If you’re the proud owner of a cactus or succulent plant, congratulations! You now have a little piece of the desert in your home.
And just like in the desert, proper watering is key to keeping your cactus or succulent happy and healthy. But with so many different desert plants all growing differently, it can be tough to know exactly how often to water cactus.
Do you water them daily like a thirsty plant in the rainforest? Or do you let them go weeks without a drop, just like they would in the desert?
One common misconception is that cacti hardly ever need to be watered, which is almost never the case.
This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about watering cacti and succulent plants and give you the most essential information for cacti care so that you can keep your pokey pads as happy as ever.
From determining your plant’s water needs to proper watering techniques to how often different types of cactus and succulent plants need to be watered – we’ve got it all.
And don’t worry. We also answer the age-old question, “How often do you water cactus?”
Table of Contents
Cactus Watering Overview
Cacti are desert plants that can be found in all types of environments, from the darkest corner of your bedrooms to the open deserts of Arizona.
Many of these plants have evolved to survive and even thrive in scorchingly hot, arid environments.
Due to their long evolution, the water needs and care requirements of different cacti species vary widely. And while this is certainly true, it would be fair to say that almost all cacti need less water than most of our favorite houseplants.
In fact, cacti don’t tolerate much water at all, and overwatered cactus plants can quickly get moldy and die.
Here’s a quick list of key considerations for cacti care.
- As a general rule of thumb, most cactus plants require watering every ten days or so.
- Overwatering a cactus is more dangerous than underwatering, as it may lead to root rot.
- Cactus plants do well in terracotta pots with drainage holes, as they do not like overly-moist soil.
- The plants should only be watered when the soil is 90% dry.
Cactus Care: 3 Essential Things NOT to Do
First things first, let’s start with a few things you should never do when growing cactus at home.
- Don’t just make guesses about your plants’ watering schedules or preferences. Take note of any signs of positive or negative behavior, and try to analyze what made your cactus happy or sad. Then, repeat. If they continually respond well to specific patterns like bright, indirect morning sunlight, for example, then continue to treat them to those environments.
- Don’t assume all plants react the same to pesticides. When using pesticides, especially after an outbreak of something like mealy bugs or scale, be sure to do your due diligence on how to apply them. When exposed to sunlight, pesticides undergo a chemical reaction that makes the flesh of cacti burn – similar to a sunburn on your skin.
- Never assume that all cacti need the same conditions or care routines. It may turn out that your cacti-cousins are not suited to be neighbors and need to be kept in different areas around your house. Some may do fine in the peak of the afternoon sun, but others may be more comfortable tucked away on a desk where only indirect afternoon light reaches it.
How Often to Water Cactus
So, how often do you water a cactus plant? It’s a common question, and unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, there’s not even a short answer.
The watering needs of cactus plants can vary widely based on factors such as size, age, type of plant, and the environment they are in.
However, there are a few general guidelines you can follow to help you determine when it’s time to water your cactus.
Check the Soil Moisture
One of the easiest ways to tell if your cactus needs water is to simply check the soil moisture level. Stick your finger about an inch into the soil; if it feels dry, it’s probably time to water.
Use a Moisture Meter
You can use a moisture meter to get a more accurate reading of the soil moisture level. Just be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using the meter, as different models may have different guidelines.
While cacti are typically low-maintenance plants, overwatering can quickly cause a catastrophe.
Pay Attention to the Plant’s Appearance
Another way to determine when your cactus or succulent needs water is to pay attention to the plant’s appearance.
If the leaves or stems of your cactus are starting to look wrinkled or shriveled, it’s a good indication that the plant is getting too dry.
On the other hand, if you notice that the plant is starting to look excessively lush or that the leaves are turning yellow, it may be getting too much water.
Either way, adjusting your watering schedule is a good idea.
Cactus Watering Frequency: Most Important Factors
When it comes to watering cactus and succulent plants, there are some key factors that can influence how often your plant needs a drink.
Understanding these factors will help you determine the proper watering schedule for your cactus or succulent so you don’t end up either over-watering (yuck) or under-watering (double yuck).
Type of Cactus
Different types of cactus plants have different water needs, just like different types of people have different hydration needs.
Some plant types, like the popular jade plant, are more drought-tolerant plants and can go long periods without water.
Other types, like the Christmas cactus, are more sensitive to dry soil and will need more frequent watering.
It’s important to research the specific watering needs of your cactus or succulent plant to ensure it is getting the right amount of water.
Size of Cactus
Just like humans, cacti and succulent plants come in all shapes and sizes. And just like humans, larger plants generally need more water than small cacti.
This is because they have a larger volume of soil to hydrate and their larger size means they have more surface area for water to evaporate.
As a general rule, a larger cactus or succulent will need to be watered less frequently than a smaller one.
- Smaller cacti, such as columnar or narrow-leafed cacti, may need to be watered only once a week, while larger cacti, such as the tropical cacti, may need to be watered twice a week.
- If you have a giant saguaro cactus, you won’t need to water it every day (unless it’s really hot outside, in which case you might want to give it a spritz).
- A succulent cactus such as a fairy duster needs to be watered only when the soil seems dry to the touch.
- A more drought-tolerant cactus, like a barrel cactus, may need to be watered more frequently, depending on the climate and how much direct sunlight they receive.
- Jungle cacti aren’t drought tolerant, so you may have to water once a day in the summers.
Age of Cactus
Younger cactus and succulent plants, or “babies” as we like to call them, will generally need more water than older ones.
This is because they are still growing and establishing their root systems, which require more water to support their growth.
As your cactus or succulent matures, it will need less frequent watering. Just like with human babies, it’s important to pay attention to your plant’s watering needs as it grows and changes.
Indoor Cacti vs. Outdoor Cacti
The climate in which it is grown will play a role. Cacti that are grown as indoor plants usually need less water than those that are grown outdoors.
Indoor cacti are typically watered using water droplets, while outdoor cacti are usually watered with a hose.
The amount of water used to water an indoor cactus will be different from the amount of water used to water an outdoor cactus due to the different needs of these plants.
The frequency at which an indoor cactus is watered will also be different from the frequency at which an outdoor cactus is watered.
Indoor cacti need less water than outdoor cacti during the summer months because they are not in direct contact with the sun.
The temperature of the cactus plant’s environment affects how often it needs to be watered. In high temperatures, the plant may require more water. Conversely, the lower the temperature, the less water is needed.
A cactus prefers a warm climate but can tolerate a range of temperatures from 25 degrees Fahrenheit to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you live in hotter weather, you’ll need to water your cactus more often than in a colder climate.
Cacti are also affected by humidity levels and do well in 20-30% humidity. A high humidity level will cause the plant to need to be watered more often because it will not be able to absorb as much water from the soil.
For the same reason, never mist your cactus, as the leaves do not do well with water droplets on their surface.
When a plant is in full sun, the soil tends to dry quicker, thus requiring more watering. However, this is not always the case.
When indoor cactus plants are grown in the shade or partially lighted areas, they can retain soil moisture better and usually require less watering due to enhanced water storage.
For instance, the Christmas cactus grows well in partial shade, and too much sunlight will harm them.
Never use heavy compact soil type for cactus plants, as this can lead to root rots and other problems. Healthy cactus plants prefer a potting mix with sand, a healthy amount of organic matter, and plenty of water drainage.
Sandy consistency is the right soil for growing desert cacti, as it mimics their natural habitat.
Warm summer is a growing season for cacti; hence, the plants require more water. Cacti need a deep soak during the growing season to remain in good shape. Water your cactus every week during the growing season.
You must water deeply so that the water reaches the roots.
Reduce watering frequency in late fall and winter when the plant is dormant. This is the resting period for cactus plants.
Pot Type and Size
A small, shallow pot plant will require more watering than a large pot with more room for soil.
Make sure there is a drainage hole at the bottom of the plant so that the water can drain properly from the cactus pot.
Cactus will do exceptionally well in a terracotta pot, as they help wick moisture efficiently.
Avoid using ceramic or plastic pots for cacti as they hold too much moisture – especially larger pots that hold excess soil.
How Long Can Cacti Go Without Water?
We hear this question a lot; “Do cactus plants need water?”
Some cacti can go a couple of years without water, but most of them need to be watered every week or so.
Indoor plants and varieties require more frequent watering than outdoor cacti, which will typically depend on the cactus species.
During the warmer seasons, this could be every 10 to 14 days. During the cooler seasons, some cacti can go a long time without water, so you can water cacti just once a month during the winter.
Wait until the potting soil is completely dry before re-watering, and keep it in a mostly dry area.
Cactus Roots and Water Retention
Cactus roots have evolved to play a vital role in water retention. By wrapping around soil particles, cactus roots help to hold onto moisture and keep it close to the soil surface, where plants can access it. The surface of the soil dries out first, though, which contributes to the challenges of properly watering cacti.
Cactus roots work in water retention and distribution. The stems and leaves are adapted to reduce water loss through transpiration, while the cactus’ deep roots reach underground water sources. This adaptation allows cacti to survive in arid climates where other plants would die.
The leaves are reduced to spines and minimize water loss through transpiration. These spines also help keep the roots from being washed away by floods or rains. In addition, the wide and deep roots penetrate the soil deeply, helping to absorb and distribute water throughout the plant.
Cactus Watering Tips and Tricks
Watering cactus plants is a simple process that can be done at any time of the year.
But first, inspecting your cactus for signs of dehydration, such as wilting leaves or dried-out pads, is a good idea. This will give you a better idea of what method to water with and how much water it will need.
Some people choose to use the “chopstick method” to determine if their cacti need water and consider it the easiest way to figure out the soil conditions.
Basically, this is a method where you stick something in the soil and pull it out for inspection. If the chopstick or other item is clean, it means the soil is dry and ready for water.
If the chopstick is muddy, no water is needed.
* Tip: Use a Moisture Meter!
While there are simpler ways to estimate and measure soil moisture, some may prefer more precision.
Many cactus plants can survive with very little water, but if you want to give them a bit more, using a moisture meter can help. There are a few types of meters on the market, but the common essential feature is that they measure moisture levels in the soil.
Who would have guessed?
This will accurately tell you how often you should water your cactus plants if you know approximately how much water your variety of cacti likes.
You can also measure the ambient humidity around the plant, although this can be a less accurate assessment method.
Use the Right Type of Water
When watering your cactus and succulent plants, the type of water you use is important.
Tap water or bottled water at room temperature are both excellent options. Just ensure to avoid distilled water, as it lacks the minerals essential for plant growth.
If you’re worried about tap water quality, a water filtration system can help remove impurities and ensure that your plants get the best water possible.
It’s a suitable option to use bottled water at room temperature (most bottled water contains minerals) to avoid chemicals and minerals that can be harmful to your plant.
Proper watering is essential for the health and growth of your cactus and succulent plants, so it’s important to pay attention to the type of water you use.
Consider the Season (Use the Right Amount of Water)
The frequency at which you should water your cactus or succulent plant can vary based on the time of year and the specific needs of the plant.
- During the growing season (spring and summer), cacti and succulents typically require more frequent watering to support their growth
- On the other hand, cactus and succulent plants generally need less water during the dormant season (fall and winter) when their growth slows down.
It’s a good idea to check the soil moisture level regularly and water your plant as needed, especially during the hot summer months when the soil can dry out more quickly.
It’s also important to be mindful of your plant’s specific needs, as different cactus and succulent species have varying water requirements.
For example, desert cacti, native to dry environments, may require less water than tropical cacti accustomed to moister conditions.
How to Water Cactus After Changing Pots
Repotting a cactus is one way to bring it back to life. A larger pot may also offer extra room for the growing plant, which can be an excellent way to bring new life to your indoor space.
Make sure you repot the plant (preferably in a terracotta container) with at least one good drainage hole at the bottom of the pot. The potting soil mix should be loose and well-draining.
You may have to wait a few days before watering your cactus after repotting so that the roots have time to settle in their new home.
If you water too soon, the roots may suffer from root rot, as they are extra fragile after repotting.
Signs of an Overwatered or Underwatered Cactus
Your cactus plant will show signs of being overwatered and underwatered.
Keep an eye out for any of these signs, and know that it’s easier to revive an underwatered plant than an overwatered plant. Cactus without enough water may just need a deep soaking.
- The leaves and stem may appear plump
- Sudden leaf dropping
- The base of the plants and leaves may turn brown/black
- The stem may start leaking
- Mushy and translucent leaves
- Black mushy roots
- General rotting and decaying of plant
- Leaning plant with withered and drooping leaves
- The pot is lighter in weight
- Leaf and stem discoloration
- Pale spotted leaves
- The rubbery texture of the stem and leaves
Common Cactus Watering Mistakes
1. Don’t Water Your Cactus from the Top Down
Did you know that cactus and succulent plants should be watered from the bottom, not from the top, like most plants?
It might seem counterintuitive, but this method helps prevent excess moisture on the soil’s surface and the risk of root rot.
To water your cactus or succulent plant from the bottom up, simply place the pot in a tray of water and let the soil absorb the water from the bottom. This technique helps ensure that the soil is evenly hydrated and that the roots receive adequate water.
Just be sure to avoid watering from the top, as this can lead to problems with excess moisture and root rot.
2. Don’t Water Your Cactus Too Often
One of the most common mistakes people make when watering cactus and succulent plants is watering them too frequently.
These desert plants are adapted to long periods without water and can easily become overwatered. A lot of water can lead to root rot and other issues that can ultimately kill your plant.
It’s important to find the right balance and only water your cactus or succulent plant when needed. A general rule of thumb is to let the soil dry out completely before watering it again.
3. Don’t Use (Some) Tap Water for Cacti
Depending on where you live, some tap water contains chemicals and minerals that can be harmful to these types of plants, especially desert cacti and succulent plants native to dry, desert environments.
To avoid potential issues, it’s always best to use room temperature water or bottled water when you water succulents or cacti.
This will help ensure that your plant is getting the purest, most natural form of water possible, free of any potentially harmful additives.
It’s also a good idea to avoid using water that is too cold or too hot, as extreme temperatures can shock your plant and disrupt its growth.
When in doubt, aim for water that is close to room temperature for the best results
4. Don’t Water Your Plant in Direct Sunlight
Watering your cactus or succulent plant in direct sunlight can cause the water to evaporate too quickly, leading to under-watering.
It’s generally a good idea and considered to be the best time to water your plant in the morning or evening when the sun is not as strong, especially during the warmer months when the plant is more likely to need frequent watering.
Whether you’re caring for indoor or outdoor cacti and succulent plants, proper watering is essential to their health and longevity.
Water-Related Pests and Diseases for Cacti
Here are some of the most common problems you might observe while growing cactus plants.
Bacteria may multiply in the soil around the cactus’ root system. They produce a toxin that breaks down cell walls and causes cellular death.
This process is called bacterial necrosis, and it’s one of the most common causes of root rot in cacti.
Other factors that can contribute to root rot include pests such as fungal spores and bacterial pathogens. However, the most common reason for root rot in cacti is chronically wet roots due to overwatering or heavy soils.
Humidity and excess water are responsible for fungal diseases in cacti. A fungal infection in cactus may lead to moist light brown rot with light pink pustules on the surface. You may spray neem oil on affected areas to get rid of fungi.
Scale occurs in both outdoor and indoor cacti. The scale eggs may make the leaves look gray and crusty.
They are hard to get rid of from the cactus. You may use water, rubbing alcohol, and dish soap mixture – but according to many, neem oil is the best thing for treating scale.
These bugs are a menace and may live on succulent plants or in their roots. They are capable of killing large cacti.
Using 70% isopropyl alcohol on succulents and cacti may eliminate mealy bugs.
Cacti Watering Tips and Growing Conditions
In addition to getting enough water, there are a few other essential care tips to keep in mind when it comes to caring for cactus and succulent plants.
Proper light and soil conditions are especially important for these plants, as they can be sensitive to environmental changes.
Cactus and succulent plants need plenty of sunlight to thrive, but it’s important to strike the right balance.
These plants are native to desert environments, where they receive plenty of direct sunlight, but they can also be sensitive to too much bright light.
It’s a good idea to place your plant in an area with bright, indirect light, such as near a south- or west-facing window.
Avoid placing your plant in a location with low light levels, as this can cause it to become leggy and weak.
As mentioned earlier, it’s essential to use a well-draining soil mix for cactus and succulent plants in order to prevent root rot and other issues.
A good, well-drained soil mix will allow excess water to drain freely, preventing root rot and other problems.
You can purchase a soil mix specifically formulated for cactus and succulent plants, or you can make your own by mixing ingredients like perlite, pumice, and sand.
Or, if you happen to be growing a Begonia maculata in your collection, Begonia soil mixtures work well with many types of cactus.
Just be sure to avoid using a potting soil mix that retains too much moisture, as this can lead to problems like excess water in the bottom of the pot or an overwatered cactus.
Different types of cactus and succulent plants may prefer a different type of soil than its neighbor, and it’s important to do your research to ensure you are providing the right conditions for your plant.
For example, desert cactus, native to dry and arid desert environments, typically prefer a drier and more porous soil mix. Tropical cacti plants like Christmas cactus, on the other hand, which are native to rainforests and other humid environments, may prefer a moister mix.
Similarly, some succulent plants, like jade plants, which are native to dry and arid regions, will thrive in a well-draining soil mix. Others, like sedums, which are native cacti to a wide range of environments, can tolerate a broader range of soil conditions.
In addition to using the right soil mix, it’s important to consider the type of pot and size of the pot you use for your cactus or succulent plant.
These types of plants have shallow roots and store water efficiently, so it’s a good idea to choose a pot with a wide base and shallow depth to allow the roots to spread out and provide room for growth.
Avoid using a pot that is too deep, as this can lead to excess moisture and root rot.
Clay pots are ideal for cactus, as they provide adequate drainage and don’t hold excess moisture for long periods.
Again, when selecting a pot, it’s a good idea to look for one with a large drainage hole to help prevent excess water from accumulating at the bottom of the pot.
How Often to Water Cactus: Key Takeaways
In this article, we’ve covered everything you need to know about watering cactus and succulent plants. By following the tips and guidelines outlined in this guide, you can help your cactus or succulent plant thrive and remain healthy over time.
Here are the key takeaways from our cactus watering and care guide:
- Water your cactus or succulent plant from the bottom up using a tray of water or a watering can with a long spout.
- Let the soil dry out completely before watering again, and pay attention to the specific needs of your plant based on its size, age, and type. This is especially important for desert cacti, which may require less water during the winter months, or small cactus plants, which may need more frequent watering during hot weather or extreme heat.
- A deep watering infrequently is typically more beneficial than lighter waterings more frequently, so use careful judgement and watch to see how your cacti react.
- Use room temperature water or bottled water to avoid chemicals and minerals that can be harmful to your plant.
- Water your plant in the morning or evening, and avoid direct sunlight to prevent the water from evaporating too quickly.
- Use a well-draining soil mix and a pot with a drainage hole to prevent excess moisture and promote healthy root growth. A good soil mix will allow excess water to drain freely and prevent root rot, which can be a common issue for cactus and succulent plants. A little bit of water goes a long way.
By following these tips and paying attention to the specific needs of your cactus or succulent plant, you can help ensure that it gets the right amount of water to thrive.
You’ll also know when it’s suitable to give your soil a good soaking depending on the environmental conditions and the time of year.
Don’t forget to check out our other articles on the blog for more tips on caring for your cactus and succulent plants. Happy watering!