" It's Our Garden "

By Elizabeth and Crow Miller

Guidelines For Success With Growing Cactus Indoors

Most cacti seem to be victims of their own durability. They will take an incredible amount of neglect and even abuse. I've seen them growing under practically zero light conditions, on cold, dreary porches, in ordinary potting soil, and shriveling from a prolonged drought because their owners take the name desert cactus too literally.

However, a little care goes a long way. Give them proper light, soil, temperature and watering, and they'll send out new growth.

You can use any common plant container for cactus, but clay pots are preferred for two reasons. First, they are porous and allow the soil to dry quickly. Second, they're heavy and many cactus soak up water, becoming heavy. Such plants easily tip over when in light, plastic containers. Mature cactus need repotting only once every 3 to 5 years. The pot should be at least as large as the largest diameter of the plant and its spines. Best repotting time is late winter, before the dormant season ends.

What about the right kind of potting soil to be used for cactus

Well, here are 2 formulas you might try. The simplest method is to use a commercial houseplant soil you're happy with for other perposes, and mix with an equal amount of clean, dry builder's sand. Note: don't use sea sand. Or, use equal parts of garden soil, compost and builder's sand. To either of these mixtures add a tablespoon each of limestone and bone meal per quart The main point about soil is that it should be quick-draining. Cactus don't like to sit in heavy, wet soil. their roots will rot.

Water is the single most critical factor. It is better to err in the direction of too little water. But a little thought and scheduling will go far in developing healthy, blooming plants.

One basic rule is to keep the plants dry in fall and 'winter, wet in spring and summer. Cactus need a dormant period in which they harden growth and frequently set flower buds.

I follow this schedule: In late February I step up watering to once a week. As spring goes on and the plants show signs of new growth, I water more frequently. Watch the plants. In August I find that new growth has slowed or stopped on most plants, so the water ration is cut. I extend the time between watering from 3 to 5 days, By early fall the growing season is over, and the plants get water once a week. The next stage is the hardest for it seems cruel. My plants get a good drink at the beginning of November. They get another one around Thanksgiving. That's it. They won't see another drop until about mid-January. Then in Late-February they get another drink, and the cycle begins again.

Q) What about light ? Cactus are survivors. Even in a north window some plants will hang on for year after year. But desert cactus are basically light lovers, by all means find a southern exposure for your plants.

Q) How do I know what temperature they need ? Many cactus can take anything down to freezing. Generally, they're comfortable when we're comfortable. However, if you want them to bloom, try to give them cooler temperatures in winter, warmer temperatures are preferred at other times.

Q) What should I feed my cactus ? Cactus like well-drained soil, but this doesn't mean poor soil. They appreciate nutrients. The key ingredient in their diet is (P) phosphorus, the middle number given on most fertilizer bags. One good organic source is bone meal . Go lightly on it.

Fertilize only during the season of active growth and then no more frequent (N-P-K) than once a month. Also, use the fish/seaweed (4-4-1)

There are more than 9,000 cactus to choose from. The names are often confusing, that can be frustrating to a serious amateur grower, but in truth it's unimportant to the casual gardener. By any other name, a cactus is still a cactus; and few plants can offer so much variety in shape, texture and bloom for so little care.

CROW MILLER is available for a limited number of lectures and speaking engagements from Jan. to April on "Organic Growing/Enter The Vision" Call 862-6667

Copyright o 1994

Growing indoors/Plants