Cacti don’t need very much attention to survive, right? Actually, that’s one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to keeping desert dwelling plants indoors, and now that summer is in full swing we should be tending to our cacti and other succulents once every week or so to make sure they stay healthy for another year.
This is something we have learned a lot about since we first started collecting indoor plants many years ago, and something we cover in much more detail in our debut book 'House of Plants', which will be published this November.
Considering their arid natural habitat where they often have to withstand long periods of drought, it's an easy mistake to make, and something many of our customers ask us about. Although cacti and succulents do store water in their stems and leaves much more efficiently than other kinds of plants, during spring and summer months they enter their active growth period, and start to produce new stems, leaves and offsets. The most important factors are natural light and drainage; as long as they have plenty of direct sunlight and their roots never sit in excess water, you can confidently give them plenty of water without any worry of harming them.
It's true that some species will survive for years without any attention at all, but they also won't be particularly active or healthy, and are likely to suddenly give up and die. If you see your succulents as more than just a novelty display, and are keen to see them self propagate and ultimately develop into old age, it's really important to keep tending to them until the start of Autumn, when they enter a dormant period and can generally be left to themselves.
When it comes to how to water your succulents, we find that a good soak from below is the easiest method. To allow good drainage, pots should have a drainage hole, and you can line smaller pots up in a larger watering dish to speed things up. Make sure to empty their drainage tray once the top of the plant's soil is damp to the touch. This is to avoid root rot, which is hands down the biggest killer of succulents. Otherwise, simply water from above with a spouted watering can, making sure not to splash the leaves or stems of the plant if possible. Never, ever spray desert cacti or succulents. They thrive in hot, dry air and will quickly grow bacteria if you mist them or keep them in a room with lots of humidity.
The only exception to this is forest cacti (generally the long and trailing sort) such as Rhipsalis, which are used to dappled sunlight and much more consistent moisture, therefore requiring quite different living conditions in your home.
These types of cacti suffer in the full heat of the sun, so it's important to keep them in a spot where they can enjoy plenty of indirect light. Since they are used to more humid environments, when it comes to watering forest cacti in the spring and summer it is important to make sure their soil never fully dries out, adding more water when the soil loses most of its moisture but at the same time making sure their roots never sit in excess water.
Forest cacti are also quite particular about the type of water you use, preferring soft water which contains less calcium. Rainwater is ideal, and you can simply collect it outside in a bowl or bucket to transfer to a watering can or bottle.
Finally, make sure to water succulents in the morning so that they can absorb all they need before nightfall, emptying any excess water before you go to bed. It's all about getting into a simple routine - your succulents will thank you for it.Photography by Erika Raxworthy