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Growing and Caring for Conophytum (How to Guide)

How to Grow and Care for Conophytum (the RIGHT Way!)

Conophytum are irresistible, winter-growing green pebbles, dumplings and bilobes–dwarf plants that fit on your windowsill and are one of my favorites listed on my dessert plants list, even though they come from Africa. But hey, they have a lot of dessert there too!

Sculpturally appealing and adapted for the harsh conditions of South Africa, they wrap themselves in “cocoons” against the arid heat of summer, displaying cheery daisy-like flowers of various hues in cooler conditions.

Understanding their unusual growth cycle is the key to success with these rare, interesting plants. This page is dedicated to how I fell in love with these plants, photos of my collection, and how to grow them well.

How They Got Their Name

Conophytum bodies are generally shaped like cones, roots grow from the pointy end in the soil.

The latin word “conus” translates to cone and the Greek “phytum” means plant–Conophytum is a perfect name, don’t you think?

An Interesting Growth Cycle for Survival

During fall/winter, Conophytum present their white, yellow, lavender, orange, and occasionally red, flowers according to species. At this time, they can be misted every day (simulating their native habitat fog) and will become plump.

In the spring, the skin of Conophytum begins to thin and loses color, until finally, when the hot, dry days of summer arrive they go dormant — they seemingly retreat into a dry, papery cocoon spun from their own skins. Watering during this time is minimal to none.

In their native South Africa, these “cocoons” allow them to endure harsh summer conditions until the autumn growing season when they bloom again. This photo shows the “cocoons” forming, turning brownish and dry.

In habitat, they often grow in micro climates next to rocks or in rock crevices that offer shelter from the harsh sun and winds. Also in habitat, they are found growing deeper in the soil than in cultivation, some with just the tops of their heads barely visible, the soil offering insulating protection.

How I Fell in Love with Conophytum

Falling in love with a sphaeroid, as Conophytum are sometimes called, is similar to falling in love with a humanoid.

You are first attracted to the handsome face, succulent lips, and beautiful figure of lovely color and texture. As the cool autumn breeze arrives, you are warmed by their stunning flowers, quickening your heartbeat.

My love affair with Conophytum and its relatives was sparked by a book by Béla Kalman that highlights the sculptural beauty of succulents.

(About the Photo: This photo provides a sneak peak into the book, “Succulents: Nature’s Sculptural Wonders” Book by Béla Kalman–it shows an old Conophytum burgeri, considered the king of Conos, in its dormant stage, inside the “cocoons.”)

My First Conophytum

In Memoriam… This is a sad story (especially for the plants) about my beginnings with Conophytum. Years ago, I purchased several Conophytum from a mail order nursery that provided them without growing instructions.

Since Conophytum are rather rare, there are few books about them. I didn’t think it was a problem and I was a bit of a “smarty pants” because I’d grown succulents since I was in high school.

When at the start of summer, they began to turn yellowish and dry, I believed something was wrong with them, and thought they were dying! I didn’t know that they formed sheaths and went into a dormant period.

They continued to seemingly “dry out” looking papery and dead. In my ignorance, I tossed them out.

This story illustrates the importance of understanding and honoring plants’ growth cycles. The good news is that you don’t have to make the same mistake that I did. The information in this article should get you off to a good start.

Soil

Well-Draining Soil is a Must! Since Conophytum are quite adaptable to various soils, you will find many different recipes available, but what they all have in common is that they are well-draining.

The easiest mix for starting out, is a commercial cactus and succulent mix to which you will add 50% pumice. If you are not able to find pumice locally, Perlite may be used as a substitute.

Diatomaceous earth is added to my mix to prevent Sciara fly larvae and root mealy bugs from enjoying a Conophytum dinner–of course, this additive is optional.

I do not add any fertilizer to the mix, as Conophytum need this only in their first few months as seedlings.

Adding gravel or small rocks as top dressing in the pot helps to stabilize the soil and support newly potted plants in staying upright.

Water

Desert Plants Need Water, Too! Because these are desert plants, they don’t need much water, right? Well, that is partially correct. Depending on their growth phase, the needs are different.

Summer Water – When the plants have retreated into their protective ‘cocoon’ to rest for the summer, they need almost no water. I will very lightly mist them every two weeks or so in my dry climate, nothing more. If your climate is humid, you most likely should not mist or water at all during this period.

Winter Water – During the winter growing season, following their flowering, they appreciate a daily fine misting and are lightly watered approximately once a week.

Water that would cause them to rot during the dormant season, makes them thrive in the active season.

Excessive watering can cause cracked skin which will leave scars, so use caution. When they look nice and plump, you might skip a day of misting, or stretch out the days between watering.

In their natural habitat, Conos are misted with fog in the winter period–it is good to emulate this in cultivation–you should “be the fog” (with a spray mister) and water lightly every 1-2 weeks (adjust for a humid climate).

Many growers are using the municipal water source for watering plants. If your water is very hard and chlorinated, as it is where I live, you may want to let the water sit for a day or so to let the chlorine evaporate, and then add a little white vinegar (1 tsp. to 5 gallons) to reduce the hardness.

What I do instead, is use the same reverse-osmosis filtered water that I drink–free of chlorine and other contaminants and without the minerals that make water hard.

I’ve not seen this recommended elsewhere, but I figure that these plants usually receive only mist or rainfall in habitat, so using filtered water like this is closer to nature–I think the results speak for themselves– my plants are growing well.

Light

Most Conophytum like a lot of light, with protection from the mid-day sun which can be quite harsh here in the southwestern USA, and actually burn the plants. I have read that in the UK, it is probably impossible to give these plants too much light.

It is important to adjust for your climate. It is sometimes possible to place a a rock strategically so that when the sun is hottest, there is a shadow on the plant from the rock, in the same way they survive in the South African desert.

Some of the plants have particular preferences, C. burgeri likes the brightest spot and C. stephanii, prefer semi- shaded spot. Individual plant preferences can be found in Steven Hammer’s “Dumpling and his Wife,” a wonderful reference, the source of this statement.

Love is Very Important – I’m Not Kidding

Plants need love, too! If love means paying attention, addressing an individual’s needs, that is what I am talking about. Maybe I have read too many of Steven Hammer’s writings, but you must allow for individuality and the needs of each plant.

I don’t think you can put a misting system on a timer and have good results. I did this once in an emergency situation; some plants survived, but there were many losses.

The plants will show signs of their needs; you must learn to read them, as you would a person that you love. They may be very, very plump–give no more water for awhile. The skin may be wrinkled during the growing season–give it a drink of water.

The plant stays wrinkled despite watering/misting–check for root loss. The plant produces a bud, but fails to flower–this can also be root loss.

At the end of spring, the skin is turning yellowish and drying out–allow it to go dormant and do nothing. This is love.

How to Pot Conophytum Plants

Once you’ve gathered your materials, these are the steps:

Step 1 – Measure the ingredients for the soil recipe. Place them into a bowl.

Quick Potting Mix Recipe

  • 1 cup Soil Mix (no added fertilizer)
  • 1 cup Pumice (Perlite may be substituted)
  • 1 tsp. Diatomaceous Earth (optional)
  • Gardening Gloves

Step 2 – Mix the soil components thoroughly with a spoon.

Step 3 – Cut or tear a small piece of newspaper and cover the hole in the bottom of the pot. This will prevent soil from leaking out and still allow for water drainage.

Step 4 – Fill the pot about half to a third full, depending on the size of the plant’s roots.

Step 5 – Place the plant in the center of the pot and spoon the potting mix gently around the roots until they are completely covered (just up to the bottom of the plant’s body). Level the soil with a spoon.

Step 6 – Add your top dressing, either gravel or stones. Natural gravel for fish aquariums works well (shown in photos above).

Step 7 – Water lightly. Resume a normal Cono watering schedule.

Best Book on Rare Conophytum is Also Rare

Dumpling & His Wife: New Views on the Genus Conophytum by Steven Hammer

This is the book you’ll want when you get serious about growing Conophytum. All the information you need to grow these plants well is included in this book.

This book is written by the reknowned and witty Steven Hammer, who has studied these plants in their African habitat and works with them every day at his Sphaeroid Institute in California.

In this book, Mr. Hammer has partnered with other experts on the subject and included their valuable insights as well. Individual species are described in detail. Many beautiful photographs by Chris Barnhill are included. This is a book for the botanist and the collector as well.

A rare book about rare plants, it is currently out-of-print, but used copies can be found with a little good research. It is well worth the search. I found my copy in a month’s time.
Available Intermittently from rare and used book sellers.

Conophytum Pictures

Conophytum pellucidum ssp. neohallii cv.

Conophytum irmae Rietkloof

How to Grow Succulents

The Complete Succulent Indoor Care Guide

Get the answers to your succulents questions here with our integrated approach on how to grow succulents, including our indoor care guide. All of the basic elements of succulent cultivation are presented with an emphasis on how to combine them to work for you. It’s not just another Do’s and Don’ts list.

With this guide as a starting point you’ll know why you’re doing things. With a little experience you’ll soon be solving your own problems and growing very good plants.

For many, entering the world of succulent plants and the people who collect and trade in them means confronting the Latin botanical nomenclature used to name and describe this natural world. Don’t be put off by this!

Learning the botanical names of your plants and how to pronounce them is essential to cultivating and building your collection. Abandon the use of common names such as “snake plant” or “pencil cactus” in favor of Sansevieria and Euphorbia. Common names are not unique and will only lead to confusion.

All you really have to know is that each plant is a single species or a hybrid of two or more species, and like species are organized into a larger single group called a genus such as Pachypodium. In turn, groups of similar genera make up the plant families such as Apocynaceae which includes the genera Pachypodium and Adenium. Genus and species in that order are used exclusively when referring to any plant. So instead of “Madagascar Palm” we use Pachypodium lamerei or Adenium obesum in place of “Desert Rose”.

Don’t be intimidated or embarrassed when attempting to pronounce these strange names. Everyone makes mistakes but with a little experience it becomes second nature. To get started you could even watch The Victory Garden on PBS where they consistently use genus and species when discussing plants of all kinds.

Crassula tecta

By far the single most important element for growing quality plants is available light. Succulents need serious natural light. This means a full southern exposure with nothing between your plants and the sun except possibly the window glass or greenhouse glazing. A full southern exposure is one which receives all available light for most of the day. Avoid locations which are blocked by trees or buildings.

In a perfect world, your plants would be growing in a blazing southern exposure and receiving 360° light. This would of course mean a perfectly situated greenhouse or an outside location in a frost free climate. Such facilities are impossible for many of us but this does not mean that you still can’t grow first rate quality plants. This is where your strategy is required.

Your strategy should be to give your plants the light they need when they need it. The keyword here is when. Most succulents will enter an annual dormancy period and will tolerate less than ideal light during this part of their life cycle.

If you are growing indoors, the preferred strategy is to move your plants outside during the summer months for optimum light during their growth period then winter them over in southern windows when they are dormant.

If you are restricted to indoor conditions year round, you must compromise. Regardless of how good your windows are, you will still be providing light from only one direction and there will be a few plants that will not tolerate less than ideal light. You will have to restrict your collection to those genera which will grow well in your conditions or simply move your plants to better light.

If you are growing in a greenhouse or outside in frost free conditions, sufficient light is not your problem. In many parts of the southern and southwestern U.S. your problem can be too much light and some sun filtering material is in order especially for smaller plants in small containers.

Artificial light will keep most but not all succulent plants alive but that’s about it. After more than a month or two under fluorescent tubes for example, plants take on a very soft weak look and quickly lose their appeal. Artificial light is best used as a supplement to your winter source if you bring your plants indoors during the winter months.

These strategies apply to summer growing (winter dormant) succulents. As you will discover, many genera are winter growing (summer dormant) which definitely makes providing sufficient light even more challenging. However it is possible!

How can you tell if your plants are receiving proper light? Their general appearance will be compact with the distance between the leaves very short. Leaves will also be small not big and floppy. Rosettes of leafy succulents such as Echeveria will be tight while leaves and bodies of extremely succulent types such as lithops will be compact and colorful, not bloated and soft looking.

Some of the most light sensitive succulents are the Crassulaceae (echeveria, crassula, graptopetalum, kalanchoe, sedum, etc.), Mesembs (lithops, conophytum, etc.) and Apocynaceae (pachypodium, adenium) while some of the least light sensitive are the Liliaceae (aloes, haworthias), many euphorbias, sansevierias, and stapeliads.

There are many factors to consider if you want to grow first rate, truly beautiful plants but by far, providing sufficient light is the most important. There is hardly anything more unattractive or that reflects poor cultivation technique than an etiolated or stretched out succulent. Etiolation is not reversible, unless the subject can be started again from a cutting, so once this occurs, the plant is ruined. Study your conditions and adopt a strategy for providing proper light. There is no substitute.

Temperature

Most collectable succulents, which includes all the plants you will find on this web site, are not hardy. Although a few Agaves and Sedums might take a few degrees of frost, they will not tolerate freezing temperatures.

We maintain a minimum of 55° F year round for most plants while keeping our most sensitive species at 60° F.

Maximum temperatures are usually determined by weather conditions and succulents are well adapted to tolerate temperatures slightly over 100° F. Prolonged exposure to excessive heat usually prompts most plants to simply go dormant and wait it out.

Many plants can however be damaged by excessive heat and if you are growing in a greenhouse or any other type of solar structure, constant air movement is essential. Hot stagnant air will rapidly damage most succulents.

How to Water Succulents

When and how much to water your plants has always been a controversial subject. Far too much complexity has been made of this very basic element of cultivation that we all must practice.
Most importantly, it’s crucial to your development of a sound cultural technique that you realize many elements cannot be prescribed or decided for you. You must observe. Watering is certainly one of these elements and you alone must decide.

The general idea should be not how much but when to water, and this is largely determined by your environment. If your conditions are good and you are using a quality growing medium, most plants will dry out in just a few days. So as a good starting point use this simple rule: do not let containers become dust dry at any time. It works. Water, wait until the plant uses what you gave it, then water again.

How can you tell if a plant has used what you gave it? Pick it up. If the pot feels light, water until it appears at the drainage holes. With a little experience, you will quickly be able to tell if water is needed just by looking.

Don’t think of watering as an exact science where every drop must be measured. It’s just not that critical. Make sure your plants are well watered and forget it. Yes there are some succulents that are more sensitive to over and under watering but observation and experience will ready you for these.

When watering, use a good breaker on your hose or a soft rose on your can. This prevents root damage caused from washed out mix. And finally do not push anything into your containers to test the moisture level. This means your finger or those awful dreaded moisture meter probes. Succulents have delicate fragile roots and you will only damage them. Broken roots can rapidly lead to rotted plants from this bad novice habit.

Dormancy

The least understood and most critical time for cultivating succulents is the dormancy or rest period. Most losses occur during or shortly after this time because plants are kept too dry and not monitored. This is the number one reason for failure.

Dormancy is a fact of life. Plants gradually move into a rest period in response to dropping light and temperature levels. They need this break to stay healthy. Your job is to coast them through it.

The first sign that a plant is entering dormancy is that it stops growing. Soon after, leaves begin to yellow and drop, rosettes tighten and contract, or for very succulent groups such as mesembs, bodies can pull themselves into the soil and develop a papery covering as protection.
In October, the Pachypodium densiflorum (winter dormant) on the left shows the first signs of oncoming dormancy by shedding leaves from the bottom up.

The Haworthia cooperi on the right (summer dormant) has likewise begun its resting period but in June. Notice how the individual rosettes have contracted and closed.

In October, the Pachypodium densiflorum (winter dormant) on the left shows the first signs of oncoming dormancy by shedding leaves from the bottom up.The Haworthia cooperi on the right (summer dormant) has likewise begun its resting period but in June. Notice how the individual rosettes have contracted and closed.

You may not see much happening on the outside, but even in this state, your plants are not just sitting there. Transpiration is still going on and this moisture must be replaced. They need feeder roots to take up this moisture so naturally plants cannot be kept so dry that these roots desiccate and die.

This can easily happen to slow growing species and the consequences will not become apparent until spring when growth commences and plants begin to fail. Plants are failing in April and May because of what you did over the winter months. Signs of trouble often take months to appear.

So how often should you water during the rest period? Again it largely depends on your conditions, i.e. how fast they dry out. If you live where it’s cool during the winter, your plants will rapidly dry from heating equipment being present so one or two waterings per week may be required.

If you live in a mild climate, possibly every other week will work. Just water, give them a good dry spell to the point where pots feel light but not dust dry, then water again.

What about the plants that are summer dormant and how should they be treated? Since this group is resting during the warmest time of the year, they will dry out much faster than the winter dormant species and therefore require more frequent waterings.

As a starting point, water these every other time you water your summer growers but again, it completely depends on your conditions. During extremely hot weather, they may need water every day.

It’s important to remember that you can’t force your plants into or out of dormancy by withholding or applying moisture. The one exception to this is the mistaken advice one often hears that succulents should be kept completely dry when dormant. In this case they will indeed go dormant but unfortunately it will likely be permanent.

To better understand dormancy and its role in your cultivation, you must be aware of when your plants are actually dormant. Succulents can be organized by genus into the two groups of winter and summer dormant with the most popular genera presented in our Dormancy Table. There are a few exceptions for individual species.

DORMANCY TABLE

WINTER DORMANT

This group is generally regarded as the “summer growers”. They have adapted to our northern hemisphere cycle and are dormant from November through February. Many of these will also enter a pseudo rest period for a few weeks during the hottest part of the summer before putting on a final burst of growth in September and October.

SUMMER DORMANT

Usually referred to as the “winter growers”, these genera are dormant during the warmer months of May through August. Their primary growth actually occurs during autumn and spring while slowing considerably during true winter. Many will exhibit marginal growth during the summer months as well especially in the Lily and Crassulaceae families.

Adenia
Adenium
Agave
Alluaudia
Brachystelma
Bursera
Calibanus
Ceropegia
Cissus
Cyphostemma
Didieria
Dorstenia
Echeveria
Encephalartos
Euphorbia
Ficus
Fockea
Huernia
Ibervillea
Ipomoea
Jathropha
Lithops
Monadenium
Moringa
Operculicarya
Pachypodium
Pedilanthus
Plumeria
Pseudolithos
Pterodiscus
Raphionacme
Siningia
Stapelianthus
Synadenium
Tillandsia
Trichocaulon
Trichodiadema
Xerosicyos
Adromischus
Aeonium
Aloe
Anacampseros
Astroloba
Avonia
Bowiea
Bulbine
Ceraria
Conophytum
Cotyledon
Crassula
Dioscorea
Dudleya
Fouqueria
Gasteria
Gibbaeum
Graptopetalum
Graptoveria
Haemanthus
Haworthia
Kalanchoe
Neohenricia
Othonna
Pachycormus
Pachyphytum
Pachyveria
Pelargonium
Peperomia
Portulacaria
Sansevieria
Sarcocaulon
Sedeveria
Sedum
Senecio
Stomatium
Talinum
Tylecodon

Making Changes – Timing

When to repot, prune excess growth, take cuttings, or in any way physically disturb your plants is closely related to dormancy. Succulents differ from many other types of dessert plants when it comes to making changes and the last thing you want to do is disturb them when they are resting. Rare slow growing species are particularly sensitive and drastic changes can indeed be fatal.

When repotting, wait until you see signs of new growth. Shaping or trimming back excess growth is best done right before the growth period. For summer growers this would be March and for winter growers, it means August. Fast growing robust species can usually be repotted or pruned anytime.

The right size container makes a big difference when repotting.The Cissus tuberosa on the left has been kept in the same 3 inch pot for 4 years and has developed a nice caudex. The plant on the right was started at the same time from the same size cutting but over potted in a 4 inch container.

Growing In Containers

Cultivating succulents in containers is vastly different than other plant groups. Using the right size pot has a huge effect on the appearance of any plant. It’s a natural tendency to want to give your plants plenty of root space in the mistaken belief that this will make them grow better or faster.

In fact it has the opposite effect as most succulents will slow to a crawl. Many slow growing rare species stop altogether because they just don’t like sitting in a large volume of moist mix. Most experienced growers eventually rethink how they pot and abandon the urge to overpot.

When repotting, go up only ½ inch in pot size. For larger plants in 5 inch or larger containers, you can safely increase in one inch increments. If you use a container that is too large, the roots will grow out of proportion to the rest of the plant and most of the growth energy will be channeled to the branches and leaves.

Succulent Soil – Mix and Nutrients

MIX – mix is a term used in the horticulture trade for growing medium and is always a controversial subject. Exotic formulae and wildly conflicting advice abound and it’s difficult for the newcomer to sort it out. Using a quality mix is absolutely vital to growing superb plants and you shouldn’t think of it as just “dirt” you put in the container along with your plant.

Is it better to buy commercial mix or make your own? The answer is clearly in favor of commercial products. Note that we are referring to professional products and not consumer type mixes like the generic “cactus soil” you might find at the discount store. The manufacturing of growing medium is complex and technical and is best left to specialized industry. If you choose to make your own, keep in mind that there are many issues to consider for which most of us are not prepared.

See our top picks for the best electric tiller here!

There have been great advances in the last 15 years in commercial growing medium and the trend is definitely toward soilless mixes. These come in a variety of formulations with the composted bark being the best. Few growers today use soil based medium as the results realized with soilless mixes are so outstanding.

Simply stated, soil-less mixes are based on the matrix concept which is nothing more than a given volume of semi-uniform size particles which provides for maximum growth. Nutrients are then added as fertilizer in solution or incorporated dry into the matrix. The matrix is a carefully constructed blend of composted bark (not landscaping bark), horticultural grade peat (not more than 20%), perlite (baked pumice), vermiculite, and a buffering agent to adjust and stabilize pH. It contains no field soil or aggregate whatsoever.

Two important physical characteristics to consider for any good mix are drainage and weight. One common myth surrounding the notion of what constitutes a proper mix for succulents is the idea that all moisture must absolutely drain away very rapidly leaving no excess, and consequently no reserve, so as to avoid failure from rot. You may indeed avoid root rot with a super fast draining mix but you will also avoid normal growth as your plants will slow to a glacial pace. A good mix must make both moisture and nutrients available and one that drains too rapidly lacks this essential function.

The very worst mix is a heavy mix and should be avoided at all cost. For roots to develop and function properly they need oxygen for respiration. A quality mix will allow oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide and other gasses to escape and therefore must be light in weight. Good respiration is essential for a large vigorous root system and general plant health.

A heavy mix will simply suffocate roots and is usually one which contains aggregate of some sort which should be avoided. Common aggregate used includes sand, gravel, turface, and pumice. Agricultural pumice is used to some degree in the southwestern U.S. as a growing matrix because it is readily available. It is very warm in this region and plants grown in this media will dry out at a sufficient rate but in a more temperate climate, such as the northern and eastern U.S., pumice is much too heavy and soggy. This is because it has an open-celled structure. Superior results are obtained with perlite, which is closed-celled, over pumice.

A major problem for the hobbyist grower is finding a source for soilless mix. A small number of well stocked garden centers do have them for sale but a good alternative is to inquire at a local commercial greenhouse business. The owners are usually dedicated plant lovers and will be more than willing to supply you with a bag or two.

These mixes are formulated for greenhouse crops grown in containers and when used for succulents need to be slightly adjusted with perlite. A good starting point is three parts mix to one part perlite. You will not be changing the basic design of the mix but do not overdo the perlite. Never add other ingredients such as soil or aggregate which will defeat the entire soilless concept.

A constructive way to think about your growing medium is that it should provide some margin of error in watering. One often hears such mistaken advice to the effect that what works for one could be disastrous for another. A quality mix will perform well in a variety of conditions. If you experience frequent plant losses, you may want to consider another mix no matter how good you think your current one is. Go slowly when making changes. Experiment with just a few plants you are familiar with and observe results.

NUTRIENTS

It’s essential to provide nutrients in some form during the growing season and then taper off to none when your plants are dormant. A constant low dosage balanced water soluble fertilizer every time you water (constant feed) is preferred.

Use a good commercial brand such as Peters and avoid hobby or gimmick type products. Quality fertilizers can be found at most garden centers and come in many formulations. A general purpose 20-20-20 or 20-10-20 works well with succulents. There are also formulae with added trace elements for use with soilless mixes and these are very beneficial. If you opt for the low dosage constant feed schedule, mix at ¼ recommended strength which will yield about 50ppm nitrogen. Adjust to higher rates if you feed less often (pulse feed).

An alternative to water soluble formulations is resin coated time release fertilizer. This is incorporated into your mix or applied as a top dressing and lasts for a specified time. Excellent brands are Nutricote and Osmocote in 13-13-13, 180 day formula.

Not all succulents need feeding. Many groups become soft and unhealthy if added nutrients are applied and look best if grown lean. These include most of the Crassulaceae (echeveria, crassula, sedum, graptopetalum, etc.), almost all mesembs (lithops, etc.), and senecios.

Indoor Succulent Planter

It’s important to use the correct size container as explained above but should you use plastic or terra cotta? Many consider this an aesthetic decision but there’s more to it.

Plants simply grow better in plastic containers because more moisture is available. If you are growing in terra cotta (clay) pots, you will have to water 3-4 times more often because they dry at an alarming rate. This is especially true for small sizes.

Most growers use plastic for 6 inches and smaller and terra cotta for over 6 inches and this works well. Also you will get a more developed better root system with round pots rather than the square design. Most importantly, all containers must have a bottom drainage hole.

Succulent Pests

Fortunately succulent collections are not attractive to most pests. Fungal and viral attacks are seldom seen so it’s usually just insects that must be kept in check. Plants and insects are natural companions. If you have plants then you’ll have insects. If you discover an outbreak of some insect pest, there is seldom reason for panic. Your job is simply to keep insects under control. You will never eliminate them completely.

By far the most common and persistent insect succulent growers must face is the ubiquitous mealybug. There are several species of it but it’s the citrus or greenhouse mealybug that is attracted to succulents. Adults are about one eighth inch in size and have a white mealy epidermis. They bear live young (crawlers) in white cottony masses on the underside of leaves and in cracks and crevices especially on soft new growth. They exude a sticky sugary substance which is greatly attractive to other insects such as most ants which will then transport the crawlers to other plants. Keep ants in check and you automatically control many other insects.

An infestation can quickly get out of control such as the one building on this Cyphostemma hardyi. Look for them on the underside of leaves, on new growth, and on flowers. You will often have hundreds of tiny crawlers that are less than one millimeter in size that cannot be seen with the unassisted eye.

Succulent enemy number one is the common mealybug.An infestation can quickly get out of control such as the one building on this Cyphostemma hardyi. Look for them on the underside of leaves, on new growth, and on flowers. You will often have hundreds of tiny crawlers that are less than one millimeter in size that cannot be seen with the unassisted eye.

Mealybug is easy to control and is seldom fatal unless left unattended. Mites, scale, and white fly are occasionally attracted to succulents, pose a more serious problem, and are difficult to eradicate. Mites, which are not true insects, are voracious sucking pests and are attracted to hot dry conditions. A poorly ventilated greenhouse full of underwatered plants is prime territory. Scale and white fly are very persistent and difficult to eliminate unless caught at the right time in their life cycle. Volumes of information exists on these pests and a little research on your part will go a long way in identifying and controlling them. The internet and your county extension office are excellent sources for help.

Easy Effective Controls

Rubbing alcohol on a Qtip will render the odd mealybug or two harmless but what about several badly infested plants with hundreds of tiny crawlers embedded in the delicate growing apex?

Try blasts of tap water applied with a Fogg-It nozzle on a trigger type hose shut-off. A few minutes of pulsating blasts of ordinary tap water worked in very close in all the difficult to reach places will render just about any plant squeaky clean.

It will even clean off badly encrusted scale which is a very difficult job.

A FOGG-IT nozzle is a great tool for cleaning plants. It means business and works wonders for insects, weed seeds, and even spent leaves. Combine it with a trigger type shut-off and you have a deadly weapon to use on insects.

Fogg-It nozzles are inexpensive and available from hobby greenhouse suppliers and good garden centers. Use the blue 4 gpm heavy volume size. You could even improvise with the kitchen sink sprayer but outside with the garden hose is usually more practical. This may sound a bit too simple but try it and seen how effective it is.

Chemical Pesticides

If things are out of hand and you are dealing with many badly infested plants, chemical controls are sometimes necessary. The number one rule is absolutely do not, repeat do not, use petroleum based products on succulents. These are usually labeled “liquid” this or that and are designated “EC” or just “E”. The petroleum base in EC’s will severely burn succulents so avoid them at all costs. Systemic pesticides have become popular but the concept of making the entire plant toxic creates personal exposure problems beyond what many growers consider safe.

Most wettable powders and water based or aqueous suspension insecticides can be used on succulents with no phytotoxicity. But again what product to use for what insect requires a little homework on your part. A recommendation from the garden center or a friend won’t do. Always go slowly when trying something new. Never apply an untested chemical to your entire collection. Do a controlled application to just a few test plants instead.

Finally if you are an active collector who frequently acquires plant material from many sources, then it’s inevitable that you will bring in new insects. A good hand lens or loupe of 6x-10x therefore becomes a necessity for inspecting new arrivals and your collection up close and personal.

Basic Equipment List

WATERING – A good watering device with a soft breaker is essential. A simple hose or watering can with a rose type breaker is fine. We prefer a bonsai watering nozzle on a hose with some sort of shut-off to regulate flow. A bonsai nozzle is a super soft breaker fitted to a short wand and is available from most sources that sell bonsai tools.

TWEEZERS – A pair of thin 7″- 9″ tweezers is invaluable. Again bonsai type tweezers are best.

MAGNIFICATION – A closeup lens of anywhere from 4x-10x is basic. From a simple magnifying glass to an optically superior photo loupe, magnification is essential for controlling pests and studying your plants.

LABELS – It’s important to label each plant with genus, species, acquisition date, and source. When you lose one of your favorites, you at least have a chance of replacing it with this information. Lead pencil on vinyl labels is as permanent as we have found. Solar exposure quickly renders other materials to compost.

POTTING – A good potting tray and trowel are most helpful. A large restaurant busing tray is great and is readily available from any restaurant supply. We like one that holds about a cubic foot of mix.

POTS – Keep a good supply of pots on hand. Whether you prefer plastic or terracotta, a nice selection in half inch increments is always in demand.

If you’re curious what other types of gardening tools are helpful, check out our article on the best gardening tools for indoor or outdoor gardeners.

And that is our complete guide on how to grow succulents correctly. If you have any of your own advice or questions, please feel free to let us know in the comments below.

How to Care for a Cactus

Cacti Care – All About Soil, Air, Water, Potting, and More

How do you care for that irresistible little cactus and those cute little succulents that just followed you home from the garden center?

Maybe you want to repot them into that pretty ceramic planter Mom gave you for Christmas last year?

  • How do you do that?
  • How do you avoid getting stuck by cactus spines when potting?

These and other questions will be answered here. I am a long-time cacti and succulent lover and have had hundreds of plants follow me home–I think I’m the Pied Piper of cacti and succulents.

Proper soil and water, potting, transplanting and more–I will share with you a bit of the wisdom that succulent and cactus plants have taught me over the years and how you can keep them happy and healthy.

Cacti are Succulents

Did you know that cacti are succulent plants? All cacti are succulents. Succulents are not cacti.

Many people don’t realize this and it becomes even more confusing when online plant sellers use inaccurate keywords to attract buyers. I’ve seen, for example, an Echeveria labeled “Echeveria – Cactus – Succulent.” An Echeveria is NOT a cactus!

The expression “cacti and succulents” is used everywhere in society–but in reality they are all just succulents, although I use “cacti and succulents” because it is customary. Even the CSSA uses it–they are the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Know the Species Name

Enabling You to Take Better Care of Your Plants

Generally when people start out with cacti or succulents, they do not care to know the species name.

I know this because, years ago, I was one of these people–I didn’t want to be bothered with any of the boring stuff, like species names.

Over the years, as my collection grew and I acquired some rare varieties, it became important to know the names. There are many advantages of knowing the species names.

You can learn about their natural habitat and place them in an optimum environment for their health.

It will be easier seeking guidance if you know the species name.

You will know when your plant might bloom, its growth cycles, pests to look out for, and more.

Knowing the species enables you to take better care of your plants. It means the difference between their thriving and merely surviving.

For some reason, I happen to love databases and created a one (using FileMaker) that contains notes on my over 200 plants.

I have a record of the dates I planted seeds, made a cutting, or divided a plant. When I find obscure information on my rare plants, I record it in this database. There’s even a record for the dead plants because losing one is usually an important lesson.

Beginners growing more common cacti and succulents can usually get by without getting into the species names. But if you’re getting more serious, and really love your plants, you’ll definitely benefit from knowing and researching them–and even maintaining records about the species.

Love and Your Plants

Think of it this way, you have a relationship with your plants because you are the caregiver. If you were in a relationship with a human, you’d learn their name, pay attention to their characteristics, their signals, their needs. Doing this is loving. So please love ’em.

Why the Species Name is Important

When I first acquired these fuzzy rare gems called Conophytum stephanii a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about them–just that I needed to have them–they had my name!

These are rare plants and finding particular information a particular rare species is not that easy. I hadn’t yet located a copy of the best rare book on these rare plants, which told me that they prefer a shady spot, unusual for a Conophytum.

So that explained why they did not grow bigger and were pale with a brownish tinge. After growing them in the shade for a year, they’re now a happy, pretty green. Without the species name, I could have lost the plant.

What is in a Species Name?

Genus and Species. The names of plants like Mammillaria longiana, Astrophytum asterias, Haworthia pumila, and Euphorbia obesa, are stating the genus followed by the species.

The genera (plural for genus) are Mammillaria, Astrophytum, Haworthia and Euphorbia and are properly capitalized. The second part is the species name and is properly written in lower case.

For example, Mammillaria longiana (shown in the photo on the right), “Mammillaria” is the genus and “longiana” is the species. Mammillaria is a member of the Cactaceae family–it is a cactus and one of the ones listed on my desert plant list.

Cactus Care

Don’t Do These Things! Learning is process and sometimes when you accidentally kill a plant, you learn. Every cacti and succulent expert has killed some, at least in the beginning.

So I am going to tell you what will kill them so you know what not to do, and if you ever do any of these things I hope you learn from them. I wish someone would have given me this list when I was younger and just beginning to grow succulents.

1. Water them every day and keep the soil moist–over-watering causes rot and they will die. This is the most common mistake beginners make–don’t do it.

2. Water them when the temperature is cold (50 degrees or less). Even if they are a little wrinkled, and it’s very cold, you’d best wait until it’s warmer.

What if it’s not getting warmer for months? Well, in that case I’d water only the soil, only about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon for a 2.5″ pot (adjust for larger pots). If you get any water on the leaves or stem, use a tissue to dry it. I lost a Euphorbia in winter, that got some of the overspray on its leaves when I was misting the Lithops (Yes, it’s a plant that likes water in winter). I wasn’t paying attention–don’t do it.

3. In summer, many of these plants do not absorb water during the day, but at night when it’s a bit cooler. Watering in the evening during the hotter months is a good strategy. Also, when watering in the heat of the day, it can be something like the equivalent of boiling water on their roots–don’t do it.

4. Leave them outside in freezing weather, don’t do it.

Secret Recipe for Growing Cactus Indoors

Good air circulation, just enough water, good light, the right temperature, well-draining soil and love is what’s needed.

Place them in an airy location. Pests tend to attack plants that are stressed by less than optimal conditions.

For example, in my mother’s courtyard where the air is stagnant, her beautiful old Jade plants (Crassula ovata) are pestered by scale insects over and over again.

Proper watering, covered in the next section, is quite long because of its importance and there is no simple rule.

Light – Most cacti and succulents enjoy bright light, with or without a few hours of direct sunlight each day. Notice where it was growing in the plant nursery and try to replicate those conditions.

Healthy cacti and succulent plants not only look good, but are much less likely to attract pests and have other problems.

If you want to move your plant from a shady location into sun, do it gradually over several days. Just like you, they will get sun-burned if they haven’t been in the sun lately.

If you have a cactus that doesn’t bloom, consider giving it more light. The spectacular flowers really make enduring those stickers worthwhile.

Cacti and succulents can also be grown under fluorescent lights, as I do with many of my plants.
Move plants gradually from shade to sun to prevent sunburn and so they can acclimate.

Temperature – Many cacti and succulents cannot endure freezing temperatures. In my climate in New Mexico, I bring my cactus in for the winter.

If a freeze comes on suddenly when you’re out of town, the devastating result is what you see in the cactus photo in the previous section.

As a rule, I do not allow my plants to experience temperatures below 45 degrees. While they may survive a night of freezing temperatures, if they freeze on consecutive nights, they will die. It is best to avoid freezing all around.

Acidity / Alkalinity (pH) – The acidity or alkalinity of the soil is represented by pH. Most succulents and desert cacti grow well in slightly acidic soil, 6 on the pH scale. Limestone soil, like the soil in my yard, is very alkaline. Water that is high in mineral content, e.g., “hard water” will increase the alkalinity of the soil over time, while acid rain increases acidity. Epiphyllum, a tropical cactus, grows well in acid soil with high peat content.

If you’re just starting out, you need not worry too much about pH as long as you are growing more common plants and using the soil recipe here. For good details about soil pH, check out this website.

If you fertilize your cacti and succulents, apply at 1/3 the strength of the recommended amount, or use a fertilizer specifically for cacti and succulents (usually hard to find).

Fertilizer – I fertilize my plants very rarely, only during their active growing period, and usually only if I have not repotted them in the last year or so.

When the soil is refreshed during repotting, more nutrients are available to the roots. If you must fertilize, do so sparingly and at 1/3 the strength of what is recommended for regular house plants. Consider their natural habitat where they don’t get a lot of extra nutrients. There are many growers who like to fertilize them more than I do.

The secret recipe is not really a secret. Good air circulation, just enough water, good light, the right temperature, well-draining soil and love is what is needed.

How Often to Water Cactus

What the Plants Have Taught Me. Cacti and succulents need just enough water. Proper watering of cacti and succulents is most important.

The factors that determine how much water they need are: how succulent they are, if they have a well-developed root system, size of their pot, soil composition, if a top dressing of gravel is used, and temperature and humidity.

Generally, cacti and succulents with thicker stems and leaves can be watered with less frequency than those with thin stems and leaves.

Plants in smaller pots need less water than those in larger pots.

A plant with a well-developed root system can absorb more water than one with a small root system. You may need to water the latter more frequently until the roots grow.
It is always best to err on the side of under-watering. If you think it’s time to water, wait three days and then water.

Using an extremely well-draining soil mix, like the one on this page, will dry out more quickly because it is airy.

With the addition of a top dressing, like gravel, the soil dries out more slowly.

It is always best to err on the side of under-watering. Some of the signs that the plant is thirsty are: cactus ribs becoming more defined, skin wrinkling, or leaves drooping. Some plants become pale when thirsty, like my Aloe vera plant.

I tell my friends and family, if you think it’s time to water, wait 3 days and then water. This is what brought me success for a long time until I got better at sensing when it was time to water.

Cacti and some succulents are dormant in winter, when I water them extremely lightly about once in 4-8 weeks.

A tip from Steven Hammer, reknown author and South African succulent expert, is to smell the soil when its damp. Then when you think its time to water, smell it. Damp soil and dry soil are very different. If you practice, it will become a skill. This has helped me tremendously with some of my rare succulents and cacti.

Chlorine-free water is healthier for all your plants.

Chlorine kills bacteria and microbes in water. It is not good for plants either. I use filtered water to remove the chlorine. If you are not able to filter your water, I recommend letting it sit for a few days so the chlorine can evaporate. Many people use chlorinated water to water their plants–my recommendations are for optimum plant health.

Over-watering one time, generally does not kill them, especially with well-draining soil, but do it a few more times and you may lose the plant.

As an example, during warm weather I water most of my plants once a week, sometimes twice. There is 90-110 degree heat and dry air.

Most of the cactus are watered only once per week.

The fleshy, soft succulents, like Sedum and Echeveria usually are watered twice a week.

If your climate is cooler or more humid, you will need to adjust your schedule accordingly.

How to Pot a Cactus Plant

Plants from your local nursery can live in the plastic or clay pots that they are growing in, but you might want to plant them in a pretty pot or make a dish garden.

If your plant arrived from mail order, they will likely be “bare root,” meaning without soil–they should be potted immediately upon arrival. The following step-by-step instructions will get the job done.

If you are repotting, or potting a cactus and don’t want to get stuck with those thorns, please keep reading–additional instructions follow.

Materials Required

  1. Bowl and a spoon for mixing
  2. Pots, your choice
  3. Newspaper
  4. Commercial potting soil mix (see note below)
  5. Pumice (Perlite may be substituted)
  6. Diatomaceous earth (optional Sciara Fly / Root Mealy Bug preventative)
  7. Gravel as a top dressing
  8. Water

The addition of pumice to the soil mix is possibly the best tip on this page–It improved my growing success 200%.

You may use a commercial cactus and succulent mix or regular potting soil. The mixes are usually high in peat, and in my experience, do not provide adequate drainage which is the reason for adding pumice. Before I was adding pumice, my success rate was much lower–this is one of my best tips for success.

The recipe that I provide here is for beginners to get started quickly with growing some of the more common cacti and succulents. If you would like to adjust your mix, Daiv Freeman at Cactiguide has written about various soil components.

Cactus Soil Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup Soil Mix (no added fertilizer)
  • 1 cup Pumice (Perlite may be substituted)
  • 1 tsp. Diatomaceous Earth (optional)

Instructions

  1. Measure the ingredients.
  2. Place ingredients into a bowl.
  3. Mix the soil components thoroughly.

Soil Ingredients – at Your Local Garden Center – or Online

Some of you may not be familiar with diatomaceous earth and perhaps the other ingredients. Here’s what I’d buy. Products and gardening tools are from Amazon.

The first three items are your soil components. Diatomaceous earth is a preventative for root mealy bugs and Sciara fly larvae and is optional. The gravel is for a top dressing, helps retain moisture and looks nice.

When To Repot

Normally, if you have a plant that is too big for its pot, it’s growing over the edges, doesn’t drain, roots are protruding from the drainage holes, then it is time for repotting. Often repotting stimulates plant growth and makes not only the plant quite happy, and it thrives.

Usually you can plan on repotting every two years or so, or when the root growth dictates. Many slow-growing rare plants may be in a pot for 5 years or more.

The photo shows an extreme case of the need for repotting. This plant is Euphorbia milli, which possesses many thorns similar to some cacti–it is the plant in the repotting demo, where I will show you how to handle any thorny plant or cactus. Knocked over several times by my cats, it lost its gravel and top soil.

Don’t get stuck when potting cacti and thorny succulents. Wrap a newspaper handle around the plant to lift it into its new pot.

One of the few plants that I consider hard to kill, it survived 3 months without water. Part of it died at one point, and I was debating throwing it away and forgot about it in the corner of my patio. The plant was determined to survive and has come back, looking pretty good. Now that it has been repotted, it will soon show increased new growth.

Cactus Growing Kits

A friend brought me back one of these on a trip to Arizona–it was Saguaro cacti seeds kit. At that time, I had never grown cacti or succulents from seed before and it was extremely exciting to see them germinate and grow into a real cactus plant on my windowsill. See photo under “How to Pot a Succulent Plant” above.

I recommend this for everyone, kids and kids at heart. If someone gave me one of these again, I’d still be excited.

Now, Go Out and Grow Some Beautiful Cacti and Succulents!

I hope you’ve found this guide helpful. Feel free to leave your cacti and succulent questions in the Comments section below. I’ll answer them to the best of my knowledge.

Don’t forget to read my other Succulent pages, especially the one on Haworthia, which are perfect plants for beginners.