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