Cacti are durable plants known for their ability to survive harsh conditions. Since they are hardy plants that thrive in desert soil, you might wonder if they enjoy being root bound. Is this really the case?
Cactuses do not like to be root-bound. While one species called a Christmas cactus can thrive in confined spaces, as a rule of thumb, it’s best to prevent root-binding as much as possible to promote good health for your cactus.
The rest of this article will tell you all you need to know about why most cacti don’t like being root-bound and what you can do to solve the issue. Read on to learn more information!
Should You Replant a Root-Bound Cactus?
You should replant a root-bound cactus because it is likely not receiving the essential nutrients and water it needs for healthy growth. Root-bound cacti have roots that are overlapping or bound together.
Root-bound is a term commonly used by gardeners to refer to the condition of a plant’s roots. When you remove the plant, it will have a container-shaped cluster of roots.
Unfortunately, it’s not healthy for cacti to be root bound because it makes it more challenging for the roots to supply the plant with the essential nutrients it needs to survive.
However, there is an exception for the Christmas cactus.
Why is this the case?
The Christmas Cactus Likes to Be Root-Bound
As mentioned, the only cactus variety that thrives when rootbound is the Christmas cactus. While most cactus species don’t do well root-bound, the Christmas cactus can thrive in this condition.
There isn’t really a well-known reason why this cactus variety can do well in small containers. Although a Christmas cactus can thrive when it’s rootbound, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the plant enjoys it.
You should still repot your Christmas cactus every few years so that it doesn’t experience problems with its roots. While it’s a highly tolerant species, you still want to make sure you’re giving this plant the best possible care so it can thrive for as long as possible.
Unfortunately, repotting a Christmas cactus is a delicate process, and you should only do so every three or four years so that you don’t harm it. Surprisingly, the best way to execute this task is to break the pot, so you don’t risk hurting the roots.
One thing to note is that an excessively large pot can be just as harmful to your Christmas cactus as a small one. A plant’s roots should fit snugly into its container without working too hard to access water and nutrients.
A good rule of thumb is to level up your Christmas cactus pot size only by about two inches (5.08 cm) per repotting session.
Why Most Cacti Don’t Like to Be Root-Bound
While a Christmas cactus can survive while root-bound, most plants don’t do well in these conditions. In fact, root-binding can actually be harmful to most cacti.
It Makes It Challenging for the Cactus to Grow
When a cactus is root-bound, this means that it is too cramped in its space. This makes it difficult for it to grow, putting a strain on its roots.
They Have Difficulty Accessing Water and Nutrients
In a cramped soil space, the roots struggle to absorb essential nutrients and water. If a root system is crowding its container, it’s difficult to fill the needs of a plant much larger than its root mass can address.
But what are the signs that your cactus is rootbound?
How to Tell if Your Cactus Is Root-Bound: 5 Signs
If you think your cactus might be root-bound, here are 5 signs to help you determine if this is the case:
1. It’s Been a While Since the Last Repotting
If it’s been a while since your cactus’s last repotting, this is a good sign that it might be root-bound– and also that it’s time for a new container.
While cacti are hardy plants that don’t need to be repotted too often, it’s generally a good idea to repot them every three or four years to keep them happy and healthy. Otherwise, you’ll risk harmful root-binding.
2. The Plant Looks Too Large for Its Pot
Another easy way to tell if your cactus is root-bound is if the plant looks too large for its pot.
If your cactus looks disproportionate to the size of its container, or the container isn’t big enough to support the size of the plant, there’s a high chance its roots are bound and that it needs to move to a new pot as soon as possible to avoid further damage.
3. Roots Are Growing Through the Drainage Holes
One of the best ways to tell if your cactus is root-bound is to check and see if any roots are growing through the drainage holes or over the top of the pot.
If this is the case, it’s a sure sign that the roots are bound. You must then repot your cactus as soon as possible to ensure its health doesn’t decline further.
4. It’s Starting To Wilt, and You Don’t Know Why
If your cactus is starting to wilt and you don’t know why– even with adequate watering and fertilizing routines– there’s a high chance your plant might be root-bound.
If you’re watering your cactus every couple of weeks, providing it with food, and making sure it has plenty of water drainage opportunities through both the soil and the pot, the most likely reason your plant’s health is declining is that it’s root-bound.
This is usually the case if you notice your cactus starting to turn yellow, brown, or look unhealthy in general. This is a sure sign that it’s time for your plant to receive a new home in a larger container with more room for the roots to grow.
5. It’s Beginning to Grow Aerial Roots
If your cactus is beginning to grow aerial roots, this can be a sign that it might be root-bound.
Aerial roots are green, white, or brown roots that grow on the above-ground parts of your cactus. They are often compared to branches. While the more common causes behind these roots involve over or underwatering, this can also indicate that your cactus is root-bound and needs a larger container.
When a cactus is root-bound, its roots won’t have access to enough soil to supply the growing cactus with what it needs, which is why it might grow aerial roots instead.
If your cactus is growing aerial roots, I recommend checking out this article for more information and ways to solve the issue: Why is Your Cactus Growing Aerial Roots? 6 Causes
How to Fix a Root-Bound Cactus
If your cactus has one or more of the signs above, don’t worry– there are plenty of easy ways to fix a root-bound cactus.
The best thing you can do to address a root-bound cactus is to repot the plant. While you can definitely choose to plant your cactus outdoors in the ground, you can also find it a new pot. There are multiple ways to go about doing this.
Here are a couple of cactus-repotting methods:
Break the Pot to Protect the Roots
The best way to repot a cactus is to break the pot, so you avoid damaging the roots. If it’s in a flimsy plastic container, you can use heavy-duty gardening scissors to do this. With terracotta or ceramic, your best bet is to break it outdoors safely.
Remove the Cactus With Gloves
Another option is to gently remove the cactus with gloves. However, this way is a lot more invasive, and you risk damaging your cactus’s roots, which can be bad for its health. However, this is a better method if you don’t want to break a special pot or deal with the task of replacing it.
Cactus Repotting Tips
Below are some of the best tips for repotting your root-bound cactus.
Choose the Right Container
One of the most critical parts of cactus repotting, especially for a root-bound cactus, is to choose a suitable container for your plant.
The first thing you should consider when repotting a root-bound cactus is the size of the container you want to replant it in. Generally, it’s a good idea to increase your pot size by 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) every repotting session to ensure it gets the perfect amount of space.
Too little space can cause root-binding, but too large of a pot can cause health issues like water or nutrient deficiencies and even root drowning, so you must get the container size just right.
The next thing you should consider is drainage. When moving a root-bound cactus to a new container, it’s important to double-check that the new one has proper drainage systems to ensure your plant thrives. The pot should have drainage holes to promote adequate moisture levels and keep the roots healthy.
Make Sure You’re Using the Right Soil
The next thing you need to consider when repotting a root-bound cactus is the soil. It would be best to use cactus-specific dirt so your plant gets the right amount of nutrients and water drainage.
A root-bound cactus is already in an unfavorable condition, so when you’re repotting the plant, it’s even more important to take the proper precautions to ensure it’s getting its hydration, nutrition, and environmental requirements met. The correct soil can help with all of these things.
By using dirt explicitly made for cacti, you can make sure your plant is as healthy as possible in its new home.
Use Gardening Gloves to Protect Roots
Using gardening gloves while repotting your root-bound cactus is key. This will make it easier to keep the roots of your cactus from being damaged by excess handling.
Also, gloves are an essential safety precaution, as many species of cactus grow sharp spines that can be painful and even harmful to the touch. Gardening gloves make things safer for both you and the plant.
Using gardening gloves that are thick enough to protect your hands and flexible enough to move around is best.
Provide It With Fertilizer Immediately After
A good habit to practice when repotting your root-bound cactus is to provide fertilizer after it’s been replanted.
As I mentioned above, a root-bound cactus is already a bit unhealthy, which is why you’re repotting it in the first place. This is why it’s crucial to do things to make the replanting process as comfortable as possible for the plant to avoid excess trauma and shock. One of the ways you can go about doing this is with fertilizer.
Offering your plant food immediately after repotting is a good way to ensure it can access enough nutrients. You can use homemade plant food with eggshell tea, used coffee grounds, and other soil additives. However, while these are great tips for regular plant feeding, it’s a good idea to use store-bought fertilizer directly after repotting.
Avoid Keeping It in a Different Location
Another tip for repotting your root-bound cactus is to avoid keeping it in a different location.
Repotting is a traumatic process for the plant. It will take a lot of time for your cactus to adjust to its new container and soil.
However, this adjustment process might be even more difficult if you choose to store your cactus in a different location. I highly recommend keeping it in the same spot a couple of weeks after repotting so it can receive the same amount of light it’s used to receiving.
This is a good repotting habit as it will minimize plant shock and ensure the cactus receives enough light, which is even more important if your cactus has root-bound before repotting, as it already wasn’t doing too well.
By keeping your freshly-repotted cactus in the same spot for a while, you can make sure its light requirements are properly met.
Repot During the Spring
The time of year you choose to repot your root-bound cactus actually plays a key role in successful repotting sessions.
The best time of year to repot a cactus is during the spring when they are experiencing the highest level of growth and the best overall level of health. Doing so will help your cactus adjust to its new environment quicker than it would during winter when it’s colder.
I’ve covered more cactus repotting tips in another blog post. Check it out to find the best time to repot your cactus: How to Know When You Should Repot Your Cactus
Pots That Prevent Root Binding
We’ve discussed a few tips you can practice while repotting your root-bound cactus. But are there any containers that help prevent root-binding?
Air root pruning pots are a great option for preventing root-bound cacti. These plant containers train roots to grow in a way that makes nutrient transportation more efficient. However, these are tricky to find in small sizes, so you may have to find alternatives.
Pots with adequate drainage holes can also help prevent root binding, as the drainage holes provide an exit for the roots to escape in case things get too cramped. Additionally, the more drainage holes there are in a container, the easier it is to tell if your cactus is root-bound.
Despite contrary beliefs, most cactus species do not like being root-bound. This means that your cactus doesn’t have room for its roots to grow, which can cause many problems.
If you notice that your cactus has roots growing from the drainage holes, is wilting, or has started to grow aerial roots, these can be signs that your plant is root-bound.
Hopefully, this article has helped you determine whether or not your cactus is root-bound and how to address the issue so you can continue to provide your plant with the best possible care.