How to Deal with Rot Part 1: Prevention

Rot, whether it’s the cactus/succulent that rots or the container that rots, is one of the most devastating things to cactus and succulent health. Rot, including the kind caused by bugs, is almost always caused by overwatering or prolonged exposure to moisture. In my experience, cacti and succulents can recover from rot and sometimes it’s just not possible. In this next trilogy of posts I’ll talk about how to prevent rot, how to save your cacti and succulents from rot, and how to deal with rotting containers. So, how do you keep your plants from rotting in the first place? Here’s how!

Water is an essential element in all aspects of life on earth, but there is such a thing as having too much water. One of the most sure proof ways to cause rot in any plant whether it’s a cactus, succulent, flower, or vegetable is to overwater it. Here are some ways you can prevent overwatering in your cacti and succulents:

  1. Even though they’re not always the cutest, pots with drainage holes are excellent for preventing your plants from receiving too much water. The drainage holes do exactly as their name suggests: they drain excess water from the pot so that the soil doesn’t retain it. Just because not all of the most aesthetic pots have drainage holes doesn’t mean you can’t use them! Here are some great articles that teach you how to drill holes in plastic, clay, and ceramic pots: How to Punch Drainage Holes in Plastic Flower Pots and How to Drill Drainage Holes in Ceramic Flower Pots and Planters.
  2. Don’t use rocks or ceramic pieces to line the bottom of your pot, especially when planting cacti and succulents. As I mentioned in my Cigar Box Terrarium tutorial, using gravel (or rocks or ceramic pieces) to line the bottom of containers, pots, or terrariums will retain moisture and create humidity. While gravel and sand can help create well draining soil when mixed, it does not have the same effect when placed on the bottom of planters. In fact, because these things retain moisture, they can cause root rot which will ultimately kill your plant. Use rocks, ceramic pieces, or gravel at the bottom of terrariums that contain plants that enjoy moisture and humidity like ferns. If you’d like to learn more, here’s a great article that talks about the benefits of a well draining container: Choosing a Container for Planting.
  3. And now the obvious answer: don’t overwater your plants. Generally speaking, cacti and succulents don’t need to be watered more than once a week. It’s important to do your research on the plants you bring home so that you can adequately provide for the their watering needs. A good rule of thumb for watering any plant is to feel the soil. Stick your finger about halfway into the soil. If the soil still feels wet, don’t water your plant. If the soil is dry, you should water your plant. Typically the soil for cacti and succulents should become dry between waterings, which, for many indoor environments, is 1 week.

In the case that you do overwater your cactus or succulent, it’s important to know what signs to look for. One sure sign you are overwatering your cactus or succulent is perpetually wet or damp soil. However, your plant will exhibit physical symptoms of overwatering if it is not corrected. You can tell your succulent has been overwatered when:

  • The fleshy leaves begin to look translucent
  • The the leaves feel overly squishy like a liquid soaked gummy bear and fall off.

If your plant’s leaves look more translucent or feel squishy and fall off, then you can correct the issue by simply not watering it until the soil dries and has been dry for approximately a week. Immediately remove the overly squishy leaves from the plant and pick up the fallen leaves from the soil so that they don’t rot. Gnats and bugs of all kinds like eating up and procreating in rotting leaves, so removing these leaves can prevent your plant from turning into a bug smorgasbord. Once the soil is dry make sure to repot the plant in a well draining container so that you can prevent further overwatering. Water the plant sparingly about 3 days after repotting.

You can tell when your cactus has been overwatered when the bottom of the plant begins to lose its spines or bristles at the base of the plant or when you push on the plant lightly the skin gives in.

If the bottom of your cactus begins to lose its spines or bristles and the skin has more give, then you can usually fix it by not watering it. Brush away any wet soil that is touching the base of the plant so that the base can dry. Leave the plant this way for a week or until the soil becomes dry. Once the soil is dry, replant the cactus in a container with proper drainage. Do not water the cactus for another week. This dry 2 weeks will help the plant process the extra moisture, so that it doesn’t rot. Cacti are excellent at surviving without water and can survive a dry a week or two without it. If you feel your cactus must be watered after a week, water it sparingly for the next month.

Note: Succulents do not like being watered immediately after being repotted. Not watering the plant after a replanting allows the plant to acclimate to its new environment so that it can establish itself.

Sometimes, overwatering your plants can cause a very serious systemic issue known as root rot. In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about how to save your cacti and succulents from their rotting roots..


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