Deb Babcock: Caring for your cactus

Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— You’d think that with our very dry environment here in the Steamboat area that desert cactus would thrive in our homes, where it is protected from the brutal cold of winter. They can thrive if cared for properly.

I re­­member purchasing a tiny potted cactus while on a trip to Arizona several years ago and was told by the sales clerk that it would need only a tablespoon of water once per month. So on the first of every month, I dutifully gave it a tablespoon of water. It never died on me, but it never grew any bigger either. It certainly never flowered.

So while it is true that a cactus requires less water than most of our houseplants, it still requires water, especially when it is actively growing in the spring and summer and when it shows signs of wilting. Your house cactus should be watered when its soil is dry. You can use a moisture meter, found in most garden centers, to test for wetness. Water the soil until it flows freely out of the hole in the bottom your pot. And if your pot is sitting on a saucer, be sure to empty the saucer so the plant isn’t sitting in a pool of drainage water.

If your cactus has been in the same pot for a long time (2 to 3 years), chances are it has used up all the nutrients in its soil and could use repotting with new fresh mixture. Also, if its roots are peeking through the bottom of the pot, it is time to repot in a larger planter. Never use actual potting soil. Instead, combine potting mix with some sand and gravel, perhaps a third of each.

Try to remove as much of the old potting soil as possible and gently break up the root ball so the roots will grow out into the new soil mixture. Remove any dead leaves and shoots as they may harbor pests.

Then consider time-released plant food that will keep feeding your cactus for as many as six months or use a very diluted liquid plant food solution three times per year in the spring, summer and fall. It doesn’t need much pampering, just a little.

Desert cacti thrive in full sun, so place your plant in a south- or west-facing window, but keep an eye on it when the sun is most intense so it doesn’t become scorched.

Once I researched the care of cacti, I started watering that little cactus more as the soil dried out, and within just a few months, new growth appeared. I’ve been caring for it several years now, and this cactus has more than quadrupled in size and looks healthy and happy. I hope to see it flower someday with continued good care.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call the Extension Office at 970-879-0825 with questions.

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