Cactus Care

Potting Cactus Plants

Pot cacti and other succulents in containers that are as small as possible.

Choosing the correct size pot and type of soil are essential for the survival of your cactus or succulent plant.

This section will teach you everything you need to know about correctly potting your cactus or succulent plant including choosing the correct pot size and soil type, how to pot or repot your plant, how to knock out a plant, and how to handle spiny plants.


Cacti and other succulents can be kept in a dish garden when small. The clay trays often used for bonsai are very good for a start.

When the plants get too big they can be transplanted into their own pots. If you keep the plants dry they will stay the same size whether the temperature is 45°F or 85°F. If you water the plants when the temperature is low or while they are dormant they will rot.

Don't overpot. Overpotting often leads to rotting of roots. If the plant is top heavy, put the smaller pot inside a larger pot and fill the space between the two with gravel. This will give the plant a heavy enough base without running the risk of rot.

Pot Size

Pot cacti and other succulents in containers that are as small as possible. For cacti, use a pot just large enough to fit the plant. For other succulents, use a pot just slightly larger than the root ball.

For some plants, the holes in the bottom of the pot do not provide enough drainage. Use a hammer and a screwdriver to make the hole larger in a clay pot. Use a hot knife or a hot ice pick for a plastic pot.

In either case, be careful not to break the pot or burn yourself. If you do break the clay pot, don't throw it away -- you can use the pieces for your next planting project.


Excellent drainage is more important than the potting material. The soil should be porous and should be spread over a deep layer of gravel or broken bricks. The spineless succulents appreciate more humus (organic matter) in their potting mix.

When we refer to types of soil, we generally refer to "heavy," "organic," and "light." Here's what those definitions mean:

Heavy. This is made of good garden soil, clay, or loam with about one-third humus. When good drainage is required, it should contain about one-third washed builder's sand or perlite.

Organic. This is soil rich in humus, leaf mold (disintegrated leaves), or some other organic material. Coarse builder's sand or perlite will improve the drainage.

Light. This means open-textured material with excellent drainage that can be kept moist but never wet. It is good for plants that in nature spend their time in trees.

How to Pot

1. Select a pot that is not too large.

2. Put sufficient drainage material in the bottom.

3. Fill it about one-third full with your potting material.

4. Test the plant for size (make sure that the plant won't be too far down in the pot nor too high above the top of the pot). Center the plant unless it's the kind that likes to travel in a horizontal direction, in which case it should be put at one edge.

5. Now, gently holding the plant where you would like it to stay, fill all the spaces between the plant and the pot with your potting medium.

6. Press the soil gently down around the roots and shake the pot so the soil will settle. If there isn't enough soil or if the soil packs down, add some more. You pack the soil more tightly around old plants than around seedlings. Leave space between the top of the medium and the top of the pot so you will have room for water.

7. Water the plant.


With a plant that is already in a pot, the procedure is pretty much the same except that you have to start by removing the plant from pot number one.

Sometimes the plant will slip out easily; but other times it's more of a problem. If the plant will not come out of the pot easily, do not yank on it. It may be better to break the container than to bruise the plant or break off its top.

How to Knock Out a Plant

If the plant is stuck in its pot, first tap the pot gently on a hard surface such as wood or concrete, and see if you can wriggle the plant out.

If that doesn't work, take a knife and gently slip it around the inside of the pot to see if the plant will now come out.

If that doesn't work, and the pot is clay, take your hammer and give the pot several sharp, controlled blows to break the pot without damaging the plant.

If the pot is plastic, use a sharp knife to cut away the pot.

When the plant is out of the pot, remove some of the soil around the root ball. If the roots look overgrown, prune some of them away.

In some plants where the roots get very, very thick, you can take a knife and just cut off the outside of the root ball including the roots. This root pruning can also be used if you want to keep your plant in the same size pot.

By pruning away some of the roots and then taking off some of the top you can keep your plant "growing on" in the same pot for years.

How to Handle Spiny Plants

Use a newspaper folded into a narrow band to handle spiny plants. Wrap the band around the plant like a belt or harness. Use a fresh band for every plant.

Gloves are not satisfactory since the large spines stab right through and the small spines break off in the glove, making the gloves uncomfortable to handle.

Cacti and other succulents are actually rather easy to propagate. In the next section, learn everything you need to know in order to propagate your plants successfully.

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