Care of Cactus and Succulents in Containers

Light: Cacti and other succulent plants grow best in very bright, but indirect light. Those grown indoors receive the best light from south or east facing window. Watch for sunburn that may result from the magnification of light through the glass, which is why western exposures are not recommended. Sunburn appears as a crusty, often yellow to reddish-brown area on the skin of the plant. In high latitudes with low winter light, plants benefit by being outdoors in the summer.

Temperature: Room temperature is suitable although most succulents will tolerate a wide range of temperatures. Plants in containers are much more susceptible to freezing, and should be brought protected or brought inside before a freeze.

Watering: Watering requirements vary in succulents. Container grown cacti should be watered when the entire soil mass in the container is dry. Use a pencil or stick to determine this, then water thoroughly so that it runs through the pot. In summer in warm areas this may be once a week; in cooler areas or winter it may be much less often. The watering schedule will depend on the soil consistency, pot material and size, humidity, light and temperature; use the pencil test to determine the best timing.

How to Care for Cactus and Succulents

Cactus and succulents require less care than some other plants because they store so much water in their limbs, but correct potting with good drainage in a bright room will help them stay healthy.

Succulents in general do not like to be completely dry between waterings, but have about 3/4 of the soil column dry. Again, test before watering and water only when required. Reduce watering frequency in winter and be sure that the soil is very dry before watering at this time. If the plant has a dormant season, water during that time only enough to keep the plant from shriveling.

Fertilization: These plants have low fertilizer needs and should be fertilized only when they are actively growing, usually in spring and/or summer. Use a 1/2 strength solution of a low nitrogen, all-purpose fertilizer. Fertilizing twice a year is adequate but should not be done more than once a month.

Transplanting: Cacti and succulents can grow in very crowded conditions, but eventually will need transplanting. Plants in severe need of transplant will begin to show roots out the bottom, or strain the sides of the pot. Most cacti and succulents should be transplanted about every 3 years.

Transplant when the plant is actively growing, usually in warm weather. After removing the plant from the old pot, gently remove the soil from the roots and place the plant in the shade for about a week. This lets the roots dry out and prevents rot in the minute breakages that occur as a result removing the plant from the original pot. Repot the plant using a fast-draining soil. Water well to help settle the soil and provide moisture to the plant.

Plants with a definite dormant period, such as lithop or adenium, can be transplanted when they are dormant, in that case do not water them at the time of transplanting.

Pests: Cacti and other succulents have few pests. If any occur, they usually can be washed off with a jet of water or with a mild soap and water solution. Some of the most common problems and their treatment are listed below.

Long, stringy growth; pale color Not enough light.  Make more light available.
White, yellow or reddish-brown scaly patches Sunburn.  Provide shade or move from full sun.
White cotton-like masses Cochineal insects or mealybugs.  Wash off with a strong jet of water, mild soap/water solution, Safer’s insecticidal soap or apply isopropyl alcohol. Use appropriate pesticide according to directions on package.
Plant is loose in soil;  roots soft and brown; lower leaves drop; no growth Too much water.  Cut back on watering.  If the soil is very soggy, repot in fresh, well-drained soil.  Check to make sure soil is dry between waterings.
Too little light or water; too cold; poor soil.  Give more light, water or heat as needed.  Plant in appropriate well-drained soil mix.  Fertilizer may be needed.
Round “scales” on plant, easily removed with fingernail Scale insects.  In small infestations,  pick off by hand.  Larger infestations are harder to control.  Try appropriate pesticide mixed with small amount of liquid dish detergent.