Despite living north of what we might consider typical cactus-growing territory, we need not deprive ourselves of these interesting and exotic-looking plants in gardens right here in Manitoba.
There are several varieties of cacti and other succulents that can survive our zone 3 climate, given the proper growing conditions. Many others can be treated as annuals and grown in containers or beds. Once fall arrives, they can be transplanted and grown in doors.
Most of the bigger, and some smaller garden centres in our area carry a good selection of hardy, perennial succulents that will thrive in rock gardens, cracks in landscape walls and outdoor containers. Probably the most commonly known species is Sempervivum (hens and chicks), which comes in a variety of shapes and colours thanks to continuous hybridization either by nature or by humans. Clustered together, they make an interesting and beautiful presentation.
Sedums also come in a wide variety of forms. Sedum album, for example, comes in cascading forms with burgundy, dark red or bronze leaves that change colour with the seasons. The large bush-like Stonecrop sedums, such as the popular Autumn Joy, features flowers in pink or white. The Stonecrop series become magnets for bees in late summer and fall.
Of the two main genus of cacti that grow in Canada, Opuntia fragilis grow naturally in dry, sandy and rocky places on the Prairies. Commonly known as Little Prickly Pear, it has flattened oval pads that branch off from one another, with flowers growing on the tips.
A cutting given to me by a friend a few years ago is happily growing and spreading in my rock garden and this year, for the first time, it produced large pale yellow flowers. The blooms lasted only two days, but prompted a great deal of excitement nonetheless.
Indoor cactus and succulent house plants that are not hardy to our growing zone will love to have an outdoor summer holiday. Take them outside in their existing pots or, better yet, repot them in larger containers with new plant purchases. Any kind will work.
Just remember to gradually expose them in the springtime to our intense northern sun over a period of a week or so. Succulents can get badly burned if suddenly introduced to the elements.
There are thousands of varieties of cacti and other succulents that can easily withstand the cold overnight temperatures that are characteristic of our early growing season. Remember, their native habitats are usually pretty inhospitable places, offering ranges of temperatures that virtually any other species could not survive, from sweltering hot daytime temperatures in the 40- to 50-degree Celsius range to nighttime temperatures that are below freezing.
Your succulents will be able to stay outdoors for several months. I usually leave my pots outside until the first frost warning in the fall and I've never had a casualty.
Wet conditions, on the other hand, are another story. Generally speaking, cacti and succulents don't like their roots sitting in soaking wet soil. Most like a thorough watering followed by a fairly rapid drying-out period. Allow the soil to dry completely before re-watering.
A porous, quick-draining potting medium is a necessity in order to keep the plants from succumbing to root-rot. A mixture of roughly two-thirds good quality potting mix (which includes soil, peat and perlite) and one-third clean sharp sand (washed sandbox sand is ideal) provides good drainage and enough nutrients to keep the plants thriving all summer.
Extra fertilizer is not needed because succulents are not heavy feeders. The ratio of sand to soil can even be higher in very large containers or, instead of more sand, a few large handfuls of small, rough gravel can be added to the mix.
How often should potted plants be watered? It depends on several variables including the size of the plant in relation to the size of the pot as well as conditions such as ambient temperature and the number of hours of sun and shade exposure. Check the soil for dryness and feel the leaves, too. Succulents store water in their leaves. That's what makes them thick and fleshy and allows them to go long periods without water.
When the normally thick, sturdy leaves feel less firm and a little more pliable, you know it's time to water them. During a typical hot, dry period in Manitoba, once every week or two may be enough.
Another added means of protection from excess water exposure is to top the planted pot with decorative rocks and gravel to keep any lower leaves and other tissue from touching the wet soil surface. Be creative and use varying sizes, textures and colours of stones and other porous materials to add interest to your creation.
Flowers on cacti can't be counted on to provide colour, so vary the shades of green and purple in the foliage and stems. For example, combine tall, tree-like Aeoniums or the spiny Crown of Thorns Euphorbia with shorter, medium high Euphorbia, like the unusual 'pencil plant', or Echevaria and small Aloe and Crassula varieties (Crassula argentea, or Jade Tree).
Though not a succulent, the recently available Ptilotus 'Joey', a drought tolerant beauty from Australia with upright, pinkish-purple 'bottle-brush' flowers fits in wonderfully in a succulent container. Then add shorter Echevaria varieties or the spiky, Haworthia fasciata or Haworthia obtuse with its flat, translucent, looking-glass tips.
Add a few trailing plants such as Crassula perforate and brightly flowered Portulaca to finish off your masterpiece. Cacti and most succulents grow very slowly so you don't have to worry about them changing size very much in one summer.
To bring your plants into the house for the winter, repot them individually in fresh potting medium or wash off the plants and containers thoroughly with a gentle hosing. Adding a teaspoon or so of liquid dish detergent to a spray bottle filled with water aids in ridding the plants of any insects.
FORM and texture are essential qualities in an interesting garden. The different shapes of plants should provide dimension without overwhelming the overall scheme, while a variety of textures can be skillfully used for contrast.
Cacti and other succulents provide both unique form and texture and range from low-growing varieties that form a thick mat to taller, upright varieties that provide eye-catching fall colour.
Susan Bouchat, today's contributor, is a St. Vital gardener who owns a vast collection of cacti and succulents that provide a beautiful year-round display, indoors and outdoors. At one time, Bouchat displayed a pair of cathedral cactus (Euphorbia trigona) in the summer garden, moving them back indoors before the first frost. Today, their seven-feet height and hefty weight keep them firmly displayed indoors in bright light.
Mandy Botincan, owner of Mandy's Greenhouses east of Tyndal on Hwy. 44, offers 150 varieties of hardy sedum (stonecrop) and sempervivum (succulents that are also known as hen-and-chicks). The latter were once planted on roofs in Europe, which must have been just lovely.
Consider the underused Yucca glauca for a striking low-maintenance display. Native to southern Alberta, yuccas have a life span of 25 years or more and are hardy to zone 2.
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My Secret Garden is a drop-in program offered by Dalnavert Museum for families with children ages 6-12, Thursdays in July and August. Through crafts, stories, and games, participants learn about plants and insects and the importance of gardening in the past and present.
For more information, contact Jennifer Bisch, Curator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 943-2835. It's only $5.