August 20, 2012

A Canuck in Kantuck: Happiness in a houseplant

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — It’s Tuesday morning so I’ve just spent the last few minutes going around the house watering the plants. It’s something I do every week at this time, and it’s a little ritual that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly started to relish.

In our house, Sir Peter wins the low-maintenance prize for plants, in large part because he gets almost no attention at all. For the past six or seven years, Sir Peter, a tropical croton, has lived in my stepdaughter Gabrielle’s bedroom in a red pot whose drainage hole has been blocked since purchase. Since she has never had a pet at our house — except for one year when we came home with the hamsters Scamper and Rascal, an ill-conceived plan from the get-go — Sir Peter is her companion, whom she, at once, loves deeply and blithely ignores.

Poor Sir Peter lives on a thin sliver of light that shines weakly through her blinds for two hours in the afternoon and little else. He only gets water when either my husband or I finally scoop him up and take him to the bathroom sink, the soil in the pot so desiccated it’s got a film of salt-like crystals on top.

“Sir Peter is immortal,” Gabrielle then says proudly. “He’s even got some new leaves on him. Tough as nails, that plant.”

I’m not sure if Gabrielle’s brief admiration is enough to keep Sir Peter going or if he’s so bitter about his neglect he survives on resentment alone, but I have to agree with her: He’s one tough cookie.

That is in sharp contrast with the orchid I have sitting primly on the fireplace hearth. I got her as a gift two winters ago after I had my appendix taken out. My friend Dustie, who’s the kind of girl who would not only give you the shirt off her back but the accessories to match, knocked gently on the door and presented me with The Princess. Her blooms lasted for several months until one day they fell daintily away. Knowing only that orchids are notoriously difficult to keep alive, I waited for the end.

But then Gabrielle pushed up her glasses on her nose and informed me that orchids should be watered once a week with four cubes of ice (Bless you, Discovery Channel). Since, I’ve been doing just that and four weeks ago she bloomed again, her delicate white flowers floating in the sunlight.

I’m ridiculously proud of her, have taken pictures of her petals and sometimes go into the living room just to check on her progress. Gabrielle is equally impressed and loudly marvels over her beauty, something that I’m sure infuriates Sir Peter enough to live 20 more years.

Last year, my Christmas cactus died, a long painful passing that I probably let go on for too long. But I had just finished my Master Gardener’s course and powerful green thumb confidence was surging through me like steroids in a bodybuilder. When a mysterious, twisting, bark-like substance started appearing on its leaves, I was Encyclopedia Brown ready to crack the case. But when changing its soil, watering pattern and position didn’t work, I was stumped. I then turned to the Internet for some Christmas cactus advice.

Houseplant people on the Internet are an interesting bunch, I quickly discovered. They’re extremely helpful, chatty and passionate about plants, but they’re not the kind of people you’d want to sit next to at a dinner party, in large part because you get the impression they might only talk about plants. After consulting Ron Smith’s extremely detailed website dedicated exclusively to Christmas cactuses, I wasn’t any closer to solving the problem, and I chucked the plant shortly thereafter.

Throwing out your dead plants is always a strange experience, isn’t it? There isn’t a very elegant way of doing it. I don’t save the soil in case there is some type of fungus that caused the plant to die in the first place, so I just shake it a little and, like a can of refried beans, it slips out, shape intact. I always feel a little guilty and throw out the garbage bag before it’s really full so I don’t have to keep looking at it in there.

Happily this morning, all seemed to be going well in the Baker-Kaprowy ecosystem. As I put up my watering can, I wish you equally happy houseplants and the gentle joy they lend a home.

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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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