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How to fix an overwatered cactus so it comes back better than ever

Tips on how to help your cactus recover from being overwatered

Cacti might have a reputation for being tough and hardy, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t get sick. They actually have specific needs in order to thrive, such as sparse watering, well-draining cactus soil, and of course, bright light. Overwatering is a common problem with cacti, especially for first-time cactus owners who are used to watering plants more frequently. While overwatering can cause issues, this doesn't mean your cactus will instantly die if you tend to be too generous with the watering can.

Difficulty

Easy

Duration

1 hour

What You Need

  • Newspaper

  • Gloves

  • Knife

  • Clay flower pot(s)

  • Cactus soil

  • Rooting hormone

If you notice that your cactus has been overwatered, don't panic! If you can see signs of life, you might still be able to save it. Rescuing an overwatered cactus plant is very much a feasible undertaking. The process is fairly simple, but it does take patience. Here's what you need to know about how to fix an overwatered cactus.

Golden barrel cacti
small1/Shutterstock

Why are cacti prone to overwatering?

When compared to your typical water-loving, tropical plant, cacti are prone to overwatering, especially if you grow them indoors where their soil can't dry out quickly. In their natural desert habitats, cacti have acclimated to drought conditions by storing water in their stems and leaves. As such, cacti roots are relatively shallow and spread outward instead of downward to take in as much water as possible in dry climates. Overwatering cactus houseplants can lead to waterlogged soil and root rot. When cactus roots die from overwatering, the plant above the soil surface becomes soft and starts turning yellow or brown.

Cacti next to terracotta pots
Africa Studio / Shutterstock

Check the roots of your cactus

The first step is to assess how much overwatering damage you’re working with.

Step 1: Look for brown spots on the cactus or a pungent smell coming from the soil.

These are signs of rot and good indicators that you need to start repairing the damage.

Step 2: Roll a thick newspaper around your plant to protect your hands from the cactus' spines.

Wearing thick gardening gloves is also important, especially if your cactus has larger spines.

Step 3: Remove the cactus from its pot.

Be gentle to avoid damaging the cactus. Overwatering can cause a cactus to become softer and squishier, making it easier to damage.

Step 4: Tip it over and inspect the roots.

White roots are healthy, while brown roots indicate rotting. The more white roots you see, the better your plant's odds are.

A person holding a small, unpotted cactus
boyloso / Shutterstock

Remove rotting stems and roots

Black or brown spots and mushy stems are telltale signs of an overwatered cactus due to a fungal infection in the soil. If you notice these physical symptoms, it’s time to act. Here's what to do:

Step 1: Cut the damaged sections out with a sharp, clean knife.

The knife needs to be clean to avoid spreading any bacteria to your cactus. If the damage is extensive, you may need to do the reverse, which is to cut the living parts away from the rot and essentially propagate your cactus.

Step 2: Wear gloves to protect your hands.

Step 3: Leave the cactus or the cactus cuttings to dry anywhere from a few days to a week.

Small cactus, recently repotted in a white pot with soil on the table around it
Andriana Syvanych/Shutterstock

Repot your cactus into fresh cactus soil

Repot the dry cactus or cactus cuttings.

Step 1: Throw out the old soil instead of reusing it.

The old soil could still carry the bacteria or fungi that caused the rot, so it's important not to reuse it. If absolutely necessary, you could try sterilizing the old soil. However, it is safer to use fresh soil.

Step 2: Use a clay pot with drainage holes.

Clay is a more porous material than plastic, so it is typically more forgiving of excess water. Having a drainage hole or holes in the bottom of your pot is crucial so that it doesn't pool at the bottom and rot your roots again.

Step 3: Add cactus soil to the pot(s), position your cactus roots or cactus cuttings, and fill the space around them with more soil.

Step 4: Apply rooting powder to your cuttings to help them develop roots faster.

Step 5: Water the cactus or cuttings thoroughly.

Although it can be nerve-wracking to water your plant after rescuing it from overwatering, it still needs water to live. Letting your plant dry out before replanting it prevents this step from causing additional harm.

Two cacti in brown pots on a windowsill
kitzcorner/Shutterstock

Avoid watering until your soil completely dries out

After you carefully rehome your cactus, prevention is key when it comes to maintaining a happy plant.

Step 1: Place your cactus somewhere warm with bright, direct light.

Step 2: Avoid watering your cactus when the soil is still damp.

Step 3: Reduce watering to once a month or less during winter.

Growth slows down during cold weather, so your plant will use less water. Some cacti can go the entire cold weather season without being watered!

Step 4: Dump out any water that pools on the surface instead of allowing it to sink into the soil.

Step 5: Err on the side of underwatering if you're unsure.

There’s usually a learning curve when it comes to properly watering a cactus. If you’re a chronic over-waterer and find yourself with a squishy and browning cactus, don’t despair: You can rescue your plant if it has any viable green tissue. After removing all of your damaged roots and stems, you can enjoy your healthy comeback plant! Failing all of that, here are some plants that might fit better with your watering routine.

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Stacey Nguyen
Stacey's work has appeared on sites such as POPSUGAR, HelloGiggles, Buzzfeed, The Balance, TripSavvy, and more. When she's…
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