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My Plant Bitch Era
Growing things helped me feel sane and productive when I was actually neither
I was surrounded by plants growing up, but I never thought I’d be a plant person.
We had an enormous lawn, which meant that my dad enlisted my siblings and I to help maintain it, which means I was constantly mowing the goddamn grass. Dad would divide the rolling green monstrosity into “squares” and I would dutifully push the mower around, spiraling in until I was doing a kind of basketball pivot around a vanishing strip of longer grass— one square down, what felt like dozens to go. We had a riding mower, but I wasn’t allowed to use it. Blessedly, mowing season north of the 45th parallel never lasted more than four months before the frost, and then the snow, and then the mud.
We also had a huge vegetable garden. During my childhood, I shelled more peas, snipped more beans, dug more potato mounds, and shucked more corn than entire mid-sized suburbs combined.
My mother had flower gardens— gardens, plural— where she grew gladiolas, tulips, peonies, hollyhocks, clematis, petunias, impatients, etc. She had so many flowers she probably paid for braces for the child of the local greenhouse owner.
I lived out most of my twenties in Chicago. I could barely take care of myself, much less tend to plants of any kind. It’s a miracle I didn’t kill my cat. I once had a boyfriend who had somehow miraculously turned one of those Trader Joe’s basil plants into the biggest and lushest basil plant I’d ever seen, a basil plant that supplied so many leaves that you could make a heaping batch of pesto with it and you’d barely even notice a difference in the volume of leaves. He left it with me after we broke up. Because I knew that I was the party who had been The Wrong One in the breakup, I tried to keep it alive as a form of penance, but it withered in my care. Eventually rather than prolong the inevitable, I put it out back and let it die with the frost. In my mind I was putting it out of its misery. Years later, when we were both living in New York City, we met up for coffee and closure, and I confessed that I’d killed the plant. It felt like a weight off for me, but he didn’t remember it at all.
I didn’t have a yard in New York, either. New York City yards are for people who have casual monocle amounts of money or who are incredibly lucky, and I am neither, and so it never even occurred to me that I could want one. My last place on 112th St got barely enough direct sunlight every day to keep a plant alive, but I optimistically tried to grow a couple of plants anyway. They were in the process of dying when I abandoned ship (and coast) to head west.
I met my now-husband less than a month after I moved to Los Angeles. When we first started dating, he lived in a first floor unit with a big private front deck set among a dreamy garden so thick it nearly obscured the street. The garden was full of the most extraordinary plants– palms, succulents, jade trees. I later learned that this was because the unhinged elderly woman who lived upstairs had stolen plants from Huntington Gardens during her volunteer shifts there. She died not long after Josh and I started dating, and so when he moved out, we grabbed a few of the plants the woman had stolen and parked them at our next place. I wasn’t about to drive all the way to Pasadena with them.
Then pandemic hit, and everybody including and perhaps especially me went insane. I had nothing to do but day drink and obsess about growing things. I’d kept the crazy woman’s stolen plants alive up until that point, and took that as a sign that I should grow more stuff. We didn’t have a yard at the time– only a little strip of dirt, and so I bought a few cheap garden boxes and filled them with edible things that the internet swore would be difficult for me to kill. I started amassing herbs, wrestled my Dracena from the verge of an over-watered death (she is still alive now and she’s thriving), and obtained the world’s most prolific pothos. Josh bought me a trio of potted bromeliads for our anniversary. I grew peppers and rosemary. I killed more basil.
We had a baby. We moved again. The new place had a front yard that had functioned primarily as a space for the kids of the previous tenants to play, but didn’t have a ton going on in terms of biodiversity. I took that as a sign to treat the thing like a big dirt lab. Last spring and summer, our yard looked like absolute shit because I was doing unhinged stranded-at-home-mom-of-newborn things like spreading poppy seeds around, dragging garden boxes from one corner of the yard to another, and outfitting the roof of the garage to grow tomato plants. Because I’d been successful at growing peppers before, I bought an absurd number of baby pepper plants, including a habanero that produced peppers so hot that I once cut an apple on a cutting board where I’d recently cut a pepper and for a second after I bit the fruit I thought that I might have to call an ambulance. I tried to fill some of the patchy areas on the lawn with more drought-friendly low-lying lawn cover, cute little succulents that Lowe’s sold by the square yard.
But last summer was brutal and dry, and most of my plants didn’t survive Southern California water restrictions, even though, for a period of time, I was watering them with all of the scrounged, recycled, and gathered water I could get my hands on (I put a bucket below the place where our air conditioning unit drips condensation and was using that to water the outdoor plants. I felt like I was on the planet from Dune.)
My bushes died. My jasmine vines browned. The little ground covering succulents browned. Bugs ate the fragrant California sage. Our tomato plants produced a few rounds of fruit, but then the heat smothered them. Not even the zucchini plant could survive the triple-digit September. By the end of the year, all I had to show for all of my efforts were a few dead twigs sticking out of the ground, enough hot peppers to kill a professional football team, an inexplicably thriving parsley crop, and several pots of flower corpses. Bleak stuff.
Seeing the brown wreckage of 2022, Josh suggested we seed the lawn with grass and simplify our lives. I understood where he was coming from, but I am anti-grass lawn, for environmental reasons and for my own bitchy reasons.
I have a baseless but correct-feeling theory that the idealized American lawn as a construct might be a post-WWII corporate ploy designed to prop up companies that manufactured war and farm machinery and pesticides in a country that was no longer engaged in military action and hosted a vanishing number of family farms. How does a war factory survive when there is no war? Everybody needs their own little tractor and irrigation supplies and a lab’s worth of chemicals when they’re trying to grow a non-native, water-guzzling, non-flowering plants that must be kept three inches long at all times as a way to outwardly signify their commitment to be the most ardently and successfully conforming man in town. The worst person you know probably has a great lawn. Perfectly manicured grass lawns are a boomer scam! Fuck a grass lawn! (Side note: If we are ever drinking together and I bring up how much I hate lawns, that’s a sign that it’s time for me to wind it down.)
As fall ended, I couldn’t bring myself to throw away all of the dead plants that me and the sun had teamed up to kill, and so I sort of lined them up in our driveway like a graveyard. I had a couple pounds of wildflower seeds I’d never used, so I spread them over the dead patches of dirt, the ashes of my gardening dreams. We spent the last weeks of the year away from home. I assumed when I got back, that even more plants would be dead.
I assumed incorrectly. Between December of 2022 and January 2023, it started raining. And it kept raining. And one day when I was taking the dog and baby I noticed that the twig bushes were sprouting little green leaves, the dead tomatoes had resurrected themselves, the sage was sprouting again. The jasmine, which I was positive had died, was alive. A supposedly dead lavender plant: alive. A pot of brittle mum corpses had grown a tiny baby mum plant, which is now so big it’s almost bushy. Over the next months, nearly every plant that I thought was dead came back. It was like they couldn’t bear to miss this once-in-a-century rain. All of the vegetables I’ve planted this season are not even the least bit dead, and I’ve barely had to do anything. I feel like a teacher who just had a “bad” class of students and now finds herself teaching the best group of kids she’ll ever have.
But the biggest surprise of all were the wildflowers. The seeds I’d haphazardly thrown around had started to grow. Now, the front half of our lawn is a mini-superbloom— poppies and all. Tiny little birds hang out there. We’ve got butterflies out the ass. Families walking by our house will stop and look at it. Some people take photos. It brings me incredible amounts of joy that I had no idea a yard or garden could bring, all those years ago, pushing a mower, pulling weeds.