Cactus and succulents

Cacti: my New Friends!

For the first 10 years of my job as a horticulturist, I stayed away from cacti. Those little beasts die all the time. They are said to be adapted to the most extreme climatic conditions, but they’ll shrivel up at the slightest attention we give them at home. In truth, I avoided cacti for years because I didn’t know how to keep them alive!

Me and my new friends! Image: Mathilde Bourgeois on Canva.

But that changed. In 2009! That year, I had to organize a photo shooting for a gardening magazine, and the theme was a terrace in the sun, with a little touch of the Mexican courtyard. Cacti were a must. So I bought a dozen of them in terracotta pots to place here and there on the terrace.

A Thorny Problem

Once the day was over, we returned the furniture, cushions and decorative objects to the store. I had to take home the cacti. Oh no. Not the cacti! I left them outside all summer and fall, in a semi-shaded corner of the garden, completely ignoring them. Out of sight, out of mind. I honestly hoped they would vanish and I would be free!

Quite the opposite happened. When the time came to move all my cold-sensitive plants into the house, what was my surprise to find in the bushes at the end of my garden a dozen cacti, each one happier than the other! Much too beautiful to be composted… In my great gardening philosophy, the first rule is “grow or die!” Over the years I’ve learned to recover from the grief of losing a plant. I don’t hesitate to compost a beautiful plant invaded by scales (goodbye! Mandevilla ). I can destroy a rare plant that’s giving me a hard time (yes, I’m talking about you , Vernonia ‘Alba’). With a few shovel strokes, without feeling guilty. But kill a plant that is doing well, very well… never!

This Peruvian Old Man has kept me company for 15 years now. He was a few inches high when I took him in. Image: Julie Boudreau.

So I painfully (in every sense of the word) gathered the rejects from my garden and opened to them the doors of my indoor plant kingdom. But where to put them?

The Winning Conditions for Growing Cacti Indoors, JulieB Style

In my case, the option was to place my cacti in a dormant period. So I opted for a location in the basement, where the temperature is around 60 to 65 F (16 to 18 °C). Coolness slows growth. I also chose to place them directly on the sill of an east-facing window. My cacti get some sun in the morning and good light the rest of the day. Also, the coolness released near the window in winter does not bother them at all. I can confirm to you, having more or less voluntarily forgotten them outside after a few cold nights that cacti can survive a light frost. Down to around 25 F (-4°C). So, no worries about the temperature. And finally, the icing on the cake: I don’t water my cacti… all winter! Not a drop. Nothing. Nada. Rien. No growth, no flowering. They sleep.

And therein resides the main cause of cactus mortality in my house. I watered them in the winter. And like you, I was tempted to water them a little more when I saw them shrivel up. It took me a long time to figure out that they shrivel up from excess water. In short, I don’t quite take care of my cacti as recommended , but who cares; it works for me!

When the good weather returns, I take them out in front of the house, under the cornice where they are in the shade, and I give them a good splash, to wake them up. And life continues! Then they return to the garden for the summer, but this time in more respectable locations!

Proud of my first successes, I continued to take care of my beautiful nameless cacti (because often cacti are sold in mixed trays without being identified by their Latin name). I even repotted some of my early cacti into bigger pots. Summer makes them fat!

The Family is Growing!

And here I am in 2022, adding one or two new cacti to my collection year after year. I have a soft spot for Mammillarias (Mammillaria spp ), which are very generous with their flowering. They are usually ball-shaped cacti. I particularly like Mammillaria candida , M. hahniana and M. duwei , which are fairly easy to find in the no-name cactus assortments. There are always small flowers blooming on these ball-shaped cacti.

I also really enjoy discovering the incredible diversity of pear cacti, of the Opuntia genus,such as O. microdasys , O. humifusa and O. monacanthos.

And finally, a few unique species have found their way onto my windowsill: the pine cone cactus (Tephrocactus articulatus var. inermis) and the ‘Fairy Castle’ cactus (Ancanthocereus tetragonus ‘Fairy Castle’). All that to say that now I buy them voluntarily and look forward to discovering new species.

However, there is a certain limit to the number of cacti I can cram on the sill of my basement window. No problem! I now have three grown daughters in apartments to whom I can pass on my surpluses. And since they don’t read my blog, they always have room for a new, living cactus!?

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

7 comments on “Cacti: my New Friends!

  1. Collin Felten

    Please consider exploring trichocereus, they’re an amazing genus

  2. I have a Peruvian old man from my sisters wedding four years ago. It was less than three inches tall when I got it but now it is nearing 16.

  3. A friend of mine, here in Sudbury where winters can be brutal. He has a Cactus (looks like the O. Himifusa ?) situated right along the sidewalk. Poor thing gets battered but has survived many winters being trod on by pedestrians and snow removal – I couldn’t believe it. Now – yup! I just ignore the cacti and they do thrive. Even had one bloom much to my surprise

  4. Killing with kindness seems to be the number cause of mortality in plants. I have an extensive collection of succulents and some cacti that overwinter beautifully indoors in a variety of spots and in a cold non-freezing garage. Just be careful as depending where the plant’s origins are they might not tolerate cold temperatures.

  5. Thanks for this Julie. I do exactly the same as you with my cactus and they just love this treatment. I also give this treatment to my Jade succulents and they too tolerate and like a winter rest period. It is also easier for some of us who go away for a month or so in the winter to warmer climes as our Cactus take care of themselves and they are so easy to grow. Not so with repotting though that can be prickly.

  6. I love your cacti collection! I will share an older post of mine about the cacti I fell in love with while visiting Arizona. Now, you have inspired me to grow some at home! Thank you! ??

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