They’re from the same family; in fact, cacti (plural, cactus, singular)—are part of the larger group of plants known as succulents. The primary difference between the two is the exterior; succulents have smooth skins; cacti have spiny skins. Most succulents and cacti originated in dry areas with high temperatures and low precipitation. Therefore, they have adapted to collect and store water when rain is available, which allows them to survive long, dry periods. Contrary to popular belief, these plants do need ample water. It’s just when there’s a lack of water, they are often able to survive from water they’ve stored up in their leaves or body structures. Kind of like the water absorbing pellets you might add to your potted plant which release moisture back into the soil when it becomes dry.
Many cacti and succulents do well as house plants, and in warmer climates, they make interesting additions to the garden as well. Inside, they require bright light, so place them near a south or southwest facing window. Take them outside in late spring or early summer when the temperatures have warmed to at least 80 degrees. But keep in mind that, like any houseplant, they can become sunburned if they are not first acclimatized to the hot sun. Let them spend a few days in light shade, and then move them to filtered sunlight for a few more days to “toughen up.” Keep a close watch for a few days; if they begin to change colors to a lighter green or even a tan color, they are getting sunburned. But usually, they’ll be ready to move to full sun within a couple of weeks.
When potting up cacti or succulents, here are a few tips to help you get them off to a good start:
- Plant in a wide pot, rather that tall and deep; it suits their rambling roots.
- Use a potting soil made especially for growing succulents and cacti. Contrary to popular belief, cacti won’t grow well in just sand. You can create your own mix by using equal amounts of a regular potting soil and builder’s sand. (Do not use play sand.)
- Before adding the soil to the pot, place a layer of pebbles or broken clay pot shards in the bottom of the pot to allow better drainage. Wet roots will kill cacti and succulents.
- When handling a cactus to pot it up, use a pair of kitchen tongs or wear thick leather “rose gloves.” When handling a larger cactus, use a rolled- up newspaper and wrap the cactus in it.
- Don’t overwater cacti or succulents; it may cause the roots to rot. But, when you water, water well with lukewarm—not cold—water and then allow it to dry out between waterings.
- During winter months when there is less sunlight, water thoroughly when you water, but do it less frequently and be sure to empty the saucer beneath the pot of any water that has drained from the pot. Don’t let the pot sit in water! Let the soil dry out completely before watering again.
- Remember, these plants will require more frequent watering during the hot summer months and less during the low-light winter months, probably just once a month.
- These plants have relatively low nutrient requirements. Fertilize only once or twice a year, during late spring and mid-summer when they are growing. You can purchase a fertilizer made especially for cacti and succulents, or use Miracle Grow, diluted to half strength.
If you live in zones above 9, you can still create your own cactus and succulent garden outside. Locate an area in your yard that gets full sun and create a mound of soil—any kind—at least three feet deep and as wide as you want. Then bury your pots of cactus and succulents to the rim and add mulch to hide the rims and cover the soil. Viola! Instant “south-of-the- border” garden. Remove the pots from the ground in autumn, wash them off and take them inside to spend the winter.