Home Improvement & Gardening Blog by ManoMano

How to grow a cactus: Desert Glamour on Your Windowsill

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Of all plants which grow in warm, sunny windows, cacti and succulents, in proportion to their care, are the most rewarding. No other plants are so undemanding, so easy to grow or so full of surprises in the way they develop.

Given plenty of sun, air and warmth, plus their minimum requirements of food and water, they will grow on year after year in their same pots slowly, steadily and dependably.

In their season, cacti and succulents will suddenly burst forth into magnificent bloom, including many colors and shapes. In fact, their forms are as varied as the imagination can picture them, some amusing, some astounding, some even weird.

Tools For Success – Good Soil Mix and Little Water

Growing cacti requires so little effort and attention that amateur gardeners usually kill their plants with too much pampering and over-watering.

The theory that if a little water will make a plant grow, more should do a better job. This may work with some species but not with cactus and succulents. They prefer little water. In fact, the waterless periods use up the moisture stored in their tissues. Otherwise, death results.

What kind of soil for succulents and cactus? A porous soil is an absolute necessity – one that drains off surplus water quickly, yet does not dry out too rapidly. Those new to growing cactus should use one of the bagged cactus/succulent mixes you’ll find at your local garden centre.

Either clay pots or the glazed kinds are suitable. The container should be a little larger than the plant’s circumference including the spines. A handful of coarse gravel or broken pieces of clay pots should be placed at the bottom. The soil mixture is then filled in, to within about 2 inches from the top.

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Top Cactus And Succulents For The Windowsill

Species of cacti and succulents are divided into many groups, although each has a common characteristic that distinguishes it from the many others. Stenocactus, for instance, have thin, wavy ribs, with heavy thorns and a profusion of flowers in the early spring.

Mammillarias, on the other hand, are smaller globes, often multiplying into great clusters. Each is covered with a protecting shield of spines, some white, others yellow, red, grey and black. Some have spines so fine and densely interlocked that they hide the plant below, while others have stout, curved spines, with wicked little fish hooks at the tips that can really claw.

They bloom at all seasons of the year and can give an almost continuous display. The fruits, which last for months, are bright red and have a festive look.

Opuntia – The Prickly Pears

Opuntias make up one of my favorite groups. These are the prickly pears found from the west to the east coast in the United States and south through South America to the Straits of Magellan.

Opuntias have exquisite brilliant flowers, with silken petals. The golden Opuntia grandiflora, Opuntia santa-rita and Opuntia elata are familiar prickly pears. Their easy culture, make them perfect additions to the windowsill.

Other attractive options include Ferocactus, Cereus, Espostoas and Epiphyllums, where we begin to cross over into succulent territory.

The Orchid Cactus

Epiphyllums, known also as the orchid cactus have “leaves” that are long, sometimes flat, triangular or winged in four segments. All are softly toothed along the edges, and the large flowers range from white through pink, violet, red, orange and combinations of these. There are no true yellows or blues, though there are many purples.

Hybridizers have developed many beautiful varieties, and if you have a sun-porch facing cast, south or west, you might try a row of these on the floor, training the leaves upright on three-foot stakes. These are not desert cacti, but forest and jungle plants, that range from Central America to Brazil and Peru.

Because they grow in organic matter in the crotches of pines and oaks, they enjoy a cooler atmosphere than their desert cousins, as well as a little overhead shade and fresh air. 

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Succulents A Diverse Array Of Choices

The succulents present almost the same range of diversity as the cacti, including Euphorhias, Stapelias, Gasterias, Agaves, Aloes, Haworthias, Echeverias, Crassulas, Kalanchoes and others.

These are called succulents because their leaves and stems are juicy and have storehouses of water to tie the plants over the long, dry periods of their native desert or brushland. Many come from South Africa and Mexico, though they are found all over the world where similar conditions prevail.

Although there are some 300 species of euphorbias for collectors, most of us are familiar only with Euphorbia splendens, the crown-of-thorns.

Stapelias are the starfishes, over 100 species, almost all having thick, softly-toothed leaves, either smooth or furred. These bear five-pointed stars, from one to eighteen inches across, variously upholstered in exotic combinations of plush, silk, feathers and furs in many unbelievable colours.

Gasterias are easily grown, long-lived plants, with spotted leaves enfolding a long, slender stalk, which bears, in mid-winter, a loose raceme of gold or red pea-shaped flowers.

Agaves are handsome plants, with rosettes of rigid, sword-shaped leaves, that do not produce their spikes of bell-like flowers until they reach maturity.

Lithops are South African mesembryanthemums that resemble the pebbles, among which they grow, in shape and coloration. As they enlarge, each small stone divides in half and sends out a many-rayed flower, followed by another stone, which eventually pushes the first back into the ground. Some have “windows” to catch the light, since the plant body is practically buried under the gravelly surface.

Aloes represent a large and spectacular genus. Plants range from rosettes, two inches across, to large trees, which are a spectacular sight in South Africa. Thick succulent leaves are arranged in spirals, sometimes acaulescent, sometimes on stout trunks, while flower spikes may be simple or much-branched in candelabra form, with bright orange to red tubular bells.

Crassulas, another large South African group, vary greatly in size, form and the amount of reduction of vegetative parts. Some are tall, leafy shrubs, while others are compact, having tiny, imbricated leaves. Still others are shade lovers, while yet others like the sun. Generally all, however, will be happy on a window sill, with ordinary amounts of sun, reasonable watering and plenty of fresh air to prevent too lush growth and to preserve the curious forms.

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Crassula Argentea – The Jade Plant

Crassula argentea is the well known jade plant, common in dish gardens, but the giant’s watch-chain (Crassula ‘Imperialis’) is more interesting, as is Crassula hemisphaerica, Arab’s turban. Silver beads (Crassula deltoidea) has fat, white-powdered leaves and trusses of small, pink, urn-shaped flowers.

Princess’s pine (Crassula psuedo-lycopodiaides) makes a delightful rugged silhouette in time and St. Andrew’s Cross (Crassula “capitella”) is a rare miniature, with leaves arranged cross-like above each other in diminishing size, lightly spotted and finely toothed.

Sun Loving Echeverias

Echeverias, which are astounding in their variety, are always worthwhile. Leaves are all succulent, but different in their texture. Those that are smooth do best in sun, where they change from silvery blue to coppery tan or even russet. Velvet leaves prefer overhead shade and should never be wet.

Echeveria grandiflora, Echeveria derenbergii and Echeveria Purpusorum or urbina are smooth-leaved, with high-branched flower stalks (waxy and almost artificial looking is Echeveria grandiflora). Velvet-leaved Echeveria elegans, Echeveria kewensis and Echeveria pulvinata have emerald green and glowing brown stems.

They are attractive even without flowers, which usually form bright, bell-like panicles. They like a rather humusy, well-drained soil and should not be allowed to become more than just dry.

Kalanchoe A Crassula Relative

Kalanchoes, members of the crassula family, are represented by some 100 known varieties, mostly from South Africa and Asia, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana which is sold at Christmas time, presents a cheery note at the season. Perhaps Iess known is Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi from Madagascar, with silvery-blue, scalloped leaves and pendent, golden-rose bells in winter.

Kalanchoe scandens is a small vine, with dark, violet-gray leaves and unusual, mouse-colored flowers. Kalanchoe beharensis, a splendid specimen in all stages of growth, has arrow-shaped leaves, wavy at the edges.

These are just some of the cactus and succulents you can enjoy and grow on your windowsill.

Sunshine and fresh air are essential for healthy plants. A window with a southern exposure allows for maximum sunshine. For summer, the ideal place is a porch where they will enjoy full sun but sheltered from the hard rains so common to the colder regions of the country.

This guest article was written and submitted to us by Gary, who runs a plant care blog!

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