One of the best pieces of advice I received early in my career as a freelance journalist was this: If you can think of a problem that worries a lot of people, and you have a good idea how to solve it, then you will have no trouble selling the article. Lots of magazines want these articles, and usually feature them on the cover, such as how to lose weight easily without dieting; how to stretch your wages to cover all your expenses; how to choose the clothes that will flatter your figure … the list is endless.
I have a number of friends that have never been successful as gardeners … one tells me she gets gifts of house plants, and they always die on her very quickly. I thought about this and came up with the plant that it’s almost impossible to kill – and sure enough I sold it to a gardening magazine. You can think of other problems and if you can come up with a good solution, send the idea to a suitable magazine and smile when your idea is accepted. Here’s one solution that resulted in a sale:
THE MOST CARE-FREE PLANT OF ALL
by DVORA WAYSMAN
What plant can you own for a lifetime, neglect for weeks at a time, have in dozens of different varieties, is green but has no leaves, and you can propagate just by breaking off a piece and sticking it into the ground? You don’t need to be a genius to come up with the answer. The cactus plant is the one plant that needs no pampering, and will make a great gift for friends who have never been successful in keeping any other plant alive.
Not every gardener loves cacti, but those who criticise it the most, often don’t know all the varieties available, some of which are very decorative and have beautiful blossoms, even fragrant ones. I have had one particular cactus for twenty years, which began with tiny thorny balls. Now ten times its original size, it has adorned itself with a wreath of carmine, yellow and pink blossoms. There is a beautiful cactus known as “Queen of the Night” which is a snake-like climber and in a single Summer night will produce several big pink or white fragrant flowers. Sadly they fade late the next morning, hence its name.
Cacti belong to a large family of succulents, which are fleshy, juicy plants. Their water-storing cells are a reservoir of food and moisture and in arid regions enable them to survive long droughts. They evolved from related plants that adapted to changing climactic conditions. Once they were probably ordinary leaf-bearing plants, but as their environment changed, they either had to disappear or develop a storage system for emergencies. They are nearly all natives of the Americas, and can be traced from Canada down through all of Latin America, from sea-level to the highest mountains. They are capable of growing 15 meters high and a meter in diameter, and some have been known to last for several hundred years.
The Incas and Aztecs of ancient Latin America had many uses for cacti. The large spiked varieties were used for sacrificial altars. Agave plants gave sisal fiber to make ropes and jute (and still do!) The spikes made arrow-heads. From the stem comes a juice used in alcoholic drinks, The Mayas prepared medicine against fever from cacti, and the Indians used crushed cactus to heal bone fractures. Aloe vera is a well-known remedy for burns. Some cacti are the source of narcotic substances such as tranquillizers. Today there are 200 known cactus families with 1,000 different species. Many public gardens have a cactus corner, and I remember a spectacular cactus garden of unusual varieties at Kibbutz Yavne in Israel.
During the Winter in Israel, cacti in the garden need no watering as they are dormant . If you have them in indoor pots, a light watering or misting every three weeks is enough, and you don’t need any compost or fertilizer until Spring . The only help they need is an occasional “airing” with a fork, and maybe a spray with tepid water to refresh and remove dust from the foliage. The only real sin in raising cacti is to overwater … they will turn yellow, grey or brown and droop. If they grow too big for their containers, you can re-pot them in April, using 4 parts red soil, 1 part pulverized brick or broken clay, and 1 part powdered charcoal. That’s what is recommended, but I’ve found cacti to thrive in almost any soil.
The Latin names are hard to pronounce and remember, but they are easily identifiable as “snake cactus”, “globe”, “bishop’s mitre”, “hedgehog”, “sea urchin” which is really “echino” and of course our very own “sabra” found growing wild all over Israel.
The “Sabra” (Opuntia) first immigrated to Israel 150 years ago. Agave, often found in Moslem cemeteries, was used as a symbol of longevity, fertility and decoration. It is an easy to grow, useful plant with its delicious edible fruit. It was shipped to Spain from the New World and from there jumped via Gibralter to Morocco, Libya, Egypt and Palestine.
Although anyone can grow cacti successfully, there are a few hints. They need adequate light and will never produce flowers in full shade. They need direct sunlight several hours a day. Water them every 3 days in Summer; once a week in Autumn and Spring. From December to February, don’t water them at all. They don’t need any special fertilizers and grow well without any artificial nourishment. You can propagate them very easily from cuttings or side shoots. Species with long stems can be cut into several parts, and each will take root. They are a gift that goes on giving, because you can start new plants every Spring and Autumn, and plant them in hanging baskets or colorful pots, knowing that they should last a lifetime. They are also ideal for a rockery.
They say that if you want to be happy for a lifetime, become a gardener. And to make a cactus collection or a special cactus garden, you don’t need a green thumb … anyone can do it. Look for unusual varieties and you’ll find that they become not only a source of pleasure, but a great topic of conversation.