Watering cacti and succulents the right way does not need to be hard! However, the number one reason for cacti or succulents to die is actually improper watering. Here I will explain how I do water my hundreds of cacti the proper way.
Cacti and succulents should be watered only when the soil is completely dry. Deep watering is recommended. How often the plant should be watered depends on :
- Soil texture,
- Pot size and material,
- Plant variety,
- Temperature and humidity
- 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 succulent and cacti.
Table of Contents
- 1 How Much Water Do Cacti And Succulents Need?
- 2 How Often Should You Water Cacti And Succulents?
- 3 How To Know If Cacti and Succulents Need Water? 3 Signs
- 4 What Is The Best Way To Water Cacti?
- 5 7 Factors Affecting Succulent and Cacti Watering Frequency
- 6 Are You Overwatering Your Cacti?
- 7 How Much Water Do Cacti and Succulents Receive in Nature?
- 8 The 4 Tips For A Perfect Watering
- 9 Summary of Watering Cacti and Succulents
- 10 Sources
Cacti and succulents need a generous drenching as soon as their soil dries out completely. When watering, water should seep to the bottom and out from the drainage hole. In this way, the roots can receive adequate water and grow vigorously.
It’s a popular myth that succulents and cacti don’t need water or just require a small amount. The truth is that they love sufficient irrigation, but only when their substrate is thoroughly dried up, and that’s the time they need water the most.
The ideal practice in watering cacti and succulents is to water only when their substrate is completely dry. During hot, less humid months, they might need water once a week and maybe once or twice in the entire winter season.
Unlike other plants, cacti and succulents don’t derive moisture daily from their soil. They 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.
Watering your succulents and cacti according to a set schedule rather than reacting to their demands is a definite way to kill them. Give them infrequent deep watering rather than frequent small sips of water.
Indoor succulents should be watered every other week throughout the non-winter months and growing season when temperatures are above 60 F (15.5 C) and every 4 weeks when temperatures are below 60 F (15.5 C) in the winter.
Always inspect the soil before irrigating because there are times when the temperature at homes changes, and the soil may dry out quickly or may hold moisture for a few more days. When most cacti and succulents are inactive during winter months, water rarely and less thoroughly.
Potted cacti or succulents outdoors are exposed to harsh environments. Therefore, water them once or twice a week if they are out in the hot sun and warm breeze. Do it before sunrise or after sundown when the temperature around 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.
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 long. 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.
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:
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 on 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 for medium-sized containers because, with small pots, you might disturb the plant’s roots. And with large containers, the soil can be too deep for your fingers to reach.
Here’s how to do the finger dip method.
Wooden Skewer Test
If your pot is too deep or you have crowded succulents in one pot, the finger dip method will not help. Instead, use a long wooden bamboo skewer or chopstick and 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.
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.
Is Soil Humidity Meter Helpful?
There are several reasons why a commercial moisture meter is not needed in your garden.
- They give an inaccurate reading, especially if the soil has salt-build up. Using the moisture meter in a substrate that is more airy and porous will yield an erratic result due to airflow.
- The meter may work just fine when brand new, however, I don’t think it can still give you the same reliable result with frequent use. Measuring tools should be calibrated at a definite period. So without calibration, it cannot give reliable readings because it is not adjusted in a standard measurement.
Another sign of a thirsty succulent or cactus is when the bottom leaves or stem 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. It is a clue that the plant needs water.
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, stem, 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 shrunk. Although the plant can recover after rehydration, it is better to water before the plant starts to shrivel.
Discoloration often starts at the bottom but may appear randomly around the stem. It varies in color, such as yellow, brown, and in severe cases, black.
A change in stem color is more of an advanced sign of a thirsty cactus. As 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 cacti stem dull, which implies that water is deficient.
The best way to water cacti is deep watering. It drenches the whole pot thoroughly until the water will leak on 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 their stem.
- Deep watering prevents minerals from building up in the soil because they will be washed off as the water well out from 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.
Do cacti need water from the top out from the bottom?
The proper practice when watering cacti is to water the topsoil and out to the bottom of the pot. This way, excess fertilizer will not accumulate in the potting medium and cause unhealthy effects.
Here’s how to water a cactus the right way.
Water the soil, not the leaves
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 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 to the soil. Avoid spritzers or spray hose; they scatter the water into the leaves.
Watering frequency 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.
If the texture of the soil has a gritty consistency, it drains more quickly, so it requires more regular watering. A dense or compact soil, on the other hand, can hold much water and take longer to dry up. So, it will only need infrequent watering.
With cacti and succulents, they prefer a well-draining soil type that doesn’t compact. Soil mix 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, if 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 DIY gritty soil suitable for your succulents and their growing environment.
Succulent potted on a small and shallow terracotta pot needs frequent watering because there is less soil, so it dries out fast. In contrast, succulents in a big, deep plastic container without drainage holes do not need regular watering because they have more substrate to retain moisture which causes them to dry up longer.
Succulents in terracotta pots need more frequent rehydration than those growing in plastic pots or glazed planters because a terracotta pot has porous walls that allow air and moisture to pass through, making the soil dry faster.
Furthermore, succulent containers should have bottom holes for proper drainage. But if you opt to use no drainage pots, you should water less often to avoid drowning the plant. It is worth remembering that growing plants in pots without drainage holes can be tricky and likely to cause root rot.
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.
Each succulent 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.
Some 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 once or twice during winter is enough. However, during summer and spring, succulents 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, other succulent 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 once or twice throughout the cold season is just adequate. 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 water 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.
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.
On the other hand, 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. Once every two weeks or twice a month is just fine, but you still have to check the soil from time to time.
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 because their soil moisture is retained for a long time due to the low evaporation and transpiration rate.
On the contrary, 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 their soil regularly to know when to replenish moisture.
Small cacti need consistent monitoring and watering while large cacti can survive with infrequent watering.
Younger and smaller cacti have faster growth rates than older or larger ones. Meaning, they will utilize more water, and frequent watering is needed. They are also potted in small pots that tend to dry faster. For that reason, small cacti 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. Instead, provide them with a significant amount of water when you rehydrate.
Cacti will manifest the following signs if you are giving them too much water:
- Bloated stems that may lead to ruptured stem tissues
- Discolored, translucent, mushy stems
- Shrunk rotten spots that emit a foul decaying smell
It is so easy to overwater your cacti, and in fact, it is the major reason for most cacti deaths. They have sensitive roots prone to rot when left on standing water for an extended period.
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, but cacti have adapted to this kind of environment and evolved to survive this condition.
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.
The best ways to water succulents and cacti are 1) pouring water directly to 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.
Water directly into the soil to avoid water stains on leaves. For indoor succulents, the moisture left on leaves after watering them may cause the plants to suffer from fungal diseases and rot.
Watering the leaves could result in water stains, especially when using hard water.
White spots on the succulent leaves will form when hard water evaporates due to calcium and magnesium compound deposits.
When watering 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.
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, then 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.
The soak and dry 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.
Bottom watering is a technique of rehydrating succulents by filling up a basin with water and letting the potted succulents sit on the 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. When 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, do not always bottom water your plants to avoid salt build-up. Too much salt in the soil can retard plant growth due to poor water uptake.
Rainwater is the ideal water for cacti and succulents since it has no additives that could harm the 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 that may cause toxicity to plants. When 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.
- Succulent and cacti prefer adequate water but are given infrequently. 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, and if it is dry, it means the plant needs water. Wrinkled leaves and discolored stems are also signs that the plant is depleted in water. Water the soil but avoid the leaves to prevent rot.
- The frequency of watering cactus and succulents is based on the soil texture, pot size and material, plant variety, season, location, temperature and humidity, and plant size.
- “Cacti and Succulents,” University of Las Vegas
- “Succulents 101,” West Virginia Univesity
- “Systematics of Plants,” University of Illinois
- “Chlorine TOxicity,” University of Maryland
- “Fluorine Toxicity on Plants,” Oregon State University
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