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On Brown Thumbs

Posted in Projects, Waxing Philosophical by unboundpage on August 23, 2010

I have met very few household projects that I couldn’t tackle after some amount of self-education.  However, I must confess that I have a grotesquely bad record with house plants.

My mother had a sizable collection in and around the house I grew up in, and managed to keep the vast majority of them not only alive, but relatively happy.  I, on the other hand, nearly managed to kill off the aloe vera she sent off to school with me.

Were it not for the valiant efforts of one of my best friends and suite-mates, the poor thing would surely have shriveled and died on the windowsill over my bed.

That said, when my parents moved out of the aforementioned house, I had to beg and plead with my mother just to get her to take the indoor plants (she has an impressive collection of African violets – mostly gifts from her over-eager children), and so I was left with the daunting task of rescuing as many of the outdoor plants as I could.  I brought with me four small kalanchoes (leaving another half-dozen that were too big to transport), that poor old aloe, a particularly stunning begonia given to us as a gift from a friend I was particularly sad to leave behind, a cactus-like spiny thing that hurt like hell to handle but looked really cool, and the remnants of two Christmas cacti we’d been killing off for a year anyway.

When I got them here in October, all were doing tolerably well.  I pulled them in for the couple of freezes we had during the winter, and they thrived in the nice long, mild spring.  Then summer hit.  The strong-ish wind and blazing heat prompted me to pull the plants in to the slightly shielded end of my porch.  When the plants started looking wilty, I made a point of watering more.  Then they all started dying on me.

The Christmas cactus was, bafflingly, not the first to go.  One of the kalanchoes just shriveled up and died before the cactus lost the last of its pale, pitiful color.  Once I finally admitted that there was nothing more I could do for these dried shells, I decided to take advantage of the now-unused pots.  One of the other kalanchoes was looking pretty pitiful and I realized the pot it was in was no longer draining, so it was transplanted to the pot its dearly departed sibling had last occupied.  The cactus-y thing took the larger pot recently vacated by the actual cactus.

It was during this transplant that I made a particularly startling discovery.  You see, I’d assumed it had long outgrown its pot, but I hadn’t realized just how much:

Turned out the damned thing was filling the whole pot and still growing like crazy.  As I put it into a pot at least double the size of the one it had previously occupied, I realized that I was likely going to wind up with a whole lot more of this unpleasantly poky plant.

It’s been about two weeks since the replanting effort.  The poke-master is looking a little unsure of itself around the bottom, but otherwise seems just as defiantly perky as ever.  The kalanchoe, however, is rapidly deteriorating.  I loosened the soil tonight before watering.

Then I had a brainstorm.

I looked up the care of kalanchoes online.

I’ve been doing everything wrong.

They want lots of sun and very little water.  Basically, they like to be ignored.

Then I wondered what I should be doing with the aloe.  Same deal – more sun, less water.

I’m failing at plants.  Hard.

Maybe I’m doing right by the Sir Pokes-a-Lot.  After about fifteen minutes browsing pictures of first cacti, then aloe relatives (it has a cute little long-stemmed flower like aloe vera), I finally land on Gasteria, of the family Asphodelaceae.  As best I can tell, my little monster is a Gasteria bicolor.

…which also likes lots of light and very little water.

I am a miserable failure at caring for plants.

In a last-ditch effort, I look up my big, beautiful begonia, which has been varying from perky to very wilty, apparently at random.

It is a Superba Cane-Stemmed Begonia!  Begonias like attention!  They like to be fed!  They like to be pruned!  They… still don’t like to be watered much.

I will not be defeated.

I now have a new project:

I will be leaving the plants out in the sun and wind tomorrow, in the hopes that they will dry out quickly.  Then I will very carefully monitor their progress as I don’t water them.

I will stop failing at cultivating plants.

The way I see it, this is not a matter of innate talent. This should be a learned skill.

If I can figure out how to bake gluten-free, care for a tiny monster of a puppy, use a soldering iron without burning a finger off, and do basic accounting, I can learn to grow a few healthy house plants.

…I’ll let you know how it goes.

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