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19 December 2013

Caring for your Cacti

If, like me, you have some neglected cacti in your home, this article may be of help.

Cacti come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flower colours, and if you buy the right one for your conditions it should reward you with years of trouble-free service. The two main groups of cacti are the desert cacti, which normally has a covering of spines, and the jungle or rainforest cacti which frequently lack spines.

The majority of cacti are happy to grow on a sunny windowsill, as long as they are kept dry in winter - a greenhouse is not essential. Being drought resistant, cacti are ideal for growing in a conservatory, though they may need to be moved into the house if your conservatory gets too cold in the winter months.

If you have your plants in a shady area, they will only make thin, spindly growth and become pale as they can't make enough food for themselves by photosynthesis. Cacti also need lots of light to produce their flowers and won't have enough food to provide them with the energy needed if kept too dark.

When a plant is old enough to flower it should continue every year, usually in the spring or early summer.

You need to be aware of the watering requirements for cacti as you may be watering them when it will do more harm than good.

All cacti (except Christmas cacti) should be kept dry from around November to March, as this is their dormant period. If they are kept near a warm radiator they may benefit from just a tiny drop of water occasionally or a quick spray.

In the spring start to water your plants, increasing the amount gradually, until by the summer your plants are being watered once or twice a week. You can do this by placing the container in a shallow pan of water, lifting the container from the water to drain as soon as the surface of the compost appears moist.

When in full growth they will appreciate feeding every two to three weeks with Chempak, or any specialised cactus fertiliser. Tomato food is also suitable.

Watering should be gradually reduced again from October, so that your plants are dry by November. This is when they enter their dormant period which they need in order to produce their buds and flowers next spring.

Eventually your cacti will outgrow their pots, repotting being required once roots begin to show through the bottom of the pot. This is likely to be every two or three years for fast growing species and three to four years for the slower growers. Don't repot your plants during their dormant period - wait for spring.

Water your plants a couple of days before repotting so that the roots are moist.

Gently remove the cactus from its pot, discarding any topdressing, then check the roots for pests and diseases, removing any dead or dehydrated ones. Handle your cactus either with kitchen tongs or using a strip of newspaper wrapped around the plant to protect you from the spines.

Put some drainage material into a pot one size up from the plant's previous pot, then repot the cactus to it's original depth using a well-draining slightly acidic compost.

Add a thin layer of grit or gravel around the surface of the cactus to help water to drain quickly then water as required.

The needs of Christmas Cacti are slightly different, and they should be protected from prolonged direct sunlight. They should be watered just before the compost completely dries out, but they don't like their compost to stay saturated for long periods. They can be fed every two weeks or so.

They will tolerate temperatures down to about 35 degrees F. for short periods, but in order to flower during the winter months, they should be kept above 45 degrees F.

Some of the colours, e.g. white, develop pink flushing at lower temperatures, and they need to be kept at 55 degrees F plus to flower in their true shades.

The winter flowering types need about ten hours of darkness to induce bud formation, a condition which arises naturally in the autumn, provided that they aren't exposed to strong artificial light overnight.

In their natural habitat, cacti aren't exposed to the fungi and moulds that we have here, and can go rotten or become diseased if they are wet all the time. Follow the recommended watering regime and they should be alright.

Good luck with your cacti growing - they are lovely plants for around the house. If you are interested in them you will find that there is probably a local cactus society for you to join.

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