Plants I Have Killed

Not all destruction is intentional. TMN editor ANDREW WOMACK has laid waste to some of this planet’s finest vegetation. Don’t let him visit the rainforest.

Spring, when I was eight:

‘Mom, how do you make a garden?’

‘You plant seeds. You can buy them at the nursery.’

‘Can I plant a garden?’

Now this is the kind of question a mother wants to hear from her children. Not ‘Can I play on the interstate?’ or ‘If I eat this will I die?’ Something, instead, wholesome and good. An activity that not only teaches, but puts fresh produce on her table.

It was decided, then, that planting a garden would be my summer project. My mother and I planned for it to be located behind our garage, in a sunny area of our otherwise shady backyard. With my mom’s help, I planted an assortment of vegetables: tomatoes, onions, potatoes (‘A potato is a tuber.’ ‘It’s a what?’), and green beans.

I later understood that gardening is generally associated with a life of leisure, with relaxation. For me, it was a competition. I’d ask my seedlings, ‘Who’s growing the fastest?’ ‘Who’s the tallest?’ Fearing bad karma, I tried to stay impartial, lest a subconscious preference for green beans would cause me to water them more often, while dumping bleach on the onions. Every night I’d give my parents an update on rates of growth, any signs of produce, and my never-realized irrigation plans.

One day my mother told me that some of the tomatoes were ready to be picked. We went out back, snagged a few of the plumper offerings, and that evening had salads.

Every other bite earned an accolade. ‘Mmm. These tomatoes really are delicious.’ ‘There’s just nothing like fresh tomatoes. Mmm.’ ‘I think we can quit saving for his college; he’s a natural migrant worker.’ Whatever that meant, it sounded promising. I told my family that they needn’t worry: the garden was in full-swing, and that meant more fresh produce was on the way.

About a week later a tornado razed a better part of North Houston. It brought rain. It brought hail. It upended cars; it flooded houses. And in its trail it left fallen branches and trees, and removed, in whole, one tiny tomato-onion-potato-and-green-bean garden located behind my garage.

Once we’d cleared the debris, I started a garden rehabilitation project. We got new seeds and replanted the entire spread, just as it was before.

And within a month’s time, Houston played host to the devastating Hurricane Alicia. A couple of days after the storm had passed I went behind the garage to find that, yes, my garden had once again been completely uprooted by natural disaster.

I decided then that gardening didn’t have much on BMX bikes.

* * *

College, when I was twenty-two:

I lived alone during my final year-and-a-half at the university. My then-girlfriend thought my living alone meant ‘miserably alone.’ So convinced she was of my imminent decline into solitary depression, she decided that I should have a houseplant, for ‘company.’ She took me to a discount store and pointed me toward the garden section, where I entered plant purgatory. The floor was strewn with dead ferns, dried, wilting geraniums, and one overturned, leafless fichus. Eventually I found a dugout of healthy plants and chose an attractive little houseplant—an eighteen-inch rubber plant (not a plastic plant, mind you—a rubber plant; it requires water and everything.)

I took it home and parked it by my fireplace, next to a window. Some time later, while over at my apartment, my friend Christian said, ‘Hey, I think your plant’s dead.’

A glance over at what now appeared to be a rotted, gray stake propped upright in a tub of dirt and I had to admit that he was possibly right. After all, I’d never cared for my plant; it got no sunlight, no fertilizer. I’m not sure if I ever watered it. And my neglect showed: the plant actually looked like it was in pain. And this was all my fault.

I vowed to nurse it back to health. I went to the store and bought a can of Miracle-Gro and a bag of new potting soil. Every morning I’d perform a check-up: is the soil moist enough? Better add a bit of water…just a bit. These leaves are looking dry. They could stand a misting… I’d then set the rubber plant outside my front door so it could drink up a full day’s worth of sunlight. At night I’d bring it inside and set it on my table so it could soak up any carbon dioxide I might expel.

Sure enough, after a few months my little plant was looking better. Healthy, yes, even lush. One Saturday, while taking out my little plant for its sun, I noticed it wasn’t at all little anymore. In fact, it needed repotting.

It was a particularly beautiful day. Very sunny; a clear, balmy day. I set the plant by the front door, hopped in my car, and went to the nursery where I bought a larger terracotta pot, a bag of potting soil, and a new watering can. A half-hour later, I returned to find my rubber tree was missing.

Someone had stolen it.

That night, over a margarita, Christian offered that the only reason somebody stole it was because it was such a good-looking rubber tree.

I agreed. It really was.


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack