My old employer used to send me regular care packages: comfortable sweatpants, fancy candles, 1000-piece puzzles, and the like. It wanted our homes to feel as homely as possible, particularly during the pandemic, when there was so little to do outside. One of the packages consisted of three miniature plants. They were contained in pots no larger than one or two inches in diameter. I remember reading the names in the small informational booklet provided, and then promptly forgetting them after throwing it away. One looked like a grass, tall and spindly and blade-like, with several wooden rods inserted vertically into the soil to provide support. One was a short stubby plant, with small teardrop leaves, green and ribbed on the top, and deep red on the underside. It occasionally sent up slender flowers, soft and fuzzy to the touch, although it had no partner to mate with. And one, I later discovered, was a pilea, or a Chinese money plant. It grew so quickly under my care that I deceived myself into thinking I had a green thumb (It turns out pileas are “beginner plants” because they are so easy to care for.)
The grassy plant died, but the other two are still alive, two years later, and thriving. They have both been repotted, twice, and the pilea has, as its wont, grown several offshoots, which has given its pot a very full, almost bursting appearance. (Each offshoot resembles the original plant but grows at a angle, meaning you end up with a hemisphere of coin-shaped leaves attached to long delicate stems. Pileas are also called “friendship plants” because each offshoot can be separated from its parent and repotted to form an entirely new plant, perfect for sharing with friends.)
I was inspired, and I realized that I had window space for even more plants. Gardening is challenging when you don’t have a garden, but indoor gardening has its charms — temperature control, for one — and my south-facing window, fortuitous in hindsight, makes most growing easy.
I leafed through a seed catalog online and had several seed packets shipped to my apartment, along with a large bag of potting soil. I wanted plants that were not just pretty but also useful, so I gravitated towards herbs: parsley, thyme, oregano, basil, thai basil, and coriander. Of course, I didn’t know the first thing about gardening, and my initial attempts were frustrating. Starting in May, when spring stretches into summer, didn’t help either. From my coriander seeds burst plants that grew rapidly towards the sky, as if they were trying to escape my apartment. They were so thin and sickly that they collapsed within a few days, and were reabsorbed by the soil from whence they came. Of the six pots I started with, only two had plants that developed “true leaves” (the leaves that developed after the initial set of “seed leaves”). I ended up with more Thai basil that summer than I knew what to do with. (I later found out that basil, in any variety, is one of the easiest herbs to grow from seed. My friend who has been gardening for years told me, more gently than he should have, that I shouldn’t be quite so proud of my “success”.)
The other plant that prospered, seemingly, was oregano. I was excited because, unlike most of the others that I’d planted, oregano is a perennial, and I was eager to have a few years worth of leaves for my Italian recipes. With plants, as with most things I suppose, some mistakes are obvious immediately, but others take longer to grasp. I had planted oregano in a small pot — 4-5 inches in diameter, and roughly as deep. When it sprouted, I was so happy to have something alive and growing that I did not notice that my “something” was in fact two things: two different plants, separated by no more than an inch, whose root systems were intertwined and whose leaves grew together, into a tangled mess. I remember being frustrated that my oregano looked nothing like what I saw in pictures or on Youtube. It was scraggly, and its stems ran along the soil instead of upwards, like a proper herb. It seemed to be sagging under an invisible weight, like Atlas without his celestial sphere. It kept creeping, in a sickly way, towards my window, and I would have to trim it back until the cycle repeated again.
When it comes to plants, more is not always better. In fact, it is often worse. One technique in gardening is to plant several seeds per hole, not just a single one. If you’re lucky, and each one germinates, you might end up with two or more plants, each competing for light and root space and nutrition. But both cannot prosper, only one can. As Faulkner said, you must “kill your darlings”. By letting both plants grow I had made each of them weaker. And by putting them in such a small pot, I had, unwittingly, set them up for failure from the beginning. Oregano thrives when given lots of space and sunlight; I had put a plant meant for big things in a pot meant for small ones. I eventually decided to kill it and start afresh. My latest attempt (pictured at the top, just before I culled one of the seedlings) looks much better, even if these are still early days.
The more rewarding plants tend to be the more finicky ones. Thyme and oregano both hate having “wet feet”, and will grow weaker if they are overwatered. (I feel like there are two types of plant parents, overwaterers and underwaterers, and I am certainly in the former camp.) Some plants, thyme included, prefer poorer soil. Some are the opposite, and need rich soil and a fertilizer boost. Some prefer full sun, 6-8 hours or more per day. Others prefer partial shade or even indirect sunlight, like that from a north-facing window. Even within a species, each plant has its own personality. Some seeds germinate, and others do not. Some sprouts are spindly, others robust. Some plants perpetually look like they are about to fall over, and others are so sturdy that nothing can topple them. The art of gardening is to juggle all of these rules in your head at the same time, but to also be cognizant of their exceptions. It is, most of all, an exercise in paying attention. Of course, some plants, like pileas and basil, do not require much attention, and will profit equally well from care and negligence, but they are the exceptions. Most plants seem to require a level of understanding on the part of their caretaker that I find fascinating. It is as if they need to know that you understand them, and, until that condition is met, they cannot prosper.
I have a plant a friend of mine gave me as a loan. He told me to take care of it until he returned from Canada. He planned to sojourn there for two months, which eventually became four months, and, by the time he actually got back, his wife was so pregnant that he had more important things to think about. I still have that plant 2 years later. It’s a miracle I haven’t killed it. It is an elegant looking vine that has draped itself around a large succulent, something like an agave. He gave me both plants, the vine and its host, and told me that they take care of themselves. He had both of them “trained” (his word, not mine) to consume from an “auto-waterer” — a hose inserted into a large water jug, and that used capillarity to pull water from the jug whenever the plant was feeling thirsty. Of course, a series of mishaps ensued. The auto-waterer became clogged at one point, without my noticing it, and the plant’s leaves began to develop yellow spots, shrivel, and fall off. I fixed that problem, and the plant sprang back to life, gloriously. When it is healthy, it produces striking white flowers that open up ever-so-briefly before closing and withering. I managed to grab a picture of one of them in full bloom (which lasted just a few hours), and, to date, it is still my proudest gardening accomplishment. Later, another disaster struck. Some of those yellowing/dead leaves had fallen into the vine’s pot, and the auto-waterer had gone berserk, leaving the pot perpetually wet and the soil with decaying matter in it. A fungus (I think) set in, which caused almost all the leaves to die off over the course of a month. I eventually took drastic action, cutting much of the rootball out, and repotting it into another container, and the plant sprang back to life again. My latest incident is an infestation of spider mites, which have been leaching juices from the leaves of the plant, causing them to develop unsightly brown spots and, in some cases, completely wither away. Each time my vine suffers a calamity, you can see it in its body. Woody stems, branches that lead nowhere, off-green leaves, an unsightly pallor. Plants are resilient and regenerative, but not so much so that they can hide their scars. In that respect, they are much like us.
Plants require space — a large enough pot, enough spacing between them and their neighbors, and so on — but they also require time. For me, this is the hardest part. I am an impatient person, and I suspect my impatience has only grown as I’ve gotten older. I want things to work immediately, and I frequently get frustrated when they don’t. But with plants, a sufficient amount of attention, dispensed steadily, is far better than an excess of attention, given sporadically. Plants will do as well as the care you give them when you are at your worst, not your best. Even a few days of neglect might destroy months of painstaking work.
I realize this essay has been different from most of what I write, but I find it enjoyable to think about the ways in which we breathe life into these delicate creatures, but also about how they reciprocate: how what we learn from taking care of others shapes ourselves in turn.