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

Cacti might have a reputation for being hardy, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t get sick. They actually have specific needs: sparse watering, well-draining cactus soil, and, of course, bright light. Overwatering has especially been the cause of death for many cacti, whether that’s from heavy rainfall or an inadvertently generous hand with the watering can.

No matter how bad your cactus looks, however, there’s a good chance that you’ll still be able to bring it back to life if you see any green on it. Rescuing an overwatered cactus is very much a feasible undertaking—it may take some legwork, but you can have a healthy cactus in weeks with some patience.

Person watering cactus

Check your cactus roots

The first step is to assess how much overwatering damage you’re working with. If you notice any brown spots or notice pungent-smelling soil, you may want to check your cactus roots for signs of overwatering. Roll a thick newspaper around your plant to avoid touching the spines and gently extract it from your pot. Tip the plant over and check the roots—if they’re mostly white, you’re in good shape.

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 carefully cut them off with a knife. When working with a rotting plant, use a sterile knife to avoid spreading the infection even further.

If the damage is extensive, you will have to put in more effort. What you’re going to essentially be doing is propagating the parts of your plant that are still alive. Be extra careful when handling your cactus; you should wear nitrile gloves to protect your hands from spines as you cut off the rotting areas. After removing the damaged regions, leave your cuttings out to dry for a few days, about roughly a week or so.

Soil

Repot your cactus into fresh cactus soil

Since your original potting mix was a medium for whatever infection triggered the rot, you’ll want to throw it out instead of reusing it. Start anew with fresh cactus soil that will offer your plant drainage. Additionally, it’s a good idea to move your plant into a clay pot, as the porous material will be more forgiving with future overwatering. Check that your planter has a drainage hole so that any excess water can be dumped out immediately.

Add cactus soil into your intended planter and position your still-rooted cactus or fresh cuttings into it. To expedite the rooting process, you can dip them in rooting hormone to help them grow. Gently fill the rest of your pot with cactus soil and water it thoroughly. If your cuttings are large, you may find that you need more than one planter. In that case, repeat this step until all of your cuttings are properly potted.

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. Your plant will appreciate a spot where it receives warmth and bright direct light. In winter, it may even be a good idea to overwinter your cactus indoors if you live in a cold climate zone.

The main way to keep a cactus healthy, of course, is to avoid overwatering it. Water your soil only when it completely dries out. During winter, don’t water your cactus any more than once a month—in fact, some cacti can go the entire cold weather season without being watered! When you do water, always dump out excess water on your saucer instead of letting your cactus sit in it for too long. At the end of the day, remember that it’s always better to err on the side of under-watering, as cacti have adapted to tolerate drought by storing water in their fleshy stems.

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!

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