Off to the North West Cactus Society Spring Sale in Manchester. Since the stall holders accept only hard currency, my family will be eating bread and dripping for a month and I’ve pawned my wedding ring for cash. I will probably have to make field loans to the junior Bodgers attending, who have all of the planning acumen of a plague victim tied to the railway track.
The event is always populated by enthusiasts, both buying and selling. Anyone who has some expertise is willing, no, eager to share with all comers. Like any specialist gathering, bargains may be acquired and many specimens on offer are very different to the usual fare. Rarities abound, collected from remote mountains or distant deserts. Last year I met a man who proffered a tiny spiny cactus that he had smuggled out of Mexico, undiscovered by customs despite a thorough search. I dread to think where he concealed his prize. Perhaps his absence this year was due to necessary medical intervention or maybe he found a bigger, spikier trophy which had given him pause for thought.
Cacti are more tolerant of cold and need less water than succulents. Those from hotter places such as California, Brazil and other fairytale climates where they don’t know the meaning of a hard winter, must be kept indoors. Sunshine is a must for all of them. The cactus left in gloomy conditions will deflate, puddle and suppurate like a melon left overlong in a warm kitchen. Watering is also a key factor in your prickly beauties’ thriving likelihood. I keep mine completely dry from November to April. I gradually increase irrigation through May and June to once a fortnight in brief high summer, before reducing again as the weather cools.
I make my own compost by mixing cheap pea gravel with potting compost. I put plenty of crocks, grit and gravel in the bottom of a clay pot, since good drainage is essential. Opinions differ as to the best means of getting a green ball of armour piercing needles from one container to another. Some use newspaper wadding. I swear by a swaddling of old tea towels lined with heavy gauge polythene to lift and gentle application of cooking tongs to position the little brutes. Protecting your body parts with anything less than titanium alloyed steel is a futile waste of time. No pain no gain; I recommend repotting in solitude so that you may give full vent to your feelings with impunity. I do. Top dress with more grit and water sparingly with care. When you get it right, many of your dry zone divas will bloom with intensely coloured flowers of astonishing splendour.
I’ve never had any luck whatsoever with seeds, although my sister grows swarms of the blasted things this way. They are also the only plants in her conservatory that her cats won’t beat up or eat. Propagation by cuttings is usually easy, since bits ripped off and stuck into gritty soil will often strike quickly. These may be swapped with other addicts, since compiling, growing and boasting about your collection will swiftly become an obsession.
UK readers can Google British Cactus and Succulent Society for the group in your area. You will meet a generous, helpful, friendly bunch of people, accoutred with long handled angled pliers for lifting their brimming pots full of treasure without excessive injury. Nobody that I met used invective, profanity or blasphemy, no matter what the provocation. It’s just me then.