I am definitely no cactus and succulent expert and I have lost my share along the way. I am learning and have learned step-by-step since 2009 when I started plant collecting.
Cactus and succulents are not hard to grow as long as you follow a few basic rules. Soil, water, light, and temperature are of course the basic needs of any plant. Cactus and succulents need a fast-draining mix. I like a mix that soaks up and drains almost as fast as I put the water in.
Some sites recommend this and that recipe with many ingredients I can’t find locally. Miracle Grow Cactus and Palm mix still has a lot of peat and not much different than their regular potting mix. The problem with peat is that it can retain a lot of moisture at certain times then is hard to soak up water after it becomes dry. I have found Schultz Potting soil to have less large chunks of bark to throw out but it is still peat based. I mix 2 parts with 1 part of chicken grit with 1 part perlite. I tried a cheap potting soil with less peat and after I added grit and perlite, it soon became hard as a brick. Many cactus and succulent growers are recommending using pumice instead of perlite now. Some even say use a “peatless” mix which I have never heard of… I must admit, my recipe is simple and it works well for a while as long as the pots get regular watering when outside. After I bring them inside and withhold water, the mix gets very hard. That is NOT good so I need to change my formula. A good porous mix is not only essential for drainage, but also for oxygen for the roots. DO NOT use sand in your mix as it will fill in needed spaces for air. I am still going to experiment because if you like cactus and succulents, you need to get the soil right.
I found a source for pumice from General Pumice Products in 2018. They offer three sizes, 1/8″, 3/8″, and 3/16″ depending on the size of your pots. They come in 3 1/2 gallon bags and I paid $27.00 but last time I checked the price is $28.99. Shipping was free when I ordered. In some areas in the west you can find a product called Dry Stall (NOT STALL DRY!) that many cactus and succulent enthusiasts use. I think you can find it at horse supply stores because people use it in their horse stalls. It is pumice…
I also tried the commercial potting soil the four local greenhouses use. It worked very well, but it has A LOT of perlite in the mix. It also did not have timed-release fertilizer because they foliar feed their plants.
I also experimented with repotting the cactus before I brought them in for the winter. That way their soil was fresh and stayed loose all winter long. That worked very well.
I also would like to experiment with coir.
Light during the summer is a little more than just giving them full sun. Just because they are cactus and succulents doesn’t mean they like or need full sun, especially in the hottest months of the year. If you have kept your cactus and succulents inside over the winter, you need to gradually introduce your plants to more light once outside. Putting them in an area where they can get ample morning sun and light shade the remainder of the day is good. You can also just put them in the sun for an hour or so then bring them back inside. Gradually, you can keep them out longer. Follow recommendations on the label or online to see what type of light they prefer. Some plants, such as Aloe, like the sun but their leaves will burn. This may not hurt them but they won’t look very good. Plants that need more sun will stretch if they don’t have enough light. This makes them look weird, too.
Light in the winter can also be tricky. They need as much light as possible, especially in warm rooms, or they can stretch. Cooler winter temperatures inside is good, especially where light isn’t adequate. It is a very tricky time of the year for sure and one I haven’t mastered yet here in Missouri. The mansion in Mississippi has several sunrooms, so the light was never a real issue. Cactus give fewer problems but some succulents, like Echeveria, can stretch (etiolate) and get all out of shape. Then you need to regrow them. Well, some plants need that anyway from time to time.
Water in the warmer months is easy. Water thoroughly as with the other plants but let them dry between watering. They get plenty when it rains and as long as the pots drain fast, there is no problem. Then when the rain stops and the temps get warm, water them when they get dry, preferably in the late afternoon after the sun has passed over them and they are in the shade… I would never recommend watering cactus and succulents in the sun or even in the morning before the sun gets to them… Plants need to be dry when they are in the sun or their leaves can scald. Aloe can boil if water is sitting in the rosettes when they are in full sun in the summer. I know, because I boiled my Aloe x ‘Wunderkind’ because I watered one morning instead of in the late afternoon. I never did that before and never again.
During the winter you need to not to water your succulents unless they are shriveling and screaming. Then give them just a little even though you might think they need to soak, but even then not very often. That is NOT a good idea in the winter. Some growers prefer to just mist them instead of watering the soil. I have done this and it seems to work pretty well. Some succulents with larger leaves like Kalanchoe, for example, will start wrinkling when they need a little water.
Succulents with fat, fuzzy leaves are always very tricky for me. They shrivel up over the winter even though some of them are supposedly summer dormant. It makes me think the dormacy table is whacky! I am so tempted to give them water even though it is a no no. Even though the soil is dry, DON’T. If they die, just try it again. Practice makes perfect.
There are also rules to repotting that are important… Cactus and succulents don’t normally have large root systems, but there are exceptions (such as Aloe). Because of this, they do not need much more soil that they have roots. This is much better and it helps to prevent them from being overwatered. The problem is finding the “just right” pots. When repotting, just increase the pot size by 1/2-1” diameter and try to find the shallowest pots you can. There have been times my succulents were doing great then died after I repotted them. Also, some succulents shrink during the winter months so a once seemingly tight pot becomes almost too big.
If you are a cactus and succulent newbie, try plants that are fairly easy at first. Avoid those with fat, fuzzy leaves. 🙂 Cactus species, such as Mammillaria are easy to grow. Well, there are a lot of cacti that are easy. Avoid Echeveria because they will only frustrate you during the winter unless you have a bright, sunny window. A south exposure is best but you then have to worry about temperature. Cooler temps are best for overwintering in my opinion, which allows them to rest better. Just keep their soil dry.
Well, I better stop for now. I am sure I will wake up during the night with more to say, though. If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, I would like to hear from you. Especially if you have suggestions! Please leave a “like” below if you have read this page. It helps keep us bloggers motivated. You can click on the links below for further information…
wow! just found your blog and enjoyed reading. I started using coir for my succulents about 4-5 years ago (1/3 coir, 1/3 miracle grow top soil, 1/3 perlite). It seems to work for me. I’m in the bay area of California so my weather is mild- no frost in the winter. Thanks for the very detailed succulent photos and descriptions.
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Hello Rick! I have been wondering about using coir so I may be trying that this summer. You should see if you can find pumice. I have good results with it. I am glad you enjoyed my blog. Thanks for the comment!
Great blog 🙂
I live in Denmark (as in northern Europe), in an apartment with a East-facing balcony as my only alternative to my window sills. Luckily, I can open and close the upper balcony windows, to provide air, and protect them from rain when needed. The balcony gets sun from the early morning in the summertime, and until around 12:30. This doesn’t sound like much, especially on an East-facing balcony, but some plants get too much light after all, mostly when I have just purchased them from a shady store. The temperature on the balcony during the summer lies between 18 and 30° Celsius.
In the winters, most plants can stay outside, but the Danish winters are unpredictable. Some winters are very rainy, with temperatures between 10-15° Celsius, in others it can get down to -10° Celsius. Inside I am going to use artificial plant light in one of the window sills, for the plants that need bright conditions in the wintertime. But as you mention, the winters can be difficult for the plants.
The soil I use is of course different from one species to the other, but mostly when I repot them, my standard mix is 50% common houseplant mix, and 50% fine gravel. As drainage (if the plants are planted in large pots without drainage holes, as some are), I use Leca, or in smaller pots, corks from wine bottles. Either the corks go right in, or I slice them up if there isn’t much room in the bottom of the pots.
My cacti are:
Acanthocereus tetragonus “Fairy Castle” (2 different variants)
Cereus repandus var. monstrosus cv. “Rojo” (Red spines)
Cereus repandus var. monstrosus (Brown spines)
Cylindropuntia fulgida var. cristata
Echinopsis Rainbow Burst?
Matucana aurantiaca subsp. polzii
Opuntia microdasys “albata” or Opuntia Albispina (Not sure if they are the same)
Opuntia compressa or humifusa (Not sure)
Rebutia heliosa var. cajasensis
A unidentified cactus, possibly a Echinocererus coccineus var. gurneyi
My succulents are:
Aloe zebrina cv. Dannyz
Brighamia insignis or B. rockii (Can’t tell until it flowers, probably extinct in it’s native habitat)
Crassula argentea compacta possibly a “Crosby’s compact”
Crassula variegata Mini (Not sure yet, I picked up a tiny piece, dropped in a flower shop)
Dracaena trifasciata var. laurentii
Echeveria (A pinkish-purplish beauty, uncertain species)
Euphorbia (Possibly a E. eritrea, not sure)
Haworthia (Uncertain species)
Kalanchoe humilis “Desert Surprise”
Sempervivum (Some common, but unidentified species)
A unidentified succulent, possibly a Aloe deltoideodonta var. brevifolia
As you can imagine, there’s not much room for partying on my balcony, just enough room for two chairs and two small tables, plus the bigger pots of houseplants enjoying the summer sun, grass for the cat, a tomato plant, a Japanese maple, a big Euphorbia, a Olea and a big Aloe vera. My cat occupies one chair, and I the other.
I have loved both plants and animals all my life, and I try to do my the best with all of them. But life is a learning process, although as time passes, you tend to become good at what you love to do.
Please keep up the excellent work 🙂
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Hello again Kelb! It looks like you have a GREAT list of cactus and succulents! When we enjoy plants we always make a way to live in harmony with them. Finding adequate space for them inside durng the winter ca be a challenge, but as you say, it is a learning process. Thanks for sending your list of plants! Take care and thanks for the comment!