I have never owned a plant that didn't die. Not once. My personal best on this front consisted of watering a friend’s houseplants while she was away for three days, several years ago. Although the plants survived my brief custody—and although I did exactly as she’d instructed, even going so far as to talk to the plants while tending to them— they looked undeniably worse for the wear by the time she returned. My only other experience with flora up to that point had been another plant-sitting gig during which I utterly neglecting my dad’s coveted bonsai collection for a month, during college, while my parents vacationed in Turkey. His bonsai trees had, since my childhood, received just the kind of careful, close attention their famously fickle species’ require. And while I definitely remembered to walk the dog (three times daily) for those four weeks of house-sitting, my thoughts only turned to the plants on the final night before my parents arrived back home. I jumped out of bed at 3 a.m. and submerged the bonsai pots in basins of water. Their branches were brown, brittle and bereft of all signs of life. I left the plants in the water until mid-afternoon the next day, and then replaced them on their shelves before departing, bracing myself for the backlash that my blunder would surely incur.

To my amazement, my dad never mentioned the plants, and their branches were—through some miracle-- voluptuously green again by the time I next passed through. I considered it a stroke of undeserved good luck, and, determined not to press it, swore I’d never agree to care for plants again. Yet, some time later, my friend was so enthused about her houseplant hobby—and convinced I’d develop a love for it, too—that she took the risk of putting me in charge during those three days of watering… and then bestowed a plant upon me as a housewarming gift when I moved into a new apartment that same year. It was all downhill from there.

She said it was a plant that couldn’t die. It was one of those genetically modified self-sustaining plants that require neither water nor sun on a regular basis to thrive. But left in my care, it was dead in a week. I mean… dead. Even an all-night water-basin soaking couldn’t save it. I’d been hired, as a babysitter, to care for dozens of other people’s children by then, and nurtured starving shelter cats into fat feline lovesluts. But plants? I clearly lacked the touch.

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Yet, when Aaron and I moved in together and made our way to the weekly farmer’s market in our neighborhood, I became taken with the little herb seedlings that some of the vendors sold. I impulsively bought three of them up—basil, parsley and Thai hot pepper plants—and carried them home to our fire escape, proud of myself for stepping it up on the local food front, for choosing to ‘grow my own’. I put the seedlings in ceramic pots filled with quality planting soil. Then I left them out in a rainstorm, and they drowned. They, too, would not bounce back, and I left their remains to dry up in the sun for months on end before removing them. I haven’t attempted to grow any plants since.

But now I’m back (cue ominous thundering?). I’ve raised my own child from a baby to a toddler—clearly, I’m not just a death-trap by default. And I’ve been reading books about gardening to Kaspar since he was tiny. I obviously still value the enterprise. There’s a part of me that keeps coming back to it. When we moved into our house this fall, I surveyed the back yard and decided that it’s high time I got over my cultivar curse… and got my home gardening on.

I can do this, damnit. I can grow plants!

I recently read this book about heirloom seeds, and was fascinated, energized and wholly sold on why home gardening matters. I was encouraged in its early chapters, too, by its promise that growing vegetables is actually quite simple. I feel like I hear/read this a lot from people who garden successfully. But then I get to the later chapters, or to asking certain basic questions, and the whole process turns out to be—in my mind, anyway— dizzyingly complicated. There are soil temperatures, growing seasons, sunlight hours and all kinds of other factors to be accounted for in even getting gardens started. How can this be simple? Then I wonder how one knows which plants are weeds and which are keepers… How does one avoid inadvertently weeding out the plant-babies in a garden bed? Whenever I ask that question, though, the gardeners look at me like, well… like maybe I shouldn’t undertake this project, after all. Still, I want to, and I will. I don’t know much about it, but I suspect that the key to my gardening success will be taking it one step at a time, and really focusing in on whatever step I’m on. Like, learning the basics of watering, for instance. (My hope is that blogging about this will yield advice from you green thumbs in the audience when needed, and inspire the rest of you to garden in some capacity, as well).

Which brings me to step one. Compost! Now this I can do. While I gather the information necessary to embark on planting a garden over the next several months, all of our family’s fruit and vegetable food scraps (plus egg shells, plus some cardboard matter for a healthy carbon/nitrogen balance) will be transformed into rich, nutritive soil by way of a compost barrel in our backyard. (I wanted a worm composter in our kitchen, but Aaron wasn’t into it). We actually started composting a couple of months ago, having noticed that about 90% of our family’s garbage load consisted of decomposable matter. I like that we’re making positive use of what would otherwise just be thrown away. I like that this ‘trash’ is, in reality, the makings of food-growing ‘gold’: high quality soil. I also like that it’s pretty hard to mess composting up.

This appeals to me on a metaphorical level, too. As the new year approaches and I turn potential resolutions over in my mind, I’ve been thinking somewhat differently about self-improvement, goal fulfillment and the stuff resolutions are made of. Bad habits are notoriously hard to break, and attempting to get rid of the parts of ourselves we feel aren’t helpful to us, and aren’t a part of who we’d ideally like to be, seems like the way most of us approach change at this time of year. But how often is that approach really successful? What if we’re all collectively trashing (or attempting to trash) parts of ourselves that could instead be… composted?

In an essay about a traditional Jewish concept known as the yetzer hara, “the evil impulse that is also the source of all creativity and passion,” child psychologist Wendy Mogel introduces the concept with respect to parents’ concerns about their kids’ ‘bad’ behavior. She writes, “the yetzer hara is a warehouse for our curiosity, ambition and potency—it’s the yeast in the dough. Jewish wisdom teaches us that our child’s unique yetzer hara contains the blueprint for her greatness. Our job as parents is clear-cut, if not simple. We are to identify these traits and ‘remove stumbling blocks before the blind’ so that our children’s yetzer hara can be channeled and expressed in a constructive rather than destructive way.”

I suspect that reframing our thinking in this way can be as liberating for ourselves as it is for our kids. Positive change doesn’t have to mean completely ridding ourselves of our perceived faults. It may instead mean identifying the traits that aren’t helpful to us and finding what parts of them might be transformed into something positive. This will likely take time, and the process won’t always be pretty (neither, of course, is compost), but our own ‘yetzer hara’ elements can indeed re-emerge in a new season as the nourishing ground beneath our personal growth.

I’ve decided to reframe my destructive personal history with plants—bonsai incident and all— as a bit of yetzer hara that I can channel constructively in the coming months before spring. As our family’s food scraps devolve back into dirt, I’ll mirror the process in my own evolution into a home gardener extraordinaire… or at least successful beginner. My wintertime goals, with respect to this, are three-fold: I’ll look for lessons in my bygone gardening mishaps, and start studying up on how to keep plants alive. I’m also going to try my hand at growing herbs again, though this time I’ll begin indoors, where rainstorms can’t drown them. Lastly, I’m planning to take on a house plant to call my own. I’m determined not to kill it. When spring finally rolls around, I’ll be armed with the knowledge, confidence and beautifully composted soil to start up a vegetable garden.

Do you have a garden? Indoor plants? A compost pile? I want to know if you’re growing things! Give up your green thumb secrets below!

Anna P.
12/19/2011 18:42

Gardening is easy once you get the hang of it, but it's not always straight forward! I killed plants in my past too, also while successfully keeping pets and children alive. This year I had both flowers and vegetables growing though! It just took practice and asking the gardening store people what to do for each variety. I recommend finding a good gardening center or store and getting the people who work there to help you map out a garden plan. Grow some flowers too. You will not regret it! Good luck and I will be reading along as you find your green thumb.


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