Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2003
Regional Report

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Teddy bear cholla spines appear to be impenetrable, yet birds build nests in them with ease.

Cacti Planting

My cacti garden has gone wild, sending out new growth in multiple directions, all slyly positioned to stab me if I don't tread carefully. Most of them were planted over a dozen years ago from a small pot or single pad and they've grown exponentially. The neighborhood cats are unconcerned, racing along the garden path in their kitty-crazed moments, through the cacti and up the fence, nimbly avoiding the treacherous spines. Show offs!

Although it's entertaining to watch these sure-footed felines, my own big-footed clumsiness forces me to cut back some of the growth.

Cutting Techniques
Those that grow in sections, such as prickly pear and cholla, are easy enough to handle. I use kitchen tongs to grasp the pad and hold it steady. Then pruners or a sharp knife cut it off at the joint.

Cholla will sometimes break off with a gentle twist of the tongs. Nature designed the cholla to separate easily as an aid to survival. The new growth breaks off when an animal brushes against it, for example, and is carried elsewhere to start a new plant. Some species are commonly called "jumping cholla" because the sections are so readily detached that they seem to jump onto the unsuspecting passerby.

Set the pads on newspaper or in a cardboard box and place them in the shade. Let the cuts dry and callus for a week before replanting. This helps prevent infection from entering the wound when it contacts soil. (They will hold much longer than that if you can't get them transplanted.) When ready, you can pot them up to root. Or trade with other gardeners to diversify your collection.

Cacti require extremely well-drained soil. For containers, use a soil mix formulated for cacti, or mix your own with equal parts sand, silt, and gravel. To plant them in the ground, the standard advice is to loosen the soil to a depth of 6 to 12 inches. In reality, much of my ground is so hard that I just scratch up 3 or 4 inches of soil and stick the pad in. If their current size is any indication, this minimal soil preparation didn't harm them! If you're planting a larger, rooted cacti from a pot, you will have to dig deeper to provide for the root ball and to support the plant's weight.

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