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. HOW TO.. ...look after a cactus If you’ve always wanted to keep cacti, this is your indespensible guide on how to get the best from your succulents ■ Why would I want a cactus? Because they are so hardy, and need little care, they are good for people who want houseplants but who feel that they don't have a lot of time, or are away a lot. And, of course, it’s not such a problem is you forget to water them. ■ Do they take up much space? Generally no, and they can be very suitable for homes that have little space, for example pop them on a windowsill. However, check how big they will grow before you buy them, just in case. ■ How do I look after them? Cacti need three things – water, heat, and light. If you get these right then they are simple to care for. ■ So how much water do they need? Watering a cactus is where people most commonly go wrong. You should let the soil dry out between watering and not water during the winter when the plants are dormant. When to start watering again depends on what species of cactus you have. If you see flowerbuds appearing, or new growth, give it some water. A general rule of thumb is to start watering again in the spring. And always let the soil dry out completely between watering. ■ But won’t it die if the soil dries out? A cactus can go several months without water because of the harsh conditions in which they grow. However this isn’t recommended, particularly if you want to get the best from your plant. They need water to grow. ■ What about heat? Keep the temperature above five degrees Celsius (42 degrees Fahrenheit). They don’t like the cold or frosts, so if your cacti are in a greenhouse or conservatory you will need to provide heat during the winter. The ideal temperature for cacti during the winter is about 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). ■ Can they get too hot? They can, so keep the temperature below 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Greenhouses should be well ventilated during the summer. ■ And what about light? Because cacti grow in deserts, they like a lot of light. So, to get your cactus to thrive, place it in a spot where it will get the most light. A south-facing windowsill is ideal. ■ What sort of soil do they need? Roots can rot if they stay wet so a free-draining, sandy soil is best. Prepared cactus soil is sold at most garden centres and nurseries. ■ Do they need feeding? Cacti are very good at extracting nutrients from the soil because they grow in harsh climates, so food isn’t a necessity. However, you can give them food to improve their growth but be careful as overfeeding can lead to them growing too quickly and becoming misshapen. JARGON BUSTER ■ Hybrid – a plant produced by crossing two different species of cacti Bristle – a stiffened hair of the cacti Callus – protective tissue formed over a wound What the expert says: Jan Mitchell, chairman of the Hayling Island Horticultural Society, said: ‘Don’t kill them with kindness. Some people think they need to be watered all the time whereas in fact they thrive on not being watered, even during the summer. ‘Water them once a week in the summer and water them very sparingly during the winter. They need plenty of drainage so use lots of gravel with the compost. You can put them outside in the summer if it’s warm but they have to be brought in during the winter because the frost kills them. ‘They are popular with children. When they sprout babies you can take them off carefully and plant them and the children love doing that.’ NEED MORE? For tips on gardening read Brian Kidd’s column in Weekend magazine, which is free with The News every Saturday For more information on cacti visit www.cactigu- ide.com or alternatively visit the website of the British Cactus and Succulent Society at www.bcss.org.uk 478 ■ To view all the How To series go to www.portsmouth.co.uk and click on How to... in the popular links menu.
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