Gardening Tips

‘I’m the Plant Doctor, and Everything You’ve Heard About Cactus and Succulent Care Is Probably Wrong’

When the pandemic took hold of New York City last March, and Well+Good's office closed, I never got the chance to collect my pride and joy—a small, ridiculously cute cactus that lived on my desk. As the months passed, I gave up any hope that it might survive. When I finally went to collect my belonging in September, I found it clinging to life! It withstood the neglect, it didn't like it. While very much alive, the cactus was skinny from using its water reserves. Contrary to popular belief, some succulents and cacti need more attention than we think they do.

"When I first became a plant parent, I kind of went overboard with cacti and succulents because I heard that they were some of the easiest to care for and they thrive off of neglect," says plant doctor Maryah Greene. "However, I didn't realize that there are so many differences between the different types and some prefer more water than others."

Greene shares what you should know about succulent and cactus care in the latest episode of Greene Thumb by Well+Good, a new series on the Well+Good YouTube channel all about plant care. We often treat these plant varieties as a monolith, which Greene says is wrong and can lead to improper care.

"There are over 6,500 species of succulents," says Greene. "Long ago in evolutionary history, cacti actually had leaves. But over time, they evolved to transition so that they could live in their changing climate. As their climate changed and became more dry, they started storing water, and they dropped off their leaves, and eventually, they started shifting in shape, which is why they look a bit taller and rounder like they do now."

In this episode, Greene debunks common myths and shares some good-to-know succulent and cactus care facts.

The most important things to know about succulent and cactus care

1. Succulents need water

"A pretty common misconception is that succulents rarely need water," says Greene. "It actually depends on the type of succulents and the region, that it originated from." For example, some succulents such as aloes and haworthias evolved in regions that got a lot of rain at one period of time followed by periods of drought.

"This aloe vera plant is a perfect example of a succulent that can hold a lot of water in its leaves," says Greene. "You might have seen them grow pretty big and deserts, but even at home, they can get pretty large and leaf size."

In addition to considering the type of succulent you have, you also have to adjust watering for the time of year. "This will dictate how often and how much water it should receive," she says.

2. You should always water succulents first thing in the morning

"Another misconception that I hear from my clients all the time, is that succulents can be watered, just about any time of day," says Greene. "They actually prefer to be watered in the morning, especially before the sun becomes the strongest."

3. Succulents don't need to be repotted that often

"[Succulents] don't need to be repotted as often as other houseplants," says Greene. "Most succulents grow pretty slowly, as you might know. But they also don't want to go into something too big because too much soil will keep the plant, way too moist, and as you also know soil needs to be dry." For smaller succulents, consider a small planter with a drainage hole, like the below pot that's 4-inches wide and 3-inches tall.

You'll also want to make sure you're using the right soil. "You can often purchase your own succulent cacti soil for if you're feeling adventurous, you can make your own," says Greene. "You can use regular house bare soil, and just add a little bit of perlite sand or an extra drainage stone."

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