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Add year-round color and interest to your garden with cacti and succulents. These plants are surging in popularity because they're low-maintenance, get by on minimal water, are fire-retardant, and — due to their geometric shapes and unusual colors — are cool to look at and collect.
All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
Cacti have an organ that no other plant has. It's called an areole, and its purpose is for generating spines. The spines produced by a cactus plant are akin to human hair or nails because they aren't alive. However, spines on other succulents are actually living tissue. If you cut them, they ooze a clear or milky sap.
On tables, on windowsills or lighting up the night, succulents are everywhere. Neglect them and chances are, they’ll be fine. But succulents will be lush and grow faster if you pamper them with regular water, good soil and bright but not harsh sunlight.
Cacti and succulents are easy to grow when you follow a few basic practices.
Line the bottom of containers (preferably with a drain hole) with about 1 inch of pebbles or lava rock, and cover with a cactus and succulent potting mix. Dig a small hole in the planting mix, and place the plant in the hole just deep enough to cover the roots so the surface of the soil from the original pot is level with the soil of the new container. Fill in the hole with the planting mix, and gently firm in place.
Before watering succulents in containers, check the weight of the container. A dry pot will weigh much less than one that's moist. If your planter is large and you can't lift it, place a wooden stick in the soil and push it all the way to the bottom of the container; wooden chopsticks are great for this. Leave the stick there for a while. If the stick is moist upon removal, there's no need to water.
If water is necessary, thoroughly drench the soil and allow all excess water to drain completely from the container. Watering won't be necessary again until the soil has become fairly dry as indicated by the aforementioned tests. Never let succulents stand in water for any length of time.
Succulents need as much bright light or filtered sun as possible. This is relatively easy to provide outdoors in any number of locations, including patio areas. Indoors, place in an eastern or southern exposure window if possible. Low light or shade conditions will cause the plants to stretch and become weak.
Succulents aren't heavy feeders, but plants that are grown outdoors can be fertilized once a month during the plant’s active growing cycle — typically, beginning in the spring when temperatures start warming up and the fear of frost is over.
For indoor plants, a feeding in late spring and once again midsummer should be sufficient.
Choose a fertilizer recommended for cacti or succulents and follow the package directions. Or choose any all-purpose, balanced liquid fertilizer and mix it to ¼ of the strength of what the directions indicate.
Some succulents can use an occasional trim. Damaged leaves or branches should be removed, and if necessary, prune as required to keep plants a desired size or shape. Most trailing, upright or branching succulents (particularly those in hanging baskets) can be trimmed to create a more compact, fuller growth habit. Use proper tools, such as clippers, hand pruners, pole pruners and pruning saws. Make sure all equipment is clean and sharp.
Most succulents need protection from below-freezing temperatures, but frost-tolerant succulents do exist. Among them are yuccas, sempervivums (hens and chicks), many sedums (stonecrops), some agaves and cacti. If you live in an area with harsh winter conditions, plants can be brought inside to enjoy year-round. Place them in a bright location, and keep potted cacti and succulents back a bit from windows so that foliage doesn't touch the glass.