By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Cacti are low maintenance plants for the home with a ton of character and a vast array of form. They are relatively maintenance free except for infrequent watering and annual food. Many gardeners ask “should I repot my cactus?” They don’t need repotting often, but once in a while for soil replenishment and when the plant needs a larger pot. When to repot a cactus plant depends upon the plant and its condition. Read on for tips on how to repot a cactus and do it without spending the rest of the day picking spines out of your hands.
Cacti are succulents and tend to favor dry, hot conditions. They store moisture in their pads and use their spines as both defense and to provide some protection from burning hot sun rays. Cactus grown in the home can almost be ignored but they do require light, warmth, water and repotting to refresh the soil. Cactus repotting requires a special soil mix, well-draining container and some tactical protection.
The first issue to deal with is the handling of a spiny plant. There are a couple of ways to go about this. You can wrap the plant in several layers of newspaper and secure lightly with tape or twine. You can also use a pair of leather gloves or, for smaller plants, just grab your oven mitts.
One of the safest repotting tips is to use kitchen tongs. You will also need a cactus mix which you may purchase or make. A good combination is equal parts sand or bird gravel, potting soil and leaf mold. Your container must have excellent drainage holes and preferably be unglazed so the clay can direct away and evaporate any excess moisture.
You will know when to repot a cactus plant if you see roots coming out the bottom of the container. This indicates it is overly root bound. Most cacti find small spaces very cozy and can stay in their container for years. The sight of roots will let you know it has expanded too much and will need repotting.
The next size up container will be appropriate since they like it snug. A general rule of thumb is to repot every 2 to 4 years. If you fertilize annually, the latter is more appropriate but if you don’t fertilize, repot in two years to replenish soil fertility. The best time is during active growth in January or February.
Once you have answered the question, “should I repot my cactus,” it is time to gather your tools and trade in the old soil or container. Not every cactus needs a new container, but fresh soil is a good idea. Only pot bound plants need a larger pot.
Wrap, glove or tong the plant gently out of its pot. They usually come out readily if the soil is dry but you may have to run a trowel around the edges to loosen the soil. Shake off the old soil and plant the cactus at the same depth it was growing in the old soil. Fill in around the roots with your medium and place it in a sunny southeast or east window.
Among important repotting cactus tips is to not water the plant yet, as it is adjusting to being handled and new soil conditions. After a few weeks, you can water the plant and allow it to dry out before watering again.
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Read more about General Cactus Care
Repotting a cactus can be intimidating, but a few simple tricks can make the project a lot less painful—and result in beautiful, healthy plants.
When repotting a cactus, there a few essential tools you’ll need:
Cactus soil is a special blend of potting soil that is formulated for fast drainage. It is usually a blend of peat moss and sand, sometimes including coconut fiber, perlite, or vermiculite. With the increase in popularity of growing cacti and succulents, it has become a garden center staple and can be found at most garden centers and hardware stores.
You’ll want to use a container—preferably one that is made from terra cotta—with drainage holes. This allows the water to drain away from the roots rapidly. Cacti are native to dry environments and do not like to have their roots sitting in water. If the drainage hole on your pot is especially large, it can be partially covered with a rock to prevent soil from draining out the bottom when you water. Most cacti are slow growing and should never be planted in a pot that is more than an inch larger in diameter than their previous container. This is to help prevent rot.
Winter is a great time to warm up in the Greenhouses and see our cacti collection.
Weingartia lanata in bloom
Repotting your cactus is in many ways very similar to repotting almost any other houseplant.
Your cactus now has much more room to grow, which also means much more soil to stay moist. Make sure to check before watering again—the soil can stay moist for a long time, even if it is a mix made for cacti.
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In case you aren’t well informed on how to properly pot cacti in the beginning, here is a quick reminder on what you need to do. Just follow the steps below, skip to the next section if you just want to learn how you can be repotting your awesome prickly cactus.
The driving factor behind the name “Heirloom Lady” stems back to all of the knowledge that I’ve been fortunate enough to inherit from my grandparents. That knowledge is my greatest heirloom. But it’s not just all the stories, recipes, garden tricks, and life lessons, that I hold so dear. There’s one thing that was entrusted to my care when my Gram passed last year that means the world to me…and that’s her Christmas Cactuses.
These Christmas Cactuses aren’t your run of the mill plant. The original plant was given to Gram by a woman we’ve only ever heard about in Gram’s tales. Her name was Mom Moesche and she was wonderful. That’s all I know, aside from the fact that she entrusted our Gram to take over caring for her Christmas Cactus when it was already well over 75 years old. She gave Gram the plant when Gram was in her late thirties.
You have to understand, Gram passed at the ripe old age of 98. That puts this Christmas Cactus at well over 100 years. A multi-family, multi-generational plant. Do you have any idea how incredible that is? A living heirloom. I don’t think there’s anything better than that.
But I don’t just have the old gal in my care, I have her two eldest offspring, too. And there are likely hundreds more, spread out far and wide across the east coast, at the very least. There were always babies growing on window sills, in jars, cups, pots, and anything else that would hold water. Once they got old enough, off they’d go to their new owner as Gram patted friends, family and random visitors on the back, ushering them to the door with bits of care advice for the plants and reassurance that it would all be just fine.
In the past year that I’ve had these incredible plants, I’ve gifted at least three people with babies that I’ve grown and I have several more that are nearly ready to go. It warms my heart knowing that I’m passing along a gift that will continue to grow and give a sense of family to each person that leaves home with a Christmas Cactus in tow. There’s something extra special about this task I’ve been given and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Unfortunately, last week a gust of wind came through and toppled over one of the younger plants, breaking the pot and part of the plant. I was devastated and cried real, hot tears over it. But shortly after, I thought of Gram and how she’d tell me to shake it off and grow the bits and pieces of the stem into a plant for someone I love.
That’s what I’m doing, but in the meantime, the mother plant needs to be repotted. Repotting Christmas Cactuses isn’t a hard task, but it’s one to take on with great care, especially with older plants.
You need to know the following things about repotting a Christmas Cactus for the process to be a successful one:
1. The first thing you need to know about Christmas Cactuses is that they are a tropical plant. They are not your average cactus and they prefer warm, humid environments.
2. Christmas Cactuses do not have leaves, but rather segmented stems that are flat, green and act just like a leaf would as far as chlorophyll production. As they age, older segments of the stem will become woody and almost tree bark-like.
3. If your Christmas Cactus is root bound, you will need to take extra care in removing it from its existing container for repotting. Rootbound means the plant has grown too big for its container. You can usually tell if the soil is hard, the roots are growing through the drainage hole of the pot, or if the stems of the plant are yellowing or browning (which can also be a symptom of overwatering, so you just have to keep track of what’s going on with the plant). I was actually kind of fortunate because the clay pot broke when it fell, so it was very easy for me to remove it. Honestly, I’d rather have you break a clay pot than risk the plant’s health by trying to turn it up on its side and work it out.
4. Christmas Cactuses actually like to have their roots sort of crowded. This is a struggle for plant parents because it’s tough to prevent them from becoming root bound when they actually grow best in a crowded pot. The best rule of thumb is to repot your Christmas Cactus every 4 years to a pot that’s 2 inches larger than the pot it is currently in. You’ll see I’m taking this guy from a 6-inch pot to an 8-inch pot.
. Prepare the new pot with soil before you start removing the plant from it’s existing pot. You want its new home to be ready so that you don’t waste time in getting the root ball into fresh, healthy soil as soon as possible. You’ll notice that I’m using soil specially formulated for cactuses. While Christmas Cactuses are a tropical plant, you’ll still want to use this soil because they require soil that allows for fast water drainage. You can start by putting enough soil in the bottom so that the top of your root ball is roughly one in deep from the top of your new pot.
6. Gently remove some of the old, dry soil from the root ball. You may need to moisten or even rinse the roots clean of the old soil. I think the fall actually helped my plant because the soil just sort of fell away from the root structure without causing too much breakage.
7. Put your plant into its new home and gently fill in around the root ball with fresh soil. I took special care to remove any yellowing, dried up stems as I went.
8. Give your repotted Christmas Cactus a deep drink of fresh water and put it in an extra shady area for a few days so that it can get used to the fresh soil and new space.
9. I do exactly as Gram always did and keep mine on the porch, close to the house all summer long so that they can get indirect sun and fresh air. I cannot tell you how much these plants have grown and come back to life this summer. There are fresh, bright green stems popping up all over the place. It doesn’t hurt to snag a few branches to start fresh plants, it actually helps promote new growth.
10. In the Fall, once it’s close to the first frost, it’ll be time to bring them inside. They like to be in a darker location, out of direct sunlight (that’s kind of humid if at all possible). You’ll want to cut back on your once per week waterings in October. Drying the soil around October promotes blooms around the holidays, so instead of watering your plant once a week, cut it back to a light watering once every three weeks. Some people even cover their Christmas cactuses for a few weeks to encourage blooms.