Grow­ing num­ber of gar­den­ers choos­ing cacti and suc­cu­lents

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - COLLEEN ZACHARIAS


THERE’S a cer­tain rit­ual that takes place among gar­den­ers each year when May comes around. It starts with the race to green­houses to se­lect new an­nual in­tro­duc­tions and favourite va­ri­eties be­fore they dis­ap­pear from shelves. Spring’s fluc­tu­at­ing tem­per­a­tures can test an an­nual’s sur­vival. Once sum­mer’s bak­ing heat and drought takes hold, the next rit­ual be­gins: wa­ter­ing daily, some­times twice-daily, to en­sure an­nu­als’ short-term sur­vival. By sea­son’s end when we pull them out of the ground, the whole en­deav­our can rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment. For some gar­den­ers this an­nual rit­ual isn’t a habit they plan to quit, although an in­creas­ing num­ber of gar­den­ers and home­own­ers are dis­cov­er­ing the joy and ease of grow­ing suc­cu­lents and cacti. This grow­ing trend has as much to do with a de­sire for min­i­mal in­put and a more con­tem­po­rary state­ment as it does with a fas­ci­na­tion for the odd­ball shapes and tex­tures that suc­cu­lents of­fer to both the out­door and in­door land­scape. While non-hardy va­ri­eties will also need pro­tec­tion from low spring tem­per­a­tures, suc­cu­lents and cacti re­quire min­i­mal wa­ter­ing when warmer tem­per­a­tures ar­rive. In re­sponse to the in­creased de­mand for th­ese sun­wor­ship­ping plants, green­house op­er­a­tions both large and small are ex­pand­ing their dis­plays to in­clude more and more ex­otic va­ri­eties. Krys­tee Van Den Bosch of the Shelmer­dine Gar­den Cen­tre says the love af­fair with suc­cu­lents is now also em­brac­ing cacti, in­clud­ing older plants with im­pos­ing size such as Cereus pe­ru­vianus, a sculp­tural cac­tus with branch­ing arms. One im­pres­sive, prickly 10-year old spec­i­men at Shelmer­dine re­tails for ap­prox­i­mately $275 and ap­peals to cus­tomers, says Van Den Bosch, be­cause its life­span is 25 years or more. In ad­di­tion to their longevity, low wa­ter needs and even a for­giv­ing na­ture dur­ing pe­ri­ods of owner ne­glect, va­ri­eties with tac­tile, vis­ual tex­tures ex­ude char­ac­ter such as the for­mi­da­ble bar­rel cac­tus with heavy spines, Eve’s needle­crest with un­du­lat­ing green fans and the fiery sticks of pen­cil cac­tus. Their abil­ity to move eas­ily from the out­doors in the sum­mer­time to the in­doors for the win­ter months makes th­ese plants even more at­trac­tive. Of course, you can start out very small, too. The Opun­tia mi­cro­dasys cac­tus also known as Bunny Ears or Polka-Dot cac­tus can be pur­chased as small as 15 to 20 cm and grows slowly. Agave, clas­si­fied as a suc­cu­lent, has an undis­puted ar­chi­tec­tural el­e­gance and is find­ing its way into more gar­den con­tain­ers.

Take for ex­am­ple the beau­ti­ful sym­me­try of the rosettes of Blue Glow agave, which has blue-green leaves with crim­son red mar­gins edged in yel­low, each with tiny soft spines. The tips of the dis­tinc­tively ta­pered out­ward-fac­ing leaves bear pointy spines that could draw blood if you aren’t care­ful. Agave is beau­ti­ful planted alone in a low-pro­file bowl or tall, con­tem­po­rary con­crete planter or com­bines well with a mix that in­cludes, for ex­am­ple, frilly echev­e­ria, burro’s tail, sem­per­vivum (hens and chicks), or pow­dery blue chalk­sticks. Jo­hannes Ol­wages, con­ser­va­tory hor­ti­cul­tur­ist at the In­ter­na­tional Peace Gar­den, says peo­ple of­ten have a per­sonal con­nec­tion with suc­cu­lents and cacti and see them al­most as ob­jects they can ar­range into in­ter­est­ing sce­nar­ios. “Suc­cu­lents and cacti are so struc­turally sound with an aura of per­ma­nence,” Ol­wages says. “They re­tain their size and fea­tures for a very long time as op­posed to leafy plants that grow rapidly and go through var­i­ous phases. You can cre­ate some­thing like a sculp­ture and have it re­main in­tact for quite some time.” Ol­wages says cac­tophil­i­acs come from far and wide to visit the col­lec­tion since the con­ser­va­tory was com­pleted in March 2014 when an ex­tra 650 square me­tres of dis­play area was added to the ex­ist­ing 278 square me­tres. Many vis­i­tors have pri­vate col­lec­tions at home and much of their pas­sion has to do with the rel­a­tively low main­te­nance and re­silience of cac­tus. Young chil­dren are tempted to squeeze the fleshy leaves of suc­cu­lents and shud­der with ex­cite­ment at the sight of full-size thorny spec­i­mens. How should a prickly or spiny cac­tus be re­pot­ted into an­other con­tainer when you first bring it home from the gar­den cen­tre? Van Den Bosch rec­om­mends wear­ing punc­ture-re­sis­tant gloves, the type you might use with roses. She sug­gests slic­ing the pot down one side with a util­ity knife while us­ing for­ceps to hold the cac­tus, then shak­ing off the pot to re­move the plant. Since most cacti pre­fer their roots some­what pot-bound, Van Den Bosch says it is im­por­tant to repot them into con­tain­ers that are only one size or 2.5 cm larger in di­am­e­ter. Ol­wages im­me­di­ately works the nurs­ery soil off newly pur­chased plants as some­times nurs­ery soil is in­tended more for the short-term needs of the plant. He mixes his own medium which con­sists of a well-drain­ing pot­ting mix con­tain­ing peat moss, aged pine bark and per­lite, adding ap­prox­i­mately 30 per cent of a baked clay prod­uct called light­weight, which is in­ert and por­ous so it pro­vides lots of air space and lit­tle crevices where roots can find mois­ture. Ol­wages says the roots of cacti like to look for wa­ter, not sit in it. An­other op­tion is to pur­chase a store-bought peat-based mix such as Pro-Mix Cac­tus Mix, which is spe­cially for­mu­lated to pro­vide good poros­ity and fast wa­ter-drain­ing qual­i­ties. Ol­wages says it is help­ful to use the same medium for all of your drylov­ing plants. “If all your plants dry out at dif­fer­ent rates,” says Ol­wages, “it’s eas­ier to un­der- or over-wa­ter them even if they are all cacti and all in the same size con­tainer.” How of­ten should you wa­ter? Ol­wages sug­gests a regular wa­ter­ing sched­ule of about once ev­ery seven to 10 days. When ac­tive growth slows in fall and win­ter and the plant is brought in­doors, a light splash of wa­ter about once a month dur­ing dor­mancy will pre­vent all the roots from dy­ing back. Ol­wages says if left com­pletely dry,


This adorable Bunny Ears cac­tus (Opun­tia mi­cro­dasys) a.k.a. Polka-dot cac­tus is cute enough to hug but don’t try. With sharp prick­les, it’s not as friendly as it looks. Avail­able in small hand held sizes, this slow grow­ing cac­tus needs only min­i­mal wa­ter­ing dur­ing its dor­mant pe­riod in the win­ter.


Suc­cu­lent cut­tings have been used in this spher­i­cal ar­range­ment by Anita Trudel, Prairie Suc­cu­lents. Easy to prop­a­gate by tak­ing cut­tings and al­low­ing the ends of fleshy leaves to cal­lus be­fore root­ing into moist­ened soil, suc­cu­lent lovers can grow their col­lec­tions.

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