Ultimate guide: how to pot (and repot) a cactus plant?

Potting and repotting are crucial parts of growing cactus since they ensure you maintain the ideal pot size at all times. As long as you follow the steps outlined in this guide, you can pot/repot your plant without a problem

Choosing the correct pot size and potting mix are only the first steps towards growing a cactus plant at home. Once you have everything ready, you will need to do the actual potting. Luckily, potting is a relatively straightforward process that shouldn’t give you problems.

So, how do you pot a cactus?  The process of potting a cactus plant starts with finding the right pot size and potting mix. Make sure the pot and soil have good drainage. Once you have the two, add sufficient drainage material at the bottom of your pot, fill it to about one-third with your potting material and start arranging your plants in the container. Hold the plant where you would like it to stay and fill out the spaces between the cactus and the pot with your potting material.  Firm the soil and you are good to go.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about potting/repotting your cactus plant, including how to choose the right pot size, how to knock out the plant, and how to handle spiny plants.

The Potting Mix/Medium (Soil)

You will need porous soil with excellent drainage. Cacti plants prefer porous soil that doesn’t hold water/moisture for a long time. The potting mix should also be spread over a deep layer of pebbles, gravel, or broken bricks to improve porosity.

Most cacti species appreciate more organic matter in the soil since it provides sufficient nutrients for your plant. Potting soil can either be “heavy,” “light” or “organic.”

Heavy potting mix is mainly made of clay, loam, or garden soil with about one-third humus. If you prefer using heavy soil, make sure it contains about one-third perlite or sand to improve drainage.

Light soil means it is mainly made of open-textured organic material with good drainage. The soil can stay moist for relatively long periods but not wet. This type of potting mix is good for jungle cactus.

Organic soil is rich in leaf mold or any other organic matter. Mixing this type of soil with perlite or coarse builder’s sand will help improve its drainage.

A soil on the gravel.
Cacti plants prefer porous soil that doesn’t hold water/moisture for a long time

The Pot Size

The overall pot size will largely depend on the size of your plant and the nature of its roots. Generally, we recommend using a pot that is about 0.5 inches bigger than the plant. The container doesn’t need to be tall/deep because most cacti plants develop a shallow root system that doesn’t grow deep. Therefore, you will want to make sure the pot is wider and not deeper.

However, a few cacti species grow a taproot that provides the plants with strong anchorage and also absorbs moisture from deep below the surface. If you have this type of plant, make sure you go for a relatively deep/ tall pot.

For relatively younger cacti plants, feel free to start by keeping them in a garden dish. The clay trays used for bonsai are always a good start. Once the plant starts to grow bigger, consider transplanting it into a pot.

Make sure you aren’t over-potting because it can lead to root rot. If the cactus is top-heavy, make sure you put the smaller pot inside a large pot and fill the space between the two with gravel to improve drainage. This arrangement will provide your cactus with a base that is heavy enough without running the risk of root rot.

A clay pot.
We recommend using a pot that is about 0.5 inches bigger than the plant

Potting a Cactus Plant

Now that you have the right pot size and good potting mix, it is time to do the actual potting. Follow these steps to pot your plant:

1. Add gravel to your potting mix

Carefully spread a layer of gravel or small pebbles in the bottom of your pot. Top it up with some potting mix designed for your cactus. Make sure the mixture rises to about one-third of your container.

The primary reason why we are adding pebbles/gravel to the potting mix is to improve drainage and soil porosity. Keep in mind that ordinary potting mixes tend to hold too much water for long periods, which is not good for your plant.

2. Remove the cactus from the nursery pot

In most cases, you will purchase the plant when it is already potted in some kind of container.  Therefore, you will need to know how to remove it from that container. This might be the trickiest part since it requires great care.

Slip on a pair of heavy gloves to protect your hands and use a pair of tongs to ease out the cactus from the pot carefully.  If the plant clings to the nursery pot, be sure to give it a few light raps against a wall or any other hard surface or simply slide a blunt knife/fork around the inner rim.

If that doesn’t work, you may be forced to break the container altogether. Make sure you put on a protective eye gear before you smash the container.

3. Test the plant size

Once you have filled the container with gravel and potting mix to about one-third full, test the plant size to see if you are good to go. Make sure the plant isn’t too far down in the container nor too high above the top of the pot. Also, center the plant unless it is the type that likes to travel in a horizontal direction, which should be potted on the edge of the container.

A small cactus on an orange pot.
Center the plant unless it is the type that likes to travel in a horizontal direction.

4. Position the plant where you want to be in the pot

Hold the plant gently where you would like it to stay and fill all the spaces between the cactus and the container with a potting mix.

5. Firm the soil

Once your plant is in a good position, use a spoon, small trowel, or any other tool to add more potting mix while gently firming it down. Press the soil gently down, especially around the roots, and if you feel like there isn’t enough soil around the plant, feel free to add more.

However, be sure to leave sufficient space between the soil surface and the top of your container so you will have room for water.

6. First watering

Lightly water your cactus for a few minutes. From there, wait for a few days until the soil dries out completely before you water again. Remember the fact that if you overwater the plant, it may start to rot and eventually die.

A water container beside the cactus on the pot.
Lightly water your cactus, wait for a few days until the soil dries out completely before you water again

Repotting a Cactus Plant

Repotting is an inevitable exercise in the life of a cactus plant. Since your plant is always growing, it will eventually outgrow its first pot, and you will be forced to repot it in a bigger container. Typically, your cactus will require potting every 2-4 years. Here are a few things you need to know about repotting:

When do you need to repot a Cactus?

You will know it is time to repot your cactus when you start seeing roots come out of the bottom of the container. This is a sign of overgrown roots.

Although these succulents tend to enjoy small spaces and can stay in one container for several years, the sight of roots will let you know when the cactus has expanded too much and requires repotting.

As mentioned above, it will generally take you between two to four years to see signs of repotting. If you fertilize your cactus annually, repotting after every four years is appropriate, but if you do not fertilize regularly, consider repotting after every two years to help in replenishing soil fertility.

The best time to report your plant is between January and February when most plants are in active growth.

How to repot your cactus

To repot your cactus, you will need tea towels/sheets of newspaper, a blunt knife, slightly larger pot, free-draining potting mix, watering can, horticultural grit, and a fork. Follow these steps to repot your plant:

  1. Loosen up the potting mix by carefully running a blunt knife or any other suitable tool in it. Make sure you are thorough with this process to avoid damaging the plant.
  2. Carefully remove your cactus from the old pot. Be cautious to avoid coming into contact with the spines. Hard gloves or combined sheets of newspaper will help you avoid contact with the pricks. A pair of tongs can also work fine.
  3. Remove soil from the roots and make sure you have individual roots separated from each other
  4. Thoroughly check the roots for any signs of diseases or pests and treat with appropriate chemicals if need be
  5. Prune large roots
  6. Allow the cactus to dry out for up to four days to allow roots that might have been hurt enough time to heal to eliminate the risk of root rot.
  7. Follow the potting procedure described above to plant the cactus in the new pot. However, don’t water your plant immediately.  Give it up to a week after repotting before you water it. 
A top view of flowering cactus.
Typically, your cactus will require potting every 2-4 years

Final Thought

Potting and repotting are crucial parts of growing cactus at home since they ensure you maintain the ideal pot size at all times. As long as you follow the steps outlined in this guide, you can pot/repot your plant without a problem.

Thanks for reading our potting guide, and we hope you learned something new. Let us know if you have any tips or advice you feel like we didn’t share. Don’t forget to subscribe to our email list for awesome cactus gardening tips.

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