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Cacti and succulents make great dish gardens

Succulents should be placed in bright light or in front of a sunny window for growth.

It is popular these days to create dish gardens with a combination of succulent plants. Although this is not a new idea, the selection of small succulents available is amazing. It is hard to pick just a few, as each one seems more interesting or colorful than the last.

One must choose plants that are compatible in growth rate so that some don't overgrow the rest. More important, they must have similar watering requirements. Keep in mind that cacti need less water than other succulents. The dishes seldom have drain holes, so it is important not to overwater. The number of plants compared to the amount of soil may keep a dish garden from rotting. Shards or gravel at the bottom may help, but you should tip the bowl to drain it after watering. That way the excess water is not eventually drawn back into the soil.

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Succulents are the camels of the plant world because they have the ability to store moisture in the tissues of their stems, leaves or both. They lose moisture by transpiration more slowly than other plants.

Succulents are found worldwide and not just in desert regions. Cacti from tropical forests are 'epiphytic' because they grow on trees. These frequently have more slender stems, often flattened. A few hardy kinds of succulents, such as sedums and sempervivums (hens and chicks) are commonly grown outdoors in northern climates.

Growing succulents indoors is not difficult if you imitate the conditions they find in nature. Soil, water and light are important.

Plants growing in the desert are not necessarily growing in poor soil. It is sandy and loose, but rain does not wash out the nutrients so it is fairly rich in mineral salts. Cacti mixes are available, but you can make your own by adding one part coarse sand, perlite or pumice to one part potting soil. If you moisten the mix and squeeze it in your hand, the soil should fall apart once you release it. Use a sterile pot and medium and do not use a pot that is too large or the soil will remain wet too long and cause root rot. Most cacti and succulents benefit from occasional dilute feedings when they are actively growing.

Succulents need an alternation of wet and dry periods. Desert cacti need to rest from October to March with little or no watering and cool night temperatures. Water only enough to prevent shrinking and withering. The rule of thumb is 'when you water, water well and if in doubt don't. Check the soil, which may dry out in a few days in hot dry weather, but take weeks in overcast, cold wintry days. Top dressings, like small pebbles or coarse gravel allow quicker water penetration, slower evaporation and a neat appearance.

Succulents require sufficient light for healthy growth, so put them in the brightest light or sunniest window indoors. They need at least 4 to 6 hours of bright light daily so you may need to supplement with fluorescent lights. Some cacti can handle full sun outside, but in the hottest days they are happy to have some afternoon shade. Most cacti and succulents benefit from being outside during the summer. Gradually move them from a semi-shade location to a sunnier one, but avoid areas that are open to the sun from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Succulents are easy to propagate with stem cuttings. Break off or cut a side branch at a joint. Let the cut end dry out and form a callus for two to three days. Stick the cutting in slightly moistened, coarse sand or a peat moss sand mix. Don't' cover the pot and let the media dry out before watering. Repot overgrown plants once the roots have filled the pot. Handle spiny plants with care using rubber gloves, tongs wrapped with tape or a rolled newspaper as a sling.

There are few pests or diseases that trouble succulents. Wipe off mealy bugs with alcohol-dipped cotton swabs. Scrape off scale with a blunt instrument. Do not use insecticidal soaps.

Although you may think that succulents are too different or exotic to grow, you may already have a few. Many of us grow aloe, whose sap is used to soothe burns. Jade plants are very common and you might have some cacti or an Agave (Century Plant) brought back from Arizona. Kalanchoes and Christmas or Easter cacti brighten many homes. Almost everyone has some form of sedum and some hen and chicks. Use some of what you have and add some of the more odd succulents to make your own dish garden.

I have found many of the small succulents for sale at gardening seminars. The next one, sponsored by NDSU Extension Service is at East Grand Forks Senior High, 1420 4th Ave. NW, East Grand Forks, Minn on April 10. The cost is $25 if you pre-register by Tuesday, April 6. Call 701-780-8229 for more information.

Breitling is a longtime

West Fargo resident and

avid gardener always in

search of new ideas.