Donna Tavano: Plants Who’ve Known And Loved Me

I saw, I bought, I planted. Then I watered and waited, and waited and watered for days, then, in horror, watched the original healthy looking deep green leaves of the nursery tomato plant I’d purchased devolve to a pale yellow, then crumbling brown, illustrating only too well the biblical scripture “from dust ye came and to dust ye shall return.”

I watch skeptically as my nasturtium leaves proliferate, absent of bloom. I suffer silent catmint envy as every roadside dirt parking lot (completely ignored and unattended) all summer long boasts proud mounds of indefatigable catmint whilst mine, under my overbearing tutelage, fades quickly to a second class has-been. In the quiet of my garden, I hear the lone cry of a dahlia, first the wilt, then the whimper, then I share its pain as it’s whisked away by the wind. Such is the sad story of a green thumb challenged gardener.

I recall a tomato plant of family fame. It was 1985. We were raising a 4-H specimen to show at the Barnstable County Fair, a beefsteak, I believe. But soon its leaves began to wither and droop, then it blew off the porch in a freak summer storm, and to add insult to injury, a neighborhood pooch repeatedly marked it in a most off-putting way. When it came time for the fair, we had to admit defeat. Still rankling at another garden failure, I heaved it into the woods. Two months later, we were pruning and cutting brush, and came upon a small clearing midst the vines and briers. There, independently brash, stood Audrey from “Little Shop of Horrors,” a four-foot-high tomato warrior with fruit the size of softballs. And to what do I attribute this phenomenon? Benign neglect.

It is said the best way to garden is to don a wide brimmed hat and old clothes, take up a hoe in one hand, and a cold drink in the other, and tell someone else where to dig. It’s also well known that gardens require a lot of water – most of it in the form of perspiration. The only characters that survive on my watch are the uninvited and unwanted, trespassers. Once, when the kids were tiny and splashed mercilessly in the bathtub each evening, a mushroom sprouted up overnight in the crack between the warped vinyl floor and the porcelain. After we got over the gross factor, I had to admit it was pretty cool. We let it do its thing for a week before we put it to rest – we did have five boys and it was a Jack and the Beanstalk-ish sort of thing.

Over the years we’ve stood strong together battling kudzu and bittersweet, and if they bestowed awards for poison ivy cultivation, we'd have a trophy room dedicated to our accomplishments as it, snakelike, wove and climbed its way through every yard we ever had. My husband spent three weeks on prednisone one January after pulling innocuous vines off trees, only to discover, one disfigured face and unmentionable body area later, it was poison ivy.

Bold and unbidden, invasive species like sprawling fake raspberry, bearing lethal thorns that trip small children and large adults while ripping every pair of yard pants we own; bull brier, a species the military should seriously consider for thwarting forward movement of enemies; and red thread, a blight on manicured lawns, seem to subsist miraculously on air and concrete. When you are weeding, how do you figure out if it is a valuable plant or a weed? Pull on it, if it comes out easily, it’s a valuable plant. We wring our hands in despair as we watch hundreds of dollars of plantings develop black spots and discolored leaves. Did we over-water or under-water? Is there too much sun or too little? If we achieve even a modicum of success, we quickly discover we’re hosts to the newest rabbit happy hour or slug pub on the block.

Two weeks ago I petulantly decided to ignore my non-blooming nasturtiums and catmint. This morning, inevitably, both are blossoming – benign neglect. I just learned a number of invasive species are actually edible, so maybe I can make this work after all. The menu Chez Tavano tonight: Leafy Green Purslane Salad and Kudzu Quiche, accompanied by a lovely vintage Bradburyesque Dandelion Wine. Maybe if I down enough of it I won’t care about my pouting petunias. But seriously, folks, neither over-thinking nor over-gardening are productive activities.

For what am I most grateful? That the biggest problem I have right now is stressing out over my obstinate and recalcitrant hortikids.