A Beginner's Guide to Succulents and Cacti

Adding a cactus or a succulent to your garden is the perfect beginner's plant for an indoor or outdoor garden. There are thousands of different species and they are pretty darn easy to care for them. If you can give them full sun and occasional water, you are going to have success. And having success is the best thing for a beginner gardener. Here is everything you need to know to get started with succulents or cactus.

A Beginner's Guide to Succulents and Cactus

beginner's guide to succulents and cactus

What is the Difference Between Cacti and Succulents?

Cactus and succulents are both having their moment in the sun so to speak right now. See what I did there. They are popular for a reason, and one of the reasons is that they are great plants for beginners.

Cactus seem to be getting labeled as succulents but are they?

Is a Cactus a Succulent?

Yes! A cactus is a succulent. A succulent is defined as a plant that stores water in its leaves, stems, or roots. All cactus are succulents but not all succulents are cactus. Tricky right?

How to Tell the Difference Between a Cactus and a Succulent

There are a few different characteristics that will help you discern the difference between a cactus and a succulent. The first is the look of most succulents is determined by the shape of their leaves. A cactus is determined by its stem. Succulent flowers are small and simple but cactus blooms are large and showy. Most succulents are propagated by leaf and cutting but a cactus is propagated by seeds. 

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How to Grow and Care for Cacti and Succulents

Cacti particularly prefer well-drained soil, whereas succulents grow in a wider range of soil textures. I have a succulent that has volunteered itself to grow in a bed of rocks. Seriously. Both kinds of plants do well in sunny garden or patio areas, though succulents can often handle getting less sun. They generally prefer morning sun if possible.

succulent success

Favorite Succulents and Cactus

Epiphyllum Cactus

One flower with the widest color spectrum, and no doubt one of the most popular, is the epiphyllum. Their landscape use is in pots, but they also are excellent in hanging baskets. A professional gardener made clever use of those plants, growing them on a slope downward from a patio floor, though rarely are they used as groundcovers.

Bunny Ear Cactus

The pad-like stems resemble bunny ears and they are just downright cute. They are clump-forming cacti that don't develop spines. When they bloom they have a yellow flower.

Ice Plant Succulent

The so-called "ice plants" with several technical names are freely used as groundcover in sunny areas, as well as on slopes, banks, even on burms which are artistic mounds of the soil of various shapes with plantings on them. 


Aeoniums with their rosette leaves on tall stalks provide interesting heads of yellow daisy-like attractive blossoms. The color of some foliage is almost a deep brown-purple which adds an interesting contrast to the garden.

Jelly Bean Plant

The jelly bean plant is a sedum. The leaves turn red when they get more sun, but they can be planted in lower sun areas. Just remember, they may not turn colors. They don't need a lot of water. In fact, they do best if you forget about them a bit!

Hens and Chicks

You will never have to buy another succulent again if you have hens and chicks. These should be called "breeds like bunny rabbits" because they grow little chicks from the mother hen quite often! The chicks can then be removed and replanted and the cycle continues. These do best if you allow the soil to dry between waterings.


Prepping Your Garden Area for Cactus and Succulents

The most fundamental gardening rule is to start with well-prepared soil. There are a number of organic materials a gardener can use; compost soil, fine barks, leaf mold, pre-moistened peat moss, well-weathered manure, or one of several planter organic mixes.

Before the soil is prepared, it should be soaked at least eight inches deep. Several days later, a gardener should put on at least two inches layers of one of the organic materials mentioned above. Four inches would be even better. Hard clay soil should have some gypsum or gypsite, which contains sulfur to acidify and possibly lightly flocculate the soil, as well as the calcium in it to aggregate - that is, form slightly larger soil particles to allow better moisture penetration and air.

One digging over or rototilling isn't enough. The soil should be turned over twice; three times would be better for a thorough mixture throughout the soil area. The prepared soil should be thoroughly soaked, then allowed to stand for a few days before it is raked over, stones removed, and seeds sown or plants set out. Soil thusly prepared helps to break the heavy soil compaction and prevents it from packing too tightly.

Perfect Potted Plant

Cactus and succulents both make the perfect potted plants. Succulents don't like wet roots so make sure any pot you use has good drainage. This may mean that you need to drill a hole in the bottom of your plant. If you plant your succulent outdoors, if your area gets cold, you might need to find an indoor alternative for the winter. 

Succulents are some of the best beginner plants to get started with. Hopefully, these tips will help you get started!

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