Life, Uplifting

Mar 11, 2021 | Nature & My Gardens

It’s no secret that I’m historically bad at growing plants. I joke that I have a black thumb – so much so, that I have been known to kill silk plants. I used to have good luck with pothos, arrowhead, purple zebrina, spider plants, and asparagus fern – let’s face it, those are harder to kill than silk plants and they made good “starter plants” during the houseplant craze of the 1970s. But I hadn’t really kept plants since the 1970s, and given my luck with the artificial kind (they don’t like having their dusty leaves vacuumed – let’s just leave it at that and never mention it again) I really hadn’t tried.

I Have a Talent for Killing (Plants)

Now, everyone knows pothos. It’s a vine. It is the “ubiquitous office plant” precisely because it requires so little maintenance. It grows incredibly fast. Trim it below the nodes (those look like tiny horns – that’s the roots trying to show themselves) and get them to take root in a styrofoam cup with tap water and cheap paper towels. In fact, I had my office cubicle looking like a jungle of pothos, once, but when I took my cuttings home to plant them in real soil and real sunlight, they were so accustomed to processed food (paper towels, chlorinated tap water, fluorescent lighting, and general abuse) that within 24 hours of sticking them into some good, fresh potting soil, introducing them to natural sunlight, and talking gently to them, they turned brown and died. That’s my kind of plant.

My husband doesn’t understand why I don’t do better at raising cactus. I tell him it’s because I’m neglectful, not mean. This may be why my spicy peppers – if they fruit at all – have so little flavor. Apparently, those thrive on outright abuse.

Let’s NOT Go Play in the Dirt

Ask my dad. “Playing in the dirt” was never something that appealed to me at all. He once went to great lengths to dig a hole, fill it with dirt and water, and make “mud pies” with me when I was little. I think I stuck my hands in, pulled them out, and begged to be allowed to run inside the house and wash them. I don’t recall coming back outside, that day – at least not till he assured me that I never had to make “mud pies” again. I can’t say that my aversion to mud pies has changed, much, although I did make pinch pots out of mud, once, when I had no clay on hand, and that was…no, that was still kind of nasty.

As a kid, I loved to climb trees and run barefoot through the grass. I was less enamored of tending the yard or gardens, and two apple trees taught me there were some jobs not worth doing at any price. I mean, maybe, if anyone had ever sprayed them for bugs. If we had ever enjoyed the fruits of those trees, it might have been worth the dime a bucket to pick up the squishy-slimy, worm-eaten, bug-infested, vinegar-scented droppings of those two prolific trees. But no.

My dad used to chide me for eating the winter pears straight off the tree, warning, “You’ll break a tooth!” but I could scramble up into the branches of those trees and pick the barely-ripe fruits while they were edible. I liked crab apples for the same reason. Tart and tasty! No worms could work their way through those. My grandmother once canned the pears, and they were delicious!

If my husband wants guaranteed dirty looks – and sometimes, it amuses him to do this – he’ll hand me a screwdriver and suggest I go weed something. I’ll meet his eyes with my own steely gaze and offer to drive to ACE Hardware and buy enough Weed-Be-Gone to kill them all. Enough to share with the neighborhood, if needed. Enough to drop from a Cessna and poison us all in our beds while we sleep. Since he’s decided he’s into somewhat organic gardening, he knows a stalemate when he sees one and drops the subject. Once I learned that there where things you could spray on weeds and pest-type bugs to make them die, I was all for “better living through chemistry” and the environment be damned.

I’m kidding about that last part, but I will admit that the best way to make your introverted, book-loving, housecat of a kid hop on a bike and disappear for the better part of the day is to hand them a screwdriver and point at the cracks in the driveway that are sprouting grass and weeds. “Go, feral child – run free! Just be back by dinner time.”

A Shallow Grave (for Plants)

My organic gardener husband noted that I had made a few half-hearted (or half-assed) attempts at growing little pots of kitchen herbs. I even asked him, once, to pick up some purple zebrina for me when he ran out for more heavy-duty yard and garden supplies. And I managed not to kill it. I even remembered how to root the cuttings. Before long, I had a small tabletop jungle. He bought shelves for the kitchen, and I moved the jungle to the shelves, closer to sunlight. There, they have thrived. I have had to prune and repot them all – twice! Here are some “before” and “after” photos from 2018 through 2021:

Spider Plant and Purple Zebrina

The spider plant was returned to the yard after the Great Texas Freeze of 2021. I’ll clip some of the babies once they begin to flourish again, as ground cover.

A few years ago, my husband “upcycled” the base of our daughter’s old basketball hoop and turned it into a small container garden for me. Two problems: it’s very shallow and it’s in a very wet and shady spot. After the recent freeze, I have only two plants that have survived (I’m really just shocked than any did!): oregano and the purple chrysanthemums I planted three or four years ago just to give the thing a spot of color while the other herbs…did not thrive. How these survived – uncovered – through the freeze, I will never know. I’ve even planted mint there – twice. Mint is pretty hard to kill; some might say “impossible to kill.” And yet… I’ve killed it. Twice.

That said, I once planted mint in some railroad-tie flower boxes in front of a rental house and never could get them to take in the two years we lived there. But a friend bought that house, and she said, once, that she’d had a devil of a time getting rid of the mint that had taken over, and finally just gave up and took out the containers, too. Anyone need mint removed?

But the purple chrysanthemums and the oregano vines – those have survived even the Great Texas Freeze and Mass Die-Off, despite my certainty that nothing there would survive even if we covered it. They are not the plants I’d have bet money on, had I been placing bets, but they are hardy little things.

“My point is that life on earth can take care of itself. In the thinking of a human being, a hundred years in a long time. A hundred years ago, we didn’t have cars and airplanes and computers and vaccines…It was a whole different world. But to the earth, a hundred years is *nothing*. A million years is *nothing*. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.”

― Ian Malcolm, in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park

Life, Uplifting, Finds a Way

“People were so naive about plants, Ellie thought. They just chose plants for appearance, as they would choose a picture for the wall. It never occurred to them that plants were actually living things, busily performing all the living functions of respiration, ingestion, excretion, reproduction—and defense.”

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

Perhaps to encourage my nascent, blossoming, plant-growing, life-preserving talents – or, more likely, to assuage my growing horror with the world and in response to my frequent mutterings of, “I’m not going to ‘off the grid’ or live in a bunker with a bunch of zombie fools, but a little victory garden might be nice” – my husband has built me the ultimate veggie garden. No, this didn’t come in a kit, though with Although he insists that it is “ours” and I will of course feed us both if it produces anything worth eating, I’m pretty sure it’s mine now. I’ll arm-wrestle him for it, if I have to. He built it to my height – just hip level so that I barely have to bend to reach the other side. It’s 7′ by 28″. It has a ledge for a water bottle and troughs for gloves or small tools, and a larger rack, below, for the full-sized rake, hoe, and shovel. This is just before planting:

And this, just after planting and after he added a bit of netting to keep the birds from eating my seeds.

The signs? I made those with “Shrinky Dink”-type plastic and permanent markers. Little works of art, hot-glue gunned to scrap wood cut to order by my ever-patient and incredibly talented husband.

Today, just five and a half days after planting:

Holy cow, wait, what? He’s infused this garden wedge with his green thumb magic, I swear – it can’t be my doing! Even the beets are starting to sprout. I thought they were supposed to take at least ten days. Good soil, a friend assures me, but I’ve used good soil before and nothing like this happened.

They’re hardly out of the woods, yet; a few hot, drying summer days in Houston could end them all, I’m sure. I’ve gently watered them twice a day – just before and after their sun-bath. But if these tender little shoots can think positive, uplifting thoughts as they send their delicate roots deeper into the soil, I can, too. There is something about that that lifts the spirits, isn’t there? I hope I don’t get too attached to these tiny little plants. I can’t even imagine how the 4H kids do it, knowing their pet projects will one day be dinner. Nevertheless, I am so looking forward to fresh produce!

And then, there’s this:

You see that one fragile, delicate stem with its six tiny green leaves? That is a passion flower that I planted from a seed in 2019, in a larger pot with some of my purple zebrina cuttings. It grew tall and spindly, then sort of fell over onto itself and got lost or choked amongst the purple zebrina’s vines. Can you spot it in there?

And yet, here it is. Same plant. It never died. It didn’t exactly thrive, but it poked its head out, once again, and said, “Hey, I’m still here!” so when I repotted the purple zebrina for the second time, I gave this poor little passion flower a home of its own and a spa day in the sunshine.

That’ll either bake it to death or perk it right up. Who knows? Clearly, the answer to that somewhat rhetorical question is: “Not me!”

Domestic Goddess

Just kidding, but while I’m channeling this mad, Suzy-homemaker energy, I figured I might as well make a fresh batch of torshi. We’re finally out, some three years after the last batch. The recipe says it takes something like two hours and fifteen minutes, but I’m guessing that’s only if you have help, chop fast, or make it more than once every two or three years. It took me about four. Hours, that is. Not years. It just feels like years, when you’re standing on a ceramic tile floor, chopping, chopping, chopping, chopping, ohmygodmorechopping

In about six weeks, my feet and hands will have stopped aching and the first jar will be ready to open. On that day, I will declare that it was all “worth it,” until the next time we run out and I am facing a mound of vegetables and herbs to be chopped and diced.

Till then…

I’m going to go soak my aching feet! At least it’s not my feet pushing up daisies…

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

19 Comments

  1. Jill Ebstein

    Great post and your black thumb isn’t black at all. Pothos are the only plants I’ve ever been successful with indoors. I am slightly jealous of the planter your husband built. I hope you are paying him well 🙂

    Love Ian Malcom’s quote…. “blink of an eye.”

    Mostly, I like the easy relaxed manner that you jump around and still make it all stick together. It’s an easy read that can be enjoyed at many levels.

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      I swear, pothos is the vampire of the plant world: immortal and almost unkillable.

      I’ll pass your compliments to my husband. I doubt he’s planning to go into business building these, but I’ll admit, I’m impressed with his skills.

      Oh, and I swear he did imbue this thing with green thumb magic. EVERYTHING has now sprouted! It changes hourly. I should have done time-lapse photos.

      Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Hubby has a point! I’m not sure this will have a positive return on investment, unless you count the mental boost from learning you CAN keep plants alive and feed yourself.

      That’s no small thing, though.

      Reply
  2. Jyothi

    I love the way you write Holly! I love the garden. The hubby and I had a balcony garden going for a couple of years. I had to give it up because of my back issues. I fully intend to get back to killing plants someday though. Here, the hubby has the green thumb. 🙂
    Jyothi recently posted…The GoldfinchMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      You are too kind, Jyo! Wasn’t my husband sweet to ask me – before he built it – exactly how tall I’d want it? We practiced me bending over to get how far I could comfortably reach across, too. It really was custom built for ME (even though he’s only slowly relinquishing beginning to call it mine, and has recently started referring to me as “the farmer”).

      My husband’s the one with the green thumb around here, too. But I think he’d like to coax me out to help more often.

      Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      No, it’s really not, anymore. A few years ago, a senior IT manager told me I really needed to stop saying, “I’m not a programmer.” Because I didn’t know how to code in any language, but I thought logically and could find the flaws in someone else’s code. I’m starting to see that it’s the same with growing plants. It’s all part logic, part skill, part “magic.” Once you unlock at least two of the three, you kind of have to stop claiming you “can’t do that.” You just maybe don’t do it the way most other people do it.

      Reply
  3. Corinne Rodrigues

    I’m slowly moving from having a black thumb to a green one too! I’m eyeing those pickle jars. Would love to taste that! Last year, was the first year in a long time that I didn’t make any pickle.
    Corinne Rodrigues recently posted…Wake Up GratefulMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      I hope you noticed the little link in there. It leads to an older post where I give the recipe for those pickles! 😉 Check it out.

      I think “slowly moving towards a green thumb” is the right approach, for us. Care for one hard-to-kill thing. Keep it alive. Move to another hard-to-kill thing. Gain confidence, learn their rhythms. Observe and take note, mentally. (I don’t write it down – but I now see the wisdom in a Farmer’s Almanac. I instinctively trim and take cuttings in the spring, now, and that’s when everything in my kitchen jungle goes through a growth spurt. I thought I was just responding to the growth spurt by trimming back – instead, it’s also the perfect point in time for things to take root well. They will, other times of the year – but right NOW? They’re growing like mad!) They ARE little living things. Some seem, almost, to have a personality. My little passion flower – on its impossibly slender stem – is standing up straight and tall despite wind, rain, sun, and temperature changes that would’ve FLATTENED AND KILLED most things that delicate. I don’t understand it at all, but I am cheering for it.

      Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Yes, and plants like a certain amount of consistency. I think they can handle a little benign neglect, but don’t “shower” them with attention, love, and presents to overcompensate. Begin as you mean to go on… 😉 I think, now, that I struggle with some plants because, just as with some people, we don’t hit it off. There’s this one cactus that my husband couldn’t kill if he tried; he doesn’t have to do anything to it. It’s in a pot on the front porch. I put some of it in my window garden and it f***ing HATES me. It’s not because it’s too cold in the house – it survived the FREEZE, outdoors. It’s not because it’s not sunny enough – it’s about the same sun it gets in the pot, maybe more. It just DOESN’T LIKE ME. The other variety has come to accept me – it wasn’t happy at the start, but now I can even root cuttings of that one. But that other? It HATES ME. I don’t like it much, either. I think sometimes we should just give up, for everyone’s sake.

      That’s part of why I grew so many different things in this garden. I wanted to see which ones do best. I’ve been taking pics daily, to record its progress. I fully expect some things to work out better than others. (I did not even bother with tomatoes. Maybe next year. Tomatoes like me fine – they grow, but they look like Jack’s beanstalk – they flower, they turn into small TREES, they SMELL heavenly, but they never fruit.) So we shall see. If the squash takes off, it’ll probably need its own place – my mom used to grow zucchini, and, well… see this: https://jahangiri.us/2013/that-time-arnold-palmer-saved-the-world-from-alien-zucchini/

      I may have planted far too much squash, but let’s see what they do. 😉 The yellow squash and the daikons are just happy as can be.

      Reply
  4. Esha

    Loved reading about your gardening journey, Holly! You do have a very pretty garden. Years ago, I was a reluctant gardener (a balcony gardener, to be precise!) and those days I used to end up killing quite a few plants. Over the years, however, I also ended up saving quite a few as well, which did instil confidence in me that I couldn’t be as bad as I thought I was! I guess it takes time for a black thumb to turn into a green one—I’m still learning new tips and tricks from my mom who, despite her frail health, still manages to take very good care of her plants.
    Esha recently posted…Breaking the Rules | #PoetryMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      I do wonder if the ability to care for plants grows in us with age and observation. My mother in law had a knack for it. They don’t run you ragged, either, like children or pets. But they do live and they depend on us (sometimes) for nourishment, water, and care. I don’t know that talking to them does much, but I swear they need attention and thought, and can sense it.

      Reply
  5. Vinitha

    I loved reading about your gardening journey, Holly! Recently I heard from a friend about how difficult it is to remove mint once it starts taking over your entire yard. I am not sure what color my thumb is as I have only very little gardening expertise so far. Next month we are moving to our house from the apartment we are currently living in and we have plans to grow a small garden ( our sideyard is small in size).
    I love that veggie garden structure. My husband can’t make anything remotely close to that, so bending all the way to the ground it is for me. 🙂
    Vinitha recently posted…Fiction Monday – 38My Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Hmm. Maybe you should build it and let your husband plant and weed? Just a thought.

      (Or go to wayfair.com and look up “container gardens” and “garden wedge” – you could just BUY one. Might not be as fancy, but it’ll save your back!)

      Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Hahaha…I’m trying to get the crazy mint to take over at least a PART of my yard. I LOVE mojitos!

      Reply

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