Committing crimes and other adventures at the nursery

My sordid past revealed.

This is an early excerpt from my “yet to be titled” second book. The book will be a series of short stories that cover my gardening history to date. It will run from origin stories to the development of unhealthy obsessive plant love to garden as lifeline during the trials and tribulations of life. I’d love to get your feedback if you would be so inclined.

Claps are good. Even negative claps will be accepted.


Prior to the crime I’m about to admit to in this story, I had stolen exactly two items in my lifetime. I’ll assume the statute of limitations has passed for both since each crime was committed in the early 80’s. I’m ready now to confess to my sins. I may ask my daughter to pass these along to the priest at church next time she hits up confession.

She’s Catholic and I’m not. Long and boring story.

And to my wife, kids, all family members, I apologize for dropping this on you in this way since you weren’t aware of my criminal background. I am prepared for the anticipated fallout. But you get why I did it this way, right? Story ideas Trump human feelings.

If memory serves me correctly, both of these thefts occurred in 1983 when I was 11 years old. I blame my descent into a world of crime partially on peer pressure; all of my friends at the time were years older than me. I had to prove myself if I wanted to keep up with them. A suburban gang initiation if you will.

I also partially blame my parents for Crime #1.

Growing up, soda was never to be found in our refrigerator. It was marketed as “bad for us” and loaded with sugar, which of course made me want it even more. Yet there were giant containers of Pathmark iced tea mix in the cabinets which seems counterintuitive to the “no sugar movement”. But that’s an argument for another day.

Back to soda; specifically grape soda.

I craved that crap like you couldn’t believe. It’s all I ever wanted to drink. If I was so fortunate to be offered it at a birthday party or through a covert transaction in the woods at the end of Oak Ave in Midland Park, NJ, I jumped on that shit without hesitation. It was like crack with the added benefit of a killer purple mustache.

So what would you do if you knew that your best friend had some grape soda in their refrigerator and knew that the family was at the Jersey Shore for the week and knew where they hid a key to the easily accessed and hidden-from-view back door?

Of course you would. I did.

I recruited an accomplice (let’s call him Glenn O) who I subsequently pulled into the fire when I confessed to our breaking and entering a week later during a moment of weakness. I hid from him for weeks to avoid getting my ass kicked. We’re now friends on Facebook and the topic has never been broached.

The scene for Crime #2 was at Kay-Bee Toys at the Paramus Park Mall in Paramus, NJ.

It was our go to for birthday gifts for friends and family of all ages. It’s where I connected the dots on the Santa Claus charade when a certain handheld football game carefully tucked in the bottom of a see-through bag miraculously made it under our Christmas tree.

On this day, I had no plans to commit a misdemeanor when I wandered towards the baseball card display at the very front of the store. My mom walked the aisles with my sisters and allowed me to go off on my own. I was an obsessive card collector and very close to completing the 1983 Topps set through purchasing packs that spring and summer. I remember I had a hand written checklist of the cards I still needed to acquire.

Mets catcher Mike Jorgensen was on that list.

As I leafed through a few random loose cards for sale for 10 cents, I saw him.

Seconds later he was carefully hidden in the sleeve of my long sleeve shirt.

I don’t know why I didn’t ask my mom for ten cents.

While I felt guilty, I kind of felt proud of my bold and illegal move.

I hadn’t told a soul until right now.

As I write this, it’s the last week of the year where I will make my beloved “day-job-lunch-time-trek” to my local nursery.

One last opportunity to score a deal on heavily discounted perennials.

One last opportunity to take selfies with ornamental grasses.

One last opportunity to dream up plant combinations.

One last opportunity to run from the “real” job and pretend I work in garden design.

One last opportunity to record an Instagram story happily revealing my purchases as they sit in the back seat of my Honda Accord and soil the backseat eventually resulting in complaints from my kids who I in turn ignore.

These lunch time visits to the garden center go back over two decades and hold a warm place in my heart.

It’s where I first learned the difference between a conifer and an evergreen.

It’s where I first fell in love with foliage and learned to look beyond the flowers.

It’s where my finely pressed khakis would get covered in mud and would result in stares from coworkers who questioned what I was doing during my lunch hour.

I can’t even begin to name all of the plants I’ve discovered over the years through these trips, but each one of them offered an incredible sense of discovery and was at the time, a vital piece to my garden design puzzle.

As I think back to the early days of lunch time plant shopping, one of my fondest memories is of stealing the plant tags of those plants I considered for future purchase.

Yes, another criminal enterprise. This makes three in my lifetime. That’s a good ratio. Don’t judge.

It was a simple process:

Bend down to look like I am inspecting the plant and/or checking out the price

The tag is then stealthily pulled out of the container with the left hand

At that same time, the right hand runs over the leaves of the victimized plant as a means of distraction

The excess soil on the tag is quickly removed by squeezing the thumb and pointer finger and dragging them along the tag

The semi-clean tag is then dropped into the pants pocket at the same time as I stand up

Once I had a healthy collection of tags for the day, I would head right for the exit with my head down so this rugged mug could not be identified. I would head out making sure I wasn’t being tailed by any vehicles. Once safely home or back to the office, I headed right to the computer so research could commence.

Why didn’t I simply write down the names while at the nursery? I don’t know. The tags felt like puzzle pieces that I could move around to aid in my eventual garden design once they were purchased. They were easy reminders of what each plant looked like. Stealing was fun.

After research was completed, I would compile a list of plants to be bought the next trip. I left the tags at home and stored them in a plastic bag to be enjoyed at a later date.

Through the years, I have had a variety of different get-away vehicles and all of them were on the small side. They got me from point A to point B. That is it. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on something that means so little to me.

I am six foot four (and full of muscle … know the song?) and look funny in small cars. I can steer a car with my knees like no one else.

Why is this important info? Imagine big me driving in a tiny little car surrounded by recently purchased shrubs that are climbing out of each of the windows. It’s a sight to behold. I can only imagine what people are thinking as I pull into the parking lot at work. It looks like a tiny jungle on wheels with the faint sight of an actual driver.

I have to be careful when allowing my precious plants to rest in my car for hours on end until the end of the work day. I have killed my share in the past due to extreme heat and for that, I am not proud.

To combat the threat of death and because my cars are not exactly the envy of thieves, I leave the windows down the remainder of the day in the parking lot so the plants can breathe. Even if rain is in the forecast, I leave the windows completely open so the plants can grab a drink. A healthy plant is more important than the suffering that comes with a wet and smelly car.

When I am walking the grounds at my garden center, I stick out like a sore thumb in my business wares; not the typical dress code when shopping for plants. I’d kill to be in my ratty shorts and t-shirt but work day lunch is one of the only times I am free to spend an hour or so just walking aimlessly through a maze of plants.

Sweaty pits be damned.

It’s all worth it.

True story: A nursery I used to frequent fell on hard times financially. I don’t know all of the details but the government had to intervene and shut them down. They must have been selling illegal hostas or something. Actually, I think I would shut them down for selling hostas at all.

Eventually the nursery opened back up so I made it a point to check things out during another lunch break. As I approached the entrance, one of the owners asked me “Are you Brian?” I laughed and said “not this guy” and went on my way.

That was weird.

Upon further review, I determined that they mistook me for a government inspector since I wasn’t exactly dressed like a dude who was looking for the latest Viburnum release.

On at least two more occasions, I was greeted in the same manner but instead of laughing it off each time; I gave them a slight nod and simply proceeded inside. I figured it would be fun to keep them on their toes and act like I was on official business. I’m not sure what they thought when I eventually rolled up with a cart full of bee balm, but I do know that I had fun.

I’ve had my fun and some shady times (wink) at the local nurseries over the years during my lunch hour. More than anything else, I valued the escape. The escape from the trappings of the corporate world and mindset and into a relaxed environment that also happened to smell damn good.

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