Whenever we give plant advice on how to keep a plant happy, the standard we give it so provide your plant with an environment as close to its natural habitat as possible. Most cacti live in habitats that do not get much water. Many live in extremely dry environments, in cold and warm climates, at sea level and on mountain tops throughout the Americas. It is estimated there are over 1700 different species that make up the Cactaceae family.
Given their special adaptation to store water for a not-so-rainy day, cacti, are indeed, a type of succulent. However, not all succulents are cacti. The distinguishing factor between cacti and other succulents is that cacti only store water in the fleshy parts of their trunk or stem. Other succulents have leaves in which they store water in addition to their trunk or stem. Cacti do not; their leaves are actually highly modified into spines that grow from areoles on the surface of the plant. Photosynthesis (making food from sunlight) does not typically occur in the spines of cacti, like it would in the leaves of most plants, rather it occurs in the stem or trunk of the cactus.
Cacti are well-suited for drought. They have a relatively short root system, as they make and store the majority of their food and nutrients in their fleshy trunks and stems. In order to accommodate a cactus' need for an arid habitat, it's a good idea to use well-draining soil in a pot with good drainage holes (seeing a theme here?). Any cacti mix will work, or you can make your own with 2 parts organic potting soil, 1 part sand/lava rock mixture, 1 part bonsai mix. You can also add charcoal for soil conditioning and extra drainage.
We have found that plain, terra-cotta pots make excellent homes for cacti. They have great drainage and the clay they are made from keeps the roots at a consistent moisture level. You can also try terra-cotta pots made for orchids - we have found those work well for keeping fleshier cacti, like Golden Barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) and Goat's Horn Cactus (Astrophytum capricorne), healthy and well-drained.
Water isn't a consistent resource that cacti are accustomed to. Therefore, if you forget to water your cactus, it's not the end of the world. This is part of their appeal as houseplants.
They do, however, need some water. In spring and summer, when the plant is in active growing season, they tend to need more moisture, so watering them once a wee, or when the soil is dry to the touch, is standard. During the fall and winter, only water your cactus with the soil is completely dry (at least the length of your finger if you were to stick it in the soil) and crumbly to the touch.
Do not mist your cacti. Cacti do not absorb water through their bodies, as they do not have leaves like other plants. They prefer to have water applied to their soil only. Misting your cacti can cause problems like rot and other bacterial infections.
Cacti are lovers of light. Think about it - is the desert known for shade? Most cacti need at least four (4) hours of direct sunlight every day. Keeping your cactus in an east- or south-facing window is best, but west-facing works in a pinch. Large cacti will not survive in your home if they do not have consistent access to direct light.
If you'd like to get a cactus but don't think you can provide the light it needs, consider a grow light. We stock several types of grow lights in both our locations. Feel free to ask one of our shopkeepers for assistance in deciding the right fit for you.
Send us a picture of your cacti family in a DM on Instagram!