Down in the Garden: Stunning Succulents and Cool Cacti

These delightful gems of the botanical world are popular, easy to grow indoors or out and, with Christmas rapidly approaching, great for creating living gifts for your family and friends.

So, let’s jump into the fascinating world of succulents and their cacti friends.

These almost alien-looking plants are one of the Earth’s great examples of adaptation to environment. Their name comes to us from the Latin ‘sucus’ which means juice or sap and, as their name suggests, they are indeed juicy.

They are the camels of the plant world.

‘All cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti’ is an old adage and not really true these days as botanists have excluded some cacti from the succulent group.

While this scientific difference prevails, generally gardeners consider them to be all in the same bunch of plants.

And why not? They have similar needs and join together to make fantastic displays that are harmonious and have a high visual impact.

How to Grow and Keep Succulents and Cacti Alive

Often we struggle in gardening simply because we are trying to make plants live in places that they do not come from.

Over generations some can adapt, while horticulturalists and even backyard hobbyists crossbreed plants to achieve new specimens that are better able equipped to tolerate new environments.

Firstly, like most plants, succulents and cacti benefit from good drainage.

Yes, you can sometimes successfully grow these plants in pots without holes as they require very little water, but I suggest you go for the containers with holes or drill them in every time.

Ensure that containers are washed well before using or when repotting to stop the spread of any diseases and pests. A layer of larger gravel in the bottom of pots goes well to further increase drainage.

Soil is also an important factor because succulents and cacti don’t grow in the same medium as your regular pot plants – using regular potting mix or garden soil is no good for them.

These plants grow in the desert, in rocky places and you need to mimic that by either purchasing ready-made cacti and succulent potting mix or creating your own.

To make your own combine 50% loam-based compost to 50% horticultural or bonsai grit.

You may also find that some plants, particularly cacti benefit from the addition of perlite to increase the drainage or horticultural sand.

Food and Water Needs

The main reason we kill succulents and cacti is that we over water them.

In botanical terms a succulent is a plant that has thick fleshy leaves or stems that have adapted to store water.

Too much water for any plant causes humidity and increases the risk of disease and pests.

Using distilled water or rainwater is best as the minerals in tap water can cause issues.

These plants hold so much more water than other plants and the opportunity to absorb and retain minerals they do not need is also far greater.

Water the soil not the plant and do this either carefully from above using a thin spouted vessel or even a syringe.

You can also place your pots in a shallow tray of water for about half an hour.

Fertilising is going to depend on your individual type of plant and so identification is important to having the right formulation.

Pruning and Repotting

Tidy up your plant and help it thrive by pruning away any damaged or diseased areas and by thinning out stems when the plant gets too leggy or crowded.

This will ensure more vigorous and healthy growth.

Always use very sharp scissors or secateurs and clean them often with a cloth dipped in methylated spirits to prevent cross contamination of pests and disease.

Plants generally do not like being moved around.

It disrupts the root system and can cause plant shock.

Only repot when you really need to for design purposes, when they outgrow their container or if affected by pests and disease.

Outgrowing a pot usually occurs every couple of years and can be indicated by root bound soil. This means there seems to be more roots than soil in the container or where the roots are growing out of the bottom drainage holes.

Use a small paintbrush to swipe away soil or grit that lands on the plant after potting up and be sure to add a layer of pebbles to the surface to keep the potting medium cool and moist.

Pot like with like.

I often see succulents planted in with tropical ferns or flowers – you just cannot do this and hope for success.

In any container gardening you need to plant things together in the same pot that have the exactly the same watering, soil, light and feeding needs.

Another potting tip: Use gloves to transplant and work with cacti and cover with a few layers of bubble wrap first – this will not only help protect you but also your plant.

What’s Wrong with my Plant?

Yellowed leaves or stems can mean over or under watering, lack of light or food.

Check soil for moisture level or try moving it to a position with more light and check on the specific feeding and watering requirements of your plant.

Mushy or soft leaves or stems indicates over watering, high humidity and possibly fungal growth.

Reduce watering, increase air circulation and wait and see.

Remove any areas that go brown or die.

Light brown raised areas could be the non-fatal ‘cactus corky scab’ and you will need to increase air circulation and reduce humidity.

Round dark spots usually mean ‘fungal leaf spot’.

Affected areas have to be removed to save the plant.

Be careful not to wet leaves and stems in future when watering as this is usually the cause.

Fine brown markings, distorted growth, plant collapse and strange fibres appearing on your plants are all signs of pests.

While it helps to identify the pests, physical removal by washing the plant in very mild soapy water and quickly drying in a well-ventilated area helps.

Spider mites usually mean a death sentence for your plant, but you can try an eco-friendly pesticide and removing the infected parts.

Thrips and fungus gnats can be combated by the placement of sticky traps around your plants and vine weevils and root mealybugs will mean you need to repot and clean your roots.

Scale insect is a difficult one and you can try washing your plant, using a methylated spirit-soaked cotton bud directly on areas of infestation or a systemic pesticide.

Whole plant collapse is a sad looking problem and usually means that there is a pest or fungal disease in the roots of the plant.

Have a look, remove pests or fungal damaged roots and repot – should all the roots look affected, then the plant needs to go to the bin I’m sorry to say.

Etiolation is also a common succulent problem.

It is leggy and outstretched growth of the stem and leaves caused by a lack of sunlight and usually occurs after you have fed your plant.

Simply move the plant to an area in which it will receive more sunlight.

Make Them Flourish

Sometimes succulents and cacti won’t produce flowers when grown in ‘captivity’ and that’s because as much as we try, it’s just not possible to make our home exactly the same as their home.

Ensure that your plant is fed correctly as an underfeed plant will also struggle to produce flowers and you may need to be patient as blossoms will usually only develop on mature plants.

These types of plants have a definite dormancy period in which they either do not grow, or grow very slowly, and they do not bloom, usually from the middle of autumn to the end of winter.

One of the most rewarding things about succulents is the ease in which most can be propagated.

This is best done in spring, right now for Coast Gardeners!

A lot of these types of plants produce offsets.

These look like miniatures of the parent plant and grow around the base.

Most can be eased off by hand or you made need a sharp small knife to separate them.

These should then be left in a dry and warm place for two weeks to dry out a little and then potted up.

Another method of reproducing more plants is by propagating through leaf cuttings.

Gently pull off mature, healthy leaves from the base of plants.

Again, leave to dry for a couple of weeks and then pot up.

Stem cuttings can be achieved by removing a leafy stem of about 8 to10cm in length with secateurs.

Remove the bottom 3cm of leaves and leave to dry for a couple of weeks.

Pot up as with other forms of propagation mentioned.

Cacti stem cuttings can be obtained in the exact same way, just make sure you use gloves and bubble wrap first!

Recommended for Beginners – The following are generally easy to obtain and easy to grow and care for.

CACTI: Cereus (includes Queen of the Night and Pipe Organ Cactus) , Echinopsis (includes sea urchin and hedgehog cactus), Ferocactus (includes barrel cactus), Mammillaria (includes pincushion cactus)

SUCCULENTS: Aloe (includes Aloe Vera), Aeonium (includes Houseleeks), Crassula (inclues Jade Plant), Haworthia (includes Zebra Plant), Lithops (includes Living Stones).

What’s on for Garden Lovers

Succulent Workshop featuring beautiful Epiphyllums with Ruth Donnelly, Co-Director of Coachwood Nursery, Somersby at 3pm, October 31 ($49 per person, bookings 0491 147448) – see

Next week is National Water Week and Council has two free webinars that will be useful for gardeners: ‘Australia’s Relationship with Water’, Monday, 19 October (12:30pm to 1:15pm) and ‘Making a Wicking Bed’, Wednesday, 21 October (12:00pm to 1:00pm) – see

Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator
and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘The Gardening Gang’ 8am every Saturday on Coast FM.
Send your gardening events and news to: