Just Like My Gaga: Growing My Love of Cacti

When I was little, I remember visiting my great-grandmother’s house. My Gaga grew up in Arizona, and always said it was her favorite place in the whole world. Around the house, she had various cactus-themed items – pictures, decorative pots (somehow always devoid of cacti, though?), etc.

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I love this picture of my Gaga.  Even though this picture was taken way before I was born, it totally captures her spirit the way I remember her!
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Striking a pose while visiting her beloved Arizona.

I vividly remember that in her kitchen, she had a framed photo of a landscape featuring giant cacti. I thought that picture was the ugliest thing I had ever seen…but she loved it. I completely didn’t “get” her love of the desert and cacti.

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The infamous “ugly picture,” which now resides with my mom.

However, as I continue on my plant journey, I find myself being drawn to cacti more and more. I don’t know what it is about them – their stark outlines, the novelty of their “dangerous” spikes, or the earthy look of cacti combined with terra cotta pots; but suddenly, I am completely in love with cacti.

When I first got into plants, everyone told me that cacti and succulents were the “easiest” plants to keep alive because they required so little care. However, those who told me that didn’t take into consideration my “helicopter-plant-mom” tendencies.

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I have slowly been adding cacti to my plant collection, but…I keep killing them. (There, I said it! I admit it! Wahhh!) I have killed three or four cacti in the last few months by over-watering them. They’ll look great at first, but then slowly get a yellowish hue and begin to tip over. When I try to get them to stand up straight, without fail, they fall apart in my hand and I see that I have completely rotted out the roots.

I was recently taught a couple of tips that I have been trying when it comes to keeping cacti. Thus far, they have been working for the few cacti I have managed not to kill, so I thought I would share them here.

Tip #1: Use a fast-draining soil.

Standard potting soil is meant to help hold in moisture, but for cacti, this is a death sentence. Purchase a soil blend that is specifically formulated for cacti and succulents. By using a soil that drains quickly, the excess water can drain out and your cacti roots won’t sit in water, causing the roots to rot.

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Another great way to keep soil from being too wet is to add perlite into the soil. Perlite helps keep the soil nice and “fluffy,” allowing more air around the roots. (Many times if you purchase a cactus from a nursery or plant boutique, you’ll notice it comes potted with a lot of perlite or even some sand in the soil.)

Tip #2: Pot your cacti in terracotta or unglazed clay pots.

Plastic planters, as well as ceramic planters that are glazed, hold in moisture. For many houseplants, that is a good thing. However, once again, cacti like it dry. Terracotta and unglazed clay pots tend to be more dry and allow the excess moisture to escape more quickly. The faster evaporation is another way to prevent your roots from rotting.

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Most of my cacti (and succulents) currently reside in plastic pots, but I am in the process of moving them all to terracotta planters.  I am hoping that this will help them live longer, happier lives!

Tip #3: “When in doubt, drought.”

This little saying was recently taught to me, and it’s been an easy way to remember that cacti like it dry. As my Gaga’s favorite picture showed, cacti grow naturally in hot, sunny, desert-y places. They aren’t used to rain coming regularly ; they actually thrive on less water. For that reason, if you are wondering if your cacti need water, wait a bit longer before watering. I promise – they’ll like the neglect!

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My sweet Gaga is no longer with us, but I like to think that she would be excited by my new love of cacti. If she were still alive, I’m sure she would get that wistful look in her eye at the mention of cacti, and begin telling me stories about her years growing up in Arizona.

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Me and my Gaga (And yes, I have always been this sassy…)

(Who knows – she might even have some tips for me on how to stop killing my cacti!) This connection to my family – and my heritage – makes falling in love with cacti all the sweeter.

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– the {house}plant momma

 

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