3 Easy Steps for Cactus Care and Planting

Planting a cactus (or several cacti) is a great way to spruce up your landscape without breaking the bank or taking away from other landscaping. These plants, also known as succulents, are notorious for their ability to thrive in hot, arid climates, making them perfect for Arizona. Common types include the Saguaro, Prickly Pear, Cholla, and Organ Pipe, to name a few. The cactus is also a relatively maintenance-free plant, taking much of the busy work out of your day-to-day landscaping duties. With that said, there are a few important things you need to know in order to successfully plant, grow and care for cactus in Arizona.

Step One: To Pot or Not to Pot, That is the Question

Generally speaking, you have two options for planting your cactus: in a pot or in the ground. If you’re planning on purchasing a baby cactus (especially if you’re buying during the winter months) it may be a good idea to start with a pot and then transplant it into your garden or landscape at the start of the subsequent summer season to ensure proper growth. Most cacti cannot efficiently absorb water from cold soil, so for a fledgling baby cactus, keeping it potted and inside the home with southern exposure is a good plan to ensure it gets the start in life it needs. Use a medium consisting of one part potting mix (not potting soil), one part washed sand, and one part coarse gravel or pumice.

If you plan on buying a larger, more mature cactus and want to plant it outdoors right away, it’s again best to wait for the start of the summer season, but it’s not necessary. Simply choose an area of your landscape that receives copious amounts of sunlight and works well with the type of cactus you’ve purchased. If you plan on buying a Saguaro, for instance, you wouldn’t want to plant it with anything directly above it, as this species grows quite tall and produces arms that may get in the way of other landscaping/structures. For new baby cacti being planted outside, adding a bit of shade cloth or other brush cover will help it adjust to its new surroundings and can eventually be removed as the cactus grows and becomes stronger.

Step Two: Planting Your Cactus

Now that you’ve chosen your cactus and decided where to plant it, you’ve already won half the battle. But before you actually plant it, you want to make sure that the area you’re planting in has sufficient drainage. One of the biggest enemies to cactus is standing water, which can rot the roots and kill the plant. To ensure that you’ve chosen the right spot, simply dig a hole a little less than a foot deep and fill it halfway with water. Allow a half hour to pass and then return. Do you see standing water? If so, line the hole with some sand and rock to allow for better drainage and then go about planting your cactus according to that species’ specifications. Water and fertilize for the first time and voila, you’re off to the races!

Step Three: Cactus Upkeep and Maintenance

Once you’ve planted your cactus and it’s become established, most of the work is done. Cacti are tough, resilient plants that don’t require much water or maintenance. For outdoor cacti, water about 1-2 times per month during April through August if rain hasn’t been abundant. During the cooler winter months water at most once a month; some cactus growers even swear by not watering at all during this time period. Gauge this for yourself by keeping an eye on the cactus. If it’s becoming increasingly hard and the soil is bone dry consider watering a bit. For fertilization simply use a water-soluble cactus fertilizer twice a year, late April through August. It’s advisable not to fertilize during the cactus’ dormant period (November through March).

For indoor cactus, water only when necessary (same rules as above apply). Overwatering is probably you’re cactus’ biggest threat, so when in doubt, hold off. For fertilization, try time-release cactus food (you get about 6 months of fertilization per application) or use a half teaspoon of bone meal or limestone every couple months.

Cacti are fun, easy and beautiful plants, but it’s important to remember that they live for a very long time (50-200 years depending on the type), so if you don’t want a long-term plant, it’s best to choose something else.  If you have any additional questions about how to plant or care for a cactus or other outdoor plants, contact Earthtones Landscape Management.