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Growing Cacti and Succulents

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In these pages, I will discuss my experience of growing cacti and succulents in dusty, tropical Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I don't have any experience growing them in a temperate region, so if you are going to ask me about winter growing and stuff like that, all I can offer is second-hand information (and I might get it wrong ). I also talk about other things elsewhere:

Also, I don't have any experience growing species requiring special needs, such as Lithops. I've tried, but I've killed a couple of pots of them . Until I am successful, I won't go speculating about what to do.

The basic rule of the game is - if you want a nice healthy plant, then you will have to care for it. The notion of desert plants thriving on neglect is an urban myth. Well, they might survive, but they'll look awful. If you don't want to care for a plant, then you'd better buy a plastic one.

Where to put your plants

Although cacti and succulents are commonly associated with deserts, many are tropical or subtropical plants. Practically all can be adapted for growing in a tropical region. The ones which are more sensitive to water, you can put under a shelter. Others can be left outdoors. Still, most people prefer a sheltered area where water and light can be better controlled.

Understanding the environment

Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, with a population of over 1 million people. It's hot and humid and dusty. The secret to growing cacti and succulents in a place like this is to keep them clean. I hose them with water every week. Any less often and mites will strike (see the picture at left). Since the climate is hot, pots dry up and dust gathers quickly. Washing dust away regularly will keep mite damage under control.

Light is not usually a problem in Malaysia if you are growing them outdoors. If you are growing your plants indoors, check if they etiolate , i.e. grow thin and spindly. If that is so, move them to a brighter spot immediately.

The Climate in Malaysia

For general information on Malaysia, see Malaysia's Home Page. You can find some general information on climate, flora and fauna, etc. there. Climate information can be found at the Climatological Services page at the Malaysian Meteorological Service web site. This page includes an informative summary on Malaysia's climate, rainfall maps, a monthly weather bulletin and even some interesting facts about climate in Malaysia.

Using less pesticides and fungicides

I believe that if you keep your plants clean, a lot less pesticides and fungicides will be needed. I am not a believer in perfect plants, nor am I aiming to grow plants for a show, so your own position on this may totally contradict what I do.

Of course, I still use some pesticides and fungicides, but as little as possible. I isolate any infestations. Any visible bugs are either brushed off or sprayed with a stiff jet of water. It's easier to do this with aquacultured plants, since there is no soil to splatter all over. Sometimes I use a phyrethrin-based insecticide. I use the H2O brand (available in Malaysia), a water-based type which will not burn plants unless a thick coat is sprayed.

Plants not regularly cared for will invite disease and pests, especially in a tropical environment. Prevention is much better than cure, of course. Some pests and diseases are extremely troublesome once they have gained a foothold in your collection. In these situations, use whatever you have to. Destroy infected plants if you need to do so.

Fungi and rot is a common secondary effect of a bug attack. Always remember that.

Potting medium and watering

I use a single type of soil for potting, and plastic pots. The soil I use comes in bags and it is supposed to be for bonsai. Nursery people call it Japanese soil (Tanah Jepun - Malay), a reference to its use for bonsai. Right now (June 2002), a bag cost RM3.00.

I like that type of soil as the quality is consistent, and it drains very readily. Don't allow soil to cake up and get water-logged. A plants which has not been repotted in a long time is also likely to harbour pests, in particular root mealy bugs, which can be devastating. I'm told that one successful collector in Melaka repots his plants every 3 months. Another in Indonesia grows his in pure sand.

With a well-drained soil mix, I never worry about rot due to watering. The hot weather and the porous mix ensures that roots never suffocate. Any rot from the roots or the base of the plant in my case can be traced to bug damage, usually mealy bugs. So I hose my plants thoroughly with a fine spray using an adaptor. Just hose them like your other house plants.

If you are dealing with seedlings, please see my other pages on seedlings. More care and attention is needed for them.


The experts of horticultural mass production (Holland) like to use slow-release pellets (shown at left). These are the brown spheres you see in the imported pots you buy. Horti sells such a fertilizer in Malaysia. I do use them sometimes, but I prefer watering with a dilute mix.

I don't have any recommendations, except that if you think you can use fertilizers to make them flower, you are wrong. Here there is no winter rest period. I've noticed that most of the plants which flower do so when they are mature.

I like to use a mild solution of seaweed, since it don't seem to add to any salt depositions. If you use inorganics, you are likely to get a lot of salts depositing on the inner walls of the pots. This is due to the evaporation. I have to scrape the depositions off sometimes.

To reduce salt deposition, always water until water runs out from the bottom of the pot. It's like rinsing the soil of excess salts (leaching). Too much salt building up in the pot can cause problems.

If there is too much vegetative growth, switch to a fertilizer with less nitrogen. If you are using inorganics, try to use one with trace elements. Pure NPK fertilizers is like fast food, a lot of empty calories.


I hope you will not be disheartened if things did not work out well initially. I've killed lots and lots of them in my years of growing cacti and succulents. Eventually, you will get a handle on things, and end up with something which you can handle and which plants respond to.

It's easy to catch cactus and succulent fever, buy a bunch of plants, and end up killing most of them or giving them away. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but it's real easy to get carried away, ending up with too much to care for (always happens to people who buy seeds -- the more the merrier ).

A Final Note

If you've been to this site before, you may have noticed that my views have changed somewhat. For example, last time I thought it's bad to spray water on the plants themselves. Now I know I have to, otherwise they become dusty and spider mite will cause scars. This new page reflects my current practice and philosophy. By all means, spray at them!

Different books will give you different answers, too. Eventually you will have to find something that works well enough for your microclimate.

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  Last modified: 2002-08-26  Copyright © 1997-2002.  Kein-Hong Man.  all rights reserved