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Let cacti conquer those winter blues

A Clustering Globular Cactus is on display at Manito Park’s Gaiser Conservatory.  (Dan Pelle)
A Clustering Globular Cactus is on display at Manito Park’s Gaiser Conservatory. (Dan Pelle)
Susan Mulvihill Correspondent

As the end of the gardening season approaches, gardeners can generally be divided into two types: those who look forward to having a break from gardening over the winter and those who need to stay connected with growing things.

A perfect solution for the latter group is to shift their focus to growing houseplants. There are a lot of interesting houseplants one can grow but a particularly fun and easy one is the cactus.

“Cacti make great houseplants because there are so many different varieties, shapes and colors,” says Master Gardener and houseplant expert Rhonda Elliott.

“They bloom reliably in the wintertime and a collection of them makes a nice focal point in the home.”

According to Barbara Pleasant, author of “The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual” (Storey Publishing, 366 pages, $24.95), “Though it is tempting to think of cacti as very primitive plants, the opposite is true. They are actually highly refined flowering perennials.”

Cacti evolved in the Western Hemisphere as a result of some major climate changes that occurred about 40 million years ago. The accompanying dry conditions caused the plants to develop prickly spines instead of leaves – to keep from getting eaten – and interesting structures to help them retain moisture.

When it comes to cactus care during the cooler months, Elliott has it nailed down to the basics.

“There are two cardinal rules to follow,” she says. “First, give them as much sun and warmth as possible because they don’t like to get cold. This means you should move them away from any windows or doors.

“Second, they detest having cold feet. Cut back to watering them once a month. And never, ever leave water standing in the pot’s saucer. Nothing will kill a cactus faster than giving them too much water.”

Elliott recommends using room-temperature water and watering them once a month during the winter.

“If you’re watching your cacti and they start to shrivel just a little,” she says, “they’re telling you that they’ve used up most of their water storage and need a drink.”

Because cacti need good drainage, she suggests purchasing a cactus potting mix. You can make your own mix by combining one part sand to three parts regular potting soil.

Placing small rocks or pebbles in the bottom of the pot will help with drainage.

Unlike other houseplants, humidity is not an issue with cacti. That’s because they have a different type of leaf structure that doesn’t transpire moisture.

They also don’t need to be fertilized during the winter; spring and summer are the best times for this. There are special low-nitrogen cactus fertilizers available at garden centers.

Because cacti have such specialized leaves and thorns, insects have a hard time taking a bite out of them. The only problem Elliott notes is root rot caused by too much moisture, which is a cultural issue rather than a disease.

The great thing about cacti is that there are so many different ones to choose from.

“It really depends on what a person likes to look at,” Elliott says. “But if you have small kids in the house, you should stay away from the ones with a lot of thorns on them because kids will want to touch them.

“Aloes come in a lot of different colors, shapes and sizes, but all cacti have the same basic care so it’s really whatever appeals most to you.”

Cactus plants are available just about anywhere; check with your favorite garden center to see what’s in stock. Specialty mail-order cacti businesses on the Internet are a good source for unusual types. Since cacti are so tough, they are easy to ship.

“For a fun project, you can even start them from seed,” Elliott suggests. “The seeds are easy to find – just look in the houseplant section of any garden center’s seed department – and spread them out on some sandy soil.

“It takes the seeds about a month to germinate and then you’ve got a lot of little cactus plants.”

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via e-mail at her blog at for more gardening information and tips.
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