The Christmas cactus is one of the most recognizable succulents. It gets its name from the fact that it actually blooms during the winter. An important distinction between this and other succulents is that the Christmas cactus appreciates more moisture and humidity than most.
These plants can live for a very long time, which makes them great gifts for loved ones. Their unique-looking foliage is another reason they have become such popular houseplants.
Because these plants are known to survive for decades, caring for one will inevitably include having to repot it.
In this article, we will discuss when a Christmas cactus needs repotting, how often you should do it, the right container and soil to use when repotting it, and the correct process to follow.
So, if you are wondering whether your Christmas cactus does need to be repotted and you want to learn more, keep reading.
Why do you need to repot a Christmas cactus?
Typically, repotting is necessary when the plant has outgrown its current pot.
Yes, as a mature plant, the Christmas cactus is fine with being a little rootbound. A plant becomes rootbound when there is little to no space in the pot for new roots to grow into, so that even the soil is displaced and there is more root than soil left in the pot. The plant is so desperate for space that the roots may even start growing out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot.
A plant is considered slightly rootbound when the roots are only just starting to wrap themselves around the rootball. The problems arise when the plant becomes severely rootbound, which is when the roots have wrapped around the rootball so many times that they have all become one mass of roots.
You can tell that a plant is rootbound when its foliage is turning yellow and starting to droop. You will also notice that the plant’s soil dries out faster than normal. This is because there is very little soil left to actually retain any moisture, so the plant quickly becomes thirsty or dehydrated.
Because the new roots have nowhere to go and there is little soil to provide nutrients, the plant’s growth will slow drastically and may even become completely stunted.
Replacing the old pot with a new one that is a size larger can give the roots the space they need to grow into and become healthy and happy again.
Another reason your Christmas cactus needs repotting is if it has root rot. Root rot can develop when the roots at the very center of the root mass can no longer dry out and are consistently moist. Because they cannot dry out, they will drown and die, and these dead roots will start to rot and become susceptible to opportunistic pathogens. The pathogens will make the rot more aggressive and cause it to spread to the rest of the plant much faster. When you repot your plant, you can check the condition of its roots and remove the rotten parts, which could potentially save the plant’s life.
Repotting your Christmas cactus will also allow you to replace the soil in the pot. Over time, the nutrients in the soil will become depleted because your plant is using them up, or because they get flushed out little by little every time you water the plant. Replacing the plant’s soil while repotting it will replenish all the plant’s much-needed nutrients and minerals.
When and how often does a Christmas cactus need repotting?
Unlike most plants that prefer to be repotted in the spring or summer, the Christmas cactus prefers to be repotted right after it has stopped blooming. The timing of this will depend on your individual plant, since not all Christmas cacti bloom at the same time. Some stop blooming in January, while others can stop blooming as late as March. No matter the date the plant stops blooming, what is most important is only to repot it after it has done so.
When it comes to how often the plant should be repotted, typically a mature Christmas cactus needs repotting every four years. If you do not want to risk making your plant severely rootbound, you can repot it earlier than four years.
Just remember that you should also not repot it too often, because this can have negative effects, too. Christmas cacti will grow slower than normal if their pot is replaced more often than necessary. Repotting or transplanting is a traumatic and stressful process for any plant, so you need to find the perfect balance for your plant.
As we mentioned, this plant does not mind being slightly rootbound, and will often bloom more in this situation.
Mature plants may like to be repotted every four years, but when the plant is still young and is growing at a more rapid pace, it will need repotting roughly once a year. Do not worry, because this is something you will only have to do until the plant is established and fully grown.
What is the right kind of container for a Christmas cactus?
The most important factor when choosing a new pot for your Christmas cactus is the size. Choose a pot that is one size larger than the old pot, meaning the pot’s diameter is two inches bigger than the old one. It may seem logical and time-saving to simply buy a pot that is five sizes bigger, but this will only have negative effects on the plant. This is because a larger pot will have to be filled in with a lot more soil. More soil in the pot means more water will be retained, which means a greater risk of overwatering the plant and causing root rot.
The material of the pot should also be considered. Refrain from using plastic or steel pots, because these materials are too dense and will not allow the passage of air and water as easily as a pot made of clay. Remember that these plants like their roots to dry out a bit between waterings, and a clay pot can cater to that need. The pot also has to have drainage holes at the bottom because this is where the excess water will flow out if you inadvertently give the plant more water than it needs.
What is the right kind of soil for the Christmas cactus?
The best potting medium for a Christmas cactus is one that is loose and well-draining. The worst kind of potting medium is one that is dense, compact and poorly-draining.
These plants grow under other shrubs and even trees in their natural habitat. They can even grow on rocks, which means they prefer a potting medium that is loose and airy.
In the wild, these plants would utilize nutrients from leaves and other organic matter that fall around them. Thus, a peat-based potting medium is a great choice. Add two parts of that with one part coarse sand or perlite, and that should do just fine. If you do not have a peat-based medium, you can also add coarse sand to regular potting soil.
Another combination you could try is one part regular potting soil, one part cactus or succulent mix, and one part coco coir.
How to repot a Christmas cactus
Repotting a Christmas cactus is quite straightforward, but you will need to be extra gentle and careful when handling one that is rootbound, because the roots will be particularly fragile and prone to damage with any small movement.
Repotting starts with the removal of the plant from its old pot. Lay the pot on one side and slide the plant out by gently pulling on it. If the plant is rootbound, it may stick to the sides of the pot and not slide out so easily. In this case, run an old knife or spatula around the inside of the pot to loosen the soil and roots. If the plant still will not budge from the pot, you may have to break the pot.
Once the plant is out of its pot, remove as much as possible of the old soil from the roots by massaging the root mass gently. You can also wash the soil off with water if it has become too dry and compacted. Expose as much of the roots as possible because you will need to inspect them. If you see any roots that are brown or black and feel soft and mushy, these are rotten. Use a sterilized knife or pair of scissors to remove all the damaged roots, because they may be harboring pathogens that will infect the new soil.
Prepare the new pot by filling it a third of the way with your fresh potting medium. Place the plant’s rootball on top of the soil and start filling around the roots with more soil. Do this until the soil sits just an inch below the rim of the pot. Pat the soil, but do not pack it down – just enough to remove any air pockets. You can also do this by shaking the pot gently.
Water the plant moderately for two weeks so that the roots can recover well and to give it as much moisture as it needs. As usual, do not give the plant more water than it needs because this can lead to overwatering and root rot. You can revert to your usual watering schedule after three weeks.
Place the plant in a spot where it can get some indirect light. Remember that this plant is native to the jungles of Brazil, so it is used to getting lots of shade under the tree canopy. These lighting conditions will also help the plant acclimatize to the new soil and the new pot. You could place it under the shade of a large tree or on a patio where it is under the shade for most of the day.
After repotting the Christmas cactus
After a few weeks, the plant should be fully recovered and you can go back to caring for it like normal.
Knowing how to properly water your plant is the best way to avoid over- or underwatering. You will know it is time to water it by touching the soil in the pot. If the top two inches of soil are dry to the touch, you can water the plant, but if the soil is still a bit damp, wait one or two days before checking it again.
This plant loves moisture more than most cacti and other succulents, so it will appreciate being misted with water every once in a while.
Do not place the plant under direct sunlight, because this can cause sun damage. The best kind of light for the plant is bright, indirect light.
Keep the plant in a spot where the temperature is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. If the humidity in your home is low, you can help the plant out by placing it next to other plants that also love humidity so that they can create a microclimate around one another. You can also use a humidifier to automatically regulate the humidity around your plant without you having to worry about it.
This plant does not really need to be fertilized, but if you want to help it out, you can give it a water-soluble formula during the spring and summer.
The Christmas cactus is one of the most unique houseplants because of the shape of its leaves and its affinity for humidity and moisture, which is unusual for succulents.
The plant can live for a very long time, so you will have to repot it several times over its lifetime.
You should do this when it has outgrown its old pot or when it has root rot.
The plant is typically repotted once a year when it is still young, but once it has matured, it will only need repotting once every four years.
Repot the plant when it has finished blooming. This can be anytime between January and March. Do not repot while it is in bloom, because this will affect its blooming capabilities.
Repotting starts with removing the plant from its old pot. Rinse the old soil from the roots so you can inspect them closely and remove any damaged roots using a sterilized knife or scissors. Place new soil in the new pot, which should be only one size larger than the old one, and position the plant in it. Cover the roots with the new soil and water the plant.
You can now care for the plant as you would normally.
Image: istockphoto.com / AllaR15