"Cactuses are so interesting. Some have the most vibrant beautiful flowers, and then other cacti have very unattractive flowers.” Alan Sheppard has been growing cactuses for about 15 years. He finds all the types not only intriguing but also no trouble at all to grow.
Alan likes the no-care aspects of raising a cactus. He finds them, "basically maintenance free. All you have to do if you want them to be a little more vibrant is fertilize, maybe half as much as you would anything that's a green, softer plant."
When it comes to watering cactus, less is best. Alan uses a fast draining commercial potting mix in clay or plastic pots. He Gives them full sun and just a little water in the summertime. Cactus plants will rest during the hottest days of summer and during the cool days of winter. You should withhold water during the resting periods so that rot will not set in and kill the plants
"Once they get going in a pot, I don't do anything to them," Alan says. “I leave them alone because they'll just grow. That's the thing about a succulent or a cactus. After they get through their growing cycle in the summertime, I just pretty much forget about them."
Winter culture is even easier than the summer duties. Alan says, "As long as they get full sun you don't really have to do any watering, no pruning.” Alan's rule: "Just remember, if you think they're getting enough water, cut back because you're probably giving them too much."
Propagation is easy. The barrel types will grow little miniatures as side shoots. Alan just pops them off and pots them up. When he takes cuttings of Euphorbia Trigonas, the familiar-looking cactus with arms that isn’t a cactus at all, he cuts a piece off, lets it dry for about 2 weeks, and then sticks it in some soil and it grows.
His collection spends the summer outdoors; the big cacti on decks and the smaller ones on shelves. When the days shorten and the nights start getting cooler, it's time to think about moving them indoors. They need supplemental heat in the winter.
Dealing with the cactus spines can be a challenge. Alan says, "When I move these plants in the winter time, to get them to where they need to go, I generally will take a full plant and wrap it in several layers of newspaper, then I'll put on a heavy coat and thick gloves to pick them up and carry them sideways to where ever they have to go."
Alan has several types of barrel cacti including eagle claw (Echinocactus horizonthalonius) and spiny (probably in the Opuntia genus). One of his jade trees (Crassula ovata), a succulent, is over 25 years old.
Years ago, Alan was in a serious accident. One of the gifts sent to him was a dish garden with three little cacti in it. Those three little unnamed plants are now cactus trees and stand more than 5 feet tall.
One of his most spectacular bloomers is a crimson red Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum oxypetallum). It’s not a very large cactus and isn’t an orchid at all. The plant resembles a night-blooming cereus (Hylocereus undatus). It drapes over the sides of its pot. It sends out teardrop shaped stems as big around as a finger. Each one of those individual stalks will put out about two blooms.
A favorite plant of Alan’s is an African Milk Tree (Euphorbia trigona). It grows tall and is very easy to propagate. Because it is in the Euphorbia family, it bleeds a milky substance when cut. Its new growth in the spring gives it a holiday look of red on green.
Another favorite is a pot of tightly clustered mini-barrel cactuses. It's doing something interesting in all the seasons, according to Alan. “This thing is a continual bloomer, it blooms year round. It blooms in the winter, it blooms in the summer.” It has blooms or tiny little red seed heads that look like berries on it most of the year.
Cactus plants themselves probably aren't considered attractive by some, although many people are taken by the structure of the plant itself. Alan likes the contrast of a beautiful flower on "just a little nothing plant." As Alan says, “Nothing fabulous, but cactuses are fun."
Note: Cactus spines can be very painful, and especially so for children and pets. The sap from Euphorbias can cause skin irritation and even painful blistering on some people. The sap on some species, as well as the thorns, can hurt your child. Your dog or cat can also become very ill and require a quick trip to the veterinarian. Keep these interesting plants out of the reach of nosy little hands and paws.
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By Pamela Crawford, author, Easy Patio Veggies & Herbs
Photographs by Pamela Crawford
Pamela has written a great article about mixing herbs in containers. Herbs are natural companions with different textures for interest. The herb mix of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme offers lots of flavor from a small combination loaded with textural interest.
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