I’ve always had plants around, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself a green thumb. I’ve managed to kill many, many plants. I have killed cacti, a bonsai, an orchid, and even lucky bamboo. The plants that have managed to survive and even thrive around our house have done so because they are content with benign neglect, and even these have teetered on the edge of destruction.

These plants have sat half-forgotten on a shelf for at least ten years. At one point they were each about five times as large as they are now, with abundant leaves, and instead of re-potting them and giving them space to grow and the modicum of care they required, I let them languish, unwatered, for long enough that multiple amputations were necessary. I know that they deserve better… but also, they’ve survived without better, which means they get gold stars.

In the past few years, they can thank this plant for reminding me that some watering is due. Placed behind my computer monitor, it’s easy to notice when the leaves begin to droop on this baby, which means that everyone in the room gets a little drink.

We allowed this rubber plant to just grow unchecked. I know we should have pruned it multiple times, and we just didn’t. I am still enough of a plant novice that it pains me to ponder pruning. Once upon a time I worked at a park where my supervisor walked around pruning the crap out of so many plants that my coworker and I were appalled. But just like she said, they came back better than ever. So it’s a goal to work up the courage to get this a bit more under control with some pruning once we get deeper into spring.

For years, my favorite plants were my many schefflera. I just think they’re super-pretty and they’re so, so, so easy. I was even brave enough to prune them, and I propagated numerous babies with the cuttings. Unfortunately, my cats really like to try to eat them, and they’re poisonous for cats. So I had to give them all away. Honestly, these cats are a menace. Our previous cat, Isis, was just way too sophisticated to do silly cat hijinks around the house; she’d just go out and hunt some prey like a badass. Ruth and Dave will eat flower arrangements when they can and dig in whatever dirt they encounter — which is why many of my pots now have citrus peels, to keep them away. It’s annoying.

In any case, the point is that I’ve always had plants around the house, although I’ve never been particularly attentive to them. But now I’m — forgive me! — turning over a new leaf.

It’s basically because of J. One of her personal pandemic coping mechanisms has been acquiring and caring for various plants. Prior to the pandemic, both M and J would get the occasional small plant, especially as succulents came into fashion, and they enjoyed them until they’d gradually kill them. And I’d intend to help ensure the plants’ survival, but I was also busy running around hither and yon. So they didn’t become a priority. Until recently.

In October, J got plants for her birthday. First, I came up with a very clever surprise: a clementine tree. J weirdly loves citrus, and in late summer, one of our missions was to make her room a place that she really enjoyed, because we expected she’d be spending a lot of time there for school as well as regular life. I ended up ordering from Brighter Blooms, which has been fantastic.

J was thrilled with her beautiful baby tree. She was also deeply concerned that she would kill it. I was determined that we wouldn’t kill it, and I set about ensuring conditions would be optimal to support its life. We got a plant light and I assiduously followed directions, acquiring pea gravel and cedar to mix with the potting soil and the sized-just-as-directed pot for when it would be ready for its new pot. It seemed to be doing. . . okay.

Meanwhile, J had received a gift certificate to Faddegon’s Nursery, and she came home with two lovely new plants. She was on her way to transforming her room into a greenhouse. We were optimistic.

Time passed.

By late November/early December, it was clear that things had gone very, very wrong. The clementine tree was suffering. It didn’t look excellent, but also, once we’d gotten it placed and squared away with the plant light, I handed off care to J, and I hadn’t been checking it all that closely. One particularly horrible day it became clear that it was deeply unhappy. J nudged the pot and a shower of curling leaves fell.

This was bad. You have to remember that I’d gotten this indulgent tree gift to buoy my little J’s flagging spirits mid-pandemic. But watching it slowly die would not, repeat not, be good for her mental health. I called the Brighter Blooms plant expert line and came up with a revised action plan. We definitely needed to keep the plant light on longer, because apparently if a plant wants 6 hours of sun, that means it should get double that — 12 hours — from a plant light. Probably J was so worried about over-watering that she was under-watering. And even though the directions had said to wait for some new growth before fertilizing, an injection of special citrus fertilizer would likely help. This was all happening at the same time that we realized that J was “massively deficient” in vitamin D, so I joked about ensuring that my babies get all their vitamins.

Meanwhile, as the leaves dropped off the clementine tree, we discovered that J’s snake plant from Faddegon’s had brought along stowaways: fungus gnats. So. gross.

Let’s put this all together, shall we? J was run down and cranky because she was malnourished, and meanwhile she was sharing her room with a dying tree and dozens of teensy flies. It was a low point.

So I kicked it into high gear, ordering citrus fertilizer and fungicide and plant-safe bug spray. The snake plant went into quarantine in M’s room. I decided that I was going to conquer plant care once and for all. These plants would start getting the attention they so richly deserved.

Along with more attention, J and I have developed a serious Plant Habit. J’s Christmas wish list included the kind of macrame hangers I remember from my childhood as well as a subscription from Succulent Studios, which has delivered super-cute succulent babies.

Meanwhile, I cannot resist impulse-buying plants from the produce section at Hannaford. . . .

. . . or when J asks me to take her and her friend back to Faddegon’s. Yes, I am still irritated with them about the pests, but that place is a plant wonderland.

I started this post feeling vaguely optimistic about our prospects for Plant Success, and then later that same day, J informed me that I had managed to over-water one of her succulents to death. I know, I know: succulents don’t need much water at all. You’re right. But, see, I’ve only ever killed plants due to severe under-watering, so it makes sense that I would over-correct. J has now reasserted control of her own plants with their many different needs. Hopefully, between the two of us, we’ll move into a spring in which the deaths will end and everyone can thrive. That’s the kind of energy we all need this spring.

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