Cooperative News

A cactus connoisseur

PEC Utility Forester sees the softer side of spiky

PEC Utility Forester Mike Ayala spends his hours on the job as a guardian of our lines and equipment, keeping them clear of vegetation that can potentially cause outages. Off-hours, he’s the keeper of his greenhouse, which is looking pretty sharp these days — literally.

Different cactus species.
The Golden Barrel cactus (left) is most beautiful when it’s fully matured, Ayala said. The Polka Dot cactus (middle) has tiny spines that come off with the lightest touch, and while the Old Man cactus (right) looks soft, its tiny needles are painful and hard to remove.

About 200 cacti representing 80 to 100 varieties are stored in the greenhouse that extends to Ayala’s backyard patio. For 30 years, he has been picking the cream of the cactus crop at nurseries outside New Braunfels and San Antonio, raising them and admiring their thorny beauty.

“My daughter, Kristina, and I were driving down the road one day, and we stopped at this greenhouse, buying a couple of cactuses and succulents,” Ayala said. “My hobby just kind of took off from that one time we stopped at that greenhouse right off the highway.”

Old Man, Pencil, San Pedro and Madagascar Palm cactus are some of Ayala’s favorites to grow and maintain. The Golden Barrel cactus is one of the most beautiful species of cactus when it’s fully matured, Ayala explained, and because of this, he has an entire room dedicated to these magnificent plants. Don’t be fooled by their good looks, though. His cacti have a vicious bite to them. Ayala would know — he gets needled all the time.

“The Madagascar cactus is probably the meanest and worst one to get stabbed by,” Ayala said. “But there was this one time I fell down on a little velvet cactus and I was just forced to wait for the tiny needles to fall out of my forehead. The biggest needles are not always the ones that hurt the most.”

Cacti in pots.
A few of the cacti Ayala has grown over the years. He grows about 100 varieties and has about 200 plants.

It’s a small price to pay considering that cacti require minimal care. Some can go without water for three months, and Ayala mostly just has to keep an eye on the succulents scattered throughout his backyard. He believes the key to caring for a healthy cactus is to neglect them, let them be, that all they need is a little sunshine.

Ayala’s succulents sold like hotcakes at his mom’s recent church bazaar, where he brought a truckload to sell and earned about $400 ($200 of which went to the church)​​. He has considered pursuing this hobby more seriously as supplemental income for his family, and his daughter, Juliana, even took it upon herself to draw the logo of his future cactus nursery, an image of a cactus and rocking chair. She calls it, “Rocking Barrel Cactus.”

“It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” Ayala said.

That’s still quite a ways down the road though, he said. His job at PEC keeps him busy and satisfied, but who knows: With Ayala’s vast knowledge of cactus and his daughter’s creativity, the prickly possibilities are endless.