At pointy end of success
FIRST came cactus cake and cactus ice cream, followed closely by aloe moisturiser.
So it was almost inevitable that at some point Jim Hall and his wife, Julie - who run Cactus Country in Strathmerton, on the Murray River - would one day contemplate making tequila from the agave plants they grow.
"Of course we won't be able to call it tequila,” Jim said, "because like champagne in France, there's only a certain region of Mexico that can call it tequila.
"We've done a sample run of mezcal and it's quite interesting once you begin researching it.”
While the Halls have a distiller ready to make the potent brews, they won't be bottling for at least five years, with agave plants currently being planted on one hectare and able to be harvested only when flowering after about seven years.
The project, though, is a reflection of the Halls' dedication to their gardening passion, which has evolved over four decades, starting with Jim's personal cactus collection inherited from his father in the 1970s, planted on a small patch when they bought the Strathmerton property in 1983, and growing to more than 3000 species of cactus and succulents, and upwards of 20,000 plants on four hectares and nine hothouses.
Along the way they opened the property to the public in 1988 - they celebrate its 30th birthday next year - and a decade ago opened the 150-seat cafe (where they sell their signature cactus products), and now welcome about 10,000 visitors annually to the property, where a nursery is open for visitors to buy plants.
Photographers in particular have arrived in droves - including the authors of a German coffee table book, Cosmopolitan magazine and even retailers such as Kmart - attracted to the alien landscape of prickly totems, many of which burst into a carpet of flowers each spring.
And thanks to Jim's green thumb, Cactus Country is perpetually evolving.
Right now the 64-year-old is excitedly awaiting the flowering of a new plant, a new breed of trichocereus, which until recently had white flowers but because of new grafting techniques has morphed into coloured flowers.
"A friend imported the seed and we planted them last year so it's exciting to see whether it will have coloured flowers (in spring),” Jim says.
Jim plants up to 50 new species a year.
"There's still lots of species I haven't got and I am always chasing new breeds and plants,” he said.
"In Australia and overseas there's lots of new and different developments in cactus breeding.
"Barely a day goes by I'm not planting something new.”
The growth of the garden is helped by the fact the plants are hardy, although Jim admits he has killed a few in his time, particularly the frost-sensitive ones. Strathmerton's temperature ranges from about minus 2C up to 40C, with an average annual rainfall of about 400mm.
While the plants are drought-resistant, some require watering once or twice a year - just to keep them looking their best for the public - and the odd spray for crown rot, aphids, mealybug and scale.
Cactus Country's evolution is all the more impressive given up until about two years ago it was a side hobby to the Halls' main business of farming.
When the couple first bought the property it was 10ha but has since grown to 65ha. From the outset they grew yellow squash and zucchini and only last year stopped the latter, now growing 10ha of squash for Woolworths. They also farm fodder crops for local farmers - all overseen by their son, John.
When his father moved to Finley, Jim took on the cactus plants.
The hobby became more serious when he bought about 3000 plants from a collector in South Australia in 1984 and he has since bought more collections from growers across the country.
Julie says their aim is to "wow people”.
"Barely a day goes by without someone stopping us to say what a wonderful collection and experience it is,” she said.
Jim said: "The most common question visitors ask is, 'How on earth do you handle them?'. My cheeky reply is, 'Gently'.”