Photo by Melody

My Toxic, Painful Garden Revisited: pruning considerations

By Geoff Stein (palmbobOctober 3, 2012
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Some time ago I wrote an article about the hazards of my garden, real and exaggerated. But now, after having created this beast, I have to tame it. In the process of pruning dangerous and toxic plants, I have learned, often the hard way, a few things about dealing with these sorts of exotic life forms in terms of trying to control them. This article is just a few pearls of experience I pass on to you, particularly for those who are planning to grow some of these same plants.

Gardening picture

In a previous article I introduced my readers to my particularly toxic, painful yard--full of all sorts of poisonous and potential very harmful plants.  As time goes on I slowly learn that many of these plants do very well in this climate;  perhaps too well. And as they get larger and larger, there is less and less room for everybody here.  I have a particularly dinky lot for such a large number of plants.  And though I am not 100% adverse to having them duke it out, with a ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy, the yard is starting to look like a complete and total mess between the times I finally, in disgust and not a small amount of trepidation, wallow into the mire and try to thin things out a bit.   It is a constant battle.  The following is a discussion of some of the pruning, trimming and thinning out principles I have learned from taking care of these aggressive, tropical and succulent plants. 

Some of this discussion is already covered in a previous article on pruning palms, so I will only touch upon the techniques and hazards of doing this in my garden. 

phoenix leaf in way 

Sometimes I have to trim leaves just because they are in the path (and hurt to run into)

 palms 6 years ago Palms today

Here is a shot of my front yard 6 years ago before thoughts of trimming really even entered my head (left)... but as you can see the garden now (right) it is a mess and crammed full of foliage that needs some taming 

I have well over a thousand species of tropical or succulent plants growing on this tiny landscape.  Fortunately most do not need pruning.  But many do (not to mention the more mundane plants such as roses and conifers, which sadly also need pruning--perhaps even more often than everything else does--read about such care elsewhere as my learned experiences and techniques in such endeavors are likely to be embarrassingly sophomoric and possibly totally wrong).  The good thing about learning to prune much less common plants is there not such a high standard (yet) to hold oneself up to, so screwing up is more forgivable (though perhaps not as many times as I do it).   Much of what I pass on to you may seem like common sense, but if it is, much of it was not common enough for me to possess it at the outset. 

 rose ebb tide  rose George

Yes, I have roses... well, my wife has roses.  And though these require pruning, too, I will not even pretend I know how to do it right... though they do seem pretty tolerant of my faking it.  Despite their having thorns, these are literally the least of my worries when it comes to pruning and trimming things.

 pruners more essentials

These pruners (left) are my primary tools for trimming about the yard.  Why do I have so many pairs?  Mostly because I keep leaving them somewhere and can't find them again... .but also because they dull up very quickly trimming my sap-producing, fiber-dulling, woody or iron-like plant material.  A great new pair of pruners works great for about 1 week.. .then they are dull like all the others.  These are all 'bypass' pruners (except for the one pair of wire cutters in there, top center).  Bypass just means one blade passes by the other.  The other form of pruners (called 'anvil pruners') work well, sometimes better, but stay sharp even less long and so quickly become relatively useless.  Anvil pruners consist of a single sharp blade the lands on an opposing flat surface (the 'anvil').  You get a pretty good amount of levarage with these, but I twist and tweak the single sharp blade and then have to toss them.  Left are more essential pruning items, including a really sharp saw, a scissors (used more often than one might thnk) and an adjustable, super-cheap, plastic utility razor (I go through these quickly, but they are comepletely essetential if you have succulents).   The wire cutters in the first photo are pretty good for really annoying, tough, fibrous, thin leaves that are a bit too tough for a scissors... but are harder to get in close so I don't use them that often.  This is not an usual collection of trimming tools... but the experience in knowing which to use for which species is useful, since the choices are not always that clear.

 gloves pole saw

Gloves are of course essential... but GOOD gloves are particularly essential.  Just a few dollars separates bad gloves from good gloves.  These on the left I think cost about six dollars... you can buy work gloves for less than two dollars.  Don't bother if you grow lots of exotic things that need pruning.  You will quickly learn why, as small holes are quickly discovered by the smallest spines, and edges unravel unexpectedly leaving your fingers suddenly exposed.  I need my hands for my 'real job' so I can't afford to have them in constant pain.  You can buy super-thick, leather, fireplace gloves that are even better, offering some wrist and arm protection, but they are really bulky, hot and make me so uncoordinated I tend to drop everything.  Plus they are expensive enough that tossing them out after 3 to 5 uses is not feasible.  And believe me, 3 to 5 busy days of pruning about as long as any gloves last in my care.  Right is a pole saw that is every useful if your exotic plants get super tall.  But if you need this tool, you really should be hiring someone else to do the work- too dangerous and most of the things I prune that require that sort of reach are too heavy to safely fall down in the garden (or on me). 

Pruning and trimming the toxic things does not take up much of my time as most of my truly toxic plants require little care other than trying to keep them out of the pet’s way.  Euphorbias are really the primary challenge of the toxic plants, but mostly due to some of them being large in size and quite unfriendly in texture, not so much because of their infamous toxic, irritating sap. 

sticks of fire  E leucodendron

These two very toxic, irritatating plants (Euphorbia tirucali 'Sticks of Fire' on the left and Euphorbia leucodendron on the right) are only a bit of challenge to trim thanks to the very close proximity to other nastier plants, like cacti and agaves.  They do produce a very irritating sap, and a copious quanity of it... but I can easily use gloves, or just wash it off after, and the experience is not bad but a short-lasting feeling of sun burn... as long as I don't rub my eyes before I wash my hands! 

 Euphorbia Zig Zag  ammak like

It's plants like these (Euphorbia 'Zig Zag' on the left and Euphorbia ammak relative right) and the plant at the head of the head of the article (top right of page)- Euphorbia grandicornis- that offer the biggest challenges to Euphorbia trimming due to their heavy limbs and extremely spiny nature. 

Pruning the Euphorbias is necessary in my garden primarily to avoid the ‘self pruning’ process that can be ongoing with some of these very large plants.  Self pruning affords one much less choice about where limbs fall, and what to do with the pruned limb once it is released from its parent.  Some of these limbs are so heavy that I can barely lift them and they literally need to be dragged to the trash (or to some potting soil in the misguided hopes that someday someone will come along and want to take one and grow it in their own yard)… or need to be chopped up further in order to haul away the mess.  These limbs often crush whatever is growing below them, usually a plant that is irreplaceable or one of my favorites (a Murphy’s law sort of thing).  So removing the top-heavy limbs before they remove themselves is preferable. 

 E ingens mine  E ingens at park

Above left is my Euphorbia ingens, now taller than the house, but not out of control... yet.  Right is what can happen if you don't trim back your plant regularly (this monster at a botanical garden drops heavy limbs nearly monthly... beware when sitting on that bench in front of it!) 

 Euphorbia ammak in yard  E abysinnica x ammak

My Euphorbia ammak (left) is getting tall enough to get tangle in my telephone lines so I need to watch it closely to reign it in;  right is what these can look like when you don't keep up with it (this happens to be a hybrid of Euphorbia ammak at the Huntigton and is about fifty feet tall- pretty hard to prune at this size.  Limbs fall all the time) 

pencil cactus   pencil cactus large

Many people grow these Pencil 'Cacti' (Euphorbia tirucali) in left photo.. why trim this regularly?  Not only do these get unsightfully shrubby, they can grow into large trees (see smaller tree in right photo) which love to drop limbs without any notice.

 Euphorbia triangularis  Lotusland plant

This Euphorbia triangularis in my yard on the left already drops limbs now and then, but they are easy to keep up with at this small size... however, I was shocked to see these monster versions at a local botanical garden over fifty feet tall- and the amount of limb droppage was alarming.  Gotta keep this one under control for sure! 

Another reason to remove them is some of these do simply grow to a size (often width) that either encroaches unacceptably on other plants, or more often, into the poor mailman’s path, and we get another nasty letter from him saying he will refuse to deliver any mail until we make his journey to our mailbox less painful.  I hope I have not sent him to the hospital too many times. 

 Euphorbia cutting Euphorbia cutting closer

For most Euphorbia pruning, simple trimmers work well (I should be wearing gloves- do as I say, not as I do!) left;  right is a closer shot showing ooze and spines 

euphorbia trimming and pruner 

smaller cuttings can easily be 'carried' by holding the trimmed piece with the pruners- this goes for all smaller cuttings of all plants but the most fragile... this way you can carry the cut pieces to the trash without gloves or without gumming up your gloves... I have dropped a few cuttings on my feet, or had them scrape my legs as they fall this way... again, maybe not the best practice, but I do it often. 

Even though they do not look that woody, most larger Euphorbias do have a woody skeleton that mere trimmers or loppers may not be able to cut through.  So a hand saw is often the choice with these bigger plants (eg. Euphorbia abyssinica, E. ammak, E. grandicornis, and E. ingens).  Except for the latter species, the others are all fairly well armed and can do great bodily harm when dragged across the skin.  For this reason, I recommend removing smaller sections so that you do not lose control of a giant chunk of Euphorbia and have it lacerate someone so badly enough a brief timeout will be required to visit the emergency clinic.

Trimming any Euphorbias overhead does involve the real risk of having sap drip in your face, hair and eyes… the last which can be not only an extremely painful experience, but a potentially blinding one as well (not happened to me… yet, fortunately).  Sap on the face burns (not initially, but hours later).  For some reason my face seems extra sensitive to Euphorbia sap.  Looks and feels like a bad sunburn.  But it goes away after a week (of low grade pain).  Sap in your hair is a real mess particularly if you let it dry there (my hair is getting thin enough nowadays that I can feel sap on my scalp, so I try to wash it off before it dries).  Removing dried Euphorbia latex from your hair is like removing epoxy--the hair often goes along with the sap, leaving you with a patchy looking hair cut that can take months to ‘fix’.  Saps can leave permanent reminders on clothes, too, so best not to prune Euphorbias in your finest outfits.

 Euph stain  Aloe stains

Some permanently ruined shirts (fortunately I avoided doing this sort of thing in a work shirt)... permanent Euphorbia sap stains on left, and aloe stains on right 

For most Euphorbias that need trimming, gloves are pretty much essential (though I often get too lazy to use them myself- do as I say, not as I do).  This will keep your hands in one piece, decrease the volume of blood lost in the process, and avoid burning skin lesions. 

I strongly recommend cleaning trimming tools (saws and especially loppers) after pruning Euphorbias as dried Euphorbia sap can really gum things up badly and difficult to remove (not that fresh Euphorbia sap is easy to remove, either).

The upside to Euphorbia trimming is it is fairly easy, and the chunks of plant removed can easily be rooted if you should want to grow more of these (or give them away).

 Cuttings in yard

not an unusual sight in my front yard- a huge display of chopped off Euphorbia parts, all free for the taking (most end up in the trash, but some disappear to passersby).  These cuttings are usually very easy to root and can give you an 'instant' landscape plant... but beware... soon you will be having to do the pruning! 

Plumeria cutting is another related risk, though there are thankfully no spines.  But cutting plumeria above your head runs the same risk of sap dripping onto you and your sensitive facial areas… Plumeria sap in my experience, is just as annoying as Euphorbia sap.

On to the non-toxic plants that need trimming:  Palms, as I said, are mostly discussed elsewhere, but I just wanted to mention some of the major hazards again.  Many palms have very very very (is that enough ‘verys’?) sharp teeth along their petioles that can really shred the epidermis right off your body effortlessly.  Some will pierce leather gloves and end up as nasty thorns in your hands and arms.  Some palms have petioles that are spineless, but razor sharp still requiring the use of gloves.  Some have heavy fronds that can fall on your head (or passersby… or other people’s cars etc.) causing all sorts of blood loss, pain, bruising and dents.  And some fronds are both sharp and heavy (eg Washingtonia leaves) so they not only fall quickly and hurt when they hit you, but they rip apart anything they pass by on the way down.  Do not stand below someone trimming a Washingtonia palm. Most palms are pruned with the saw, but those with skinny petioles are too weak to support a saw blade and will just bend or rip, so pruners work better for those (and this is when I usually incur the most personal injury from sharp edges).

 Here is an article I wrote on "Pruning Palms."  

 Here is an article I wrote on "Dangerous Palms" that might shed some light on why I dislike pruning these plants.  http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2904/

 Bismarckia sharp petiole  sabal yapa

The Bismarckia palm petiole on the left and the Sabal yapa petiole on the right may have no teeth, but the sharp edges can easily slice open a careless hand (usually mine)

 Livistona fulva  Livistona saribus

These two Livistona peitoles have some pretty sharp, dangerous spines one has to contend with when pruning these palms.  Gloves are strongly recommended. 

And last, but not least, be VERY careful when pruning Phoenix palms.  These are among the worst (but also among the most common) of all the palms people grow here in California and are really dangerous beasts.  They have incredibly long, sharp and stiff dagger-like spines at the base of their leaves than stick out in all directions, making getting to the base of the leaf nearly impossible with out being stabbed and starting to bleed.  For this reason, I first approach these plants with scissors or a really good pair of loppers and snip off as many spines as I can before thrusting my arms into the mass of spiny leaves to start pruning.  Wear glasses when you do this (flying hypodermics are bad for the corneas) or anytime you approach a Phoenix species because their spines could easily puncture an eyeball.  I have learned, almost to the point of losing an eye, that when approaching a Phoenix spine end on they are almost invisible as there is little to focus on.  I have been stabbed in my face several times by a particularly long spine before even realizing it was pointed right at me.  And these things hurt!  I hate pruning Phoenix palms.  Almost to the point of not wanting to ever grow one again.  Even the cute little Pygmy Date Palms stab me all the time… they look so soft and feathery… until you start to prune one.  AARRGGG!

 phoenix reclinata phoenix parts

suckering Phoenix species like this Phoenix reclinata (left photo) are among the most dangerous plants I have ever had the unpleasant experience of having to deal with.  Everything is sharp and potentially eye-piercing.  Getting in close enough to prune the dozens of suckers without getting gouged, stabbed, lacerated or simply freaked out and forced to curl up in a ball covering ones eyes... is simply not possible.  I feel like I am going into a lion's den to cut some toenails.  It is a terrifying experience that simply cannot be comprehended until one actually does it.  I will NEVER plant one of these again.   Right is a shot of some 'Phoenix parts' from some particulary unfriendly Phoenix carnariensis hybrids that sucker as well. Note the long, needle-like modified leaves that poke out at all angles. Some of these spines are over a foot long requing a 'pre-pruning' cutting off of the lethal ends of these before attempting to get close enough to actually prune off a leaf.  After pruning these trees for years, I have learned that the liklihood of pre-trimming all the spinous processes before attempting to prune is close to 0% and my arm or hand will quickly discover the few I somehow missed, evidenced by a dripping trail of blood that always looks worse than it really is... sort of.  Some may ask why not just leave these alone and learn to appreciate the 'natural look'.  That is sort of like having a pair or rabbits and deciding not to get them fixed, just hoping they won't breed.  Soon you will have a situation that is out of control.  You will then either have to get rid of whole lot, or move away.  These palms can literally take over a huge chunk of your yard making it a lethal mass of spines worthy of yellow caution tape.  My yard is dinky enough as it is.

Phoenix pretrim  post trim

Despite the dangers involved, it is still worth trimming for several reasons.  It keeps the palm somewhat in control, and personally I think it looks WAY better (see right photo after trimming) 

 Phoenix spines  Phoenix trimmed

Another shot of Phoenix spine terror (left).  Severely trimmed Phoenix palms (trimmed far more radically than I would normally recommend, but for safety reasons, as this is near a walk way, essential).   

Agaves are my next least favorite thing to prune.  Most of these have a vicious terminal spine which makes one hesitate even getting close enough to prune these creatures.  But as one attempts to avoid being stabbed by the leaf tips, one tends to forget the saw-like teeth many possess along their edges.  For this reason, I not only recommend gloves and safety goggles when pruning large agaves, but long-sleeved, thick shirts (and this is why I try not to prune agaves in summer as it is just too hot to wear the proper garb).  As with Phoenix palms, I sometimes prune off the terminal spines before I start so I don’t end up getting a lethal stabbing while trying to do something so mundane as pruning my plants (will not look good on your tomb stone). 

 terminal spine leaf teeth Agave leaf edge

Typical terminal spine on one of my larger agaves (left)- this can easily pierce all protective clothing if run into dead-on;  center and right shows some typical razor-sharp teeth along the leaf edges that can cut the skin on your arm like butter. 

Agave stricta leaf spines   Agave sisalana

These two species of Agave (Agave stricta left and Agave sisalana right) have no lateral shearing teeth, but almost make up for it by having among the sharpest terminal spines of all my agaves 

Agave huge mess  Agave mess

These two forms of Agave americana are daunting specimens to consdider pruning as they are extremely well armed plants with heavy, clumsy limbs 

 A americana butchering  Agave americana nice pruning

When pruning large palms, you can either make them look terrible (left- might have better not to even have touched the plant to begin with), or you can make them look elegant (right) 

The first few times I tried to prune an Agave, I used a pruner and it was nearly worthless.  Then I tried a saw.  No way.  Agaves have strong fiber (sisal) in their leaves that immediately gums up a saw blade and make cutting a leaf akin to cutting a pair of jeans in half with a saw… not a very efficient way of trimming.  Even for big leaves, a razor works best.  Sometimes you can find saw blades that are specifically made for trimming succulent plants- they are basically large razors on a long handle.  I have had several of these over the years and they are awesome for trimming Agaves.  But they are hard to find and invariably very poorly made, so they only last a few weeks (I have gone through about 5 of these and I think 1 month is the longest I have had one that actually worked without breaking- now I just can’t find them any more).  So when these ‘ideal’ tools are not available, an adjustable work razor from a hardware store works the best… and they are very cheap and easy to find and replace.  Unfortunately these are not really made for this task- no long handle, and they break easily- so buy a bunch if you have a lot of agaves (they are super cheap).  And maybe you can duct tape them onto a short pole and make your own succulent ‘saw’ if you like (I tried this a few times and it really didn’t work all that great.. - someone with more brains than I can surely invent something that will work).  Razors go through agave flesh like a knife through butter (our flesh, too, so caution).  These work great.. only they do require reaching in towards the center of the plant where all the sharp things are really close together and hard to avoid.  So go slow and steady and use gloves and other protection and it will all go well. 

 cutting agave with saw Agave fibers 

Trying to cut an agave leaf with a saw... no way... hangs up on all tlhe fibers (left);  close up of torn, shredded fibers from the saw (right)

Cut end of leaf blade and saw   Agave guingola cut end

Cut end of Agave leaf showing where I tried with a saw, and the rest with a cheap utility knife (left) ; right is an Agave guingola leaf cut end on view, showing how thick these agave leaves can get (nearly three inches), which means using nearly the entire length of these utility knives- which were not meant to be used this way... and of course often snap off during this procedure.  Good thing they are cheap.  If you can track down one of those more durable succulent saws (basically a large razor on a stick) then this is exactly what those were made for.

 Agave guingola leaf being cut  Agave blue leaf cut

Agave leaves in yard being cut with a utility razor.  This tool cuts the leaves easily, but as you can see, one's hand has to get pretty close to do the job, risking not only that hand, but your arm and face from sharp-ended leaves pointing right in towards your face.  The Agave on the right is being cut to eventually eliminate it (unwanted sucker)... so I have cut off all the leaves in order to get close enough to pull/dig it out.   

 Agave parryi  Agave americana trimming project

Agaves that are crammed into pots and suckering create another trimming challenge, as seen in my Agave parryii (left);  right shows an Agave americana 'Mediopicta' being removed from a pot and trimmed of all its suckers and lower dead and live leaves.  Without removing these plants from their pots, trimming becomes nearly impossible

Aloe leaves can be trimmed similarly, and some aloe leaves nearly rival agaves in their nasty marginal spines.  However, if one wants to trim off dead aloe leaves, a razor tends not to work too well.  For these, one needs with a good pair of gloves and a good grip- many can simply be broken off… or you will need to get in there, again risking laceration, and use a pruner or sturdy scissors and slowly cut through the dead leaves.

 aloe excelsa aloe excelsa cut 

Aloe excelsa in my yard (looks a bit like an Aloe marlothii- very spiny, unfriendly aloe).  Cutting these leaves requires gloves and a good utility knife (right)

 Aloe excelsa leaves  aloe lineata

Aloe excelsa leaves cut on the ground waiting to be tossed (left);  right shows a close up of the viscious teeth of Aloe lineata, another plant that requires gloves and a good, long utility knife to trim 

Whether or not to trim Aloes (and some agaves) at all is a matter of taste and opinion.  These plants do not NEED to be trimmed, but my feelilng is in a small yard like mine, they simply look better and less messy (yard is already too messy) trimmed up.  Plus, dead leaves tend to harbor a lot of pests that seem much easier to control in trimmed plants.  I do realize this is an optional procedure, and I always shake my head when I end up bleeding more than necessary after doing something not absolutely necessary.  But when you adopt a hobby, you do crazy things sometimes.

 Aloe vaombe untrimmed  Aloe vaombe trimmed

Aloe vaombe with skirt of dead leaves (left) and my trimmed plant (right)

 Aloe feroxes untrimmed aloe barberae 

These Aloe ferox are 'all-natural' as are most Aloes grown in botanical gardens.  Not only would trimming all these tree aloes take up an inordinate amount of time, but it would not serve the purposes of most public gardens which like to show plants as they would exist in nature; fortunately for me, the tallest aloes in the garden (like this Aloe barberae on the right) are self cleaning... all the dead leaves fall off the trunk to the ground leaving a nice, ornamental, smooth trunk

 Aloe mess Aloe bugs

Sometimes pruning involves cutting my neighbor's plants also (their bougainvillea covering up my Aloe tongaensis and Euphorbias left);  in this case, it was doubly good to get this Aloe trimmed as I also discovered, after removing several trash cans full of very spiny bougainvillea, that my aloe was covered in mealy bug (right) 

 cleaned up  aloe cutting hosed off

Finally got the plant cleaned up and several large pieces removed.  Right is one cutting that I can give away now, hosed off of its mealy bugs 

Many Yucca leaves are just a bit too thin and fibrous to be cut easily but with the newest or finest pruners (I have not discovered a brand that stays sharp enough to do this for more than a day).  For these plants, either a good, strong pair of scissors works well, or some species have leaves that simply strip off the stem easily.  Dasylirions can be clipped with normal trimmers even though they look a lot like Yuccas- their leaves are far less fibrous.  Beaucarneas and Cordylines can be pruned easily this way as well- just pull the leaves downward while holding them near the trunk.  Use gloves as these leaves often have very sharp edges of their own (I have had to bandage the palms of my hand on more than one occasion from trimming Beaucarneas- like having a dozen nagging paper cuts in the palm of your hand- yeouch!).

 can't cut yucca yucca rostrata dead leaves

Left photo is somewhat unclear, but it is a shot of me trying to cut this Yucca rostrata leaf (see plant in right photo) with my best pair of by-pass trimmers- the leaf is too fibrous and tough and the  fibers too fine for my pruners to cut through, so the leaf just bends.  You can't cut these leaves with a razor or saw,either... which just leaves scissors (which work very well).  Actually, wire cutters can work pretty well for this job, too.

 yucca trimmed  yucca linearifolia

Here is same plant after pruning with scissors.  The leaves are still pretty tough it takes a good deal of effort to trim all these leaves;  right shows a related Yucca linearifolia also cut with a scissors... this plant has much less fibrous leaves so very easy to cut with scissors (still nearly impossible to cut but with the best and sharpest pruners right off the shelf) 

 y linearifolia before   Y linearifolia after

another before and after picture... this plant not only had to be trimmed back, but aslo trimmed a bit lop-sided so one could walk by it and not get stabbed - a lot of trimming of succulent type plants is not only for looks and neatness, but for safety and comfort as well.

Yucca gloriosa

Not all Yuccas need to have leaves cut.  This Yucca gloriosa has leaves that unsheath pretty easily right off the stem, so all that is needed here is a good pair of glove (or calluses if you don't have any).   

 Beaucarnea recurvata Beaucarnea recurvata leaves

Beaucarneas (Pony Tail 'Palms') can also be pruned this way- no reason normally to cut their leaves.  These tend to unsheath extremely easily, though one must be careful not to unsheath all the way to the top, or you could actually kill the meristem 

 Dasylirion wheeleri Dasylirion leaf

These may be easier to cut than yucca leaves, but some of this species (Dasylirion wheeleri pictured here) have hooked, incredibly sharp spines that make trimming one of my least favorite activities to do with these plants.  Even walking by them is no fun, but which is why trimming them is important 

 Dasy longisissimus  dasy long trimmed nice

Like many other plants, trimming Dasylirion longissimus is a matter of taste, mostly (left untrimmed 'natural' look, and right trimmed 'unnatural look').  I definitely prefer the trimmed look, but in my garden, it's really a necessity rather than an option.  Otherwise nearby plants don't get sufficient light (neither of the above plants are mine, though- mine are below)

 Dasy overpruned  Better pruning

There is the sloppy, crazy prune job (left) or the nice, neat job (right) 

Cacti pose several rather obvious problems when it comes to pruning them.  Fortunately I grow few species that actually require pruning.  Those that do need occasional limbs to be removed are not that difficult to cut off- usually any hand saw will do the job.  The problem is then what to do with the falling limb.  For the more lithe species, a good pair of leather gloves and a large, thick, folded towel, blanket or rug fragment works well.  Preparation in the form of wrapping the limb in bunched up newspaper and tape works very well (even better, actually), but this takes a bit more time and preparation than I feel like putting into this task.   Really thick-bodied species pose a special problem, one which usually requires several friends who are either insane and enjoy risking life and limb for the thrill of it all, or are cactus lovers and are hoping to get a unique, large cactus cutting to root.  For super big plants, professional help is strongly recommended.  Some of these limbs can weigh many hundreds of pounds, not to mention often being covered in thousands of large, barbed spines. 

 Cereus for pruning Pilosocereus

I don't have too many tall, branching cacti, but these two have need pruning multiple times, and have required some tricky procedures to not end up hurting myself or the cutting I'm taking off, or the plants below (Cereus hankianus left and Pilosocereus lanuginosa right- both these plants are over fifteen feet tall and very spiny). 

 Echinopsis

This large-bodied Echinopsis hybrid has needed pruning on several occasions, requiring me to figure out ways of cutting it and holding onto it at the same time (very heavy sections) 

 Cereus LL  Cereus Huntington

Two shots of massive Cereus cacti at botanical gardens to remind readers how large some of these plants get (limbs can weigh hundreds and hundred of pounds).  The Cereus on the right at the Huntington has gone through several extreme prunings requiring chain saws, pullys and small cranes.  Thank goodness nothing like those are growing in my yard. 

 Myrtilocactus 1  Myrtilocactus 2

I do, however, have Myrtilocacti growing in my yard.  None are this size... yet... so I have to prune them back to keep them from getting this large.   Saws and loppers do well with these.

 cactus holders

These are among the most useful of all tools when in comes to handing and moving cacti and cactus parts.  I don't know what their official name is, but they are wonderful and invaluable.  I can pick up about any cactus without getting stabbed (with one exception) as long as I can physically lift it with this cactus 'mitts' on.  They are incredibly protective- better than gloves, rugs, newspaper etc.  Get them if you can find them! 

Some Opuntias provide a unique challenge because of the presence of zillions of fuzzily armed glochids.  These Opuntias look soft and fuzzy from a distance, but they are among the most frustrating of all the cacti in terms of spine removal from skin and clothing.  Just a gentle brush across one of these plants leaves hundreds if not thousands of itty bitty hairlike spines imbedding in whatever soft part of your body you happened to drag across them.  If this happens and you are slow and careful, you can make your way over to a water faucet and wash them away with a sharp stream of water before they become hopeless imbedding in clothing and skin.  But if you are clumsy (like me) or make the error to trying to brush them off, or pick them off, you will find you have a task that could take hours, days, weeks or even months to succeed at.  And this process will usually require a good magnifying glass and a super high quality pair of tweezers (I have since become a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to magnifying head loops and quality tweezers).  Glochids rarely will penetrate the leather of most gloves… but they will render said pair of gloves basically unusable from then on.  I cannot count the number of times I have found painful, annoying and nearly impossible to remove Opuntia glochid spines imbedded in the most sensitive areas of my hands after picking up a pair of gloves I used previously to handle these cacti.

 Opuntia englemmania  Opuntia tall

Many Opuntias offer real pruing challenges, from this massive hedge species (left) to this plant that is nearly twenty feet tall (right) 

 Opuntia fuzzy OPuntia glochids

But it is these innocuous, fuzzy-looking species which afford the most difficulty to me.  Opuntia microdasys are a royal pain to prune! 

 Opuntia funny  tiny spines

Those innocent looking fuzzy, small yellow spine clusters, or glochids, rub off on anything they touch (see them on glove on right).  This pair of gloves is now rendered dangerous and fairly useless until those miniature spines are somehow removed 

 loops  tweezers

Good quality eye loops and excellent tweezers are a must if you are going to attempt to prune cacti 

Pereskia are another unique group of cacti in my experience and there is little one can do to avoid being stabbed by their spines.  I prefer the cut and run technique for pruning these plants.  Their limbs are not so heavy that having them fall on surrounding plants puts too many other species at risk.  But having their branches fall on you definitely puts you at extreme risk.  I use a pair of long handled loppers or even a pruning saw for these, and as soon as the limb is cut, I turn and run away.  Upon returning, I carefully grab the tip of one or other end of the fallen cutting with bare hands.  No gloves you ask?  There is not a glove on the planet (in my own experience) that Pereskia spines will not happily penetrate.  Same goes for carpet, blankets, newspaper etc.   Sufficient balled up newspaper and tape would probably do the trick but that is asking way too much of me in terms of time and effort.  A bare hand is much easier to control precisely and since I have begun using this technique, my stabbings-by-Pereskia incidents have fallen dramatically.

 pereskia to trim  Pereskia branch 

Pereskia plant in my yard (about fiften feet tall- left);  right shows a small branch with the huge, long, needle-like spines 

 holding a Pereskia branch holding a Pereskia cutting (no gloves)

Cycads can be very sharp and unfriendly plants, but most are easily pruned with a half decent pair of pruners.  Gloves are strongly recommended for nearly all species to avoid myriad dinky bleeding dots all over ones hands and arms.  These are highly toxic plants, but their toxicity does not come into play during the trimming process.

 E trispinosus Enceph arenarius

Leaf of an Encephalartos trispinosus (left);  right is my Encephalartos arenarius right after a new flush of leaves.  Soon after this happens, I usually have to trim off the lowers limbs to keep ahead of things a bit 

 typical wounds post cycad trimming more blood

bleeding from many areas is a common situation post trimming just about anything in the yard, cycads being no exception 

I have some ‘exotic’ trees that are among the tougher plants for me to prune, and not just because they are tall or large.  Erythinas (Coral Trees) often have ‘invisible’ hooked spines that can really sneak up on you if you try to prune these without gloves.  The same goes for Prosopis (Mesquite)- looks like a super soft, feathery, almost fern-like tree… but some have hidden dangers that often only a bare hand can discover.  Some Araucarias (eg. bidwillii and araucana) have a particularly unfriendly foliage that really requires one not scrimp and save on cheap leather gloves.  I have tried multiple pairs of gloves but only a nice, thick leather will resist these nasty, sharp leaves.  As these trees get large, I strongly recommend a professional deal with them- simply too dangerous to prune. 

 Bunya bunya  branches

 spines

Araucaria bidwillii (Bunya Bunya tree) in my yard showing the incredible array of spines on all parts of this tree's branches.  Gloves are essential (and still expect to get poked through them now and then) 

The last group of plants I will mention here are the bamboo, but these really require little insight into their pruning.  One thing that helps keep them in check (running or clumping) is keeping up with the new growths.  A new culm can easily be knocked over with a foot or hand (use a glove- nagging hairs often become spines)… but wait a few months and you will need a sharp, strong hand saw, or possibly even an electric reciprocating saw, to remove the same culm.  Get these early!  Another advantage to getting to bamboo early is avoiding a massive amount of cuttings to dispose of at a single time (big problem for me).  Few plants on the planet grow as fast and unrelenting as bamboo.  If you grow bamboo, resign yourself to the possibility you may be trimming it every week for the rest of your life.

 new culm old culm

New soft easy-to-cut (or snap off) bamboo culm left, and old, woody, hard-as-a-rock culm right that needs either a good hand saw or a power saw to cut (right) 

 bamboo mess

Not a very good shot, but this pile of foliage is a small fraction of what I have to trim off my bamboo plant in the back... this pile fills 50% of my entire carport and makes passing through impossible.  All these cuttings have to be cut up into smaller pieces 1-2 more times in order to fit them in the green can.  It's a LOT of work, but thankfully, NO SPINES! 

And one note to self I will let you in on.  Do not get lazy and cut the old culms too high up or at angles.  Otherwise you will effectively have created a killing bear or dear trap, complete with impaling spikes growing right out the ground.  I have caused myself several nasty ankle injuries trying to maneuver over a previously, sloppily trimmed area of bamboo.  Take some time and effort and cut these as flat and as close to the ground as possible.

bamboo culms cut too high 

shot of Bambusa olhamii culms cut all about six to twelve inches above the ground, some at odd angles... this makes for VERY treacherous travel through this area.  Don't do this (do as I say, not as I do) 

 


  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Gardening as a blood sport holly85749 1 10 Oct 10, 2012 9:22 AM
Great article Palmbob sherizona 2 17 Oct 9, 2012 11:58 PM
Wow! Gardeningman 0 10 Oct 9, 2012 12:21 PM
Amazing garden birdsnbeeskc 1 15 Oct 9, 2012 7:08 AM
Where are your loppers? pipeladi 1 17 Oct 8, 2012 2:06 PM
WOW WOW ALL I CAN SAY Disanti 1 15 Oct 8, 2012 12:23 PM
I have a 15 year old Agave. greenthumb1522 0 16 Oct 8, 2012 11:39 AM
Great advice! Thanks, love your articles gardenergrow 0 13 Oct 8, 2012 7:05 AM
What a huge piece of work! steadycam3 0 17 Oct 3, 2012 11:00 PM
Ouch. gloria125 0 21 Oct 3, 2012 6:33 AM
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