The Cactus Patch
Volume 3       March 2000      Number 3

Weird Winter Ramblings
by Rob Skillin

This has been a most unusual winter for many of the succulents in my heated greenhouse. In fact, quite a few seem to think that winter has never arrived at all.

My adeniums usually drop all their leaves as the days grow shorter, but this season they have tried to hold on as best they can. The range extends from compete ignorance of proper behavior, to dropping most leaves and making up for it by flowering sporadically all winter. The adenias to, are a bit confused. They are going through a very slow winding down process, and probably won't loose all their leaves before its time to take off again in the spring (not far away now). The pachypodiums are a mixed lot; some acted rationally and went to sleep, while others have tried to stay up all night. My dioscoreas take it even further, and insist on active growth, as do the cephalopendantras. Their climbing, vine-like shoots are creeping all over the greenhouse, getting intertwined with anything that provides a hold for their grasping tendrils. I'll want to move them outside when the weather warms, and will have to try to untangle it all. Only the cyphostemmas and the sesamothamnus stuck with their usual pattern of establishing an early, and defiant, dormancy.

This unusual and variable behavior has made watering a headache, as I don't really think most of them should have it, but many of them obviously want it. So I have been going along, and letting them take the lead. If they grow, I provide water, if not, I withhold it. This has worked well, and I haven't had any losses.

My latest project has been planting a variety of mesemb seed. I probably should have gotten it done a couple of months ago, but didn't get to it until early February. I use a wooden framed tray that has heating cables in the bottom, which are covered with an inch of sand to evenly distribute the heat. Into the tray goes a plastic "under the bed" type storage box with a tight fitting lid. I've cut most of the top out of the lid and replaced it with window screen, in order to keep out sciara flies, but still allow for air circulation. Initially, the lid is replaced with a sheet of glass, to keep the moisture level high and promote germination. Finally, inside the storage box go the individual seed pots. They are 2" square, and half filled with perlite, then topped off with my regular fine grained potting soil. The seeds are sprinkled on top, and barely covered with a coarse grit. I then soak them in a Chinosol solution (a mild antiseptic), and for good measure, spray the surface heavily with Aliette, a fungicide. It all goes under two banks of fluorescent lights, which are suspended just an inch over the glass to keep the light level high. I use a combination of regular and wide spectrum lights, and keep them on 24 hours a day.

The first seeds started germinating within several days, and after 4 or 5 days I replaced the glass top with the screen lid. At this time I also set up a fan to blow away excess humidity in the air. To keep the soil from drying out, I mist them daily. The trick is to keep a good water balance, giving them enough to replace that which evaporates, but not completely saturating the pots. I've been adding a bit of fertilizer to the misting water, which speeds up their growth. Germination has proceeded steadily, and each of the 48 pots now has tiny seedlings in it, the slowest finally coming up about a month after planting.

All my precautions against damping off (the Chinosol and Aliette, the forced air circulation, and careful watering) have succeeded, and no plants have been lost- a big improvement over my past attempts. In previous years, I had relied primarily on soil sterilization to prevent it, but didn't bother this time. I think the free air circulation is a much more important factor.

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