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How to Cut Back and Root a Tall Cactus

10 min read

How to cut back and root a tall cactus

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Cacti are renowned for their slow growth rates, often taking years to show significant changes in size or appearance. This slow growth is part of what makes cacti so appealing to enthusiasts, as it reflects their resilience and adaptability to harsh desert environments. As a result, many cactus lovers are understandably cautious when it comes to pruning or cutting back these exotic plants. The reluctance to prune cacti comes from our desire to preserve their natural form and beauty, as well as a concern about potentially damaging the plant.

However, sometimes, you might still need to trim your cactus for different reasons, like keeping its size in check or fixing any damage. But the cool thing is, when you prune a cactus, you can use the cut parts to grow new plants. These cuttings will likely take root and become brand-new cacti. So, even though pruning might seem a bit scary at first, it gives you a chance to grow your cactus collection and see new plants sprout up. It's like giving your cactus a fresh start and watching it grow in a whole new way.

Photo via Pinterest

Before you start trimming or rooting a cactus, it's crucial to have a good grasp of what you're doing. While pruning can rejuvenate your cactus and even help you propagate more plants, it's easy to make mistakes that could harm or even kill your beloved plant. Seeking advice from experienced growers or doing some research beforehand can provide invaluable tips and tricks to steer clear of any pitfalls. With the right knowledge and skills, you can ensure your cactus has the best chance to flourish and remain resilient for years to come.

What Cacti Need To Be Cut Back?

Not all cacti need to be cut back. Whether a cactus requires pruning depends on various factors, including its species, growth habits, health, and the specific circumstances of its environment. Some cacti naturally maintain a compact or slow-growing form and may not require pruning unless they experience issues such as damage or disease. Others, particularly tall or fast-growing species, may benefit from occasional pruning to manage size, promote stability, or address specific concerns.

Cacti that need to be controlled in height are the ones having a vertical growth habit. These cacti typically grow tall and upright, with stems that may continue to elongate over time if left unchecked. As a result, they have the potential to outgrow their space or become top-heavy, posing challenges for gardeners or homeowners.

Examples of cacti with a vertical growth habit include species like the Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi), and various species within the Pachycereus genus, among others. These cacti can grow tall and may eventually require pruning to manage their height and maintain a balanced appearance in the landscape. Pruning is typically used to control the height of these cacti, either by trimming back the tops of the stems or by selectively removing entire stems to reduce overall height. While cacti with a vertical growth habit are often the ones that need to be controlled in height, it's essential to consider each species' specific growth characteristics and requirements when determining the best approach to pruning and maintenance.

Ultimately, the decision to cut back a cactus should be based on careful consideration of its individual needs and the goals for its care and maintenance. While pruning can be beneficial in certain situations, it's essential to approach it thoughtfully and only when necessary to ensure the long-term health and vitality of the plant. 

When Should We Cut Back A Tall Cactus?

There are several reasons why we should cut back on a tall cactus:

1. Damage or Disease

Signs of damage or disease in a cactus are crucial indicators that pruning may be necessary to maintain its health and vitality. Here are some specific signs to look out for:

  • If you notice any stems that are broken, damaged, or dead, pruning them off can prevent further spread of damage and promote new growth.
  • Discoloration in the form of browning, yellowing, or blackening of stems or sections of the cactus may indicate fungal or bacterial infections, sunburn, or other issues. Pruning affected areas can help stop the spread of infection and encourage healthy tissue growth.
  • Rot, whether it's soft rot or dry rot, is a serious problem for cacti and can quickly lead to plant death if left untreated. Pruning off rotted sections and allowing the cut areas to callus over can help prevent further spread of the rot and promote healing.
  • Signs of pest infestations, such as holes, webs, or sticky residue on the cactus, may indicate the presence of insects or mites. Pruning affected stems and treating the plant with appropriate insecticides or pesticides can help control the infestation and prevent damage to the rest of the plant.

2. Unstable Growth

Tall cacti that exhibit unstable growth, such as being top-heavy or leaning excessively, may benefit from pruning to address these issues and improve overall stability. Watch out for signs:

  • If the cactus is leaning to one side or tilting at an angle, it may indicate that it is struggling to support its own weight.
  • A top-heavy appearance, where the upper portion of the cactus appears disproportionately large or heavy compared to the base, can suggest instability.
  • If the stem of the cactus feels weak or wobbly when gently nudged, it may indicate that the plant is struggling to maintain its upright position.
  • If the support structures, such as stakes or ties, are visibly strained or bending under the weight of the cactus, it may indicate that the plant is too heavy or unstable.
  • If the soil around the base of the cactus is loose or the roots seem to be shifting, it may suggest that the plant is not securely anchored in place, leading to instability.
  • Uneven or unbalanced growth, with one side of the cactus growing more rapidly or vigorously than the other, can contribute to instability and leaning.

Cutting back a heavy, bending stem can also help to improve the overall stability of the cactus by removing excess growth that may be contributing to its instability. By trimming back tall or overgrown sections, you can help the cactus maintain a more balanced and upright posture. Tall cacti that are top-heavy or leaning excessively pose a risk of falling over, especially during windy conditions or if they become too heavy for their support system. Pruning can help to mitigate this risk and prevent accidents or damage to the cactus or surrounding plants and structures.

3. Cactus Outgrowing Its Designated Space

One of the reasons to cut back a tall cactus is that it has outgrown its designated space. As cacti grow, they may extend beyond the area where they were originally planted or positioned. When a tall cactus outgrows its space, it can encroach on other plants, structures, or pathways, creating a crowded or cluttered appearance in the landscape. Pruning can help to control the size of the cactus, prevent overcrowding, and maintain a balanced and harmonious layout in the garden or landscape. By cutting back the tall cactus, you can ensure that it remains in proportion to its surroundings and does not overpower the space. Additionally, pruning can help to create a visually pleasing and well-maintained landscape that enhances the overall aesthetic appeal of the outdoor environment.

Ultimately, the decision to cut back a tall cactus that has outgrown its space is about more than just aesthetics—it's about creating a functional and inviting outdoor environment where plants can thrive in harmony with their surroundings. By carefully assessing the size and placement of the cactus and pruning with care, gardeners can cultivate a landscape that is both beautiful and sustainable for years to come.

Cactus Cutting
Photo via Pinterest

How To Cut Back And Root A Tall Cactus

Cutting back and rooting the cutting of a tall cactus requires careful planning and execution to ensure both your safety and the health of the plant. Here's a step-by-step guide:

1. Gather Your Tools

Here is a list of tools we need:

  • Pruning Shears or Pruning Saw: Choose sharp and clean pruning shears or a pruning saw suitable for the size and thickness of the cactus stems or branches you'll be cutting. Ensure they are in good working condition to make clean cuts.
  • Gloves: Wear sturdy gloves made of thick material to protect your hands from the cactus's spines, which can cause painful punctures or irritation. Leather or heavy-duty gardening gloves are ideal for this purpose.
  • Pot And Well-Draining Soil: Use a well-draining soil mix specifically designed for cacti and succulents or create your own by combining potting soil with perlite, pumice, or coarse sand. Well-draining soil allows excess water to drain away quickly, preventing the roots from sitting in water and potentially rotting.

 

2. Access Your Cactus And Plan Your Cut

It is important to access your cactus carefully and plan the cut correctly. If the reason for pruning is damage and disease, locate the area with signs of damage, such as broken or bruised stems, wounds, or scars. These areas may need to be pruned to prevent further damage or infection and promote healing. You should also examine the cactus for signs of disease, such as discoloration, soft spots, or unusual growths. These symptoms may indicate the presence of fungal or bacterial infections, which may require pruning to remove affected areas and prevent the spread of disease.

If your cactus needs pruning because of overgrowth, identify sections that are excessively long, leggy, or crowded, as these may need to be pruned to maintain the cactus's shape and vitality. Take into account the overall appearance of the cactus and how pruning certain sections may affect its aesthetic appeal. Aim to achieve a balanced and harmonious look by removing any stems or branches that are disrupting the plant's natural form or symmetry.

Photo via Shutterstock

Planning your cuts is essential for achieving the desired outcome when pruning a cactus. You should take a step back and visualize the shape and size you want the cactus to be after pruning. Consider factors such as symmetry, balance, and proportion to achieve a harmonious appearance. Take into account the natural growth patterns of the cactus when planning your cuts. Cut stems or branches at a slight angle just above a node or joint to encourage new growth and minimize scarring. Ensure that your cuts are made safely and accurately to avoid injury to yourself and minimize damage to the cactus.

3. Make The Cut

Choose sharp pruning shears or a pruning saw that is appropriate for the size and thickness of the stems or branches you'll be cutting. Ensure that your tools are clean and sharp to make smooth, precise cuts. Don’t forget to wear protective gloves. 

Cactus Cutting
Photo via Pinterest

Stand or kneel beside the cactus in a comfortable position that allows you to reach the stems or branches you'll be pruning. Make sure you have a clear view of the area you'll be cutting.

Identify the point on the stem or branch where you will make the cut. Aim to cut just above a node or joint, as this will encourage new growth and minimize damage to the plant.

Using your pruning shears or pruning saw, carefully cut through the stem or branch at a 45-degree angle. Start at the base of the stem and work your way up, making clean, smooth cuts. Avoid cutting too close to the main trunk or leaving stubs, as this can promote disease and inhibit regrowth. For a damaged cactus, remove all affected parts to prevent further damage or infection. Carefully dispose of damaged cuttings, as only healthy stem cuttings can be used for propagation.

4. Allow The Cutting To Callous

How to Cut Back and Root a Tall Cactus
Let cactus away from direct sunlight
Photo via Pinterest

Once we have the cutting, place it in a dry, warm location away from direct sunlight. This could be a well-ventilated area indoors or a shaded spot outdoors. Avoid areas with high humidity, as excessive moisture can hinder callus formation. Leave the cutting undisturbed for several days, allowing the cut end to callus over. During this time, the exposed tissues will dry out and form a protective layer, which helps prevent rot when the cutting is planted. Check the cutting periodically to assess its callusing progress. You should notice the cut end becoming dry and hardened as the callus forms. If you see any signs of moisture or softness, allow more time for callusing before proceeding with planting. Allowing the cutting to callus before planting can create an optimal environment for successful rooting and minimizing the risk of rot or infection. This simple yet essential step sets the stage for a healthy and thriving new cactus plant.

5. Plant The Cutting

Take the callused cutting and gently insert the cut end into the prepared potting mix. Bury the cutting just deep enough to provide stability, ensuring that at least one segment or joint is covered by the soil. Position the cutting upright in the pot, making sure it is stable and secure in the soil. If necessary, use your fingers to gently press the soil around the base of the cutting to hold it in place. If you are planting multiple cuttings in the same pot, space them out evenly to allow for adequate airflow and prevent overcrowding. Ensure that each cutting has enough space to grow without competing with neighboring plants.

6. Provide Optimal Rooting Environment

After planting, water the cutting lightly to settle the soil around the base and encourage initial root growth. Avoid overwatering, as this can lead to rot. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings, and adjust watering frequency based on the plant's needs. Place the pot in a location with bright, indirect sunlight. Avoid placing the cutting in direct sunlight, as this can cause sunburn. A shaded area with filtered light is ideal for encouraging root development.

Regularly check the cutting for signs of root development. This can be done by gently lifting the cutting from the soil and inspecting the base for any visible roots. Alternatively, you can observe the soil surface for any emerging roots or new growth. Look for small, white or light-colored root tips emerging from the base of the cutting. These delicate roots may initially be difficult to see, so inspect the cutting carefully. Additionally, watch for any new growth appearing above the soil surface, such as tiny buds or shoots. You can check the rooting by gently tugging on the cutting to assess if it has developed roots. You may feel resistance or a slight anchoring of the cutting in the soil, indicating that roots have begun to form. Root growth typically begins within a few weeks to a couple of months after planting the cutting, depending on various factors such as temperature, humidity, and cactus species.

Once root growth is observed, adjust your care routine as needed to support the growing plant. Gradually increase watering frequency and provide regular fertilization to promote healthy growth and development.

Extra Tips

  • Propagate cacti during their active growing season, typically in spring or early summer. Pruning and propagating cacti during their active growing season can result in minimal damage and faster rooting compared to other times of the year. 
  • Cactus cuttings are susceptible to rot if they are exposed to excessive moisture. Overwatering can saturate the soil, leading to waterlogged conditions that promote the growth of harmful fungi and bacteria. This can cause the cutting's delicate tissues to decay, hindering root growth and potentially killing the cutting.
  • Cuttings are vulnerable during rooting, so keep an eye out for signs of pest infestations, such as small insects or webbing on the surface of the cuttings, yellowing or wilting of the stems, or distorted growth. Close monitoring for pests and diseases can protect your cactus cuttings and ensure their successful rooting and growth. Early detection and intervention are key to preventing infestations and infections from causing lasting damage to your plants.

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