Next to my reading chair sits a lighted magnifier, a box of needles and various types of tweezers. This is the desert rat’s surgical kit that’s essential after every workday in my cactus garden.
Many species produce spines with near-microscopic tips or sheaths that detach once they enter the skin. Often, I don’t know they’re there until I start typing. These embedded spines are not just hard to see, they’re near impossible to remove, and there is always blood.
A decade of painful experience has taught me how to safely and comfortably handle cactus or sharp succulents without damaging myself or their geometric natural beauty. There are tricks of the trade that not only save your hands and tender succulent skin, they prevent accidents too.
Wrap tall plants in carpeting
I notice carpeting in dumpsters, because this is the ideal means of moving and planting taller, top-heavy cacti and succulents. Recycled plush carpet is thick enough to wrap around a large, heavy or spiny plant for pain-free relocation. You can also lay long segments down to carry in a carpet sling. For succulents with smooth, easily damaged skin, use carpet padding, which protects you and the plant from unsightly cuts or abrasions.
Carry cactus with a fan belt
My husband saved an old belt off our swamp cooler to carry basketball-sized barrel cactus. Popular golden barrel cactus can be tough to carry any distance. Use the desert rat’s technique of folding a fan belt in half to grip the sides of a barrel like a clam shell. Belts are narrow enough to catches on the spines and hold tightly, producing as a convenient handle where the belt comes together on top.
Buy cheap disposable gloves
Whenever I go to Walmart or Big Lots, I look for super cheap leather-palm work gloves and buy them in quantity. Through the years, too many quality gloves have become so infested with spines and microscopic glochids that I’ve had to throw them out while still nearly new. I keep the cheap gloves on hand to use for prickly projects, then toss them without guilt after they become too painful to use any more.
Wrap tongs with duct tape
Here’s another use for the handyman’s secret weapon! It’s no secret that cacti are best handled with barbecue or salad tongs, but too often the grippers cause damage to the outer skin of the plant. Skin damage not only looks bad, it can allow pathogens to enter sterile internal tissues, which leads to infection and rot, the most common cause of death for these plants. To protect your plants, wrap the gripping ends of tongs in duct tape to create a more gentle gripping surface.
Wear safety glasses
Somebody’s mother said, “You’re going to poke somebody’s eye out with that thing,” and it applies to gardens with cactus, succulents and desert plants. Certain types produce long thin spines or wiry leaves that become invisible when viewed on end. You bend over to look at something closer or when weeding around such plants and it’s easy to have an accident. I know because it’s hit my glasses more times than I can count. Getting poked in the face or eye is too unforgiving to risk it. Wear your reading glasses or clear safety glasses when weeding, pruning or other close contact activities.
Plants from extremely dry climates need armor to discourage wildlife intent on their internal moisture. With more and more of them entering the average garden both as a style preference and in response to drought, these desert rat tips become far more important. Learned from decades of trial and error, they lead to greater success with these curious, water-conserving species. Above all protect the skin – yours and the plant’s – when transplanting, moving, pruning and weeding.