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A prickly hobby

As a teenager, Daiv Freeman, who grew up between Long Prairie and Sauk Centre, planted a cactus garden on family land. After high school he moved to southern California and spent a blissful dozen years growing cactus there. The climate of California was excellent for growing cactus, but Daiv is a Minnesota native, and he returned to Todd County in 2007. Coming home was good for Daiv, but the growing conditions for cacti were more challenging than that of California.


Daiv Freeman waters a group of cacti at his home in Long Prairie. Freeman is growing many different varieties of cacti. One good rule to remember with a cactus is underwatering is better than overwatering. Photo by Nancy Leasman.

Daiv’s cactus gardens in Minnesota include a greenhouse of potted cacti, a sidewalk garden near his coffee shop in Long Prairie and a large planting in a friend’s garden near where he grew up. Daiv has learned a lot about growing cactus and readily shares his passion for the prickly plants.

Daiv Freeman is the creator of, the free comprehensive website for cactus enthusiasts. Daiv’s passion for cacti started early. Perhaps he was inspired by the Golden Guide on cacti that he flipped through as a kid. Or maybe it was the old piece of gray-brown, hole-studded cholla cactus wood that sat on his grandmother’s shelf among her African violets. His fascination with the prickly plants has led to a collection housed in a greenhouse and as striking inclusions in his personal landscapes.

A presenter at area horticultural events, Daiv readily points out the difference between cactus and other plants. “All cacti are succulents,” he said. “Not all succulents are cactus.” Though many people think anything with sharp spines are cacti, and Daiv agrees that spines are their bestknown feature, he also notes that not all have spines in all stages of growth. Some cactus varieties even have leaves. “All true cactus have aereoles, growth points from which all growth happens,” he explained. Cactus flowers are also distinctive, and all cactus varieties bloom, though some rarely. Some varieties bloom when mature; for a saguaro that means at 15-20 years of age.

Daiv also points out that the plural form of cactus can be either cacti or cactuses. Both are correct.

All cacti should bloom annually if provided optimum growing conditions, he said. “A person will have a cactus growing in poor soil on a window sill. Watered twice a year, it will live. But if conditions improve, then the cactus will bloom, and the person says, ‘What is this?’”


Many different varieties of cacti live at Daiv’s greenhouse. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Generally, optimum growing conditions for cacti include a growing medium of inorganic material like pumice, floor-dry or cat litter (60 percent) mixed with potting soil (40 percent). Daiv advised avoiding commercial cactus mix or just sand. Along with water and light, this combination serves as an all-purpose mix, though cacti are more likely to thrive if you put in a little research to know your individual cactus and what its needs are.

There are at least two groups of cactus: desert and jungle. Among the more familiar jungle varieties are the three holiday cacti: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas cactus. Though these plants lack big spines and a preference for desert-like conditions, they are true cacti.

Daiv explained the needs of jungle cacti, “Most jungle cacti are either epiphytic or lithophytic, meaning they grow in trees or grow on rocks respectively. This type of plant gets its nutrients from the air or from dead leaves and other debris that may have collected in crotches, cracks or crevasses. It is important to note that there are no parasitic cacti. Those that grow in trees do so for support but do not sap nutrients from their host. For best results we’ll want our soil to mimic these natural conditions.”

For jungle cacti, Daiv recommends a soil mixture of orchid bark, perlite, potting soil, peat, coir (coconut fiber), pumice, and oak leaf mold. “I haven’t tried all of these,” he said, “but have found a mix that works really well for my plants. I start with some coarse orchid bark (about 25 percent), mix in some potting soil (25 percent), peat (25 percent), and the rest mostly perlite with maybe 5 percent coarse gravel. Coir is a superior substitute for peat… however it is a bit harder to find. For smaller projects, reptile supply stores sell it as a bedding product. The most important aspect of the mixture is good drainage.”

Jungle cacti like weekly watering, full morning sun and afternoon shade.

Desert cacti are native to the Americas and surrounding islands. They come in many shapes and sizes, from small, rounded, flat or cylindrical plants to shrub-like, segmented, and sprawling to large columnar and tree-like giants. For desert cacti, Daiv recommends a mix of 60 percent pumice, 20 percent coir, 20 percent sandy loam. He says the pumice can be replaced with non soluble cat litter or perlite, and the coir and loam mixture can be replaced with all sandy loam.

Water desert cactus every one to four weeks, whenever the soil gets dry, though under-watering is better than overwatering. Established plants prefer full sun all day long while young or newly transplanted plants benefit from a little less. Even desert cacti can suffer from sunburn. Pale whitish or light brown patches on the cactus “skin” indicates too much sun/heat and are an indication that conditions should be altered.

Etiolation, or elongated growth, is a sign that cacti aren’t getting enough sun. They grow long, weak stems and long internodes, becoming spindly as they seek more sun.

At least four species of cacti are native to southwestern Minnesota, and some grow as far north as Lake of the Woods County: Opuntia fragilis, Opuntia macrorhiza, Opuntia humifusa and Escaboria vivipara.

Most cacti lack common names, but Daiv said it’s easy to get acquainted with the species’ names. He suggested that if you’re interested in growing cactus, start with what you can find at garden centers. “They’re easily available and cheap. Just because they’re common doesn’t mean they’re a lesser cacti.” Find less common varieties via mail order after growing cacti and becoming accustomed to their needs.


One of the flowering cacti at Daiv’s place. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Daiv moved all of his potted cacti inside during the winter and kept them dormant at a temperature of approximately 45 degrees. During dormancy they have no need for water as they will use very little and only shrivel slightly if not actively growing. He said that most species can handle a little frost but not the extremes of Midwest winters. This spring, Daiv moved his cacti from their winter basement quarters to the plastic-sided greenhouse on April 26. He said they’re doing fine. He added a vent to the structure to prevent over-heating and sunburn which was a problem last year.

Look to Daiv’s website for comprehensive information on growing and collecting cacti He considers his website a collection of sorts since one can grow only a small number of the many members of the cactus family.

“I figured if I can’t grow one of every plant, I can at least try to capture them digitally,” said Daiv.

CactiGuide offers 11,000 photos of cacti in 128 genera. It defines and distinguishes cacti from other plants, offers information on pests and diseases, tips for growing, terminology, articles and a cactus forum.

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