Cactus Celebration

Jim Hall comes from a long line of English gardeners and his grandfather developed prize-winning gardens in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.

But it was Jim’s father, John, who led him down a different garden path to a passion for succulents and cacti in particular. “Dad worked on dairy and pig farms all over NSW and Victoria and his hobby was growing cacti,” Jim recalls. “Whenever he moved, he took his cacti with him. I saw the genuine fascination people had for his plants so when Dad decided to sell his collection in 1979, I convinced my soon-to-be bride that we should buy it.”

So, with very little gardening knowledge, but a great deal of energy, Jim and schoolteacher Julie became the proud new owners of the cactus collection, which they installed on their 2-acre (almost a hectare) block at Strathmerton, just south of the Murray River on the Victorian side of the border. For the next four years they slowly propagated new seed and planted bigger specimens in the ground to allow them to grow faster. They still had to make an income, so Julie continued to teach and Jim picked fruit at local orchards and pruned in the winter. “Jim had this amazing idea that he would create a cactus display garden that people would come and walk around in,” Julie says. “We all thought he was crazy, but he is a very determined person.”

In 1984, Jim and Julie purchased their present property, a 166-acre (67-hectare) peach orchard, which they cleared. Finally, they had the space to develop Jim’s dream. “We started off with about an acre of cacti and the plants grew so quickly that we kept expanding the garden,” Julie says. Their next chapter began when an elderly brother and sister turned up at the farm. They explained that their recently deceased brother, Ed Kroemer, a bachelor from Loxton in South Australia, had expressed the wish that his cactus collection, which he had spent a lifetime compiling from all over the world, be kept together. “Ed’s siblings had taken more than a year to find someone who would fulfil his wishes,” Julie says. “They’d heard about us and offered the collection to us at a favourable price. So we packed about 3000 plants in pots wrapped in newspaper into a van and brought them here.”

Cactus Country, which is now Australia’s largest cactus garden, opened in 1988. The garden has become a tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over Australia and overseas, with on-site catering, events and year-round appeal. Peak flowering season is mid-October to mid-November when the garden is ablaze with colour and packed with visitors. “We now have about 12 acres (almost five hectares) planted to more than 1000 varieties from the smallest succulents through to the ‘el capitans’, towering terscheckii in the Valley of the Giants,” Julie says. “I don’t think either of us realised how it would grow, and we never imagined we’d be celebrating 35 years in October last year. For most of that time we’ve also grown vegetables — zucchinis and squash — which was hard work, but it provided income while the garden was growing in the background.”

Cactus Country

As Jim explains, the alluvial soil is perfect for cacti. “Drainage is important, they don’t like to sit in wet soil,” he adds. Cacti are native to North and South America and grow on slopes and grassland. Somewhere in the modern past they have evolved to tolerate cold and, in some cases, water. “They’ve also developed pretty fancy ways of protecting themselves from grazing animals,” Jim says. “They grow spikes at the bottom to stop animals climbing up and eating the flowers. As they become older and taller, they become balder and may be virtually spineless at the top.”

Cactus Country

Today, Cactus Country draws 35,000 visitors a year. “The turning point in our story came with the arrival of social media,” Julie says. “We started a Facebook page and got to 2000 followers and thought that was pretty special. We’re up to 175,000 followers on Facebook and 65,000 on Instagram, so that has been a real game changer because we have exposure to an audience worldwide and so many people want to come here just to get a photo in front of those big cactus.Now we’re more famous in parts of Asia than here. We had visitors from Singapore come on their honeymoon with a photographer. They came to us then saw the penguins at Phillip Island and went home. We stopped growing vegetables in 2018 and we were able to focus on just doing the garden.”

Cactus Country

Jim’s favourite part of the garden is an unprepossessing shed few visitors get to see. It’s where he weaves his magic cross-pollinating plants to eventually bring a rainbow of colour to the garden. “Because cacti are very unstable they are very easy to cross-pollinate,” he says. “They will do it in nature and because we have so many plants in a small area a lot of hybridisation happens naturally.” But he has developed the system of pollinating plants himself, and aims to breed big cactus that would normally only flower white with great coloured flowers on them. “It’s very exciting for him and so far he’s propagated about 800 to 1000 different crosses,” Julie says. “Every day during late spring he heads over to the hothouse and drags me along too to see what new flowers have come out. Sometimes he can have three or four from the same batch and they all have different colours.”

Cactus Celebration

As the business grew, the Halls introduced a cafe and merch outlet selling cacti in pots and an astonishing range of cactus products — cake, ice cream, jam, salt, skincare products, gin, agave spirit and even cactus cider. They also host two major events. Fright Fest is Halloween-inspired and mostly for children when witches, bats and spiders decorate the garden and there’s a treasure hunt for visitors. The Day of the Dead festival on the first weekend in November is aimed at adults. “That’s a celebration that they have in Mexico when they commemorate all the people who have passed on,” Julie says. “We have a big party with lots of food and music, with a mariachi band and a fire dancer and it’s a lot of fun.”

Cactus Celebration

Jim turned 70 this year but has no intention of slowing down until he has achieved his dream of filling Cactus Country with all manner of sculpture and installations. Julie is similarly passionate but looks forward to stepping back a bit and handing the events side of the business — they host 20 weddings a year and many more proposals — over to a recently appointed functions manager.

Cactus Celebration

“I feel really proud that we’ve achieved a lot and I do love what we do and the workers we have and young people who come from overseas and work for us,” Julie says. “It’s a great life but it’s been a hard road. Jim has ambitions until he dies; he won’t have time to go to his own funeral. Our son, John, has been working in the business since 2008 and will ultimately take over. So the future is assured.”

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