Keeping Your Cactus Alive: How to Do It

Do you have a reputation for killing plants? You bought a new cactus in excitement, but you worry about how you will keep it alive. Not to worry, cacti are a hardy species, In fact, some types of desert cacti can last for up to two years without water. Now, let’s have a look at how to keep your cactus alive.

Water Your Cactus Regularly

Previously, we said that desert cacti can last for up to two years without water, but you should water your house cactus on average of once per week to keep it alive.

You have a few signs that you may need to water your cactus more often, such as:

  • Cactus starts to fold in half
  • Signs of wrinkling
  • Mushy cactus
  • Drooping leaves
  • Subtle leaning
  • Sagging tips

With cacti, you soak the basically drown it in water. This may look funny, but cacti in the desert live on feast or famine. Either they receive a lot of rainfall flooding all at once, or they receive little rainfall. By soaking them in water, you mimic the same environment as what they’d experience out in the deserts.

Use the Proper Soil

If you use soil with poor drainage, your cactus will die. The roots will rot because of the wetness that stays in the soil. You want to keep sandy soil in the pot for the cactus to remain in good health. Cactus soil differs from other types of soil. In fact, to learn more about how it differs, check out my article, “Can You Use Cactus Soil for Other Plants?”

You can either choose to buy cactus soil, or you can make it yourself. The one advantage of buying it is that you know you got the mixture right.

A cactus’s soil should be sandy, porous and have good aeration. This all leads to good drainage in the soil. You also need to see that the soil offers good nutrition to the cactus. Good soil will have a presence of microorganisms, bacteria, bees and earthworms.

Know Your Cactus Species

Some cactus species can handle the direct heat of the sun, but you have others—most, in fact—that prefer indirect sunlight. To be clear, you don’t want to put any cactus in the corner of a room that receives the least light because this can cause root rot, discoloration and fading colors.

Most cactus need between four to six hours of sunlight each day to survive. They like a bright and sunny location, but if your cactus starts to turn funny colors, it could be that your cactus received too much sunlight (see my article on this here).

Another reason that you want to get to know your cactus species is that it can go a long way to keeping it alive. For example, you will know what the cactus likes and what it doesn’t like.

Choose the Right-Sized Pot

Believe it or not, too big of a pot can kill your cactus. The water may remain standing in the soil, causing moisture near the roots. Cacti don’t like moisture.

Not only can too big of a pot kill your cactus, but it can stunt its growth. In a larger pot, the cactus will grow its roots down into the soil. Instead of growing upward, it will move its roots into the soil, focusing its energy on that instead of the growth upward.

Expert Tip: To pick the right cactus pot size, choose it one size above its current pot. Unless it came with too large of a pot, you shouldn’t have a big issue.

Usually, you want to repot your cactus every two to three years. Too small of a pot can restrict its growth, and it won’t receive as many nutrients. The roots won’t have as much soil to absorb nutrients, and in some cases, the roots will even start to grow out of the drainage holes: consider that a sign to repot your cactus.

Don’t Over Fertilize Your Cactus

Some don’t believe that they can over-fertilize a cactus, but over-fertilizing a cactus can put it at just as much risk as under-fertilizing it. Look for the active growth period of your cactus.

Most cacti will have specific periods of dormancy and growth. Usually, you want to fertilize your cactus in the late spring to early summer because the growth period has kicked off.

Expert Tip: During the winter months, you may want to water your cactus less and don’t apply fertilizer. The cactus most likely goes dormant during this time, and it doesn’t pay to fertilize. It won’t do anything with the fertilizer.

Too much fertilizer can cause root rot and weaken the plant.

The signs of over fertilizing include:

  • Yellowing near the bottom
  • Wilting leaves
  • Defoliation
  • Slow growth or no growth
  • Crust of fertilizer on the surface
  • Brown leaf tips

Pay Attention to the Color of Your Cactus

The color that your cactus turns can say a lot about its health. In fact, we’ve written extensively on the different colors that your cactus can turn:

  • Why is My Cactus Turning Black?
  • Why is My Cactus Turning Red?
  • Why is My Cactus Turning Purple?
  • Why is My Cactus Turning White?
  • Why is My Cactus Turning Pink?

Any one of these colors could mean something. You should never ignore your plant turning colors because it could indicate serious health problems in some cases. You want to rule out the most serious problems with the cactus before you write it off.

Interesting Fact: Some people like to purposely turn their succulents colors to bring out their beauty. You do this from not watering them as much. They call this process stressing the plant, and you can do the same thing with cacti. In fact, cacti belong to the succulent family of plants. You can do stressing with cacti, but some people don’t like the results as much as with other succulents.

A cactus that turns black should always be a cause for concern. You want to address this problem as soon as possible.

When the cactus turns colors, think of it as trying to tell you something. You have to figure out what it wants to tell you. Never ignore a cactus turning colors if you want to keep it alive. With all of the colors, the deeper the color, the more serious it becomes.

Larger Cactus Easier to Care For?

You may be surprised to learn that you can keep a larger cactus alive more easily than a smaller one. Cacti in a pot at 4 inches in diameter or less have a lower chance of survival than a big one. If you fear that your plant-caring skills won’t keep the cactus alive, try a larger one.

Why do small cacti die more easily than larger cacti? This has to do with the lower amount of soil. It dries out much faster and needs water faster. If you forget to water your plants often, a larger cactus can survive longer without water, depending on the species.

Don’t Forget the Drainage Hole

Drainage holes ensure that your cactus doesn’t receive too much water. At the same time, it ensures that the water drains properly from the soil. Standing water in a cactus pot can cause root rot that will eventually kill your cactus. This plant inhabits the desert, and it likes dry soil.

Location Makes a Difference

A lot of people have said that a south-facing window works best with cactus because of how it doesn’t expose them to direct sunlight, which can prove harmful, but they still receive plenty of sunlight. Pay attention to the individual needs of your cactus and where it seems to like it the best. With cactus, you should even exercise caution when you pick it up to put it back on the side where it receives the sun. Turning it on a side where it wasn’t receiving sunlight can cause sunburn because it isn’t used to this.

Some of the best places to put a cactus include:

  • Near a window
  • Outdoors
  • Location with air movement
  • In front of computer

Indoor Cacti Prone to This Problem…

Indoor cacti have a vulnerability to pests. Especially beware of overwatering your cactus indoors because this can send the pests straight to it. Keeping the pests away can help to keep your cactus alive.

If you have to get rid of the infested soil in a pot, be sure to disinfect the pot before you put new soil into it, or it will carry over.

Don’t Touch the Spines

Not only because it hurts, but touching the spines can remove them permanently, hurting the cactus. Cactus use the spines for defense. If you damage the cactus spines, they don’t grow back in most cases. This permanently removes the most iconic thing about a cactus: its spines.

Cacti use their spines for a variety of functions like collecting water vapor, providing shade from the sun and defense. Think of the spines like the leaves on trees. When you remove the spines, it leaves your cactus susceptible to pests that will have an opening. You have a weaker plant that will ultimately die because of its vulnerable state.

Also, beware of the over-curious feline that likes to rub up against cactus plants.


Understanding a few things about your cactus can go a long way to keeping it alive. Many times, you will have warning signs that your cactus may need help. Pay attention to changing colors and signs of damage to the plant. The color can serve as a big indicator of the plant’s health.

Want to brighten your day? Check out this beautifully crafted cactus mug. It sure brightened my day!

Recommended Reading

Leave a Comment