As a life-long camper, eco-poet, and lover of all critters, I might think of myself as a sort of nature girl. But, hard as I try,I cannot keep a plant alive. I love nature on the macro scale: mountain vistas, sandy cliffs, tall trees. Yet, when it comes to individual plants—their names, what helps them thrive— I feel utterly mystified. What do they want? What do they need? Why won’t they just tell me, like my cats?
Most plants I interact with tend to die or, at least, wilt. But I have found myself out in the garden just a bit more under the constraints of the pandemic. I’m happy to report that I’ve learned a few things, though my yard is still mostly a mess.
Here is a little relative wisdom I’ve picked up while gardening this spring during quarantine.
- Loving Nature ≠ Having a Green Thumb.
I have caused the untimely death of so, so many of my leafy green friends. In our house, my partner keeps the plants alive and I just try to ignore them and/or admire them from a safe distance (active intervention on my part has often led to even more dead plants).
But, when we bought our house, I discovered there’s a little more freedom for me to try and coax out my green thumb when it comes to our yard. We already have some azalea bushes that bloom fiercely every spring, with or without my help, which makes them seem somewhat impervious to anything I might try. Things outside feel sturdier, more established, and less easier for me to mess up.
The yard is a large and mostly-forgiving canvas. It pretty much waters itself. I never have to worry if enough sunlight is being provided. The care taking is straightforward: just weed, mulch, and prune the existing beds. I can figure all of that stuff out, using just a few YouTube videos.
So far, none of our existing outdoor plants have died! Some of them have even grown taller and more robust! I count this as a win. Even though I only really did the bare minimum, it’s nice to see that it was worth doing.
- Get Dirty, But Also Get Some Gardening Gloves.
At first, you might set off on your yard-work journey wanting to commune with nature, to become one with the soil, to really get your hands dirty. This likely will feel good for about fifteen minutes. Then, you’ll be rifling through your basement for a pair of old work gloves and dragging a ratty towel outside to kneel on so that you don’t get a rash.
Save yourself some pain: outfit yourself with a solid set of gardening gloves. It can be hard to find gloves to fit my tiny elf hands, but Clipglove came to my rescue this spring with a pretty pink pair of lightweight gloves that have now become my gardening go-to.
For the casual gardener, the last thing you need is a few tools. Go for the sturdiest set you can find; I have had too many trowels separate from their handles while attacking a particularly stubborn pokeweed plant before because I didn’t want to invest in solid tools. This trowel-knife does double-duty and these pruning shears (again Gardeners.com to the rescue) are built for smaller hands (yay!) and designed for clean cuts that will help keep your bushes and blooms healthy.
- Plant What You Eat and Eat What You Plant.
Unsurprisingly, I am much more dedicated to caring for plants that are more than just a feast for the eyes. Some fruits and veggies can be intimidating, but there are lots of edible delights that are hearty enough to survive almost anything, even with a plant murderer like me taking care of them.
You can buy baby herbs, like basil, cilantro, and parsley to plant alongside your flowers. Just trim off the tops as they get too tall. Mint does great in a flower pot (or else it will take over your whole garden). You can even plant the white, wispy-rooted stalks of green onions back into the ground to cultivate your own endless supply of that mild, tasty herb.
Rosemary is a notoriously strong plant that needs almost no care and always looks green and refined, no matter what the season—definitely a good investment for someone new to the care and keeping of plants. Plus, having fresh rosemary around all year will dramatically up your roasted vegetable game.
- Get to Know Your Neighbors.
On one side of our little suburban plot of land, our neighbors are intentional, purposeful gardeners who take pride in their yard. Their driveway is lined with crepe myrtle trees and their backyard is like a jungle oasis. Fruits, vegetables, and flowers grow abundantly under a careful eye. They have a lawn mower and an edger and four very industrious children.
They have Chinese Maples planted just along their fence line that drop blossoms and seeds into our yard. Now we have Chinese Maples. They have a squash plant that wends and weaves its way into our yard, resulting in not one, but two free, delicious, home-grown squash that we got to keep (!).
They let us borrow their lawn mower when ours is on the fritz, and have graciously never mentioned it when it becomes clear how badly we need to borrow their lawn mower (we’re talking knee-high grass here people—don’t judge me).
Find your equivalent of the kind, knowledgeable neighbors who grow squashes and Chinese Maples. Every street has them. Most people who are fanatical about gardening want to share their knowledge. And their excitement is contagious
- Ivy Grows. And Will Keep Growing. Make Peace with That.
On the other side of our yard, our older neighbors have left their backyard to succumb to English ivy. It has crept over their swing set like a slow-moving, leafy-green wave, claiming every square foot of the backyard, clinging to the wood pile, the deck, and to the fence that divides their three-quarters-of-an-acre from ours.
We beat back the ivy as it slowly winds its way through our chain link fence. My husband cuts it away from the trees, so they don’t suffocate and turn into widow-makers. I rip it out, by the roots, from our azalea bed. It takes hours and leaves my hands aching from gripping and pulling on the cable-like vines.
At the end of the day, as we survey our yard, we are proud, but that pride is tinged with dread. Because the ivy is relentless. I feel I can already hear it growing, reaching its small, curly tendrils through the fence, taunting me.
Which is why I respect those, like our neighbors, who choose to simply let the ivy be.
When it comes down to it, most folks take care of their yards because it makes them happy. There is a joy that comes from connecting with nature on the micro level instead of the macro, from seeing it all up close, from covering your hands in soil and helping something grow.
A dear friend recently gifted me a strawberry plant that I feel I can take care of at this point, given that it can simply sit on the stoop in its pot, happily soaking up sun and rain. She said it would start bearing fruit in a week or so. I guess we’ll see.