How to Take Care Of A Cactus

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As a plant lover, I’ve welcomed many cacti and succulents into my home. Their incredible variety, from tiny to towering, is fascinating. These plants, built for arid climates, thrive when we recreate their native desert conditions – bright light, good drainage, heat, and minimal water. Some exceptions, like the rainforest-native Schlumbergera, prefer semi-shade and humidity. My main advice for caring for these resilient plants? Simply imitate their natural environment. If you miss the succulent care guide, you can find the article here. Today, I will summarize all the factors you should consider when caring for a cactus.

Before we start: The care guide for almost all cacti is basically the same, which includes watering, soil, light, temperature, humidity, fertilizer, propagation & other issues. But, for example, one cactus’s lighting/ watering/ temperature might differ. I will explain in each detailed guide for every cactus. Ensure you check out our cactus genera page, where I include all the cactus genera mentioned on SucculentCity.com.

I will divide this article into 3 main parts: 

  • Environment factors: This is what you have to imitate to make your cacti “feel at home.” The part includes lighting conditions, watering schedules, an appropriate soil mix, and additional fertilizers (optional).
  • Gardening skills: Not only succulents and cacti, raising houseplants, in general, requires some gardening skills. Fundamental skills include propagating, pruning, and potting/ re-potting. Acquiring these skills is fun and also helpful in many ways.
  • Common problems being a cactus parent: I will tell you some popular signs to notice when your cactus is in trouble. We will fix it and raise the plant healthily together!

Now, let’s dive in!

Environment Factors

1. Sunlight/ Lighting Conditions

Cacti love sunlight. They’re used to many suns in the wild, like deserts. If you have cacti at home, it’s good to put them where they can get direct sunlight for a few hours every day (4-6 hours), like near a window that faces south. But not all cacti are the same. Some might not need as much sun and can get hurt if they get too much, especially suddenly. If a cactus gets too much sun too fast, it can get sunburned, looking like pale or yellow spots. If your house lacks natural sunlight, you can use unique plant lights for your cacti. 

An in-depth read: Do Cacti Need Sun? How Much Sun Does A Cactus Need?

2. Watering

Cacti are unique plants that don’t need as much water as most others. They’re built to store water and thrive in dry conditions. When watering a cactus, letting the soil dry out completely between waterings is crucial. Overwatering can harm them more than not watering enough. Well-draining soil helps; they often need even less water during cooler months. Observing your cactus and its soil is the best way to determine when to give it a drink.

A detailed post about this topic: How Often To Water A Cactus?

3. Making An Appropriate Soil Mix

Cactus potting soil is designed to mimic the natural, dry environments where cacti thrive. Unlike regular potting soil, cactus mix drains water quickly, preventing the roots from sitting in moisture for too long, which can lead to rot. It usually contains a blend of organic material, sand, and perlite or pumice to ensure good airflow to the roots and quick drying. Using suitable soil is essential for keeping your cactus healthy, ensuring the plant gets the right balance of water and air.

Everything you need to know about cactus soil mix >>

4. Fertilizers

Cactus fertilizers provide the essential nutrients these desert plants need to grow and flower. While cacti aren’t as hungry as some other plants, they benefit from occasional feeding. Cactus-specific fertilizers often have a balanced or slightly higher phosphorus content to support flowering. It’s generally best to fertilize during the growing season and always follow the label instructions. Over-fertilizing can harm the plant, so less is often more when feeding your cactus.

Read more about cactus fertilizers >>

Gardening Skills That Take Good Care Of Cacti

Taking care of cacti isn’t as challenging as you might think, but there are a few things you should know to help them grow well:

  1. Propagation: Making new cacti from the one you already have is fantastic. You can cut a piece off, wait for it to callous, and plant it, or use seeds from the cactus fruit. Also, grafting is one perfect technique that any cactus lover should try. The trick is to be patient and ensure they have suitable soil and not too much water.
  2. Pruning: Sometimes, parts of your cactus might look unhealthy or dead. Pruning/trimming these parts off is a good idea so the rest of the cactus stays healthy.
  3. Perfect Pot Selection: Picking the right pot is super important. You want one with holes in the bottom so extra water can drain. More water is needed for cacti. Clay pots are great because they let the soil dry out better.
  4. Re-potting: As your cactus grows or the soil ages, you might need to move it to another pot. This is a chance to check the roots and eliminate old or bad soil. Be gentle and give your cactus time to settle in after moving it.

Usual Things To Look Out For A Cactus

The ability to identify all these problems is the first step to protecting your cactus. Then, we will talk about how to save your cactus and prevent all the threads for good. Let’s list these 4 common problems to look out for in a cactus:

#1. Pests

Despite their hardy nature, cacti can still fall prey to various pests. Here are some common pests that can afflict cacti:

  1. Mealybugs: These are tiny, white, cottony pests that often gather in nooks, crannies, and the undersides of your cactus. They suck the plant’s sap, weakening the cactus and potentially transmitting diseases.
  2. Spider Mites: These are microscopic pests that are often hard to see without a magnifying glass. You might notice delicate webs on your cactus or a dusty appearance. They also suck on the cactus, causing yellow or rust-colored spots.
  3. Scale Insects: These pests look like tiny brown or gray discs or bumps on the cactus. They’re another type of sap-sucking insect that can weaken your plant.
  4. Root Mealybugs: Unlike regular mealybugs, these live in the soil and target the roots of your cactus. You might see them once you repot your cactus or if you notice it is wilting or not thriving.
  5. Fungus Gnats: These are tiny black flies often seen around the soil. The adult flies aren’t the main issue; their larvae live in the soil and feed on organic matter and sometimes the cactus roots.
  6. Thrips: These tiny, slender insects can cause discoloration and damage to cacti. They leave behind silver or white streaks and can cause deformities in new growth.

#2. Suspicious Spots In Different Colors

There are several common spots you see on your cacti:

  • White or Yellow Spots: Some things might happen if your cactus shows white or yellow patches. First, consider sunburn. Like how our skin can get burned from too much sun, cacti have the same thing, especially if they’re suddenly moved from shade to direct sunlight. This shows up as bleached or pale areas on the plant. On the other hand, pests like mealybugs, scale insects, and spider mites can infest your cactus and leave behind white or yellowish evidence of their presence.
  • Black or Brown Spots: Dark spots can spell trouble. One common culprit is rot. If you’ve been too generous with watering, the roots can start to rot, and this decay can travel up the plant. Rot feels mushy, and the cactus will be soft in these areas. If your cactus was in chilly temperatures, those dark spots might be frost damage. And then there’s disease. Specific fungal or bacterial issues can manifest as dark, sometimes hollow, spots on cacti.
  • Red or Purple Spots: These vibrant colors might not be as festive as they sound. Sometimes, they signal stress. If your cactus goes through sudden temperature drops or gets too much sun, it might react with red or purple discolorations. But it’s also worth noting that these colors can be a natural shade for some cacti, especially during certain times of the year. A related read: Is Stress Good Or Bad for Succulents?

Unlike other signs, green spots on a lighter cactus might be a good sign! If a cactus that’s been pale or yellow starts getting the right light again, it can begin to turn green in spots, indicating it’s on the road to recovery.

#3. Overwatered & Underwatered Cacti

When you give a cactus too much water, it’s not a good thing. Cacti come from places where water isn’t around often and are used to storing it. If they get overwatered, they can get root rot, which means the roots turn mushy and dark. The cactus can also look puffed up, or it might turn yellow. Sometimes, the top part of the cactus can look droopy. Too much water can also invite bugs that like wet soil.

On the other hand, if a cactus doesn’t get enough water, it’ll start to look wrinkly or shriveled. It’s using the water it stored and needs more. The cactus might also feel hard and might change to a darker color. It’ll also stop growing, especially if it’s a young one. Remember, cacti do need some water. It’s all about finding a balance: not too much, but not too little. Watch your cactus and adjust how much you water it based on how it looks.

#4. Got Pricked?

Handling cacti can sometimes lead to a little ouch moment: getting poked by their pointy bits. Cacti have these sharp things to protect themselves and save water. If you get poked, it might hurt; sometimes, a pointy bit can break off and stay in your skin. Once this happens, see this detailed guide on how to get cactus needles out of the skin! To avoid getting poked next time:

  1. Wear thick gloves when touching your cacti or use tools to move them.
  2. Remember that some cacti might have big, easy-to-see spikes, while others have tiny ones that can be just as tricky.
  3. Always be careful when you’re around cacti!

Read more: Why Do Cacti Have Needles? Will They Dissolve?

Summary

If you are well aware of everything I write above, you are more than ready to become a cactus parent. This article is for all-level gardeners, which can be an essential guide for beginners and a good checklist for the experienced ones to go through whenever needed. This post can get longer if I go into detail for every heading. So, I wrote a detailed guide for each topic and linked to them along the way. Make sure you don’t miss a thing 🙂

Do you like the post? Please help me share it if you think it’s helpful. Also, don’t hesitate to contact me via email if you have any questions/comments. Enjoy your next read on SucculentCity.com by choosing one of the following suggestions:

Succulent City chief editor

ABOUT ME

Succulent City

Hey everyone! Welcome to Succulent City! We are all about succulents, cacti, and a bit about air plants. Ten years back, in 2013, we began the journey with succulents. It started as a simple hobby, crafting and selling charming succulent-themed pins and decorations. But as time passed, our fascination with these remarkable plants grew, and we gained extensive knowledge about them. Therefore, Succulent City is the blog as you see it is now. Enjoy your visit and happly planting!

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