Are you mystified at how some people have great luck growing cactus, and you feel like you can do no right? There really is no mystery to cactus growing, often all you are doing wrong is taking too good care of them. Cactus plant care is really easy as long as you follow some simple guidelines.
Cactus are found in many places around the world, and these exotic plants often make their way to your local plant nursery. This is a problem, as they are not necessarily acclimated to your climate, and may bake in summer sun or freeze in cold winters or both.
To pick the right species, do some homework first. Obviously, cactus native to where you live are the best choices, but there may be other selections that will do well, too. Do not rely on salespeople, especially in Big Box stores, to know the horticultural requirements of all the plants on display. A good place to visit is your local University Cooperative Extension Service, as they can provide you with a list of hardy plants.
Cactus in a spot in the wild grows there because everything about that spot is perfect. The soil is right, rainfall is sufficient and not too much, and the amount of sun it gets is also perfect. Once you plant a cactus in your yard, life gets challenging. If your yard’s soil and sun orientation is different from where it was grown, and chances are good that is true, then you may run into problems. A few precautions will help your new cactus acclimate.
• Provide temporary shade. For species of cactus that like full sun, you have to introduce it slowly. Covering with 30% shade cloth for its first summer will prevent deadly sunburn.
• Plant the cactus where it will have afternoon shade. The west sun is the most brutal for plants.
• Never plant where drainage is poor or water stands. Do not plant near an irrigation system that runs regularly. This will cause root rot.
Your new cactus will need supplemental water when newly planted. However, when planting from a container, wait two weeks before watering. Then water thoroughly so water soaks the entire root zone. Cactus will need supplemental water, twice a month in the hottest, driest part of summer, during their first year. After that, they rarely need water unless rainfall is below normal.
If winter or summer rains are far below normal, look for drought stress. Prickly pear cactus pads will look puckered, barrel cactus ribs will narrow. This is a case where a good soaking is warranted. Just make sure you water the entire root zone. Keep in mind cactus roots extend far beyond the plant, sometimes 2 to 3 times the height. Mature plants need soaking to a 3 foot depth. Large sahuaros need soaking to 4 feet. This deep watering need only take place once a month until rains arrive.
Cactus are pretty much pest free, but occasionally you will notice these insects. Cochineal Scale prefers prickly pear cactus exclusively. The signs are quite obvious; you will see little white dots of ‘cotton’ on the pads. If you catch this early, you can just hose them off. If the entire plant is covered, it is best to destroy and start over.
Another prickly pear insect pest is the cactus longhorn beetle. Damage appears as chewed areas on the top edges of the pads. Left alone, they can kill the plant. Fortunately, there is usually only one or two on the plant, so if you see the damage, locate the black beetle with a long antenna and destroy.
Cactus is fairly easy to move provided you don’t rush to plant them in the ground. Barrel, sahuaro and other columnar cactus need to have their roots dried out before planting to prevent rot.
Cactus moving should be done in the spring. When digging up cactus, get as many roots as you can, keeping in mind the roots are far and wide. Lay the cactus under a tree with filtered shade, and leave there to dry out for a couple weeks.. The plant to go into drought survival mode and live on stored water. This prevents root rot when replanted.
When it is time to plant, dig a hole no deeper than the taproot and wider than the roots. Set the plant in the hole, cover with native soil. In the case of bareroot cactus planting, this time you need to water well. Water the plant twice a month in the hot months for the first summer.
Remember that digging up cactus from the wild in most states is illegal.