Okay. I confess: I killed a cactus.

Cactus

This is what Cactus Dan must look like in Cactus Heaven.

Photo Credit: Jenny Hooks

Cactus in desert

I leave the cactus growing to Mother Nature now.

Photo Credit: Jenny Hooks

My only defense is I didn’t know what I was doing at the time – it was an innocent mistake. But because I killed a cactus, I was subjected to great teasing among my college roommates who witnessed the slow, accidental tragedy. Even now – over a decade later – the question still pops up from time to time among my college chums: “How the heck can you kill a cactus?!”

Well, I’ll tell you, it’s really not that hard. And if you’ve done it yourself, don’t feel bad – you’re not alone.

The untimely death of my little spiky friend (whom I named “Dan,” by the way), was due mainly to my lack of basic houseplant knowledge and cactus requirements. Where I personally screwed up was with my container of choice…and my potting mix…oh, and did I mention my watering technique?

Here’s how tragedy ensued:

I bought Cactus Dan when he was a lil’ 4-inch guy sticking out of an itty-bitty, ugly plastic pot in the florist section of a grocery store. He was cheap and cute, and I wanted to try my hand at growing a plant. (And seriously – how the heck can you kill a cactus?)

Dan sat on my cluttered desk for a good month, ignored, pretty much because I could hardly see him with all the textbooks, notebooks and random other junk that tended to accumulate on my desk. So I eventually moved my plant to our living room, where he sat on top of the TV, near a window.

It was at a commercial break during a bad made-for-TV movie that I bothered to notice that Dan had somehow grown larger (or his cheap little plastic pot was getting smaller). I needed to give my plant a better home so he could stretch his roots and live up to his full cactus potential!

I bought Dan a bigger – “better” – plastic pot. (I even puffy-painted the thing, with “Cactus Dan” boldly spelled out in neon splendor.) And since Dan would obviously require more soil than what was in his original little studio-apartment pot, I bought a bag of “potting soil” to surround him in his new luxury condo container. I was real proud of myself, too – I could’ve purchased any bag of “dirt” – but I bought soil especially meant for a pot – how perfect is that?!

(Somebody go back in time and stop me now.)

So there was Dan – in his large personalized pot, poking his tiny head out of rich, dark soil that was clearly labeled for “potting.” I watered my plant in deeply, to make sure the “roots would take hold,” then stuck him back on top of the TV. Gosh, he looked cute.

I knew I didn’t need to water Dan all the time – he was a cactus, for Pete’s sake. Every so often, I’d stick my pinky finger in the soil. When it felt “really dry,” I’d water Dan, but other than that, I felt like I pretty much ignored him, as one can do with a cactus, right?

Well, one day the poor plant started leaning to the left. Something wasn’t right. I kinda poked him on his left side, in an attempt to push him upright, and that’s when dear Dan toppled right over – he had rotted in half at the base. Oh the horrors!

My roommates, through their laughter, simply declared “murder” as Cactus Dan’s cause of death (and then the long years of mockery began). Meanwhile, I was left with a lot of questions and no answers as to where I went wrong with my cactus. (And at the time, there was no Internet to assist in my investigation.)

Was it the container? The soil? My watering techniques?

Yes.

Here’s what I eventually learned:

Big pot, little plant – not such a good idea.

Using rich potting soil for a plant that requires a mix with good drainage – not good either.

And even though checking the moisture in the soil is good practice, only sticking half a pinky finger partway down the pot isn’t too helpful. The soil (and water) goes deeper than what half a pinky can assess. I had already doomed poor Dan with the too-large pot and wrong potting mix – but it still would’ve been better if I had stuck my index finger all the way down to the bottom of the pot, or used a pencil – something to help me figure out how wet the soil really was. Dan pretty much just rotted away.

Eventually I came to peace with my gardening mishap – partly because I moved on to bigger gardening mishaps over the years, but mostly because I’ve learned that I’m not the first person (or the last) to kill an innocent plant. We can only learn from our mistakes and try to do better next plant around.

R.I.P. Cactus Dan. I’ll never forget you. (My friends won’t let me anyway.)