The Urban Botanist - Emma

The Urban Botanist - Emma

The Urban Botanist


Owner: Emma Terrell

Interview: Nikki Gillingham, Blue Whale Communications Photography: Marianne Rothbauer, Rothbauer Studio


Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started.  

I’m born & raised in Ottawa, after finishing my degree at Carleton I travelled the world for a year and ended up as a flight attendant. I’ve been working for an airline for 4 years now, & was able to start up my own business on sleepless layovers, long haul flights and general juggling of the two career paths. I also run a travel blog, called Always on Airplane Mode.

You studied biology at Carleton University and started by making terrariums for yourself at home. How did your education inspire you to follow this path?

My actual focus in university was entomology, which is the study of insects! Initially I started off my degree majoring in Political Science & Human Rights. Like most first year students, I didn’t have much of a clue what to study. Eventually I followed my heart and changed my focus to being a biology major. Of course I studied many aspects of environmental sciences including plant form and function, all of which I found incredibly interesting. I’ve always had a genuine passion for the natural world, which is what I think drew me to the thought of building terrariums.


You didn’t get the opportunity to study business while at school, but always knew you wanted to run your own business and be your own boss. How do you think having to figure it out on your own shaped the way you do things today? Do you still wish you could have taken some of those courses?

I think the fact that I was limited by my faculty at school pushed me harder than I realized it had. I remember feeling extremely frustrated in school when selecting elective courses that didn’t really interest me, because biology students were not allowed taking first year business courses as electives. As frustrating as this was for me at the time, and as confused and lost I felt pushing myself from classes to labs, exams, working 3 jobs and everything in between.... I guess what I learnt in the end was never doubt yourself, and know that whatever is restraining you from achieving your goals is actually teaching you to be stronger !

I always said that I would eventually own my own business, I don’t know what it was inside me that would repeatedly tell me that. Maybe I spoke it into existence. I just always had a way of managing big projects and making them my own. I knew one day that it would translate into a passion, which ended up being plant related! 

What is one of the most important things you’ve learned about starting and running a business?

Ask for help when you need it. Your friends and family will be the glue that holds you and your business together in the beginning. I also learnt that even if you don’t have a background in accounting, graphic design or marketing that you will eventually gain one through self teaching haha. That’s a real learning curve to owning your own business, it really requires you to be the Swiss Army knife of all trades


What is it about terrariums in particular that interests you?

I love the endless possibilities. How you can build 1000 terrariums and not have any 2 be the same. They really are totally customizable to your own unique style, personality and interest in plant variety. I also find it very therapeutic, being able to work creatively with nature. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon. Being able to create your own snapshot of a small self sustaining ecosystem was a very cool thought to me! Especially having grown up with all sorts of living terrariums from snakes to turtles to salamanders. Building plant based terrariums was a way for me to be a kid again in my adult form. 

You called your car a ‘Terrarium on Wheels’ – tell us a bit about your car and how your business touches all aspects of your life (if it does).

My terrarium on wheels I call my car because it literally has all of my terrarium tools in it at all times. Theres moss and soil, gravel and plant material scattered all between the seats, theres dirt on my dash board and figurines in my trunk. I am sure that when people walk by it they wonder what on earth its all about. Every inch is spoken for in my car, it’s a very skilled game of tetris getting everything to fit, but I manage quite well! In the beginning, I was selling terrariums as my business. People loved them, and I found myself jockeying terrariums around the city selling them at various shows. HOWEVER I quickly realized how cautious you have to be even on the slightest turn, as if your terrarium takes a tumble its game over. I lost a lot of brave souls, RIP. I quickly realized how much I enjoy and rather teaching people how to make them instead! Which is how the workshops started. My house as well, probably has about 10 terrariums in it, plus my jungle of 100+ plants ! I get a lot of crazy looks when I have guests over, but its my little jungle and I love it so much.

When you started making terrariums at home, did you imagine it would evolve to this level?

I really was so pleasantly surprised at the positive feedback for the workshops. People were signing up online, and even more shocking to me ACTUALLY showing up ! It was crazy to me! As time went on more and more locations started reaching out to me to run workshops at their restaurants or spaces. My most exciting workshop moment was probably when I got an email from Shopify asking if I could run a workshop for their employees in support of Nature Canada. Since then I have been asked to attend The Ottawa Home Show as a main presenter and demonstrator, as well have a booth showcasing all of my botanical goodies. Its been a really interesting ride, watching the business grow into what it is today.

Tell us about your workshops. What do you love most about leading them?

I love being given the opportunity to encourage and inspire inspire interest in the natural world. I always find myself surrounded by like minded plant peeps, or eager to learn participants that just want to start their own urban jungle. I love how I am able to engage with the community while facilitating a therapeutic and creative learning environment.

You host the workshops in Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver – any plans for expansion elsewhere?

I”m hoping to at least launch the new cities successfully before moving in to any new markets, but I definitely am looking at Montreal. I get monthly requests from followers to run workshops there, it will happen soon enough !

You use re-purposed glassware. Why is this important to you and the business?

I think it brings a really unique element to the workshops. Participants get to choose from all shapes and sizes 


What is your favourite plant?

AHHH this is so hard to answer because I love all my plant babies SO much. My newest house plant is an Alocasia ordora, or a black stemmed elephant ear tropical plant. They are literally STUNNING but also when I first brought him home he was very stressed out and unhappy. He ended up dropping 2/4 leaves (they are giant, think elephant ears) which was SOO sad to watch but we both ended up on the same page and hes happy as a clam now. 

What’s next for The Urban Botanist? What do the next 3 years look like for you?  

I hope to have The Urban Botanist successfully running in 3 cities with employees based in each city that run the workshops themselves! Im looking to build a platform where local staff can run their own business through The Urban Botanist, controlling how many workshops they run, where they are hosted and when! 

Scrim's Florist - Susan

Scrim's Florist - Susan

Nadeau Young LLP - Catherine & Kyle

Nadeau Young LLP - Catherine & Kyle