Cacti growers are a rare breed in Minnesota. But with the increased interest in water conservation and low-maintenance gardening, the time is right for cactus plants and other succulents.
It's lonely being a cactus lover in the land of 10,000 lakes.
"People think it's weird," said Daiv Freeman of Long Prairie, Minn., who tends a homemade greenhouse filled with about 100 different varieties, both desert and jungle species, as well as two outdoor beds filled with hardy native cacti -- and, yes, there are some.
"A lot of people don't even realize you can grow 'em outside," he said.
The Cactus & Succulent Society of America (www.cssainc.org) doesn't have a Minnesota chapter, although there are chapters in Iowa and Wisconsin.
But Freeman has found plenty of like-minded "cacti weirdos" online. His Cacti Guide website, launched in 2002 (www.cactiguide.com), has more than 3,000 registered users worldwide. He recently teamed up with friends to launch a related site (www.succulentguide.com), focused on non-cacti succulents, and last summer started a mail-order bookstore (www.exoticplantbooks.com) specializing in hard-to-find plant books, especially on cacti and succulents.
The prickly plants associated with deserts of the American Southwest may not be the most popular sellers at local garden centers. But their kinfolk are coming on strong. Succulents, the water-retaining plant family that includes cacti, are a growing garden trend for 2011, according to both the Garden Writers Association and Northern Green Expo, the annual education event for the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association.
"Interest has grown a lot," said Dennis Hoidal, owner of Succulent Plants in Columbus, Minn. "Virtually every year, there are more succulents sold." Last year, despite the struggling economy, his sales were up 20 percent, he said. "There's more marketing of succulents, larger growers are selling them, and there's more demand for them."
Their drought-resistant characteristics are the main reason. "Back in my hippie days, in the '70s, succulents were popular," said Craig Johnson, owner of Greenworld Greenhouses (www.greenworldgreenhouses.com), a North Branch, Minn., grower that specializes in succulents (150 varieties) and creating colorful mixed-succulent planters. "Now there's been a big resurgence, spurred by watering bans on the West Coast."
Lazy gardener's best friend
Succulents are increasingly popular in Minnesota, too, but not because of watering bans, he said. "It's because of laziness. This generation of gardeners is the 'Do it for me' generation. They're weekend warriors and don't want to be tied to their garden." Succulents fill the bill. "In a large pot, you can get away with not watering for a month," Johnson said.
Overwatering is, in fact, the most common mistake when it comes to growing cacti and other succulents, according to experts. "You'll kill a plant with kindness over neglect," Johnson said.
Freeman lost half his collection when he moved it from California to Minnesota during a rainy fall in 2007. "I didn't have the greenhouse built yet," he said. "I was trying to protect them. But they can't be cold and wet."
He's been studying cacti likes and dislikes since he was a child growing up on his family's farm near Sauk Centre. "As a grade-school kid, I would look at the 'Golden Field Guide to Cactus,'" he recalled. "My grandparents had a small one in the windowsill -- I was fascinated."
He planted his first outdoor cactus bed while still a teenager, then moved, at 18, to California where he found lots of cacti but no land to grow them in near his apartment. Then in 2002, he moved into a house in San Clemente with a yard and started collecting in earnest, launching Cacti Guide the same year.
"I wanted to grow one of every plant," he said. "I like the different forms, colors and shapes -- the hanging, drooping ones ... the tree-like ones. And it's hard to find flowers better than cactus flowers."
But with thousands of cacti species in the world, Freeman soon realized that collecting them all wasn't going to be possible. So he visited nurseries, armed with a digital camera, and took pictures for his website -- "Like planting 'em online," he said.
In 2004, Freeman started an online forum where cactiphiles could share information. "I'm learning stuff all the time," he said.
Tom Weaver of St. Paul said he visits Freeman's site about twice a week. "It's been really helpful. When I was first starting a hardy cactus garden, I posted to see if anyone's had any luck. I got answers from all over the world. I think it's a lot easier than people think. People take too much care of them here."
Not Freeman. In fact, he said his Minnesota-native cacti require no care at all. "I do nothing but come and look at them."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784