I thought cacti were easy
April 5, 2013 9:20 AM   Subscribe

I decided to pick up one of those 2.5" Golden Barrel cacti from Lowe's. And.... apparently I need to repot it and use certain soils and and and.... help?

So, I know ZERO about growing anything (except my waist size HAHAHAHAHA).

I wanted to pick up a few cacti for my office window. I decided just to start with one. It's a small Golden Barrel. I didn't realize that the flimsy black plastic container and plastic handle were supposed to be temporary (right?).
Label reads "Drought tolerant when established. Needs well-draining soil. Water thoroughly when soil is dry to the touch." I've looked up information and I've also read this previous question but I still have questions:

1. How do I know if/when I need to repot?
2. How do I prevent water and soil from leaking from the drainage hole and getting all over my windowsill? If I use something under it - will that prevent it from draining correctly?
3. How do i tell if the soil is "dry to the touch"? Does that mean I should repot him in something big enough that I can put my finger in without getting stabbed? Currently he is taking up all the space in his plastic pot.

Thanks in advance!
posted by KogeLiz to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I check the weather reports for Arizona, and when it rains there, I water. You need to use a saucer under your pot, but I usually water in a sink, let it drain and then put back on my windowsill.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:32 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, re-pot. Get something about twice or thrice the volume of what it has now. I'm not sure how cactus roots go, but if you pull it out of the plastic pot and you see roots running in circles just inside the plastic, the plant's roots won't expand in the new pot correctly. Make shallow vertical slices across the roots (only in the very exterior of the rootball) to force the roots to re-establish, which they will do where they have room to maneuver.

You could get a largish pot and add a few others plants that also won't much expand. Cacti are pretty friendly in moderately close quarters from what I've seen. Pots are sold either with or alongside fitted trays that sit underneath to catch the overflow. Put something like large stones in the bottom, then cover them with some kind of felt or material that soil won't pass through but water will. (I use packing foam in sheet-form because it's easy to come by at work.) The bottom of the pot will have some molded features or a raised rim (with water outlets) to lift the base of the pot off the tray.

Adding that drainage buffer means that it'll never sit in a puddle of water even if the tray underneath is full.

Special soil: cactus prefers a sandy, slightly stony mix; a cactus-friendly succulent mix will be commonly available everywhere you'd buy soil in a bag.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:46 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A good way of testing the dampness of soil is to get a wooden skewer and stick that in the soil. If it comes out damp you don't need to water.

As to drainage you could water the little guy by running water through the pot in the sink, which helps to prevent buildup of fertilizer/minerals, then use a small tray underneath. Just make sure water isn't sitting in the small tray.

As to repotting I'm not sure how bad the pot its in now is but I would be tempted to leave it a month or two if the pot is ok. Some plants do badly when repotted or moved and some do badly with too much space around the roots, there is also the issue that if you use a pot thats too big you'll end up with to much moisture.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 10:11 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

If the current pot is so small that you can't feel the soil without getting poked, I would definitely repot it. Get a terra cotta pot that's about 3-4x bigger than what you currently have, fill it with cactus soil (you'll find it in the same place as regular potting soil, and it will specifically say it's for cacti/succulents), top with some pebbles, and water. I have about a dozen types of cacti/succulents in my home and I water all of them roughly once every two weeks to a month. I usually bring them to the sink or take them outside, water until there is drainage coming out of the bottom, then put them on a saucer and bring them inside.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:18 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: HI, I just started a terrarium with some succulents from Brooklyn's Botanic Garden. Here's what they told me.

* Yeah, you need to repot this thing fairly soon, because he's been sitting in that too-small pot on purpose to look cute so you'd buy him. Get a bigger pot. Make sure it has a hole in the bottom; before you put the dirt in, put a rock or a broken piece of pot in there over the hole.

* They make bags of potting soil that says they're for "cacti or succulents". Make sure you get that. Then just fill the new pot with it, damp it down a little, carefully ease the cactus out of his old pot, dig a hole in the dirt in the new pot, and ease the cactus root ball into it. Fill in and tamp down the soil around it.

* Some garden shops sell sand for cactus gardens; you can put a layer of that on top.

* The "check when soil is dry to the touch" is the best way to tell - in the bigger pot, you'll have a chance to stick your finger inside and see if the soil feels damp still or if it feels dry. When it's dry, water it. Not too much.

* Most pots come with a saucer you put the pot on - that, and the rock I told you to put over the hole earlier, is what keeps water and soil from leaking out all over things. Also, the saucer is a good way to make sure you've watered enough - if you water so much that it's starting to leak out into the saucer, definitely stop.

Good luck!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:19 AM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

After you've had the cactus for a while, you'll also be able to use the weight of the pot to judge whether to water or not--a pot with wet soil in it is much heavier than a dry one.

That said, though, you want that thing to be absolutely bone dry between waterings--if you're in doubt, don't water.
posted by box at 10:43 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cactus really are easy - they will withstand neglect long enough for you to forget about them and finally remember them. I just planted several little cacti that were growing up from a piece of cactus I thought was all dried up and dead. I know plant care instructions can be really intimidating, but once you get the hang of taking care of them you see that it's not that complicated.

For you this means:

You don't even have to repot. If you want to repot, in a nicer/cuter/bigger pot, then go for it.

You could probably find a sandy type soil, but mine grow in whatever soil I use.

You can easily see that soil is dry, without touching it. If you're not sure, wait a few more days.

You can give it a little bit of water like once a week, or even once every two weeks and it'll probably be fine. Cacti *like* getting a lot of water every once in a while. Think about desert storms and flash floods. They've evolved to withstand drought, and to take whatever water they get and do the most with it at one time.

You would have to not give it water for ... maybe a month or two or more in dry weather to kill it. If you give it too much water, it'll rot and die a lot faster. So neglect it, and it'll probaby flourish.
posted by Locochona at 10:59 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can give it a little bit of water like once a week, or even once every two weeks and it'll probably be fine. Cacti *like* getting a lot of water every once in a while. Think about desert storms and flash floods. They've evolved to withstand drought, and to take whatever water they get and do the most with it at one time.

You would have to not give it water for ... maybe a month or two or more in dry weather to kill it. If you give it too much water, it'll rot and die a lot faster. So neglect it, and it'll probaby flourish.

The overall sentiment of this is true, but the timing is still way too frequent particularly if you're keeping it indoors. Water it probably once a month or even a little less frequently. When you do water it, drench it so the water soaks through the soil. If the soil is compacted such that the water sheets off without penetrating, leave the whole pot soaking in an inch or so of water for about half an hour and then take out. The reason for drenching infrequently instead of watering small amounts frequently is that healthy roots sink into the soil but if only the top of the soil ever gets wet, the roots will stay at the surface and your plant will be weaker and less stable. Also, make sure particularly if you're keeping it indoors that it has as much direct sun as it can get. The weaker the amount of light you provide, the longer you want to go between watering.

If you do repot make sure you use a fast draining potting soil (sand, unless it's large grain, isn't actually fast draining - gravel and bark mixed into potting soil is and make sure you do use potting soil and not just regular dirt). You probably don't need to repot unless you want to, though, and certainly shouldn't go up much in size or you'll end up rotting out your plant because too much soil will retain water too long. You can also always put your pot inside a more decorative pot. Do take the plastic handle off, though, that's just for carrying convenience.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:31 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and this whole "dry to the touch" thing is really talking about two inches down. As in, the surface will dry but it needs to be dry in the middle, too. Regardless, with cacti I don't even bother messing with that; I check soil dryness on my plants that need to stay consistently moist, but for cacti just water far less often than you're inclined.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2013

I used to have a gorgeous 12" golden barrel cactus before I moved across the country. They like small pots relative to their size. If you think the container it came in is supposed to be temporary, I would wait a couple weeks until the cactus seems acclimated and then re-pot it in a SLIGHTLY bigger container. As far as watering, I used to water mine about every other week during summer and once a month during winter at the very most.
posted by tr0ubley at 9:05 AM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Recommend an excellent 3.0 modem to replace ISP...   |   Manhattan optimization assistance needed! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.