Moreover, my plants know it: they lie down and die right in front of my eyes. I once had a potted palm that thrived on humidity. I placed it in the bathroom and gave it plenty of light. When I showered, it peered down at my naked body like a voyeur. I became self-conscious, and finally gave it away.
My dental hygienist said that plants enjoy poetry and need to be tended to regularly. So, I flossed their stems and began reciting verse. My gesneriads were particularly fond of Keats, while my fittonia was a devotee of Longfellow, but nothing happened. They pegged me as the plant deviant that I was.
Plants and flowers are like pets, a veterinarian once told me when I had admired his yucca tree. “You must care for them as you would your feline.” I placed a bowl of Friskies in front of my schefflera and hoped for the best. The cat became jealous and clawed it to death.
But now, I’m calling a spade a spade and reforming my ways. Each spring, I look out at my sad specimen of lawn and decide to explore greener pastures. This year, I’m educating myself on the intricacies of good gardening.
I went to a local nursery where I tried sounding plant savvy. A kindly looking woman, dressed in appropriate garden garb, greeted me. She was cradling an orchid, stroking it with loving care.
“May I help you, dear?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said meekly, “I want to plant a garden.”
I’ve learned this about garden people: they are genuinely nice. That’s because they don’t worry about the real problems of life. When I get stressed, I have a full-blown anxiety attack. When they become tense, they go outside and commune with nature.
My friend, Mary, is a lot like that. She’s always smiling—constantly in a cheery mood. I attribute this to the fact that she’s a whiz in the garden. Her house is ablaze with flowers and plants, which she nurtured from tiny buds.
“Nice azalea, Mary,” I once told her.
“Thanks,” she said, “but it’s actually an Amaryllis belladonna. It hails from South Africa, and requires deep planting and lots of sun. I’ve nursed it along for months.”
Mary worships at the botanical altar. She doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. Like Mary, I want to be a gardener. I want to raise plants from tiny seedlings into full-fledged “adults” that sit on my shelves in the sunlight looking handsome and healthy. So, when the woman at the nursery said, “Let’s get started,” I followed obediently behind.
“First, let’s address the matter of tools,” she said. “A proper gardener needs the right utensils.” Little did she know that up until now my garden inventory included a knife, fork and spoon.
“We’ll start you off with a round-point shovel for cutting through thorny weeds and slicing sod. Then you’ll want a spading fork for breaking up subsoil. It’s also useful for digging around rocks or lifting compost.”
“I usually employ something even better for heavy lifting,” I said, trying some levity. “It’s called a guy.”
“Dear,” she whispered softly, “real gardeners don’t use other people. They do the job themselves.”
I was also talked into purchasing a pitchfork, a heavy steel rake and a pair of sheep shears. “I never gave a sheep a haircut before,” I had to mention.
“It’s for the grass,” she said. “Very durable.”
After I was completely outfitted like a garden fashionista, we moved into the “soil alcove” wherein lay environmentally suitable bags of earth, as well as pamphlets on various grades of soil, manure and plant nutrients.
Then she got serious. “We need to address the weed factor. Tell me, do you usually have an abundance of weeds?”
“Only in my hair. I consider my hairdresser my weed whacker.”
“Not to worry, I’m here to help. We need to condition your soil. And you’ll need to till.” With that, she tried selling me a tiller, an aerator and a hoe. I settled on an economy-size watering can instead.
“I take it you don’t already have an existing garden?” she pried. “What exactly do you have?”
“Moss,” I explained. “I have lots of damp, green moss surrounded by clumps of funny-looking grass with punk hairdos. And once, I was given the gift of a Wandering Jew. It lasted a week and then suffered a nervous breakdown.”
She looked at me as though I were afflicted with a rare disorder. During the space of an hour I dropped over 500 bucks for garden equipment, seed selection, gloves, a birdbath and, of course, politically correct dirt. Now, I’ve been poring through books at the library. I purchased Gardening for Idiots and have learned all about shade plants versus sunlight flora. I’ve also been hanging out at Mary’s house “dishing the dirt” and getting into heated discussions on forsythia.
“Did you know that there are five species of forsythia?” Mary asked me. “Among the best are spectabilis, suspensa and the heavily flowered variety called the Karl Sax?”
“I know Karl Sax,” I jumped right in. “Isn’t he the famous German psychoanalyst?”
In one week we covered a wealth of topics ranging from rock gardens to plant diseases, mulching, harmful pesticides, and the care and feeding of lawns. I was fast developing a green thumb attitude.
“Let me show you my new Strelitzia,” Mary said, as I breezed through her door one afternoon with a blooming cactus. “Are you familiar with Strelitzias?”
“Of course I am,” I said. “Just last week I ordered two of them stuffed with ricotta cheese and smothered in a tomato sauce with a hint of rosemary, garlic and a dollop of pesto.”
I think that Mary was impressed.
By Judith Marks-White
Judith Marks-White writes regularly for Act Two magazine.