How to grow cactus: the handbook with the 10 things you absolutely need to know to avoid mistakes

Full sun? But what do you want to know, the window on the landing is enough! Substrate? I buy it ready at the supermarket, it’s perfect. The pots? The smaller the better: never leave more than half a centimeter between the plant and the edge of the pot… And so on, by dint of amenities, false beliefs, hearsay phrases that rapidly becomes dogma because… because it was said by that guy on Facebook and it’s immediately clear that he’s someone who knows about it because his videos has the right lights and Kubrick seems to have done the editing for him. Joking aside, how much nonsense do we still have to hear today about the cultivation of cacti? How many improvised “influencers” ride the crest of social media driven by the Mistral of likes (yes, likes, which in jargon are called “the metrics of vanity”…) and, supported by legions of followers and big thumbs up, they deliver lessons and conferences winking from the monitors, revealing “5 fantastic tricks you don’t know about cacti” or “how to go from seed to flowering plant in 35 seconds”. Or, with an attitude halfway between the conspiratorial and the revealer of esoteric secrets, they promise to teach you everything, absolutely everything about the cultivation of these splendid plants. Then, perhaps, you dig a little and discover that the influencer on duty has been growing cacti for 2 or 3 years – a gift from grandmother -, keeps them next to the PC or television (“you know, they absorb magnetic rays”), he can’t distinguish a Rebutia from a Begonia and has never bothered to leaf through any book on cacti and succulents. There are also influencers for plants, right? No. There are likeable and well-prepared characters, there are pretty faces who know something, but there is also a lot of “fluff” (forgive the old reporter’s term). So much wrong information, so much confusion and so much unpreparedness.

So, without any desire to offer you “The Word” with this article, here is a handbook, a list of ten things you need to know (or you should already know!) if you really want to cultivate your cacti in the best possible way. Without tricks or deceptions: here we are at the fundamentals, come on. But without these you go nowhere. And I am convinced that even those who, scrolling through the 10 points will say “ah yes, I know” ten times, will find in this handbook a useful tool for reviewing, asking themselves a few more questions and pushing themselves to improve. And rest assured, what follows does not come from the web, but from 30 years of experience in the field, of experiments and failures, from discussions with growers and scholars far more expert than me and from reading a few dozen manuals in Italian, English, French, Spanish (and also German, although in that case, I confess, I limited myself to photographs and captions, not knowing the Teutonic language!) (…)

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Towards summer: useful tips for taking care of cacti and succulents and avoiding nasty surprises

After an almost non-existent, anomalous and ugly spring (at least here in Italy), the temperatures have risen considerably and we are heading towards summer. In some respects, the most delicate period for cacti and succulents, i.e. the transition between the end of winter and the vegetative restart, is now behind us and the next few months will be rather “quiet” for those who cultivate these plants. In fact,  the main commitments will concern watering and fertilization, since repotting should by now be completed and treatments against pests and parasites can be given when necessary and not systematically. Even in the period of full vegetation of cacti and succulents, however, there are pitfalls and there are some elements and factors of cultivation to be taken into due consideration.

We see them in detail in the following article (…).

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When the cactus “spins”: what is etiolation, how to prevent it and contain the damage

An etiolated cactus is a plant with an unnatural habit and which has suffered from a more or less serious lack of light. The phenomenon is unfortunately irreversible but it is possible to prevent etiolation and stop it.

Who hasn’t happened at least once to observe in some office, apartment or even non-specialized nurseries (or garden) those cone-shaped cacti with thin spines and pale green stem? Cacti with a rounded base and an elongated apex, tapered to the point of giving the plant an almost pyramidal shape. The novice grower may think that is the normal bearing of the plant, but the grower with some experience – or even just a critical mind – usually is horrified at such plants. If anything, he or she may be saddened, because he or she knows full well that that is not the normal bearing of the cacti at all, but simply the outcome of what is technically called “etiolation” or, commonly, “spinning.” By the way, the photos above and those accompanying this article are of plants in a nursery and not mine, I want to make that clear right away!

Why does this fate happen to some cacti? How to avoid cactus etiolation and how to distinguish it from normal growth or from growth that is simply dissimilar to normal? Is it possible to remedy the damage caused by spinning on a cactus? We answer these questions in the following article. (…)

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Preparing cacti and succulents for spring: exposure, fertilizing, here’s what to do

Bright blooms, fleshy and brand-new leaves, sparkling spines sprouting from the vegetative apices: for succulent plants, spring represents a real rebirth. Here in Europe, the vegetative stasis that characterizes the winter of most succulent families ends between the second half of February and the beginning of March, when the plants gradually resume vegetation and reactivate the root system. For some families, the restart is evident: this is the case of Cactaceae, which already in February show new spines and often the first flower buds (genera such as Stenocactus, many species of Turbinicarpus, some Mammillaria, etc.). Also, leafy succulents such as Crassula, Echeveria, Portulacaria, Aloe, Adenium are well-known for producing new shoots, new branches and leaves. For other species as the Agavaceae family, the recovery is less evident: it slowly forms fresh sprouts at the centre of the apical rose, destined to be noticed only in a few months, when the separation of the true leaves will take place. Whether the recovery is sudden and flashy or slow and hidden, in March it’s essential to devote some extra care to succulents: in this way, it will be possible to obtain healthy and robust plants that show their full potential development and flowering.

Now let’s see everything we can do at this time of the year, especially if we don’t have a greenhouse and we grow on the windowsill, on the balcony, on a terrace or in the garden. With a warning: whatever you have to do, with succulents and cacti, you must not be in a hurry: hurry to water, hurry to treat, hurry to move the plants… Getting caught up in the rush, the anxiety, the fear of doing something wrong, is the best way to run into mistakes. So let’s see how to avoid them. (…)

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How a cactus changes depending on the type of cultivation: the difference made by soil and exposure

When they say that a picture is better than words. In this case, there are three photos, but the concept doesn’t change, and the difference between a cactus grown in a “natural” (or “wild”) way and one with a “garden-style”, based on basic notions and beliefs is quite evident. The plants I’m writing about are Ferocactus latispinus obtained from a 2012 sowing of mine. From that same planting, I’ve got at least forty plants. Over the years, I have given away some of them, but most are still with me and are growing beautifully. It’s important to point out that these are plants born from seeds contained in a single fruit (gift of a dear friend), sown the same day and grown over the years in the same conditions, i.e. in my greenhouse, in standard soil (pumice, lapilli and peat in equal parts), watered and fertilized with the same frequency. This is to say that the starting conditions, including the genetics and the grower’s hand, are the same. And yet, as you can see from the photo above, where the three plants (three at random of the twenty-five or so that I have kept for myself) are side by side, they show remarkable differences, at least to the discerning eye and the grower with a minimum of experience.

So let’s see, in this article, how and why different cultivation regimens, assumed as a whole and not just limited to the soil, affect so much the final result and really make the difference between a cactus grown and cultivated in any garden or generic nursery and a cactus grown by an enthusiast or an expert. (…)

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