My First Cactus, And How It Brought Me Home


I haven't always had a great relationship with house plants.

As an adult, I came to see them as a MAJOR nuisance. Don't get me wrong - I've always loved growing things. I have an elaborate garden every summer, where I toil happily until the fall. The winter provides a welcome respite from digging in the dirt, that gets me all jazzed up for a new planting season. So I never understood why I couldn't keep anything alive in the house.

My journey with houseplants started as a kid. We had a very tall cactus that had been with my parents since it was just a small windowsill plant. I grew up with this cactus towering over me, it was taller than me for most of the years we had it, and eventually it moved to Alberta with us. I loved to dig my little nails into the flesh between his spikes. It felt just dangerous enough to be exciting! Would mom walk around the corner and get mad? Would the plant feel bad? Would my finger slip and get poked by a prickly spike? I was probably seven years old. The most satisfying part was pulling my hand away and watching the bitter, white cactus blood ooze out through that perfect crescent-moon-shaped wound my nail had left behind. I know it was bitter because I ate it more than once - it always looked good, but it never tasted any better. The cactus didn't adapt well after the move. I think it saw it's final days in Grimshaw Alberta, after a tumultuous cross-canada UHaul adventure when I was about nine. Everyone's favourite kind of road trip - amiright?! (Read: sarcasm)

Our family cactus was a living symbol of the life I left behind in Ontario. As I watched it slowly lose the fight against a new climate, I decided we were never going home. When it finally got hauled out to the trash, I ached. 


Nine years later I left small-town Alberta for what I saw as a temporary stop on my way back to Ontario. Edmonton. It was 2005 when I realized I'd now lived in Alberta as long as I'd lived in Ontario. A devastating epiphany. If I stayed one more year... this would be the place I'd lived for most of my life. I had to finish school and get out of here. 

During college, I probably bought a bamboo plant every time I went to Ikea. They always died, and I'm just now realizing why - I kept putting them in the bathroom where there's LITERALLY NO SUN. Ikea also brought a large tropical plant into my life, that lived the longest of any plant I've ever had since. I think it stayed with me from 2005 until 2008. It even put up with me decorating it at Christmas each year. But by 2009 I was done being disappointed by house plants. At least outdoor plants have a pre-determined growing season. They grow, they are harvested, they have served their purpose and they're gone. Not house plants.

House plants greet you each day with enthusiasm. A predictable joy, living in an otherwise inanimate room. Until one day they've fallen over. 

This brings me to my life with Neil. When I met Neil in 2012 I still hated Alberta. I was almost ready to ditch Edmonton altogether, but I hadn't decided where to go next. I felt trapped in Edmonton by my career because I was scared of starting over, but I wanted out. To be honest, it seemed like all my friends felt the same way - and that was the real problem.

Falling in love with Neil was terrifying because I knew he would be one more thing that was going to tie me to this city. Neil loves Edmonton, and coincidentally he also loves houseplants. When he first told me he wanted a lot of plants in our house my face twisted into the subject of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'. All I could see in my head were the dried up leaves and water stains left all over my dad's neglected living room when we moved him out of his last house. Dead houseplants had been involved in many of my life's major disappointments, and although I may have been over-reacting, the answer was a hard NO. Not in our house, not in our life. There will be no droopy, sloppy, plants screaming neglect from the corners of this living room, reminding me that everything is temporary, and everything I love will someday die. 

But then things started to turn around...

Neil became this secret door to a whole new Edmonton I hadn't seen before... in fact, it was a whole new Alberta. I met people who were creating things and proudly boasting Edmonton as the home and inspiration to their creativity. Edmonton had a spark that had previously eluded me. Instead of seeing this as a place I needed to escape to be successful, I started to see it as a place I could draw inspiration from, and incorporate into my work and art. I realized that being happy in a place has a lot to do with the people you know. I had like-minded, amazing friends, but they all wanted to leave Edmonton. They kept moving away to be closer to industry hubs that had more opportunity for them, and it made me feel constantly left behind. It was comforting to have a friend who I knew wasn't going to move away. Neil was here for the long haul. At the very root of it, he had put a lot of time and passion into building a bike polo league here, and he wasn't going to leave that anytime soon. We moved close to Mill Creek, I fell in love with hiking in the river valley. We invested in a studio, I met more awesome people and started collaborating. We discovered the wonders of day trips to Elk Island. We joined Ritchie Community League and got involved with their events. I started photographing things that I adore about the prairies. We finally decided to stay - and bought a house in Ottewell.

I call myself an Albertan now, and when I'm traveling I cut the sarcasm from my tone when I tell people where I'm from. I didn't think this was my path, but here I am - I actually love this place! 

Let's get back to my journey with houseplants. Just like Neil unintentionally encouraged me to embrace our city, he also opened my mind to plants. Succulents started showing up everywhere - at the grocery store, the greenhouse, Ikea, the farmer's market. FINALLY! A plant without leaves to dry up and fall off. I was in love. We could finally compromise. Neil could have plants, and I could be happy. I bought cactus after cactus, succulent after succulent. Unfortunately, they all died in our basement suite due to a lack of light. So that brings me to the present! Now that we are in a house, with big main-floor windows in every room I've gone a little crazy for these house plants. With dry soil, sporadic watering, and no attraction for my cats to eat them, they are the perfect living decor! I have eight thriving collections of succulents and cacti, and I'm actually feeling a little bit addicted. My new challenge is to SLOOOW DOOOOWN because we only have so much counter space. 

Our friends Sarah and Sklar (above) have a whole room in their home dedicated to plants and terrariums. They came over one night this month to build some Terrariums with us for the new place. Here, some lessons from Skylar:

1. Plant 'Like With Like'

Choose plants with similar leaves to go into terrariums together. Something with a fatter leaf holds more water, so it doesn't need as much attention. Something with a small, thin leaf is going to need to be watered more. Your terrarium will live longer and look better if you match up plants with similar needs.

2. Choose Your Soil

The internet suggests using activated carbon in your soil to fight off fungus. I don't know if that's what Skylar brought over, but we definitely had a specific mix of soil. It was also gravely to encourage proper drainage and allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings.

3. Know the Needs of Your Plants

Do you know why all my plants kept dying? I wasn't getting the right plants for the available growing conditions in my home. I probably needed tropical plants that naturally live near the ground in low light under the canopy of the rain forest. They may have flourished in our basement suite. If you get your plants from a greenhouse they will be able to tell you how often to give the plant water, what kind of light to put it in, and how big of a pot it may need. Let's all learn from my mistakes and remember that impulse-buying a plant is about as careless as impulse-buying a pet (something I've also done in my life). 

I'm still on the search for a cactus like the one that followed me to Alberta and left me in Grimshaw. Wish me luck keeping the next one alive long enough that it might one day tower over a mischevious toddler just like me!