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How to Care for Your Cactus, the Sharpest-Looking Houseplant of Them All

Tehrene Firman

Tehrene FirmanJune 11, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images / Oscar Wong

Cacti might seem like they’re easier to care for than other plants, but there are a lot of misconceptions about them. Whether you already have cactus plants in your home or you’re thinking about picking up a few from your local greenhouse, these are the things you need to learn about how to care for a cactus.

How much light your cactus needs

Cacti don’t need to be sitting in the sun all day every day, but providing a cactus with 10 to 14 hours of sunlight a day is best, according to Planet Desert, a cacti and succulent nursery in Southern California.

Desert plants are on the opposite schedule of normal houseplants. They utilize CAM photosynthesis, where they essentially make their food in the dark opposed to during daytime hours. So, that time out of the sun is important. Also, be sure to rotate your cacti on a monthly basis, as they grow toward the light. This will keep them growing nice and tall.

How to water your cactus correctly

There are so many differing opinions when it comes to watering cacti. Generally speaking, though, you rarely need to water your cactus when it’s not in its growing season. According to Manuel Diaz of East Coast Camanchaca, the roots aren’t sucking in any of the moisture during that time, and watering them could cause root rot. The general consensus is watering plants once a month during this period.

However, during the growing season—typically from the middle of March to the end of September—that changes. Water your plants about every 7 to 10 days, when the soil is completely dry. If it’s at all damp, wait it out. Then when you do water, don’t be shy. One of the biggest mistakes people make is giving their cactus a tiny bit of water once it comes time to water them. Instead, you should be giving them a nice soak.

Water the cactus until water drains out of the bottom of the pot. “You want to make sure the entire root structure gets wet, because that helps promote growth,” Diaz said in a YouTube video. “A healthy root system is what’s going to make your plant thrive.” Make sure it isn’t left sitting in water, though. Allow it to fully drain before placing it back into its decorative pot or saucer.

Pests to watch out for

There are two primary pests that target cacti: scale insects and mealybugs, both of which cause damage by sucking juices from the plant. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, scale insects look like small dome-shaped shells that are attached to the cactus. Mealybugs, on the other hand, are oval-shaped. Both have a white, cottony appearance. The good news is both pests can typically be removed with a q-tip dipped in diluted rubbing alcohol.

When to repot your cactus

In order for your cactus to grow big and strong, you have to make sure you’re giving it enough space to thrive. Greenery Unlimited recommends repotting every 2 to 3 years in the spring or summer months, placing it into a pot that’s 2 to 4 inches larger than what it’s currently in. After repotting, be sure to avoid watering the plant for up to a week. This gives it time to recover from the shock of being moved.

If you’re not sure how to move a cactus without getting pricked, tough gardening gloves and bubble wrap will be your new best friend. If you gently wrap a couple layers of bubble wrap around it before grabbing on, you’ll be much less likely to get poked—or wind up with a spine stuck in your hands or fingers. Trust me.

Where to buy a cactus

While there are many different places you can buy a cactus in person, such as a local greenhouse or plant store, you can also buy some cool plants online that will be shipped right to your door. Now that you know how to care for a cactus, it’s time to bring one into you life.

1. BLOOMSCAPE, $80

how to care for cactus
Photo: Bloomscape

Bloomscape’s prickly pear cactus is already a great size at 13 to 20 inches tall. It also comes potted in premium soil, making it easy for you to care for it.

2. Home Depot, $36

Photo: Home Depot

If you want to start your cactus collection off with a bang, you can get nine mini 2.5-inch cacti shipped to your home. There’s a diverse collection, too.

3. ETSY, $23

how to care for cactus
Photo: Plants From Home

If you want some cool cacti finds that aren’t at typical greenhouses, try Etsy. There are thousands of shops around the world that sell stunning live plants. Just note that many of them are shipped bare-rooted, so you’ll need a pot ready to go when it arrives. This is a great option for when you get more comfortable caring for cacti.

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