From the Digest

I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

Don’t be afraid to manipulate your plants by altering how the roots grow, or trimming and wiring to achieve a certain look.

By Eric Driskill (December 2021)
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When I heard about and joined the Henry Shaw Cactus and Succulent Society, I wasn’t new to growing and collecting cacti, but I had no idea how little I knew. Joining our local society, I was immediately amazed that there were even a couple of other people who enjoyed these plants enough to collect them, much less join or participate in a “society.”

Up until that time, my collection was about 35 rather large cacti that I had been growing for the last 15 years. At that time, I lived in a duplex, and being summer, I had all my plants, except two, out on my front porch and in among the landscaping hedges. One morning when I was leaving for work, I opened my door to find every single one of my plants had been stolen. To say I was bummed at work that day would be an understatement.

Little did I know that the succulent gods were smiling on me that day. I worked at a college, and at the time I had a calendar on my office wall with pictures of iconic cacti on display for each month. I spent that day advising students who were registering for the upcoming semester. My last appointment was a young lady who, after sitting down and noticing my calendar asked, “Oh, so you like cactus?”

I told her about my entire collection being swiped that very morning, and she told me I should join the cactus society to which her grandmother belonged. Maybe the society members could help me rebuild my collection. As I write this, it occurs to me that I never found out who her grandmother was or thanked that young lady for informing me about our local society.

Try staging plants in different pots and orientations.

More Plants, More Variety

After talking with members, I was gifted with some cuttings and a few pity(?) plants, and learned there was a nursery, Drummond, not too far from town that specialized in succulents. I quickly began to rebuild my collection. With one trip to that nursery, I saw more variety of cacti and succulents than I knew existed. Not only did I rebuild my plant collection with more plants, but with a much wider variety.

I began checking out books from the society and buying some of those same books for myself. My plant wish list rapidly grew, and is still growing to this day.

During the first several years of collecting plants, I mostly purchased smaller, less expensive plants. As time went on and my collection continued to grow, I sought out weirder and rarer plants, and began to purchase some larger, more expensive specimen plants. Some of those plants were the ones that society members referred to as “difficult to grow” or “temperamental” or “easy to lose.” Here is where I wished I knew then what I know now.

Fear and Caution

From that time and continuing for eight to 10 years, I continued to grow my collection and ultimately built a greenhouse. During that time, I grew most of my plants well. Well … I kept most of my plants alive and grew some of them well.

As my collection grew and I began to purchase some of those more “challenging” (expensive) plants, I was often scared to do anything for fear I would do the wrong thing. I may have wound up killing one of the “be careful how much you water that one” plants for lack of water. A few of the “be careful when you repot that one because it is touchy about being repotted” plants may have been left in the same pot for many years – where they may have lived but didn’t thrive. Being overcautious can sometimes be just as detrimental as not being cautious enough.

This succulent tree is highly trimmed and staged with petrified wood.

Try New Things

Ultimately, I established a raised free-root-run bed in which to grow some of my plants during the summer. In April or May, I would begin to unpot plants and transfer them into the raised bed, where they grew roots unrestricted until the fall. Each year, I find a delicate balance between leaving plants in there to grow just a bit more, versus getting them out and back in a pot before temperatures dip low enough to damage or kill the plants. With my raised bed, I began to see the results of trying new things and not being so cautious as to not try anything at all.

For years, I hesitated to trim, shape, prune or otherwise manipulate my plants for fear of killing them. With my raised bed, I began to manipulate roots to grow a certain way. I also began to do a lot more with my plants as far as pruning, shaping and sometimes slashing. I learned that very often these plants are very forgiving and respond quite well to manipulations. I sometimes wonder what some of my plants would look like today if I had started doing this earlier.

Have a Goal

With my new mindset, I often study a plant, come up with an image of what I want the plant to look like in the future and then begin to manipulate it toward that goal. It is nice to not only have a goal, but to play a much more active part in what my plants look like and how I grow and shape them. Trust me, it is so nice to have that ownership and satisfaction of knowing you played such a big part in what plants looks like.

There are temperamental, “difficult” plants, but those tags usually mean you really need to educate yourself about the plants and how they grow in habitat to determine their needs. Find out what wiggle room you have to adjust any certain parameter to accomplish your goal for a plant.

Do take advice from other growers, but don’t be so overcautious that you don’t risk finding new and more enjoyable approaches to this hobby and your plants. Start off manipulating the smaller or cheaper ones. Buy two or three, and try something different with each one. I bet you will be surprised what you can accomplish and how you can shape and mold your collection in ways you might not have thought possible.

I Wish …

In a nutshell, here is what I wish I knew then that I know now:

  • When you buy a plant, repot it right away. Check the roots, inspect the plant and repot.
  • Learn ways and to what extent you can manipulate your plants by altering how the roots grow, or trimming, shaping and wiring to achieve a certain look.
  • Look for ways to better stage your plants in different pots, at different angles or orientations, and with additions such as rocks to achieve a look more like habitat.
  • Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, take some risks and try some new things. When you stumble upon something that works great, share it with others in the hobby.
  • Try experimenting in varied ways by altering the amount or frequency of watering, light and temperature. Try different growing media, pot sizes, etc.
  • Be sure to take photos to see your results and share them more easily.
  • Take good notes so you can reflect on what results you get and be better prepared to continue to adjust.