Nathan James Dodd has always enjoyed growing the vast and varied group of plants known as succulents and cacti. As he explains, their attempts to master a range of often hostile conditions, has resulted in the development of a fantastic array of interesting and appealing shapes, colours and textures.
Succulents are plants that store water in their plump leaves, stems and roots. This handy tactic allows them to survive in many different environments especially where there is a lack of rainfall.
Most like the dry, warm conditions that homes offer and it's not the end of the world if you forget to water them for a while. That makes them particularly attractive as houseplants, since most are quite hard to kill.
A Vast Range to Choose From
Well known succulents and cacti include Aloe barbadensis aka Aloe vera, a popular ingredient in skin care products, and the Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi), a seasonal favourite with dark pink and white flowers on the end of its flat stems during the winter.
The Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii) has clusters of tiny yellow flowers contained within red bracts during the spring, while the Mother-in-Law's Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) has tall upright leaves and is virtually indestructible.
Agave parryi, is a rosette shaped plant with attractive grey/green spiked leaves and creamy yellow flowers. Notocactus rutilans is a further eye-catching plant with pink and yellow flowers above a spiny ribbed column.
So the choice and variety is massive, but when you get one home from the garden centre, how do you care for them?
The Best Way to Care for Them
It's best to remember that 'one size doesn't fit all' and not all succulents should be treated in exactly the same way but there are certain ground rules to ensure some growing success most of the time.
Succulents should be grown preferably in clay pots using a sandy, free draining, alkaline growing medium (specialist cactus compost is available) that won't get waterlogged, however the Christmas Cactus and Orchid Cacti in particular prefer more organic matter and less dry conditions. Most prefer bright light, perhaps not direct sunlight, but can survive in semi-shade.
Although they prefer temperatures around 24C, quite wide variations in temperature will not harm the plants. If you want to encourage flowers, move them to cooler (15C) conditions for a while.
It's correct to assume that succulents survive better in dry rather than wet conditions, but during the summer they need to be watered well when the soil dries out. Remember not to leave standing water and in the autumn start to reduce watering. During the winter dormant period water very sparingly or else you will encourage the plant to rot.
Starting with a diluted solution in the spring, begin to feed fortnightly with a houseplant fertilizer during the summer.
Once you have one plant, propagation is relatively easy. Select the top of a shoot and, with about 2ins of clean stem, push into potting gritty compost that should be kept moist. For other succulents, take off lower leaves and bury the stems. It's really that easy!