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Cactus and succuents: To water or not?

Agave species
Agave species
Linda Strader

Some people wonder if they should water their cactus and succulents in their desert landscaping. For the most part, if these are established plants, the answer is simple. No.

However, there are some instances when your cactus and succulents may need a helping hand in the form of a good soaking. Newly planted? Yes, they appreciate water every two weeks throughout the hottest part of the summer until summer rains arrive.

Established plants (two years or more in the ground) can benefit from a good soaking if they are drought stressed. How can you tell? Columnar (ie: sahuaro and cereus) and barrel cactus will exhibit water stress by narrowing the spaces between their ribs. Prickly Pear cactus pads will pucker. Succulents, which include agave, yucca, desert spoon, and hesperaloe, will exhibit drought stress with excessive browning on the tips of the leaves, or in the case of agaves, puckering of the skin. How much water? A good deep soaking of the entire root zone once or twice a month until rains arrive is plenty. Keep in mind that the root zones extend far beyond the base of the plant – often three times the height or more.

Ocotillo are unique, in that although they are considered succulents for general purposes, they are in their own special category. They accept and appreciate supplemental water two to four times a month during May-June as long as they have perfect drainage.

Keep in mind we are in a severe drought in southern Arizona. Our desert natives are looking pretty sad and thirsty these days. There’s no reason to let your landscape plants suffer, however.