cactus pictures Tools of the Trade

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Tools of the Trade

Opuntia with tongs When dealing with Cacti, some precautions must be taken. They certainly aren't the most cuddly of plants!

When it comes to repotting, planting, pricking out seedlings, etc., all these tasks require some special tools. This does not mean expesive specialty tools, quite the opposite, this means getting innovative and creating your own tools for mere pennies.

I've come across some cool little tools and wanted to share them with all our customers. I'm sure most of this is common knowledge among experienced growers, but maybe this article could still provide some new tips and will hopefully help the newer cactiphiles.

Of course, some gardening tools are obvious and widely known and used, however, I know there are some of you out there that have created your own tools for either special purposes or just to make your life easier. So I've put together an article to display different useful tools and other helpful ideas from myself and other growers/collectors.

cactus soil scoops 1. Soil Scoops

Plastic dog food scoops make great shovels for repotting. They come in various sizes and shapes for use with all types of pots and plants. They are usually plastic, although I found a nice stainless steel scoop that we use for adding gravel/rocks for top dressings. It's all in the shape of the scoop that helps to get under the spines and offsets/pups when adding soil. You could also find lots of choices at a home store kitchen dept. (i.e. Target, Bed-Bath and Beyond, Sears) Eating spoons can also be used for very tricky spots or very small cacti seedlings or densely clumped plants bearing many offsets, pups, etc.
cactus sticks
Wooden Dowels Shaped

cactus wooden dowel
Wooden Dowel Color Codes
2. Pokers, Tampers, Widgers and Dibbers

Wooden dowels make great potting tools. With a little customizing using a Dremel, sand paper or bench grinder, you can make them into any shape for whatever use you need them for. The dowels usually come in 4 foot lengths and come in various diameters, each being color coded. They are very inexpensive, so it's easy to get one of each size and have one for just about any occasion. Using a saw to cut them into whatever length strips you desire and then shaping one end to a dull point. These can be used for poking soil into the roots when potting, for teasing out the roots, tamping (or packing) down the soil around the plant and can be used as holders for potting some of the really spiny ones (i.e. Ferocactus, Echinocactus, etc.) by placing them across the pot in a bridge formation to hold the plant, leaving both hands free to add soil. These can also be used as dibbers. Using the smaller diameter dowels and shaping them to whatever size you need. I've also used paint stir sticks. But found them to be a bit cumbersome to hold. The round dowels feel much more comfortable and you're able to use them with more dexterity. It's all in how you use your Dremel to shape them. You can shape the paint stir sticks into a scoop at one end to be used as widgers. They also make good shoehorns to get plants out of their pots. Wood dowels and stir sticks (stir sticks are usually free!!) can be found at your local lumber/hardware/home improvement store.
cactus paint stir stick
Paint Stir Stick
cactus dowels
Wooden Dowels Cut to Size
cactus stir stick
Paint Stir Stick
cactus brushes
Automotive Detail Brush

cactus brush
Automotive Detail Brush
3. Brushes

While small paint brushes are used for pollination, they can also be used for cleaning off soil, cobwebs, leaves, etc. from the spines with very minimal damage. However, I found that an automotive interior detail brush can work just as well for cleaning. The bristles are stiffer than a paint brush and can clean even some of the heavily wooly plants with ease. Paint brushes can be found at any arts supply store. Detail brushes can be found at any automotive store.

Old toothbrushes also make good cleaners. Gives you bit of a reach too.
cactus tweezers
Various Length Tweezers

cactus tongs
4. Tweezers, Tongs, Strainers and Sieves

Tweezers are common tools used in maintenance for cleaning out tough to get at leaves, weeds, grass, etc. Also makes for easy seed pod and fruit collecting. Tweezers come in all sizes, from small 4inch up to 15inch. Be sure to use the types with dulled ends and not the sharp ones. As the sharp points can pierce the cacti skin very easily. Tongs are also common in potting cacti. Used to hold smaller plants in place while adding soil or for any type of transporting across the yard. Tongs come in various shapes and sizes, however, I have found that the traditional metal corn on the cob tongs work best. They have a thin tubular design which can get in between most spines with minimal damage or stress. Other tongs I've found seem to have too much surface area and are too thick to get between spines and could cause damage to the plant. After all, you are putting the entire weight of the plant (in conjunction with gravity) on the tongs. Tongs can be found at any home store in the cutlery dept. (i.e. Sears, Target, Bed-Bath and Beyond...)

You can find a ton of useful tools in the kitchen department. Stuff that can be used as dibber's and widger's, like carrot/potato peelers. But I'd suggest filing down the cutting edges. As well as holders for those really spiney ones. Like using different sized strainers to sift gravel, perlite, etc. for top dressing or just to get rid of big chunks.

Long nosed pliers can also be used for those hard to reach areas when cleaning out debris.

Proper sieves can be purchased for little money and offer different sized mesh for assorted grading. They also offer the addition of larger sized frames for those big projects.

Another easy DIY sieve, is to make a frame from lumber and use chicken wire, gutter guard or anything else you can find in a hardware/home improvement store.
cactus sieve
Potting Mix Sieve
cactus soil sieve
Potting Mix Sieve
cactus repotting sieve
Potting Mix Sieve
cactus Storage Bins and Trash Cans
Storage Bins and Trash Cans

cactus Large Sturdy Pots
Large Sturdy Pots
5a. Pails, Buckets and Storage Boxes

Obviously these are in everybody's backyard, but how do you use them? I actually use some small plastic trash cans as mixing buckets. I use 4 or 5 different ones, each with its own media. I also use a large storage box as my final container for my soil mix. It just makes it easier to grab and pour equal amounts into the final mix bin with the buckets. Messing with bags and not having good control over the amount coming out, makes the multiple buckets worthwhile. Large sturdy pots also make good storage bins. I recycled a plastic sand bag and reassigned it to liner duty for this pile of lava rocks.

Storage boxes make great seedling trays and incubators. I finally found one with a clear top at Target.

5b. Ziploc baggies

Ziploc baggies have many useful duties. Can be used for seed germination and for storing seeds and fruit. Most Ziplocs come with a handy label area.
cactus Clear storage bins for seedlings
Clear storage bins for seedlings
cactus Ziploc baggies for seedlings
Ziploc baggies for seedlings
cactus Clear storage bin
Clear storage bins for seedlings
cactus Window screen
Window Screen

cactus Window screen in pot
Window Screen in Pot
6a. Window screen

Used for covering the hole(s) in the bottom of the pots to avoid soil loss. I found replacement window screen (48in. x 56in.) for a mere $7 at Home Depot. It comes rolled in a tube and is easy to cut into more manageable lengths. Cut into small squares and set in the bottom of each pot, covering the hole. Imagine just how many pots this large piece of screen can be used for!!!

Another way to cover the pot holes would be coffee maker filters. They will decompose over time, but the soil has time to become compacted with roots in that time.

Window screen can also be used as a shadecloth. Used for individual plants that are prone to sunburn or whenever a little shade is needed on a plant or seedling tray.

6b. Other Potting tips

Making a larger hole in the center of the pot bottom can later be used to push the plant up from the bottom using a dowel stick. Window screen or other means can be used to cover the hole to retain the soil mix until it's needed.
cactus Workbench
7. Workbench / Work Areas

My workbench is a leftover relic from the garage, but works very well for my needs. It's even titled away from the wall, so the water runs off!
cactus 2 Liter Soda bottle
2 Liter Soda bottle

cactus Brass fitting and pour tube
Brass Fitting and Pour Tube

cactus Spray bottle
Spray Bottle
8. Watering containers

I've been trying to figure out a good way to water my potted plants without disturbing the soil and/or top dressing. I've been using a large cup, but find that with plants that take up a good portion of the pot, or have a lot offsets/pups hanging over or whatever the case, I seem get more water on the plant, than in the soil. So I've come up with a nifty idea using large plastic 2L soda bottle with a hard plastic top. (i.e. 1 gal drinking water bottle, 2liter soda bottle) Using a flexible .25inch rubber tube attached to the screw-on top, simply fill with water, turn upside down and BAM! an easy snake tube to get the water under, around and into the tight spots to get into the soil where it belongs.

Another good tool to have is a few spray bottles. Used for misting seedlings, applying fertilizer and pesticides/fungicides. I use separate bottles for watering and insecticides. It's a good idea to label your bottles. O good cleaning once every other month with bleach is also a good idea. Spray bottles can also be found in discount packs of 3-6 in most home improvement stores.
cactus Ferocactus carpet transporter
Ferocactus Carpet Transporter

cactus Pot Grippers
Pot Grippers

cactus Pot Grippers
Pot Grippers
9. Large plant carriers, handlers

Another way to transport/move larger plants is to use a scrap piece of carpet. Wrapped around the plant in a sling fashion, makes for easy moving. Other useful tools can be newspaper or butcher paper folded tightly and used as a belt/sling. Scrap pieces of shade cloth folded tightly can also be used in a belt/sling manner. These can also be used for handling smaller plants.

A really handy tool, pot grippers. When reaching for a pot in the middle of the greenhouse bench, it's almost inevitable you'll get poked by neighboring spines. These pot grippers make it easy to reach in and grab the pot of the plant you're after and it's totally painless!! Very strong grip, able the pick up 6.5" pots.
cactus Telescopic and adjustable angle mirror
Telescopic and Adjustable Angle Mirror
10. Magnifying glasses and Mirrors

A good tool to have is a magnifying glass for up close inspection for pests and insects along with minute damage etc.

Another nifty tool, is a telescoping mirror with a swivel head for those hard to reach/see areas. These can be found in automotive parts stores.
cactus Brother P-Touch label maker
Brother P-Touch Label Maker
cactus Labels

cactus The final product
The Final Product
11. Label Makers

It's a neat and tidy way (and always legible) to label your plants pot labels. For example, the Brother P-Touch label maker. They run on batteries or a wall plug, and being portable makes them very convenient. You can have it right there with you on your workbench and print the labels out as you repot. There are various widths of tape for almost any plastic label out there. The tape comes in 2 colors. (or maybe more, but I've only seen 2) Both have black text on either clear or white tape. The tape backing is conveniently split lengthwise for easy peeling. These label makers are not that inexpensive however. They go for $20-40 and refill tape cartridges go for around $10-12. For a large collection, expect to go through many cartridges. But once you have them all labeled, the cartridges will last longer. I really like the professional look of the printed labels and there's never any questionable handwriting to decipher. None of that, "Is that an I, an L or a 1????" The adhesive is very strong and since the labels are thermo printed, they are water resistant and are fade resistant when sitting out in the hot southwest summer sun. However, they do peel off the plastic sticks pretty easily and don't seem to leave much, if any adhesive residue behind, enabling you to reuse the plastic sticks without any cleanup.

Of course, they are not only useful for label sticks, but have 100's of other uses as well. So the money investment is not all lost.
cactus tools

cactus razors

cactus gloves
12. Misc. tools

Now, these are really common tools, but to make this article complete, i feel compelled to mention them anyway.

Hand Trowel
Pruning shears
Sharp utility knife
Small hand saw
Alcohol for sterilizing cutting tools
Identi-pen marker found at Michaels Art Supply stores. Does not fade like a sharpie marker. A #2 pencil can also be used and resists fading quite well.
Ziploc bags
Coin envelopes are great for storing and labeling cleaned/collected seeds.
Sharpie marker for ID labels on Ziploc bags for seedlings or seed/fruit collection.
Plant ID labels
Kneeling pad
Roll of 1/4in. Velcro (for attaching limbs/stems to a stake for easy removal/relocating and no harm done to the plant)

Author: Darryl Craig
Index of Articles
Introductory and Naming
     Wherefore Art Thou Cactaceae?
     How to Write a Scientific Name Correctly
     Cacti & Succulent Identification
     Cereus Peruvianus -The Least and Best Known Cactus
     More About Cereus Peruvianus

Cultivation and How-To
     The Sun Burned Cacti
     Grafting on Pereskiopsis
     Making Your Own Cactus Soil
     Growing NON-Hardy Cacti in Cold Climates
     Tools of the Trade
     Growing Cactus with Artificial Light
     Making a Hypertufa Planter
     Cactus Flowers - Fake or Real?
     How-To-NOT Build a Cactus Terrarium
     Raising Cactus From Seed
     Growing Cacti in Terracotta

     Is Cultivation Conservation?
     Interview: Cactus Conservation in Paraguay with Alex Arzberger
     The Fate of the Minnesota Ball Cactus

     A Cactus Odyssey in Arizona
     Mangrove Cactus
     Have a Cup of Cactus
     Opuntia as an Invasive Species in Australia
     The Creating of "Springtime Succulence"
     Making Botanical Illustrations
     Adapt or Perish
     Chasing the Wild Epis
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