Get Hooked on Growing Cacti!

Terrestrial cacti are epiphytes that grow in trees, other plants and on rocks in sub-tropical and tropical areas of the world.  For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the second type; desert cacti.

Purchasing a cactus is often a person’s first foray into the indoor gardening world.  Cacti are the ideal first plant as they are easy to grow, maintain, and yes, they even produce flowers.    Cacti are also ideal for the person who wants to experience growing plants but realistically does not have the time to spend hours on care. 

There are two groups of cacti.  Terrestrial cacti are epiphytes that grow in trees, other plants and on rocks in sub-tropical and tropical areas of the world.  For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the secondtype; desert cacti that are often spiny, hairy or both.  Their shapes vary considerably, are unique and collectible.  An added bonus is that desert cacti do flower, and their blooms are often large and spectacular.

In their native habitats desert cacti are known to be extremely tough and if need be, can go for up to two years without water!  Indoor cacti roots are restricted by their pots and must be watered in their growing seasons of spring and summer to do well in your home. 

There are thousands of cacti species and varieties.  There are just as many variations in flower color – pinks, blues, reds, oranges, whites, yellows, and color combinations too numerous to list. 

I have two tips for beginning to collect cacti:

1. Research your purchase on the internet.  Know the species and what care is recommended.

2. While you are on the net, join an indoor cacti group or club where growing information can be shared!  There are as many cacti collectors in the world as varieties of cacti!  Most are eager to share their knowledge.

Here are a few growing tips to get you started:

To successfully grow cacti, you must have a bright light location.  4 hours plus of sunlight per day.  While cacti usually grow in full sun, be aware that glass windows magnify the sun’s intensity.  Even cacti can burn.  If your cacti brown or yellow on the side facing the window, that means that they are in too much sun.   

Cacti will also grow toward a sunny window causing the plant to lean.  Turn your cacti once a month to avoid excessive leaning as they grow. 

In our area of the world, cacti in pots put on a spurt of new growth spring and summer.  This means they must be watered when the soil totally dries out and checked regularly for water needs. Like other plants cacti do need water during the growing season.  Pay particular attention to small pots as they tend to dry out quickly. Larger cacti can be left longer between watering.  In winter cut back on the watering as most cacti go into dormancy because of shorter days with less sun hours.  This does not mean that you should never water during winter.  If your cacti begin to shrivel, wrinkle and yellow, it’s time to water.  If it turns pale and starts to buckle and lean, you are overwatering.  Err on the side of too dry as opposed too wet. 

The best pots for cacti are those made of terra cotta or ceramic with drainage holes.  Terracotta allows air to pass in and out of the root ball area.   “Cure” the terra cotta by first soaking the pots in water for 1-2 hours.  This prevents the clay from wicking any water away from the soil and plant roots.  Cover the drainage holes with a coffee filter. 

The proper soil for growing cacti is a very porous, sandy, fast draining soil.   You can mix your own but pre-mixed cacti- succulent soil is available pre-packaged.     

Repot cacti in spring and summer.  When repotting, keep in mind that most cacti have shallow roots and will only need a new pot every 2 to 4 years.  Younger cacti in smaller pots should be repotted every year.  A sure sign that a cactus needs repotting are roots coming out of the pot’s drain holes. 

Before repotting, arm yourself with a pair of leather gloves and wide plastic tongs.  For larger cacti use a few pages of rolled up newspaper that will give you a firm grip around the cactus when lifting it out of the old pot and into the new one. 

Take the cactus out of the pot and trim off any obvious dead or rotting roots.  Let the cactus root-ball air dry on its own for a day or so.  The new pot should be 2 inches in diameter larger than the previous container.  Once repotted with new soil, allow a couple of days for recovery in low light before you water and put it back in bright light. Newly repotted cacti do not need fertilizer for 2 months. 

Fertilize established pots in spring and summer only with an all -purpose cacti and succulent fertilizer.  Apply every 2 months.  Begin to fertilize when you see new growth in spring.

Cacti can be propagated by stem cuttings, or by offsets (offshoots/pups)

Both stem cuttings and pups can be cut from the mother plant and left out in the air a couple of days for the cut ends to callous over.  Once calloused over, dip the cuttings into Rooting Hormone No.1, shake off the excess and lightly push the calloused end into the new potting soil.  Firm soil around the cutting/pup.  Let the cacti recover for a couple of days before lightly watering. 

Cacti are living organisms and occasionally are subject to fungus, disease, and insect problems.    Cacti insect pests include mealybugs and scale.   Check your cacti often for any signs of disease or pests. 

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