5 Need-to-Know Tips for Mastering Indoor Succulents and Cacti

Erin Doherty of Philly-based Field shares her green-thumb advice for cactus and succulent care.
Photos courtesy @Shop.Field on Instagram

Photos courtesy @Shop.Field on Instagram

I do not have the best track record with plants. I’m a serial overwater-er, and as such I’ve had many a plant wither under my well-intentioned flood conditions. I’m the absolute worst with cacti because I just can’t seem to help myself when I’m wielding the watering can.

So when I found out that Field owner Erin Doherty has a cactus in her house that she hasn’t watered since October — October, people!— I nearly keeled over with shock. “It’s beautiful and thriving,” she says.

Well. I certainly have a thing or two to learn. Lucky for me, Erin’s the gal to turn to: Her pop-up shop specializes in succulents and cacti, and she has a house full of thriving plants to prove her green thumb is no joke. If you’re reading this so far, I’m going to assume need some help, too. Check out Erin’s top tips for mastering potted succulents and cacti below, then go check out the goods at her upcoming pop-ups, tonight at Lululemon in Fishtown from 6 to 8 pm, and on Mother’s Day weekend at Vestige. 

1. Know your angles.

Erin says one of the first things she asks prospective plant owners is which way their house faces. “If you’re north-south that’s great — you get all that southern exposure,” she says. “If you’re east-west, it’s going to be trickier.” That’s because, she explains, the east-west sunlight is not as bright or as hot. For those in north-south homes that are positively soaked in sunlight, you should study the light for a few days and notice how many hours of unobstructed sunlight you get. Some cacti, like the blue cactus, need several hours of unrelenting hot sunlight every day; Doherty likens them to tomato plants in this way. For those with less light, such as folks in east-west homes, Doherty recommends darker varieties of cactus plants: “The darker the cactus the less light it needs.”

2. Don’t feel bad about neglecting them.

When it comes to watering these plants, the best rule of thumb is to forget about them. Almost completely. I wasn’t joking when I told you that one of Erin’s cacti hasn’t been watered since last fall. She said the best thing you can do for your cacti and succulents is to repress all of your nurturing, watering desires. “You’re thinking it’s a plant and you want to water it, but if you water too much it’ll die,” she says. If you absolutely must water your cacti and succulents on some kind of regular schedule, don’t do it more often than every two months. They need even less in the wintertime when they go dormant.

3. Make sure you’ve got drainage.

Drainage is especially important if you overwater, like me. The easiest form of drainage, of course, are pots with holes in the bottom. But if you’ve got a hole-less pot that you absolutely need to use, or you’re planting cacti in some sort of terrarium, make sure you create a draining soil by utilizing layers, starting at the bottom: rocks, sand, more rocks, then the soil.

4. Don’t re-pot them, well, for a good long while.

Did you know these plants like to keep their root systems tight? “That’s how they keep their stability and grow really tall,” Erin says. “They will live for a really long time in the same pot.” She says you could re-pot them maybe every couple of years, and make sure the new pot is only two inches bigger than the old one. You need to keep it feeling cosy in there so the thing doesn’t topple over.

5. Think “three.”

Hooray! Your plants are thriving. Now, how the heck do you arrange them? “I like to think of cacti as the minimal aspect and succulents as the maximal,” says Erin. “If you’re looking to spruce up a little corner of your space, I would get a cactus. But if you want to fill it in with lots of green or color, get succulents because they get fuller.” To create a vignette, Erin says to start with three plants at three different sizes: a 10-inch pot for the central focal point, then six- and four-inch pots to fill in and stagger the height. Just make sure, of course, that all your plants have the same light requirements. (See #1.)