Monday, September 29, 2008

On Sentimentality

After a year at the greenhouse job, I'm sort of sitting around trying to think of what I've learned from it all, how I'm different than when I started. And I think the biggest difference, besides having twice as many plants at home as I did when I started (from 208 to somewhere in the low 400s, in a year), is that I'm a lot differently emotionally attached.

I was going to say "a lot less emotionally attached," but that's not quite it.

It used to really pain me to have to throw out a plant. Consequently, I wound up with a lot of plants that didn't look so great, and my plant area looked like hell, and none of us were happy. And it was usually my fault that they didn't look good: not enough light, erratic watering, or whatever, so I'd get that special pang of guilt every time I looked at them too.

The reason for keeping them was always basically the same: they were Special Living Beings With Feelings,1 and I didn't want to see one looking at me from the kitchen wastebasket. The agreement I had with the plants then was that they could do anything they wanted to do, and I'd do my best to keep them alive, and if they wanted to branch or propagate or offset or whatever, they could, but I wasn't necessarily going to encourage it: it had to be their idea. Nor did they have to look presentable if they didn't want to. Alive, or not, those were the choices. Which is an easy enough policy to have when you only have 20 plants2 and are just starting to learn what you're doing.

When I started working in the greenhouse, I had the same impulses: if a plant was even remotely sellable, I'd let it hang around. I probably wasted a lot of time, initially, on trying to groom and tend plants that nobody was ever going to buy. If I had to prune something back and wound up with a ton of cuttings, I'd try taking them home to see if anything could be salvaged. Brought home tons of cuttings, and sunburnt plants, and plants that got too dry, leaves that had been torn off but might sprout new plants, plants that were fending for themselves on the greenhouse floor, anything and everything. Anything to save them from going in the trash, anything to give them one more chance. And it's not like this didn't sometimes work out.

But over time, this has changed. Plants, I'm realizing, are replaceable.

So that is the particular kind of sentimentality that I'm over. I no longer feel guilty when I have to throw away a cutting that didn't work, a geranium that got too wet, a Dieffenbachia that got leggy and ugly and unsellable. Part of this is just because I've hit, then exceeded, the practical limits of how many plants I have room/time for (and then exceeded that number over and over and over). Part of it is just that the sheer volume of failures, over the course of the year, makes it impossible to mourn every single one. But also:

When you're an amateur collector of houseplants, every one is special and every one was, in a sense, grown just for you, and since it's a special one, with a unique bond to you, it's not replaceable, so you're responsible for keeping it going. Or at least that's the fantasy, that's part of what we're selling.

When you deal with plants eight hours a day as part of your job, unpacking box after box of eerily uniform plants, and then come home and water plants for another three hours, they are no longer automatically special, unique beings. It's taken a lot of time to get used to that, actually, that we could order a box of twelve whatevers and have them all look more or less exactly the same when they arrive. It wrecks the illusion of uniqueness and specialness.

I used to, when I bought a plant, bring it home, repot, water it in, and then wipe all the leaves off with a damp paper towel. It was a bonding thing. Now, I don't bother to clean them up (unless they're very dirty -- that gray crusty stuff that plants' leaves have on them when they arrive from the growers is the bane of my existence3), I don't repot until it's really necessary, and we take more of a so now you're here. Live if you want to, kind of approach. The survivors are rewarded, the casualties are mourned or not depending on how big of a mistake the whole thing seemed to have been. Sometimes plants are restarted, sometimes I realize I never liked it that well in the first place.

My point being that I no longer feel obligated to keep a plant around just because its a Special Living Being With Feelings. It may also be a Special Living Being With a Death Wish, a Special Living Being With Mealybugs, a Special Living Being That Wants to Piss Me Off, or a Special Living Being That's Just Not That Into Me.

The line that keeps sticking in my head is one from Louise Gl├╝ck in The Wild Iris (again), from a poem titled "Early Darkness:"

How can you say
earth should give me joy? Each thing
born is my burden; I cannot succeed
with all of you.
Some of them fail. For one reason or another, despite my best efforts, I cannot succeed with all of them. So I've learned not to take it personally.

I see these same thought processes and patterns sometimes when people bring in plants they're having problems with: often the most practical solution is to throw out the plant and buy a new one,4 which I hate to tell people. I especially hate to tell people this when the plant in question is something they got from a loved one's funeral, which it seems is often the case. And I understand, I do, so I don't usually wind up saying that quite so bluntly. (People have feelings, whether their plants do or not.) But -- even when there are things to be done, plant owners are not always willing to listen. Cut it back to the ground, rip off the weird side growth, cut off the flowers, slice the root ball in half with a knife, prune it back hard, spray it with soap / pesticide / rubbing alcohol / water – a lot of these sound too drastic, too risky, too painful, to inexperienced plant owners. And I get that, too, having been there once. But even so.

And I frequently find myself explaining to customers that plants don't actually have feelings, or that if they do, their perspective on things is so alien that it's useless for a human to try to understand. If somebody ripped my arm off, I'd be pretty upset about it. Unambiguously so, even. (Try it and see. Or better yet, just take my word for it.) Take a cutting of a plant, which looks a lot like the same thing, and it suddenly becomes a weird question: are they upset about losing the "arm," or happy about reproducing? You'd think happy, given that reproduction is what they're all trying to do5. But are they hurt, even briefly, by having a branch cut off? Who's to say. Our emotional intuitions just aren't going to work, when it comes to plants. For all you know, your houseplants may not mind being debudded or pruned, but completely lose their minds with worry every time the air conditioning kicks on, every time you turn a light off, every time you open the oven door, every time a butterfly flies past the window. No way to ask.

So I'm okay, now, with cutting plants back to the ground, throwing plants out, leaving them in cramped little pots, or whatever it is that used to feel like abuse.6 And, conversely, I get a lot more frustrated when I talk to someone on the phone who says that their Ficus tree was dropping lots of leaves and dripping sticky stuff on the floor, so they gave it a bunch of fertilizer to help it out. The intentions are good, but they're thinking like people, not plants.

This de-sentimentalization of plants is a weird feeling. There's a bit on pages 212-13 of Flower Confidential (Amy Stewart) where she's talking to a PR person at the Dutch flower auctions, and Stewart asks whether she ever brings home a bunch of flowers for herself, just to enjoy. The answer is no, that once upon a time, her ex-husband had, but that it got to be excessive:

"No," she repeated. "My ex-husband is a buyer on the auction clock here. When we were together, he would bring me so many flowers! Everything that is too old, he can take home."

"And you got tired of getting flowers?" I asked.

"It was too much. The house was filled with flowers. It was unbelievable."

I was trying to be sympathetic to this point of view, that a husband could bring his wife too many flowers. "I guess if he's just bringing you flowers he got for free, it's not the same," I said.

"Ja," she said. "It was terrible. It was just not nice anymore."

Dispensing with certain impractical warm fuzzies is fine, as far as it goes: if it helps me take care of the plants better, if it's what brings in the money, etc., then okay. But I don't want to reach the point where plants are "just not nice anymore." I mean, so far so good, but I can see how it could be an occupational hazard.


Photo credits: Pictures used in this post were mostly old pictures of my own that I made more abstract with the "Cutout" filter in Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0. This seemed more appropriate to the post than a bunch of random realistic pictures would have been.

1 Not that I would have thought at the time that it was likely that they really had thoughts and feelings and stuff, just that I'm frequently tender-hearted that way.
2 I know, some of you are going to read that and think, only twenty? Only twenty? All I can say is, when you go from 15 to 400 in two years, you have to do a lot of upward adjustment of what a "reasonable" number of plants is. I doubt I could cut my collection back to twenty now even if my life depended on my doing so. Hell, I couldn't even pare the number of plants in the room in which I am currently sitting down to twenty. (If the spreadsheet is correct, there are 68 in here with me. In fairness, that's an exceptionally tough call: most of the plants in this room are here because I like them better, since this is the room where I spend most of my time.)
3 Or maybe just one of the primary banes. In the top 20, certainly, up there with cheese, unexpectedly stepping on cold wet things in bare feet, my inability to be independently wealthy, and mealybugs. Oh, and the failure to become a supervillain. Which I'm still working on my application to the Evil League of Evil.
4 And I'm not saying this because it's in my personal interest to sell plants. It is frequently the case that if you let a plant go downhill long enough, you're just never going to restore the plant to its previous glory, not without relocating the plant to Florida. And Florida might not be enough, either, if the plant is really suffering. Or sometimes, with certain insect issues, the amount of time and effort it would take to bring the plant back -- two hours of Q-Tips and rubbing alcohol per week, two $7.99 bottles of spray insecticide, relocation to a quarantine area -- is greater than what it would cost you to just start over with a new plant, from a time-is-money perspective.
5 All plants, I firmly believe, are utterly devoted to one cause, and one cause alone: eliminating all other plants and animals (except possibly for a pollinator or two) from the planet, so they can have all the land mass, all the sunlight, all the carbon dioxide, entirely to themselves. Some plants are more up front about this than others. In the end, it's all going to be dandelions. Or prickly pear. Or purple loosestrife. Or kudzu. Something like that. You just watch.
6 One exception: there are a couple pink Anthuriums of mine that I've had since January 2007. They've gotten really tall and sprawly, and both people at Garden Web and WCW have told me that it's okay to cut them back and re-root them. So far, I haven't been able to bring myself to do it. It's not that I don't think it'll work. The idea just kind of freaks me out. I don't know what my problem is.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Mr. Sub, very enjoyable read, as always. You are much more sentimental than I am for sure. I look for ways to elimate the non performers, there's a lot of plants out there waiting to come live here.

I could not leave a comment on your post about winning the blottie, blogger and wordpress hate each other, so here's to you and many congrats on your win!


Anonymous said...

Great post and perspective and an enjoyable read, as always.

Anonymous said...

I agree, great post--one that really spoke to me. You've reached a point in a relatively short time that it has taken me about 15 years to reach. I've had houseplants off and on for about 35 years, but only the last 15 years has been continuous. And I admit I have been a tad bit obsessive during that time.

I've never been a plants-have-feelings kind of girl, exactly. Plants have a fascinating life right out here in the open, so they really don't have a need for a secret one. It was more like every plant (including each of a gazillion cuttings) has potential and I owed it to them to help them reach it. But it took me years to realize that certain "cruel to be kind" procedures, like hard pruning, should be part of that mindset. And even more years to realize that potential or not, I didn't have an obligation to try to root each and every one of those gazillion cuttings.

When I started outdoor gardening I learned that nature can be very profligate in its propagation efforts--I have outdoor plants that produce thousands of seeds every year. Foxglove, as an example, comes readily to mind. Yet relatively few of them go on to germinate. If nature can toss away that many seeds, I can get rid of a few cuttings without guilt.

I have fewer plants than you do. About 300 in a fairly large house and I don't have physical or psychological room for more, even though there are still plants out there that I covet. (I am in awe of you, with 400 in an apartment.)

I even had a very brief "it's all too much" period last year, lasting a month or two, but I just kept up with the watering, and fell in love with my plants all over again.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't believe that plants think, but I do believe that they feel, and feel each stem chopped off or part pruned back. I always cringe when I bring out the pruners. And I, too, tend towards "a live and let die" houseplant policy, which means that mine lurch on until they lurch no more. However, if I had to spend three hours watering my indoor plants every night, I suspect an all-points Terminator policy would go into instant effect. Yikes!!! Great post, and I love your illustrations. As for one plant taking over the world, though I think kudzu and poison ivy are both strong condenders, really, it's gonna be a grass...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Having to downscale a large, sprawling garden into a 4' x 8' balcony space taught me how to sift the seed from the chaff so to speak. If it isn't growing, it's compost. :-)

mr_subjunctive said...


Yeah, the "I owe the plant to help it reach its potential" is a more concise and accurate description of the feeling. It seems such a shame to toss out a two-gallon bucket of Philodendron cuttings just because I have no immediate use for them. That kind of thing.

I do wonder sometimes what people imagine my (our) apartment to look like. I've posted pictures of parts of it here and there, but I've never actually done the full photographic tour. Maybe I should. It doesn't seem so terribly outrageous to me (To me, they don't count so much if they're small, so thirty three-inch pots is no big deal), but then, it's been a gradual process.

(The biggest problem with it is that there's not enough room to display them all properly: I have a lot of plants I like a lot, but I never actually see them because they're stuck behind something else, because that was the only place where the temperature and light and height would all come together properly.)

our friend ben:

It's not three hours every night. Maybe 9-12 hours a week, which can all happen on a single day or can be spread out over four days. Depends a lot on my (unbelievably irregular) work schedule.

Benjamin Vogt said...

A little sentimentality is very healthy, especially toward natural objects / organisms. I mean, we need more of this, maybe then we'd be less apt to bulldoze and suffocate our earth, and see how that leads to suicide. Maybe. I think we all need repeated centimental ecnounters with pets, houseplants, rocks, whatever; just once might make us hard (and not in a good way), unfeeling, and uncaring. But like you say, too much can be bad, but like you say, too much can be good. All I'm saying is be sentimental, but don't be whacko about it like some person with 100 cats.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great read. As many of us are bringing in plants this really hits home. I find it to be an addicting game-trying to figure out the care of each plant and what it takes to make them healthy. And the ones that you can't quite figure out take more of your time. Maybe that's why it is hard to throw them away. What really makes it hard for me is when I hear others say how easy it is to grow the plant that I am failing with. I recently got rid of all of my babies and it has been such a joy to be less cluttered and to realize that I quickly got over the initial shock of giving away something that I really enjoyed watching grow up. But I must admit I still think about that wonderful pearl young pup that might not make it!

Anonymous said...

first off, sterling blog. i just read the chapter in Luther Burbank's Method and Discoveries that describes his '$10,000 bonfires' of plants that didn't live up to his standards. pretty draconian stuff, but he got amazing results.