Eight years ago Ernie Dawson started a prickly new hobby.
"My mother gave me this plant," he said, noting a pair of potted cacti from the Echinopsis genus – originally one plant – estimated to be about 30 years old.
"This plant produced this..." said Dawson, pointing to hundreds of potted clusters or 'offsets.'
"I took these off every year, put them in soil, they rooted, and they grew. Every year I continued to harvest this plant. The other ones started to grow, they started to produce babies (offsets)... and every cactus you see here, this is the mother."
Eventually he needed to find more room to continue his hobby, and pitched an idea to Matthew and Linda Fenn, owners of Tillsonburg Garden Gate on Simcoe Street, in November 2013. He called his operation 'Echi Cactus Company.'
"I said, 'Matt, I need a place to put these cacti... would you be interested in selling some cacti? Can I make an arrangement with you to house them?' And he agreed – he was very interested. I was actually surprised."
They soon reached a mutually beneficial business arrangement.
"I knew the answer right away because the minute he saw the cacti his eyes lit up," Dawson smiled. "And he gave me this big smile..."
"I like anything if I know I can sell it," Fenn laughed.
Each year, the mature cacti can produce 10-20 offsets.
"You'll see some of them out there," he said, pointing to an adjacent greenhouse, "that have multiple, multiple 'babies' on them. You can harvest the babies off the larger cacti every year. On the smaller ones, every two years."
Last year they had about 1,500. They now have almost 5,000 cacti growing at Tilllsonburg Garden Gate.
"This year I have to pull off 50,000 cacti... with my hands."
Some of the cacti have been available sold in limited numbers, mostly in the $5 size, but the majority are being used as harvesting stock.
"Once we have 50,000, then we'll be able to expand sales," said Dawson. "One of the things we face now is marketing, getting contacts and finding distributors to get them on the market to sell them. That's the plan, and we'll see how far we can go with it. Next year, 50,000 x 10, we could have half a million cacti."
"We're going to retail, but since there's so many, we're going to wholesale too," said Fenn. "And in Toronto as well."
Test sales at the Toronto Food Terminal last year were successful – they sold out. This year they will be testing other garden centres.
"It's a specialty market."
What has Dawson excited this spring is the number of flower buds that will be bloom in the next few weeks.
"This one has 10 flowers, which is very unusual. I've never seen it before, I've only seen two on one plant. They've been enjoying the greenhouse and they've done well. It's hard to predict when they're going to be ready to bloom. In about a month, maybe six weeks. Generally speaking they would flower in the summertime. But I think these are ahead of schedule. I haven't seen buds on them this early before."
The larger cacti typically bloom once a year, but the two-inch diameter flowers only last a few days. They won't all bloom at the same time, but Dawson anticipates over a month-long period – with the numbers they currently have – a spectacular display.
"They only bloom about four days, and it's only really vibrant one day. There's one day when it reaches its peak. But we could have thousands of blooms – I'd say 1,000-2,000."
Dawson, who is retired, said the plants are very low maintenance.
"The only time you have any real work is during the harvest. You have to pluck them (offsets) off and put them on some soil in a small pot. That's labour intensive, depending on how many people do it. You might be able to do 5,000 plants in a day with two people.
"This is a hobby," Dawson stressed, shrugging off the time factor.
The life span of an Echinopsis cactus is quite long, said Dawson, as in 'they can last a lifetime.'
"And they're resilient," he noted. "I have less than 0.5 per cent failure rate, the one's that don't 'take'. Maybe a dozen out of the 5,000."
"If people water them right, they can last forever," Fenn nodded. "You've got to give them a good drink, then let them get really dry. If you over-water a cactus, you'll kill it."