After I bought my first cactus, I fell into a black hole of researching everything I could to keep my new plant happy and thriving. This research very quickly took me on a journey that looked like this: buy a new plant, research the new plant, and repeat.
I did everything right—or so I thought. My lighting was actually terrible. The soil I used didn’t drain well enough and resulted in root rot for most of my first plants.
So, I fell down a few more research holes. The first one was: how do I make a gritty, well-draining cactus mix for cheap?
What is gritty cactus soil?
Gritty cactus soil is essentially any soil-less mixture made for succulents or cacti. Plants without soil sound strange to most of us, but stick with me!
Picture an area with huge, thriving cacti. You likely see a desert area. Sand stretches out as far as the eye can see, the sun glares in your eyes, and a giant cactus looms over the desolate land.
What you don’t see is soil—there isn’t any. Cactus and succulent plants naturally grow in non-organic materials that hold few nutrients.
We can’t replicate that environment exactly within our homes—or at least I can’t, here in the cold and humid state of Michigan.
But using gritty mix is one step closer to getting it right.
Bunny ear cacti in gritty mix
Benefits of a gritty mix
There are so many benefits to gritty mix, and they don’t only apply to your plants. If you’re like me, you’ll find that gritty mix makes you a happier indoor gardener as well.
- It’s difficult to overwater. I haven’t had a single plant develop root rot since switching over to gritty mix. With a mixture that dries out so quickly, it really is hard to overwater your plants.
- It creates less mess. The large particles of gritty mixes are much easier to clean than regular potting soil, which is a plus if you plant indoors—or if you have pets or children occasionally knocking over your houseplants.
- Pests have trouble laying eggs in gritty mix. This is the one thing that officially won me over. Though you’re still at risk of developing pests on your plants, they can’t hide out in between woodchips and perlite in the same way they can in finer pieces of actual soil.
Succulent grown in gritty mixture
Drawbacks to gritty cactus mix
Of course, we have to also talk about the drawbacks of gritty mix. Every gardener has different preferences, and gritty mix isn’t for everybody.
Here are the biggest downsides to consider:
- You have to water more often. I tend toward overwatering plants, so gritty mix is a great solution for me. But if you tend to forget to water, or just don’t want to change your current schedule, you might not like this mixture!
- There are more supplies. If you have limited storage space, having multiple bags of materials might be too much for you. Not to mention, when you do run out, it may take trips to multiple stores to find everything you need. Without a doubt, gritty mix is less accessible than regular potting soil.
- Repotting takes more time—if you weren’t already removing the old soil from your plants. If you were already doing so, it won’t take much extra time at all! Here’s a tip for when the weather’s warm: bring your cactus outside and spray off the excess soil with the jet setting on your hose. It works wonders at removing the soil without damaging the roots. I miss this method so much in the winter months.
- You will need to fertilize plants in gritty mixture regularly. In my opinion, this isn’t a big deal, but it is a bit of a hassle. I use a few drops of this fertilizer in my plant’s water every single time I water. Though succulents and cacti wouldn’t need regular fertilizing in an organic mixture, they do need some added nutrients if you take a soilless route.
Foliage Pro 9-3-6 surrounded by succulents
How to make your own gritty cactus mix for cheap
If you’re anything like me, you read about the benefits of gritty cactus soil for your plants and think about your wallet.
“Sounds nice,” you might say, “but you can’t beat the price of a simple bag of potting mix.”
In reality, I quickly found that your standard potting mixture doesn’t work on its own anyway. You have to mix it 50/50 with a drainage material, like perlite.
When I factor in the additional cost of perlite, I found that I’m not actually spending that much more on gritty mix. The key is finding cheap, accessible materials that work for you.
With that said, I’m going to share my mixture below, along with some alternatives so that you can make your own adjustments. But don’t be afraid to mix it up, experiment, add in new things, or even leave something out entirely. It’s all about finding what works best for you.
Here’s what you’ll need to make your own gritty cactus mix:
- Aquarium gravel, or any other material that doesn’t hold water. Try pumice or grit.
- Lava rocks, or another porous material. Try turface or perlite.
- Bark fines, or another material that retains moisture.
All particles should be 1/8 inch to ½ inch in size.
Small bark fines used for gritty mix
Step One: Prepare your materials
Woodchips need to be soaked for a few hours, otherwise, they’ll be soaking up a lot of the water that you actually want your cacti or succulents to receive.
If you get a dusty rock like lava rocks, you’ll need to wash these. Make sure you do so outside and don’t breathe in the dust. I recommend wearing a face mask for this. You can also buy pre-washed rocks, which is what I do.
Lastly, sift your materials if needed to get the desired size.
Aquarium gravel used for gritty mix
Step Two: Mix your materials
I mix my materials together in different ways depending on the plant I’m potting. A chunky cactus gets fewer wood chips in its mix and more aquarium gravel than a thin-leaved succulent, for example.
I’ve also had another gardener suggest leaving wood chips out completely, as they’re an organic material. Although my plants are happy with this mixture, you can do what makes sense to you.
Part of the fun is that there are so many ways to make gritty mix. And, if you’re feeling like it’s too much work to hunt down materials, you can even buy a premade bag of a brand like Bonsai Jack. Just be warned that the premixed stuff is generally more expensive.
Blooming succulent grown in gritty mix
Step Three: Pot like normal
Yes, you’re already done!
Once your mix is complete, you can pot your plants up just like you normally would. The only change that may take time to get used to is that you can’t pack down the soil as tightly. Your plants might wobble a bit until their roots are established in their new home.
I’ve especially had this problem with cuttings or plants with small root systems. I use wooden barbecue skewers to hold them upright until they can stand by themselves, but in the past, I’ve gotten creative with household items like pens or even paintbrushes. Use whatever works!