Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
February, 2006
Regional Report

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Pulling weeds and picking leaves from around the jumping cholla takes a brave heart and an excellent pair of gloves.

Winter Cactus Care

I was never a fan of cactus and succulents until I went to work as a gardener at Sunset magazine. We had an extensive cactus garden that was bursting with many different varieties from all over the world. It was built on a mound to facilitate drainage, and a special soil mix was brought in during the installation, many years prior to my employment. Crushed brick, lava rock, sand, and what looked like turkey grit comprised the growing medium for these hardy and unusual plants.

I was surprised to find that the cactus garden needed weekly watering during the late-summer months, the normal rainy season in the southwestern United States. The rest of the year, the garden was pretty much on its own, with the exception of weeding. Ouch! Actually one of my fellow gardeners came up with the idea of using long barbecue tongs to reach the weeds growing between the prickly residents of the garden. With sharp, stiff spines over 2-1/2 inches long, weeding around the Jumping Cholla could be hazardous to your health!

Winter Rest
I keep a collection of small cactis and succulent plants indoors these days. My little garden downstairs also hosts several spectacular echeveria specimens that receive kudos from the neighbors. My indoor cacti receive no water at all between October and March. They get very withered and skinny looking, but this winter rest period is mandatory if I want to be rewarded with the exotic blooms that cactus are famous for.

I do all of the maintenance on the cacti during the dark days of winter. Repotting, pruning, and even grafting are my winter chores, done while the plants are sleeping. It must feel very pleasant to wake up in a new pot with fresh soil.

To avoid getting pricked, I use a collar of newspaper to support the body of the more prickly varieties while I am moving them between pots. Every once in a while, a sleeping cactus will take revenge, but mostly they are very mild mannered during the transplanting process.

I try to use a commercial cactus potting mix, which is slightly on the alkaline side of the pH scale. If I don't have any on hand, I will make up a batch of potting medium from whatever I have available. One part potting soil, one part vermiculite and one part perlite is a fast-draining mix that works well.

Wake-Up Time
With the days getting longer, it's almost time to wake them up. I will submerge the pots in lukewarm water until they stop bubbling. It's amazing how fast the winter-weary plants plump up after this initial wake-up call. Very soon thereafter, tiny buds will begin to form and the next thing you know, viola! Flowers!

Fertilizing will follow the bloom, but not too much. I like to use liquid fish or cottonseed meal applied around the base of the plant, rather than a high-nitrogen fertilizer. There are commercial cactus fertilizers available.

If your tastes run to the exotic and bizarre, I recommend growing cactus ... cautiously.

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