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What it's like to run a cactus nursery

By Heather Large | Weekend | Published:

Cactus couple Stan Griffin and Vicki Newman can’t get enough of their striking shapes, spiky spines and showy flowers.

Prickly customers – Stan Griffin and Vicki Newman with some of their collection

They have been running Craig House Cacti for 11 years and have become known for their award-winning cacti and succulents – as well as their eye-catching themed attire.

Their hard work and dedication has earned them 135 gold medals including eight at the world famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

But Stan and Vicki are also very passionate about encouraging others to grow and enjoy these often misunderstood plants in their own homes.

And with scientists having discovered more than 2,000 species of cacti there is plenty of choice for wannabe growers.

“I love that they are all so different. If you look at a rose or a fuschia they are mostly the same apart from the colour but these are so varied and the flowers are spectacular,” says Vicki, aged 62.

Prickly customers – Stan Griffin and Vicki Newman with some of their collection

“Some have flowers that are big and blousy, others have ones that are really tiny. Some grow on the top, others on the spines.

"We’ve had some surprise us by flowering when we’re not expecting it and others we’ve missed because they’ve flowered when we haven’t been here,” adds Stan.

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The pair both caught the cacti bug at an early age and made it their mission to learn as much about them as possible.

Stan, 71, who has travelled to Argentina to study the plants in the wild, has been growing cacti and succulents for more than 50 years after starting out with his first cutting when he was just a lad.

Vicki, a teacher in the Blakenhall area of Walsall for 30 years, was also introduced to cacti at an early age and her father, Ray, was one of those present at the inaugural meeting of the Birmingham branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society (BCSS).

They took over the reins of the West Bromwich-based Craig House Cacti nursery after the previous owner retired and the business has gone from strength to strength.

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Their large greenhouse is full of hundreds of plants of all shapes, sizes and ages which they care for all year around.

As well as cacti and succulents, there are also lithops, which are known as living stones because they resemble the pebbles and rocks that litter their native habitats.

The oldest cacti in the collection is a 60-year-old epithelantha micromens which has pretty pink flowers. But one of the biggest crowd pleasers is the famous Popsy, a 35-year-old parodia warasii, which is so popular it even has its own Twitter page.

“Popsy is my favourite because it looks like she has a face. She has 120 followers on Twitter including Andrew and Julian Lloyd-Webber. Sophie Raworth and Ann-Marie Powell also like Popsy,” says Vicki.

Stan’s oldest cactus is around 60

Each year they travel to more than a dozen shows around the country displaying their cacti and succulents. This weekend they are at the Dundee Flower Show and they will be meeting visitors to the Malvern Autumn Show at the end of the month.

“It’s a different life and a different family for six months when we’re on the road. There is a lot of camaraderie. We get to see new places as we always make sure we have a day off at each show.

"The Malvern Spring Show is my favourite. It’s a really nice show and they look after us really well. I like Chelsea because of all of the celebrities we get to meet,” says Vicki.

They have rubbed shoulders with a host of stars including Julian Clary, Brandon Cole, Anton du Beck and Joanna Lumley while The Princess Royal Duchess of Cornwall and the Countess of Wessex have also paid visits to their stand.

Cacti education is very important to the pair who have fellow green-fingered fans including Carol Klein, Diarmuid Gavin, Monty Don and Bob Flowerdew.

"When it comes to caring for the plants one of the biggest misconceptions is the belief that because they originate from dry and hot conditions that they don’t need watering.

“They are still living things like any other plants – they need food and water just the same. I’d people say to me ‘I’ve sprayed my cactus’ and I tell them to give it a good soaking- they love it.

“We were filmed for television once and people said afterwards that they had watered their cacti after seeing us do the same – there were a lot of happy cacti that night,” says Vicki.

At this time of year water is especially important. “Between March and October, they are watered once a week and fed once every three weeks. When watering them, it’s important to make sure they are not left in standing water.

Vicki with a portulaca

“The hot weather we’ve been having this year causes them to shut down. In the desert there are hot days and cold nights and it’s the temperature variation that keeps them growing. But here we tend to have hot nights as well and they shut themselves down.

“Between October and March, they have a bit of rest and we put them to bed. They tend to look after themselves.

“Like all houseplants they need regular attention, re-potting and checking for pests or disease.

"They will not survive long periods of cold, especially if it is damp, so in winter keep them fairly dry and frost free,” explains Stan, has also supported and provided plants to Turner prize winning artist Martin Creed for his exhibitions in Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Their show displays tend to be aimed at inspiring visitors to see how cacti could fit in their own homes. “The public are why we do what we do now. The medals are nice, don’t get me wrong, but we enjoy helping other people by giving them ideas of what they can do themselves.

“Some people may look at our display and ‘say I’ve got a pot like that’. We used an old cake stand in one display to show people another way. We’ve had people at shows say they want to start to growing them because of our display,” Vicki said.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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