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Caring For Your Indoor Plants

Dec 27, 2007
The title of this article would be more accurate if it were Cacti and other Succulents, because botanically all cacti belong to the succulent family. Succulents are plants whose native habitats are dry desert areas where the rainfall is so small that nature has had to evolve special properties in order for the plants to survive.

There are two main types of succulents, those which have developed defenses against drought in the form of leaflessness or a shiny coating to reflect the light and heat, and those which have developed a water-storing mechanism which allows them to soak up and retain a considerable amount of water during a period of rain for use during the dry periods. We are interested here only in the second category, as all the cacti and other succulents cultivated for home use are of the water-storing variety.

Description. Although most people who have never grown any of these desert plants tend to think of them as small, uninteresting spiny blobs, nothing could be farther from the truth. Some cacti are among the most beautiful of all flowering plants, bearing large, extremely colorful blossoms. The Christmas Cactus is one of the handsomest of house plants. They come in all shapes and sizes from minute one-inch plants to immense fifty-foot giants; from round porcupine-like shapes to plants that look like furry miniature telephone poles.

Growing conditions. As you would expect, considering their natural state, almost all cacti and succulents do best if they are kept warm, in a sunny aspect, and quite dry. Cacti especially like a south window, although most will tolerate the more limited sun provided by an east or west window. But as a general rule, the more sun they get the better they like it.

Watering is perhaps the most important part of succulent culture. Because of their natural inclinations built up by their original environments, they must be treated differently from the other plants you have in the house. The season of maximum growth of these plants comes in the late spring and summer months and is preceded, during the winter, by a period of dormancy a "rest period" when they grow hardly at all.

In the summer, cacti and succulents, especially if kept indoors, may be watered just as other plants in other words, they should be given just enough so that the top of the soil does not feel dry to the touch. In winter it is a different story. During this period, water extremely sparingly, giving the plants just enough moisture to keep the soil from drying out completely.

Since the plants are almost dormant, they are not able to use much water at this time, and over-watering will simply lead to a rotting of the roots. With cacti that grow in small pots, and this includes almost all the varieties used in house culture, it is usually better to water from the bottom, letting the moisture soak up through the drainage hole until it wets the surface of the soil.

One reason for doing it this way is that these plants are extremely susceptible to stem rot and any water left standing at the base of the plant may give rise to this disorder. Another more obvious reason is that in many cacti, such as Mammillaria, the plant covers so much of the soil surface that it is difficult to get the water evenly distributed down to the roots.

When your cacti and succulents reach the point at which they need to be repotted, you should wait until just before their active summer period before undertaking this operation. They need to be at their most vigorous to withstand the change in environment.

Plant food. Cacti and succulents can be fed the same dry or soluable mixture that you use for your other plants, but it should be used a little more sparingly. Never feed these plants during their winter rest period.

Now you know the basics, you can enjoy to the full these wonderful plants!
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