Whether you are a new plant parent stemming from working from home or have been tending to houseplants for years, we all are looking for ways to add a bit of pep and beauty into our spaces these days. But you may be overlooking one type of low-maintenance plants: cacti.
That’s right, these prickly plants are well worth adding to your greenery collection and may be much easier to care for than you thought. Below, Cecilia Thon, botanist and former plant research and development associate at Bloomscape, and Alfred Palomares, vice president of merchandising at 1-800-Flowers.com, share their helpful guidelines for taking care of cacti.
1. Give your cacti enough light.
Let them soak up the sun—but not too much—and enjoy the heat. You want things to be just right for your prickly plant. «Cacti enjoy all the attention they can get from the sun and thrive in the direct light—place them in the warmest, sunniest corner of your home. They would love to go outside for a summer vacation if you have a sunny patio or yard. Bring them outside when nighttime lows are above 50°F,» says Thon. «They will thrive outside, and you will start to see them grow a lot quicker compared to being indoors. No need to worry about watering them when outdoors—the occasional rain shower should be enough for them! Bring them back inside at the end of summer when it starts to dip below 50°F.»
While cacti should be exposed to plenty of direct sunlight every day, it’s also important to be mindful that they aren’t getting too much sunlight. «Cacti can get sunburned. While they love the sun they can turn yellow or brown, and if that starts to happen, move the cactus away from its light source to cool down,» recommends Palomares, who also advises that you also keep your cacti away from an air conditioner or drafty windows since they enjoy warm, dry climates.
2. Water your cacti properly.
Give them a drink—but not too much—and give long breaks in between. «Cacti are known for surviving without much watering, as they retain water in their stems. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t need watering at all. Be sure to check the soil every few weeks. If the first 2 to 3 inches of soil are dry, it’s time to give the plant a drink,» offers Palomares.
Echoing Palomares» advice, Thon adds: «The reason most people fail with cacti is the tendency to over-water, which can lead to root rot and to scab, which appears as rusty-colored, corky areas on the stems. My advice is to err on the side of under-watering; most of the time you can bring them back from the dehydration stage with no issues.»
Make sure the top layer of your cacti’s soil has dried completely between watering. «In well-drained soil, your cactus requires water only every 10-to-14 days during summer months. If you’re noticing wrinkles on your cactus, particularly towards the base of your plant, your plant is very dry and a soak-watering is in order. It may seem counterintuitive to give a cactus a large drink, but you’ll be shocked at how your cactus will absorb the water and plump back up again. After watering, always be sure to empty excess water from the saucer—your cactus never wants to sit in water as that can lead to rot,» Thon elaborates. In the winter months, you should water your cacti infrequently. «Cacti will usually go dormant during winter and not grow at all or very little, and that is completely normal,» Thon explains referencing 1-800-Flowers.com’s cactus dish garden as a great houseplant option.
3. Use the right soil and fertilizer for your cacti.
Soil mix and food tailored to cacti are key to healthy growth. «Ensure that the right soil mix is used when potting cacti. Cacti prefer soil that includes more sand and rocks, in order to drain water and keep the plant dry between drinks and prevent root rot,» says Palomares. «Like the soil, it is important to use fertilizers made specifically for cacti to make sure they are not over or under fed, and receive optimal nutrition.» You can also use fertilizer indicated for succulents. «Dilute [the fertilizer] according to the directions on the bottle. Water your cactus first, and then apply the fertilizer to damp soil so that it does not burn the roots. I would recommend fertilizing once during spring and once during summer. Cacti aren’t huge feeders, so it isn’t necessary to fertilize more often than that,» explains Thon.
4. Consider buying a prickly pear cactus.
We must admit we’re partial to this beautiful desert wonder. «The prickly pear cactus [is] a playful and easy-to-care-for plant that is perfect for the person who wants to add some green to their home with limited time to care for a plant,» suggests Thon. «Place your prickly pear cactus on a southeast or west-facing window sill that receives full, direct sunlight in the spring through fall.»
More easy-to-grow cacti varieties include star cactus, golden barrel cactus, hedgehog cactus, and pincushion cactus, according to Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension.
5. Be safe when handling your cacti.
You don’t want to screech from a gnarly spiker from these plants. It is essential to wear protective gloves whenever you repot your cactus. You can even use kitchen tongs if it’s helpful. This way, you can avoid unnecessary spikes and pricks.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I revive a dying cactus?
If your cactus shows distress, remove the rotted parts and adjust its daily care routine. Provide proper sun exposure, watering, and use a low-nitrogen fertilizer. Additionally, keeping your cactus free from pests, dirt, and dust will help maintain the plant’s health.
How do I safely handle a cactus?
In addition to gloves and tongs, wrapping the cactus in a newspaper or a towel can help when repotting or pruning the plant. Carpet and rug scraps also are helpful to use when handling a cactus. While not poisonous, some people have allergic reactions to contact with a cactus.
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- Clemson Cooperative Extension. Indoor cacti. Updated Nov. 16, 2015.