Orchid Reveals Ruthless Gardener’s Approach
By Michael Leach
This house is the Bates Motel for potted plants. I’ll grant you that my human keeper waters me more or less regularly, gives a dash of granular organic fertilizer at appropriate intervals, lets me spend months outside, and trims off faded flowers and the occasional yellowing leaf. So why the sense that Alfred Hitchcock directs daily life?
He murders plants. Many human beings consider houseplants as surrogate children. I’ve gathered this from overheard phone conversations and his endless chatter with visitors. I also know about this from the potted plants and rooted cuttings he occasionally receives from other people. We plants share stories, don’t think we don’t. He should consider us in the same way dog and cat owners are notorious for going all stupid over some slobbering Labrador or snooty Siamese.
He wasn’t always this way. When I first came on the scene, he was more like other growers. But over our 20-plus years together, that heartwarming attachment faded, replaced by his dreadful notion that plants in this household exist only to satisfy his aesthetic sensibilities. Fail to keep producing fresh, lush foliage and flowers and you’re out. “Grow or go,” he says almost every month. It all started with that dreadful poinsettia.
He’s so cheap that one year he decided to keep the poinsettia and get it to bloom for the next Christmas. Those things are ridiculous, in my opinion, but I am an orchid after all, and Cattleya or corsage-type orchid at that. Pfff to poinsettias I say. They’re gaudy for weeks throughout the winter and then commence a prolonged death scene worthy of a melodrama. After he put that has-been holiday star outside for summer, it turned into a shrub with lush foliage worthy of the tropics.
Then he began the tedious process of trying to fool it into blooming. The poinsettia wasn’t fooled. Instead of massive swaths of red, only puny, vaguely red bracts emerged and this barely days before Dec. 25. He was livid and tossed the plant onto the compost pile in December! We were agast. After that Christmas, when asked what should be done with poinsettias he blithely said, “Throw it on the compost pile!”
It was the following autumn I noticed things began to change. As usual, the tiny sunporch was crammed with houseplants returning to winter quarters and some impatiens and geraniums salvaged from the garden. There was the giant fern in the early days, just kept getting bigger because he lusted for the status of a big plant.
Those annuals always caused trouble. Being unaccustomed to the dim light of cloudy Ohio autumn and early winter, they suffered horribly, even in the south-facing sunporch windows. As you know, plants drop flowers, then buds and finally leaves — lots of leaves — when stressed by lack of sun. It’s a near death experience. This clashed with his sense of tidiness that borders on obsession.
Grumblings were heard daily, as one after another of the impatiens went to that big mixed border in the sky, leaving a mess behind. In early December, the massive fern began its slow death spiral that never ceased until it went back outside again in early May. By then only sickly green fronds remained. Somehow the old girl always managed to produce three or four flimsy new fronds in the growing light of early spring. That was the only thing that saved her until the day he snapped.
It was late autumn and the big fern continued to sit in a shaded place under the crab apple tree, despite temperatures plunging faster than stock prices in a crash. Still he seemed oblivious to the fern. Then it happened, the first freeze of the season.
The fern was a mushy, dark green mess the next day. He looked out and said, “Oh. I forgot to bring in the fern.” I swear there was a fiendish grin and a note of glee in his voice. The rest of us trembled in our places on the windowsills, table tops and warm corners of the porch. What kind of monster is this we wondered? We couldn’t help but lose a few leaves and petals.
One after another, the straggly and overgrown were “forgotten” in the first freeze. “A nice addition to the compost pile,” he said, tossing their frozen-stiff corpses into that wretched tumble of banana peels, coffee grounds and pulled-up weeds he calls a compost pile.
Me? I plan to grow, not go. Despite my too small container, stale potting mix and inadequate winter light, I continue to produce a bounty of lavender flowers, starting about Thanksgiving Day and continuing into mid-January. The oohs and aahs prompted by my delicate, lightly scented blooms keep me in good graces. “I’ve never seen an orchid this big,” visitors gasp in amazement.
While he glows and swells with pride. I sigh. Guaranteed another year for me it seems.
This short story by Michael Leach was done as a monthly assignment for the Grove City Writers’ Group.