Water Succulents & Cacti the Right Way (How Often, How Much)
Watering cacti and succulents the right way is neither hard nor complicated! However, the number one reason why cacti or succulents die is actually improper watering. Here I will explain how I water my hundreds of cacti in the proper way to keep them plump!
Cacti and succulents should only be watered 1–8 times every month once the soil is completely dry. Deep watering is recommended. How often the plant should be watered depends on 1) soil texture, 2) pot size and material, 3) plant variety, 4) season, 5) location, 6) temperature and humidity, and 7) plant size.
Knowing the proper way to water succulents and cacti is imperative as it is fundamental to keep them thriving. Many of my shop customers have similar dilemmas- they always tend to overwater or underwater. Stick around, so you’ll not make the same mistakes with your succulents and cacti.
How Often Should You Water Cacti and Succulents?
Ideally, cacti and succulents should only be watered when their substrate is fully dry. During hot and dry months, they can be watered weekly. But in winter, they should only be watered 1–2 times for the entire season.
Unlike other plants, cacti and succulents don’t derive moisture daily from their soil.
Both cacti and succulents have specialized cells in their stem, leaves, and roots that hold moisture and use it when water is not available in the soil.
Essentially, you should only give water when the plants need it because they do store some in their own bodies already.
Watering your succulents and cacti according to a set schedule rather than reacting to their demands is a definite way to kill them.
Pro Tip: Give your cacti and succulents infrequent deep watering rather than frequent small sips of water.
1. Watering Indoor Cacti and Succulents
Indoor cacti and succulents should be watered every other week from spring to fall and when temperatures are above 60°F (15°C). But when temperatures drop in the winter, they can be watered only every 4 weeks.
Always inspect the soil before irrigating because there are times when the temperature at home changes.
In effect, the soil of your potted cactus and succulent may either dry out quickly or may hold moisture for a few more days than expected.
When most cacti and succulents are inactive during winter months, water rarely and less thoroughly.
2. Watering Outdoor Potted Cacti and Succulents
Potted cacti or succulents kept outdoors are exposed to harsh environments. Hence, they can be watered once or twice a week if they are under the hot sun and warm breeze. Water them before sunrise or after sundown when the temperature is cooler.
When the plants grow under direct sunlight with high temperatures and good airflow, chances are the soil will dry out faster. Meaning, the plants will require regular, frequent watering.
But remember not to give water during the heat of the day because the temperature of the water will shock the roots and stress them!
How Much Water Do Cacti and Succulents Need?
Cacti and succulents need a generous drenching as soon as their soil dries out completely. When irrigating, excess water should drain from their bottom or side hole. This way, their roots can receive adequate water and grow vigorously.
It’s a popular myth that succulents and cacti don’t need water. Others say that they only need very little amounts of water each time.
Discover other myths on cactus care to keep your plant healthy!
But the truth is that most cactus and succulent plants love being given sufficient irrigation—only when their substrate is thoroughly dried up, and that’s the time they need water the most.
How to Know If Cacti and Succulents Need Water? 3 Signs!
To determine if the succulents and cacti need water, gardeners should check on the following: 1) dry soil, 2) shriveled stem or leaves, and 3) discolored stem.
Succulents and cacti prefer dry substrate compared to oversaturated soil, but that doesn’t mean you can leave them unwatered for a long time. The following signs of dehydration will tell you if your plants are thirsty, and you need to keep an eye out and act in it to avoid plant damage.
1. Dry Soil
The first sign that a cactus or succulent needs watering is when the potting medium is completely dry. To test if the substrate is dry, use the 1) finger dip method, 2) or wooden skewer test, or 3) pot weight test.
When the potting soil becomes all dry, it’s a signal to water your cacti and succulents. Test the dryness of the soil using either of these three methods:
1. Finger Dip Method
Stick your finger deep into the soil an inch away from the container wall.
If the substrate feels dry and the dirt doesn’t stick to your fingers, it’s perfect to water your cacti and succulents. But if you can feel a bit of dampness on the soil, wait for a few more days before watering.
This method is only applicable to medium-sized containers. With small pots, you might disturb the plant’s roots. Meanwhile, those in large containers can have soil that’s too deep for your fingers to reach.
2. Wooden Skewer Test
When your pot is too deep or you have crowded succulents and spiky cacti in one large pot, the finger dip method will not help. Actually, it may even be dangerous.
Use a long wooden bamboo skewer or chopstick instead. Insert it as deep as possible near the container walls to avoid damaging the roots. Let it stay for a few seconds and slowly pull it out of the soil.
If the skewer comes out damp with dirt, it indicates that the soil is still moist, and the plant is just fine for the moment.
However, if the skewer is dry, without dirt adhering, chances are the soil is dry, and it’s a good time to water your cactus and succulents.
3. Pot Weight Test
This is another method to check if the soil is already dry. To do this, just pick up the potted plant and manually weigh it. If it feels light, that means the moisture has already evaporated from the soil, and it needs hydration.
After you’ve watered a plant, take note of how much it weighs. That way, you’ll know the difference in their weight if you inspect it the next time. Obviously, a container with dry soil will weigh far less than one with moist soil.
2. Shriveled Stem or Leaves
Another sign of a succulent or cactus that needs water is when its bottom leaves or stems start to wilt and wrinkle. When the plant has utilized the water in its system, it depletes the moisture on the tissues causing the cells to shrink and shrivel.
A healthy, well-hydrated succulent has plump leaves and a sturdy stem packed with adequate stored moisture.
When water is not accessible in the soil, the plant will start utilizing its stored water from the leaves, stems, or roots.
In this way, internal moisture is reduced, causing the plant tissue to soften and shrink. The succulent leaves will appear wrinkly and droopy, while cactus stems will develop folds and shrink.
Although the plant can recover after rehydration, it is better to water it before the plant starts to shrivel.
3. Discolored Stem
Discoloration often starts at the bottom but may appear randomly around the stem of a cactus or succulent that needs to be watered. Their stem may turn yellow, brown, and in severe cases, black.
A change in stem color is more of an advanced sign of a thirsty cactus. When the stem begins to shrink due to a lack of water, it is usually accompanied by discoloration.
Stress due to rapid moisture loss can make the cacti stem dull, which implies that water is deficient.
7 Factors Affecting Succulent and Cacti Watering Frequency
Watering frequency for succulents and cacti differs according to 1) soil texture, 2) pot size material, 3)plant variety, 4) season. 5) location, 6) temperature and humidity, and 7) size of the plant.
Learn more about how these factors affect moisture in your cactus or succulent soil!
1. Soil Texture
If the soil of a cactus or succulent is gritty, water will drain through it more quickly, so it requires more regular watering. Dense or compact soil, on the other hand, can hold more water for a longer time. As such, it will need less frequent watering.
Cacti and succulents prefer well-draining soil that doesn’t get compacted easily.
Soil mixed with more porous and gritty components like pumice and perlite dries up easily, so you might water your succulents more often as soon as the soil gets bone dry.
However, when your substrate contains materials that retain moisture for a period, such as compost and peat, cut back from watering until the soil is totally dry.
You can make your gritty soil mix by following our guide on creating cactus soil!
2. Pot Size and Material
Succulents or cacti kept in a small and shallow terracotta pot need frequent watering because there is less soil that dries out faster. In contrast, those in big deep plastic pots without drainage holes don’t need regular watering as they have more substrate to retain moisture which tends to dry up slowly.
A succulent or cactus in a terracotta pot needs more frequent rehydration than those growing in plastic pots or glazed planters.
This is because clay materials are porous, allowing air and moisture to pass through readily and making the soil dry faster.
Furthermore, succulent containers should have bottom or side holes for proper drainage. But if you opt to use no-drainage pots, you should water your plants less often to avoid drowning and killing them.
It is worth remembering that growing plants in pots without drainage holes can be tricky and likely to cause root rot.
3. Plant Variety
Succulents with thin fine roots and small leaves are prone to suffering from dehydration because they cannot hold much water. Hence, plant varieties such as Portulaca, Sedum, and Crassula require more moisture than others. The same applies to many shallow-rooting cacti. including opuntioid cacti.
Each succulent and cactus species has different water requirements, which all growers should be aware of.
Some varieties prefer a little moisture in their roots and will benefit from watering before their soil dries out.
Others need to rehydrate when their substrate is approaching dryness to maintain their plump leaves. Their thin fine roots will suffer dehydration if they remain in parched soil for long.
Watering succulents and cacti once or twice during winter is generally enough to keep them alive during this period of dormancy. But during summer and spring, they need frequent hydration.
During spring and summer, most succulents and cacti are growing actively and may need water more frequently throughout this time.
As they produce new leaves, sprout offsets, and develop flowers during this season, they draw water from the soil at an incredible rate.
However, certain species become inactive and go dormant in the winter. The plant enters its rest period and slows down during this time. There isn’t much activity in their system, so you have to cut back from your regular watering regimen.
Watering them only once throughout the cold season will do just great. Giving your succulents too much water in the winter is the fastest way to say goodbye to them.
So keep your hands away from your watering cans and sprinklers from December to March and allow your succulents to hibernate.
In general, outdoor succulents need regular watering. On the contrary, watering indoor succulents such as Haworthia, Gasteria, and Snake plants biweekly is advised. This is also true for some cacti.
Outdoor succulents and cacti require more water as they receive more sun and are exposed to heat and wind. They will need a regular water supply to compensate for the water loss due to the higher evaporation rate.
By contrast, indoor succulents such as Haworthia, Gasteria, and Snake plants may not require regular watering as there is not much water loss from the soil indoors.
Watering them once every two weeks—or twice a month—is just fine. But you definitely still have to check their soil directly from time to time to avoid either underwatering an overwatering them.
6. Temperature and Humidity
Water succulents and cacti twice or thrice a week if they are exposed to high temperatures with low humidity. On the other hand, if they are grown in cooler temperatures with high humidity, infrequent watering is recommended.
Succulents and cacti growing in areas with cooler temperatures and higher humidity need infrequent hydration.
Remember under unfavorable conditions, their soil moisture can be retained for a longer time than necessary due to the low evaporation and transpiration rate.
Conversely, if your succulents are growing under the hot Arizona sun, where the temperature is very high, and humidity is low, you probably need to water them twice or thrice a week.
Water is lost rapidly due to extreme heat, so check the soil of your cacti and succulents regularly to know when to replenish moisture.
7. Size of The Plant
Small succulents and cacti need consistent monitoring and watering whereas large specimens can survive with infrequent watering.
Younger and smaller succulents and cacti have faster growth rates than older or larger ones. In other words, they will utilize more water, and frequent watering is needed.
They are also best potted in small pots which unfortunately tend to dry faster. For this reason, small cactus and succulent plants require careful monitoring and regular watering.
You may think those large cacti need frequent watering because they are big and use up more water.
The truth is that large cacti have a lesser surface area to volume ratio, thereby limiting water evaporation from the plant’s surface.
Large cacti are also slow growers, so they obviously spend a lot less water than the actively growing small young ones. In other words, large cacti don’t easily lose moisture, so essentially they don’t need frequent watering. Rather, provide them with a significant amount of water when you rehydrate.
What is the Best Way to Water Cacti and Succulents?
The best way to water cacti and succulents is by deep-watering them. Doing so drenches the whole soil thoroughly until the water leaks out from the bottom of the pot. The potting medium is then allowed to dry first before the next cycle.
Here are some benefits of deep watering your cacti:
- It evenly soaks the root system, giving them sufficient moisture to absorb and stash in its stem.
- Deep watering prevents minerals from building up in the soil because they will be washed off as the water is well out of the pot.
- It encourages healthy root growth since the water is adequate, and the roots will not compete with each other.
- The plant will essentially flourish and thrive for an extended period.
Wondering whether cacti need water from the top or from the bottom? Don’t fret, I have the answer for your question!
The proper practice when watering cacti is to water the topsoil until it spills out to the bottom of the pot. In doing so, excess fertilizer will not accumulate in the potting medium and cause unhealthy effects.
When watering succulents, drench only the soil and keep the leaves from getting water. Chemicals in the water will also form unsightly white stains on the leaves. Water droplets staying on the leaves for too long will invite pathogens to inhabit and cause diseases or rot.
Black spots on the leaves are often caused by water sitting on their surface. If water gets in the leaves, just blow the droplets off the leaves using an aspirator.
Use a long spout watering can and aim the water directly at the soil. Avoid spritzers or spray hoses; they scatter the water into the leaves.
4 Tips for Perfectly Watering Cactus and Succulent Plants
The best ways to water succulents and cacti are 1) pouring water directly into the soil, 2) using the soak-and-dry method, 3) applying the bottom watering method, and 4) using rainwater.
I have been tending succulents and cacti for several years, and I have picked up several good things along the way, which helped me grow them successfully. Here are some tips that work perfectly in watering my cacti and succulents!
1. Pour Water Directly Into the Soil
Water directly into the soil to avoid water stains on cactus and succulent leaves. For those indoors, moisture left on leaves after watering them may cause the plants to suffer from diseases and rot.
Watering the leaves could result in water stains, especially when using hard water.
Those white spots on the succulent leaves will form when hard water evaporates due to calcium and magnesium compound deposits.
If you’re going to water indoor succulents, try your best to avoid the leaves. Moist leaves may invite molds to breed and multiply.
This can harm your succulent as they will be prone to fungal diseases that will cause them to rot.
2. Use Soak-and-Dry Method
The soak-and-dry method is the safest way to water cacti and succulents because one has to wait for the soil to dry out completely before watering again. The plant container should have adequate holes to drain excess water when using this method.
There’s no way you will overwater the succulents and cacti in this method because you only allow the plant to soak up enough water so that the entire potting medium is wet.
After that, leave the soil to dry thoroughly before the next watering.
Just don’t allow the soil to remain dry for an extended period as this will cause dehydration to the plant.
This technique also called deep watering, encourages vigorous root growth because water is distributed evenly throughout the pot, and all the roots can drink up sufficient water.
As a result, your cactus or succulent will achieve its optimum development.
3. Apply the Bottom Watering Method
Bottom watering is a technique of rehydrating succulents and cacti by filling up a basin with water and letting their pots sit in water for several minutes. This method is effective if done twice a month.
Make sure that the water level is just right and the pot has drainage holes so water can get into the soil and reach the top.
After the top of the soil is thoroughly drenched, remove the pot from the basin and allow it to drip the excess water out to avoid root rot.
By doing this method, you build a stronger root system for your succulents because they are well-hydrated. Apply this technique twice a month, and you’ll see how your dry plants become perky again.
However, don’t always water your plants from the bottom. Otherwise, you’ll have to deal with salt build-up. Too much salt in the soil can retard plant growth due to poor water uptake.
4. Use Rainwater When Watering
Rainwater is the ideal water for cacti and succulents since it has no additives that could harm these plants. The coolness of rainwater soothes the plant’s dry roots and encourages tiny root hairs to form.
Unlike tap water, rainwater doesn’t contain chlorine and fluoride which may cause toxicity to plants.
If you use rainwater for watering, you can notice that your succulents will form new leaves, and their colors glow differently.
Whenever possible, harvest rainwater and store it in plastic buckets for later use. It will make your succulents and cacti grow well while saving up on your water bill.
How Much Water Do Cacti and Succulents Get in Nature?
In their native desert habitat, cacti and succulents do not receive much water during a downpour because rainwater evaporates rapidly with hot sun and warm air. Nevertheless, these plants have adapted to this kind of environment and evolved to survive such harsh conditions.
They have improved their roots and developed tiny lateral root branches just below the ground so they can easily suck up as much moisture that percolates in the soil.
Moreover, their fleshy succulent leaves, stems, and roots are packers with specialized cells that can store water for a long while.
Even though there is no regular water supply in the desert, cacti and succulents still thrive because of the stored water that sustains them until the next outpour.
Are you overwatering your Cacti?
An overwatered cactus will have 1) bloated stems that may get ruptured, 2) discolored, translucent, mushy stems, and 3) shrunken rotten spots that emit a foul decaying smell. It’s so easy to overwater cacti and it’s the major reason for their death. They have sensitive roots prone to rot when left on standing water for an extended period.
Is a soil humidity meter helpful for watering plants?
A soil humidity meter is not needed when watering plants. Mainly, this is because they can give inaccurate readings—especially if the soil has salt build-up or the medium is too light and airy. At first, they may work well, but they can be unreliable after some time if not calibrated regularly.
Summary of Water Succulents & Cacti
Succulent and cacti prefer adequate water but are given infrequently. Ideally, they should be heavily watered from time to time instead of lightly watered frequently. They are prone to rot when overwatered, so it is important to allow the soil to dry out before watering again.
To determine if a cactus or succulent needs water, check the soil. When it is dry, the cacti or succulents are already in need of watering. Wrinkled leaves and discolored stems are also signs that the plant is depleted in water. Water the soil but avoid wetting the leaves unnecessarily to prevent rotting.
How often a home gardener should water cacti and succulents must be based on the soil texture, pot size and material, plant variety, season, location, temperature and humidity, and plant size.
- “Cacti and Succulents” by n/a in University of Las Vegas
- “Succulents 101” by Jesica Streets, Natasha Harris, and Jody Carpenter in West Virginia Univesity
- “Systematics of Plants” by n/a in University of Illinois
- “Chlorine Toxicity” by n/a in University of Maryland
- “Fluorine Toxicity on Plants” by n/a in Oregon State University
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