Cactus and Succulent Care
One of the best things you can do when starting out growing
cactus and succulent plants is to visit a botanical garden and see
how they are grown. Some great local ones are UC Santa Cruz, UC
Berkeley, and Ruth Bancroft Garden. Joining your local Cactus and
Succulent Society is another place to get answers, solicit
guidance, and be among like-minded individuals.
In general, these are the primary considerations for outdoor cultivation:
Light: While we often associate these plants with hot deserts, the reality is
that they usually prefer moderated sun exposure. Knowing what your plant
requires will take some research. If you have a plant tag, that is a great
place to start.
Soil: This is essential to your plant’s success! Succulent plants do not like
“wet feet” so they need to have soil that drains well. A commercial cactus
planting mix should be adequate. Many of our members will add extra pumice to
that to add better drainage. Others have their own “recipes” of planting mixes
made up of various ratios of pumice, lava rock, and potting soil. Bottom line
is whatever works for you and your plants. Be wary of peat based soils, as they
can encourage fungus gnats.
Top Dressing: Besides being an attractive part of your planting, top dressing
is very practical. It acts to conserve moisture in the soil and prevents the
surface from drying out. Much like mulch in a garden, top dressing helps to
Water: The golden rule of watering with succulent type plants is let dry
between watering. It is far better to err on the side of under watering, as
over watering can cause rot. While growing, cacti and succulents should be
watered at least once a week. Some people water more often than this. During
each watering, give the soil a good soaking, so that water runs out of the
'drainage holes' of the pots. Watering on cold days is ill advised. If you have
rain water collected, succulent plants love it!
How often to fertilize: During the growing season, a balanced fertilizer
(10-10-10 Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium) which has been diluted to 1/4
strength, can be added to the water for each watering.
Propagation: Succulents can be propagated by seed, leaf, stem cutting or
offset. Cacti can be propagated by taking cuttings or by seed.
Pots: To facilitate drainage, a good size drainage hole is necessary. Putting a
piece of window screen over the hole will prevent the soil from falling through
and some critters from crawling up.
Growing Indoors: More than likely this will require supplemental artificial
lighting, which will take some research to get the lighting and time right.
Special Situations: Succulent plants can be subject to sunburn and frost
damage, be aware of severe weather conditions in your area and be prepared to
move plants in order to protect them. Frost or shade cloth is available for
those plants that can’t be moved.
Caution: Some succulents are known for having poisonous or irritating sap.
Plants in the genus Euphorbia are especially known for this. Research the plant
you are working with, and use caution to not come into contact with the sap of
a toxic plant.
Euphorbia plants are absolutely fascinating, however when cut or nicked they
will “bleed” white sap which is toxic. Whenever handling one of these plants,
it is critical to protect yourself adequately. If you are exposed to the sap,
seek medical help.