Moving Cacti (some tips and suggestions)

I just moved many of my plants from one location to another, more than 40 miles away. Among these moved plants were dozens of cacti, ranging in size from miniscule to so large two of us could not pick them up. Not to mention being incredibly thorny in some cases, the longer, skinny ones were very prone to fracturing into itty bitty pieces if not handled well. This difficult and often painful move inspired me to write an article about moving cacti, as moving them involves a few aspects of plant moving that are somewhat unique to this group of plants.

In most cases the cacti were relatively easy to move and have survived the experience. These plants almost alone kept my spirits up as I moved hundreds of other plants up to this windy, UV-blasted, desert wasteland only to watch them shrivel up or take a massive beating, making me wonder why I even bothered. But almost all the cacti moved up and to this day are doing pretty well other than some understandable sunburn…. Those that survived the rabbit predation and the 50+ mph winds at least (it never ceases to amaze me how desperate rabbits must be for food up here to munch through a load of spines to eat a cactus).

Most cacti can just be lift out of the ground easily and set in a box (left); right shows what happens when you put a new plant down in a yard with starving rabbits.

If you are able to plan ahead, which I am rarely able to do, you should observe several things before you start to move a cactus. First is to notice what direction it is situated, at least in its orientation towards the sun. I have been ignoring this through the years and though most plants have survived the move regardless, what others have said about sun orientation is worth paying attention to, whether I have myself or not. After moving most of my cacti from one town to another, I noticed that some of them burned badly while others did not. Some of this variation was a species thing, but some plants of the same species fried pretty badly on the southwest side of the plant, while others did not. I suspect this is due to rotating these plants so that they were facing the other direction from how they were in my previous garden.

Above are shots of several of my Echinopsis grusoniis that I moved from Tarzana to Acton… on the left are two photos of plants that kept their original orientation (lower one is the white form of Echinopsis grusonii), and the right photos are of two plants that I did NOT orient similarly… though the photos are small and it’s a bit hard to appreciate, the plants on the right are significantly fried compared to other two

Though I can’t find the earlier pictures right now, this poor Gymnocalycium was fried badly as I moved it from shade to sun.. but you can see how even plants near death-fried can recover…. some cacti have an amazing resiliency and ability to heal… still, better to now damage them in the first place.

The second thing to consider is your safety (and the other people you suckered into helping you). Small cacti are generally no problem and can be handled with gloves, towels, cups or pots (scooping them up so they don’t have to be physically touched by your hands), trowels, etc. Heavy cacti pose multiple problems, though, and can not only stab you badly, but can cause you to injure your back or limbs from trying to lift something that turns out to be way heavier than you think it is. Large barrel cacti generally need multiple people involved. If they are not too heavy for a single person, you still have to deal with their girth so picking them up may end up with you having a huge cactus suddenly in your lap (painful, trust me). Wear protection on your chest, hands (see cactus mitts discussed later) and ‘below’. Or get a sling, either made of cloth, rug or a cut length of hose works well. Wrapping the cactus in wadded up newspaper stuffed tightly into plastic bags can work well, too (though very large cacti will still stab you through multiple layers of newspaper sometimes).

If dealing with tall cacti, you have to also consider what direction the plant may fall and try not be there when/if it does (and pieces can fall off as well). Tall cacti can cause all sorts of injury from physically stabbing you on the head, back, arms, legs, but can also cause serious ocular injury from falling arms or dislodged spines/glochids. Don’t do as I do and just hope this doesn’t happen… get some safety goggles! Tall skinny cacti almost always break and you can skip the dodging falling cacti parts if you just lop the tall parts off your cactus off before you dig it. At least this is what I do. You don’t get as nice a specimen in the end, but you will at least get it moved without being injured, and most of the limbs will grow back, though with a ‘break’ in the column (not always an ornamental thing). If you insist on moving it intact, you will probably have to either have professionals move it, or you will need to carefully wrap each column in wadded newspaper and tape and then wrap the entire plant again in some sort of wrapping material along with some poles for support (trust me, this is a LOT of tricky and often painful work and often still you end up with cactus ‘parts’ and a much shorter plant in the end).

One of my favorite columnar cacti I own is Cereus hankianus (central blue cactus in left photo in Tarzana)… plant was very tall and gangly.. some ‘arms’ had already fallen off due to high winds and ‘gangliness’. Center photo is a plant hacked shorter, and lying on its side with some clothing on it (I used towels, scarves and spare pieces of cloth to move this plant). Right is same plant in Acton (much shorter, but new blue arms are already starting to bud off it)… note that color change… all my blue cacti that I moved became a bit blanched in the desert sun (a somewhat temporarly change I think).

If dealing with both tall and heavy plants, best to get some professionals to move these. The entire plant will need to be carefully wrapped, and then supported with poles and hose/rope and sometimes lifted with a crane once it is ‘cradled’ with sufficient support. I have little experience with plants this large, so you will have to learn more about this sort of moving elsewhere (see ‘moving large Saguaro cacti’ on the internet).

These are some examples in various botanical gardens of cacti that need professional help to move. Do NOT try to do these on your own (unless you only want to move small pieces of them)

Another thing to consider when moving large plants is what size vehicle they will fit in to move them. I moved several of my taller plants in my pickup which wound up being way to short to keep the cacti from snapping off into pieces while I drove. Get some long boards for support for these plants if you plant to move cacti taller than your vehicle is long (and don’t forget to red-flag these or the cops will make you wish you had someone else do the move for you).

At first all I had was a small hatchback and I was never going to get any sizeable plants moved that way (left); right shows my friend Chris with his car loaded with my plants (large succulent plant root near his head and sticking out the back).. all these plants had to be supported carefully or they would fall apart if going over bumpy roads. Also, cacti do not like to have a lot of weight on them (you get subsequent soft tissue rot from where they have been crushed, and then they fall apart at that point in the future).

Eventually we bought a truck and this helped immensely in moving taller plants… but cacti still need to be supported so they had to place on planks and they would stick far out the back… need those red flags!

Digging up the plants: most cacti have relatively small roots and require little actual digging. Almost all smaller cacti can be easily dug up with a trowel and lifted out of the ground with almost no root ball at all. Damaging the roots rarely seems to amount in any noticeable set-back that I have observed. The exception to the small root ball are the really tall, columnar species which really depend on their roots to keep them from toppling over in high winds. These can sometimes be a real challenge to dig out, but still, their roots are fairly small compared to most other plants their height. Tall cacti should be dug with either with help to allow the plant to ‘fall’ in a controlled manner, preferably away from you, the digger. Saguaro cacti have the additional complication of having a large tap root that literally cannot be dug out intact (that I know of). So dig as deep as possible and then cut the root. This cutting means you will have to delay replanting a few days until the cut tip calluses over.

The typical small roots on most of the barrels or smaller columnars I dug up (left); but this Pilosocereus had a root ball over two feet deep… even after some creative root pruning I was still not able to fit the root ball into this 16-inch tall pot (right). This plant took a good 10 minutes to dig up (compared to the usual 5 seconds)

Replanting the plants: As I mentioned above, it is best if you can mark the side that faces south and replant the cactus in the same orientation to the sun. Ideally, one should also put shade cloth or some sort of sun barrier over the plant during the re-rooting transition period. I never do this and many of my cacti burn. Do what I say, not what I do. Dig a hole that is about as deep as the hole you dug your plant out of… in other words, do NOT plant it deeper than it was, as tempting as that may be to keep the plant from tipping over. Cacti planted too deeply are extremely prone to rot. It is best to backfill in the hole once your plant is in place with native soil, not some rich, amended stuff. Most cacti do well in native soil (unless it is pure, sloggy clay… then you might plant it in a raised bed or pot to keep it from rotting). Staking up tall cacti, particularly in windy desert climates is often a necessity, particularly for very tall and lighter plants. Heavy ones will often surprise you and sit comfortably and stably in a hole if the roots are covered completely and the soil tamped down a bit. Water right after planting to settle the soil and start the plant growing early. This is NOT how I water most transplanted succulents or cycads, however. With most of those I wait a week or two before watering. But cacti seem to benefit from same day watering, and frequent watering (as long as it’s warm out) thereafter until well established.

This is a species I have yet to accurately identify… but it’s huge in comparison to most of my other columnars.. I literally could not pick this plant off the ground, so wherever I took it I had to drag it. I put it on a quilt to avoid as much trauma as possible (to both of us). Then I dug a hole, placed my poles and rope to keep it from toppling over, and lifted it up with the blanket and towels until its rootball fell in the hole and it leaned against the ropes. Then I wrapped the ropes around it… and amazingly, despite over 70mph winds, this plant has remained upright… I could probably take all the supports down now (a month later), but just to be safe, I will leave it another month. All my other columnars (in the background) either needed no support at all, or just a few weeks worth.

Note: some cacti are food for rabbits, though one might not expect this. It might not be a bad idea to but a small ‘cage’ around the more delicate or thinner plants, or the smaller barrels. I have been surprised over and over (you’d think I would learn) how desperate rabbits can get, often munching entire pads of even fairly spiny Oputnias when perhaps nothing else is available, or happily munching out the growth center of a smaller barrel cactus. A few cacti I have moved up to this desert hill have been completely ingested by rabbits, leaving only a small chunk of plant and some useless roots.

The above photos show examples of newly moved cacti subsequently munched on by rabbits. The most severelly effected is this poor variegated Opuntia bottom right, which has nearly been eaten to oblivion. The larger opuntia to the left of it was munche all over while I had it lying on its side post purchase (it was very top heavy) and the rabbits had their way with it before I got around to planting it in the ground. Fortunately it is healing already.

Useful tools/items in moving cacti:

1. Cactus mitts. I bought my first pair of cactus mitts at a cactus show not really thinking they were going to help much, but I was willing to try anything as I REALLY hate getting spines in my fingers (and other places). I was more than pleasantly surprised- I was simply amazed at how well these simple, cheap-looking mitts protected me from the nasty spines of many varieties of cacti… only with a few exceptions was I able to pick up just about any cactus (within my abilities to actually lift it) without getting stabbed through these mitts. Don’t bother with gloves as there are none I know of that will help but with the wimpiest of cactus spines. But these mitts are amazing. When I wanted to get another pair, I was disappointed not to find them in any cactus site or at any future meetings/sales. I looked for another set of mitts for several years with no luck. Then someone suggested I look up online under livestock grooming supplies… and sure enough, there they were. Sometimes the best tools for doing something were designed for something else entirely different.

Cactus mitts (or large animal grooming mitts as they are actually manufactured as) are cheap and extremely effective cactus moving tools. Very few species have spines that can get through these.

2. Small carpet strips/squares/rolls. These are not good protection from spines but make useful ‘hammocks’ for carrying them. The spines go through the carpet fairly easily so few spines get damaged, and the carpet sort of grabs onto the cacti like Velcro keeping them from slipping about. Multiple layers of carpet do a pretty good job in actually keeping spines off the fingers, but these tend to slide against each other and can be a bit tricky to use in layers. These are cheap, commonly available and disposable (tend to get full of spines quickly making reusing them dangerous).

Carrying a smaller but VERY spiny Cereus aethiops with a section of cactus (left); Ferocactus herrerae (right) comfortably wrapped in a cactus strip… cacti with curve-tipped spines are great for using carpet sections to wrap and carry them… You can even use bare hands to carry the carpet roles then.

3. Hoses/ropes and rolled up sheets. These all function as slings to help carry heavy, bulky cacti, particularly when several people are needed to carry a plant. Hoses can sometimes be slung about a heavy barrel in such a way that one person can carry it, too.

4. Wadded up newspaper and garbage bags. This is how someone who I have purchased a lot of cacti from wrapped all his plants. He not only used the full bags to carry plants, but often wrapped the plants in these bags as well. These bags were stuffed full of wadded newspapers, and then taped around the plants allowing one to stay relatively protected from the plants while carrying even fairly heavy cacti, and without adding any significant weight to the plants (unlike what happens when wrapping cacti in multiple layers of blankets or rugs- then the cacti weigh a LOT more). Sometimes spines get bent or damaged this way, and occasionally a spine finds it way through the paper wads… ouch!

Left is a shot of someone’s nice plants wrapped in wadded up newspapers inside garbage bags (prepared by the owner of this nursery); right is my own Saguaro cactus being moved and prewrapped with a thick layer of wadded newspapers in a garbage bag around it (worked great, by the way… this plant weighed several hundred pounds and had very long spines, but was able to be relatively comfortably moved without a singe ‘ouch’.

Cardboard. Do not ignore the convenience, affordability and utility of simple cardboard. It does not grab onto cacti well nor is it super easy to fold, but few cactus spines penetrate it easily. I used a lot of cardboard boxes to move plants without any incidents. And a large, flat piece can fairly easily be rolled around a bigger plant and then taped together or some fairly easing moving about.

Blankets/comforters. These are very useful for carrying large, particularly complex and/or tall plants, but plan on disposing of them afterwards (removing all the spines from these is sometimes impossible and even re-using them to carry cacti can result in some unexpected stabs in your hands). Use these as slings, not as a wrapping protection (rarely works that well as a protective layer). Carrying cacti with these items usually requires multiple individuals, or, if using several thick blanckets, plants can often be dragged safely.

Some of the plants I moved, wrapped in a comforter (left) to help move them about… Right shows a saguaro spine- many of these fell on the ground, and got lodged in the blankets making walking and grabbing the blankets later on very hazardous. Most blankets I used to move cacti had to be tossed out afterwards thanks to being infiltrated with spines. Do NOT use your spouse’s favorite comforter to move cacti!

6 Leather gloves. These are very useful for carrying smaller cacti though I recommend NOT using them to carry most Opuntia species as the glochids get ‘permanently’ stuck in the leather making them dangerous to pick up later on once you take them off your hands. Most gloves I handled Opuntias with required disposal afterwards (so don’t use expensive ones for this job).

Holding smaller cacti with leather gloves works well (usually); I go through a LOT of gloves when I move cactus plants- good thing they are super cheap

7. Good quality eye loops and thumb forceps. I emphasize good quality since most of these I have purchased/used are of poor quality and these are not products you want to scrimp and save on- they don’t cost much even when getting good ones and lousy ones are hardly worth it. No matter how careful you are moving cacti about, you will still likely end up with a spine deeply buried in you somewhere (usually your fingers). A good pair of magnifying loops are excellent tools to help you find these itty bitty, sometimes ‘invisible’ spines. And a very good pair of forceps are indispensible at removing them. I personally use a hypodermic needle, too, frequently, to dig out spines, as I have access to these in large numbers at my work. Best to use hypodermic needles once, only, to avoid infection. I did not list these above as I feel a bit uncomfortable actually recommending these for others to use… so do what you wish with that ‘information’.

I actually get a bit anxious when moving cacti and I don’t have these items around, since it really drives me crazy to have a spine in my hands for hours.

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