By Ellaine Kryss Hubilla

There is a growing interest in ornamental plants among millennials, and Ron Apostol, 31, is no exception, especially when it comes to cacti. The ornamental plant collector started at a young age and was able to establish his own greenhouse with the help of his very supportive parents.

Privileged to have an early subscription to The National Geographic magazine, Apostol was able to feed his curiosities and fascination with cacti; but the journey in propagating his own plants was never easy.

“I killed a lot of plants because I didn’t know how to take care of them… I didn’t know what they were,” he admitted. But slowly, he was able to improve his skills, even without a formal degree in agriculture.

Some collectors grow their plants in beautiful containers, which can range from commercially-sold pottery or planters, to custom, one-of-a-kind artistic works.

His strong interest in the sciences helped him grow his plants, “I read about them, I learned their scientific names, I learned their habitat, then I tried to apply it with how I grow the plants,” he says.

And when it comes to his goal in this industry, Apostol plans to “primarily to be selling my own propagation, and the stuff that I grow myself,” and “I want to grow my own plants; I don’t want to resell somebody else’s plants.”

Being aware that a lot of people, especially the youth, have taken an interest in propagating cacti and succulents, he parlayed his love for cacti into earnings by conducting seminars, appearing as a resource speaker, and selling his own plants.

He offers plants starting at R100 for the easy-to-care, common varieties, with rare and uncommon varieties normally going for P500 to P2,000, depending on rarity, size, and availability. The plants he offers are acclimatized, well-rooted, and potted in nice plastic pots with a suitable potting mix; hence, the premium price.

Apostol shared three important tips that can benefit newbie cactus enthusiasts:

Make sure they get enough sun

The most common mistake is keeping plants indoors. It’s hard to blame people if they keep placing their cacti and succulents indoors due to their attractiveness.

However, doing it for aesthetic purposes may compromise their need for sunlight. Cacti should preferably be placed in the veranda or on a window sill where it can still get enough sunlight.

“What might appear bright for us as humans may not necessarily be bright enough for the plant,” Apostol explained. One misconception is that cacti and succulents come from desert areas only. “They still generally came from areas that are extremely bright,” like arid places, prairies, and hillsides. If a plant like a cactus is receiving enough sunlight, it will root properly and will have a better ability to tolerate bad soil.

Don’t overwater

Cacti and succulents are long-lived plants. However, some people tend to treat them like short-lived ornamentals or in some worst cases, like vegetables that are meant to be harvested in two to three months.

Haworthias are highly succulent rosette plants from South Africa. Some of the plants have translucent or transparent cells in their leaf tips, called window cells, that allow them to grow in harsh environments. Colorful and very ornamental varieties exist, and the most in-demand or most unique varieties can go for several thousands of dollars.

Just like many plants, cacti like water, but at the same time, they want their roots to breathe, which requires that their soil be dry, open, and airy. The pot where the cactus is housed must have air pockets so there’s a way to drain the water. Cacti and succulents whose roots are suffocated from overwatering suffer from “wet feet” and usually end up rotten.

Give it time and room to grow 

Generally, most cacti grow slowly, about 1 to 3 cm per year, but this varies depending on the species. Just like other plants, cacti and succulents would be grateful for a small amount of compost and fertilizer. Their soft flesh might be vulnerable to pests if they are made to grow faster than they should.

The choice of the pot where the cactus will be housed can greatly affect its growth. A misconception is that putting one’s cactus in a giant pot will make it grow bigger. This is not true. The size of the pot must be adequate with the type of cactus you’ll put there. Since cacti have small root systems, they do not require a lot of space.

A lot of cactus enthusiasts tend to communicate with and seek help from each other when it comes to cultivating their plants. Inquiring what could be the best fertilizers and pesticides or simply choosing the kind of pot where to put their plant is important for them as cultivators. They usually prefer what they think is the ‘best’ or most suitable for their plants, even if they may be hard to acquire. However, it is not always necessary because what’s more important is the accessibility of materials. It is better to make use of what you currently have to propagate your cacti and succulents because what’s best for other plants might not be what your plants need.

Even the cheapest type of cactus, known as “common varieties” which costs about P25-P30 that people usually buy to start with can survive for a long time if cultivated properly.

Keeping an eye on what your plant needs and how to take care of them properly is the best way to propagate them.

But propagation is not limited to these alone. There is no standard technique that will guarantee the growth of your plant except for providing them with enough sunlight, proper soil and water, and acknowledging the limitations of their aesthetic purpose as ornamental plants. This is because even a family of Cactaceae can be cultivated in different ways. Also, include good minor judgments in assessing what your cactus needs, such as whether they’re lacking or receiving too much of something, can greatly improve the health of the plant.  (Photos courtesy of Ron Apostol)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s March 2020 issue.