Cactus and Succulent 101: Basic Plant Care Guides For Tropical Citizens

March 21, 2018 • Information

Congratulations! You just purchased your first cactus or succulent and the store assistant gave you an instruction like “water it once a week and don’t forget to sunbath them.” It’s a good start indeed. Some guidelines will definitely be helpful, but never forget there are no fixed rules (such as 1+1=2) in plant parenthood.

We were just like you when we first had our plants, we wanted our plants to grow beautifully and we did exactly as we were instructed.  However, weeks passed by and our plants did not grow happily as expected and we started to believe that we were not gifted with a green thumb.

BUT… The good news is it was not entirely right! After some trials and errors we managed to start growing some beautiful creatures.  Yes it might take quite some times, but the joy was worth all the efforts.

Basically, their original habitats tell all the clues we need in growing our plants successfully. They include heat, plenty of light, a dry atmosphere, occasional heavy watering, and very well-drained potting mix. In what follows, we will talk about these factors in the easiest and simplest way possible for you to understand.

Additionally, we noticed that many of the information we discovered in books or online journals were actually written by writers who lived in non-tropical countries. Indeed the writers were experts in this field, however due to climatic differences, some of the information given might be irrelevant to us tropical citizens. Accordingly, the following information presented to you gathered from books written by professionals but also combined with our personal experiences. Hope it helps! 😉 Let’s start!

LIGHT

Sunlight is essential for the growth of cacti and succulents. Although there are few of them that require less to moderate sunlight, but take note that most of the cacti and succulents need strong sunlight to grow healthily. However be careful with new plants, the ones you have just purchased and added to your plant gang recently. Especially if they have been kept in a sun-less environment, or you just ordered them online and they were delivered to your door by mail. Do not expose them to direct sunlight right away to avoid sunburn. You can try to move them gradually from a bright shaded area to a place where it can receive a direct sunlight for acclimatising. Finally, if you insist to keep them in a sun-less environment, try to give them as much direct sunlight as possible by sunbathing them. Bear in mind, your own judgment is the best indicator. You can always check the symptoms if your plants receive the light excessively or insufficiently.

WATER

There is a simple rule of thumb for watering your cacti and succulents. You have to ensure that the soil has completely dried before you decide to water them. Completely. Otherwise you will kill them. This is an important basic that you might have heard all the time, but this is essentially crucial for us tropical citizens due to our moist and humid environment.

It is nearly impossible to prescribe how many days should pass between waterings because the rate of soil drying varies so much between plants. Other factors such as air circulation, root system size, and type of containers also significantly affect the drying process. With our climatic condition, usually it varies from one week to three weeks; but as mentioned previously, there are also no fixed rules concerning this watering interval. One of our dear friends even waters every other day during dry season! Then, how can we judge if a plant needs water? One of the methods is to feel the soil. When you suspect a plant needs water, stick your finger into the soil about 1 cm deep. A cool or damp feeling indicates there is still moisture in the soil. Alternatively, you can push a chopstick into the soil (to the bottom of the pot). Do not water your plant if the soil sticks to your chopstick.

AIR CIRCULATION

As mentioned previously, cacti and succulents love a dry atmosphere. As long as they are dry, they are very tolerant. A good air circulation can help the soil to drain properly. If your space is quite humid for your plants, you can install a fan that can help in promoting fresh air and good ventilation. 

FERTILIZING

Cacti and succulents do not live on light and water alone. They need fertilizer, but in smaller amounts.  Fertilizing should only be done during their growing season, which is generally during a dry season.  We highly recommend you to follow the instructions provided on the label, as over-fertilizing your cacti and succulents can ultimately kill it.

Fertilizer is not a cure-all for plants in poor condition. A dose of it could even kill it. Additionally, do not attempt to fertilize a newly trans-plated plant because they require at least a month to adapt before being fertilized.

CONTAINER

Plastic and terracotta have always been the most popular materials for planters. Plastic is inexpensive, safe for the plants, and has drainage holes. Plastic pot tends to dry out a lot slower than terracotta. We personally prefer terracotta clay, as it is generally tidier and nicer to look. Its porous material also quickly soaks up water, which is advantageous as we live in an area with high humidity. Consequently, plants in clay pots need to be watered more frequently (more frequent compared to other materials) to prevent them from drying out.

Finally, is it important to use pots with drainage holes? The answer will be definitely yes. No matter what type of plant you are growing, the planters must have holes for drainage to ensure that excess water should be able to run out freely. If you still wonder if that one beautiful glazed container without drainage hole can be used for potting your cactus or succulent, the answer will be yes. Yet they will require special attention to watering and it is not easy to grow them successfully. We recommend you to place the plant in a pot that drains before slipping it into the decorative pot. Alternatively, you can put a layer of pebbles or broken clay pot if you still wish to plant directly in such a container. Anyway, why forcing it if risks your plant’s health? All that matters is ensuring your plant’s safety by keeping it away from wet and stagnant soil.

Last but not least, talk to your plants and they will show you! As mentioned previously, there are no fixed rules to grow your cacti and succulents successfully. We are also still learning as specific plants can have different ways to survive. What we have provided here were a few basic tips to remember based on our personal experiences and preferences from books. Hope it helps! Good luck. 

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