Adding plants to your home is a great way to get a fresh view and is a pastime that many absolutely love. One of the best plants that you can add to a home, both indoors or outdoors, is a cactus, which ranges vastly in size, shape, and even beauty. Of course, keeping your plants alive and well can become a challenge for many. This leads to the question many unfortunately have, which is:
How do you revive a dying cactus? Just like many other plants, cacti can run into several problems that lead to their early demise, but there are steps you can take to revive them, including:
- Fixing root rot
- Monitoring watering, temperature, and light
- Using new soil
- Set up a feeding schedule
While some plants may be difficult to revive even with proper steps and diligent effort, most can be brought back to life with just some extra care. The remainder of this article will discuss several ways you can bring your dying cactus back to life.
10 Ways to Bring Back Your Dying Cactus
If your cactus is beginning to look less than beautiful, it is time to act and bring it back to life. Most plant owners put a lot of time and thought into their cacti, and it can be challenging to see them getting weaker. However, if you follow these easy steps and look for the common signs of distress, you have a great chance of saving your beloved plant.
1 – Look for and Fix Root Rot
One of the most common issues that cacti suffer from is root rot, which can be commonly diagnosed and luckily is not impossible to fix. If you notice that your cactus has discoloration, shakiness, or mushy roots, you are probably dealing with a case of root rot. You may also see that the plant is beginning to turn a brown or black color.
Cacti have a wide and shallow root system, which is great for maximizing water collection but can be a challenge if they are constricted within a smaller pot space. When you combine a small pot, too much water, compacted roots, and/or a poor drainage system, it is easy for root rot to develop. You may notice that the issue is primarily near the base of the cactus and not the root itself, but it can quickly take over the plant if not dealt with.
When you notice your plant has begun to suffer from root rot, you want to act quickly to get rid of the problem. If you recognize that it is a problem before it gets too extensive, you can handle the issue, and the plant should bounce back quickly. The basic ways to deal with root rot are:
- Remove the plant from the pot that it is in and check to see the full condition of the roots. Allow the plant to dry and heal out of the soil before repotting it in a clean container with a fresh potting medium. You will want to wear protective gloves when dealing with these pokey plants or wrap them in a newspaper to avoid the spines.
- Many cacti respond well to excising any diseased tissue that you may notice. This can be a problem if the rot has gone too far, so you will want to approach this with caution. However, you can take a sharp and sterile knife and dig out the damaged flesh. You will need to allow any holes to dry out before repotting; do not water the wound as it closes.
- If the roots are covered in rot, you will want to wash the roots well and replant in sterile soil. However, if the root rot is excessive, your plant may be too far gone to save. While some plants do recover, it can be a major challenge.
- Another option that you may want to take into consideration when it comes to your cactus is that you can grow a new plant with your dying plant’s cuttings. You can take cuttings from the plant and allow them to callus over for a few days before inserting it into the medium. The cutting will begin to root, and a new, healthy cactus will grow from your dying plant.
2 – Monitor Your Watering
If you begin to inspect your plant’s roots and you do not think the rot is the problem or if you notice the rot is not too severe, it could be an issue with watering the plant. Too much water can be just as damaging as not enough water when it comes to many types of cacti. Since these are desert plants, you want to use less water rather than more.
There are two issues that arise from watering frequency: you could either be underwatering or overwatering the plant, and you will want to do your best to remedy these problems.
Under-watering Your Cactus
While your cactus does not need an abundance of water, you do need to give it water regularly for proper growth to take place. You will notice that the plant begins to pucker or shrivel, maybe even becoming brown, dry, or callused from lack of water.
If you notice that your plant looks dehydrated, you can simply give it a good watering and continue watering it regularly, which should lead to a restored and growing plant.
Overwatering Your Plant
If you notice that your plant is becoming mushy, it may be because you are overwatering the plant, and this can even lead to root rot. The problem that many plants have is not the amount of water you are giving them but simply that they cannot drain the water off properly. You will want to start by lowering the amount of water you give the plant and how frequently you do so. If this does not help, seek other action.
Your plant may be holding too much water because of the pot that it is currently in as well. You will want to find a pot that is slightly larger than the cactus and repot it using a classic cactus mix. A clay pot is a great choice for this as it can wick away moisture quickly, and the fresh mix should help with the process.
3 – Offer Your Cactus a New Home
Your cactus may begin looking a little weak because it is time to get a new pot for the plant. A common reason that many growers need to repot their cactus is because it needs a larger growing space. Like most plants, a cactus will eventually outgrow the container that it is in, and the roots will become overly crowded and compacted.
If you are not providing your plant enough space to grow, it will begin to experience stunted growth, which can lead to death. If you notice that your plant has:
- Begun to fill the container
- Noticeably crowded roots (roots growing out of drainage holes or above soil levels)
- Water running right through the container
- Leaves that look unhealthy
It is time to repot. You will want to move your plant up to the next larger container size and allow the roots to spread.
When choosing your pot and repotting the plant, you will want to keep a few things in mind:
- Make sure that you always thoroughly disinfect the new pot with one-part bleach and one-part water. This cuts down on any bacteria that may be present and provides your plant with a safe new start.
- Find a pot that fits the size of your cactus. You do not want to pick a pot that is too small or the same size as your current pot; instead, pick one that is a little larger. This will give your plant room to grow and will still be stable enough to support it.
- If you do choose a pot that is too large, it can lead to even more issues. These pots have too much excess soil and can hold too much water, leading to the issues mentioned previously.
4 – Try a New Soil
Whether your original intentions were to repot your plant or not, changing soil can be a good way to revive your plant. If you are dealing with overwatering issues, small pots, or simply cannot find the true cause of your cactus’ issues, you may want to try new soil. Often, the reason why root rot or other similar issues arise is that there is a member of the water mold known as Phytophthora spp present.
This rot is common in soil that has adequate moisture, which can happen from overwatering or from lowered drainage. If you notice root rot, it is because these pathogens are in the current soil, so replacing the soil is key. Also, some potting mixes are too heavy and can hold more water than most cacti will need.
If you are repotting your plant, you will want to change to a lighter, more porous potting soil. Most classic cacti mixes work well for this and are readily available on the market today. These blends are often resistant to the pathogens that cause root rot and are great at draining or absorbing any excess water.
5 – Check for Mealybugs
Just like many other plant species, the cactus is no stranger to invasive bug species. Mealybugs, in particular, will suck the sap from the cactus plant, also known as phloem, which can lead to its demise. When they attack your plant, they will reduce its vigor. The bugs also excrete sticky honeydew and wax, reducing plant quality.
If you notice mealybugs present near your plant, you will want to act. Higher populations of these bugs can feed on the foliage or stem of the cactus and greatly inhibit growth. While most healthy plants can handle a small population of the bug, almost no plant can withstand large numbers.
Many have found that cacti are more vulnerable to the bugs because they have a year-round mild temperature, which encourages bug population growth. Also, if you have an indoor cactus that attracts mealybugs, they do not have any natural predators ridding them from the area. You will want to monitor the plant regularly for the bug and take action should you see them.
Of course, there are some chemical ways that you can get rid of the bugs, but there are also many natural remedies. Some simple DIY ways to lower the mealybug population are:
- Use a cotton swab with denatured alcohol that you can dab the bugs with, which will kill them. However, note that this treatment requires you to repeat it often until the bugs are all removed from the plant. Make sure to check every few weeks for new bugs.
- You can use a fumigating smoke cone regularly to cut down on bug numbers.
- You can spray the cactus with a few drops of dish soap that has been diluted into one cup of water. This is an easy way to kill the bugs effectively. This treatment may also need to be repeated often for full effectiveness.
6 – Set Up a Good Feeding Schedule
A big problem that many cactus owners run into is that their plant is lacking proper nutrition. While many cacti can grow and thrive without any fertilizing, adding this extra nutrition can help them get healthier and more colorful. This makes it extremely important for you to feed your cactus with a recommended fertilizer at a regular frequency.
Ideally, you will want to feed the plant every two weeks with a complete cactus fertilizer from spring through early fall. During the fall and winter months, feed the cactus around once a month. If you are not great at keeping up with a schedule, aim for once every few months or even once a year after the plant is growing properly.
You want to ensure that you are not over-fertilizing the plant, which can lead to just as many growth issues as lacking nutrition. If you notice that your cactus’ leaves are getting soft, feel like they are made of cloth, or are even turning brown, it can mean you are feeding the plant too much. You will want to make sure that you are always following the packaging instructions when feeding your plant. If you are ever questioning yourself, opt for feeding it less instead of more.
Of course, the amount of fertilizer used for feeding is just as important as the type of fertilizer that you offer the plant. Since cacti are not heavy feeders, you want to dilute any fertilizer that you offer them to half or even a quarter strength. Too much concentration of fertilizer may lead to root rot for your plant.
Some important things to remember when it comes to finding and using fertilizer are:
- Look for different ratio formulas to find one that fits your plant’s needs. You can use a blend of 10% nitrogen, 10% phosphorous, and 10% potassium. You can also use a lower, balanced solution that is a 5-10-5 ratio. The main thing you want to look out for is too much nitrogen, which can become a problem.
- Once you find a good fertilizer, you will want to mix as the bottle states. For example, if it says to mix one tablespoon fertilizer with one-gallon water, you will want closely follow this and even drop the fertilizer level down by ½ for healthy plants.
- If you are growing a cacti species that is more of a tropical breed, you will want to reduce the fertilizer even more at ¼ the ratio. A common tropical species is the Christmas Cactus.
- After feeding your cactus, you will want to move the plant into the sunlight. Removing them from the shade helps the plant utilize the fertilizer properly and enhances growth. Of course, limit the level of light and high temperatures as you would normally.
7 – Ensure You Are Offering Proper Light
If your plant is not receiving the proper amount of light, it can become floppy, pale, and shed its leaves. This lack of light is almost guaranteed to lead to the death of your plant. If your plant is growing, but you notice that the new growth is pale or more flimsy than normal, light could be your issue.
Of course, there are plenty of ways that you can offer your plant light if a lack of it is a problem. Some ways to increase light exposure for your plant are:
- Move it to a windowsill for temporary natural lighting.
- Move it closer to the light source, whether this is natural or artificial.
- Pick up a quality artificial light source if you live somewhere with increasingly darker days. LED bulbs or grow lights are relatively inexpensive and a great way to increase the light exposure for your plant.
While not enough light can be an issue for your cactus, having too much light can also be a major problem. If your plant is getting more light exposure than needed, it can lead to an issue called cactus corking. This is when a firm, brown, or even a tissue that resembles bark can develop just above the soil on a healthy plant.
This is part of the natural aging process of most plants and often starts at the base of the cactus, moving upward. If you notice that your cactus is turning brown from the top down, this is a clear sign that your plant has too much sun. Just like humans, your cactus can get sunburn with extended exposure.
If your plant is experiencing mild sunburn, it can begin as a whitish discoloration that is at the top of the plant or on the side that is facing the sun. Severe burns will appear similar to corking, with hard brown scabs on the surface. If your cactus has reached the point of having these scabs, it is permanently damaged.
To allow your plant time to heal from small burns or to stop it from getting more extensive damage, you will want to move it into the shade. While cacti grow in the desert, they are not accustomed to a large amount of sunlight, and many are used to never experiencing full sun all day. You will want to acclimate the plant to extended sun exposure slowly or simply limit the level of light that the plant gets daily.
8 – Monitor the Temperature
While most cacti do grow in warmer weather environments, this is not always the case, and they need regular temperature variations. One sign that they are having health issues is because they are not blooming properly. This may be due to the level of light that they are getting, or it could be due to the temperature at which you keep them.
Most cacti do need warm weather to survive, but it is important to remember that this ideal temperature should be between 65 degrees and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. However, during the cooler dormant months, you will want to lower these temperatures for proper growth. These dormant month temperatures should be closer to 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
For most cactus plants, flowers will only form when the plant is between 50 and 55 degrees. While many cacti have adapted to living in higher humidity locations, they still will die if the humid habitats are too extreme. Also, if the temperatures are too low, you can kill the plant by allowing it to get too cool.
9 – Induce Plant Rooting
Many of our methods of saving your cactus involve repotting the plant or removing it from its current home. This can be dramatic for the cactus, and without proper rooting can lead to death. If you notice that the roots of your plant have been damaged from rot or excessive watering, you need to encourage new rooting in its new soil.
As mentioned in our first step involving root rot, you may need to cut away damaged tissue from the plant. This can lower the amount of roots present and makes growing new roots critical for survival. Luckily, cacti are some of the best plants at regenerating, with a whole cactus plant easily grown from a small portion of healthy tissue.
To properly induce new rooting, you can do a few extra steps before planting the cactus:
- Let the cactus dry out for several days until thick scabs form on the cut sections.
- Place the remaining cactus section into a pot with cactus soil or some other porous, quality soil that you know works well.
- Bury the cactus about one inch deep. If the only remaining tissue is quite small, simply bury it about halfway. You want to ensure a large amount is in the dirt, and some remain above the soil.
- Avoid overwatering the cactus, even stopping watering entirely for the first week.
- Once the first week has passed, you will want to water the plant sparingly and look for new growth to appear.
10 – Simply Leave it Alone
This final step to saving your cactus may seem like a silly one, but too often, it is the most effective. There are times when your plant may look a little weak or simply off to you, but it truly does not need your saving. It may simply be going through its normal die off and shredding of its buds phase.
If your plant is looking a little less than perfect, examine the vital areas and look for any signs that may be alarming. Take a glance at the roots, check for any bugs, and evaluate your normal care routine. If everything seems to check out, simply give your cactus a little break and let it take care of itself.
If you are concerned, give your plant a good drink of water and leave it be. Put the cactus in an area that gets a fair amount of sunlight, like a windowsill, and give it time to grow. You will want to revisit it now and then to water it again and give it a little checkup.
The best thing to do once you have diagnosed and hopefully repaired your plant is to establish a good routine that you can follow from here on out. Some basics to keep in mind are:
- Stop overwatering your plant. Only supply water to the cactus every couple of weeks, depending on the size and species of plant that you have. Research your specific cactus type, as well as keep a record of which watering schedule leads to quality growth.
- Supply your plant with a proper amount of sunlight and offer them cooler, dormant months as needed. Make sure to check for signs of sun damage or too much light, adjusting the plant accordingly.
- Give your plant a break to allow it to heal and grow. Most of these saving techniques can be quite traumatic, and most plants do well just being left alone and cared for as needed.