Cactus: They're Tough Plants, But They Need Care.
A handful of common cultivated cactusClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Cactus Arrangement is a Joy
Cactus: They’re Tough, But They Need Care.
Cactus thrive best where they’re not really needed. Rather like borrowing money, I suppose - easier to get when you’re already rich. What I mean by this is that they are sun loving creatures in the main and where you are surrounded by them, such as in parts of the southern USA and the Mexican desert areas, they will also do well in your garden with hardly any care.
In the chillier parts of North America, however and in the UK and northern Europe, cactus are best treated as greenhouse or indoor plants which can be put outside during the warm months while the temperature is around 70F (21C). This is a shame, because they lend themselves to being included in groupings with rocks and other succulents: not usually room for this on the windowsill, although this can be achieved using small plants and planters and at a modest level anywhere, especially as a feature in the middle of, or in a corner of, the conservatory.
The number one consideration when buying cactus for your house, is to make sure they are healthy. Remember that you will be trying to display them with a maximum of sun: the conservatory is ideal as are those sunny windowsills.
There are cactus and succulents which will thrive outside in cooler climes; others like warmth but also shade. It pays to visit a large commercial stockist or a botanical garden to see what cactus may be available and how they are situated. You will also see how that tiny little spiny ball you have in the plastic pot might look as an adult. You may gasp in wonder when you see a barrel cactus 8 feet around, or a saguaro 20-feet tall. How yours will grow will depend on the size of the pot and how happy they are. One sign that the plant you fancy is healthy is obvious signs of new growth and that it is in a clean, weed-free planter or pot. It will not be discolored but have a uniform, plump, well-shaped stem or stems. Make sure it is planted in the center of the container and is not leaning to one side or ‘tother.
Succulents show poor care more than cacti (incidentally, like the old saw: all cacti are succulents, but all succulents are not cacti!).
Most cactus have shallow root systems to take immediate advantage of infrequent water. They don’t need to be planted in deep pots. All pots, in or outside, need drainage holes. If you are going to grow various species in one container, make sure they have similar needs. Fill about one third of your shallow pot with compost. Grip the cactus with gloves or a stout paper collar to avoid getting a wound which will have you hurling the poor plant across the room and impaling the cat - which may never forgive you. A word about cactus spines. Many have a toxin which is why they hurt so much. They may also have barbs, like the cholla, which will stick in your skin ensuring a chunk of meat is removed from your body as the spine is pulled out. Others, are tiny hair-like spines which will get all over your skin; take an age to find and remove and feel like a nettle rash. A common treatment is to locate them with your tongue and try to pull them out with the teeth which ensures several lovingly attaching themselves to you palate. So take care from the outset.
Once the new arrival is sitting in the pot, on top of the cactus potting compost and with its roots carefully teased-out, you should have the root ball about 1 cm. below pot rim. Carefully add more compost to the level of the top of the roots and firm in place with fingers or a spoon. This is best covered with washed grit for effect and also to keep weeds out. Don’t water at this stage as the compost will be damp. Do water plant after about 3 days after it has settled in its new home and is beginning to look around expansively and glare at the puppy which just lifted its leg against it and seems to be anxious about its bits.
Your dealer will explain the two broad divisions of cacti and the succulent family: one prefers hot, dry conditions with full sunlight; the others, jungle plants which like shade and plenty of humidity. All need warmth, nutrients and watering regularly, but not too often in the case of the sun lovers. Regarding this: careful in unventilated greenhouse in full sunshine which may become to scorching for even desert cactus; apply shade cloths, etc., as needed. If you intend to become an aficionado of these plants, you will have to look into the optimum hours for varying plants in order for them to flower and fruit. Cactus are far from carefree, as you will have seen; you will be rewarded by healthy plants in gorgeous green shades, sending new shoots up regularly and displaying quite gorgeous flowers ever year. They might even love you so much by this time, they will pull their spines in as you approach!
A word of caution about watering. Over-watering is the most common cause of sickness and loss in all succulents, but especially desert cactus as it rots the roots. Instead of dry, healthy, sweet smelling roots, you have a sticky, rotting mess filled with bacteria and smelling like a sewer. If you have a lot of plants, you will need to invest in a water-meter, or spend time sticking your finger in the compost. They need hardly any water in non-growth periods (winter, but check their winter is not your summer). My own advice is this. Never futz about with small amounts of water every couple of days. When they are watered, it should be liberally to remove build-up of fertilizer waste from the compost. For me, in warm summer weather, this should be a ten-day to two-week intervals, until the water runs from the pot, (remove from trays). Set your computer reminder to tell you when its time, or the one on the wall if you’re like me. Jungle species enjoy misting every few days and can take in some moisture through the leaves.
Your plants will require nutrients in the form of fertilizer, especially as the compose ages and shrinks. It’s a good idea to incorporate a granular or powder fertilizer into the compost at potting time. Apply a liquid fertilizer with the regular waterings, especially in growing season. You supplier will be happy to advise of the best type for your needs, but a good rule of thumb is the 15/15/30 rule: nitrogen/potassium/phosphorus and trace elements. Apply this at half strength (Also good for your ’marties).
You will need to prune and separate new growth as it arrives: when cactus have the growing urge they increase very fast. Plants will require repotting as their root mass increases. If they have insufficient room, they will stop growing. In the interim, carefully loosen the compost with a fork to allow air to circulate: probably, every three years is enough to repot. I do this by putting smash able pots in a large garden bag and whacking them with a hammer, cleaning the roots carefully and repotting: all the debris is then contained in the black bag. (Remove hammer before trashing!).
Well, that’s a bit of info from this cactus lover to go along with another hub on cactus somewhere on my site. If it all seems like too much trouble, move to Baja California.
Good luck! And may the only prick be that of the beloved!
Please also refer to: Growing Cactus and Succulents as Houseplants by Bob Ewing: also on hubpages.