A cactus is one of the easiest plants to grow in a pot indoors or outdoors. In fact, cacti are so carefree that it’s easy to forget that beneath that tough, prickly exterior is a little softy that needs some occasional TLC (tender, loving care). Repotting your cactus will give it room to grow and refreshing the potting soil will revive your plant with a boost of nutrients.
The spines found on a cactus can make repotting a bit more challenging than with other houseplants. Cactus spines can be difficult to remove if you get them in your skin. You can also damage your plant if you don’t take measures to prevent the spines from breaking or, in the case of cacti with branches, the cactus’ own spines poking into itself.
Here’s a way to repot a cactus that will leave you, and your plant, without a scratch:
- Pot with drainage hole – the new pot should be no more than one-inch diameter larger than the existing pot
- Plastic saucer to catch water draining from pot
- Potting mix for cacti and succulents
- Tissue paper sheets
- Masking tape
- Gloves – leather or fabric coated with latex, nitrile, or rubber
- Pebble or small piece of scrap fabric or metal screen to cover the pot’s drainage hole
1. When handling cacti it is best to wear leather gloves. Fabric gloves are not a good choice because they are easily penetrated by cactus spines. Also, some cacti have spines with hooked ends – these can grab the fabric and they don’t easily let go. Plastic coated fabric gloves are okay if most of the fabric surface is covered and the cactus you’re working with has soft needles.
2. Using the tissue paper sheets, gently wrap your cactus. Start at the base of the plant and work your way up. Sheets can be folded to create more thickness if the spines are poking through. Wrapping takes a little time but it will make the rest of the process a lot easier. It also protects you from spines, protects the plant from itself, and since it covers the plant, the tissue paper helps keep bits of soil from getting stuck to small spines during repotting.
3. Tape each sheet to keep it secure taking care not to wrap it so tightly that the spines break. If you have a larger cactus with branches you will want to wrap each of the larger “arms” individually. This is also a good tip for repotting candelabra-type Euphorbia succulents because of their spines. Even though they’re short, the Euphorbia’s spines will easily cause damage if they pierce the plant’s main stem or other branches as you handle the plant.
4. Once your plant is wrapped, place a pebble or thin piece of scrap fabric over the pot’s drainage hole. This will allow water to run out but keep the soil in place.
5. Put an inch or two of potting soil into the pot and gently press it down.
6. Now it’s time to put on your gloves. Gently, but firmly, grasp your cactus at the base, just above the root ball. Tug to remove the plant. You may have to tilt the pot and tap on it to help loosen the soil a bit.
7. Once the cactus is free from its pot, you can shake away some of the soil. Old soil is usually depleted of organic matter and nutrients and should be replaced, not reused. Throw the old soil in with your compost.
8. This is a good time to inspect the roots and make sure they’re white and healthy. Gently pry apart the roots if they are compacted.
9. Set your cactus into its new pot. Gently remove the wrappings to check the height of the plant in the pot. Re-wrap if needed to remove the plant again in order to add or remove soil. Keep working with the plant until you get it to the proper level inside the pot. Ideally you want about an inch between the soil surface and the lip of the pot.
Pro Tip – Do not use a pot more than an inch larger in diameter than the existing pot. Cacti prefer to be snug in their containers and your plant will stay healthier if it is repotted more often, rather than trying to grow it in a pot that is too big.
10. Scoop soil down and around the side of the plant to cover the root ball. As you fill, it helps to stop occasionally and gently tap the side of the pot to settle the soil around the roots.
Once the pot is filled with soil, carefully remove any paper tissue remaining on the cactus.
Pro Tip – a chopstick, knitting needle, or other thin, blunt instrument is a great way to help place the soil without getting too close to the cactus spines and it can be useful for removing soil bits that might get caught in the spines.
11. Give the plant a thorough watering (water until the water runs out the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot).
12. Place your cactus in a spot where it receives six or more hours of bright, indirect sunlight every day.
Small, starter cacti can probably be handled and repotted without going through the process of wrapping the plant, however, you still should wear gloves while handling. You can also move a small cactus using kitchen tongs and gently grasping the plant by the root ball. You will have to decide which method to choose depending on how spiny your cactus is, and how big it is.
Pro Tip – If you are moving your plants to a new location, wrapping them with tissue or newspaper is a great way to protect them during the move.
Now that your cactus has some wiggle room, it probably won’t need repotting again for a year or two. Just keep an eye on how quickly it grows. If you see roots growing out the bottom of the pot, if the plant starts to seem “tippy” and top-heavy, or if it just doesn’t seem to be thriving in general, then it may be time to repot and refresh your cactus again.
Do you love cacti and succulents? Click here to learn more about growing this easy-care group of plants indoors and out.