Succulents & Cacti Care Guide
By Ophi Hodgman
Succulents and Cacti have been the perfect, drought-tolerant option for plant owners that tend to set and neglect for long periods of time, or the traveller who enjoys coming home to hardy, unique plant life. Unbeknownst to many of us, these plants are delicate within indoor settings and require special care, atypical of a normal leafy houseplant, in order to survive and thrive.
Read ahead for Estabrook's Ultimate Care Guide for Succulents and Cacti!
There are two key components to consider when bringing succulents into the home - water and light.
Their primary feature is within the name. These plants are succulent in nature, which means that the leaves and stems are able to store water for long periods of time, as well as their root systems. Succulents contain parenchyma cells that are specialized as storage tissues, which in turn, act as reservoirs for stored water. They also house thick, gluey mucilage cells to aid in water retention. You can actually witness this biological function in some Haworthia species that have transparent windows into the leaf. All Cacti are succulent and will store water similarly. You can tell by looking at most succulents how much water they are storing at any given time. The leaves will appear fleshy and swollen. In fact, the term "succulence" is specifically given to these plants for this ability.
In nature, desert water is not readily available because much of it is underground. Due to the lack of rain and desert climates, these plants adapted to be able to retain large amounts of water. This enables them to survive harsh, drought conditions.
In the home, succulents can go for long periods of time without a watering - a thorough watering every two to four weeks is plenty. Consider factors that affect your home's humidity, like your local climate and the time of year when determining a watering schedule for your plant. Succulents will be thirsty in warm and hot months, but can go several days to weeks between watering in winter when most will fall into their dormant season.
The best thing to do is check the soil every few weeks by doing the finger test (sticking your finger half way down the pot.) If it is completely dried out, go ahead and give them a thorough water. The worst thing you can do is overwater, so if you're a chronic over-waterer, hold off for now! Resist the urge to douse them once a week like your other houseplants.
The Taco Test
The "taco test" may sound like a humorous name, but it's one of the most reliable ways to tell when your succulent needs a drink. If your succulent is looking wrinkly or depleted, gently attempt to fold the leaf as you would a soft taco. If the leaf is firm, there is no need to water. If you can fold that leaf in half, give them a thorough watering!
Succulents thrive in warm to hot windowsills with plenty of direct and indirect sunshine. Your plant will be happy if you can give them bright, filtered light for at least four to six hours daily. If your space is very dimly lit and there's no south-facing windowsill in sight, consider choosing an Aloe, Haworthia or tropical cactus variation that can thrive in a lower light setting.
Fertilizing will assist your slow-growing succulent in getting bigger more quickly than watering alone. A general purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer will do the trick! Cut it to 1/4 strength and use with every watering from March through mid-September.
Caring for a cactus is very similar to succulent care. Watering, lighting and fertilizing recommendations for succulents also applies here. With that said, here are some cactus-specific facts and care tips to keep in mind:
Anatomy of a Cactus
Many succulent/cacti species do not possess what is considered branches or leaves. These sharp succulents hold highly-modified branches known as Areoles. Specific to the Cacti genus, the spines are the modified leaves whereas the Areoles are the branches. Correspondingly, some cacti species appear to have hair or a fuzziness to them. This "hair", also called glochids, are found on the radial spines where their main function is to protect the plant from both frost and the sun. The hairs we see are also spines!
How Can I Tell if My Cactus Needs Water?
This is not the plant to do the taco test on for obvious reasons! Our suggestion is using the finger test; stick your finger all the way down to the bottom of the pot (without getting poked) to be sure that the soil is bone-dry before giving them a thorough watering. The notion that cacti plants require little to no water to survive has caused fatalities of many of these plants due to dehydration. Although these plants are drought-resistant, it is good to keep in mind that they can easily die if you don't provide them with sufficient water.
The key to understanding when your cactus needs water by looking at it is studying their behaviors carefully. If a cactus is under-watered, its body may appear wrinkly or soft, and their spikes may easily come off.
How Do I Repot My Cactus Without Getting Poked?
This is one of the more popular questions among new succulent and cacti parents, and we are here with a thorough guide!
Prep your new pot with a few inches of quick drainage potting soil. Cacti prefer to have dryer soils with less water-retentive qualities like sand, perlite, pumice and orchid bark. Throw on a pair of heavy duty gardening gloves or oven-mits and wrap the cactus with several layers of newspaper or paper towels close to the base of the plant to keep the spines at bay. Tilt it to the side and pull the container away from the plant, holding the cactus steady with the newspaper.
Quickly plop the cactus into the new pot and straighten by tugging at the paper on either side. Finally, carefully pour your top dressing or pebbles on top of the fresh soil to steady the cactus in its new home. If you find any debris with the spikes or hairs, a paintbrush is a good tool to use!
Will My Cactus Bloom Every Year?
The short answer is YES!
Though fleeting, cactus blooms are beautiful and worth a bit of extra effort to get the plant to flower. This will usually take place anytime from mid-spring to late summer. We recommend keeping your cactus in a cool, dry place from November through late February to act as a dormancy period. Let the plant dry out thoroughly during this time. Then begin your regular watering schedule in early March and wait for the amazing show your plant has in store!