A wide variety of cacti plants are available to grow in pots or in the ground, and most are very easy to care for. Each type of cactus will have its own preferences for soil, water, light and temperature. Some will grow quickly while others may take many years to reach their adult size. Lithops are small cacti that are less than one inch tall while Yucca will grow over three feet tall. Choose each cactus carefully while considering the environment and landscaping needs.
Most cacti can thrive when grown in a pot if they receive the correct amount of water, light and food. When purchasing a cactus avoid choosing one that does not look healthy or has spindly growth. Repot the plant into a new pot that is ½ the height of the adult plant for cactus that will grow vertically such as a Myrtle cactus. For round cacti such as a Pincushion Cactus use a planter that is two inches larger than the adult plant.
Repot into a dry pot with a fresh mixture of soil, gravel and sand. The specific mixture will be determined by the natural habitat of the cactus. A cactus native to Texas may need a mix of one part potting soil, one part gravel, and one part washed sand. A plant native to higher elevations may require more sand to mimic its natural dry conditions. Add a layer of small pea gravel over the top of the soil to help preserve moisture and help with even distribution of water.
Start a regular feeding program to provide nutrients over the course of the year. Most cacti will grow better with several small feedings spread throughout the year. Time-release plant food can be added to the soil in the spring or water with a dilute solution of plant food three times a year.
Keep the plant in a sunny spot where it will get sun most of the day and is out of the way of drafts, particularly in the winter in northern climates. Direct sun is not a requirement and may burn a young cactus. Water regularly to keep the soil moist during the growing season. Growing season will be either spring and summer for a North American native or fall and winter for a South American native plant. Never allow the soil to become completely dry. Test it by pressing a wooden dowel or pencil down through the soil to the bottom of the pot. Pull out the dowel and check the length of the wood. If a bit of damp soil clings to the pencil do not water. Monitor the plant regularly.
Cacti occur naturally in warm, arid climates and will not grow outside where there is snow and ice. A cactus garden or landscape may be the best choice for environmental and economic reasons in arid locations such as Arizona and Texas. Choose cacti that will be able to survive local climate changes and variances in rainfall. Plan to use a large rock or a native plant to shade the cacti from afternoon sun. Young cacti will burn in too much direct sunlight. Choose a location where there will be a lot of sun in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Once a location has been chosen dig out the area to a depth of approximately six inches. Mix one part potting soil, one part sand, and one part gravel together to create a mix that will provide nutrients and adequate drainage for the new cacti. Place rocks or landscape edging on the ground around the outside edge of the hole and fill the hole with the soil mix. Keep adding the soil mix until it reaches the top of the rocks or landscaping. This will create a raised bed that ensures proper water drainage as improper drainage kills more cacti than winter.
Set the plants where you want them in the garden before digging holes to verify the placement of each. Remember to provide afternoon shade in the form of a larger native plant or a large rock. Dig a hole just big enough for the roots while leaving the cactus body on top. If the cactus is not winter hardy leave it in the pot and bury the pot. This will facilitate removing the cactus and taking it inside during the cold months of winter.
Water the plants a little bit, but do not soak the ground. Keep watering every two weeks, unless it rains, until the plants take root. Watering should not be necessary again unless there is a prolonged drought. Fertilize the plants annually with a good houseplant food, but don’t overfeed.
Cacti do not show the same signs of stress due to drought as other plants. Generally it is a good idea to water if the top inch of soil is dry. Check the plant regularly if it is inside and never let the pot sit in water. Most cacti will tolerate a range of temperatures similar to their native location. If the plant becomes too hot or cold it will go dormant. If possible move the plant outside in the summer as this will help in its growth. Place the cactus in partial shade when it is first moved outside and slowly move it to a more sunny location.
Growing cactus can be a fun and satisfying gardening experience. The wide variety of plants available provides choices for every type of landscaping or decorative need.