Family Magazine

Growing as a Gardener

By Sherwoods
My mother has been a Gardener for a long time.  I say Gardener with a capital G because gardening for her is a twenty-hour-a-week part time job.  She is a master gardener and maintains my parents' half acre suburban lot which has been entirely professionally landscaped, complete with a formal Japanese garden.  When we children had all gone off to school, my mother never went to work because she already had a job - her gardens.
She has a quote on her corkboard from J.C. Raulston, who the North Carolina arboretum is named after.  "If you're not killing plants, you're not growing as a gardener."  When I was younger I would laugh at this quote, thinking it was a joke.  Now that I've been trying my hand at gardening for over a decade, I hope this quote is true because I have killed a lot of plants. 
Over the years, I've done in a lot of plants, but this past year in Tashkent has really moved my status up from 'amateur plant killer' to 'mass murderer on the genocidal scale.'  It's a good thing that plants don't count as people because I would be heading to the Hauge soon to face my crimes against botany.  And I'm definitely sure that I would get a verdict of 'absolutely guilty.'
All crimes begin with dreaming, and my herbicial crime spree began with dreams of a beautiful, flower-filled yard with a specific focus on the pool area.  I spent all winter fantasizing of a tropical plant-filled back yard with lush green foliage surrounding our sparkling blue pool.  It kept me going through the months (and months) of an unusually long, grey, rain-filled Tashkent winter.  If I could just make it to spring, my tropical garden paradise could come true.
As soon as the weather cleared up, I hauled my long-suffering Russian teacher to Chorsu market.  I bought pots, dirt, flowers, herbs, and topped off my spree with a pomegranate tree.  A week later, like the flower-addict that I am, I went back for more.  It turns out that you can never have too many flowers. 
The pomegranate tree was the first to succumb.  It never even bothered to leaf out, and a month later, we still had a stick-tree planted in the backyard.  Soon the lobelia followed suit, with almost all of the fifty-plant flat dying within a week of being lovingly placed in my pots.  My window boxes never were very happy, and finally I gave up the ghost a month later.  I transplanted all the somewhat-alive plants, threw away the dead ones, and filled them up with petunias.  "Petunias love heat," my mom assured me, "they thrive on it."  They lasted a few months, dying one at a time, until a few weeks ago when the rest decided life wasn't worth living and turned into sad, dried up, brown little sticks.  I tried a third time with another flat of flowers, verbenas, that the internet swore love heat.  But it turns out that 'loves heat' doesn't mean 'loves 100+ degree temperatures while baking on a window sill.'  The vinca population that also went in at the same time have now been reduced to three plants, happily blooming among the skeletons of their former plant companions.
It turns out that cana lilies really do love heat, which is why I've always associated them with highway plantings in North Carolina.  They've happily thrived while the snapdragons, daisies, ageratums, alyssums, and celosia that I planted with them have all died off, sometimes singly and sometimes en-masse. 
One of the centerpieces of my garden-hideaway winter daydreams was elephant ears.  They grow quickly, add a lovely lush element to landscaping, and come as bulbs.  I ordered some through the pouch, they got rejected, had my mother bring bulbs in her suitcase, and then had the original bulbs make it through on the second try.  In all, I spent over a hundred dollars on eight bulbs.  It turns out that tropical plants like elephants ears don't care for the hot, dry sun of Uzbekistan.  Most of the bulbs did actually sprout, but two pots are in danger of dying, and the other three produce medium-sized leaves that get brown and curled around the edges from Taskent's intense sun within a week of unfurling.  I'm still in mourning over my elephant ear dream.
I also had dreams of a lush, flower-filled, honeysuckle hedge growing next to the pool, gently scenting the evening air with their intoxicating aroma.  Honeysuckle, which is a weed in North Carolina, is sold as a plant here in Tashkent.  I bought three at the beginning of the season and watched them promptly lose most of their leaves.  I fertilized and watered religiously and watched the leaves slowly come back.  They turned yellow.  I fertilized more and then everything crisped up and turned brown.  I can't believe that I've even managed to ruin something that is an invasive weed.
The only plant that has been an unqualified success is my bougainvillea plant, bought on a whim during my fourth of fifth trip to Chorsu.  It turns out that bougainvillea loves poor soil, hot dry weather, and little watering.  If I was smart, I would just fill every single one of my pots with bougainvillea and stop breaking my heart on plants that just can't take Tashkent summers.
But I'm already dreaming of next year's arrangements that will be better than this year's plants.  I've spent days researching plants that do well in places like southern Arizona.  I've ordered a soil testing kit.  I'm thinking about setting up a seed-starting area to grow plants I can't get locally.  Elephant ears have been shelved for a place that isn't so darn hot all summer long.  Vincas will be a centerpiece of my window boxes.  Despite my overwhelming failure, I haven't given up the dream.
Brandon, the eternal pessimist ("Pessimists are never disappointed when their predictions don't come true"), has pointed out that Einstein's definition of insanity is when someone keeps doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.  He then points out that he is bankrolling my personal insanity, with only the bodies of dead and dying plants to show for it. 
I should probably listen to him.  I have never had a successful garden, with my plans for horticultural perfection coming even remotely close to reality.  I keep telling myself it's because we're always moving or it's hard to find the right variety of plants or some other reason that ignores the real reason for my continued disasters - I'm just a terrible gardener.  Some people have the knack, and I don't have it.  I love plants, but plants don't love me. 
But, unlike Brandon, I am an optimist.  Being an optimist means that I always believe that success is just around the corner, achievable with only a few modifications to whatever disastrous situation is currently happening.  I always eventually achieve success because of this un-crushable (most likely foolish) optimism about things that I really, really want. 
And I really, really want to have a lovely garden filled with colorful, profusely blooming flowers.  So I won't give up, even when confronted by the ranks of dead plants I've left in my wake.  I'll do better next year.  And even if it it isn't perfect, it will be better than this year.  Hopefully.

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