Cacti and Succulent Basics

Bonnie Nowicki

How fortunate we are here in Green Valley to enjoy the beautiful and luscious cacti blooms this season. Over the past two-and-a-half years writing this gardening column, I have shared information about cacti and my love of succulents. I find it’s always helpful to review the basics of growing beautiful specimens in our yards and containers. I usually rely on my 2017 Arizona Master Gardener Manual to refresh my memory and fact check information.

Let’s start at the beginning. All cacti are native to the Western Hemisphere. All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. The cactus body has small nubs called areoles. All roots, stems, and flowers originate from the areoles. Succulents have fleshy leaves and stems for water storage, with large shallow root systems that spread out to absorb water.

The ideal soil mix for container plants should be 50% pumice or perlite, 25% peat moss, and 25% compost. Well-drained soil is essential. May I suggest using pots with tapered sides? This makes plant removal easier after a few years of growth. An application of mild fertilizer during the growing season (April through September) is beneficial for more attractive plants. Water weekly during the hot, dry summer. Pruning is usually not necessary.

Cacti transplanting and propagating is best done in the summer when nighttime temperatures are in the 70s and the soil is warm for root and stem growth. When propagating a cactus, cut on a 45-degree angle. The cuttings must be air-dried for at least a week until a callus forms over the cut area. This will help prevent infection.

Sunburn can be a problem. If the plant is looking pale and less green, cover it with a piece of shade cloth during the heat of the day. If it’s in a container, move it into less intense light. When planting your specimen, try to orient it in the same direction towards the sun as it was growing previously. This will help prevent sunburn.

Good news: The U of A’s Pima County Cooperative Extension Center, located at 530 East Whitehouse Canyon Road, has re-opened from 8 a.m. until noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. You can stroll the gardens, ask gardening questions, and purchase soil and plants. Enjoy the summer and, especially, enjoy gardening.