The Winter of My Many Plants

When plant terrariums first became a thing my roommate at the time, Sylvia, was building them as Christmas gifts. She said, “Britt, I will give you one but you have to promise not to kill it.”
 “I promise,” I said. Then I killed it. The ex-terrarium’s beautiful glass orb is now in Pete’s office. When he asked me if he could have it to put work plants in I said, “Of course.” He was helping me out by taking it. I didn’t have to deal with all that old sand.

Plants were Pete’s thing. I appreciated them, but he kept them alive. This winter, after having some trouble with a cactus and a fiddle leaf fig, I asked if I could take over the watering. Since then we’ve gone from five plants to 21. Once I understood that I could love them, it got maternal. I am a mom without children, a dog owner with no dog, and so I have plants.

I always thought I couldn’t take care of plants because I didn’t know how. But generally they come with instructions, and plus, there’s Google. I also bought a great book called, “What’s Wrong with My Houseplant?” And my favorite store in town runs a plant advice blog, so I email them sometimes.

One of the things I’ve learned about human relationships is that you have to learn how to love a person in a way that feels like love to them, not just the way that feels like love to you. With Pete I have learned to ask him questions. That’s what makes him feel loved. It’s not what makes me feel loving, though it’s started to. And the reverse is true for me. Where before, if I had a problem, he started immediately with questions until I cried, and he was confused. He’s learned to first hug me and tell me some version of: Your problems are real. He wants information; I want validation.

I had to learn this lesson fresh with my plants. Two weeks ago we woke up to sun in Portland. It was triumphant. Feeling generous and clever I moved all of our plants to the sunniest spot in our apartment, an ottoman in front of an enormous west-facing window. I was cheery at work thinking about them. It felt like love to me. But for most of them, it was an assault. It fried the leaves of our Song of India, and our bird’s nest fern. To those plants, love means indirect light, humidity, and staying put.

When Pete was in charge, plant care one of the chores at which he excelled. He is incomparably good at chores. He unpacks immediately from work, folds his sweater into the closet, and carries clean Pyrex into the kitchen. He does dishes promptly after eating, and makes the bed as he exits it. He’s the one who soaks beans, or says it’s time to do laundry. He cleans the fridge as he puts away the groceries. He regularly lubes his bike chain. Watering plants was a task to be done, and so he did it.

For me, it’s totally different. I melt for children, animals, and now, plants. Plants. Who knew?

When I used to nanny I worked for a family that had a hierarchy that went baby, then dog, then cat. The cat had been their first love and first pet. Then they got the dog, which demanded more attention and offered more reward. And then, of course, the baby — a product of their actual bodies, the obvious favorite. That cat was pissed. I was working one day when it reached out and scratched down the face of the baby.

I wonder if I am in for the same upheaval. Sure, I love my plants now. I fertilize them and check for visible roots, and prune problematic leaves. But I am aching for a dog, and when I get one, what of my plants?