Comfortable with cacti

Zahra Ali introduces us to the cactus as a hardy but rewarding house plant

Comfortable with cacti
Stunning succulents and cacti have long been appreciated for being the toughest house plants. These humble plants need little water, space and attention to thrive – mostly likely because that is how nature designed them to tolerate harsh desert envionments.

But even though these plants thrive with fewer resources, we sometimes fail to understand this and treat them like regular plants – which makes them grow either slower or too fast. Tough though they may be, they can rot, decay and even die if improperly handled.

Here are some basic practices that will help you connect with your cacti and succulent plants quickly.

Propagating Cacti

The best and fastest way to multiply your cactus is to separate baby plants and repot. You can also sow the seeds and let them grow. Cacti are slow-growing plants and it will take some time for the new plants to establish roots and show progress. Do not lose hope!

Once your cacti are big enough to be moved to new pots, use sturdy gloves or layers of newspaper to transplant. Place the newly potted plant in shade until its roots are established. Gradually introduce it to the full sun. You may have to repeat this process many times during the plant’s life to match its growth.

Fertilise young plants

Cacti naturally grow slow but you can compensate that by fertilising during summer and spring. They need little fertiliser as compared to other plants but they will appreciate light liquid organic or natural fertilisers after each two or three watering sessions during the growing months – while they are still young. Refer to the fertiliser pack for specific instructions regarding quantities needed.

It is important to note that not all cacti will prefer the same type or amount of fertilisers!
It is better to under-water than to over-water when it comes to cacti!

Water infrequently to avoid rot

It often happens that new gardeners make the mistake of over-watering their cacti while trying to take care of the plant – when they should be watering with much less frequency

Moist or wet soil in a cactus pot attracts many problems. One of the most common is fungal rot or root rot. This problem arises when the roots are in constant contact with wet soil that doesn’t drain as quickly as the plants prefer.

A backyard cactus garden

It is better to under-water than to over-water when it comes to cacti!

If your plant is suffering from fungal rot, it may appear dull, brownish, decayed and soft. It may also have splits around the skin. It will not always start from the bottom. Once your plants have developed this problem, there is not much that you can do to save them. If the root damage is extensive, then it may be best to simply discard the plant, so as to prevent the disease from spreading.

Introduce sunlight to an etiolated cactus

Cacti need lots of sunlight to survive. When they are kept in shade, signs of the plants etiolating begin to appear. The plants may look pale and sick. They may experience slower growth and exhibit a light green colour that indicates that they are not receiving enough sunlight.

Although the slow pale growth cannot be reversed, you do not need to throw away your plant either. Gradually introduce it to sunlight instead – until the growth becomes normal.

Don’t panic if you notice ‘corking’

As cacti grow old, the bottom may begin to get dry and cracked. This makes it seem as though something wrong were happening to the plant and the nice green texture is replaced by a seemingly dead, split texture. But most of the times, there is nothing to worry about. This is called ‘corking’ and it occurs naturally. However, if you see similar conditions on other parts of the plant then it may be a problem.

Love and appreciate your cacti!

Nature has produced much diversity in desert plants. Cacti stand out for their extraordinary structure, unique textures and eye-catching vibrant blooms that attract many pollinators. Cacti are also a great source of nutrition for animals, birds and even humans. They perform brilliantly as house plants, especially when one cannot spend dedicated hours taking care of plants that require more attention.

So go ahead and add some cacti to your garden or window sill. They will never disappoint you.  n

Zahra Ali is a sustainability educator, writer and environmentalist. She blogs at Send in questions about gardening to