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Cactus Nurslings

( Originally Published 1942 )

IMPATIENCE is an almost universal American trait of character. It irks our restless souls to have to wait for results. We seem to have an insatiable desire to annihilate time. We long to accumulate fortunes quickly; we wish our children to become men and women over night; when we develop an estate, we often transplant great trees; our ideal is to be able to rub the Aladdin Lamp, make a wish, and have that wish spring into full and instant maturity for our delectation; life becomes a swiftly moving kaleidoscopic panorama of mature things. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! is the ever present urge. Cactus gardeners are not altogether immune from this malady. We demand mature plants for our gardens, and, spurred on by that demand, professional col-lectors scour our picturesque deserts and leave desolation behind them.

Thoughtful men and women, however, are coming to realize that, when they add a mature cactus specimen to their collection, they are, in a measure, cheating themselves —they are missing the larger part of the pleasure in that plant which of right should be theirs. There is and should be something more in store for them than mere pride of possession. It has been said that a person cannot build even a foot-stool for the home without building into it something of his own personality. It may be roughly made and poorly finished—but it "belongs," it is part of the family circle and gives a pleasure which the finest factory-made article cannot approximate.

So it is that the nursling cactus has a place all its own in the heart of the cactus lover. Other plants may be admired, but it is on the baby cacti that we lavish our tender attentions—they are the ones that give us the real thrill of cactus gardening.

No one person ever lived long enough to learn all there is to know about the care of human babies. And yet, with the exception of emergencies, almost anyone may in a few hours learn the simple basic rules and principles which make it possible to rear a healthy, happy baby. Cactus babies greatly resemble human babies in this respect. The essentials are few and simple, although perfection in their care is almost never attained —the problem is always presenting new phases which hold your interest. Exhaustive discussions tend to confuse and discourage the beginner, and so we will attempt to pre-sent only the most important things which should be kept in mind. The information we give will not be sufficient to cope with every emergency, but we trust that it will make possible sufficient initial success to encourage you to go on with the delightful study.

The seed of some cacti will germinate as soon after maturity as they are placed in favorable conditions. The seed of other species cannot be coaxed to grow before the following season. The reader may be interested to know that this peculiarity is true of the seed of a great many other plants, and some experimenters even subject seed to short artificial winter conditions in an effort to deceive them and hasten germination. It is obvious that we should know to which class belongs the seed we intend to plant. A letter to your Cactus Journal will probably secure the information.

Those seeds which will grow soon after maturity should be planted before they become dry. If it is possible to plant them immediately after they are removed from the fruits, a much more uniform germination will be secured. The seed of some cacti are so rugged and willing to grow that this precaution is not necessary, but your results will be much more satisfactory if it is observed whenever possible. Failure to do so has been responsible for the discouragement of many enthusiasts.

It may be well to keep this same suggestion in mind when planting seeds that do not germinate until the following year. Cacti have been compelled to adapt them-selves to an existence where long and irregular periods of unfavorable conditions for the survival of their tender nurslings are common. When these adverse conditions prevent the seed from growing at the proper time, they seem to become discouraged, and, if the conditions persist for a considerable time, one might almost be justified in concluding that some of them become pessimists. They will not believe that the favor-able conditions supplied by their human friend are anything but temporary and should not be accepted as trustworthy. Some of the seed may be so stubborn that they will remain in the seed-bed for several years before deciding to make a start in the world.

The writer recently saw an example of this kind. A planting had been made three years ago. A few of the seeds germinated without much delay. Others followed at intervals through the years, and, at this time, there are some baby plants just poking their heads through the soil very much as if they were taking a look around to see if it really were safe to start out in life. It is, therefore, very essential that you be sure that you have fresh seeds for your plantings if you expect good germination.

Common fern pans or square seed pans are the most satisfactory containers for the planting of seed providing they are at least four inches deep so that there may be space for plenty of soil for the baby roots. Al-though common flower pots, tin cans, shallow wooden boxes—any kind of a container may be used providing it has sufficient depth and adequate drainage, it will greatly increase your appreciation of the nurslings if they are planted in proper containers that are neat and attractive.

There is much difference of opinion as to the best type of soil to use for the seed-beds. Some growers use pure washed sand, and some use plain garden soil, while others use varying combinations of sand and humus. We feel that pure sand is a very thin diet for even cactus babies, and they should not be expected to thrive on it for any consider-able length of time. On the other hand, the usual garden soil furnishes too heavy a diet for them, and its texture is such that it is almost impossible to maintain air and moisture conditions suitable for the germination and growth of, the seeds. Such soil is also very favorable to the growth of cactus-destroying fungi and bacteria.

A very excellent soil is made by mixing equal parts of medium fine washed sand and pulverized Holland peat which may be secured at seed-stores. To this may be added good garden soil in amounts up to one-fourth the total quantity of sand and peat. The garden soil should contain neither clay nor stable manure, and it requires special sterilization in order to kill possible injurious fungi which are so commonly present in such soils. Sterilization may be accomplished by thorough heating, but this is a difficult and rather unpleasant task, especially on a large scale. The use of Semesan for this purpose as directed on its container is more simple and satisfactory. This product may be secured at any seed-store.

A very thorough mixture of these soils should be made by sifting them together through a quarter-inch mesh dirt screen. Such a soil contains plenty of food for the seedlings, holds moisture well without be-coming water-logged, and never becomes hard or caked when dry. It is a trustworthy combination for the amateur. Then, as his experience increases, he may experiment in a small way until he is able to make those fine adaptations which meet the needs of individual species. One may find that, instead of the garden soil, decayed leaf mold from under the trees along the river bank is more satisfactory. Pulverized charcoal may help to keep the soil sweet and promote growth. A teaspoonful of lime in a pot may be appreciated by plants requiring a lime soil. These and many other new "wrinkles" will occur to the grower who really studies the needs of his seedlings, and the possibilities which they offer will add interest to the work.

Coarse material should, of course, always be placed in the bottom of containers to in-sure that necessary drainage. The containers should be filled to within about an inch and a half of the top and the soil gently firmed. Water may be applied by sprinkling the surface until all of the soil is thoroughly damp, or the container may be set in another dish of water until capillary at-traction has brought moisture to the top.

Although it is a little more trouble, the latter method is to be preferred. Top-watering is so apt to cause the soil to "run together" or "puddle" even though great care has been taken in mixing the soil, and this "puddling" seals the surface so as to exclude air which is as vital to the growth of the plants as is water. The "puddling" may occur in such small spots as to escape notice, but you may be sure that all plants that try to grow in such spots will show the effects of it.

All seeds should be sterilized with Semesan and then scattered evenly over the soil or distributed in rows. The seeds of many cacti are very small, and care should be taken not to plant them too closely together. Since not failure but low aim is crime," we suggest that, if your seeds are fresh and you have followed instructions faithfully, you assume that thirty to fifty percent of the seed will germinate. If you are going to transplant the seedlings while they are very small, you may plant the seeds much closer together than if you intend to leave them until they attain considerable size.

After the seeds are scattered, they should be covered with medium fine washed sand. Unless the sand is washed, it may contain enough soil so that it will cake after being wet, and even though washed, it may cake if it is too fine. The seed should be covered to a depth not more than two or three times the thickness of the seed.

Water may be given in a fine spray or with a small sprinkling can. The water should be applied very gently so as not to wash the sand and uncover the seed. It has already been stated that, although it is a little more trouble, better success will be secured by supplying water from below. By using this method, the soil is not likely to be-come water-logged or packed from the application of water from above. The amount of water to be kept in the dish depends on the depth of the seed-pan. A very little water is sufficient for a shallow pan, but it must be increased for deep pots. The surface of the soil should be kept moist at all times. Any neglect that permits the newly germinated seed to become dry even for a short time is fatal to them. This constant and uniform moisture cannot be easily maintained unless the seed pan is covered with glass in order to reduce evaporation. Moisture will sometimes accumulate on the under side of the glass and fall in such large drops that they may injure the tiny seedlings or wash the sand from above the seeds. It is good practice to remove the moisture at least once or twice a day if much of it accumulates on the glass. One end of the glass may be raised higher than the other so that the accumulated water will gather at the lower end of the glass instead of dropping directly on top of the plants.

The seed-pan should not be placed in the direct sunlight because the baby plants cannot withstand the burning rays of the sun which may be even intensified by the drops of moisture. The pans may be kept in the shade or one side of the glass may be covered with paper. As the young plants appear, the side of the glass should be raised a little to permit circulation of air. It should be raised more and more as the plants increase in size and then finally removed altogether.

There is only one way to know whether proper moisture is being maintained in the pans and that is by frequent examinations. The soil should be disturbed as little as possible in making the examination. A toothpick may be used to scrape through the sand to the soil beneath, and a very, very small hole is all that is necessary to learn the condition of the soil.

The seedlings may be transplanted as soon as the root system is established, but the roots of the very small seedlings are extremely delicate and easily injured. These very small plants do not yet have a sufficient food and moisture supply stored within them to tide them over the time required to produce new roots. It is, therefore, much better to see to it that the seedlings have sufficient room to grow in the original pans until they be-come husky babies with at least a few spines.

All transplanting should be done with care, and the soil about the roots disturbed as little as possible. Just because a plant may be able to live when roughly torn from the ground and transplanted is no proof that that is the proper method. The less violence one the root system in transplanting, the sooner will the plant recover from the shock and resume growth.

A few words should be said relative to the temperatures required for the germination of seed and the growth of seedlings. Since cacti are for the most part tropical or sub-tropical plants, it is to be expected that the seed will germinate best at relatively high temperatures. The soil should at no time be permitted to drop below a temperature of 70 F., and may be raised to 100° F. without injury. Temperatures either above or be-low these will have a tendency to cause uneven germination if they do not entirely prevent it. The ideal is a uniform temperature of about 800 F. The method used to secure this uniform heat depends much on the means available and the ingenuity of the grower. A radiator may be utilized in the winter time; an electric light bulb may be so arranged under the seed-pan that it will give sufficient additional heat; modified sun-light may be all that is necessary. It is suggested that a little experimenting be done before the seeds are actually planted so that the grower may determine the best method of maintaining the required heat without endangering precious seed. Make up a seed-pan ready for seed even to the moisture content. Put a thermometer in the pan with the bulb buried about halfway between the top and the bottom soil. Put the glass over the top of the pan, and operate for a few days just as if it contained seeds and note the temperature carefully. In this way you can soon establish a routine which will eliminate fluctuations of temperature with surprising success.

Many people have been disappointed and discouraged by failures in their first attempts to grow cactus seedlings. They have come to feel that there are such intricate and complicated processes involved that only the professional may undertake it with success. Such is not true. The processes are so simple that any one with normal intelligence may easily carry them out, and the equipment is likewise simple and inexpensive. The novice, however, must bear this one thing firmly in mind: that, simple as these conditions seem, they must all be provided if success is to be assured. Neglect of just one of these conditions may ruin the entire project no matter how faithfully all other conditions are supplied. Those who have experienced difficulty in growing seedlings will probably find that they have failed to meet one or more of the conditions listed above.

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