A beginner’s guide to caring for succulents and cacti

Although these plants are easy to care for, beginners often fall down by trying to give them too much love. When it comes to succulents and cacti, it’s all about indifference. Fussing over them will get you nowhere.

Trendy, hipster, on-point, cool. That’s really the best way to describe the current status of succulents and cacti. In the space of around two years they have become a must-have household item, a celebrated feature of interior design. Ikea recently jumped on the bandwagon and smaller, independent sellers tend to offer a fairly good range. Garden centres are getting there gradually but, as always, many of them are slow on the uptake.

Whether you favour the humble cactus and it’s abundant spikes, or the succulent’s geometric-shaped leaves, the appeal of both is easy to fathom. Not only are they easy to care for, making them the perfect house plant, but they also have a sort of Scandi simplicity to them that is just so damn cool. Succulents and cacti are of course very un-Scandinavian in a native sense, as they hail from far warmer and drier climes. This is why they should be kept indoors in most parts of the UK for the majority of the year.  

succulents 3

Personally I’m more of a succulent than a cactus kind of girl. I’m intrigued by just how many different types of succulents there are out there, and look forward to an ever more diverse offering from sellers as they become more and more popular in this country. I just wish I had more window ledge space to increase my collection.

Broadly speaking, when it comes to tending to these plants it’s all about three key areas: drainage, water and sunlight.

Ensure good drainage

These plants do not like to sit in water. Fact. They are native to dry, warm, desert environments where the soil is loose, and drains well. If you fail to recreate this environment, and your plants end up sitting in dense, waterlogged soil, their roots will rot and they will fail.

The good news is, recreating the desert isn’t difficult. First you need light soil that drains well, not your average potting compost. The best way to achieve this is either to buy specialist cactus and succulent soil (which does come at a bit of a price) or to mix some sand or horticultural grit in with normal potting compost. If you’re a keen gardener with storage space, I’d invest in some grit. If you’re more of a window-ledge gardener with limited access to outdoor space, maybe consider the specialist soil.

Secondly, you need to keep them inside a container that has some form of drainage. Repotting them inside something without drainage holes is a recipe for disaster. Often the easiest way to go about this is to keep them inside the plastic pots they come in and conceal this inside something a little fancier.

succulents 4

Resist the urge to water often

When it comes to watering I adopt an ‘irregular but plentiful’ approach. During spring, summer and some of autumn, I put them in the bath and give them a jolly good shower. In spring and autumn, this can be every month and a half. During the height of summer, it’s every three weeks or so, depending on temperatures. But my routine isn’t rigid and your location on the planet is hugely important. In the North West, we get far fewer hours of sunlight than in other areas of the UK, which means I’d probably water more regularly if I lived in London (I might also consider putting them outside for the hottest months).

But let’s face it, unless you have your watering days marked in your diary (ok, I admit I did consider this but then decided it’s just a step too far in the direction of obsession) you’re likely to do it when you remember/ have time. Essentially, let the soil dry out, and then let it dry out some more, and then maybe some more, and then leave for a couple of weeks before you water. Once you’ve drenched them, leave them in your sink or bath for a short while to let all the water drain away.

When it comes to the coldest winter months where sunlight is sparse – in the UK that’s probably december through to feb/ march – LEAVE THOSE GUYS WELL ALONE. I repeat, LEAVE THEM ALONE. Aside from the few varieties of cacti that flower over winter, most will do nothing at this time of year. Much like Vesuvius, they go dormant.

The only time you might want to consider watering over the winter months is if your central heating is on full blast 24/7. In this instance, either crank it down a few degrees and save on gas bills, or water your cacti and succulents to stop them from drying out.

Give them light

When it comes to positioning succulents and cacti in your home, the sunnier the spot, the better. Succulents in particular enjoy as much direct sunlight as possible – more, in fact, than we see in the UK, particularly over the winter months. In many cases, even if you position your succulents on a sun-drenched window ledge, they’ll eventually become ‘leggy’ as they lengthen and grow towards the light. There’s no issue with this in terms of the well-being of the plant, but some prefer the look of them when they’re more squat. The less light they get, the more leggy they’ll become.

succulent 2
A leggy Echeveria
The great thing about succulents is the ease with which they can be propagated to create new plants. If yours are getting too leggy, you could consider using the leaves of the original succulent to grow new ones. This is something for a whole new blog post, but if you’re interested in finding out more, google ‘succulent propagation’.

It’s also worth turning them regularly. I have a rather wonky cacti that spent so long growing in one direction it’s now doomed to look forever a little drunk and confused. 

To summarise, succulents and cacti make great house plants, but it’s all about tough love.

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Reading, blogging, baking, gardening. Lover of all things edible.

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