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Watch Out for Mealy Bugs

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By mid to late winter the mealy bugs have decided to descend in full force on plants in the greenhouse. Lack of air circulation seems to be the prime factor with these pesky little bugs because this is when I always have the most trouble with them, when they have been inside for the winter. Mealy bugs can appear at any time of the year, mind you, but poor air movement, trapped humidity, and cramped quarters seem to be what make them thrive. I don’t think they can survive freezing weather on outdoor plants, or maybe they just hunker down and sit dormant, waiting for warm weather to come back.  Indoor plants, however, provide them with a nice place to live when it is cold and icy outside.

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These aren’t very appealing pictures to begin a story with, but this is what mealy bugs look like, if you have never had to deal with them. The very first picture is a good portrait of them at the top of their game. The next three pictures are of slightly older groups of the bugs. This is what mealy bugs look like-NOT to be confused with white spots that are supposed to be on certain species of cactus, especially on astrophytums, like these next two pictures-
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Notice how the spots-white trichomes, if you want to get technical- form a pattern on this astrophytum capricorn, and the smaller one below;
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You can scrub and scrub on these spots which are slightly raised and nubby to the touch, and they aren’t coming off. In fact, you don’t want them off. This flocking, as it is called, is part of the plant.

These are the tools I use to fight mealy bugs: soapy water, a child-size soft toothbrush, and a wooden cooking skewer. And many times my fingers and fingernails.
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Mix up a teaspoon or so of liquid dishwashing soap-I use Dawn-and water in a spray bottle, and saturate the infested areas with the spray. If I can get to them, I try to physically wipe or scrub the bugs off the plant first and then spray again to wash away what I have loosened that is still on the plant. The soft toothbrush is handy to scrub firm plant surfaces and to get in between spines and in crevices of the plant. I use the skewer to get down into deep ridges that the toothbrush might not reach, but be careful to do that gently or you will damage the epidermis of the cactus.

As far as I know, there is no rhyme or reason for the plants they seem to attack the most. The majority of my plants have never had mealy bugs; others seem to send out engraved invitations. Be sure to check the underside of leaves and keep dead dried leaves cleaned out under plants. I would spray all plants at least once a week, just for good maintenance, and infested areas every couple of days until you see evidence that you have stopped them. Sometimes the bugs will get down below the surface of the dirt and in the roots of the plant. Then you have to take more drastic measures if you want to save the plant. Take it out of the pot, wash all the soil away from the roots, let the bare roots dry for a day or two; then repot in clean soil. And still spray the plant regularly with the soapy water.

The trick to mealy bugs is to catch them early when you see just one or two. This, of course, means you have to check your plants regularly, which you do anyway. Adding a fan or two for air circulation would probably help as well.

Just so you know, the soapy water will work or regular foliage plants as well.

Be diligent in your inspections, and you will be rewarded. Mealy bugs can be sent packing!

Keeping Your Cactus Warm

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When I started this, we had had below freezing weather for too many days in a row. I lost count, but suffice it say I have worn my long underwear under my jeans to stay warm in and out of the house. I probably don’t need them in the house, but it saves having to dress and undress when going outside to check the greenhouse, walk the dogs, whatever. My little greenhouse has insulation, but when it drops into the low teens, like it will tonight and has done for several nights running, I turn on two heaters full blast to keep it warm.
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Now those of you living in Wyoming and Minnesota and such aren’t phased by a puny 8 or 18 degrees; I understand that. I can hear you snorting and rolling your eyes already. But it is all relative. And still darn cold. And still an issue. So cactus lovers must do what’s necessary to protect their collections. One medium-sized space heater has worked in the past, but when we have several days when it doesn’t warm up even during the day above freezing, it’s time to drag out the second heater.
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Rest assured I do know that I break every safety rule recommended for space heaters. I use one of those industrial-size orange extension cords to get power to the second one. They both run all night and part of the day unattended. I do check on things during the day and at least once before bedtime; so far, so good. I think the plan is to install a gas heater next year. I’ll let you know how that works.

I have been told by the experts that simply keeping the temperature above 32 degrees and keeping the plants dry will work just fine. I’m not comfortable with that; anything in the 30s just seems too cold. I am much happier with the warmth between 40 and 50 degrees, and the plants seem happier.
 
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It must be working; this senecio cephalophorus is blooming, several mammillarias are ringed with pink flowers, euphoribia milii is blooming, and the kalanchoes are getting ready. You heat your greenhouse to a temp that makes you happy. But do give them some heat, or you will be replacing plants in the spring.

When It Finally Rains, It Pours

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Or, “How to Drown Your Cactus!’’ Keep in mind that we have been in a severe drought for, what, about six years? But today, June 18, the bottom fell out of a cloud, not once, but twice, serving up a quintessential example of the classic gully-washer/turd floater heck of a rain. And while I certainly can’t complain-the yard and trees and pasture were eternally grateful-I suspect the cactus are about ready for it to quit.

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In the last two weeks or so we have seen rain for the first time since last October. Our rain gauge indicated something over five inches, which for those of you reading this on your laptop as you enjoy your lush, green back yard in Houston, where it recently rained six inches in one day!, this is no big deal. But to us out here in dry West Texas where most of the top soil has long blown away to Kansas or somewhere because we had no ground cover, thanks to the drought, this is manna from heaven. I think today we had about three inches and it took a while for it to soak in or run off since the ground was somewhat wet to begin with this time.

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The irony, of course, is that the cactus do well here being the drought-tolerant plants that they are, and right now they are standing in water! Which will be fine, provided all the standing water has time to soak in and let the ground dry out a bit before another deluge hits, if we are so blessed. This is also why you want to put your cactus in a well-drained area with porous soil. Under normal circumstances, my cactus are high and dry. But these aren’t normal circumstances for around here.

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We also had hail, and the cactus, with their protective spines, managed to suffer little damage. My succulents, on the other hand, took some hits that tore off branches on some of the kalanchoes, put holes in jade tree leaves, and knocked lots of leaves off sedums and senecios. They will bounce back, but some, like my very big and very old gasteria, will have scars that heal but don’t go away and will remain for the life of the plant.

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In the long run, the cactus will benefit from this rain just like the trees will; in the short run, I expect to lose a few specimens before it is all over with. And I’ll just have to deal with it. We had to have the rain.

So just remember to consider good drainage for plants both in the ground and in pots, empty any saucers under your plants so they won’t set in water, and make sure you let them completely dry out, maybe wait two weeks to a month, even,  after a big rain before you water by hand.

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And everything will be okay.

Cactus and Rain

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Cactus, being drought-tolerant plants, don’t like rain, right? Select ones may not, but it has been my experience that while cactus and succulents certainly survive without water, they thrive with it. In moderate amounts, of course. Give them a good rain shower and they just go crazy; they plump up, grow, and make glorious flowers. The key is good drainage and not letting them sit and stay soggy for days. We finally have had rain over the last two weeks and everything perked up, cactus included. I also collect rain water in barrels, for those stretches when rain is seldom seen, and use that to water my cactus. The picture above was taken after we had the first of the rain. You can see they just outdid themselves.

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See that nice green grass in the pasture behind the prickly pear? We haven’t seen that in Muleshoe for it seems like forever.

And a good rain on the cactus bed makes it so much easier to weed. I didn’t think to take a before picture, but we all know how unkempt and messy and ugly any flower bed looks with weeds, but I think cactus look even sadder, and the bad part is that once the weeds take over, it is really hard to get them out and under control again. It is also much easier to grab a weed hiding a cactus,and well, as you know, you will come up with a handful of spines. So when you are blessed with rain, seize the moment and get down and dirty pulling those weeds. The fact that the ground is soft allows the weed to come up easier which makes it easier on your hands with the weeds closest to the spines of the cactus.

So make sure your cactus aren’t sitting in water, that their soil is porous enough for good drainage, let them dry out completely after the rain has drenched them: then sit back and enjoy.

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Watering Outside Cactus in the Winter

Texas, along with many other states, has been in a drought for the last few years, so many I have lost count, and this winter was especially dry. And even though cactus and succulents are supposed to live in dry, arid conditions, mine took a deadly hit from this year’s lack of moisture.

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Walking through the garden the other day, I was dismayed to discover I had lost one of my biggest, nicest Texas horse cripplers, one native to this area. This particular plant was quite large, meaning it was old, and perhaps its time had just come. But I fear its demise was in part from my lack of an occasional watering during the winter this year. We are always advised by the experts to cut back on water during the winter so the cactus won’t drink up the water, freeze, and then have tissue damage from that freezing and expanding process. We are also told to cut back on water for potted specimens, as most tend to go dormant in our winter time.

I used to water more in the winter than I have for the last few winters, based on this advice from people who have raised cactus longer than I have. But based on the growth of my potted cactus and the sad state of my cold-hardy outdoor cactus, I think I am going back to what worked for me before; only slightly less water for the potted plants, and outdoor watering during warm spells in the winter.

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Now, obviously, you have to consider individual needs of certain specimens. For example, I did water the Wyoming cactus bed a few times, knowing that in their native habitat they would soak up melted snow all winter. That bed looks good and the plants are already making buds. The West Texas cactus, which should be used to drier conditions, still need a little shot of water now and then during the winter. I failed them this year. Inside, many of the succulents do better with more water during the winter, such as the kalanchoes, which I have watered a bit more and are rewarding me now with lots of blooms; they will bloom again in the summer. Living stones, by contrast, I water more in the winter and much less in the summer. They are blooming now as well.

So get to know your plants and their needs, trust your gut, and do what works for you in your area.

Don’t Be Afraid to Prune Your Jade Tree

Crassula ovata, commonly referred to as a jade tree, is one of the more popular and easily grown succulents. If it is given the right growing conditions. With enough sunlight and correct watering and trimming, crassula ovata will grow into a lovely plant shaped like a tree, hence the name jade tree. If the plant has to reach for the sunlight, however, it will reach out desperately, becoming leggy and misshapen, and the only way to fix it is a major pruning session. Which is the case for all light-deprived succulents. But I digress-that’s another story for another day.

So, back to this jade tree: years ago I gave a cutting to a friend who placed it in front of a less than adequate small south window in his office. The little tree grew but never really had enough light to develop properly. For a crassula to grow up to look like a tree, it also has to be trimmed and shaped as it grows, which this one was not. Time passed and my friend grew weary of the plant, which by now had gotten pretty big. But it was all over the place and uprooting itself out the pot. He asked me if I wanted it back. Well, I had no choice but to take it back as it was begging for some attention.

I brought it home and promptly cut it back to nothing but its fat trunk. And unfortunately, I did not have the presence of mind to take a picture of it before pruning and repotting so I would have a true before picture. What I trimmed off filled a 5-gallon bucket and then some. When I finished pruning and repotting, this is what it looked liked:

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That was about three weeks ago. Alas, I also failed to document the day I brought it home, but that sounds about right. And now it has started to put out little new crowns that will become the new branches and leaves. By the end of the summer it will look like a different plant and will begin to take on the correct jade tree shape.

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And some day will grow lush and full like this jade tree, which I have had for too many years to count and which has been cut back to nothing but a trunk at least twice.

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Be cautious when putting a jade tree out at the beginning of the warm months; it will need filtered sunlight at first so it can acclimatize to the sun or it will sunburn. But even after that, I would give it some protection. I never put mine out in full unfiltered sun. In West Texas, that is just too strong and hot for best results.

My friend is going to want this jade tree back when he see it this summer. But I’ll probably keep it…

Rooting Succulents

Have a succulent you really like and want another one or two just like it? Seeds are an option, but I don’t seem to have much luck with that method. Instead, I rely on cuttings and rooting leaves. I googled the subject of rooting succulents and came up with all kinds of directions and methods for starting new plants. I just know what works for me, so I will share with you what I do.

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Grapetoveria bella hybrid.

You might must want to trim up a plant that become leggy or just want more specimens of a particular plant. Another reason you might want to root a cutting is because over time the stems on some succulents seem to just play out and wither away. The crown of the plant stays viable but the bottom of the plant, the roots and stem, dry up and die. So the thing to do is cut the good top off and root it. No matter what else you do, the first thing you need to do is let the cut dry up and scab over. This keeps fungus and bacteria from infecting the cutting. And it just makes for a more successful rooting. I usually let mine dry for a day or two and then plant the cutting in my regular cactus soil, a mixture of crushed limestone, composted potting soil, and perlite.

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I have had good results from this method, but a variation of that is to not plant the cutting until it has sprouted roots. This may take several days, maybe even weeks. I have never kept track of how long it takes for the roots to show up. Once the roots appear, the cutting can be planted.

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Grapetoveria bella and pachyphyllum cuttings.

While I am waiting for those roots to show up, I like to position the cutting so that it is upright; otherwise the crown will start curling up to be upright and makes it awkward to plant when the time comes.

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Grapetoveria bella leaves.

Another way to propagate is by letting a leaf sprout leaves and roots. This takes a while, too, but the leaf can just sort of be set aside and forgotten, and then one day, boom! you will see those little new leaves and roots appear, after which you can position it in a pot to take root and grow.

Good luck.