A cactus in front of other succulents

How to repot a cactus (without getting hurt in the process)

Posted by for Plants

Want to move your cactus to a new home, but worried about ending up with spines all over your hands? Check out this guide to repotting a cactus without getting hurt in the process.

As far as houseplants go, cacti are known for being relatively easy. Alongside succulents, you’ll regularly find cacti on lists of the best plants for beginners – and it’s not hard to see why. 

Not only are they able to withstand a little bit of neglect (after all, many types of cacti are able to grow in the desert), but they also look great in any space.

For the first year or two, then, owning a cactus requires minimal effort. But if you manage to keep one alive for longer than that, you might find yourself faced with a conundrum: how to repot your cacti without getting spiked in the hand. 

If you’ve ever accidentally touched a cactus, you’ll know how painful getting a spine stuck in your hand can be – especially when you’ve got a couple lodged in different spots. 

However, repotting a plant often requires grabbing the plant with one hand to get it out of its pot – so what’s the best way to do this for a plant that doesn’t like to be touched?

To give you the tools you need to get through a cactus repotting unscathed, we spoke to Jo Lambell, founder of the online plant shop Beards & Daisies and author of the new book The Unkillables. Keep reading to check out her top tips for repotting a cactus. 

How to know when it’s time to repot your cactus

First things first, you’ll need to make sure your cactus is actually ready to be repotted – and that you have the right pot necessary to help your cactus thrive.

“If you see roots emerging through the drainage holes of its pot, it has outgrown its container or it’s toppling over,” Lambell says. “Make sure you only consider repotting during spring and summer, too – it won’t like the upheaval in winter.”

She continues: “Choose a new pot that is around 3-5cm larger than your plant’s current home. Try not to go beyond two pot sizes bigger – anything larger than this can overwhelm the plant with soil and water it doesn’t need.” 

What do you need to repot a cactus?

Cacti on a windowsill
Cacti are particularly fond of terracotta pots.

The second step in any repotting process is getting the materials you need to move your plant into its new home – and repotting a cactus is no different.

“Cacti much prefer being kept in clay or terracotta pots as they’re porous, drain well and let the plant breathe more easily,” Lambell explains. “Always make sure there are drainage holes (either on its nursery pot or decorative pot).

“You can also prepare your cacti’s new home by placing a layer of stones or gravel at the bottom of the pot – you might be able to tell, drainage is key!”

She continues: “Next up, potting mix. You need to use a potting mix specifically catered to cacti – it’s easy enough to find, but your regular soil won’t do the job as it won’t provide sufficient drainage. Add in a layer of fresh potting mix on top of the stones.” 

How to repot a cactus without getting hurt

Here comes the scary part. Once you’ve checked your cactus is ready to be repotted and got all the materials you need, you’re ready to focus on the plant itself.

“If your cactus is very spiky, take great care when handling and moving it,” Lambell says. “Wrap it in an old towel and wear gardening gloves to protect your hands and the plant. Ease your plant out of its current pot by turning it upside down or at a slight angle. Rotate the plant to loosen it and eventually slide it out.

“If this doesn’t work, lightly tap the bottom of the pot to help the process along. Gently does it! Take a look at its roots for any signs of disease or decay and remove any dead roots you can see. Separate any entwined roots from each other.” 

What to do after you’ve repotted your cactus

Congratulations, you’ve survived! Now, you just need to make sure your cactus is all set up for the first week or so in its new home.

“Once you’ve popped your plant in its new pot and packed in some more potting mix to stabilise, you’re set! As tempting as it may be, don’t water your cacti for a week. It needs time to settle and dry out again, adding water at this point could very quickly kill your plant. When a week has passed, give it a drink as you usually would – remember, less is best!” 

New to plant parenthood? Check out Stylist’s guide to buying, styling and caring for plants to get started. 

You can find out more about the most common houseplant problems by checking out our range of plant care content, too.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.