Sturdy, spiky spines make fooling with a cactus daunting – and sometimes dangerous. Pricklypears (Opuntia) have fine bristles, known as glochids, that fly off the plant with the merest disturbance. They’re relentless, invading cloth and skin, and they take a good washing with hot soap and water to remove. Chollas (Cylindropuntia) have barbed spines that are downright painful – especially when you try to pull them out of pricked skin. And the spines on most other cactus are just plain sharp. But with proper care, you can manage to handle, replant or move these pointy growers around the landscape.

Echinocereus 'Hedgehog' Pink Blooms

Hedgehog cactus can fit nicely in a small corner of a landscape.

Photo Credit: Gary Irish

Shrubby Cholla

Some chollas can be shrubby plants.

Photo Credit: Gary Irish

Organ pipe cactus

Organ pipe cactus has an interesting shape that might fit into your desert landscape.

Photo Credit: Gary Irish

Opuntia sarita prickly pear

If you think all prickly pears are the same, check out Opuntia santa-rita.

Photo Credit: Gary Irish

The best strategy for moving pricklypears and chollas is to use tools. Never try to handle a piece of any pricklypear or cholla with your hands, even when wearing gloves! (Pricklypears will just leave them full of glochids, and a cholla – undoubtedly the most difficult cactus to move – will impale you.) Shovels, tongs and even long chopsticks are useful (and often required) for handling cacti. And carpet scraps, wide cotton rope or old garden hoses make excellent slings to move large or heavy plants. Smaller cacti can be handled with a thick wad of newspaper or an old towel. (Obviously the name of the game, no matter the cactus type, is “Handle With Care!”)

How to move a cactus is only the beginning when trying to replant one in the landscape. It helps to understand how the plant “works,” too.

Cacti aren’t just remarkable in appearance. They also exhibit perhaps the most dramatic adaptation that plants have evolved for life in arid regions: succulence, or the ability to store moisture. This storage is found within the stems. And in a majority of cacti, this piled-up moisture accounts for most of the weight and mass of the plant.

Stored moisture, drawn on in times of drought, also helps in the cultivation of cacti. So when replanting a cactus, it’s wise practice to let the roots dry out completely before transplanting. Drying out allows the roots to heal and close all the tiny lesions that are unavoidable as the roots are ripped from the soil, thereby reducing the possibility of infection. And because leaving a bare-root cactus in the garage is the very same as being in dried-out soil to the plant, the cactus simply continues its business of photosynthesis by using its stored moisture. This is handy for us: It means that there’s no particular rush about planting the cactus, and that the period of drying out – whether a week or a month – has no effect on the vigor of the plant. (But it’s important that bare-root plants be kept dry and in the shade while drying out.)

When it comes to soil type – either in a container or in the ground – cacti aren’t particular, but they do demand excellent drainage. In a pot, water should flow freely through when the plant’s watered. In the ground, water shouldn’t pond around the plant, and a cactus shouldn’t be placed where additional moisture might be expected, like under a roof eave.

Cacti in the ground never need to be fertilized, regardless of where they’re grown. But plants in pots can be lightly fertilized when they’re actively growing. If you use a liquid fertilizer, use it at half the recommended strength, and apply once (or at most, twice) in spring. If using a dry or time-released formula, add it to the soil once a year, again using half or less the recommended amount.

As with any plant, once your cactus is where you’d like it to be, keep an eye out for insects and diseases. Mealybugs and cochineal scale, with their distinctive white, cottony masses, both may occur on cacti. Vigilance counts to keep these pests under control. Strong jets of water will remove minor infestations and prevent them from overwhelming your plant. Various insects, generally called cactus bugs, may also lay their eggs at the base of a plant, and their larvae will eat out the interior of the cactus. (Again, vigilance counts, and killing the adults as soon as you find them works best.)

A few bacterial diseases also occur in cacti. Black ooze or soft tissue are sure signs of such an infection. These are nearly impossible to treat, but if the problem’s caught early, remove the plant from the ground or pot, prune the dead roots, allow the plant to dry out, then replant when all signs of infection are gone. (Note: This treatment works well with potted plants, but plants in the ground are virtually dead by the time symptoms show up, so prevention is key. Don’t overwater, and be careful not to puncture or injure the plant, which just provides a pathway for bacteria.)

Whether you welcome them into your garden with a spot in the ground or in a pot, cacti are among the easiest and most gratifying of all succulents to grow. Following these simple guidelines, you’ll be rewarded with their arresting forms and extraordinary blooms for many years to come.