Basic Cactus Care

Contrary to popular belief, cactus care involves more than dribbling some water on it once in awhile. Although these plants are hardy, there are some simple steps you should follow to keep them healthy.

There are two main types of cactus: desert and jungle. Desert cacti are the spiny, rounded plants we remember from Road Runner cartoons. Jungle cacti are native to South and Central American rainforests, grow in the crooks of trees and have no spines.

Although cactus species have evolved in rugged environments, their needs are the same as other plants: soil, light, water and food.

The Cactus Mantra: Drainage, Drainage and More Drainage
Cactus plants require well-drained soil. Heavy or damp soil will quickly lead to root rot and a very unhappy plant. This means indoor plants should be in pots with several drainage holes. A thin layer of aquarium gravel mulch will keep the soil from eroding away from the roots.

Outdoor plants will benefit from a raised bed in areas with flat or questionable drainage.

A proper soil mix for most types of cactus is:

  • 1 part potting mix (avoid potting soil)
  • 1 part clean sand
  • 1 part coarse gravel or pumice

Learn not to Burn
Your cactus needs the brightest, most consistent source of light available. Cacti, like small children and fair-haired folks, are subject to sunburn. If your cactus develops yellow or (worst case) brown spots, it is becoming sunburned. Move it to an area that gets some shade.

Indoor cacti will benefit from being placed near a southern- or western-facing window. If your cactus turns pale green, it's telling you that its not getting enough light. Move it to a sunnier spot or provide extra light with a fluorescent or grow lamp.

Outdoor cactus plants will need a bit of afternoon shade, say from a fence, taller plant or large rock. In open areas, consider placing a cactus in an eastern- or northern-facing portion of the landscape.

It Rains in the Desert
In nature, most types of cactus get water in big gulps-or not at all. Desert rains tend to fall hard and fast but are often rare. The spines of desert cacti help the plant collect moisture, but low indoor humidity makes watering the main source of moisture for house cacti.

As a rule of thumb, you should only water the plant when the soil at the bottom of the pot is dry. Consider watering your cactus once a week (or less) from spring through fall, and then once a month during the winter.

The best way to decide when to water is to press a wooden dowel or chopstick deep into the soil. Leave the stick for 10 to 20 minutes. If the stick is wet or has damp soil stuck to it, hold off on watering.

When you do water, water thoroughly. For indoor cactus plants, make sure to remove any excess water that gathers in the saucer below the pot.

Feed Your Growing Cactus…
But feed it sparingly. Many cactus species need very little in the way of fertilizer. Cacti gather nutrients held in water through their roots. They respond well to liquid plant food added while watering, although granular fertilizers will give you more time between feedings.

Feed your cactus a few times during the growing season, from late spring through summer. Use a low-nitrogen (5-10-5 or similar) houseplant food. Dilute the plant food to half of the recommended amount. There is no need to feed your cactus during the dormant period, which runs from late fall through the winter.

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