Watering Care Tips

Care tips: Watering
The most common question asked in the nursery is, “how often do I water this plant?” Of all the care questions this is the most difficult to provide a straight answer. Many factors come into play, type of pot, sun exposure, soil composition, and water requirements of the plant. All these factors influence when and how often your plant requires watering. As with most things there are a few guidelines one can follow to help you find that balance of spending all your time watering or not watering enough. A deeper understanding of the watering factors will help you grow strong and healthy plants and avoid any unpleasant rot issues.

Know your plants
First and foremost know the water requirements of your plants so you know when you should water and when you shouldn’t. Find out when your plant is in its growth phase and when it’s dormant. Most plants are on our winter and summer schedules. They require regular watering when growing in summer and less or no water when dormant in winter. But just to throw a wrench in the works some plants are winter growers or summer dormant. Winter growers will actively grow during winter and remain dormant in summer. Winter growers are plants from warm arid areas that have no summer rain, and what little rain they do receive comes in winter. Seasonal growers are plants that grow in our seasons, but go dormant when the summer heat. These plants grow in the spring and again in the fall and are dormant in summer and winter. Lastly some plants have a genetically programmed cycle and enter a growth phase when light levels reach a certain level. This cycle can be in winter or summer.

Correct soil composition is one of the major factors in successful watering. As a general rule, most cacti and succulents like a very free draining soil that waters through easily and dries out quickly. Avoid soil that stays wet for long periods. Some exceptions are succulents from northern climates that are not only well adapted to survive hot dry summers, but also wet winters. These look best if planted in a moisture retaining soil. Soils with a high peat or bark mulch component can quickly dry out in hot weather and become very hard to re-water. These soils can be used, but require continued watering once they have become excessively dry.

Pots and sun exposure
The type of pot can influence the amount and frequency of your watering. Plastic and glazed pots will hold water for much longer periods, which can help reduce the amount of watering needed. However, they are not forgiving of overwatering so your room for error is reduced. Terracotta pots are very porous and will draw water out of the soil. These pots are very forgiving of over watering, but in hot dry weather can dry out incredibly quickly. Plants in small terracotta pots on a hot deck may need water every other day to retain their best appearance. Generally cacti are best suited to terracotta pots since they enjoy drying out more than succulents. Larger pots are more stable and require less watering since the volume of soil takes longer to dry out. Plants from wetter climates do better if planted in these larger pots. All pots kept on a hot, sunny deck or in a hot greenhouse require more watering than those kept in shade or in a cool location.

In the ground
Plants in the ground are generally more forgiving than those in pots and as a rule require much less water. Planting in the ground allows your plant to establish roots deep into the soil where it may find moisture throughout the year. Having said this, many will still enjoy some watering in the hottest weather.

Light water vs Deep water
Light watering or surface watering is usually the type of watering done when the plant is dormant. Even though they are dormant and not growing they still require a little water to keep from becoming desiccated or too dry. This may be once a month or every three weeks for plants kept in a house over the winter. This is done by just wetting the surface and maybe down around the pot. Deep watering is only ever done when the plant is actively growing. Deep water is when you wet the entire root ball. This should never be done when the plant is dormant.

Under watering & over watering
Under watering is probably the easiest to diagnose as under watered plants may show signs of wrinkled lower leaves or have a general dull appearance. After long periods of drought, cacti may appear noticeably shrunk. These are all easily remedied by watering. Over watering is more difficult to diagnose. Usually the signs become evident when it is too late. The effects of over watering usually only occur if a plant has been repeatedly over watered. If this is suspected then a quick look at the roots may help you catch it before it is too far gone. Cacti and succulents that have lost their roots to rot can often be re-rooted. In some cases particularly cacti, if the rot has reached the body it is generally too late to save the plant.

Last, but not least nothing beats good observation. Pay attention to your plants. If they are showing signs of stress they probably need a drink. If they stay overly wet for extended periods of time they probably need a location that will help them dry out quicker or a more free draining soil. As you watch your plants grow you will get a much better handle on when they are in need of water and when they should be left alone. .

As a final word, I often tell people “if in doubt, don’t”. These plants are very tough and will be fine if they miss an occasional watering. They are much better at recovering from under watering than from over watering. Watering is a large topic with many factors. For a beginner it may seem a little overwhelming, but it is pretty straightforward. With a little attention you will be watering like a pro and have happy and healthy plants.

Transition Care Tips     Top of Page >>>

Moving plants from the greenhouse to the deck.
As the days, and more importantly, the nights warm up you may think it is time to clear the greenhouse out and move your plants to the deck. This can be a critical time for plants that have been kept in a low light environment all winter. As with people, plants that are not acclimatized can suffer damage from the sun.

This is not too critical with annuals and fast-growing plants since they can easily grow past any damage. But this is very sad when your prize cactus gets burned and takes years to recover. Avoid sun damage with a few easy steps.

First, put your plants out before the weather gets too hot. This will allow your plant to acclimatize as the weather gets hotter. Most cacti and succulents are quite hardy and can withstand temperatures of two or three degrees Celsius with no ill effect. However, be careful to check the temperatures your plants grow in before exposing it to the low temperatures of early spring. Many tropical species aren’t as hardy and can’t tolerate early spring temperatures.

Since early season weather tends to be somewhat volatile it is good to make sure your plant can take the extra water. This is usually not a problem since most plants are heading into a growth phase and benefit from regular water at this time of year. But it is best to keep an eye on things because if it is going to rain for a week straight you may want to move your precious collection under cover.

Second, if you are heading into late spring, early summer and missed the cool spring weather, or have more delicate temperature-sensitive species a move to the deck is still possible with a little care.

Days at this time of year can be hot and an unprepared plant can easily burn in less than an hour. Choose a week that is forecast to be overcast or mixed weather. The worst is a blazing hot day. Make sure your plant is well watered and not excessively dry. This will help the plant cope with the unexpected UV radiation.

If the days are sunny find a spot where the plant is only exposed for a few hours. Gradually increase exposure to morning sun each day. Afternoon sun is strongest and less ideal for acclimatization. Remember with increased sun exposure pots dry out faster so plants need more frequent watering to acclimatize.

Mid to late summer is a difficult time to move plants out and it may be better to keep them in the greenhouse and try next year. Newly purchased plants that have spent all summer in a greenhouse may be happy in more dappled light. Light levels at this time of year are very intense so even partial shade may be more than sufficient for many species.

As with people, different plants react differently to sun exposure. Some species show no signs of stress when moved to a hot deck while others burn almost immediately. Other leafy species that are very fast recovering and may drop sun burnt leaves which are replaced by leaves hardened to the intense sun. Smaller cacti and succulents can easily recover as the sun burnt portion is moved down the plant’s side as it grows, but burns on large plants will be visible for many years.

As with most things in gardening it is best to find out what works for you and keep doing it. I hope you find these tips helpful and enjoy many sunny days with your plants on your deck.

Care Tips Seeds     Top of Page>>>

Growing Cacti and succulents from seed
If you are like most gardeners then you probably find the onset of winter a time of relaxation and reflection. The fall chores have been finished and all the plants have been put away for the winter. But like most gardeners it’s not long before winters shackles start to chafe. At Valley succulents this is a time of excitement as we pour over the latest seed lists and place our orders. As it has always been with farmers and gardeners we wait with a little trepidation for the first little seedlings to break the soil. Once the trays begin to fill with our new crop we can again relax, settle in for the rest of winter and tend to our baby cacti and succulents

Growing cacti and succulent from seed is easy, inexpensive and might be the only way to get some of the more rare species. The following is what we have learned over the years. This is what works well for us but is is by no means the only way. We are constantly evolving and learning what works and what doesn’t. We hope you enjoy and are inspired by the following article.

Set up
The basic set up is a table with a heat pad on it attached to a thermostat with a set of florescent light over top. Most cacti and succulents require temperatures from the low to high 20’s and high light levels.

First thing to decide is how large you want your table to be. Heat pads and light come in 4’, 3’ and 2’ long. The pads are about 20” wide so you will want to make your table a little larger than this. Your table should be set up away from direct sun and in a cool room. This will help control temperature and avoid any spikes in heat by the sun.

The best lights to use are T5s full spectrum. These lights have the most lumens of all florescence. The brand Sun Blasters are easily piggy backed together to create a bank of four or more. These lights should be set up over the trays at least 6” but not more than 12” high. If you suspend them higher then you will have more elongation once the seedlings germinate. You can use other florescence lights, such as T12 and T8, but you will have considerably lower lumens and this will cause excessive elongation once the seeds germinate. If you are going to use these different lights just make sure you have full spectrum bulbs.

Heat pads
Heat pads come in a variety of sizes but the most common are 2’, 3’ and 4’. There are several different brands and all have a durable water proof coating. Heat pads come with or without a built-in thermostat. Pads with the built-in thermostats will have a constant temperature that is 10 degrees C above the ambient air temperature. For seed germination a little more control is desired so heat pads without the built-in thermostat are best.

For controlling the temperature a thermostat with a soil probe is best. These thermostats will either be a dial or digital set up. I prefer the digital since these are a little more easy to use and get a more accurate setting. This is what the heat pad will be plugged into. This set up will allow you to keep a very constant temperature within a couple of degrees.

The last piece of the setup is a timer. A basic egg timer with a ground is the best. These are easy to use and do not require a battery so will continue to work as long as they are plugged in. Since you will need to plug in your lights and heat pad you will need a power bar or multi plug on your timer.

Potting Supplies     Top of Page >>>

Trays and Pots
You can use any plastic container or pot to germinate seeds in. I like to use a standard tray that is 10” x 20”. These trays are readily available at garden centers and have a selection of inserts to go inside. These inserts come in several different configurations with more or less cells. These 10 x 20 trays also have humidity domes that come in several sizes. For cacti and succulent germination the low 4” domes are best since this will help keep humidity levels high. Some brands of domes come with pivoting vents on the top. These are handy as your seedlings grow and want more air flow. Other set ups can be as simple as a yogurt container with saran wrap and an elastic band over top. As the seedlings grow small holes can be popped in the saran wrap to increase ventilation.

Since cacti and succulent seeds require a very high level of humidity to germinate, a starter mix that has very high water retention is desired. I have had the best success with pre-made starter mixes. These mixes are very fine and retain a high amount of water. Some may have a wetting agent and/or fungicides added. These mixes are also sterilized which will help reduce damping off, a fungal condition that causes your seeds to germinate and then rot. Making your own soil mix is another option. This mix should be fine in texture and sterilized before use. A simple recipe that I have used with much success is 1 part potting soil/ 1 part perlite/ 1 part grit (#3 grit). Once the soil has been added to your pots or trays a final layer of grit is sprinkled on top. Grit helps anchor your seedlings and also keeps their base out of the soil. This grit should be washed with no fine particles or silt. I like to use a #1 or #2 size poultry grit or canary grit. Fine aquarium gravel works just as well. Whichever grit you use, it should be sterilized.

Since chlorine and other water additives in city water inhibit seed germination, clean rain water is best. Rain water is slightly acidic and is what seeds would normally receive in the wild. If rain water is not available a suitable option is tap water that has had the chlorine removed. Filters can be used to remove the chlorine or your water can be left out in a bucket overnight to let the chlorine evaporate off. If your tap water is very alkaline you can adjust the pH down, more towards the acidic side. A pH of 6.5 to 6.0 is around where you want to be. This pH adjustment can be made with products from your local garden store called pH up or pH down. Vinegar can also be used to increase acidity. Since you will get some bounce back of the pH with vinegar, you should leave this water over night and then check and adjust the pH again. Now that we have all of our equipment and supplies together it is time to talk about what conditions are . This is by no means the only way to do it. This is just what works for us. as important in the initial stages. Once germination has taken place then light becomes much more important. These conditional responses are the plants way to optimize its seedling survival. It would be no good for a plants seed to germinate then die because it is too hot or too cold or that there is not enough moisture to nurture a tender seedling.

As with all seeds adequate moisture is needed to initiate germination. Because cacti and succulent seeds often have a tough outer coating they require very high levels of humidity. This is achieved by thoroughly wetting the soil mix and maintaining high levels of humidity with the humidity dome or plastic wrap. Once these seeds have germinated maintaining this level of humidity is beneficial to seedlings in their initial growth. As a rule, cacti seem to benefit more from high levels of humidity then succulents. As with all rules there are exceptions, so you will find that some species of cacti do not thrive in very humid environments and need to be removed earlier than others.

The second most important factor is temperature. All seeds will have their optimum temperature for germination. This is usually determined by where the plant grows in its natural environment and the conditions there. Cacti or succulents that come from a higher elevation or a cold climate require a lower germination temp then plants that are from a coastal region in the tropics. I like to call these cool germinators and hot germinators. Cool germinators usually require a temperature around 20 C° or room temperature. This can vary 3-4 C° either way. If you try to germinate these seeds at higher temps you will have poor or no germination and run the risk of killing or burning off the seed. Too low of a temperature and germination will not take place until the temperature has risen to more desirable level. Hot germinators like a temperature around 27 C°. This temp can vary 3-4 degrees up or down. These seeds seem to be somewhat more resilient to higher temperatures and will not burn off. But they may not germinate until temperatures are reduced. Too low and germination will be very slow or not at all. This will improve once temperatures have raisen to a more desirable level. If you are not sure if your seed is a cool or hot germinator a little research into where the plant is found in its natural environment can help you determine the best temperature. Many online forums are available to ask questions about a particular plant. Lastly, I have found that erroring on the side of lower temperatures will often be better than higher.

I have found that most cacti and succulents benefit from some light during germination. Since most of these seeds are very small they are just sprinkled on the surface of the grit and washed in with a light watering. The exception to this rule is seed that is too large to wash in to the grit and require more moisture to germinate then they would get from laying on the surface. These seeds germinate better when they are pressed into the mix and are lightly covered with grit. Light becomes much more important to your seedling once they germinate. Too little and you will have seedlings that are elongated. Too much and your seedlings will take on a red color which is a sign that they are getting too much light. Mild to medium elongation is not usually too much of a problem since the seedlings will fill out and return to a more natural look as they grow larger. If you seedling is very elongated then it could become weak and fall over or be more susceptible to fungal attack. It may never be able to grow out of this and always be disfigured. It may be a bit of a race to see how long you can keep your seedling growing in the nice moist conditions before it becomes too elongated. A sign that your seedling is getting to much light will be that it will be very red. This is not usually fatal but it will slow your seedling growth rate. Most seedlings are a nice green color but some are quite red naturally so this is something that is not written in stone. In extreme cases of too much light you can have a heat buildup. This is one of the fastest ways to kill your new seedlings. Because your humidity dome or plastic wrap is essentially a mini greenhouse heat can build up very quickly. By controlling the light levels, and keeping your seedlings out of direct sun they will be spared this early demise.

Now that we have talked about all the factors that are needed for optimal germination here is how I plant my seeds.

1. Select the appropriate pot size or insert based on the number of seeds you are sowing. Fill this container with your soil mix.

2. Immerse your container in a tub or bucket and allow the soil to soak up as much water as it can. If you are using a full 10 x 20 flat add an inch of water to the bottom. Lay your inserts full of soil in this. This should be about the right amount of water to hydrate your trays.

3. Once trays are sufficiently hydrated sprinkle a thin layer of grit on the surface. These trays are ready for planting.

4. Evenly spread seed over the surface of the pot or cell. Very small seeds can benefit by being mixed with a little grit to help with even distribution. Large seeds can be pressed into the mix by hand or dropped into shallow holes.

5. Water the surface of your seed tray or pot. This will help wash the smaller seeds into the grit and make sure the larger seeds are well wetted.

6. Make sure you label what you plant. Baby cacti look very similar and may take years to grow before you can identify them, if ever.

7. Lastly put your humidity dome or saran wrap on top. Make sure you top is sealed. A little trick is to use packing tape to fasten you humidity dome on. This will keep all that humidity inside.

8. Set your heat mat to the appropriate temp and wait. Most seeds will germinate in a week or two but can take as long as a couple months. Some larger seeds can take years, so don’t get discouraged.

9. After a month or so you will need to open up the domes a little. They will like a slightly less humid environment.

Once you open them up you will have to start watering the seedlings a little. Use a squeeze bottle with a fine tip for watering seedlings. Be careful not to disturb or wash them out of the soil. Allow them to dry out slightly before watering again.

At Valley Succulents we germinate all of our seeds in this fashion. They will spend up to five months in their seed trays under the light. They are then moved to a low light greenhouse. They are still not strong enough to survive full sun but are getting tougher. This is by no means the only way to do it. This is just what works for us.

Seed Sources     Top of Page>>>
Due to these plants popularity with collectors throughout the years there are many sources for seed and plants around the world. Europe has many excellent nurseries which have large seed lists. South Africa is another area with a number of good seed sources. United States is also home to a number of very good seed nurseries. Private collectors can also be an excellent source for fresh and rare seed. Generally speaking, the fresher the seed the better the viability. Having said this many cacti and succulent seeds are viable for years. Since seed viability is hard to know prior to planting finding good reliable sources is important. Most nurseries will not provide you with any info as to when their seed were collected so it is a bit of trial and error. If you are unsure about ordering from so far away check our seed list. It is small but we do have some cool varieties. Many of the seeds offered we harvest in our own nursery so you can be assured that they are as fresh as you can get. We are just adding to our accessories page and will soon have everything you will need to start growing your own cacti and succulents.

Word of Caution
Growing cacti from seed is a very addictive activity and if you start you may soon find yourself growing all sorts of cool plants from seed.

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Valley Succulents
2210 Anderton rd
Comox B.C.