Cacti For All: Don’t Let a Black Thumb of Death Get You Down

It’s fucking spring you guys! I woke up this weekend to an actual honest-to-goodness sunbeam and walked outside wearing only two layers. I saw a woman running in a sports bra which was simultaneously thrilling and confusing because it was still barely 4°C out. But hey, who am I to argue?

When the grass starts poking through the snow and I see my back alley feral cats waddling around full of soon-to-be kittens, the urge to fill my apartment with living things ramps up. By living things, I mean plants not cats. I headed down to Homo Depot to buy a new lil guy for Succulent Spring, but as soon as my girlfriend posted a photo, the warnings started flooding in. “DON’T KILL THIS ONE!” “Please, have mercy…” My friends don’t have a lot of faith in my ability to keep things alive.

Admittedly I have killed quite a few plants (RIP Deceasey the Basil Plant), but I will tut-tut their concern this time. Succulents are a thing both you and I can do!

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This gardener in ZA put me to shame.

Succulents are The Most Thoughtful Houseplants Ever because they want you to ignore them. They store water in their leaves, trunks and roots making them the independent cats of the plant world. In fact, if you give them too much care or attention, they’ll freak the fuck out.  So much like your teenaged emo self, give them plenty of space and they’ll happily chug through life and possibly even flower.

If you’re a Level Eight Gardening Master, you can try your hand at hanging succulent balls or framed succulent gardens while the rest of us will stick to low-lying pots. I usually look to Martha for my basics, but if you want more in depth growing tips, head on over to Cactuslands or the Cactus and Succulent Society of San Jose. You can tell they know what they’re doing by the quality of their web design.

Major Tips

  • Give ‘em space. Succulents need airflow for their leaves and roots. Choose a soil mix specifically for cacti or combine botanical grade sand and/or grit with your normal potting soil. You want to make sure that the earth stays loose enough for water to quickly drain.
  • Keep it dry. Let the soil dry out completely before you give your plants another round. You can get away with watering monthly in the winter and biweekly in the summer.
  • Keep ‘em hungry. Given that succulents are native to areas with poor soil, too much nitrogen will kill them. If you want to use fertilizer use them at 1/4-1/2 the recommended dose.
  • Don’t let them burn. Even though succulents like light, full sun exposure will result in a crispy version of its former self.

If you still have no idea what you’re fucking doing, download an app like Koubachi so your iPhone can chastize you for forgetting to water your plants and not calling your mother.

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Charlie the Zebra in his natural habitat.

Protip: Add a bit of personality to your plants when you pot! If you fill your containers with shells, knicknacks or souvenirs from your travels, people will be less apt to notice the slowly shrivelling succulents.

If keeping a thing alive makes you secretly (or not so secretly) weep, there are still ways to bring greenery indoors without relying on silk plants from the 1980s. If you do it well, people will applaud your creativity instead of realizing your apartment is a barren wasteland where plants, dust bunnies and heteronormativity go to die.

Crocheted cacti have been on the rise, probably due to all of my fellow Black Thumbs. I told myself I’d learn to crochet this year, but I’ve only mastered chainstitching “toys” for my roomie’s cat. My favourite crocheting Etsy-ers SIXIT and Harvesting Hart both come to the rescue with their Unkillable Plants. If you happen to be friends with your hook, you can crochet a graceful saguaro cactus or some amigurumi cacti with a bit more personality.

If you are made of thumbs, and unfortunately none of them are green, there’s a pathway to plant parenthood for you too. Make an immortal cactus from green socks and pompoms, some extra green felt or a moustache and your sewing machinePlan B made her own fake cacti using nothing more than fabric, leather, cotton batting, yarn, cardboard and a plant pot. While this looks about 8x easier than any of the crocheted patterns I’d seen, I figured I could do it in even fewer steps while making a somewhat useful knicknack.

Cactus Pincushion

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Your journey to Cactus Parent stars by cutting a green circle from whichever fabric you have handy. My circle (and my side plate) just so happen to be 7.5″ in diameter. Loosely stitch around the circumference in a similarly toned thread, staying 1/4″ in from the edge.

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Stuff your soon-to-be-cactus with cotton batting (or in my case, the remnants of a shredded plaid rainbow shirt I found by the side of the road) until it’s delightfully plump. Use a few more stitches to sew it shut. Tightly wrap your ball with yarn, forming eight puffed segments. Stuff it into a mini pot and thread the extra yarn through the hole at the base. Pull on the yarn tightly to ensure a snug fit for your cactus. Look, no glue or cardboard necessary!

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I wanted to add crocheted flowers, but I realize you can’t get that far in life with only a chain stitch. Thankfully Homespun with Heart, proved you could achieve the same effect without ever picking up a hook!  Break out the needle and thread instead of her requested glue and cardstock to make flowers with a bit of dimension.

Braid together three 12″-14″ pieces of embroidery floss or yarn, double knotting both ends and cutting off the excess. Spiral the braid around one knot, pinning as you go. Misalign your spirals so the coil takes on a bowl-like shape. When you have  few inches left, wrap the rest behind the bud to support the “petals.” Moving outwards from the central knot, stitch in a radial pattern to connect the chain (think the spokes of a basket.) Before you tie off your thread, pull it tightly to cause the flower to take on a bit of a wavy shape. Stitch on the bud, slap in a few needles and bam! Not safe for children!

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I could have used pink thread, but that would’ve required me to refer to my shopping list.

Depending on how black your thumb is, and how coordinated your other fingers are, you too can make your house a little bit greener! Or at least for a few weeks.

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 140 articles for us.

41 Comments

    • Thumb up 4

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      Snake plants are almost impossible to kill and give you a nice vertical for a corner. Low light, water rarely, like 2x a month.

      Certain species of long-necked dracaenas (sp?) are also really architecturally bitchen. They have that spiky, palmy frondy thang goin’ on at the end of long-ass stalks/trunks (they’re usually bitty things when you buy them*), but unlike palms they are difficult to kill. I have found that palms and SF weather do not dig each other.

      As a prelude to my footnotes, I’ll state that have a green thumb now, but it took me a while to get it. Biggest learnings:

      *1. Buy small and learn what your plants like. Look them up on the webz and maybe even keep a watering schedule on the pot until you’ve got it down.

      2. Start small in number with plants that require watering on the same schedule.

      3. This was the hardest one for me to learn: Don’t trip when you kill a plant. It happens. Sometimes you make a mistake. Sometimes the person who promised to water your plants every week decides to take off on a 2 week psychedelic-fueled camping trip, comes back the day before you return & drowns your crispy, brown-ass plants in gallons of water. Sometimes your pets and people will take priority over your plants. You flake and they die. See #1. You will feel a lot less shitty if you kill your $5 or free succulent than if you kill a beautiful (and VERY expensive!) 10 year old palm.

      3. If you’re on a budget or feeling like you have black thumb, take clippings from succulents and start them yourself. Super simple and they almost always take. Try an avocado plant.

      4. Be patient. Plants work on a different time frame than we do. They are slower to grow and slower to heal. But once they’re established, they’re also hard to kill if you’ve figured out what they like.

      5. Plants are very cool and taking care of them is a very yoga-like moving meditation deal. They make your crib feel nicer, look nicer and they do give back by blossoming or growing splendiferously. Also, they do like music and they like singing and talking (maybe it’s the carbon dioxide for oxygen transfer).

      6. Whoops! I forgot. To avoid heartbreak and unnecessary pain, do not buy your plants at some big box place like Hell-Mart or even Tar-zhay. Those plants have been grown quickly on plant dope. When they come home to your house, they will go into withdrawal and they will DIE. Fact. They are also more likely to be diseased or carrying pests that will get onto your other plants. Very BAD. And a very painful lesson if you care about your plants.

      7. Pro-tip for acquiring big, expensive plants for free. If you work in a big office, your office may have a plant service. Or the office managers will be told to pick up some nice big plants for the client area. An office isn’t the best environment for these plants, which is why plant services swap them out at intervals so they can get healthy again. They go to the spa/rehab every 3 months.

      If there’s a plant service, your best bet is to make friends with the plant people. Sometimes there’s a plant that they don’t think’s gonna make it and they’ll let you have it. If it’s just the office managers, you’re in luck. A plant will start looking all brown and crust-punky. They will be told to remove it. But there’s no budget item for plant removal. Swoop in and save that thing. It may die at your house. But it may not, and you’ll have a beautiful, dramatic 6-ft Australian Tree Fern in your apartment. That you’ve saved from death in corporate hell.

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        Dracaenas are surprisingly resilient. Like, let’s say you forget you have one for four months because it’s in a weird bit of your apartment and hypothetically the only thing that visits it is the cat. So if you just so happen to be in this waterless situation, it’ll shed all of the leaves on its trunk. But the fronds at the end will keep going as soon as you start watering it again.

        What’s your take on homo depot and other hardware stores with a greenhouse? I don’t have any garden centers in my area and the only florists I have appear to be waaay overpriced. ($20 for a 10″ money tree?!?!)

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    My cats eat cacti. This seems like a dumb idea to me because mouth splinters ouch, but they love to chow down on them. You can kill my succulents, but you will never take away my adorably crocheted cactus, kitty cats.

    Some day I will learn to crochet things that are not scarves and granny squares and I will figure out amigurumi.

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    I love succulents and this article inspired me to go out and buy one. There were only two options at the grocery store down the street, so I obviously chose the one that looks like two vulvas cuddling. So far Koubachi has been unable to identify its species. Why isn’t there an option for labia-shaped leaves?

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    Growing up I used to plant flowers and talk to them as if there were people. When I was feeling extra happy I would sing to them and I kid you not they would grow. Sometimes I would put a mirror up so they don’t get lonely (think brave little toaster when the flower saw its reflection and got all happy then sad when it realized it was not a real flower. I nearly cried after that scene so be being 7 at the time I made sure my flowers and other plants had “friends.”)

    My mom despite having allergies loves to plant flowers and bushes so I think I got it from her. Alas I now live in BK and I’m looking into vertical gardening in my apt, I just want to avoid the hipster-ness of urban gardening too many problematic spatial/gentrification feelings come up with urban gardening…

    I have a lot of feelings about plants. I blame my queer attraction to Uma Thurman playing Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin because Uma Thurman and Uma Thurman playing Poison Ivy, movie character #21 that made me question my sexuality.

    Umm what was this post about? Oh Cacti for all the people!!!!

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      I am terrible at watching movies but I definitely watched those scenes all the time. Nerd girl becomes evil botanist becomes red-headed sexpot. These are all the things I love in life. I was always crushed that I could never have red hair (or you know.. be ridiculously tall).

      I live in an older neighbourhood and all of my retired neighbours put me to shame with their garden of eden backyards. My landlord decided to asphalt all of the grass, so I’ll have to do some creative gardening this year. There will be pallets, cinderblocks and/or handcast concrete planters.

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