Cacti and succulents: secrets of growing

Why cacti?

Cacti and succulents are among the most unique type of indoor plant. Through millions of years of evolution, they have developed amazing methods of water storage and self protection. This evolution enables them to survive in some of the most desolate growing areas on earth.

For indoor plants, cacti and succulents are the perfect choice. Typical hot, dry indoor conditions are often harmful to leafy foliage plants, but provide the ideal climate for many kinds of succulent plants. In addition, these plants are very tolerant of neglect, requiring little watering or other care throughout the greater part of the year. The results are often large, colorful blossoms, an added bonus whenever they appear.

Outdoors, cacti and succulents are a great addition in the landscape or on a patio during the summer. Although most cacti plants are not able to protect themselves from frost, a few will survive even the coldest of winter climates.

No matter what you desire in plants, cacti and succulents have the diversity and adaptability to suit almost any lifestyle. A small investment will reward you with enjoyment for many years to come.

A succulent is generally considered to be any plant which has the natural ability to store water in its body or roots. There are over 2500 varieties of cactus. Hundreds of these varieties are available commercially. True cacti are one type of succulent; they are members of the plant family Cactaceae. All cacti are native to the Western Hemisphere, and although many bear spines, this characteristic alone does not make them cacti. A true cactus is distinguished by the presence of areoles, small nubbin-like structures which occur over the body of the plant. Cactus spines, as well as roots and the flowers, always grow from these areoles, whereas spines on succulents other than cacti grow directly out of the body of the plant. Their unique adaptation also enables succulent plants to store water, quickly and in great volume.

Caring for cacti & succulents

Remember: Cacti and succulents, even though they are tough, adaptable plants, they do not "thrive on neglect". Rather, they "exist" with neglect, but "thrive" on tender loving care. Due to their low humidity requirements many cacti do better in the dry air of homes with central heat than most other house plants. They also do very well outside during the summer months in areas of the country with low humidity and warm night temperatures.


Indoors give them as much bright light as you can or your sunniest window. They will stretch and get weak and skinny trying to get to more light if kept in a dark or shady location. Outdoors they can burn if given too much direct hot sun all day, so try to provide an area with filtered sun, or a place where they receive a few hours of direct sun and then bright light the rest of the day.


Most cacti have small root systems and are susceptible to damage from too much moisture. Allow plants to dry thoroughly between waterings. A good rule of thumb for watering is to skip one week for every 1 inch of pot size. Example: 2" pot - water once every 2 weeks, 3" pot - water once every 3 weeks, etc.

Another thing to remember is when you water, water well! Make sure that the water is running through all of the soil and flushing out the bottom of the pot. A well-watered pot will feel much heavier than one that didn't get thoroughly saturated, and NEVER LET THE PLANT SIT IN STANDING WATER FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME. If you have watered the pot well, you will know when it is time to water again by just sticking your finger about an inch down into the soil. If it's damp, it's fine. If it's dry, then it's time to water again ------ and water well!


Regular household temperatures are great, but in the wintertime be sure to keep them away from freezing temperatures next to a window. They can handle 35°F to 40°F degrees just fine and will be dormant (resting, not growing) at these temperatures. The same goes for outdoors; if it is going to go below 35°F, bring them inside to shelter. Freezing temperatures will turn most cacti and succulents into goo!


There are plenty of major garden centers around that carry commercially packaged cactusi and succulent mix for sale. If you need to make your own, here's a good all purpose mix: for every one part of a good potting soil or humus, add two parts of perlite or pumice and one part washed builder's sand.


Cacti and succulents are not heavy feeders but do benefit from light feeding during their growing period - usually the warmer months of the year (March through October). Any all purpose balanced liquid fertilizer is fine, something like a 20-20-20. Mix it to half or even a quarter of the recommended strength on the label and give it once a month. When in doubt it is always better to not fertilize than to over do it.

Little to no feeding during the dormant months, usually during the winter months, is necessary.


Your plant will be perfectly happy in the original pot for at least a year and doesn't really need to be moved. However if it has been a year and it is getting too big for the pot, or you just want to put it in a special or favorite pot, here's what to do. First be sure to choose a pot that is only a size larger than the original.
If your plants are in a 2.5" pot, the best next size up would be a 3" diameter, and be sure the pots have drain holes.
Gently tap the plant out of its pot and carefully loosen some of the soil around the outside of the root ball. Put some soil mix in the new pot and set the root ball on top of it. Fill in around it with new soil lightly firming it in making sure that the plant is sitting at the same soil level it was originally.
Do not water for a few days; this allows any roots that might have been broken a chance to heal over - then water and let it drain thoroughly.


The main ways in which cacti and succulents are propagated are by cuttings, seeds, and offsets. To select the appropriate way to propagate your plant, observe how it grows. Most barrel types are grown from seed or offsets. Columnar or pad types are grown mainly from cuttings. Certain forms are grafted to another in order to grow.

Most seeds are easily germinated and many commercial varieties are self-fertile. Offsets (pups) can be stripped from the mother plants and replanted immediately. Cuttings should be left to dry, out of direct sun light for up to 2 weeks. This drying period allows the cut area to "heal".