Friday, December 25, 2020

How to grow cacti, cactus, cactuses, and succulents from seed


Glottiphyllum depressum, just one of the many succulents growing from seed in my greenhouse

I've been growing succulent plants for about 25 years, but this year I decided to focus on growing them from seed. In this way I could quickly build a collection of rare succulents at low cost, and have spare plents to sell and swap with other growers. I'd grown from seed a few trimes before with mixed success.  One of the first things I noticed was a lack of information online about how to grow succulents from seed.  This page is meant to rectify that by collecting information in one place.  

This page will be updated periodically, so come back later for updates.

One of the first places I found for seed growing info was Mesa Gardens germination tips.

After trying Mesa Garden's mix for my first year I had mixed results.  The germination rates were excellent but then plants seemed to languish.  Part of my problem was that I had to substitute some ingredients in the mix, but mostly my previsou experience with vermiculite was that it holds too much water for succulents.  The ample water holding capacity of vermiculite was good for getting seeds to germinate, but detrimental to keeping the young seedlings alive during those ciritcal first few years.  In fact the plants often died soon after germinating, or were stunted. 

Another resource was Windowsill Cactus.  This page covers earlier efforts to grow succulents, before the development

I was wondering if you sell your Metamorphosisenips seeds starting mix.  I don't see it for sale on the site.  Otherwise, can you share the recipe?

San Diego, CA.

Thank you for asking, and I would be happy to share the method for Metamorphosisenips. Kind of a pretentious name for something simple, but here is a short explication on why I arrived at a recipe for some seed starter like this. As a recipe it may be difficult to match exact ingredients, and it's more the method of organic cooking than the exact ingredients that matter.

About fifteen years ago I experimented with different kinds of rock and organic materials to germinate cactus seeds, and discovered the results were inconclusive for discovering a best seed germination material. The reasons for inconclusive results seemed more important to me than the results of individual rock types. Half a dozen different kinds of insects and fungi growth across all kinds of germination materials destroyed a lot of cactus seedlings. I thought it would be more important to find a material which didn't attract the attention of soil flies and/or allow for surface molds to grow. To have a seed starting material that would not interest egg laying soil flies and didn't provide foods for molds became a new goal.

Different kinds of rock and organic material will be available depending on where you live, but these are the kinds of ingredients I'm using now; high carbon organic material, sand clean enough for brick layers to use, material with quartzite, material with a high iron content, and something with mica. You will need some molasses which I will explain later.

For high carbon organic material the easiest example is peat moss, but it is easy enough to get materials which are more renewable like dry tree leaves and coffee grounds.

The materials I have available in Southern Wisconsin which are available at landscaping supply places are brick layer sand, quartzite, and decomposed granite. What ever rock materials you decide to start with make sure they have either a neutral or a slightly acidic PH value. You would need to choose rock and sand types from what is available in your area.

For the first year get four large buckets of what ever high carbon organic material your going to use and let them fill with rain water. Keep them filled with water when it's not raining and let the materials decompose under water in the buckets outdoors in the sun.

After the organic mater has had a year to decompose put it in a wheelbarrow or some kind of large outdoor container to hold the ingredients. Then add an equal amount of rock and sand types you are going to use along with about 16 oz of molasses. Cover the ingredients with water and mix in the wheelbarrow. I like having the container with this heavy mixture on wheels for the convince of moving it if needed.

Leave this mixture of ingredients in the sun and rain for a year and stir with a shovel a few times a month to keep the microbes working on all the materials. Always keep the mixture covered with a few inches of water until the following year when the water can be allowed to evaporate. After that it should be ready to use.

One more consideration is that while having some standing water in a wheelbarrow for a year it may become a breeding ground for mosquitos. It is a good idea to have some Mosquito Beater or some other means of destroying the larva to avoid increasing the mosquito problem in the neighborhood.

Tthe purpose is to organically cook the materials before planting any seeds in them. This way the seed starter medium will be less able to grow molds or attract soil flies giving the cactus seedlings a better chance to grow without these debilitating problems.

Happy growing,



Thanks for the info. It sounds very time consuming with buckets of soil sitting around for years, and I don't see myself using that method. I've been growing for 25 years and have grown some seeds in the past. However this is my first year concentrating on growing succulents from seed. I'm using the recipe from Mesa Gardens but have found it has vermiculite, which holds a lot of water, which is good for germinating seeds but not for keeping them alive for the first few years. Lately I've tried my own mix with just a 1/4" layer of Mesa Garden mix sieved on top. My mix is pumice:coconut coir:decomposed granite in a 2:1:1 ratio. The wet layer of MG mix on top helps seeds germinate but once they put down their roots they go into the pumice mix which is more ideal for long term growth.




I learned a lot from the Mesa Garden website, and you method sounds very good. I have had some difficulties with coconut products, which have mostly been lower germination rates than using peat moss or decomposed tree leaves.

The "Wonder Soil" product is mostly coconut bark and makes a fairly good germination medium. I purchase it from "Grower's Supply", a company in Iowa, and use it as an addition to soil mixes for my adult cacti. I no longer try to use it for germination with cacti, but I still use it in small amounts after they are no longer seedlings.

I think in dry climate areas like the south west it should be easy to grow cactus seeds in almost anything. I grew up in Colorado and everything dried out so much faster there than it does in Wisconsin. I think in Southern California there would be low risk of cactus seedlings having difficulties with mold or moisture loving insects.

I've been thinking a lot about changing my website to be more oriented for demonstrating how to propagate cacti and other succulents. I worry that so many changes are happening so fast that people propagating many species of plants will be key to their survival. If I could develop a website that helps other people understand ways of reproducing plants that would mean more to me than only selling plants and seeds. This will take some time to think about and develop.

I miss Steven Brack at Mesa Garden. He had a lot of knowledge and I use to send him emails to help understand growing cacti. The books for sale and the website information was very valuable too.

Happy Growing,


Good to know about coir vs peat.  I'll definitely try peat as a soil component next year based on your recommendation.  Certainly peat is a major component at the many large commercial succulent nurseries here in San Diego county. They seem to have figured out a good mix for the easier and more common plants. Their growing conditions probably also have a lot to do with their success, most of the nurseries are inland where it's hotter by day, cooler by night, and humidity always lower, and natural rainfall is optimal for many of them.

When I've grown from seed before I just used store-bought cactus mix with added perlite or scoria, and I had good success. Vermiculite is the only ingredient I don't like and have never had great success with it, which is why I don't like Mesa Gardens seed raising mix. Seeds come up with high germination rates in it, but then falter due to soggy soil caused by the vermiculite.  That's why I started layering only the top with the vermiculite mix.  

Over the years I've done like you and moved towards mostly mineral components. California is very mountainous and has volcanic areas, so materials like pumice, perlite, decomposed granite, and black and red scoria are readily available here. 

Like you say, an online resource of how to grow succulent seeds would be a good thing.  I found very limited resources online, and that's why I went with Mesa Garden's mix. I only recently discovered your website, which has a lot of helpful info.



Prior to 2018 this reflects our previous recommendations for starting cactus seeds which were posted on this website before we developed Metamorphosisenips Growing Medium, and seed starting kits we currently offer for sale.

The information on this web page is on this website as an archive obsolete to our current cactus seed starting method. This information remains in case it may be helpful for anyone interested in growing cactus plants from seed.


Photo, Escobaria missouriensis

Most cacti seeds can be grown indoors under artificial lights for at least the first few years, but they will grow more with some direct sunlight. There are problems like mold and insects that can completely wipe out new seedlings, and these kinds of problems need to be avoided. Results will vary according to a wide range of conditions like temperature, light, the kind of water and growing mediums, so success in growing cactus plants from seed may take some trial and error methods. The fastest and healthiest seedlings will be the ones that can be grown outdoors in sun light, but there are still many problems to avoid whether seedlings are grown indoors or outside. The following is a simple and effective method for growing cactus seeds indoors.

Shopping list:

Cactus Seeds; most likely web sources where cactus seeds may be purchased.

Distilled water; tap water will be more likely to encourage bad molds, usually a grocery store purchase.

Plastic seed starting trays or plastic flower pots; found on the web or at greenhouses.

Wonder Soil; the Expanding Pro Planting Mix version is the easiest to work with, found on the web or at greenhouses.

Aragamax versions and/or Aragonite versions of Crushed Coral by CaribSea; these are salt water aquarium pet supplies easily found on the web or at local pet stores.

Plant Growing Lights; or well sun lit window, found on the web or at greenhouses.

Heating pad; unless the soil temperature can heat up to over 80 degrees without a heating device, found on the web or at greenhouses.

Mosquito Beater by Bonide; is an optional consideration for preventing soil flies, found on the web or at greenhouses.   

General Guidelines:


Photo, Esobaria vivipara seeds

The following are general guidelines for growing cactus seeds into young seedlings:

To get ready to plant seeds saturate the Wonder Soil with distilled water to maximum amount of water the Wonder Soil will absorb in an hour. Avoid letting the Wonder Soil sit in water longer than the time it takes for it to become completely soggy. If the Wonder Soil remains in standing water for a few days the microbial chorology will change; so that cactus seedlings will die, and continue to die for over a week even when new healthy seedlings are introduced to the changed medium. The key to growing cactus seedlings in Wonder Soil is to alternate the growing medium between completely wet to completely dry again and again.

Next place the saturated Wonder Soil in the plastic growing tray or flower pot and gently press it down to conform to the container. You may want to label the pot with some sort of permanent marking pen or add an identifying tag of some kind to label the cactus species. Next the seeds can be planted.

Our recommendation is to leave the seeds sitting on the surface of the Wonder Soil, unless working with large seeds like Opuntia. To plant the cactus seeds gently scatter them on top of the very wet Wonder Soil.

Next scatter a thin layer of Aragamax versions and/or Aragonite versions of Crushed Coral by CaribSea. The finer versions of Aragamax work better for small seeds, but seedlings will grow their way through the larger versions of Crushed Coral too. This material will prevent damping off and will help increase the number of seedlings which survive into becoming juvenal plants. It is normal to expect a few seedlings to die off, but, fungal infections starting in one seedling can turn out to kill off all the seedlings in the container. These products can radically reduce the risk of fungal infections with small amounts of coral scattered on the surface with the seeds or seedlings. The sea coral products seem to be less effective mixed in with soil and more effective on the soil surface.

Now the planted seeds are ready to be places under lights on top of a heating pad, or on a warm sunny windowsill. If lights and heating pads are being used it is helpful to have this equipment on timers. The heating pad should run about 10 hours a day and the lights between 14 to 16 hours a day.   

Moisture Cycles:


Photo, Crushed Coral

The following are general guidelines for cycling between wet and dry conditions:

Watering procedures are important to understand to stimulate germination and maintain growing seedlings. In the beginning keep the medium as wet as possible for at least 2 weeks and then slowly allow the Wonder Soil to dry out almost completely at the end of 6 weeks. Seed need a lot of water to germinate, and spraying the surface daily with distilled water provides the most control for keeping the seeds super wet and gradually drying them out over time. Some, all or even none of the seedlings may germinate in the first 6 weeks, but in every case it's always likely more seeds will germinate later. Sometimes more seeds will germinate along growing seedlings 1 or 2 years later.

After the initial very wet first 6 weeks it becomes important to cycle the seedlings or latent seeds through very wet to very dry conditions over a 2 week cycling periods. Soak the Wonder Soil with distilled water until it's completely wet, but not left in standing water over night. Over the 2 week cycle top spray the seedlings with just enough distilled water so that the container ends up dried out at the end of 2 weeks. Another option is to soak the Wonder Soil and simply wait for it to completely dry out before soaking it again if you have reservations about daily top spraying the seedlings. Cycling between wet and dry conditions gives cactus seedlings the right conditions to grow and remain healthy. This method also provides disadvantages for harmful molds and soil flies to kill the seedlings, and it somewhat imitates the conditions cactus seedlings would have in habitat.

We strongly recommend that cactus seeds planted in Wonder Soil not be covered with plastic seed starting tray covers or flower pots placed inside vented plastic bags. The Wonder Soil keeps enough water to provide the right germination conditions without covering as long as you keep wetting to soil fully for the first 2 weeks. If a cover is going to be used because you have too many reservations about not using one, then keep in mind that the larger the space is inside of the cover the less likely harmful molds will grow. Find the highest seed starting tray cover, or the largest plastic bag that will fit under the lights for best covered seed starting results.   

Optional Prevention:


Photo, Cactus Seedlings

The option of using Mosquito Beater by Bonide:

The advantage of including this product is to reduce the risk of fungus gnats, shore flies and other small flies from using the cactus seedlings to raise a litter of young maggots. If you live within a few miles of a body of water like a rivers and lakes, or if you have broad leaf house plants it is likely that some sort of small fly species may lay eggs on the cactus seedlings. Some larva feed on cactus seedlings by living inside and hollowing them out, and others live on the outside of the seedling to feed on them by sucking fluids out through the skin. Either way the seedlings will die because these maggots cause fungal infestations and are a common reason for cactus seedlings to damp off. If you are going to germinate; Glandulicactus, Pediocactus or Sclerocactus this product is almost an absolute must have item, because these seedling species are especially vulnerable to fly larva infestations. Most species of cacti will outgrow their vulnerability to fly maggots in a few months but these previously mentioned species will remain vulnerable for the first three years of life.

Apply this product by scattering some granules on the surface of the Wonder Soil along with the Sea Coral product of choice. It is important to not cover the planted seeds with a clear plastic germination top or plastic bag, because the Mosquito Beater granules will begin to mold if the humidity is too high. If the granules do mold the seedlings should still germinate and remain unaffected by the molding granules, but it does indicate that the growing environment is being over stressed by too much humidity. For most species of cactus seedlings a few applications every eight weeks will get them through their vulnerable stages, but for Glandulicactus, Pediocactus or Sclerocactus this product is worth reapplying every few months of a few years.

If this product is not used and seedlings become infested it may be worth sprinkling some Mosquito Beater granules on the soil surface to see if any of the seedlings can be saved from the maggots. Another option; if the seedlings are being covered to help force germination, then apply the Mosquito Beater granules after the covers are removed to avoid having the granules produce mold. I must express my opinion that; the best option is to start cactus seeds, with Aragamax Crushed Coral granules, along with Mosquito Beater granules and scattered on top of very wet Wonder Soil in a plastic seed starting tray. Then, do not cover this with anything, but keep the medium saturated with distilled water for the first few weeks. Preventing fly larva infestations with Mosquito Beater can save a lot of disappointment while starting cactus plants from seeds. The need to include this product will depend on the risk of fungus gnats, so it is recommended here as an optional product.   

Fly Maggots


Photo, Mosquito Beater and Seedlings

The greatest cause of cactus seedling mortality in a more humid four seasons climate will likely be due to soil flies or shore flies,a and these small insects are often also called fungus gnats or Sciara flies. These are species of small flies who are attracted to decomposing organic matter and whose larvae often feed on the roots of plants. Here in Wisconsin I've observed 4 distinct species of flies in their larvae stage feeding on cactus seedlings, but unfortunately I lack enough knowledge to identify them by their scientific names.

There is a greenish bodied kind with a darker head that feeds inside of the seedlings until they are hollow. This species only seems to be interested in very young seedlings and the damage they do is very easy to notice. They are present in the summer months both indoors and outdoors, and only seem to be active in the warm weather. Other species which thrive on house plants may be present all year long and can attack cactus seedlings even in winter.

A species of fly which makes a very small translucent maggot feeds mostly on the roots of cactus seedlings and are very hard to detect. They do a lot of damage and can go completely unnoticed until nearly all of the seedlings in a pot are dead. The seedlings turn dark , shrink and if they are already developing spines it is even more difficult to see that they are dying. After the maggots have done their damage they leave behind shrunken empty rootless spine covered dark shells, which use to be cactus seedlings.

Another kind of maggot, which may actually be a kind of shore fly is larger than the others and yellow like a very small banana slug. This one stays under the soil and feeds on the base of the plants, but it is very hard to find, and causes the seedlings to rot from the roots up. The stem part of the plant looks healthy while the roots are shriveling away and then the remaining stem rots and usually turns to a fluffy ball of mold.

The most interesting and unusual fly maggot I've found feeding on cacti seedlings is a very small white maggot. They look like a small crescent shaped bit of sand, perlite or perhaps a small fleck of limestone. I found them feeding at the eh base of cactus seedling stems, but sucking the plants from the outside rather than digging into the seedlings. Occasionally I could find these maggots attached higher up on the stems, and if I disturbed them they would fall to the base of the plants. There they would either hide under the soil or play dead next to the seedlings. In almost all cases cactus seedlings that had these maggots feeding on them would die from a fungal infection within 3 months of the attacks.   

Seeds can be purchased using the list on our home page.

This page has individual pages for different typesof plants and is the most detailed.  

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