March 6, 2008

Island gardening -- or how to plant stuff in sand while losing your mind in the process


Normal women have shoe fetishes.

They will go into a store flat broke and come out with three pairs of shoes they don’t need and a hefty credit card debt that will follow them after they die. Ask any normal woman, and I promise you that she owns at least 30 pairs of shoes, including five pairs that she actually wears, and one pair that is actually comfortable, which is also her ugliest pair and is usually some sort of loafer or bedroom slipper shaped like an animal. Don’t try to understand the logic behind owning dozens of shoes that are unwearable, this is just one of those things that is inherent in all normal women.

But as I’m sure we’ve all figured out by now, I am by no means normal. Instead of investing hundreds of dollars in shoes, I have somehow funneled all my money into a different obsessive fetish, on the complete opposite end of the fetish-spectrum.

My fetish is plants. And this is an unfortunate curse, as I am attached to a black thumb, which causes plants to die slowly and painfully.

In the fall, I move all my potted plants indoors. In the winter, my home looks like a rotting rainforest about to be bulldozed, as I have multiple plants in all shapes and sizes and in varying stages of death, strewn about the home in a haphazard fashion based on wherever they will fit. I have literally kept an African violet that I just had to buy in the refrigerator for two days simply because I didn’t have room for it anywhere else. (Of course, the African violet died because it was in the refrigerator which it was not used to, because apparently Africa is a warm place.)

My cats love this, by the way, because it gives them an opportunity to kill dozens of plants, beating me to the punch, and forcing me to clean up after them in the process.

But as spring inches closer, my poor long-suffering plants are set free from their indoor prison with cat-torturers and moved to the outside porch to soak up the sun. Naturally, this does away with the remaining survivors, because as much as I like to believe that starting in January, it’s warm enough for them to be outside, this is never the case.

So spring rolls around, and I have the happy task of investing in a whole new crop of plants, which, subconsciously, I think I was kind of hoping for anyway.

How to purchase island plants

The guy at the plant store loves me.

I think when he sees my green jeep pull in, he says a silent prayer of gratitude since he’s about to make enough money to send another kid to college.
And I believe the most important thing to remember in selecting a plant is not to listen to anything plant experts have to say. If I go into a plant store and see something pretty, it’s coming home with me. So what if lilacs don’t like sand or aloe shouldn’t be planted outside, I’m buying them anyway.

But before you think I’m crazy, remember that normal women do this with shoes too. They’ll go into a store, the shoes won’t fit and they will have a water blister after wearing them for 30 seconds, but sure enough they’ll leave the store with the shoes wrapped up because they were cute and/or on sale.

Anyway, when you are about to purchase a plant or 12, you actually should take time to ask the experts a few questions about the plant, so you can validate spending an exorbitant amount of money on something you don’t really need.

And this is how a typical plant-buying conversation should go:

Me: “I like this orchid. Do you plant it in the sun or shade?”

Plant store guy: “Um, that’s an indoor plant.”

Me: “Ok, shade it is. Is it salt tolerant?”

Plant store guy: “Not at all.”

Me: “That’s great. So it’s good in island weather, but can you plant it in sandy soil?”

Plant store guy: “No.”

Me: “I’ll take it.”

Boyfriend: “Hey, that orchid costs $45 and we need money to buy food.”

Me: “Go wait in the car.”

     See, it’s just that easy, and if you try to ignore experts hard enough, every plant will suddenly become compatible with your outdoor island environment.

Getting ready to plant
If the plants I just purchased survive the ride home, it’s time to get them into the ground. This requires a little bit of forethought, as there are some supplies you’ll need before you can start planting.

Make sure you have gardening gloves, a trowel, a small bucket, wood scraps, twine, a shovel, and a bottle of wine. (I’ve found that Riesling and Chardonnay work well, but you may want to try a few varieties beforehand to see what works best for you.)

First, try to dig a hole in the dirt with the trowel. No matter which spot in your yard you pick, the trowel will ultimately run into some large stone or rock, and will bend. Spend 15 to 20 minutes cursing and unbending the trowel. Then pick a new spot, and repeat.

Next, take a break from trying to dig a hole, and gently remove plant from pot. Shake off any loose dirt and gently brush dirt from the roots with your fingers. Dig through remaining dirt with your hands and break up any clumps. Then suddenly remember you should have put on your gardening gloves first. Put on gloves. Once the plant is removed, marvel at how you got more dirt on your clothes, hands, and face than there actually was in the pot.

Now it’s time to get back to digging the hole. Throw away bended trowel and retrieve shovel. Pick a different spot in the yard, and try to dig. Once the shovel gets stuck on something, place both feet firmly on the top of the shovel and jump up and down. Curse vigorously. After several minutes of jumping on shovel, remove dislodged shovel from where it was stuck, and marvel at the stream of water now pouring out of your half-completed hole.

Finally, put gardening supplies away, ask boyfriend to fix water line you just broke, and go inside and drink bottle of wine.

Different types of gardens

Let’s pretend for a moment that I can actually grow stuff. The truth is I give up after a couple weeks, and my boyfriend is left to try to revive whatever’s left. The good news is that he is awesome at it. I have seen him wander around the yard, looking at my dying little investments. Then he’ll point at one, and the skies part and sun beams start dripping down on him, and a faint chorus of angels is heard in the distance, and then, Voila! Instant live plant. (Although according to him, he brings them back to life by watering them and stuff, which is ridiculous.)

Anyways, thanks to my green-thumb polar opposite, every year I get to spend time deciding which types of gardens to plant and where, and there are many different choices available:

Vegetable garden: A vegetable garden is a great and expensive way to laboriously spend months trying to grow one vegetable that you could have bought at a farmer’s market for a fraction of the price. It is also an awesome way to get more bugs in your yard.
These bugs are especially unique in that they are larger and weirder looking than any other bugs that typically inhabit a suburban area. Take the  tomato hornworm, for example. It is a gigantic fat insect that is lime green with matching green innards and is known for digging into tomato plants and sucking the life out of them. The hornworm moves in packs, with lots of hornworm friends, and can be spotted partying it up on the leaves of your favorite and best performing plants. The only way to get rid of them is to destroy the tomato plants so they will get bored and wander over to your neighbor’s house to see if they’ve got any good plants they can party on.

Flower Garden: A flower garden is similar to a vegetable garden in that it is tremendously expensive, but unlike a vegetable garden, a flower garden serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Flowers are there to look nice, smell good, and distract attention away from your ugly house.
Take mine, for example. I haven’t repaired my roof from the last hurricane. I have a rusty wheelbarrow, two dryers (yes, two), and a giant telephone cable spool tucked away subtly in the front yard, and after years of threatening to throw my rotten malfunctioning printer out the window, I finally followed through. (And, damn, it felt good.) Yet, somehow, I labor under the delusion that my three-foot flower bed will somehow hide the monstrous junkyard that I call home sweet home. But you know what? The flower bed is actually the nicest part of my entire house.

So how do you grow a flower garden? Well, basically you just carefully plant the seeds or baby plants in your yard and wait 4 to 5 months for the next soundside flooding to destroy them, usually days before they were finally going to bloom.

But there is one way to ensure that your flower garden is perfect year after year, and that is to buy plastic flowers at Wal-Mart, stick them in the dirt, and never allow anyone to come close enough to your house to figure out they are not real flowers. It will work, because chances are the visitors will just be looking at the two dryers, giant spool, and broken printer pieces anyway, and decide to avoid your home altogether.

The give-up garden:  Known for its simplicity and easy-to-grow foliage, the “give-up garden” is comprised of pennywort and those painful Virginia creeper vine-thingys that take over your entire yard and work their way up the porch. This is usually the garden I end up with, after all my other gardens have failed.  I am tired of mowing, I have run out of money for new plants, and essentially I just plain old give up.

Now you might think that my bad luck would, at some point, dissuade me from continuing to trek down to the plant store every weekend to stock up on new little victims. This is never the case. Remember it’s called a plant fetish, not a hobby or pastime, or anything that can be misconstrued as something enjoyable.
But with every new plant that inevitably becomes mulch, I find that I gain a new-found resolve to try harder, so much harder, to become the green-thumbed botanist I know I have it in my heart to be.
Plants are my passion, my joie de vivre, and the more I try to make those little plants flourish and thrive in my sandy front yard, I know the better my chances are of one day having a beautiful landscaped home that I can be proud of. All it will take is persistence, patience, and a lot of hard work.

Oh, the hell with it. I’m going shoe shopping.    

(Joy Crist does her gardening in her yard in Avon.  We don’t know where she buys her shoes.)


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