Cacti, Succulents, & Why You Keep Killing Them

Cacti and Succulents are supposed to be easy to care for right? So why do they keep dying? I am here to help. With a little more understanding, you too can get your succulents and cacti to thrive!

Cacti and Succulents are pretty similar. In fact, Cacti are highly specialized succulents. They are specialized in handling some major extremes in temperature and drought. As Gordon Rowley would say, “All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti.” Succulent in botany, actually refers to plants that have, over time, adapted their shape and form to better suit the environments in which they live in. These changes and adaptations are what gives these plants their distinct looks. They have adapted to have smaller or no leaves, form spines, thick fleshy tissue, and even specialized photosynthesis.

Now that we have a very basic understanding of cacti and succulents, we can now go over a bit of their care requirements. I would say most of these plants die due to two basic things. Light and water. Too much or not enough.

Light and Temperature Requirements

For the most part, cacti and succulents are very sun loving! Although this is true, some need or can handle a little more light and heat than others. Cacti for example, are specialized to handle extremes in heat and sometimes cold. They live and survive in some of the driest habitats on earth. Because of this, they can handle much more heat and light than most succulents. Cacti have developed spines not only to protect themselves from predators, but to also help block out the sun. With these spines, it gives them a bit of shade or may even reflect some light off of them. Cacti with many white hairs or spines are a prime example of this. These cacti are specialized to handle more light than most.

On the other hand succulents, although sun loving, need light without the intense heat. South facing lighting is perfect as long as the light isn’t accompanied by intense heat. They will burn. If you live in an area where your summers get to be 100+ degrees F consistently, I would suggest that you place your succulents in an area where they get plenty of morning sun that starts to shade off in the afternoons. The combination of the intense light and heat will cause the plant some distress. Also take note of what color your succulents are. More red, orange, and yellow varieties can handle a bit more sun than your green varieties, but to be safe, make sure your light and heat isn’t overly intense. South and East facing light is ideal. West is decent and North facing light is the kiss of death.


I think most people know that cacti and succulents need to dry out before their next watering. This is absolutely true. I think what most don’t know is that watering is heavily reliant on the amount of light your plant gets. For example, if I place my cacti in extreme heat and sun exposure, I may need to water the plant up to 3 times a week! It all just depends on how fast the soil dries out. During the growing months (Spring to Summer), it is absolutely ok to water your cacti and succulents more frequently, just so long as they dry out completely. If your plants are getting adequate lighting, you may water more frequently.

During the winter months is another story. Since the days are shorter and lighting isn’t adequate, you can start to withhold water from your cacti! You can actually stop watering your cacti completely! Your cacti has specialized itself to survive extended drought periods. This period of dormancy is normal, and in the case of forming flowers, necessary. Bud formations only occur if the plant has had a sufficient time of rest.

During the winter, smaller and younger cacti may require some water but not much. I wouldn’t give it a good soaking. Maybe just a little water to dampen the soil and it’s roots. Succulents still need to be watered during the winter as well. Like young cacti, I would recommend giving your succulents enough water to dampen the roots. Winter is when most succulents and cacti get root rot. If you can, try to continue to provide as much sun exposure for your plants as possible. A windowsill facing a South or East direction is perfect. This continued lighting, although shortened, will help in drying out the soil.

Knowing when to water is crucial as well. I would say to water most of your plants in general during the morning or early afternoon. This should give your plants plenty of time to soak up some much needed water, while allowing the sun to evaporate any excess water. Watering plants at night may cause your plant to sit wet for too long.

Soil and Planter Requirements

Aeration, aeration, aeration, I can’t say it enough. Your cacti and succulents will not last if the soil is inadequate. Providing your plant with excellent draining soil will set you up for success. I plant most of my cacti and succulents in a pre-made cacti mix and I heavily mix it with more perlite, pumice, and gardening charcoal. You want your soil to be able to drain out as much excess water as well as providing aeration for the roots.

If planting in a container, choosing the right planter is important as well. Terra-cotta and concrete planters are porous materials that will help to soak up any excess water. They are perfect for planting your cacti and succulents in for this reason. They greatly help reduce the chances of root rot. For information on my handmade concrete planters, check out my website:

Having a planter with a drainage hole is also important. If you are a beginner gardener that may not feel comfortable knowing how often or how much water to give your plant, drainage holes are a must. It makes it easy to see how much water is going in and coming out. If you have a planter without a drainage hole, you may keep your plant in the nursery pot and just take it out to water it. You could also plant in a pot without a drainage hole, but you will need to create a layer of rocks at the bottom to prevent roots from sitting in water.

Succulents that are red, yellow, and orange in color, may withstand more light than more green varieties.

Problems That May Occur

Lots of things may go wrong with your plant, and at times it may come on very suddenly. Look for signs of stress from lighting or watering. The plant will look burnt or crispy in areas that have gotten too much sun exposure. That is a sign for you to possibly give it a little less intense heat or light.

If your plant looks wrinkled or pruny, it may need a good watering. Shriveled looking leaves or stems are a good indication of this.

Cacti and succulents are also prone to bug infestations. Scale and mealy bugs are examples of bugs that may infest and kill your plant. Scale looks like little brown dots covering sections of your plant. If you see any white cottony materials or bugs, those are probably mealy bugs. Both of these pests are very tiny and will require you to closely inspect your plants periodically to spot them.

Problems from too much water, lack of airflow, or pests may cause your plant to get root rot or stem rot. Your roots or plant as a whole, may get soft, brown, and mushy. These are all indications of rot. Healthy roots will be white in color and won’t have a rotting smell. Healthy succulents and cacti look full and are firm to the touch. Mushy texture is a big indicator of stem rot.

Propagation: When All Else Fails, Cut It

There may come a point in time that you may need to cut off a portion of healthy plant to save it. Luckily enough, succulents and cacti are very easy to propagate.

If you happen to have stem rot, be sure to use a sterile knife and cut the stem just where the rot stops to occur. You want to make sure that when you look at the inside of the cutting, no brown or black parts are still remaining. If you still see some discoloration, continue to cut the stem until you don’t see black or brown anymore. Just be sure to sterilize your knife with rubbing alcohol between each cut. This will greatly decrease the chance of your plant getting infection. Let the cutting callous over before planting in damp, well draining soil. It should take about a week to callous over. Once you plant in soil, it may take several weeks before roots start to appear.

When making cuttings from succulents, you can propagate from from fallen leaves or make cuttings from their stems. Just be sure to leave about two inches of stem to provide space for roots to grow.

I hope this information to be helpful for many of you. I’ve been growing cacti and succulents for quite some time and like anything else, takes practice. If you have extra care tips or if you have any questions let me know. Let’s have a discussion! Hope to hear from you all soon:)


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