Cacti have become increasingly popular plants among garden enthusiasts throughout recent years. But when you move a desert-native to an area with frigid winter landscapes, keeping these prickly plant companions healthy can seem like an impossible task. Luckily, there are ways in which you can help your cactus thrive, even when the weather outside is more frightful than it is delightful.
So, how do you care for cactus in the winter? How you care for a cactus in the winter varies, depending on if they’re indoors or outdoors. For indoor cacti, you’ll need to maintain a comfortable temperature, water about once a month, and allow adequate sunlight. Outdoor cacti need to be watered less and covered with burlap to protect them from the cold.
In this article, we’ll review how to prepare cacti for winter weather and how to care for indoor and outdoor cacti during the season. We will also be providing you with a few suggestions on winter-tolerant cactus species that may be better adjusted to your area’s winter temperatures.
Preparing Your Cactus Before Winter Arrives
First things first: your cactus should be well-equipped to deal with winter before it strikes. A cactus that is overall unhealthy before the cold comes will undoubtedly be worse off when it finally hits.
Here are a couple of ways that you can ensure that the odds are in your cactus’ favor this winter:
- Plant your cactus in a nutrient-dense, sandy soil to allow for proper water drainage. You can supplement regular potting mix with ⅓ sand to make the dirt more favorable for your cactus. Or, you can purchase a soil tailored to the needs of cacti, like the Hoffman Organic Cactus and Succulent Soil Mix. This mix is specially crafted for both jungle and desert cacti and is organically made, making it better for your cactus and the earth.
- A few months before winter strikes, fertilize your cactus with a fertilizer that contains nutrients such as minerals. A 10-10-10 fertilizer, like this Lilly Miller All Purpose Planting And Growing Food, will give your cactus that extra oomph as it prepares for the upcoming cold weather.
Taking especially good care of your cactus (or cacti) during the times when the weather is dandy will help your cactus better prepare itself for any potential damage that may come from being dormant in winter.
How to Care for Indoor Cactus in the Winter
Caring for cacti indoors is worlds easier in the winter than caring for them whenever they’re planted outside. This is because your home’s temperature can be easily adjusted to the liking of your plant, and where there is a lack of sunlight, you can supplement with a grow light.
The following steps will help you to maintain your indoor cactus during the colder months:
The amount of water your cactus will need differs from species to species, but as a general rule of thumb, you should only water your indoor cactus once a month during the winter. With indoor cacti, watering is “business as usual,” so however much you water your cactus in the warmer seasons is exactly how much you should be watering it during the cooler seasons.
- Avoid overwatering your cactus. When it comes to moisture, less is more. Too much water can lead to root rot in cacti.
- Ensure that your cactus is draining water properly. While overwatering can be a cactus-killer, so can poor drainage. Use a sandy soil in your cactus pots to encourage drainage.
Double-check the water requirements for your specific cactus plant if you’re unsure of how often you should be watering it.
2. Temperature Control
The average indoor temperature of a home is generally perfect for maintaining a cactus plant. Anywhere between 65- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for most cactus species and will prevent the outdoor temperatures from having too much of an influence on your cactus if it’s close to a window or glass door.
Temperature Control Tips
- Take care not to fluctuate the temperatures in your home dramatically. Maintaining a consistent temperature is best for keeping cacti healthy in the winter.
- Be sure that the area your cactus is in isn’t exposed to freezing drafts. Cacti will go dormant during the colder months whenever temperatures drop below approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Any lower could possibly even kill your cactus.
If your cactus is placed near a frequently used door to the outside, it may be best to move it to a different location until the weather begins to warm. Even if the overall temperature in your home is consistent, frequent exposure to freezing temperatures isn’t ideal.
3. Sunlight Exposure
During the winter, the sun is less beneficial for everyone involved: people get sick with more colds and flu due to the lack of Vitamin D, and cacti become dormant, colorless, and droopy.
As with watering, the amount of sunlight your cactus will need depends on its species. Some cacti will only require 4 hours of sunlight to be happy, while others will need between 6 to 8 hours. Find an area of your home that receives the most sunlight and place your cactus plant there (preferably a little way from the window itself).
Sunlight Exposure Tip
To supplement the light your cactus may be lacking, try using a grow light. Grow lights, like the KINGBO 5000Lux Led Grow Light, will provide your cactus with any light that it misses throughout the day. It could also provide additional warmth to a cactus in homes that get chillier during the winter nights.
Remember that while sufficient sunlight is necessary for a healthy cactus, too much light can be harmful, leading to spine discoloration, an unattractive texture in furred cacti, and overall wilting and sunburn. If you’re unsure as to how much light your cactus will need during the winter, refer back to its species information.
How to Care for Outdoor Cactus in the Winter
When it comes to caring for outdoor cacti in the winter, the process can be a tad trickier. Depending on the species of your cacti, some may tolerate colder temperatures, and others may die off completely without your added care. In general, you’ll want to water your outdoor cactus less in the winter than you do during the warmer months, and you’ll also need to provide the proper protection from freezing winds (as this could lead to frostbite).
Consider the following steps to keeping your outdoor cactus safe and secure during the winter season:
1. Watering Your Outdoor Cactus
Though cacti are usually watered about once each month, during the winter, you may not need to water your outdoor cactus at all.
This is because, during the winter, it’s best just to let nature run its course and water the plants whenever need be. Melting snow can provide your cacti with adequate water, thus making your added watering efforts void. Additionally, if you decide to water your cacti during the winter (and the temperatures are freezing—or will get there), this could result in freezing the cactus internally and killing it.
Outdoor cacti that have been growing in your yard are likely acclimated to the seasons and, before winter strikes, will begin preparing for the upcoming coldness by storing the water they need.
2. Preventing Runoff
If your cactus is planted in a particularly low area of your yard, you may want to consider taking measures to revert water (namely, melted snow) away from your plants. Excess water—near-freezing water—is a death sentence for cacti.
If your cactus is potted, you can solve runoff problems simply by relocating your cactus to another area of your property. An excellent place to set an outdoor, potted cactus is on a covered patio or woodshed. Moving a cactus to these areas could also block biting winds.
On the other hand, if your cactus is planted in the ground, you could consider adding an attractive and efficient landscaping feature, such as a dry riverbed, around the surrounding area. The sunken ground and spaces between the rocks will encourage any melted snow runoff to disperse away from your cacti. You could also consider placing a water drain in your yard that leads to the road.
3. Protecting Outdoor Cacti from the Elements
Cacti won’t need protection so much from a little snowfall here and there—it’s the nipping winds and cold and dryness that can lead to frostbitten plants.
To prevent your outdoor cactus (no matter if it’s potted or planted in the ground) from becoming frostbitten, gently cover it with burlap. Burlap is porous enough to allow cacti to breathe but sturdy enough to keep ice and strong winds from negatively impacting your cactus.
If you’re especially worried about the elements harming your cacti, you can place a flower house, like this one, over them. Flower houses are relatively affordable and will somewhat maintain a tolerable temperature for your cactus while it protects it from the harshest outdoor elements.
Choosing Cacti That Tolerate the Cold
While you can take measures to protect your cactus plants from the cold, some species of cactus are simply too sensitive to freezing temperatures to survive. If you live in a region that sees snowy winters or chilly temperatures frequently, it’s in your best interest to raise hardy cacti.
In the next few sections, we’ll be discussing a few of our favorite low temperature-tolerant cacti.
Able to withstand temperatures as low as -35 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s safe to say that the Brittle Prickly Pear cactus could last throughout winters practically all over North America.
This gorgeous cactus can bloom vibrant, 2-inch, yellow flowers during the spring and summer. However, blooming can be iffy, as some plants only bloom once a year (or once every other year), while some don’t even bloom at all. The spikes on the Brittle Prickly Pear are no laughing matter, as they can grow up to an inch long and are generally in clusters. These plants can grow quite large, spanning multiple feet wide and tall, making them suitable for outdoor use.
In general, the Brittle Prickly Pear is a beautiful option that would fare well in large gardens that receive yearly doses of dramatically dropping temperatures.
Short and stout, the Pincushion cactus may be small and cute, but it is mighty.
Sitting low to the ground at approximately 5 inches tall, and only reaching about 2 to 8 inches in diameter, the round cluster of cacti known as the Pincushion or Spinystar can withstand temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s very well adapted to the climates of multiple regions and can be found naturally from Mexico to Canada. Remarkably, the Pincushion Cactus is one cactus species out of only four that can tolerate the climates found in Canada.
Hundreds of spines are clustered over the entirety of these little cacti, and, during the late spring and summer, flashy pink blooms can be seen atop the plant. Later in the season, the Pincushion Cactus will develop green fruits.
Known for its glorious 3-inch red blooms that span across the entirety of the plant, the Kingcup Cactus is nothing short of what you would expect from a self-proclaimed royal. During the spring and summer months, this cactus is adorned in vibrant colors, and the body of this cactus spans multiple feet (around 4) across, though it stays relatively low to the ground. Following the orange-red blooms are bright red fruits.
These cacti can tolerate temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit and do best when they’re hugging up against taller plants.
Withstanding temperatures that drop into the negatives, the Eastern Prickly Pear is a hardy cactus plant that will last throughout the winters to see the next spring. Interestingly enough, these cacti actually contain anti-freeze chemicals within their cells to prevent them from dying off during the harsh winter months of northern and middle America.
These are mostly low-lying cacti that generally spread further outwards than they do upwards. Eastern Prickly Pear will only grow a little over a foot tall on average and are usually found in large clusters across the United States. However, in the hotter southern states, these cacti have been known to grow as tall as 6 to 7 feet, appearing more shrub-like.
During the late spring and early summer months, Easter Prickly Pear will boast yellow flowers at the ends of their pads, with some flowers displaying a deep orange ring in the innermost part of the petals.
Growing in wiry, long, cylindrical bristles, Chollas (a Mexican native) can endure temperatures reaching lows of approximately -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Chollas extends upwards as they grow, rather than along the ground, and will branch out the taller they get. Generally, Chollas will not extend past 10 feet tall.
Thousands of thin spines cluster tightly on the branches, insomuch that you often won’t be able to see the green coloring of the cactus’ skin underneath.
Warning: these cactus plants have the potential of being extremely dangerous to children and pets. Their spines are readily available to stick to anyone or anything that ever-so-slightly brushes against it, and trying to remove these thin spines is a painful process. It’s best to admire from a distance, as the barbs will even cling to hair, fur, and clothing.
The flowers that bloom late spring or early summer are cup-shaped and can come in a variety of colors. Though the flowers are most commonly yellow, colors can range from light green and orange to red tones.
Resembling the white beard of an older man, it’s no wonder that this cactus is labeled as the Old Man of the Andes. Able to withstand short periods of frost, the white hairs surrounding this cactus plant protect against cold winds.
Though this cactus will fare well in areas where winters aren’t as harsh, it may not survive temperatures far below freezing.
No matter if you’re trying to care for your indoor or outdoor cactus during the winter, it’s vital that you take the proper actions to strengthen and protect your cactus—not only when winter strikes but in the months leading up to it, as well. Keep in mind that, before winter rolls around, you should fertilize your cactus at least once (but not too often) to give it a boost of nutrients.
And, when Jack Frost begins nipping at your nose, ensure that your indoor cactus is in a room with a consistent temperature, adequate light (whether it be artificial or natural), and a good watering once a month. As for your outdoor cactus, don’t water it. And, if it isn’t so tolerant of the lower temperatures as the species we mentioned at the end of our article, consider covering it with burlap or a flower house to protect it from stinging winds and moisture.