Cactus and other succulents can be found in a wide variety of forms and colors that can suit anyone who grows plants. The geometric designs and wicked spines are fascinating. Succulents are found in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts, grasslands, mountains and rain forests. Some can even be successfully grown outdoors where the winters are quite cold. These neglecter's items make the easiest of houseplants for the busy gardener because they actually seem to thrive on neglect. The truth is that the plants do require certain care to do well.
Succulent plants are those plants which have fleshy water storing stems or leaves and are found in a wide variety of plant families. Cactus belong to a plant family which are mostly stem succulents. Plants such as the "Pony Tail" (Beaucarnea recurvata) are a type of fleshy stemmed plants known as caudiciforms.
A few succulents such as Aloe, their relatives, Haworthia and Gasteria as well as Sansevieria (Snake Plants) can do well in low light but the majority requires bright light. A south-facing window is best but a western one is also fine. A north or east-facing window will never do. Rotate your plants every few months so they do not grow lopsided. Plants can survive an interior location away from a window only with bright artificial lighting. Plants not receiving enough light will produce long snake-like, pale stems with distorted leaves or spines. Although this may appear exotic, it is unhealthy for the plant. If you wish to move your plants outdoors for the summer, be careful not to place them immediately in full sun as this may cause them to sunburn and get permanent unsightly scars.
This is the most important aspect of successful culture. Succulents are most often killed by over watering than by neglect. Water your plants thoroughly once a week then let them go dry between watering. In the winter, many will survive with only a single monthly soaking. Make sure the plants never stand in water for any length of time. Rot may set in and is usually fatal. On the other hand, be sure when you water your plants the pot is thoroughly soaked. A teaspoonful of water is not enough. The addition of foliage houseplant fertilizer diluted to one-quarter strength may be used during the growing season. There are a few succulents that are active winter growers and dormant through the summer but these are usually grown only by specialists.
All flowering plants will flower under the proper conditions. Some succulents will flower only when they have reached a considerable size. Fortunately, many of the most popular succulents will flower while small. Most succulents will bloom profusely but only for a short period each year. To encourage flowering, allow the plants to go dormant through the winter and keep them slightly cooler at that time. Be patient and they may surprise you with blossoms.
The most important thing to consider in a soil mix for succulents is drainage. Succulent plants cannot tolerate wet soil for any extended length of time. The soil must allow water to pass through it freely. Most succulents in the wild are found growing in a very gravely soil. Most soil mixes sold commercially for Cactus & succulents are too rich with humus and require additives to improve drainage. Soil additives include Aquarium gravel, calcined clay and coarse builder's sand. Calcined clay is sold commercially as kitty litter or as oil absorbent. The most effective mixes use at least two parts drainage material to each part soil. Do not use the green kitty litter, as it is actually ground alfalfa. Do not use play sand, as it is too fine in texture. Other soil additives such as bone meal, garden gypsum and activated charcoal can also be added in small amounts to sweeten the soil. Epiphytic Cactus, such as the "Christmas Cactus", is the exceptions that require soil rich in humus without the additives described above.
Most succulent plants have a rather small root system and will do well in a small pot for several years. Often the plant will out live its container. A succulent will require repotting when it has exhausted it's soil mixture or if the plant has become larger than the pot. Transfer the plant to a pot only slightly larger than the plant's diameter or only wide enough to support it if it is tall. Be sure the pot has an unobstructed drainage hole in the bottom. If necessary put rocks in the bottom of the pot so the plant will not be top heavy. A succulent in too big a pot may rot from too much constant soil moisture. Unlike most plants, succulents should remain unwatered for several days after repotting so that the damaged roots will have time to heal properly.
Succulents are generally pest free but are susceptible to that universal insect pest: the mealy bug. Treating infected plants with a systemic insecticide will do a good job to eradicate them. Using a cotton swab soaked in alcohol is a waste of time. Do not use Malathion on succulents because some such as "Jade Plants" may be damaged by its application.
Become a member of the Cactus & Succulent Society of Maryland and learn more about the wide variety of succulent plants that can be grown. Meet other people who share your interests and can answer your questions. For more information, see the CSSM website at http://www.cactus-mall.com/clubs/maryland.html