Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Misadventures in Going Green: The Confidence Cactus.

I looked at the sad remains of my poor African violet. Beside me, a friend's girlfriend attempted some consolation.

"What you need," she said brightly, "Is a confidence-boosting plant. You need a cactus!"

I had moved into a place with a nice, big bay window in the front. Perfect for growing plants (or so I thought)! Research by NASA shows that plants can play a role in improving and maintaining indoor air quality, making them a fantastic way to remove invisible toxins like toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde from the air without requiring electricity, filters, or ozone-producing ionizers. Plants that filter the air-- how much more green can you get? Of course I wanted to give it a shot.

Which is what led me here, looking down at my poor violet. I'm not even sure what had happened. Too much sun? Too little? Too much water? Not enough? Shock from being moved from a garden center to my living room?

Determined not to give up, I took her advice. I didn't just get a cactus, though-- I did my homework. I read about cacti until my eyes ached. I looked up ways to identify the most commonly-sold varieties, how to fertilize them, how often they'd need re-potting, everything. I put more research into this plant than most people put into raising their first child. I was ready.

[caption id="attachment_2466" align="aligncenter" width="640"]I was so ready. I was so ready.[/caption]

Unfortunately, one of my other room mates was not.

She was pretty, but dumb. Slender, red-haired, with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile, she had already managed to be the bane of pretty much anything that wasn't nailed down and on fire. Someone's bottle of prescription lithium, a quarter pound box of MiracleGro, the cat doots in the litter box... Somehow, all of them ended up left in chewed remains on the floor. Siberian huskies are sweet, pretty dogs, but they can be enormous pains in the ass.

You can probably see where this is going.

Somehow, she managed to eat the cactus. I don't know how, I don't know why, but I came home to find a prickly, chewed-up murder scene in the middle of the living room (and a dopey-smiling dog at the front door). It didn't seem to do her any harm, but there was no saving my poor plant-- the one that was supposed to renew my faith in my ability to nurture plant life.

"Okay," I thought, "Clearly it was my mistake for assuming that A) half-inch-long thorns would be a deterrent to this dog, or B) her owner might have been inclined to train her not to eat everything in the interim. I will do better next time!"

[caption id="attachment_2467" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Cactus pots. Totally going to do better.[/caption]

I put my next cactus in a lizard terrarium. It was a small, round plant with soft, hairlike thorns-- nothing I'd have to worry about injuring its scaly room mate. It also had the benefit of timed grow lights and a built-in thermometer and humidity indicator. Now, nothing stood between me and successful horticulture!

So, let me tell you about crickets. They're pretty much the standard in live reptile food. Most insectivorous reptiles won't bother with dead prey, which means that keeping lizards generally entails learning how to keep crickets. This is easier said than done.

A lot of the nutrition in an insect is in its stomach contents. An entire industry has evolved around providing them with the best nutrition to hopefully benefit their future predators. Unfortunately, when provided with a bowl of fresh food specifically developed (after years of in-depth research) to appeal to crickets, fresh water, and a tiny sign saying, "FREE FOOD!!! YUM!!! CRICKETS PLEASE EAT HERE OK," they'll proceed to eat the cardboard box they came in, the paper towel they're sitting on, and each other. And then promptly starve to death.

So, what I'm saying is, they ate my freaking cactus. I returned home from work, stoked to see how my new plant was doing. Unfortunately, it wasn't doing at all-- its freshly hollowed-out corpse was now a bustling insect housing development. Somehow, I was living in a house where literally nothing was safe. Somehow, this place was less capable of sustaining life than the Sahara.

With my dreams of clean air and horticulture twice dashed, I gave up rather than subject more plants to the trial-by-fire that was my living room. It wasn't until years later that I attempted to keep houseplants again... but that's another story.