Cacti and succulents are perfect first plants. If you haven’t fully developed your green thumb yet, these plants can be a great starting point as you learn how to care for a variety of plants.
There are actually several types of succulent. Succulents are plants that store water in their leaves, stems, and roots. There are tons of succulents, and you can find them in gardening stores, plant nurseries, hardware stores, and even grocery stores.
Cacti are a subset of succulents. They’re a family of succulents native to the New World. Many live in desert climates and are robust and resilient. This is part of what makes them such a great starter plant. They’re hard to kill!
There’s more to caring for a succulent than just keeping it alive, though. In order to help your plant grow, you’ll need to know a little more information about how to take care of it. One of the most common mistakes new cactus owners make is overwater, so here’s a guide for how often, and how much, to water your cactus or succulent.
This cactus was recently watered–you can see the soil is still damp and it will be a few days before it needs any more water.
Watering Your Cactus
Here’s the short answer for how often to water your cactus: once every ten days.
Keep in mind, though, that’s a starting point and not a guaranteed answer. In reality, there are a lot of details that affect the moisture retention of your plant. You need to read through each point below to find out what kind of care is best for your succulent.
In general, you want to heavily water the plant so the soil is wet–the water should be coming out of the bottom of the pot. Then, you’ll want to leave your succulent to dry out completely before you water again.
This can take anywhere from one to two weeks, so ten days is just a starting point. You’ll want to adjust your watering time until finding a routine that makes your plant healthy and growing.
Here are some other factors to let you know whether you should be watering your plant more or less often.
This succulent is a type of sempervivum. There are about 40 species within this genus and each is a beautiful choice for a house plant.
The species of succulent does matter. Not all succulents and cacti need the same care. Each species will thrive under a different set of conditions. Therefore, the first step in learning to care for your succulent is to find out what species it is.
If you recently purchased your succulent, there’s a good chance there’s still a sticker on the container it came in or some note to let you know which kind of succulent you bought. If not, don’t worry!
The internet can be a huge help in identifying plants. Search for defining features of your plant and compare pictures. You can also scroll through a list of succulents and see if any match your plant.
There are also several plant identification apps which allow you to take a picture of your plant. The app will then suggest species that match so you can figure out which plant you have. If you can’t figure out what kind of plant you have online, you can always bring it to a nursery for identification.
Once you know what kind of succulent you have, you can do some research to find watering advice and care instructions specific to your plant, as well as pictures of what the species looks like when overwatered or underwatered.
These succulents are in bloom. They’ll need more water to encourage growth.
Although cacti might seem unchanging, they do have a season of growth. Most succulents grow during the spring and summer, and are dormant during the winter. This isn’t always the case, plants such as the Christmas cactus flower in the winter.
Once you figure out what the growing season is for your succulent, you’ll want to water it more during these months. When plants are growing, they’ll need extra water in order to get the nutrition they need to actually grow, instead of just surviving through the summer.
During the dormant months, you can water less often. Plants no longer need the extra water, so it can be easy to overwater them during the winter months.
Outdoor cacti need to withstand harsh conditions and may need to be watered more frequently.
Of course, this changes if your plants live indoors. The climate control will affect their growing season and their dormancy period will be much shorter.
However, they actually need less water than outdoor plants even though their growing season is longer. This is because succulents outside loose water to wind and are exposed to higher temperatures and more direct sunlight.
Inside, nothing is competing with the succulents for water, so they retain a lot more moisture for longer. One thing that can change this, though, is the kind of pot you use. Terracotta pots have porous sides that dry out the soil more quickly, while plastic pots will hold in moisture for longer.
Young succulents are growing at much faster speeds, which means they need more nutrients.
Did you know the age of your succulent also matters? Younger plants are still growing quickly, so they need more water to enable growth. Older cacti are still growing, just at a much slower pace. They don’t need as much water.
The size of your plant also matters. Though you may assume larger plants need more water, this isn’t always the case. Large cacti will need lots of water but less frequently. Their ratio of surface area to volume means they aren’t losing water as quickly, so you don’t need to water as often as you do small plants that are still growing.
If you are attempting to propagate succulents, meaning replanting leaves or cuttings to start a new plant, you’ll need to water pretty often. For leaves and cuttings, I recommend using a spray bottle. This allows you to wet the soil without drenching the leaves.
You should water leaves and cuttings about once every other day until they have strong roots and the new plant is beginning to grow. You can then gradually water less often, following the other information in this guide.
Signs of Over or Under Watering
I mentioned earlier that it’s important to look for signs that your succulent has been over or underwatered. So, how can you tell whether your plant is getting the right amount of water or not? Here are some common plant problems and their cause.
This cactus was overwatered and developed root rot. I’m propagating some of the healthiest stems to try and revive it.
Overly plump and mushy. If your plant feels mushy to the touch or seems to sag, it could be a sign of overwatering. Since succulents and cacti store water in their leaves and stems, the plant will look mushy if it’s overly-filled with water.
Spots of rot or rotting roots. Root rot is one of the most common problems from overwatering. You won’t see the roots unless you are repotting, in which case root rot will cause them to look orange or brown instead of white.
Base of the plant is brown. A browning plant could be a sign of overwatering. The brown discoloration will start at the base and work its way up, since it’s a sign of root rot.
Sometimes an underwatered succulent will show obvious signs of dryness, like yellowing and dead leaves.
Limp leaves or stems. While an overwatered plant can become so full of water that it hangs, an underwatered plant will be droopy and thin. Instead of feeling mushy when you press on the leaves, it will feel limp and fragile.
Pale coloring. If your succulent begins to show discoloration, it could be a sign that it isn’t getting enough water. Thirsty plants will begin to look pale and colorless. They may also appear yellowish.
Shriveled and visibly dry. If a cactus is severely underwatered it will look visibly dry. The stems may be brittle and the edges of leaves may begin to turn yellow and flaky. Usually it’s better to underwater plants than to overwater them. As you give the plant water, you’ll probably notice improvement within a couple of days.
Other Elements of Cactus Care
Water is one of the most important elements in caring for your cactus and a common problem area. But it isn’t the only element that matters when it comes to making sure your cacti and succulents can grow well. Here are some other factors to consider:
Cacti thrive with plenty of light, but they don’t usually want constant, direct sun.
Although you may think that because cacti grow in deserts, they should get as much sunlight as possible, this isn’t always true. Succulents can actually get sunburned, especially if there is water on the leaves that will amplify the sunlight.
Often plants that are getting too little light will end up growing bent toward their source of light. If a plant is getting too much sunlight, the ends of the leaves might start turning brown or the succulent may show signs of discoloration.
Although cacti and succulents can grow in rocks and harsh conditions, they do best with proper soil and care.
Succulents need a specific blend of soil that won’t hold in moisture for too long. Remember, these plants don’t want their roots to soak up too much water, so you need a soil with good drainage.
Cactus and succulent soil often includes peat moss, sand, perlite, and potting soil. Make sure your soil drains well without draining too quickly, since the roots do need some time to soak up the nutrients.
I’ve found that my cacti do best in terracotta pots that allow for quick drainage.
The Right Container
If your succulents are outside in a garden, you don’t need to worry about their container. But if you have indoor plants, the container you place them in does actually matter. I love terracotta pots for my succulents, since the porous surface allows moisture to drain more quickly.
Plastic pots will hold in more moisture, so you’ll want to water your plants less frequently. You can also keep succulents in ceramic containers. Just make sure that your container has a hole at the bottom for drainage or a proper setup with layers of rocks and pebbles at the bottom of the container to make sure the succulent isn’t sitting in wet soil.
With the proper care, cacti and succulents can live for years and grow to impressive sizes.
This guide should help you figure out the right amount of water for your plant. Remember, these are hardy plants and can handle some trial and error. If you’re worried, you can take notes as you adjust the amount of water and frequency between watering.
When your plant is under the right conditions, you’ll know. The leaves will be vibrant and plump without being mushy or droopy, and you should start to see new growth during the spring or summer.