Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005 - 8:30 a.m.
~ and a little pothos led the way ~
My mother didn't know much about raising children, but she could grow plants like nobody's business. Bartering with the welder across the street, she had him build a metal shelving system across one of our kitchen windows and she filled this with cherished plants that soaked up the sun and all the unconditional love she lavished upon them. Her massive jade plant flourished regally on the low coffee table in the living room we weren't supposed to ever really be in. And the spider plant to end all spider plants reached from its perch atop my mother's high china cabinet all the way down to the linoleum, daring us to risk my mother's wrath by playing with its feathery offshoots.
My paternal grandmother loved flowers and filled her side yard and the hilly slope of her backyard with a mix of wild flowers and carefully tended exotics. Fireflies danced like fairies in her gardens on twilight evenings while the grandchildren watched in fascination and grasshoppers sought refuge from our pierced-lidded mayonnaise jars in the perfumed grasses. Potted plants, verdant and having the audacity to smell faintly of earth, dotted my grandmother's formal dining room and equally un-cozy living room. In her bedroom, next to the rocking chair where I was read "The Giving Tree" during each and every childhood visit, grew my favorite plant of my grandmother's. I never knew its name, but my grandmother would let me carefully reach out to touch the plant so I could watch the leaves closest to me cringe away and curl closed and then tentatively reopen once the threat of my outstretched fingers was gone.
My maternal grandfather could look at a plant and it would grow. A happy and automatic gardener, he had bountiful tomato plants lashed to the backyard fence next to towering bushes heavy with roses. Left to his own devices in the backyard, he would kneel, puffing on his pipe, and start poking his hands into the dirt around a plant, his bent balding head wreathed in cherry smoke. String beans curtained the sandbox he had built for me under the back deck and the beans and leaves filtered green sunlight over me while I pushed dump trucks around and formed dirt cupcakes. Shrubs flowered in the front yard and my grandfather's lawn was the lushest in the neighborhood. His aloe plants sat near the kitchen sliding glass doors next to the ceiling-high rubber plant that I knew was real but still had a hard time believing.
My great-aunts and great-grandmothers pickled and canned produce that they actually produced in their own garden. Bell jars and gardening gloves were under every kitchen sink cabinet of every relative's house I ever visited. It stood to reason that I should have been able to make plants grow.
I had a hard time keeping a cactus alive. I know this because I bought a cactus from a nextdoor neighbor at her tag sale and felt the burden of keeping it alive for the next ten years. That poor cactus survived me forgetting to water it for months on end by piling cartons of books in front of it, being cut off from sunlight in a dank basement, and having kittens use it as a litter box and chew toy. I loved that cactus -- can't you tell?! -- but I could never take care of it. It didn't deserve me. It should have belonged to someone who wouldn't bring it outside in August to get some sun on the back porch and leave it out there until the second -- not the first, mind you -- the SECOND snowfall of the year.
It took me a few years after my cactus passed on to that sand-blown desert in the sky to start even thinking about trying to take care of a houseplant again. Super Stop&Shop had a fabulous nursery section and I would gaze longingly at the racks of tiny, leafy plants before reluctantly pushing my cart away. When I finally did succumb, I bought colorful plants -- miniature roses, little plastic pots filled with pink-tinged leaves, yellow-stripey plants. I filled my dark little airless bedroom with these fragile, leafy-little lives and vowed to remember them. And remember them, I did. I watered the hell out of those plants. Every time I felt a little parched, I shared my water with whoever was nearest...or brownest. I thought brown always meant dry, so the brownest ones got extra helpings of icy water to freshen them up! It took me a year of almost weekly foliage funerals to stop buying replacements for the dearly departed. I'm sure that florists and gardeners within a ten-mile radius heaved a cosmic sigh of relief when the silent screams of my tormented plants stopped once and for all.
Another ten years passed and I thoroughly enjoyed the plants that surrounded me...every single one of them a pricey fake. I took pride in my plastic plants. I pointed them out to visitors and bragged what a good plastic plant mom I was as I blew off dust from their brilliant blossoms. It didn't matter where I put my plants -- atop a corner cabinet in the darkest reaches of a room, in a windowless hallway, on a cold windowsill against frosty glass -- because these plants were tough, man. They didn't need no stinkin' water or friggin' sunlight. These were some kick-ass, butch plants.
And then, a real, live plant entered my plastic-filled world.
The company where I was temping had a service come once a month to water and switch out the plants scattered throughout the building. The plant man pulled a wagon behind him as he trundled from floor to floor and office to office, feeding and pruning as he went. My desk, in the front lobby, was his last stop. The plant man picked up the basket on the far corner of my desk, a basket that I only right then realized had had an actual plant in it all month long. Up until then, the plant had just been the item next to my inbox. I watched as the plant man poked around the plant's soil and then unceremoniously dumped it, basket and all, into the cardboard box on his cart. I knew a plant funeral when I saw one!
"Are you throwing that other one out?" I asked as the plant man put a similiar basket with a different plant in it on my desk.
"Yup. Cheaper to just replace them."
Suddenly, I was awash with ten-year old guilt. Wastebaskets overflowing with shriveled stalks, clumps of mummified soil, and papery leaves filled my vision. Maybe I could redeem myself by saving this plant. Maybe I could rectify my plant karma.
"May I...have the old plant?"
And so the plant man put the basket with the defenseless plant in my hands, not knowing what he was probably inflicting upon the poor thing. And at that moment, I didn't know if maybe a compost heap somewhere wasn't really the best option if I was this plant's last hope.
I brought the plant home that night, cradled in my arms as I swayed on the T. And let me tell you, carrying a plant on the T is a surefire way of making friends. You would've thought I was carrying triplets dressed in diamond-studded diapers for all the attention I received on that long ride home. Gentlemen offered me their seats, elderly women patted my arm and told me how beautiful the plant was, and one young university kid asked if he could hold the basket for me. A conductor tipped his hat to me as I held the plant up high through the turnstiles and, for the first time ever, no one pushed past me on the crowded escalator. By the time I got the plant home, I felt as though the entire subway system was...ahem...rooting for me.
Not only did I have the public transportation system of Massachusetts behind me on this green-thumb endeavour, I had the internet just begging me to let it help. Myhouseplants.com, gardenersnet.com, and thegardenerhelper.com were full of photos and instructions on the care and feeding of Phil. (In a burst of ever-so-creative inspiration, I named the plant Phil since I thought he was a philodendron. By the time I realized he was a pothos, the kicky and snappy name had stuck.) I found Phil a safe, bright spot to live in my kitchen where I could see him every day as I made my coffee. I watched Phil's stems carefully and when he seemed less than robust, I gave him a little drink. I tugged dead or yellowing leaves off to let others get more light and nutrition. After a month of sitting on a desk with flourescent overheads as the only light source, Phil took a deep breath in my apartment and thrived with a vengeance. My efforts to care for him properly were rewarded with dozens of new leaves that trailed and curled attractively. I could almost feel the air in my home getting cleaner and fresher.
I now have so many green babies that I've had to be inventive about where to put them all. Asaparagus fern, aspidistra, croton, deiffenbachia,hedara ivy, ficus tree, philodendron, pothos, spiderplant, sweetheart hoya, sword fern, and others whose names I've forgotten live with me happily now. I have some plants in full sunlight, some in indirect lighting and others a little farther back than that. I have one plant near a radiator for the extra warmth in Winter and another sitting in a water-filled dish for extra humidity. I have a watercan can I keep filled so I always have room-temperature water for my plants. I have liquid fertilizer I dilute according to the instructions on the box and dole out also according to said instructions. I have a deep drawerful of nutrient-rich potting soil, stones for proper drainage, and empty pots in various sizes ready for when I feel the need to re-pot one of my guys into a bigger pot to avoid anyone getting rootbound. I have a spray mister that I use at least three mornings a week on the plants that like a little dawn dew. And I talk to my plants, calling them by the names I've given them ("Mr. Ficus," "The Lush," "Baby Fern," "The Aggressive Plant," "Ahhhnold") so they know I love them as I breathe carbon dioxide all over them. And Phil is the Green Daddy Mac of them all, a Pothosian Patriarch, a leafy Moses waving on his green followers with his multiple stems to a better life from his place of honor high up on my own china cabinet.
Maybe I do have a little chlorophyll in my blood after all!