How to Care for Cacti
Cacti make great choices for inexperienced gardeners, or those who haven’t had much luck in growing plants. If you're looking how to care for cacti, look no further. Cacti come in a vast array of shapes and colors, with some growing moderately slowly, and some growing very slowly. Saguaro cactus, that are found in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, only grow one to two inches of height in their first ten years; and only six feet in height in by the time they’re a half century old. They won’t even begin to make their distinctive branches until they get to be sixty to seventy years old! I'm so amazed every time I see these huge saguaros in the desert surrounding my house.
Aside from that example, though, much of a cactus plant’s growth is directly related to the care it receives. If it’s placed in optimum conditions, it may double in size in a few years. The keys to growing cactus are good light, very sandy soil, and preventing rot. Easy to follow step by step instructions are included for these points below. There are many easy to grow plants, no matter where you live – but especially indoors or in the desert.
How to Care for Cacti
Light – Cacti are generally from dry hot sunny climates; bear that in mind when considering where to plant or display them. Choose an outside area that is south-facing, or full sun (it receives sunlight all day long). Plants can be grown indoors, in pots, and kept in an area with indirect light; they will tolerate low light, but may not grow. Low light is fine if you have a small pot or grouping of several Cacti planted in a shallow bowl.
Temperature – Cacti store water in their bodies, inside their limbs or stems. Depending on the variety you have planted, some do tolerate colder weather, and even a little bit of snow. If they freeze, though, it will kill them. If you want to have a cactus garden outside, consider planting them in pots that can be moved to a garage, porch or even inside during the coldest months of the year. You can even place the pot in the ground, and slip it out for the winter months.
Moisture – As far as Cacti are concerned, less is more. Let your plant's soil dry out completely between watering. After watering them, let the excess water drain away. Never let your cactus pot sit in standing water. In the colder months, cacti can usually go about a month without being watered.
Soil and Pot Size – When planting your cactus plants, allow a couple of inches space between your plants. This allows for space to grow, space to groom, if necessary, and for air circulation between the plants. Cactus have notoriously shallow roots, so you don’t need deep planters or pots to grow them. But you do need a very sandy, even gravelly, soil in which to grow them. If you live in the desert like I do, your front yard is probably perfect for cacti! If not, you can make a good soil mix for them by combining equal parts of potting soil, sand and perlite. This will provide the necessary nutrients for growth in the soil, but will not become water-logged. Always make sure that you plant the cactus at the same depth it was growing before. If they’re planted too deep, they may rot, and no one wants that.
Fertilizer – Feed your cactus plants with a very weak formulation developed specifically for cacti. Regular garden fertilizers are too strong, and won’t provide the nutrients that cactus plants need.
Types of Cacti
When learning how to grow cacti, it's important to know which plant is which. If you go to Home Depot or Lowe's, or your local nursery, they will help you out. Some of the more common varieties of cactus found at your local garden center are:
Barrel Cactus – There are available in sizes from small two inch pots up to large, specimen sized plants. They bloom in the spring and can easily be grown from seed. Their growth rate is dependent on planting conditions; in an optimum environment, there will be marked growth from season to season.
Pincushion Cactus – These are very common and have lots of little spines. They grow in groups, and flower seasonally. Pincushion cactus are almost always available as small plants. Note that their spines are barbed, and are difficult to remove if you get one in your skin!
Grafted Cactus – There is a variety of pretty and color cacti that do not produce chlorophyll, and are grafted onto other, hardier varieties. They are colorful and hardy as houseplants, and do well in most low light settings. Minimal spines, and some may even produce flowers.
Gray Ghost Organ Pipe Cactus – Coolest name ever, right? This is grown as both a small columnar cactus and a large, outdoor planting. The adult and juvenile plants are completely different, and this plant is commonly used in landscaping in the West. Easy to grow, the small plants have minimal spines.
Once you have some confidence in growing your cacti from pots, you can move onto bigger and better things! Many are easy to grow from cuttings, divisions (splitting a larger plant into several smaller ones), or even from seed. These are all easy and economical ways to grow your cacti family!