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houseplants and optimism

a close-up of the rosemary plant flowering in our kitchen

rosemary flowers

There exists a concept or idea of something called a green thumb, something that some people possess and others do not. This verdant digit is said to allow certain individuals to ensure that the plants under their care survive and even thrive, while those without such a gift inevitable kill their vegetative charges. Sometimes people offer it as an excuse to explain why they don't garden: "I just don't have a green thumb," they sadly explain. Well, I'm here to tell the world that there's no such thing.

As it turns out, plants are much easier to take care of than, say, animals. Their needs are simple: some dirt, and the correct amount of water at the correct time. Sure, you can do all sorts of extra things with fertilizer and appropriately-sized pots, and if you want your plants to grow and spread and produce abundant fruit you might have to read the advanced manual, but for the most part plants are pretty easy to keep alive. Even plants inside the house, where you can't rely on rainfall to water them (or if you can, you have other problems), are pretty easy to keep alive. Anyone looking for proof of that assertion need only consider the fact that I can do it.

Yes, I enjoy gardening, and give the subject of how to grow plants a lot of thought. But those are outside plants and, more importantly, plants that I count on to give me something back in return for the effort I put into them. My indoor plants are another story. To a large extent my care for potted plants through the winter is limited to trying to make sure they can hang on until I can put them out on the porch again to fend for themselves (there's analogy there to be made to my child-rearing theories, but that's a subject for another post...). It takes a full week—or more!—of me walking by a plant and noticing that it could stand to be watered before I actually do something about it. And I've been thinking for, oh, three years or so that the houseplants I have—the ficus and peace lily—really should have bigger pots; maybe this spring I'll get around to it.

my scraggly peace lily, looking unhealthy

scraggly but alive

And yet they survive. Those two aforementioned date back to our time in Arlington, eight-plus years ago, and a few years after that we acquired a lemon geranium from our friend Jo, who was moving overseas. All are still with us, as are our much newer rosemary bush and avocado tree. Which is not to say I haven't had failures: the new rosemary is a replacement for the old one, which passed after serving us for four good years, and I killed a cyclomen we got from church one Easter in short order. But generally plants do alright in our household.

a branch of the geranium touching the ceiling

reaching for the sky(light)

I think, actually, that overwatering kills more houseplants than forgetting to water. I'm pretty sure that's what did in the cyclomen: it was flowering and looked delicate so I wanted to take extra-good care of it, but despite my eager attention and frequent waterings it died inside a month. Certainly, too much water kills plants more quickly than too little, and with less obvious warning signs. As long as you're paying a modicum of attention you can notice a plant wilting, and once you notice you have days to act before the problem gets bad enough to be irreversible. Of course, it's not good for plants to reach the point of wilting—stunts their growth and all, and they may loose a few leaves—but when you're as averse to repotting as I am stunted growth may be a feature, not a bug!

All that is to say, I wish I heard less about green thumbs and not having one. It's an unnecessary excuse, just like tone-deafness for people who don't care to sing. Yes, a few people are tone-deaf, but not many; most just never learned to sing and don't care to do it now. Which is fine, but they should just say they don't like singing and leave it at that, and people who don't want to keep houseplants should just say that they don't want one more thing to have to take care of, or that plants don't belong in the house, or whatever. And if they actually do wish they could grow plants in pots, or sing, the existence of these false excuses is just holding them back. So if you feel like you're tone deaf and lack a green thumb, get a peace lily and sing to it. You'll see that plant care and singing are both a whole lot easier than you may have thought!

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