The Nursery (Part 3: The seeds)

That wonderful feeling when you receive a little parcel in the post full of seed packets…is one I enjoy a bit too much. Hence, I may have overdone things a bit when it came to ordering seeds.

I ordered lots and lots of cacti seeds of various genera from Ariocarpus to Gymnocalycium and Puna to Rebutia, to Obregonia and Sclerocactus and so on. I also ordered seeds from various Mesembs, particularly Lithops and Conophytum which I had never done before, and some other succulents and even some non-succulents. It is a lot of fun to peruse seed lists and see all there is on offer. Between the nurseries mentioned here and all the other dozens and dozens out there, I’m sure one can find seeds on offer for just about any species and form ever described.

I have ordered seeds from quite a few suppliers over the years, and in 2013 I ordered seeds from six different nurseries around the world (the pictures of seeds do not necessarily correspond with the nurseries they’re placed beneath):

  • Steven Brack’s nursery Mesa Garden in the USA
    • Mesa Garden is particularly strong on North-American cacti, but have an excellent selection of most genera. They also have a very good selection of Mesembs and other succulents. A large number of the species come with locality information and collection numbers. Mesa Garden is also known to be diligent in ensuring that species with collection numbers are not crossed with specimens with different collection numbers (which not all nurseries are). They do not have an online store, but they have easy to use order forms you can e-mail them, or you can use Excel-sheets. Delivery times to Norway are usually one or two months, but can take up to three months. This is largely because they first of all are very busy but also because when ordering (from outside the U.S.) species on the CITES check-list they have to acquire a CITES certificate from the authorities to enclose with the parcel. This can take some time and is not any fault of theirs. Germination rates are usually very good.

    Seeds of the wonderfully interesting Welwitschia mirabilis of the Namib Desert.
    The wings surrounding the seed are to aid with airborne seed dispersal.
    The plant is a relic from the time of the dinosaurs and it can live for a thousand years or more.
    It is a gymnosperm and with it’s closest relatives (though close is stretching it!) being firs and pines,
    it is certainly no succulent.

    Seeds of Dioscorea hemicrypta X elephantipes.
    As with the above Welwitschia these seeds are also designed to spread by wind,
    as can be seen by the wings on each side of the seed. It is also not a succulent,
    but rather a caudiciform – plants that develop a water storage organ called a caudex
    above ground from which stems sprout.

    • Mats Winberg’s nursery SuccSeed in Sweden
      • SuccSeed is strong on South-American cacti and perhaps in particular Rebutia. A large number of the species come with locality information and collection numbers. They also sell various accessories such as pots and books. Their website is very good and easy to order from. Delivery times to Norway are very good, and usually the parcel arrives in a week. Germination rates are usually very good.

      Seeds of Pediocactus peeblesianus var. fickeisenii (ca. 2-3 mm wide).
      The seeds are large and difficult to germinate without some form of treatment.
      Directly below the label can be seen a “double” seed. I have never seen anything like it before.
      I originally wrote under this picture that only one seedling germinated from the twin seed, but after
      looking at some pictures taken shortly after I sowed the seeds I realised I had got this species mixed
      up with another and, in fact, two plants sprouted from it. See Part 5 of this series for a picture of them.

      Seeds of Sclerocactus mesae-verdae (ca. 3 mm wide).
      Like the above Pediocactus, these two genera from the U.S. are notorious
      for being difficult to germinate and perhaps even more difficult to keep
      alive for any meaningful length of time. Still, with mechanical scarification
      of the seeds germination was surprisingly good!

        • Ludwig Bercht’s nursery Bercht-Cactus in Holland
          • Bercht is particularly strong on South-American cacti and in particular the small globular South-American genera (Gymnocalycium, Frailea, Rebutia etc.). Most of the species come with locality information and collection numbers. They do not have an online store, but like Mesa Garden you can send an Excel-sheet. Delivery times to Norway are very good and usually takes around three weeks. Germination rates are usually very good.

          Seeds of Adenium arabicum.
          In addition to the above, I also sowed seeds of A. obesum and A. multiflorum.
          The latter began flowering one year after sowing.

          Seeds of Pseudolithos cubiformis (ca. 4 mm wide).
          This very unusual succulent comes from Somalia, and in a way it looks perhaps
          more like a living rock than any Ariocarpus or Lithops.

            • Jörg and Brigitte Piltz’s nursery Kakteen-Piltz in Germany
              • Piltz have a wide selection of genera with many interesting species. Not as many species come with locality information and collection numbers as the first three nurseries. They have an online order form you can use, or you can also send an order form on e-mail. Delivery times to Norway are very good and usually takes around three weeks. Germinations rates are usually very good.

              Seeds of Astrophytum asterias (ca. 2-3 mm wide).
              The seeds are large but unusually with large-seeded cacti, Astrophytum species
              germinate readily – often starting to appear just three days after sowing.

              Seeds of Ariocarpus trigonus (ca. 1 mm wide).
              Ariocarpus seeds usually germinate fairly well, but I have found that they
              can often be a bit hit and miss with some pots completely devoid of life
              while in others they may pop up happily.  

                • Bettina Köhres’ nursery Köhres Kakteen in Germany
                  • Köhres also have a large selection of genera, and are quite strong on Astrophytum and Lophophora among others. They also have a large and varied selection of succulents, caudiciforms and various other interesting trees and plants. Not as many species come with locality information and collection numbers as the first three nurseries. They have an online store you can use, though it is not as good as SuccSeed’s. Delivery times to Norway are very good and usually takes around three weeks. Germination rates have been a bit hit and miss for me, but generally lower than the previous four nurseries.

                  Seeds of Puna bonniae (ca. 3-5 mm wide).
                  This is a very attractive Argentinian species with very strange-looking seeds for the cactus family.
                  Sadly none of the seeds germinated. Members of the cactus subfamily Opuntioideae are
                  often difficult to germinate though.

                  Seeds of Tephrocactus geometricus (ca. 5-8 mm wide).
                  This is another member of the cactus subfamily Opuntioideae, also with interesting seeds.
                  It is somewhat similar to Puna bonniae pictured above, both from the same region of Argentina.
                  This species had a 50 % germination rate though, and the plants are growing happily.

                    • Kamil Prochazka’s nursery Kaktusy in the Czech Republic
                      • Kaktusy have a very wide selection of genera with usually more than one (and sometimes dozens) forms of the same species from different localitites. Very strong on the North-American genera such as Ariocarpus, but also on many of the South-American genera. They have an online store you can use, but it is not the most practical, and the site is not the easiest to navigate either. This is the only nursery on this list I had not ordered from before, and I may have been very unlucky, but germination rates were largely very poor. I have recently ordered from them a second time and I will update this once I receive and sow those seeds. As I have only ordered from them once, it’s difficult to comment on delivery times, but it took three and half months for the order to arrive. I don’t know if this is usual, but I believe it is common with many Czech nurseries that delivery can take several months. I think many of them are run as co-ops, so it’s possible that the delivery times are a result both of being busy, but also of having to wait for different suppliers to deliver their seeds. It is not really a problem though, as long as you are aware of it.

                      Seeds of Lophophora diffusa ssp. kubesae (ca. 1 mm wide).
                      I do not know if the subspecies is worthy of scientific recognition. I suspect it
                      is merely a regional form of L. diffusa, but I look forward to seeing how it turns out.
                      In contrast to the much better known Lophophora williamsii (Peyote), this species
                      does not contain any mind-altering alcaloids.

                      Little bags of seeds happily awaiting sowing! Seeds usually come in bags like these.
                      Sometimes labels may come with the bags, but usually there will just be a
                      catalogue number referring to the respective nursery’s seed list.

                      The Nursery (Part 2: Let there be light!)

                      Before going into detail about artificial lighting I should probably first comment on why I went with that solution instead of natural light. Most people sow using natural light, and have perfectly good success with it. I have too, of course, and I probably would have decided on natural light if I had had a greenhouse to keep the plants over winter. When I gave in to the urge to buy seeds I was living in a tiny east-facing apartment, in which there was simply no space and not enough suitable natural light for sowing cacti. And when we moved to our current apartment later that year, it was July already and suddenly a little late in the year to sow. The solution became to use artificial lighting which I had already contemplated using for quite some time.

                      I won’t go into a very detailed analysis of the various artificial lighting options in this post. Maybe I will expand on this at some later date though. There are a lot of things to consider such as the available space or how much space you need, cost of electricity, whether you want to grow the plants beyond the seedling stage, and how much money you’re willing to invest.

                      I pondered for months about what kind of artificial lighting to use. I initially did not foresee having so much space available for seed raising and planned for perhaps 0,5 m2 at most. I researched quite a bit about various options and the choice stood for a long time between fluorescent tubes or LED lights. The former was cheaper and there were several tubes on the market offering a spectrum of light simulating natural daylight. There were also tubes offering specific parts of the spectrum, such as UV, which was interesting considering UV is probably an important factor in cacti for developing the most robust spines or certain attractive grey or blue blooms on the epidermis (the outer skin layer of the plant).

                      LED was also an interesting option, though more expensive than fluorescent tubes and requiring a bit more effort to install. It has the advantage of being able to create a bespoke spectrum as it were, seeing as you can install as many diodes as you like which emit light in a specific part of the spectrum only.

                      In the end it turned out that I did have quite a bit more space available than first thought, so I decided to instead use a 400 W ballast and reflector for HPS (high-pressure sodium) and MH (metal-halide) bulbs I had bought a couple of years before to raise cacti through the winter months in Kristiansand at my father’s house. The ballast is an electrical ballast to limit the current running through the bulb as otherwise it might overload. The reflector is a relatively thin sheet of aluminium polished on the inside to a high sheen and which reflects downwards the light which the bulb emits upwards and sideways and which would obviously otherwise be of no use to the plants.

                      MH bulb with reflector.

                      HPS and MH bulbs are more efficient than fluorescent tubes and LED lights, i.e. their PPFD (photosynthetic photon flux density) output per watt is greater. The downside is that a 400 W HPS/MH bulb produces quite a lot of heat, so unless one installs a fan or two the temperature will quickly become much too high in a small or closed environment. In a spare bedroom with a window it is not much of a problem, though.

                      Generally HPS bulbs emit relatively more light in the red part of the spectrum while MH bulbs emit relatively more light in the blue part of the spectrum. For the purpose of growing plants, very simply put the former is slightly better for producing flowers and germination, while the latter is slightly better for vegetative growth. I had both kinds but I was not particularly interested in the “flowering-aspect” of the HPS bulb, and I suspected the effect of the HPS bulb on germination would be slight. I therefore went with the MH bulb and had good germination rates with it (I have not tested the HPS bulb, so I do not know if it would actually increase germination rates).

                      Not living in Kristiansand it was difficult to create ideal conditions in terms of heat, watering, and day-length, and in the end I disconnected the lamp. This time around I would able to control these parameters, however. The seeds germinated and grew so well that I quickly decided I had to expand. After all, I had bought just a few too many seeds. One bulb and one shelf would never be enough!

                      Two months after I started sowing I therefore promptly went and bought another 400 W ballast and reflector. I also bought two MH bulbs with a so-called daylight spectrum with a temperature of around 5600 K (Kelvin is in this case a measure of colour temperatures of light sources). I had no information about the spectrum on my present MH bulb and I also did not know for how long it had run (bulbs do, after all, have a limited life), so I thought it best to install two new bulbs of the same type.

                      The two reflectors hanging from the top shelf of the racks.
                      At the back on the left you can just make out an Adenium multiflorum in bloom.

                      I keep the light on for between 12-14 hours per day (I’ve landed on 12), which seems like a good amount. This may immediately sound like a lot but, after all, artificial light cannot compare with natural sunlight (unless you have a lot of it), so you have to increase the time the plants receive artificial light to make up for the reduced quality of it. I have installed electrical switches to regulate when the lights turn on and off.

                      Temperatures range between 18 C at night up to 35 C during the day (depending on the outside temperature and whether or not I keep the window wide open). For vegetative growth this range is quite ideal for most cacti, though there are some notable exceptions that prefer lower night temperatures. In terms of germination it can be on the high side considering that pots under plastic or inside plastic bags are exposed to an additional greenhouse effect. It is necessary with some additional shielding from the light as well as not placing them directly beneath the bulbs. I don’t know if the temperature has really adversely affected germination to any particular degree, though. The germination rates seem quite similar to the data I have collected on germination rates in previous years when I have sown in the spring or summer with the help of natural (shaded) sunlight and temperature variations normal in a greenhouse.

                      Now to the next part of this series: Seeds!

                      The Nursery (Part 1: Getting started)

                      In July 2013 I started up the cactus nursery in the spare bedroom. I bought two simple and open standing wood racks from IKEA with four adjustable shelves. And because IKEA are quite good at practical solutions, I could easily connect them to make one big rack.

                      This way I could hang the artificial lighting from the top shelf and have the plants at a suitable distance from the light and a comfortable height for me. It also allowed for shelf space underneath the plants for storage of various items such as labels and soil.

                      The two IKEA racks. It’s a very practical setup with the plants in a good height,
                      and with storage space underneath for various things.

                      I bought plastic trays from the plant store Plantasjen here in Norway, and initially also square plastic pots from there. These are very flimsy though, so I soon began buying square plastic pots from Kakteen-Haage which are far more sturdy and suitable. I now predominantly sow in 5 cm square pots. But for the first batch of sowing in July/August 2013 I used the other pots from Plantasjen.

                      Some of the trays were of a kind that comes with it’s own transparent plastic lid to create a mini greenhouse. I used these for the first batches of sowing, placing individual pots inside them (see image above).

                      In the middle of sowing. On the lower left is the extremely useful label maker.

                      I bought labels from both SuccSeed in Sweden and Kakteen-Haage in Germany. I also bought a Brother label maker which has become a completely essential tool for me. My handwriting is terrible, so to be able to actually print the labels was a revolution. To specify, I don’t print the white hard plastic labels themselves, but rather labels with one adhesive side to stick onto the white labels themselves. I can fit quite a lot of information on one label.

                      Closeup of a white plastic label with the printed label stuck on.
                      The plastic label is almost 80 mm long tip to tip, and 14 mm wide.
                      As you can see there is plenty of space for a printed label to contain lots of information
                       with room to spare. This label was made 04.02.14. 

                      Among the various other equipment I bought were razor blades and sharp knives for grafting, a pH measurement kit to check the water, various fertilisers and additives, different kinds of soil components, various kinds of pots, a thermometer and I’m sure some other stuff as well. Some of the above I’ll get back to in much more detail in future posts.

                      The next post will deal with artificial lighting!