Saturday, May 17, 2008

I Get [Imaginary] Letters

Imaginary Reader1 writes,

Dear Mr. Subjunctive,

I've noticed that even though you claim to be learning about annuals and perennials and all that, you never do any plant profiles about them. Houseplants are nice and everything, but let's see this education you've supposedly been getting already.

Imaginary Reader

P.S. Despite my insinuations above, your blog is the Bestest Blog Ever!!!1!!1!1!1!!eleven!!1!1, and if you ever wrote a book -- which, by the way, you should do -- I would totally buy, like, five hundred copies. Of the hardback. And then read each copy one at a time. And buy five hundred copies for each of my friends.
Gerbera jamesonii.

Well, thanks, Imaginary Reader. I'm blushing, I am. The reason why I continue to neglect the outdoor stuff is the obvious one: I still have nothing to say beyond ooooo, purty flowers. Don't misunderstand: I'm developing enthusiasms and attachments and interests, but I'm still not trying to grow much new stuff at home, by myself,2 which is a different enough thing from growing it at work that I think my work experience kinda shouldn't count yet. So I'm not getting any experience that strikes me as bloggable. I mean, I trust most of the readers who could possibly care already know as much as I know about Impatiens, which is that you don't put it in sun. Unless it's the kind that's supposed to be okay in sun.3 In which case maybe you can put it in sun.

And, while it's true that doing a plant profile almost always results in me learning something, and therefore, maybe I don't actually need to know much before beginning the profile, with a lot of these plants, I already think about them a lot more than I would really like to. To return to the Impatiens example: it's everywhere at work; I can't get away from it. I hate it. Fucking Impatiens. Maybe after it's all gone and I can look back nostalgically, maybe then I'll be interested in thinking more about it, but for right now, I'd rather have some kind of complex dental surgery.

Thanks for writing,



Photo credit: me. "I Get Letters" inspired by the same feature at Cactus Blog, who apparently don't have to resort to making letters up.

1 As in, I made up this letter myself so that I could answer it. I hope this doesn't disillusion anybody.
2 I did buy some coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), though I think I intend to keep it inside, and I also got three six-packs of Portulaca for the outside planters. WCW sold me on the Portulaca by saying that they re-seed themselves every year. I would, no doubt, grow more than that, if my "yard" wasn't 2.75 ft2 (0.26 m2)spread over three different planters.
3 We have some newish varieties of a New Guinea-type Impatiens, that are claimed to be okay for full sun. I can't really get a read on whether we believe this to be true or not; WCW seems maybe a little skeptical. They are, in any case, doing okay in the greenhouse so far, in full sun, so maybe.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pretty picture: garbage

Not a fan of spring so far. It's hot, and everybody's stressed out about one thing or another, and there's always stuff that needs to be watered or moved or whatever. It's awful (though summer, I'm positive, is going to be worse: the heat, if nothing else. And it won't only be the heat.).

However, on the bright side, our garbage is looking fabulous:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

And the Mousie goes to. . . .

Picture created with

Faire Garden has won the Mouse and Trowel award for Best New Blog, which PATSP was up for. I suppose I'm okay with that, though I'll admit to being a little disappointed. The other results are here.

Issue with Blotanical

If I used to come by and "pick" your posts a lot, and I don't anymore, it's not you, it's me. Or possibly it's Stuart. I have recently been having trouble loading any of the 200-most-recent-post lists. I mean, I can still do it, but I have to try to load the page maybe fifteen times before it'll come up, and fifteen is like an average: sometimes it's been more than that.

I occasionally have trouble loading the other pages too, though usually with them all I have to do is hit refresh once and they'll some up. That doesn't work for the 200-post lists, though. Is anybody else having this problem, or have any suggestions for how to fix it? It only started happening to me in the last two or three weeks.

The Wild Iris

I can't believe I didn't post this sooner. A whole seven months of blogging and I didn't even think of The Wild Iris, a book of poetry by Louise Glück, until now. Shameful.

Book cover. From, who hopefully won't object.
The back cover credits the original photo to Anna Watkins, 1861.

Now calm down. It's only poetry. It's not going to hurt you. This was actually kind of an important book to me around 1996 and 1997.1 I mean, I re-read it endlessly, for one thing. But besides that, it turns out that it's also notable for being an example of somebody else anthropomorphizing plants, a good fifteen years before I started the blog.

So the deal is this. The book is 63 pages long, and contains 54 separate poems. The 54 poems are of three types:

1) The poems spoken by the plants to a human. These have titles bearing the names of the plants doing the speaking. ("Trillium," "Clover," "Ipomoea")
2) The poems spoken by the human (there's only one that does any talking, which is not necessarily Louise herself but it doesn't necessarily hurt if you assume that it is), which are given various titles, but especially either "Matins" or "Vespers," and there are several of each of those.
3) The poems spoken by God to the humans. (Louise's God is apparently not interested in talking to the plants. Or if he does talk to the plants, Louise was not permitted to eavesdrop.) These have titles which refer to time in some way, either of the season or of the day. ("Clear Morning," "Midsummer," "Early Darkness")

I'm a little hazy on what the fair use rules are for poetry, whether I could reproduce a poem in full without getting threatening letters from lawyers. At the same time, I love "Witchgrass," and I love it as much for the way it progresses and builds as for anything else, so just quoting part wouldn't show what I'm trying to show. In the event that I get scary lawyer e-mails, the same poem is also at this link, so, um, go there if there's a big "[redacted]" below. Anyway.

Panicum capillare, "witchgrass." Photo by Richard Old,


comes into the world unwelcome
calling disorder, disorder--

If you hate me so much
don't bother to give me
a name: do you need
one more slur
in your language, another
way to blame
one tribe for everything--

as we both know,
if you worship
one god, you only need
one enemy--

I'm not the enemy.
Only a ruse to ignore
what you see happening
right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure. One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day
and you can't rest until
you attack the cause, meaning

whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion--

It was not meant
to last forever in the real world.
But why admit that, when you can go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together.

I don't need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you were here, before
you ever planted a garden.
And I'll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

It's not for everybody, but it's accessible, and it seems like the sort of thing that somebody who likes this blog would probably like. Benjamin Vogt will back me up on this. has used copies starting at $3.45, which even considering that you'll pay about that much for shipping and handling, is still pretty darn reasonable. I mean, it's worth twelve cents a poem. And a new book won't run you much more than that. Also there are public libraries, if you just really don't want to risk any actual money. Just think about it, okay?

Also: Jessica Schneider sucks. She knows why.


1 I even met Glück at one point; she said something nice if not enthusiastic about a story I'd written. It's not worth explaining how and why we were meeting. Maybe later. The book itself was published in 1992: as with Amy Winehouse, I was running a bit behind the times.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pretty picture: Bracteantha bracteata 'Sundaze Flame'

These took a long time to get their act together and bloom (or maybe co-workers were de-budding them when I wasn't paying attention: the greenhouses were full of surreptitious de-budding of all kinds of things for a while in the spring, for complex reasons), but they're interesting all the same. I believe these are the flowers used in the heinous practice of gluing flowers onto cacti, though it looks like there are some intermediate steps between growing and gluing, like bleaching, dismembering, dying, and reassembling. Maybe not. I wouldn't know.

We didn't have a lot of problems with these, except for the fact that they hung around forever and ever and then sold all at once last week. Not sure who bought them all, or why, but they're all right. The color is nice. And anything that doesn't collapse at the slightest water imbalance, and tolerates sun, is okay in my book.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Work-related: Shore Flies

This spring, we're lucky enough at work to have not just one, but two different kinds of pesky flies that swarm around the tables when someone picks up a pot. There's the standard-issue fungus gnats, which undergo regular population spikes and crashes but are always present on some level or another, to the point where I don't even notice them anymore, unless I happen to inhale one. Which is unsettling. But then besides the fungus gnats, there's something else:

They're called "shore flies," and they're brand-new to me. They look basically like a baby housefly (Musca domestica), but they never get any bigger than about fruit-fly size (about 1/8 inch, or 2 mm), and, in fact, look quite a bit like fruit flies in general, though fruit flies are less goal-oriented. (Fruit flies tend to just kind of drift from objective to objective; shore flies seem to have ideas about where they're headed and why. Or, to put it another way, fruit flies are English majors; shore flies are engineering majors. I'm fairly certain that fungus gnats don't go to college.)

We haven't had a problem with these before, since I've been working in the greenhouse, but now there are suddenly many of them all over. Or, well, not all over: they congregate in certain very specific spots on the tables, anywhere that water collects in the capillary mats, and then someone will pick up a plant and a cloud of flies will erupt from the table and alight on his/r arm. They're worst around some of the geraniums, for reasons which will be explained.

They're also completely harmless, to people and plants, but I have yet to get a chance to explain this to any customers, because the customers don't complain about them to me: instead, they complain to the front counter people, who then tell me that we need to spray for fungus gnats. Like, every single person who works the front counter told me, individually, through various means (including one note with a smiley face drawn on it, which pleased me and irritated me at the same time), a couple days ago. It's actually the shore flies, not the fungus gnats, but I suppose the customers can be forgiven for not making the distinction, customers not usually being the best pest identifiers.

(One lady a few weeks back asked us to spray a plant she wanted to buy for whiteflies before she took it. Like to have given us all heart attacks. Turned out that what the plant really had was fungus gnats, and she just didn't know the difference. You'd think that people wouldn't call little brown-black flies whiteflies, on the theory that whiteflies are probably called whiteflies because they're white . . . but let's not get sidetracked.)

Anyway. So since I don't get to explain this to the customers, I'll explain it to you. Shore flies eat algae and rotting plant matter, which it just happens that the ideal conditions for growing plants in a greenhouse (lots of light, warmth, water, and fertilizer) are the same as the ideal conditions for growing algae and generating a lot of rotting plant matter. Add in that our tables aren't perfectly level, and so water tends to pool in spots here and there, and then factor in the fact that there are geraniums on all the tables, and geraniums in hanging baskets above the tables, the flower heads of which are constantly shattering and sending debris down into the small pools of fertilized water, and what you have is a recipe for shore flies. The good news is that they'll go away as soon as we close up that greenhouse (probably about a month away). The bad news is that I'll hear about this over and over until then, and any customers I explain it to won't believe me and will think I'm lying to try to convince them to buy buggy plants.

You know, I was perfectly happy with winter. We didn't have nearly enough winter here. I just don't see the purpose of this "spring" business.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Getting Away With Things

It's a fact that you can do everything "wrong" for a plant and still have it survive, or even do well sometimes. Place it on a radiator, give it only a teaspoon of water at a time, never feed, put it in a pot with no drainage, store it in the hallway closet six months out of the year – whatever form of abuse you want to include. If this hasn't happened to you personally, then the odds are that you've watched in envy as someone you know did all the wrong things to a plant of theirs and wound up with a beautiful plant to show for it.

Scindapsus pictus

So what's going on here? Why bother learning the right way to take care of a plant, if any moron can just come along and do what they like and get the same results?

Here are some possible answers:

1. The plant is new. This is the usual reason why plants in public places tend to look okay: there's an interiorscaping company involved that replaces plants that start to go downhill. The place where I work does a (very) little of this. Sometimes people, especially people with more money than they can really use, just have a certain amount of money budgeted for replacing plants that go bad: we have a few customers who I suspect are serial plant killers, who don't learn how to take care of their own plants because they don't need to. And, you know, that 15 minutes once a week for watering and picking off dead leaves is a killer. And sometimes you have to touch actual dirt with your finger. Ew.

2. The plant has a twin. This is sort of an alternate theory 1: it's not common, but sometimes people will go to the trouble of getting two plants and then rotating them every so often, so that one or the other always looks good. Basically this is being your own interiorscaping company, and it's a very good idea if you have the space to pull it off. A lot of plants will do pretty well under adverse conditions, at least for a couple weeks, if they really have to, especially if they're getting good conditions otherwise.

3. The plant's not actually doing that well. Some plants have the ability to look fine right up until that final moment when they collapse entirely. Spathiphyllum spp. are pretty good at this: after enough drought-induced collapses, they say fuck it and give up. I've also seen cacti hold their shape and color really well even though the interior was completely hollowed out by fungus. A healthy Ficus benjamina with 250 leaves, that also had 250 leaves yesterday, looks more or less the same as a Ficus benjamina that had 500 leaves yesterday but lost half of them to spider mites overnight (assuming that all the dead leaves have been cleaned up), but the first plant is in much better shape than the second. (Grooming can make a big difference in how healthy a plant looks, which is why I spend so much time doing it at work.)

Stromanthe sanguinea 'Triostar'

4. You are mistaken about the plant's requirements. This one obviously wouldn't apply to anybody reading this, because we're all very very smart people who do our homework, but unless you can bring home one of every plant and figure out what they need by trial and error, you're going to have to make some educated guesses, and sometimes those educated guesses will be wrong. Sometimes the only way to find out what works is – to find out what works. I myself would never have expected that my Strelitzia nicolais would do well with only a west window for light, getting direct blasts of hot and cold air from a heat / air-conditioning vent to boot, but they have prospered anyway. So now I don't dare move them anywhere else. Is it wrong? Well, kinda: it's not something I recommend that other people do. But if you're the sort of person who would be inclined to lecture me on the importance of keeping this plant out of drafts or hot, dry air, hold your fire: it can't be that important, can it? Really? I mean, the plant lives. Nay, the plant thrives. What am I going to get from listening to you that's better than a thriving plant? Which leads us naturally into . . .

5. Everybody else is mistaken about the plant's requirements. Some of the "care information" that comes with the plants we get in seems, at the very least, kind of suspicious to me, and some of the advice I see being thrown around on-line or in books or wherever strikes me as unnecessarily dogmatic. I don't find, personally, that Anthurium andraeanum or Maranta leuconeura erythroneura have humidity requirements that are all that unreasonable, even though the books say they do. Whether this is because my standards for "unreasonable" are different from most people's, or because I have higher indoor humidity than most people because of all the plants already in my home, or what, I don't know, but whatever it is, humidity for those plants isn't something I worry a lot about. I also find that Sansevieria trifasciata actually needs a fair amount of water during the summer, more than what people usually suggest (though still not as much as new plant-owners want to give), and many "low-light" plants, like Dieffenbachia, aren't low-light plants at all.

6. It's not the plant you think it is. We've already seen, on this blog, Aglaonema pretending to be Aspidistra and Dieffenbachia, Dieffenbachia aspiring to Aglaonemahood, Epipremnum mimicking Philodendron hederaceum, Yucca masquerading as Dracaena, Dracaena imitating Phyllostachys, Pilea and Plectranthus dressing up in one another's clothes, Euphorbiaceae aping the Cactaceae, Senecio in Hedera helix drag, and those are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head. In some cases, these kinds of confusion are even incorporated into the names, whether they're the common name ("split-leaf Philodendron") or the scientific one (Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which loosely translates from the Latin as "oh my god this totally looks like a Zamia but it's not"). Smarter people than you or I have gotten tripped up on plant IDs before. Care for some of these pairs would be more or less the same, but for others the difference between A and fake-A could be life and death. So don't judge unless you're certain on the ID. And then when you are certain on the ID, at least try really hard not to judge.1

Zantedeschia aethiopica.

7. Natural selection. This is kind of like # 1, but accidental where that is deliberate. Say Mr. Hypothetical Plant Buyer ("Please. Call me Hypothetical.") goes to the nursery and just grabs anything and everything that gets his attention: a Yucca guatemalensis, a Chlorophytum 'Fire Flash, a Synadenium grantii, an Aspidistra lurida, a Homalomena 'Emerald Gem,' a Murraya paniculata, and a Tradescantia pallida. He gets them home, repots each one in Miracle Gro soil mix, in an 8-inch pot with no drainage, sticks them right up against a south window, and gives each one exactly one cup of water every Friday afternoon. This is not the right situation for any of these plants, but some will last longer than others. The Chlorophytum will go black from the sun relatively early: it won't die, but it'll look so ugly that Hypothetical will think it's dying and throw it out anyway. The Aspidistra will rot and die at the next winter, if not before. The Murraya will probably hang in there, but it'll forever be dropping leaves, and it's unlikely to bloom; eventually he'll give up on it too. The Yucca will probably rot out and die quickly, as will the Synadenium. The Homalomena will be throwing leaves all the time because it's too cold. But the Tradescantia will probably do okay. And you'll go over to his place and you'll say, oh my god Hypothetical, what are you doing to this poor Tradescantia, don't you know that they have to have drainage, and what is this it's planted in, pure peat, and on and on, and he'll get mad at you and say the plant is doing just fine and he's had it for years and you clearly don't know what you're talking about. Well, you're not wrong, but he's not going to listen to you, because he doesn't realize that the other six plants he bought should also have survived, because he's forgotten that he ever had them.

8. Two wrongs make a right. There are a number of ways this one can work, but it's easy enough to see, I think. If the pot has no drainage, maybe they don't give much water at a time. If it's on top of a radiator, maybe it's also in a cold draft. If it's not in as much light as it needs, maybe there's an artificial light that's on eighteen hours a day. A cactus without enough light might belong to an owner who likes the weird etiolated look.2 Or whatever. The plants always want to live, no exceptions. So if they can find a way, they will.

So my point - and I do have one - is that other people's plants are frequently not what they seem. It's still worth finding out what conditions your plants actually want, whether you can provide them or not, whether they seem to tolerate less than that for someone else or not. There really are rules - they're just fuzzy, and sometimes people get lucky, or plan around them, or pick plants with an exceptionally strong will to live. Planning is fine, but for the other two, you probably don't want to rely on luck alone.


Photo credits: Scindapsus, Stromanthe - mine; Zantedeschia - Yun Free Stock Photo

1 Semi-recently, I was asked by a customer to redo a planter she had: Aglaonemas in the center, with Epipremnum around the outside. She apologetically noted that it looked like the Aglaonemas weren't doing so well. Once I got in there and started pulling stuff out, I realized that there was no drainage in this whatsoever (not even a pot, really: the plants were planted directly into a deep plastic plant saucer, and then the saucer was set inside a big wicker basket and filled with decorative moss), and so of course none of it was doing well: it was being overwatered to death. I told WCW I was having to kind of struggle against the impulse to be angry at the customer for doing this, and I was actually even more angry to be replacing the abused plants with more of the same, which were then going to suffer the same fate. WCW knew the feeling I was talking about but didn't have any advice for me about how to deal with it, other than to say that I could maybe try some strong hints to the customer when I gave the plant back to the effect of, you know, it's okay to let these dry out a little bit every once in a while. Which I was not, then, able to do, because she picked up the basket at a time when I wasn't working. My point being that I understand that sometimes it's difficult not to judge.
2 Hold your fire! It's not like bonsai is natural and healthy. Or topiaries. Or grafts. I'd find it hard to look at, admittedly, but if somebody thinks their etiolated cactus looks cool, and it's still alive and everything, well, it's their plant; what matters is how they feel about it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

One last bit of bribery: three kitties and a motorcycle

For anybody who's been putting off voting in the Mouse & Trowel awards, just one last reminder that it's almost too late to do so. Voting ends at midnight on May 13th (the site says EST, but wouldn't it be EDT? Or is Colleen in one of those places that doesn't do Daylight Savings Time? And is that the midnight that begins May 13, or the midnight that ends May 13? In any case, it'll be midnight somewhere, on some day, when voting is officially over. Probably somewhere in North America. And it'll be soon. So go vote for somebody, if you haven't.).

Also if you really, really want to vote for Garden Rant, I'm okay with it. I think. Though my houseplants and I are still waiting for an apology. And, frankly, the Dieffenbachias are getting a little angry. Watch your back, Amy. They're not fast movers, but they're motivated.

So but check it out. Three kitties and a motorcycle:

Photo from Caption by Mr_Subjunctive.

Photo from Caption by Mr_Subjunctive.

Photo and caption both from

Photo and caption both from