Cycads are generally very easy to grow. They haven't survived since the age of the dinosaurs because they are finicky! Their main requirement is perfect drainage, as they will develop root rot if water remains stagnant in the soil. A loose, fast-draining potting mix such a cactus mix is preferred, with a neutral to slightly alkaline soil, pH6 to 7. Or see our recipe for cycad potting soil below.
Fertilize with complete organic fertilizer, and top dress with compost. Alternatively, an organic, low phosphorous (3-1-3 ratio) fertilizer high in trace nutrients, once a year in spring.
Cycads are very hardy plants and are rarely bothered by pests or diseases. They do exceptionally well in pots. Terra cotta pots will help to keep the soil on the dry side and provide aeration. They actually like being root-bound, so do not be too anxious to re-pot. As they are very slow-growing, you will only have to do that every four or five years.
Always keep pots oriented in the same direction, e.g. facing north, to prevent the leaves from spiralling and twisting out of plane. Just write "N" on the pot with a felt marker.
There are as many cycad potting mixes as there are cycad species. Our second newsletter listed no less than 19 different recipes. (You can subscribe to our newsletter just by sending me an email). Here are a couple of our tried and true recipes.; we are currently using recipe #2. However, a commercial cactus mix from your local nursery also works very well.
Cycad potting mix #1: 3 shovels friable loam, 2 shovels coarse sand, 4 shovels milled pine or fir bark, 1 shovel peat moss, one cup complete organic fertilizer (OR 45 grams slow-release balanced pellet fertilizer such as 18:6:18 with micro-elements, 40 grams dolomite lime, 3 grams iron sulphate, 3 grams magnesium sulphate). Mulch yearly with compost.
Cycad potting mix #2: 1 bucket compost, 1 bucket milled fir bark, 1 bucket pumice, one cup complete organic fertilizer, 1/2 cup epsom salts.
Complete Organic Fertilizer recipe: 4 parts seed meal (i.e. flax or canola), 1 part rock phosphate OR 1/2 part bone meal, 1 part lime, 1/2 part kelp meal.
Cycads grown in pots do not have access to all the nutrients available when growing in the ground. During the growing season, when your cycads are summering out of doors, water every so often with a weak dilution of sea kelp or de-odourized liquid fish fertilizer, according to package directions. This will provide the trace elements they require for optimum growth.
If planting cycads in the garden be sure they have excellent drainage. Plant them on a mound and incorporate lots of sand into the soil. Planting under the eaves of the house also provides excellent protection from excess rainfall and frost.
Asian Cycad Scale (Aulacaspis yasumatsui), a native of Thailand, is a pest that has been spread to cycad populations of the southern U.S., the Western Caribbean, and Hawaii. It has proved devastating to growers in those areas. So far it has not been found in Canada. That is another reason we grow all our cycads from seed and do not import any plants from abroad. (This scale looks like a white powder on the leaves).
CAUTION: As with many other plants, all parts of cycads are poisonous, especially the seeds. Take care to keep plants out of the reach of young children and pets.
Encephalartos villosus - antique botanical print