Deb Babcock: Caring for your cactus

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— Considering the very dry environment in the Steamboat Springs area, it’s easy to think that desert cactus would thrive in homes, where it is protected from the brutal cold of winter.

And so it can, if cared for properly. But that’s the tricky part.

I remember purchasing a potted cactus while on a trip to New Mexico several years ago and was told by the sales clerk that it only would need a tablespoon of water once a month. So on the first of every month, I dutifully gave it a tablespoon of water. It never died on me, but it never grew any bigger, either. It certainly never flowered.

So while it is true that a cactus requires less water than most of our houseplants, it still requires water, especially when it is actively growing in the spring and summer and when it shows signs of wilting. A house cactus should be watered when its soil is dry. Owners can use a moisture meter, found in most garden centers, to test for wetness. The soil should be watered until it flows freely out the hole in the bottom of the pot. And if the pot is sitting on a saucer, be sure to empty the saucer so the plant isn’t sitting in a pool of drainage water.

If the cactus has been in the same pot for a long time, such as two to three years, chances are it has used up all the nutrients in its soil and could use repotting with new, fresh mixture. Also, if its roots are peeking through the bottom of the pot, it is time to repot in a larger planter. Never use actual potting soil; instead mix potting mix with some sand and gravel, perhaps a third of each.

Try to remove as much of the old potting soil as possible and gently break up the root ball so the roots will grow out into the new soil mixture. Remove any dead leaves and shoots, as they may harbor pests.

Then, consider time-release plant food that will keep feeding the cactus for as long as six months, or use a very diluted liquid plant food solution three times a year — spring, summer and fall. It doesn’t need much pampering, just a little.

Desert cacti thrive in full sun, so place the plant in a south- or west-facing window, but keep an eye on it when the sun is most intense so it doesn’t become scorched.

The next time I visited New Mexico, I went to the Desert Botanical Park and asked again about the care of cactus and learned a little more. Once home, I started watering that little cactus more as the soil dried out, and within just a few months, I began seeing new growth. Within the year, this cactus has more than doubled in size and looks healthy and happy. I hope to see it flower with continued good care.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through Routt County’s Cooperative Extension Office. Call the office at 970-879-0825 with gardening questions.

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