Long before succulents were trendy, Nick Castelli was collecting, cultivating, and propagating different varieties of these fascinating plants. “They like me,” he says with a smile. “They don’t hassle me.” A closer inspection of his flats of succulents reveals dozens of tiny treasures. There’s a string of pearls, perfect for hanging baskets, a peanut cactus, a snow cactus clothed in fine white hair, a golden barrel cactus, a rippling jade. He seeks out unusual varieties and propagates them with cuttings from stock plants.
The trick to maintaining succulents, Nick says, is in the watering. At a recent Friday market he deftly assembled a box with a staple gun, nestled a polka dot cactus inside, and sent it to its new home with a word of advice. “If the soil is very dry and pulling away from the pot, it needs water—usually only about once a month.” Another customer experienced an “aha” moment when Nick gave her similar low-water instructions. “You can water it on the first of every month—like a mortgage payment,” he said. “Oh!” she said. “I must have overwatered all the ones I killed.” He gave the opposite advice to a customer adopting an Alberta spruce. “Make sure it doesn’t dry out,” he cautioned. “Water it every day.”
Nick is a goldmine of helpful tips for every gardener. Even with good care instructions, though, people have the best chance of success if they take home a healthy, well-tended plant. Succulents, and all plants, need the kind of care, light, and proper watering that a big box store can’t provide. “It takes a while to make sure you have a nice-looking plant,” Nick says.
“Every year I tell myself I’m not going to over-grow,” he says, and he shakes his head and grins as he surveys his tables laden with a great variety of flourishing plants, all grown in his 14 x 28 greenhouse. On any given week, especially towards the beginning of the season, he’ll have vegetable starts and herbs, tubers such as caladiums, vines, and a beautiful palette of flowers. Wherever he goes, Nick is on the lookout for new plants. When a pretty Mezoo in a planter in Ocean City, Maryland caught his eye, for example, he asked to take a cutting. He’s since grown two trays of this pretty plant.
How has he gained all this horticultural wisdom? “Well, I’ve been doing it awhile,” he says. Nick and his wife Jean started The Family Tree Florist in 1973. They sold the business decades ago, and Nick has been exercising his green thumb in his Oxford greenhouse ever since. He started growing what he calls “heat money plants”—the plants people want to buy for their homes and gardens that would earn him enough to pay for the heat in his plastic-covered greenhouse. Retirement is a relative term, and even though Nick has transitioned from a wood stove as his primary source of heat to a pellet stove, which is less time intensive, “There’s always grass to cut and weeds to pull,” he says. And tending so many plants is a full-time job in and of itself.
The summer months are also prime time for focusing on his other specialty, the Christmas cactus. He grows most of them from cuttings and keeps them in the shade, trimming and getting them ready for holiday blooms. It’s a long crop, Nick says, and the plants set a tiny bud in October so they’re in full bud by Thanksgiving and Christmas. He brings his Christmas cactuses, as well as succulents, to the holiday bazaars at Avon Grove Intermediate School, Ware Presbyterian Village, and the North East Fire Company.
At this point in the season, Nick is “giving away” plants for a dollar or two as he clears out for Christmas. The growing season is far from over, though, and customers can find Nick with a great selection of plants at the Kennett Square Farmers Market and the Newark Natural Foods Co-op until the middle of August. A succulent or two might be the best way to keep the spirit of summer alive throughout the year.
Photos by Dylan Francis, TroubledGeniusMedia