Help! My Cactus Is Dying! Why Is My Cactus Dying?

There are several common reasons why a cactus might be dying: overwatering or underwatering, getting less or more sunlight than required, and using a soil that cannot drain properly. Knowing how to maintain your cacti during the year will help them grow healthy and beautiful

Bringing a new cactus home is enough to excite any home gardener, but when it begins to die without an apparent reason, it can be a frustrating process. Luckily, there are ways to get to the bottom of your cactus woes and address the issue to get its health back on track.

So why is your cactus dying? Cacti are generally resilient plants, so a dying cactus mainly stems from improper care or harsh environments. The three possible reasons that your cactus is dying include:

  • You are overwatering (or underwatering) your cactus.
  • Your cactus is not getting its recommended daily sunlight.
  • The soil drainage for your cactus is inadequate.

In this article, we’ll be discussing a few reasons why your cactus may be dying, along with providing you with some proper care tips to help you better maintain your cactus plants.

Why Your Cactus May Be Dying

The following three reasons are the most common bad habits that new cactus owners make that result in a dying cactus:

1.   You Are Overwatering (or Underwatering) Your Cactus

If you overwater or underwater your cacti, the plant might die.

Cacti are very specific about how much water they receive, and on average, less is more when it comes to watering them. Cactus plants are prone to root rot, a condition that affects plants that are sitting in pooled water or are watered too often. This causes the cactus to rot from the roots, killing the plant slowly (but surely). If you’re watering your cactus daily, or even weekly, this could be the reason why it’s dying.

On the contrary, you could also not be watering your cactus enough. If half a year has gone by before you think of watering your cactus, and it doesn’t have access to rain, that’s probably the issue. Though cacti don’t need as much water as most other plants, they still need some access to water to thrive.

If you’re a “plant and forget” type gardener, be sure that you have planted your cactus in an area that receives rainfall. Leaving the watering up to nature’s natural cycle is usually plenty for a cactus anyway.

2.   Your Cactus is not Getting Its Daily Recommended Sunlight

If your plants are getting either less or more light than required, they might slowly die.

Cacti are desert plants. Because they’re native to desert landscapes, they’re naturally exposed to heaps of sunlight. Not allowing your cactus to get enough sun can result in:

  • drooping or shriveled stems
  • scraggly hairs
  • dull coloring
  • little to no flowering or fruiting during the season

Likewise, placing your cactus in an area that receives too much sun at high temperatures can result in:

  • sunburn
  • blackened or browned ends of the stems
  • a dried or dull appearance

3.   The Soil Drainage for Your Cactus is Inadequate

Cacti should be planted in pots with drainage holes for the soil to drain well and get rid of excess water.

Though it’s essential to water your cactus whenever it needs it, it’s just as crucial to ensure that your cactus is planted in a soil that drains well. A cactus should never be left to sit in water and requires a preferably sandy or slightly gravelly soil. If you have your cactus planted in a pot without a drainage hole or in soil that absorbs too much water, this may be what’s killing your plant.

Another problem to consider is the fertility of your cactus’ soil. Even if you have it planted in cactus-perfect dirt, it could be lacking the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and green. To combat any lack of nutrients in the soil, you should fertilize your cacti, though infrequently.

Additional Reasons for a Dying Cactus

You may be watering your cacti only when necessary, giving it adequate sunlight and proper soil and yet still have an issue with dying cacti. Here are a few additional reasons for a dying cactus that may have slipped your mind:

  • You’re not covering it in the winter. Some cacti don’t tolerate winter conditions and temperatures as well as other species and will need to be covered in burlap or in a flower house to prevent frostbite.
  • You’re watering your cactus in the winter. Cacti should not be watered in the winter, as this could result in them freezing internally. During the warmer months, cacti will store the necessary amounts of water needed to last through their dormant season.

Though there are cacti that can survive frigid temperatures, your average garden cactus likely will not (or will receive some damage in the process). Covering them and refraining from watering them whenever the temperature drops will help them to endure the colder months better.

How to Properly Care for a Cactus

Now that you’ve found out the possible culprits behind your dying cactus, it’s time to take a look at how to care for your plant to keep it looking its best.

Watering

One of the best ways to prevent your cacti from dying is to properly water your plant once a month.

Cacti are incredibly hardy plants and will store water in their cells to prepare for drought or their dormant season (the winter). In most areas throughout the United States, rainfall is enough to keep an outdoor cactus adequately moist and healthy.

However, if you’re experiencing a particularly rough drought or your cactus is indoors, it’s recommended that you water your cactus once a month. If the soil still looks moist when the next watering cycle comes around, wait another week before watering.

Watering in the winter is something that shouldn’t be done unless you’re in an area where winters don’t drop below the mid-60s degrees Fahrenheit. If your winters are practically none, you should still water your cactus less than you would during the warmer months — only about once or twice during the winter, depending on the temperatures.

How to Water Cacti

Though there are a few jungle varieties of cacti, in general, cacti are desert plants. Rather than receiving their water from spritzes of humidity or constant rainfall, a cactus’s roots deeply penetrate the soil to reach the remaining water from the last rainfall and stores as much as possible until the next rain shower.

Because cacti aren’t native to areas with high humidity, watering your cactus with a fine mist or by pouring water directly on its stem will dull the appearance of your cacti, and eventually, lead to surface rot. Instead, you should either apply water directly to the soil (taking care not to water the base of the plant directly) or set your potted cactus in a saucer of water so that its roots can reach and water themselves. Be sure to take the cactus out of the saucer once the soil is dampened.

When watering the soil directly, you should use a slow-moving stream, such as a garden hose turned on low, and water deep enough so that it begins draining from the pot.

Sunlight Requirements

Typically, cacti need an average of 4-6 hours to be exposed to sunlight.

Though the amount, and type, of sunlight a cactus needs varies from species to species, most cacti will need about 4 to 6 hours of sunlight per day. Remember to check the light requirements for your particular plant, as some species will need full sun, part sun, or minimal sun each day.

If your cactus isn’t receiving the proper amount of sunlight, it will begin to display signs of weakness and discolorations such as:

  • Paleness or other discoloration
  • Stems begin to stretch out to reach more light
  • Cactus isn’t blooming or producing fruits in season
  • Branches become weak or squishy
  • Hairs look dull or browned

On the other hand, a cactus that receives adequate light will:

  • Be a vibrant deep green
  • May produce colorful flowers and fruit
  • Have visually strong stems, needles, or hairs

Placing your indoor cactus in a south-facing window will ensure that it receives enough light during the day. Most cacti will not need direct sunlight and can thrive on indirect light, so just as long as the window is receiving bright, indirect light, your cactus should do well.

As for outdoor cacti, it’s best to plant them in an area that is shielded from intense, direct sunlight at the hottest hours of the day. For example, plant your cactus in an area that is shaded around noon, but receives around 6 hours of sunlight in the afternoon and evening.

The Effects of Too Much Sun

If you place your cactus in an area that receives too much sun, especially the direct sun, you risk sunburn damage to your plant. Sunburn in cactus manifests itself in brown or yellow spots on the pads of the cactus and will also lead to a dried appearance if the problem isn’t remedied.

An excellent way to combat the effects of sunburn is simply by moving your cactus to another area or by planting taller, thicker plants, such as desert shrubs, next to the cactus to block any harsh sunlight. You’ll want to act swiftly, though, because sunburn in cacti happens rapidly and will end in an unfortunate demise for your plant if nothing is done.

Soil Conditions

You might want to choose sandy or gravelly soil for your cactus to grow in a soil that drains well.

Because cacti were created to retain water for extended periods, they also suck any moisture up quickly and won’t need to have wet soil to stay healthy. In fact, moist soil will actually cause root rot in cacti, so it’s essential to plant your cactus in a soil that drains well to avoid any health issues.

Sandy or gravelly soil is best and is especially useful for seasons where rain is frequent or abundant. This is because well-drained soil allows any excess moisture that may be provided to your cactus to move away from the roots, protecting them from pooling and rot. You can either find a premade cactus soil online or at your local plant nursery or substitute ⅓ of your regular potting soil with sand to create the ideal soil for cacti.

The Best Soil for Cacti

Our favorite cactus potting mix is the Hoffman 10404 Organic Cactus and Succulent Soil Mix. It’s formulated with both jungle cacti (like Christmas Cactus) and desert cacti in mind, providing the proper drainage to allow your cactus to get adequate water without puddling excess moisture at the roots.

It’s also organic, meaning that it’s a healthier formula not only for your cacti but also for the earth and your family. Lastly, it contains an abundance of nutrients to encourage growth, vibrant colors, and brilliant floral blooms in the spring and summer.

What We Like:

  • Affordable, even for those that may be on a budget
  • Formulated organically for a safer product
  • Contains a wide variety of nutrients to keep your cacti looking its best and prolong the life of your plant
  • Drains properly without stripping moisture from your cactus
  • Perfect for both desert and jungle species

Fertilizing Your Cactus

Cacti should be fertilized in the spring for them to store nutrients for winter months.

There is a time and place for everything, and that includes fertilizing your cactus. Cacti should be fertilized, but infrequently (only once every 2 to 4 weeks), and only in the spring when the plant is growing and preparing for the upcoming months of dormancy.

Fertilizing your cactus in the spring will help it to store essential nutrients to sustain itself whenever nutrients are scarce in the winter. You don’t want to fertilize your cactus during the harsher months of summer and winter because your plant’s primary focus during those times is to stay alive rather than grow.

The Best Plant Food for Cacti

Of course, you should always opt for a fertilizer that is formulated especially for succulents and cacti. We suggest the Miracle-Gro Succulent Plant Food for indoor cacti. It’s very affordable for all gardeners (even the budget-conscious) and works well to provide instant nutrients to your plants.

This fertilizer is a liquid and comes in an easy-to-use pump bottle. You can apply it directly to the soil or mix it with water the next time you water your cactus to give it an additional boost. It’s recommended that you use this fertilizer once every two weeks for cacti that have been relocated to a new area of your yard, repotted, or brought indoors after being purchased.

Once your cactus plant is established in its new home, you can lengthen the amount of time between fertilizing to 4 weeks or a month. Take special care not to apply this fertilizer directly to the cactus, as it will cause chemical burns on the pads.

What We Like:

  • Affordable, lasting fertilizer
  • Perfect for both new and established cacti
  • Only needs to be applied every 2 to 4 weeks for best results
  • Encourages rapid, but healthy, growth and blooms if applicable to your cactus species
  • Simple, pump-action bottle
  • Can be applied directly to the soil or mixed with water
  • Instantly provides top-notch nutrients to the soil for the cactus’s roots to absorb

Overall, the Miracle-Gro formula for cacti is an excellent option for potted cacti or outdoor cacti that aren’t receiving the nutrients they need from the soil.

Maintaining Cacti During the Cold Months

No matter how well you care for your cactus during the spring and summer, when winter strikes, it can be a death sentence for many cacti species. Though there are cacti that can withstand temperatures sometimes as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit, the majority of cactus species on the market for home gardening can only survive down to freezing — and for very short periods.

It’s essential to take the necessary precautions before winter rolls around to prevent frostbite or potential withering of your cactus. Care (watering, light, and temperature) for your cactus also changes slightly from care during the rest of the year.

In the next few sections, you will learn how to care for your indoor and outdoor cacti in the winter.

Caring for Your Indoor Cactus

Winter is the dormant season for cacti, meaning their processes naturally slow to keep them from expending energy and nutrients during the harsh season. Indoor cacti have the advantage of not being directly exposed to outdoor elements. However, with the decrease in light and increase in the frigid temperatures, there is some improvising involved in its care.

General Tips:

  • If your cactus isn’t getting 4 to 6 hours of sunlight during the winter,try using a grow light to supplement the lack of sun it’s getting.
  • Keep watering your indoor cactus regularly. Watering during the winter should be as often as you do around the year (about once a month).
  • The indoor temperature should be a warm, comfortable 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold spells can kill a cactus, so keep the temperature of your home consistent.
  • If your cactus is by a frequently-used door to the outside, move it. Once again, cold bursts of air can potentially harm your cactus. It’s best to move it as far away from the chilly outside world as possible.
  • If your cactus usually sits close to a window, move it a little farther away. Glass gets chilly, and having your cactus too close to a window can make your plant colder than it needs to be.
  • When you water your cactus, use room-temperature water rather than cold water from the tap.

Caring for Your Outdoor Cactus

Because your outdoor cactus is in direct contact with the icy elements, there will be a bit more work to do on your part to keep it from too much exposure. Frigid winds can lead to frostbite in exposed cacti, and too much snow can lead to both surface and root rot once it begins to melt.

General Tips:

  • Cover your cactus in burlap sacks. The burlap sacks are porous enough to allow sunlight to come through, but thick enough to keep some heat in and protect the cactus from snow, ice, and wind.
  • If your winters are particularly harsh, consider a plant house. Pop up greenhouses, like this flower house, help to increase the temperature around the cactus and protect from winter elements without blocking sunlight.
  • Do not water your cactus. Watering an outdoor cactus during the winter will almost certainly kill it because of the water freezing inside of the cactus. Instead, water consistently during the months leading up to winter so that your cactus has enough stored in its cells to survive.
  • If your winters aren’t too bad and you have a large, potted outdoor cactus, you can move it to a covered deck to block it from the wind and snow.

The Toughest Cacti Species for Forgetful Gardeners

If your thumb just doesn’t turn green no matter how hard you try, the following hard-to-kill cactus plants may be the perfect choice for giving you a lively indoor or outdoor garden — with as little effort as possible on your part.

1.   Barrel Cactus

Barrel Cactus can handle direct sunlight for up to 8 hours and does not require fertilizing at all.

One of the most popular cacti species among desert gardeners, the Barrel Cactus, is hardy and cute. This Mexican desert-native can endure winters of mild frost and scorching temperatures. Their sizes can vary and can either sit low to the ground or grow as tall as 10 feet and 3 feet wide.

They do well both indoors and outdoors and can withstand direct sunlight for upwards of 6 to 8 hours. They won’t need to be watered, but once every 3 to 4 weeks if indoors and, if outdoors, rainfall will keep this beautiful cactus going with no problems whatsoever (in most North American regions). Sufficient water in the spring will result in a large yellow flower.

Barrel Cactus also won’t need any fertilization, as they naturally grow in low-fertile areas. If you want to keep it looking vibrant, you can fertilize it once a year during the spring.

2.   Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear is a fruit-bearing cactus, which blooms in the spring and summer.

Found in all of the deserts of the American SouthWest, Prickly Pear has adapted to survive harsh summers, and some varieties have even adapted to withstand the cold of winters further north (as low as -35 degrees Fahrenheit!). 

These cacti are a fantastic option for an outdoor garden because they:

  • Do well in full, direct sun
  • Only need watering when the soil is dry and rainfall is infrequent
  • Can grow several feet wide and tall over time

In the spring and summer, with enough rainfall, Prickly Pear Cactus will bloom bright yellow flowers and, later on, edible fruits.

3.   Chollas

Chollas is a SouthWest American desert native cactus that:

  • is drought-resistant
  • can withstand temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit
  • is tolerant of full sun conditions
  • has moderate watering needs and little overall care requirements

Chollas is probably one of the toughest cacti on the market and won’t need to be watered often. Too much water is the problem this cactus species faces the most, as they’re incredibly prone to root rot. Watering only whenever droughts are persistent is all that’s needed for Chollas if they’re outdoors.

While you can have chollas indoors, it is strongly advised against, as its tiny, thin, and clustered barbs are prone to sticking to anything and everything and are extremely painful to remove, digging deeper into the skin with every tug. It is recommended that you plant these tall-growing plants away from your home or at the rear of a desert garden.

4.   Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro is a long-lasting cactus growing about 30 feet in height, which can handle even harsh conditions.

One of the longest-living cactus species in the world, the Saguaro Cactus, is said to live as long (or longer) than people do. Some are even as old as an estimated 200 years! This cactus is as tough as they come and can withstand drought and hours of direct, hot sunlight.

Rainfall is more than enough to keep this cactus thriving, as it has such a large capacity for water storage — enough to allow it to bloom creamy white flowers every year, regardless of the amount of rainfall during the rainy season.

Though slow-growing, these cacti have the potential of reaching 30 feet in height and several feet in diameter, so it’s best to plant them outdoors in an area that is well-drained and receives a lot of light.

5.   Pencil Plant

Native to African deserts, the Pencil Plant is no stranger to high heat and harsh conditions. When water is plenty, they’re green in color, but when lacking water, turn a bright coral color. It’s not at all uncommon for gardeners to purposefully restrict water from their Pencil Plants to achieve these brilliant colors, and this cactus does perfectly well without the abundance.

Rainfall is generally enough for this cactus. However, you can water it once a month if the summers are too hot. Plant in an area that receives partial to full sun.

Final Thoughts

When a cactus begins dying, it comes down to basic care. Cacti are such resilient plants that it’s practically impossible to kill them unless you’re merely caring for them too much. Overwatering is one of the most common mistakes new gardeners make with these desert plants, as root rot is an actual reality with these species. Take care to provide your cactus with adequate sunlight, water only when necessary, and keep it out of direct cold elements.

Some species require more care than others. If you find yourself unable to care for your cactus correctly, consider purchasing one of the previously mentioned species. Cacti like Saguaro Cactus don’t require much upkeep and can live in an arid environment for decades.

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