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Cacti and Succulents

The term succulent simply means ‘full of juice’ which suits this group of plants perfectly.  In fact, this is what gives them their fleshy leaves and of course what makes them perfect for waterwise areas of the garden.  Succulents have everything going for them.  They come in amazing colours and shapes, are incredibly easy to propagate, look fantastic in pots or the garden and need very little attention indeed.  Succulents suit all gardens and all gardeners!

Succulents are plants that store water in the cells of their leaves, stems and roots.  It is this ability to retain water that allows them to survive arid and harsh conditions and which makes them ideal to include in dry corners of the garden, as an under planting amongst other species and in water-wise gardens.

Leaves and stems of succulents come in a wide range of colours from dark magenta through all the shades of red as well as orange, green, yellow, grey and even blue.  Some have wonderful flowers during the winter months and the difference in their shapes and sizes is phenomenal.  Of course, there are also those with spines of which cacti are part.

Cacti are probably the best known succulents.  Virtually all cacti are succulents but not all succulents are cacti.  True cacti can be identified by areoles which are the small, fluffy cotton lumps on the body of the cactus that the spines, branches and flowers sprout from.

Succulents require a good amount of indirect light such as under a patio or on a verandah and they do very well indoors if they are placed near a south facing window.  Although some such as Aloe, Scilla, Gasteria and Haworthia can withstand being in full sun, most can burn in our harsh summer sun.  The main growing period for succulents is between spring and autumn when the weather is warm and during this time they can be watered quite frequently, even every couple of days during summer.  However, during winter when most succulents are dormant, reduce watering down to once a month and move them out of the rain so that rot doesn’t set in.

When watering, a good soaking is best followed by a period of time to allow the soil to almost dry out. If at all unsure, succulents will soon indicate that they require water as their leaves shrivel lightly or go limp.

Roots protruding from drainage holes are an indication that cacti and succulents require re-potting and doing so will encourage new growth.  Re-potting can be undertaken at most times of the year.  Use a commercial cactus and succulent mix which is specifically made to drain very well or use a regular potting mix with about 1 part perlite added to 3 parts of mix.

Shallow terracotta pots are ideal for cacti and succulents as their roots are quite close to the surface and they require good drainage.  Terracotta strawberry pots, chimney pots and even broken pots laid on their side can become terrific garden features when planted out with succulents.  Try other natural products such as wood or stone but almost any container that has drainage holes is suitable, even an old boot, tea pot or statue.

When re-potting, choose a pot that is one size up from the old pot.  Cover the drainage holes with a small square of fly wire or shadecloth to help hold the mix in and keep slaters and ants out and place some of the new mix in the bottom of the pot.  Position the plant in the pot and carefully spread more mix around the root ball.  Give the pot a gentle tap and shake to settle the soil but do not firm it down hard as this will take away the much needed spaces in the mix.  Water the plant very well and give it some protection from heat and strong sunlight for a few days so that it can settle in.

To lift a cactus from a pot without being pricked by spines, fold a couple of sheets of newspaper into a long strip, wrap it around the plant and hold both ends together like a handle.  Thick leather gloves will also help.

Cacti and succulents do require some nourishment, especially after they have been in the same pot for over a year but over feeding may cause them to lose colour.  Provide a light side dressing of low nitrogen slow-release fertiliser such as one for African violets or flowering houseplants at the beginning of spring.

Many succulents are prone to mealy bug, scale and occasionally aphids.  Mealy bug appear as small white fluffy balls toward the inside of the plant and scale have a waxy coating or shell over the top that seems to attach them to the plant.  All of these pests can be easily controlled with a systemic insecticide.

In the past, succulents and cacti have been relegated to a separate garden bed covered in gravel with a couple of well placed rocks and a rusty wheel leaning against the wall.  But, they work wonderfully amongst any style of garden and can be incorporated almost anywhere, as long as the conditions suit their needs.

The rich colours and forms of succulents lend themselves to being used to move the eye through the landscape in soft curves and edgings.  In landscaping, this is generally done by repetition of colour, texture and growth habit and with succulents offering so much diversity, they can be incorporated into any style garden whether modern, cottage and especially waterwise.

As a part of a garden’s landscape, succulents are the great problems solvers.  As a mass planting combining their amazing textures and elaborate colours, succulents and cacti can create a focal point in an otherwise dull part of the garden.  They can cope in dry areas that other plants struggle in and are stunning tucked into the nooks and crannies between rocks and pavers.

Succulents such as trailing jade vine, Senecio jacobsenii, and String of Hearts, Ceropegia woodii, are perfect for hanging baskets which tend to dry out easily.  Their long stems trail over the side and these can be mixed with other varieties to add texture and colour.  Other Senecio make fantastic ground covers and since they keep weeds down, reduce evaporation and require little water, are almost more effective than any organic mulch.

Echeveria are possibly the most interesting of all succulents.  Some look like coral from the sea with their frilled foliage and pink and orange colours.  These can be combined with ‘flap jacks’ and chocolate coloured echeveria to create veritable masterpieces.  Working with these succulents does allow the gardener to exercise their artistic flair.

Using a large, dramatic aloe, agave, euphorbia or columnar cactus can create a stunning focal point to anchor composition.  They add an almost sculptural presence to a garden and their shape or colour can be picked up by other succulents in other areas of the garden.

Grafted cacti make colourful gifts and some smaller cacti are loved by children when dressed up with tiny hats, bobble eyes and glasses.  Cacti are incredibly diverse in what they offer to the home or the garden and should be considered for far more than just adding a desert feel to a Mexican style garden.   A shallow pot filled with cacti, some coloured gravel over the top and an ornamental rock make a wonderful centrepiece for the table and there are some sculptural cacti where their shape needs to be seen to be believed.

One of the best things about gardening is getting something for nothing and of all plants, succulents would have to be the easiest to do this with.  When buying plants in a store, many can be divided so that several pots can be produced from one or when visiting friends with great succulents in their garden, ask for a piece to take home to add to your collection.

To take a cutting, use a sharp knife to remove a small piece of the plant so that it includes a piece of the stem or at least two leaves.  Lay the cuttings on newspaper in a warm, dry spot but out of direct sunlight for a few days to dry out.  This seals the cut end.

Don’t worry if a piece of a succulent breaks off.  Simply treat it as a cutting so that in only a few weeks, you will have a whole new plant.

After it has dried, dip the cut end of the cutting into a rooting hormone going no deeper than about 1mm.  Place the cutting directly into a pot of pre-moistened, fast draining soil such as cactus mix or 50:50 potting mix and washed river sand or perlite.  Several cuttings can go into the same pot.

Bend two long pieces of wire over the pot and then place a plastic bag over this to form a miniature greenhouse.  Tie the bag closed at the base.

Place the pot in a bright location but away from direct sunlight and remove the bag after 7 to 10 days.  Water lightly.  Once roots have formed, the succulents can be repotted if necessary and moved into a little more light.

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