I am a homicidal plant killer. I never set out to strangle these green lovelies with lack of air or low light; I don’t intend to drown them with water, to stuff them full of high-test plant food like serving up crystal meth shakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I made the ill-fated mistake of plunking a large, bushy type houseplant near one of our aging dining room windows with glass forged long before anyone had heard of the initials UVA and UVB. Within two weeks that plant looked like it had been making out with a lightening bolt.
I try, I truly do. My heart’s in the right place even if my green thumb isn’t.
I have two dear friends who live in Vermont and are avid gardeners. Their beds are the stuff of English gardens, all organized tumbling over and around one another. Stalky flowers towering over gorgeous, plump spreads of flocks and buds that snake low to the ground flush with colorful little faces. Their yard is set to its own time signature with bulbs—irises of every variety, tulips, crocuses, daffodils—giving way to a predictable march of plants that vine and burst like fireworks. And that’s just in the patches in the front yard. It’s egregious.
My reign of herbaceous terror extends to the yard where I have attempted to maintain and cultivate the beautiful flowerbeds established by one of the previous owners of our house. I work in them the way others work in a triage center—tending new victims emaciated from poor soil, clawing their way out from under weeds, servicing others clinging to life, literally dying on the vine. My Vermont friends came to see me one Saturday in the summer, looking forward to touring the “gardens” I had told them so much about. I walked them around the balding patches where tufts of plants stood around moodily like seventh grade boys at a middle school dance. They nodded, pity nods. I don’t blame them. I nodded myself.
I grew up watching my mother and my grandmother, her mother, garden. My Nona was a stereotypical short, squidgy, sweet, funny Italian woman who baked her own bread, made her own pasta, and often had five pots bubbling on four burners. She gardened much like she made food: a pinch of this, a handful of that, about so much of this other thing. She just seemed to know which plants needed to get “pinched” and which ones took the best in rocky soil or thrived up against the side of the house. There were no Latin names for anything in our yard, which is probably why I nearly got vertigo the first time I went to the garden center searching for things like Bloodroot, Lady Slippers, and Poor Man’s Weatherglass.
Both my mom and Nona had a Jedi-like way with plants that I simply do not have. It’s worrisome. What am I missing here? Am I cold? Uncaring? Is it because I don’t talk to them the right way or at all? Should I play them Mozart or Charlie Parker or Frank Zappa? I suspect I’m a disaster and that this is one of those metaphor-for-life situations taunting me. After all, there are badly cultivated patches in my life, places where I’ve had every legitimate intention of growing something beautiful and robust only to end up with something stunted, something less than what I know I am capable of nurturing. The harder I try the bigger I fail, which is gardening’s ultimate Zen joke at my expense. The more badly you yearn for something, the further it skids just out of reach.
Stupid, wise ancient Earth with its stupid wise, ancient…uh..wisdom.
I contemplate a basil plant in the last throes of life. It did well outside in the mild weather with the strong, summer sun chocking it full of energy. It gifted us with a lot of leaves for fresh pizza and salad. I stalled as long as I could to take it inside, knowing it would spell its doom. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I whispered to it as I brought it inside and tried to find the sunniest spot in the room for it to live out its days. It wasn’t much, but sometimes that’s the best you can do and the only way you know to make room for grace to sprout.
By some sheer stroke of luck or divine plant providence, this impatient lived a rather jolly life on our porch all summer. She must have made a deal with the horticultural devil. In the background: the innocent basil, blissfully unawares his days are marked.