Most days, I fall out of bed,
make some coffee and have a smoke by the greenhouse
while my cat purrs in the background.
In 1981, I worked as an apprentice in a plant that produced transistors, repairing and maintaining pipes and equipment. A few thousand people work at this place, and my job took me to all kinds of areas within the plant. In the space directly above our workshop, glassblowers repaired high-temperature tubing. Two of these guys grew cacti on the windowsill. I remember the first time I saw this. It was February, still snowy outside, but there was a flowering Mammillaria prolifera by the window. Over the next few years, I learned how to grow cacti from seed, met many growers, saw acres of greenhouses and acquired a small collection of forty to fifty plants. In the late eighties I moved around a lot, and moving the plants was difficult so I abandoned my collection at my parents’ house.
I have had a number of different collections over the years and find myself at times falling in and out of love with some of them. I seem to have a pattern of obsessing over a particular collection for years and then not paying attention to it at all—leaving it in a state of hiatus, only to return to it some years later. Like many, I collect books, photographs and movies; but also pencils, small spherical objects (natural and man-made) and succulents.
I did not have cactus again for over a decade. Then in 1998, I picked up a plant at a home improvement store, and then another, and another. When I ran out of window space, I built a small plastic box so that my plants could live outside in the summer. In the winter, they would sit inside on a table near the window. Now most of my collection lives on my back porch year-round in a small green house I built out of polycarbonate. I installed a watering and ventilation system and heaters for the winter.
Most cacti don’t need much. Sun, air, fast-draining soil and a little water when it’s warm. While I water the plants every two or three weeks in the summer, I keep them completely dry from October to April. They will be just fine. Should you not be around for a few months, they will survive. While most plants can tolerate full sun and heat, they do require air circulation or they will suffer or develop burn spots. Ideally, one should give them exposure to southern light, but my greenhouse faces east. There is simply not enough space on the south side of my apartment.
I now have about 250 plants and little space for more. I used to grow plants from seed just for fun, but current space limitations only allow me to seed very few plants—usually species that are rare or hard to grow. I track the progress of my plants in a database: flowering cycles, disease and, at times, I have to log their demise.
Joseph Beuys’ most famous statement was that “everyone is an artist.” I think everyone is also a curator. Deep down, we are still hunters and gathers, but this is no longer a preoccupation with food and survival. Now we pleasure our brains with the thrill of the hunt, the joy of adding and then arranging a new acquisition to our collection. One could think of my succulent house as an ongoing curatorial project. One could think of my collecting succulents as a “second act.” Whether this is a second, third or fourth act, I don’t know. Perhaps it is one tenth of the act called “my life.” It is just something I do.
In the wild, plants often don’t look like plants in cultivation, and two plants of the same species can often appear quite different. Is it a cactus or a succulent? All cacti are succulent, and cacti are native to the Americas. There are some exceptions, and such a statement is probably not the most scientific method of looking at this. For some species, the wild habitat is one specific hillside; they are found there and there alone. After Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus was discovered, one plant of the species sold for its weight in gold. Mammillaria bombycina was first described in 1910 in a German magazine. This species was probably discovered in the late nineteenth century. Four specimens made it to the Netherlands, and all the plants of this species in cultivation are derived from those four plants. Nobody could find this species in the wild again until the eighties, when it was rediscovered just north of the spot originally described. That is the way I remember the story, but I have not been able to verify it.
For me, the most fascinating thing about succulents is that they could almost be man-made objects. The geometry of these plants is beautiful and often baffling. If one scaled them up, they would make great geodesic domes. One could argue that the ultimate in perfection is a perfect sphere. Giotto once drew a perfect circle for a pope to demonstrate his skill. Of course these plants are by no means perfect. I guess what I see is the potential for perfection in this in-between thing. Over the past few years, I have made a number of spherical, sometimes spiky objects, inspired in part by succulents.
I love the desert—in the winter, that is. I could not live there year-round. The heat, day in and out, is not for me. So it is great to have a small version of the desert in rainy Portland, Oregon. This ‘cactus thing’ has become something of a Zen garden to me. Most days, I fall out of bed, make some coffee and have a smoke by the greenhouse while my cat purrs in the background. Looking over the plants, I marvel at their beauty; I may find some new growth and discover flower buds that had not been there the day before. I know pets and plants keep me sane.