Ten years ago I digressed into a netherworld of horticulture that is secretive, dogmatic, painful and unforgiving. Call it Cultus Succulentata, an unofficial group of succulent lovers as unconventional as the plants we cultivate. What binds us are succulent plants able to survive in the most arid climates. But, I’m hooked on one family of this succulent cult, Cactaceae, which grow nowhere else but in the Americas. As a desert rat mentored by cactus guru Clark Moorten, at his botanical garden in the Palm Springs desert, I have been taught by the best.
If there’s one thing that we cactophiles insist on is well drained soil. Now the term “well drained” is relative. Some define it as soil that absorbs water in less than five seconds after it’s applied. I’ve seen the soil where wild cactus choose to grow in nature. The ground is so porous water won’t even stand for one second much less five!
In the beginning I would buy cactus potting soil and mix it with equal amounts of desert sand to save money and enhance drainage. Then the label changed to “Cactus and Palm” soil. Suddenly the same bag weighed 30% less. This change was not to benefit plants but to reduce shipping costs for the manufacturer. The new formula was mostly ground up wood, perlite and a tablespoon of sand. Without other components to bind it, the wood and perlite float each time I water. Since it almost always overflows, I lose more soil each time leaving less for my plants.
Then I picked up the first bag of Black Gold Cactus Mix. It weighed a ton! I celebrated! Sand was back so I didn’t have to mix it myself. When I dug through the soil with bare fingers, the mix felt perfect. There was minimal woody matter and the perlite content was just right. There was enough finely ground organic matter to retain moisture while maintaining a texture similar to porous desert conditions. This cactus soil was cohesive enough that I no longer have to use a pottery shard over the large drain holes of cactus pots to keep soil in place.
The many followers of succulent guru Pamela Baldwin’s book, Succulent Container Gardens will find Black Gold Cactus Mix the perfect soil mix for planting all her favorites. I’ve found my carrion-flowers are thriving. This is a little known group of succulents from South Africa and Madagascar. Their flowers emit the smell of dead flesh in order to draw pollinating flies. Carrions are notoriously fickle about drainage and make the perfect litmus test for potting soil. After repotting with Black Gold Cactus Mix, the plants are larger and blooming longer than ever.
Those gardeners new to growing cactus assume they don’t need a lot of water. Truth is they will grow very quickly and bloom well if watered often during the summer growing season. If you succulents just sit there, chances are dehydration has forced them into a dormant state.
Potting soil that is super fast to drain means you can water often without fears of over-saturation. Choose pots with big drain holes. Never use a saucer.
Succulent plants in general prefer their food in frequent low doses. An annual dose of tea made of Black Gold Earthworm Castings is the perfect mimic for the effects of a dry country flash flood. You can feed cacti and succulents with small doses of Black Gold All Purpose Fertilizer for gradual release organic nutrients.
For those who love cacti and succulents, whether you are experts or beginner, the key is a well drained soil that also binds well, retains scant moisture and best of all, won’t float away when you overflow.