from compost that smells as this is an indicator that it’s not ready for use. 

Container choice

Forest cacti require containers that can seal in the moisture for a longer period. A good choice for material for your container here is plastic. However, ensure that your container has proper drainage to keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged. 

A cholla cactus in a pot.
A good choice for material for your container here is plastic.

Common problems that you may encounter when growing outdoor cactus and how to fix them

Overwatering issues

The easiest way to kill your cacti is to overwater them. Here are the dangers of overwatering your plants. 

  • Your plants won’t be able to properly absorb nutrients because water will constantly drain the nutrients down the soil.
  • Your soil will have excess moisture promoting root rot
  • Your plant will attract plenty of garden pests looking to quench their thirst

The following signs will help you know that you’re overwatering your plants;

  • At first, the plants may appear plump, and then start wilting
  • Soft squishy stems
  • Yellowing of the plant
  • Formation of bumps and blisters that leave permanent marks

Like with indoor plants ensure that you only water your cacti when the top two inches of your soil is dry.

Rotting roots

Remove the plant from the soil, and scrap off the rot with a blunt object. Ensure that you change the soil before replanting as the old soil will contain some of the fungi or bacterium that caused the roots to rot. 

A person holding a cactus freshly picked from the ground.
Always check the soil and ensure that it’s moist but never wet.

Breakage or scarring from hail

Protect your plants with a cardboard box whenever there’s hail in your area. If you have potted plants, it’s easier to move them to a sheltered place until the climate regulates to normal. 

Stunted growth

Every plant needs re-potting every few years, as it grows in size. As your plant continues to grow, it requires more room for expansion and a smaller container will limit growth. 

Another reason to repot your plants is due to nutrient deficiency. Every time you water your cacti, the water washes out the nutrients.

Repot your plants annually or every two years. The time frame is usually when the plants show significant growth. 

How to re-pot your plants

  • Gently pull out your cactus from the soil. The good news here is that cactus has shallow roots; hence you won’t need to yank it out of the soil, which can cause damage.
  • To prevent further damage, cover your plant with a newspaper before pulling it out
  • Pull out your plant from the part of the stem closest to the soil to prevent injury from spines
  • Gently hit the root ball against a hard surface such as a wall to remove excess soil, and also, to make it easier for you to inspect the roots
  • If the roots show any signs of rotting scrap off the rotting parts before re-planting  
  • Ensure that you change the soil, and mix it according to your plant’s nutrient and soil requirements. 

Broken stems

Broken stems can attract pathogens and if left unchecked can kill a whole cactus plant. If your stems are showing signs of disease, cut them off right from the point of infection using shears. Ensure that you don’t leave any infected parts out. 

A pencil cactus in a white pot.
Broken stems can attract pathogens and if left unchecked can kill a whole cactus plant.

Make sure that you disinfect your equipment right after, to discourage the spread of disease. 

Dealing with bugs and other critters

Snails, scale insects, mealybugs and spider mites love cactus. While it’s easy to pull off snails some insects like scales insects and spiders require a little more work.

Here’s how to identify the different critters. 

Mealybugs have a cottony, white and waxy appearance and are usually in clusters. These insects like to attach themselves in hidden joints and the underside of leaves.

Spiders

The first sign of a spider infestation is the appearance of spider webs all over your plant. 

Scale insects

Scale insects are also cottony but have dome-shaped shells. You can find these insects on the stems of your cactus plants

Bug removal

  • Dip a cotton bud in alcohol then use it to remove the insects. Alternatively, make an alcohol-water solution in the ratio of 1:3. Spray the solution all over your plant.  
  • Buy insecticidal soap spray from your local plant shop. Use the spray sparingly as too much might damage your cactus
  • Use imidacloprid, acephate, pyrethrins and neem insecticides for bugs that may be difficult to spot or control. 
  • Remember to separate your infected plants from the healthy ones to prevent the bugs from spreading. 

In conclusion

Cactus plants can help you transform your outdoors into a beautiful and attractive space. Both forest and desert cactus can thrive outdoors if you’re keen on their lighting, soil temperature, and watering requirements. 

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