Cactus and Tender Succulents forum: Best method for separating potted cactus

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Name: Paul
southern California
Zone 8B/9A
Region: California Herbs
cahdg6891
Apr 12, 2017 11:05 PM CST
How does everyone separate their potted cactus? When you buy them often times there will be multiple plants in a little pot. I've taken a trowel or a knife and just sliced through the roots before, as well as soaking the pot and then rinsing as much soil off as possible before untangling the roots as much as I can. Just wondering how other people separate them. Or if they separate them at all and keep them all close together when they plant them or move them to a larger pot.
Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
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DaisyI
Apr 13, 2017 1:26 AM CST
I don't separate. If the plant needs a bigger pot, the whole thing gets potted up.
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Name: Steve Claggett
Portland Orygun (Zone 8a)
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madcratebuilder
Apr 13, 2017 7:37 AM CST
When I have more than one plant I just use a knife and divide as equal as I can. I do not wash off all soil. I would do this dry and remove most of the soil but not all.
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Name: Baja
Baja California (Zone 11b)
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Baja_Costero
Apr 13, 2017 9:04 AM CST

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This issue comes up when you grow cactus from seed and they grow elbow to elbow in there. (Yeah I know cacti don't have elbows.) Smiling

I remove them from the pot and try to identify who to separate first, based on where it's easiest to start. Wiggle the stems a little, then use the point of a chopstick to break off the soil around the edges in between plants, so you can see the roots.

Then wiggle some more and repeat. Sometimes just driving the point of a chopstick down into the middle of a group (carefully of course) and then wiggling back and forth will release one or more.

However you do it, try to retain as much roots as possible.(keep the knife in a drawer until you actually need it). The most important thing is not to water the plants for several days to a couple of weeks afterward (risk of rot). And do your best to be patient while you're root wrangling, which pays off with more and better roots.
Name: tarev
San Joaquin County, CA (Zone 9b)
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tarev
Apr 13, 2017 10:22 AM CST
I try not to disturb too much the roots, just more on gently tapping them out and into a slightly bigger container that is not too deep, seeing their roots are so thin, and often takes quite a while to grow new ones. I also try to buy one type clusters, not several types in a container, so I can better understand their growth habit and not be bothered with their tangled roots which is bound to happen when growing multiple types in a container.
Name: Philip Becker
Fresno California (Zone 8a)
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Philipwonel
Apr 13, 2017 4:28 PM CST
The soil there in, usually isn't good soil for them. So i like to soak them in pot of water, so i can gently break them apart and gently wash/shake most of soil from roots. Less root damage, and there well hydronated not to need watering for several weeks.
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Name: Paul
southern California
Zone 8B/9A
Region: California Herbs
cahdg6891
Apr 16, 2017 3:42 AM CST
Thanks for your input, everyone. Big Grin I bought two little pots of Opuntia microdasys (yellow and albata) the other day. I'm debating whether to separate them all or just leave them close together the way they are and pop the clusters into larger pots and let them grow however they want to Whistling
Name: Karen
NM (Zone 7b)
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plantmanager
Apr 16, 2017 10:08 AM CST
Paul, those bunny ears cacti grow fairly large and very fast. I'd separate them out to give them plenty of room. I put one in a bed with mostly small "ball" cacti. I ended up having to take it out because it totally took over the bed and crowded the original cacti.
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Name: Baja
Baja California (Zone 11b)
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Baja_Costero
Apr 16, 2017 11:33 AM CST

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Yeah expect one of those cacti to fill a 16 inch pot within a few years, if they're the regular microdasys. That's how far they got with me before I tossed them due to the outrageous danger the glochids (very small, easy detached spines) pose to humankind. Smiling
Name: Karen
NM (Zone 7b)
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plantmanager
Apr 16, 2017 11:43 AM CST
I've had to toss a lot of it because it grows so darned fast. I usually put them in a box out by the roadside, and many times they do get picked up so someone else can grow them.
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Name: Baja
Baja California (Zone 11b)
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Baja_Costero
Apr 16, 2017 11:48 AM CST

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I'd put a sign in there saying "danger hazardous spines". Smiling I have learned my lesson but guests to our house have had to as well. It's like "Hey! Welcome to our house! Can I get you some duct tape?" Hilarious!
Name: Karen
NM (Zone 7b)
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plantmanager
Apr 16, 2017 11:49 AM CST
Yes, that's for sure. We keep tweezers and packing tape handy. The worst is getting them out of the tennis balls our dog plays with.
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Name: Paul
southern California
Zone 8B/9A
Region: California Herbs
cahdg6891
Apr 16, 2017 4:21 PM CST
Hilarious! my first bad encounter with cacti as a child was an Opuntia microdasys. It was on a rack at the store, and looked soft so I reached out to touch it aaaand yep Rolling my eyes. I'll be separating them into their own pots then. The pads are small and close together right now but it looks and sounds like if I leave them the way they are, they will be too crowded once they have the root room.
Name: Kristi
east Texas pineywoods (Zone 8a)
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pod
Apr 20, 2017 5:42 AM CST
I personally like the clumping habit that some have. I would leave them 'clumped' and only move them up in pot size.

I must say my thought was that this thread talked about how to avoid being exposed to the spines when separating these buddies so I read through it looking for new ideas. I guess the solution to that question is to use great care! Green Grin!
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Name: Thijs van Soest
Mesa, AZ (Zone 9b)
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mcvansoest
Apr 20, 2017 8:24 AM CST
Yeah Opuntia microdasys is definitely one of those good/bad kind of cacti, but while its glochids are pretty bad, there are a couple of other prickly pears that bother me a lot more when I get some of their glochids in me, the worst I would say is Opuntia santa rita, generally much longer glochids so much harder to get rid of once they have struck, the other one is the cow tongue prickly pear, maybe I have some specific sensitivity to that one, because that one does at first glance not appear to be that terrible when it comes to glochids, but man....
As people have already said about O. microdasys, the plant if planted in the ground and provided with just a little extra water, it is prone to take over whatever space it is given. In a large clump/grouping they do look awesome, but they will crowd out any other low growing plants. If kept in a pot it tends to need a larger pot quite often and if you do not pot it up regularly it is prone to what I have started calling colony collapse: it will get to a point where it will just start shedding pads and more pads and really nothing you can do except pot it up will stop that, and while a good pruning will get it to growing more regularly again it will start looking pretty ratty, so keep that in mind when growing this in a pot. Also this particular prickly pear sheds pads very readily so handling it a lot will probably cause quite a few pads to come off it, and while it will grow plenty quick to recover from that, it is something to keep in mind.

Anyway as to separating plants: I use a variety of salad tongs and other grabbing tools and usually wait for the pot the be completely dry so I can shake off a lot of the soil (especially when it is my own pumice rich mix) and then try to gently pull things apart, if that does not work or there is too much soil left I will try to wash that a way, but in the end, if easy separation eludes me, I just gently tear them apart and then let them sit in the shade for a few days, to callous over any damage areas.

I usually separate plants that will look better as single stemmed/trunked specimens or if I am trying to propagate, most of the time when it is just about getting a plant in a bigger pot, I do not bother. However, my main focus is growing plants in the ground rather than in pots (I just have more potted plants than in the ground plants because I am a bit of a hoarder and am generally out of space), so I am usually just waiting for a plant to grow big enough to survive better in the ground or for space to open up. So part of the decision on separating or not really depends on what you want from the plant you are dealing with, but with Opuntias the other thing to remember is that just about every decently sized pad is the start of another plant, so if you want to create another one the hassle of splitting can easily be avoided by just taking a pad or two and sticking those in the soil.
Name: Philip Becker
Fresno California (Zone 8a)
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Philipwonel
Apr 20, 2017 10:26 AM CST
@pod
When i transplant my spiny catus, i use a few layers of newspaper to grab them. It dosent damage the spines. No gloves. Spines will get into even leather gloves. And !!!
you know which way there headed ? Whistling 😭
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Name: Baja
Baja California (Zone 11b)
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Baja_Costero
Apr 20, 2017 3:50 PM CST

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Our native cactus makes a hooked central spine and I had to learn early on how difficult it can be to handle and separate even baby plants. Those spines make it pointless to handle them with anything that can get hooked (skin, fabric). I have found the best solution to be my favorite tool in this process: the chopstick. It gives you a safe distance, it gives you good resolution, and moving baby Mammillarias around can be as easy as arranging sushi on a platter, if you're reasonably agile with 2 chopsticks (maybe one more in the other hand for good measure).

Usually I grow 15 or 20 of these cacti in a community pot then separate later (first into a few groups, then later each group into individual pots). Here is one from the group so you can appreciate the velcro-like geometry of the spines.

[Last edited by Baja_Costero - Apr 20, 2017 5:08 PM (+)]
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Name: Larry
Hill Country TX (Zone 8b)
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ricelg
Apr 22, 2017 7:27 PM CST
I second the use of chopsticks as an aid in transplanting seedlings to minimize root damage. I also try to gently remove any large amounts of excess soil that has clumped to root but I do like to leave some...especially if the seedling's roots are well developed.

I also echo the Santa Rita comment. I've got a couple of these that got me good on initial planting...but once established they have really taken off and I've forgiven them :)

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