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  • Barrel cactuses get new lease on life at Desert Haven

    Aug 11, 2021 | Read More News
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    You’ll see green wherever you look at Desert Haven Natural Resource Park, an idyllic triangle of land nestled near the corner of 36th Street and Kino Parkway. Nourished by the monsoon rains, the 15-acre, open-space park was blooming with life on the morning of July 29. 
    Desert Haven Natural Resource Park
    One thing you wouldn’t have seen much of in the park before that day, however, was cactus. That’s why a team of Pima County employees, volunteers, and members of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society decided to spend that wet summer morning planting more than 50 barrel cactuses there. 

    The cactuses come from Pima County’s Native Plant Nursery, which saves native plants from destruction in development projects and uses them in parks and other public spaces. The nursery was created as part of the county’s award-winning Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and it has been responsible for rescuing and replanting tens of thousands of plants. 

    “This is probably one of our favorite parts of this job,” said Native Plant Nursery Manager Amy Belk, who led the barrel cactus planting event. “These are all cactus that would have been bulldozed.”

    Instead, each salvaged barrel cactus will become part of the ecosystem at the new natural resources park, which is not yet open to the public. 

    “It’s going to be planted with all native species,” Belk said. 

    One by one, each barrel was removed from the back of a truck and placed in a wheelbarrow, then carefully guided by two or three people to its destination. Transporting the cactus, Belk said, is the hardest part of the process. 

    “Most of these barrels are larger than what we would normally salvage because they’re not all that easy to handle,” she said. “We salvaged these large barrels specifically for this Desert Haven project.” 

    These barrels were also much heavier than the cactuses that the nursery usually salvages, Belk said, because they had soaked up so much water from the recent rains. 

    “We can definitely tell a difference between the ones that we salvaged before the rains and the ones that we salvaged after,” she said. 

    Shovels bit into the dirt to dig a shallow hole for each barrel, a task made easier by the moistness of the soil. Each cactus was placed at a certain distance from its neighbors, to ensure that one wouldn’t steal moisture from another. 

    “Underwatering is better than overwatering,” said Joel Fontaine, a member of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, as he helped to settle a large barrel cactus into its new home at the park. Like the rest of the team, he wore thick gloves to protect his skin from the sharp needles of the cactus. 

    “There’s so much moisture in the soil right now that we don’t even want to think of giving it more water,” he said. 

    Each cactus bore a tiny but unmistakable white mark, placed there to indicate which direction the plant had originally been facing. 

    “If you put this in the ground in any direction, it will twist to go back to its original orientation,” Fontaine said. “So that’s why you try to plant it in the same direction.” 

    Finally, temporary protective netting was placed over each barrel to protect it from the sunlight. 

    The last of the barrels was planted. With impeccable timing, it started to rain. The cactus-planting team retreated to ramadas and looked out at the results of their work. 

    “I feel like you can just hear the desert sighing right now,” Belk said.