How to Safely Transplant a Cactus
Repotting a Cactus Without Touching the Spines
Cacti are low-maintenance houseplants that rarely require repotting, but it's important to replant your cactus correctly and safely when it becomes rootbound. Once roots start protruding through the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot or the plant appears to have outgrown its space, it is time to transplant your cactus. Since they are slow-growing, cacti typically only require transplanting every 3-4 years, or every 2-3 years for faster-growing varieties.
Many cacti varieties are adorned with sharp spines that act as protection for the plant. This also makes transplanting cacti a difficult, sometimes dangerous task. One of the best ways to replant a mature cactus or a cactus pup safely is to use rolled up towel or folded newspaper. It's also a good idea to invest in a pair of thick protective gardening gloves. Avoid gardening gloves that are made of fabric rather than thick canvas or leather, as cacti spines can easily penetrate most fabrics.
It's best to repot a cactus in the early to mid-spring when the plant has entered its active growing period. This will ensure that the cactus has the energy to recover from being handled and acclimate to its new environment.
Most cacti have barbed spikes, which makes them painful and difficult to remove from the skin if they come into contact. Wear protective equipment like thick gardening gloves and long-sleeved clothes while transplanting a cactus to avoid getting poked.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Protective gloves
- Rolled up towel
- Cactus/succulent soil mix
- Potting container
Prepare Your Tools and Supplies
The tools required for transplanting a cactus depend on the size and spikiness of the plant. For example, when transplanting smaller cacti, towels and/or newspapers may not be necessary whereas larger cacti may require a full arsenal of protective equipment.
Regardless of the size, wearing thick, protective gloves is always recommended when handling cacti.
Remove the Cactus from the Old Pot
Loosen the soil around the edges of the pot with a dull knife or trowel if necessary. If needed, you can wrap the cactus in several layers of newspaper to make it easier to grab, or you can use the towel to handle the cactus. Gently wiggle the root ball out of the old pot and lay the cactus flat on your working area.
If you're replanting a cactus pup without roots, you can simply cut this section off the plant with clean, sharp gardening shears. For a tall cactus, it's best to recruit a friend to help you lift the cactus safely while both people wear thick gloves.
Loosen the Root Ball & Discard the Old Soil
Once the cactus has been removed from its old pot, the root ball should be loosened and the old soil discarded. Depending on how root-bound the plant is, this can sometimes be a delicate process. Take it slow and be careful not to break too many roots.
Inspect the Roots and Trim if Necessary
While the roots are exposed, it is a good idea to check them over for any signs of pests or diseases. Cut back any dead or diseased roots and apply a fungicide if needed.
Choose the New Pot
If you are prone to overwatering, choose a clay/terracotta pot for your cactus. While cacti can grow in any potting container, unglazed clay pots help to absorb excess moisture in the soil and prevent overwatering. Regardless of the type of pot that you choose, ensure there is a drainage hole at the bottom.
Plant the Cactus in the New Pot
Fill the bottom of the new pot with the cactus soil mixture (you can buy cactus soil in-store, or make it yourself), ensuring that the cactus will be planted at the same depth as its previous container. Using the towel or newspaper, gently place the cactus in the pot and hold it in place while you fill the remainder of the pot with soil.
Do not water the freshly transplanted cactus right away, as it needs time to adjust to its new conditions. After a week or so you can resume your regular watering schedule.
Cacti are hardy and adaptable, and most varieties handle transplanting well as long as they were healthy prior to being repotted. Ensure that you place your freshly repotted cactus back in its original location so it can continue to receive the same amount of light and ventilation that it was before it was transplanted.
As cacti are desert plants, they require a significant amount of sunlight to support new growth. A sunny south- or west-facing windowsill is ideal for most cacti varieties. If you live in an area that receives warm summers, placing your cactus outdoors for the summer in full sun is one of the best ways to encourage new growth!
Can I put a cactus in regular potting soil?
A cactus should not be potted in regular potting soil. These plants are prone to being damaged by water, so purchase a cactus soil specified for cacti and succulents from your local hardware store or plant nursery.
How often should a cactus be watered?
Water your cactus once the soil has dried completely. Check for soil moisture by placing your finger 1-2 inches below the soil line, then water it thoroughly and allow the pot to drain excess water.
Do cacti need pots with drainage holes?
Cacti grow best in pots with plenty of drainage holes, as these plants can develop root rot quickly when water sits inside the pot. Ensure the pot has at least one large drainage hole in the center or multiple small holes spread around the bottom.