Cacti and succulents are by far the easiest and most rewarding plants to grow. All you need to know about cactus and succulent care is that these plants thrive on neglect. Even though they don’t need much, cacti and succulents are far from being unkillable. This article explains everything related to cacti and succulent care, from the moment they enter your home.
We’re gonna cover topics such as
- how to find the best microenvironment in your house,
- when and how to water your succulent,
- how to repot it,
- what soil and planters to use,
- how to make sure they’re getting enough nutrients.
Cacti & Succulent Care: The Basics
Cacti and succulents are native to dry habitats such as deserts, semi-deserts or steppes. Therefore, they’re pretty accustomed to low humidity, high temperatures, and lots of sunshine.
In their natural environment, some can survive without a drink for up to 2 years!
Another important thing to know right from the start: like most plants, cacti, and succulents have a growing phase (from spring to autumn) and a dormancy phase (during winter). Plants enter the dormancy phase when days get shorter and temperatures drop. This is when they stop or slow down new growth and any metabolic process.
Although not all might naturally enter dormancy when grown indoors, a resting period is highly recommended for healthy growth and generous flowering during the next growing season. If yours don’t seem to stop growing during winter, an important step in your succulent care routine is to force your succulent into dormancy by moving it to a shadier, chillier spot every autumn.
How Much Sun Do Succulents Need?
As mentioned before, cacti and succulents need a lot of light to thrive: at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day for proper growth. Insufficient lighting generally results in etiolation for most cacti and succulents.
Here’s an example: my lovely Echeveria Perle von Nurnberg, one of the neediest succulents currently in my care and the only one that shows etiolation.
There are a few exceptions to this rule! Snake plants, gasterias, jade trees, peperomias, or Christmas and Easter cacti can survive without direct sunlight, but this will also significantly slow down growth.
Picking the Best Spot for Your Succulent or Cactus
The sunniest windowsill in your home will provide the best microenvironment for your succulents and cacti. Generally, you should aim for a south-facing windowsill if you’re going for the best succulent care conditions.
WARNING: When acclimating new succulents to your home, be careful not to burn them! Although cacti and succulents thrive in sunny spots, a sudden and drastic change of environment might shock the plant up to the point of no return. Gradually move it closer and closer to the sunniest spot in your home.
Some succulents change their colors when light stressed and that’s okay. In fact, most show off their true colors when exposed to proper lighting, so that usually means you’re doing something right!
All’s not lost if you don’t have a sunny windowsill. You can supplement lighting with grow lights; here are some reliable options:
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When & How to Water Succulents and Cacti
Watering succulents isn’t tricky per se. My experience has taught me that the trickiest part is keeping yourself from over-watering them! Like most plants, cacti and succulents can handle drought much better than soggy soil. This is one of the reasons why succulent care is generally considered easy.
I haven’t had a single cactus or succulent plant that didn’t come back even after forgetting about it and not watering it for months. However, few can come back from over-watering and root rot.
How Often to Water Succulents
Assuming it has the right type of soil, you should water succulents and cacti:
- ONCE every one or two weeks during their growing season,
- ONCE a month AT MOST during their resting season.
The best indicator for a succulent in desperate need of a drink is shriveled, leathery leaves. In some species, leaves might also become a bit translucent as they lose moisture. Others might start to root from the stem in search of more water.
Leaves can also tell you when you’re over watering succulents. Soft, squishy, yellowing leaves that keep falling off are generally associated with root rot caused by over watering.
How to Water Succulents & Cacti
When watering succulents, the most harmful practices are getting the leaves or body of the plant wet and letting them sit in water.
The best technique for watering succulents is to pour water on the soil avoiding the leaves as much as possible. Allow the soil to soak for 5 to 10 minutes, then pour out any excess water from the tray or pot.
Pro tip: When watering succulents, the best practice is never having any leftover water in the tray or pot. Even though this won’t kill your plant, it will wash out some of the nutrients in the soil.
How & When to Repot Succulents
The best time to repot succulents is right at the beginning of their growing season. Early spring would do best. Unlike most houseplants that need repotting every year, succulents are slow growers that can comfortably sit in the same container for 2 years or more.
One of the basic rules of succulent care is, repotting a plant doesn’t always mean changing its planter, too! With time, nutrients in the soil are washed away with excess water or absorbed and used by the plant. If you notice slower growth than usual during the warmer seasons, it might be time for a soil change.
To sum it up, you will need to change the planter:
- once every 2-4 years OR when roots come out of the drainage holes,
- when the root system breaks the pot,
- or when it’s pushing out.
Succulent care is easy!
The cactus pictured above is in dire need of a pot upgrade. The succulent pictured below could use a bigger pot, too, but it will live happily for a few more months in this tiny pot. Its most pressing issue, however, is its dire need of a soil change.
No matter if you’re sticking with the same planter or upgrading to a bigger one, here’s how to repot a succulent.
Step 0 in the whole repotting process would definitely be gathering the stuff you’ll need: your succulent, of course, soil, and a pot.
1. Pick the Right Soil for Your Succulent
The best soil for succulents and cacti is a well-draining, porous mix that allows air flow to the roots and doesn’t hold moisture for too long. Peat moss or coco choir, ground bark, coarse sand (perlite, granite, pumice, calcinated clay, or chicken grit), and rich, organic soil are the basic ingredients in any succulent care mix.
From what I’ve researched, the following succulent soil mixes are just the thing:
If you want to go the whole DIY way with your succulent care, mix the following ingredients in equal amounts:
- Coarse sand (perlite works great, too!)
- Regular sterile garden soil (avoid mixes that contain vermiculite or another additive that holds moisture in for longer; this one from Foxfarm seems like a good choice)
2. Find the Best Pot for Your Succulent
The rule of thumb when repotting succulents is that the new container should be no more than 25% bigger than the old one. Proper drainage and air circulation to the roots are also essential.
This is why ceramic planters are the best pots you could use for your succulents. Anything goes, really, but here are some lovely options available at Amazon:
Plastic pots will do, too, as long as they have plenty of drainage holes.
However, stay away from self-watering planters as these will drastically increase your chances of killing your succulent by overwatering.
Of course, if you want to go big, you can also add cute decorations or cover the soil with pebbles or sand.
3. Repot the Succulent or Cacti
Without further ado, here’s the step by step process of repotting a succulent:
- Get the plant out of its current container and clean up its roots. Use a wooden craft stick to break down hardened soil and loosen up the roots a bit without damaging them. You might have to poke through the root ball quite a bit and might lose one, two, or five strands, but don’t worry, that’s unavoidable. The important thing is to untangle the roots as much as possible.
- Fill about half of your container with soil mix and make a small hole for your succulent’s roots.
- Place the succulent inside and make sure it’s standing straight, without leaning away.
- Fill in around the plant with more potting soil and gently press down on the soil to make sure your succulent is standing firm.
- OPTIONAL: add your decorations of choice (sand, pebbles, fairy garden decorations, etc.)
- If your succulent hasn’t been watered in a while, give it a drink. If not, allow the soil to completely dry out as you would normally.
Of course, these steps also apply to soil changes.
When & How to Fertilize Succulents
As mentioned before, succulents and cacti can do okay in poor soil as long as it’s well-draining. If you want your succulents to really thrive and even flower (check our article on flowering succulents), you might need to provide some extra nutrients.
The perfect succulent fertilizer should combine nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in equal parts.
Most commercial slow-release fertilizers are very potent and might kill your succulent, so stay away from them or drastically reduce the amount you’re using.
Commercial water-soluble fertilizers might be a better pick. Most specialists recommend diluting it to about ¼ of the recommended strength and adding it to the water for each watering in the growing season. Of all options for fertilizing succulents, this one is my favorite.
Another interesting option is manure tea. It’s an organic fertilizer made out of fermented and cured manure. Although I haven’t personally tried this one out, the manufacturer and most customers mention it’s highly effective and doesn’t burn the leaves as most commercial water-soluble fertilizers do.
Cacti & Succulent Care: Common Pests
Even though succulent care is easy, these plants are far from being unbreakable. Aphids, mealy bugs, and spider mites are just some of the most common and damaging succulent pests, not to mention fungi infestations caused by overwatering. Hell, I’ve lost my fair share of succulents during what I call the great mealybug depression.
Fortunately, most have a cure, be it a thorough shower with a bit of dish soap and neem oil, or just a proper repotting. The most important thing is to properly diagnose them from the start.
This guide from the Missouri Botanical Garden is a great resource on this. It helped me a whole lot with diagnosing and treating the aforementioned mealybug infestation.
Now that you know the basics of succulent care, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and admire your plants!
And if you still have questions about succulent and cacti care, make sure you also go through Marijke’s article on why are succulent leaves falling off. It’s a well-documented resource that will definitely help you find out why your succulent is struggling.