Our Big Sale

It takes a village to raise a child.  It also takes a village to put on a tremendously successful plant sale.  Our club is small compared to some of the clubs located in more succulent friendly climates.  What we lack in numbers we make up for in passion and energy.

With a turnout of eight excited members, we transformed the donated commercial space into our own cactus and succulent store.  A big shout out here to Sky Nursery in Shoreline, WA for continuing to support our sale as they have for somewhere over 28 years.  We filled our ten large horticultural tables with a selection of large and small succulents in a variety of forms:  dish gardens, bonsai, Halloween jack o’ lanterns, outdoor succulent gardens, cute pots, etc.  There was really something for everyone,  Except Lithops lovers.  Those were lacking.  There will be a Lithops growing push in our club’s future.

Saturday morning we were greeted by a line of shoppers outside the store, waiting to head for our sale space in a frightening imitation of salmon spawning upstream.  (A sight familiar to us in the Northwest.)  Crowds continued until 3:30 p.m., allowing our checkout team to get a break for the first time.  We were “dazed and amazed” with the succulent fever that consumed the shoppers.  One of the best things about the sale each year is that we see our fellow cactophiles who live in the area (some people drove three hours to come to the sale).

Our local popular gardening expert, Ciscoe Morris, spent time before his radio show doing some shopping.

Once their shopping cart or box is full, there is time to catch up and hear about their collection. Some things heard this year:  Go LED, use Milk of Magnesia to remove spines, Kalanchloe ‘Mother of Millions’ toxify the soil and nothing will grow near them, growing things in extremely small pots helps prevent overwatering, and other such tidbits.  We also learned that no matter how much promo you do, people primarily use our website and Facebook to find out about the sale.

By the time the dust settled at the end of sale day on Saturday we surveyed tables nearly empty with few boxes left.  Sellers scurried home to prepare more plants for sale on Sunday, and one member went dumpster diving at two local businesses for boxes.  Shout outs here to Trader Joe’s and Mudbay, (a local natural petfood store) for helping out a desperate woman babbling about succulents and boxes.

We had another banner day on Sunday, the Seahawks opening season game not dampening any shopping enthusiasm.  We left Sky Nursery’s space as we found it, empty, and went home with a full cash register and three well used Square Up card readers. One quit working and we thought it might possibly have melted from continual use.

Show plant on the display table.

As for the initially mentioned village, we had a team of 5 checkout folks who operated as a finally tuned machine, 14 vendors who spent long hours growing and preparing plants for sale then talking to over two hundred shoppers, a staunch greeter and plant show guard who interrupted several attempts to remove show plants for purchase, rovers who assisted shoppers with boxes, questions and shared information about our club.  The coordinators spent hours planning just so that when things went awry, it really didn’t matter.  The sale happened, customers got exciting new plants and our club has program funds for the coming year.  We feel happy.

It’s Time for the Annual Sale

Here in the Northwest, we cactus and succulent growers are reveling in “the dog days of summer”.  For us it’s “the succulent days of summer” – our summer heat wave.  Some growers are pollinating with brush in hand, others are lucky enough to be watching seed pods ripen.   All of us are watering plants, watching for pests, and trying to keep up with the needs of  our small seedlings in hot dry weather.   Then there’s the disturbing question of “Did that plant just die or go dormant?”

Yes, it does get dry in the rainy western half of Washington.  We are in the midst of our “drought” season, although those of us on this western side of the state were pleasantly surprised by a bit rain this week.  It gave us a break from the heat and watering chores, and provided much needed moisture for our very dry native plants.  Meanwhile our eastern Washington members are experiencing hotter than normal temperatures and the ever existent danger of wildfire – without the respite of rain.  

Our club is working feverishly to prepare for our annual sale.  We are at “one month ’til sale time” which means that all sale plants have been repotted if necessary, pest management attended to, and the process of pricing and tagging will begin soon.  The cleaning of plants and pots is done at the last moment. One year the plants were all cleaned and ready a week before the sale, sitting outside enjoying the sunshine while the Douglas Fir trees dropped their small needles and small cones into the pots. Nothing like using tweezers to pick a fir needle out of the center of an Opuntia!

An annual plant sale for a club such as ours is an “all hands on deck” affair.  With the popularity of succulents and the rising popularity of cacti, we have been experiencing increased numbers of shoppers, most of whom come within the first three hours of our sale opening.  While we love seeing the nursery doors open and customers headed our way, the onslaught can be a daunting.  It brings to mind the crowd scenes from the late 1950’s movie “The Blob”.  We are fortunate to have some experienced crowd wranglers in our club who are proficient at handing out boxes for shopping, providing cultivation information, and membership details to people as they shop.  Four years ago we added Square to our check out system and found our sales greatly improved over the cash and check system we were previously using.

We are grateful to have Sky Nursery as our sale sponsor, as they have been since before 1990.  We have a large space configured to our specifications and a safe place to leave plants over night.  Each year we make some improvements in our sale process and review their worthiness.  All in all the basic approach of putting a lot of good looking plants out on a table and getting out of the way seems to work the best.  Everything else is “top dressing.”

The annual plant sale for a club such as ours is our life blood.  Membership dues provide enough to pay for the publication of the newsletter.  In order to provide educational programs and support plant/habitat conservation, our club depends on the annual sale to supply us with the needed funds to achieve our mission.  We are grateful for our returning customers, the familiar succulent lovers who return each year and find new plants to add to their collection.  We couldn’t do it without those members who show up every year to muscle the tables around, operate the cash register, answer numerous questions, and clean up the space.

Summer time and the Cactus are Happy

At last!  The weather our cacti and succulents have been longing for since last November: cloud free sunny skies,  high temperatures, long days, little moisture.  We have entered the Pacific Northwest drought period.  Yep.  It don’t rain all the time here.

This is nirvana for our spiny ball cacti, euphorbia, agave, and other desert weather lovers.  Our Haworthia and Gasteria have a rosy glow from their “suntans”.  Buds have formed or flowers are in bloom and nearly every day we and the bees discover a new flower.

Rebutia fiebirgii Photo by Karen Summers

Admittedly the blooms of Haworthia are nothing to post on Instagram, but they seem to represent the same zest for living as the large cereus and Echinopsis blooms.  Another bonus is the absence of the mealy bugs and other critters that were becoming obnoxious by the time we brought the plants outdoors.

All is not perfect, however, because we have traded the mealies for larger and more destructive pests:  squirrels.  While the cacti have been longing for summer, so have the squirrels.  They started their families early in spring and now the young ones play tag through the pots, across the shelves and over and under the trays of baby plants.  We love their joy and hate their havoc at the same time.  It is truly survival of the fittest in our collections that move outdoors this time of year.

Plants soaking up the sun Photo by Karen Summers

While our plants are enjoying a resort vacation outdoors, our members are enjoying our monthly meetings which get us out of the classroom and into collections.  In July we annually visit the Volunteer Park Conservatory for a walk through the greenhouses – including those behind the scenes.  This is such a treat – to see how it’s all done and the unusual plants which aren’t on display yet.  It’s one of our rarer meetings in that there is less camaraderie since we are spread throughout the several greenhouses.

We make up for that with our annual picnic.  It’s always a treat to visit one of our member’s homes and see their plants and other hobbies.  This year’s picnic is held at the home of one of our meticulous growers, a man who inspires envy and frustration at the same time.  Why does his top dressing stay in place?  (see “squirrels” above)  Why do his plants grow neatly in the center of the pot without tipping over?  (see “squirrels” above)  Why do his plants look neat and tidy with no extraneous plant materials getting into the top dressing or thorns?  (No, not the squirrels.  I failed to mention the Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock forest that covers much of Western Washington state.)

One year old dish garden. Photo by Karen Summers
Recently completed dish garden. Photo by Karen Summers

While plants are looking healthy and mostly happy, it’s a great time to create some dish gardens.  It solves the problem of what to do with all the seed grown babies that might take up so many individual pots.  Dish gardens are easy to make – remembering that the same horticultural rules apply as growing individual plants.  Using pots with holes in the bottom, well draining soil (one mix is 50-50 potting soil without added fertilizer and pumice), and plants that generally like the same level of moisture.  You can get around this in a dish garden by using an eye dropper to provide water to the thirsty ones while keeping it away from the plants not wanting that level of moisture.

The seedlings started in January are making progress while still under their fluorescent lights in a squirrel free zone.  They remain in their original pots with their siblings until 1-2 years old.  The one exception are the Beaucarnia recurvata seedlings which quickly grew to two inch height.  After repotting and placing them in a protected area outdoors they are making quick progress, now about 4 inches tall.

Beaucarnia recurvata seedlings at 6 months. Now twice as tall. Photo by Karen Summers.

During this season we develop the most hope for our succulents, as we see them at their best, doing what nature intended them to do – and jealously admiring how they thrive in 90 degree heat.

The Succulents of Tacoma, Washington

Living in the far left corner of the continental U.S. doesn’t provide a wide variety of opportunities for cactus and succulent field trips. However, our club was treated to an excellent array of plants during our recent club field trip to Tacoma, WA. Certainly it’s not on the register of places one would think of visiting to see succulents, but we filled a day with interesting sites.

Our first stop was the Pt. Defiance Zoo and Aquarium for a guided tour of their succulents and other plantings. We enjoyed learning more about pushing the zone – using the angle of the sun, presence of concrete, and protection of buildings and other plants – to create growing space for succulents. The variety of plants was impressive given their zone 7 designation. We especially enjoyed seeing this toothy Agave macroculmis.

Capping our visit to the zoo was a patch of Sarracenia carnivorous pitcher plants, glowing yellow amongst some bushes.

Our next stop was Tacoma Conservatory for a guided tour of this historic building in a lovely park with some very old trees. Most impressive of all was not a succulent but a citrus – a Ponderosa lemon. Carrying a lovely scent, the lemon can be held in two hands – larger than a softball.
We zipped off to Jungle Fever for a plant purchasing fix – enjoying the tumble of plants in the front yard of the shop. Some interesting plants and displays caught our eye.

Already feeling pretty good about the day we headed for The Outlaw Garden – an overwhelming (in a good way) plethora of plants, art objects and grave markers (yes) wending their way through an urban lot. At no point can one rest their eyes, there is so much visual stimulation. Most striking in the element of humor woven through garden displays.  Rather than try to explain the lovely seats in the bamboo grove, or the surprise mannequin around the corner, we will let these photos tell the story.

We dragged ourselves away from Peter’s incredible work of art – his garden – and returned to Seattle, stopping in West Seattle for a quick peek at another garden defying the odds. This one located on a ridge capturing the western sun on a rocky slope.

Many succulent plants peaked out amongst the rocks with even some cacti here and there. We learned these are spared the rainy winter weather by a plexi-glass rack that sits on the rocks to shield them from the wet. Keith explained how he planted the rockery, salvaging it from blackberry, and shared some interesting plant stories as well.

Not too bad for the rainy Northwest.  We were inspired by what we saw and each of us returned with renewed hope for our succulent plants and some ideas for outdoor growing.

The Making of a Website

One trait of a hobby club is the transition of members.  Some stay for years and others attend meetings, get involved then move on for a number of reasons.  Each member contributes in some way – through helping set up chairs, cleaning up the refreshment table, buying, showing, selling plants or simply contributing a raised hand to pass a motion.  In the many years of our club’s history we have had members come through our doors and contribute valuable and modern ideas including getting on Instagram, starting a Facebook page, creating a website, updating that website, etc.  All of these projects are a work in progress and there’s an ebb and flow that comes with the member transitions.

All of the above is a lead in to our club’s need for a new website.  Our previous site having been patched, added to, tweaked, jostled, and jived by a string of helpful members as they transitioned through our club needed serious help.  When our most recent webmaster moved out of town, we were faced with the situation of a not so willing volunteer (the club president) knowing nothing trying to wrangle the existing website or building a newer, better, more streamlined site.  We chose the later, starting to take this course in December 2016  with one of our new members, Lisa, at the helm.  The club president leaned heavily on the confident Lisa who had built several websites previously.  After sketching out the desired new site content, the president embarked on a series of text conversations with our new webmaster.  In January 2017 an ongoing health issue popped up, leaving Lisa unable to work on the website and in March after hearing no response to several text messages the president began to “get a feeling”.  In May 2017 we learned that the vibrant and energetic Lisa had passed away, a victim of cancer.  Lisa was a giving club member, full of ideas and passion.  This transition from membership is the hardest one to face.

Regrouping, the president made a beeline for the public library, frantically checking out “WordPress for Dummies” and a stack of WordPress and website books.  The stack of books loomed on the table and although there was a lot of reading, tabbing, and note taking going on, there wasn’t much website action.

Serendipitously the local community college offered a WordPress website building class during summer quarter.  Unfortunately, the class never filled, even though it was offered again in the fall quarter.  Tentatively, the would be webmaster began to flounder and create a site at wordpress.com.  Progress was slow and fraught with failures. Taking a four hour class at the public library in November 2017 bolstered the flagging webmaster and pages were created. Coincidentally, at the same time the blundering webmaster hit the wall, our club was fortunate to entice a new member, Chelsea, into our fold.  When she heard of the website situation, she shrugged and said, “I can help with that.”

A sharing of ideas over coffee (a Seattle thing), and Chelsea fell to with great enthusiasm.  Having never used WordPress before, she was a quick study, and soon began to build the infrastructure. That was when she learned we should be building the site on WordPress.org.  She made the shift, and work resumed.  We determined that a photo gallery was to be one of the highlights of our site.  While Chelsea created it, the relieved half webmaster figured out watermarks then filled it with photos.  Ooops, that wasn’t the Photo Gallery she filled, it was the Media Library.  Take another run at it and load the actual Photo Gallery.  But, oh, what’s this little thing? It doesn’t belong here.  Delete.  Yes, the whole Photo Gallery was gone.  Chelsea installed it again re-naming it “dontDeleteMeThisisTheMainAlbum”.  Photos were again duly uploaded by the cringing half webmaster.

Meanwhile behind the scenes plug-ins were installed, mistakes repaired (overly confident half webmaster) and the site was soon (Not that soon, really.  It was 16 months from conception to birth) ready for the reviewers.  Five brave souls ventured into the new site and came forth with feedback which shaped our final product.

At last the day arrived when the half webmaster notified the overseas domain host that we were ready to post.  Nothing happened. Nothing happened.  Five days later a quick check in by email revealed we were to put it on the internet ourselves.  Dejectedly, the half webmaster turned to “Uncle Google” so named by Chelsea.  Three hours of reading still didn’t reveal the easy answer, but the letters FTP finally had meaning.  All we had to do was find a File Transfer Program and do it.  While the half webmaster fitfully wrung her hands, the intrepid Chelsea grabbed her keyboard, and began tearing down the old, replacing it with the new.  April 7, 2017 was a banner day for us.  It was a miracle to see our new site up for the world to see.  Eagerly the half webmaster clicked through the site, tenderly gazing at our creation; recalling the long, winding, bumpy road that was our journey to the Internet.  Ah, here’s the Photo Gallery!  Our piece de resistance!  Wait, where is it?  The Photo Gallery did not transfer.  Chelsea’s diagnosis:  we need to build it again.

March blog

While plants are beginning to spring forth from the earth and bloom outdoors, our thoughts turn to our cacti and succulents.  They are beginning to emerge from their cool winter slumber.  They tell us this by the lighter shade of green at the tips, signaling new growth.  Some of us in the club overwinter our cacti in a cool place, without water from November until April.  Some members have greenhouses for this purpose, one of our members creates hoop houses with plastic over old futon racks to create a functional greenhouse.  Small heaters maintain temperatures around 40-45 degrees F.  While plants rest we keep an eye out for mealy bugs, spider mites, and scale which might take advantage of our reduced vigilance this time of year.  Those who grow winter growers are enjoying the flowers and new growth of their plants.

Another of our favorite pastimes for this early growth period is to start some seeds.  Under lights, on heat mats or not, the seeds sprout quickly – although some species like to keep us waiting for up to several months.  Gasteria are fun – always prompt in sprouting and growing into something resembling a tiny Gasteria quickly.  Beaucarnia recurvata is quick to sprout and grows into two inch tall plants in a couple of months.  Some members grow seeds according to the plant’s origin – with the South African winter growers being seeded in October and November.  Some of us start all sorts of seeds in January and February.

Seed starting set up by Dirk Himschoot of Desert Plant Society in Vancouver, BC

Growing from seed takes focus with keeping seeds moist, keeping seedlings moist, and the air moving.  And eventually all the potting up.  We have discovered that the seedlings generally prefer crowding and keep them in the crowded pots they were seeded into for 2-3 years before potting up.  If potted up very tiny they languish and fade quickly.

Seedlings grown by Dirk Himschoot of Desert Plant Society in Vancouver, BC

The problem with all this growing from seed is that it’s easy to throw 30 seeds into a pot, but when we get to the potting up stage space becomes more of an issue.  And while we wait for them to get to selling size, we need to add another shelf somewhere to hold them all.  And, oh yeah, a couple of lights are needed, too.  Growing from seed is a slippery slope.

Spring is about promise and hope.  As cactus and succulent enthusiasts in the Northwest we are all about that.  Today it has rained, snowed and they say hail is on the way.  Happy Spring everyone!


Growing Cacti and Succulents in the Northwest

Discocactus nelsonii Photo by Giselle Blythe

Today we are enjoying a sunny, upper 50’s kind of day. One that speaks of spring coming. The crocus are up, daffodils showing color, and birds are singing in surround sound. Welcome spring! It’s been a cool, rainy winter with cactus and succulents tucked away in greenhouses, hoop houses, basements under lights, and into window sills. In general, our plants go begging for light about 8 months of the year. Supplemental light helps and getting them out for the summer makes the plants grow like crazy. We often find our spherical cacti becoming “cone heads” – etiolating in the lower light of winter.
We grow our plants dry for the winter, letting them long for that first short drink of water in April when the temperatures are warm enough the roots won’t rot.

Some members of our club have turned to winter growers, the plants from South Africa which go into high gear as everything else settles in for the long winter’s nap. For example, Pachypodium namaquensis. We enjoy seeing these plants come to our meetings in their full bloom regalia. One of our members delights us with various succulent orchids in bloom in late winter.

We grow plants in the Northwest against all odds, enjoying the challenges while enduring the heartbreak of an $80 Ariocarpus that doesn’t make it through the winter. We live and learn and share stories. Maybe our club is more of a support group!