From time to time, when the world becomes too much for us, Scott and I engage in a private island fantasy, a paradise where we and the dogs can live in a sweet house with ocean views, high-speed internet access, far, far away from the madding crowd, and we never have to wear pants.
Johnny Depp has a private island. Johnny Depp also has a bajillion dollars in the bank and amazing cheekbones. I’m working on that part, though my peasant heritage may make the cheekbones thing a little dicey.
However, the real logistical problem with us moving to a desert island and fending for ourselves is the whole “What are we gonna eat?” problem.
Theoretically, we could plant a garden year round, supplemented with whatever bananas, coconuts, and dates happened to grow wild on our little island. Theoretically, anyone, including an erstwhile nomad only recently (in geologic terms) removed from whatever cave he’d previously been sharing with a bear (a small one), could master agriculture adequately to provide food for himself, the woman he dragged by the hair back to his hovel, and his little cave-progeny. People have been doing it for 10,000 years. How hard can it be?
I grew up in America’s heartland, surrounded by agricultural endeavors. I am descended from farmers. I have a college education…from the University of Nebraska, no less, a state lousy with corn, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some agriculture; it’s all over the damn place.
And yet, for the life of me, I cannot keep plants alive. In fact, they actively lobby to frustrate my attempts. As accomplished as I may be, among the things I am most proud of are 2 plants in my dining room. One of which was a philodendron given to me by a friend when I was in college; she thought it odd that there was no plant life in my apartment. The other was a shamrock, given to me as a St. Patrick’s Day gift by my cooperating teacher in 1994 when I was student teaching. The shamrock is the younger of the two plants, which means that I have managed to keep these 2 plants alive for at least 15 years, which is an unprecedented horticultural feat for me. And, in the name of full disclosure, I must disclose that both of those plants have had multiple near-death experiences. Furthermore, they have had many comrades on and off over the years who have suffered ignominious deaths as a result of my ineptitude with plant life, and general neglect.
My history of herbicide goes further back than that, though. Those seeds you put in a dixie cup in kindergarten to learn about the miracle of life? Died. The little sunflower seeds we planted in bigger cups as mother’s day gifts in 3rd grade? Died. The coleus plants we used in photosynthesis experiments in sophomore year biology? Died.
As bad as this is, though, it is where food-producing plants are involved that my black thumb really shines.
Some years back, I decided to grow sweet corn and tomatoes in my back yard. The corn produced one or two tiny, barely formed ears that were consumed almost immediately by some kind of bug. The tomatoes no sooner produced fruit than a local hoodlum squirrel snatched it off the vine and took off. That was a rough summer; I didn’t get to eat a single ripe tomato, but I had one hope left: there was one tomato that was near ripe and it was still on the plant. I had to go on a business trip, and I knew that if it could just survive until I got home, it would be ready. I got daily updates on tomato security from Scott when I called home at night. And then one day, he had just told me it was fine, only to immediately report that he just saw the squirrel abscond with it. And I wept into the phone, all the way from Florida.
That was back in 2001. Since then, I haven’t attempted to grow any food. I’ve barely attempted to grow anything. I tried to plant California Golden Poppies in the planters in front of my house, and somehow, they came up sunflowers. I still don’t know how that happened. I tried the poppies again, and they never came up. I tried them once more, and they came up and promptly died before ever sprouting a single flower on one side, and soon did the same on the other side, though I did actually see a small poppy bloom, along with a few other wildflowers that had been in the mix before the whole mass of green withered to a sick brown that fairly shouted “Ha! We’re dead! Again! Well done, you hopeless excuse for a gardener!” And then it flipped me off.
With all this as prologue, I really can’t say what got into me that day at the craft store. It might’ve been the 25% off sale, but before I’d left the establishment, I had purchased two planting kits: one for a Chinese poppy, and one for a hanging basket of cherry tomatoes. They were designed for kids. No fail, ostensibly.
I carefully followed the directions for both and placed them in spots where they could get some sun (but not too much) and dutifully watered them (but not too much). And it went really well. I had planted 10 poppies or so, and about 8 sprouted. I planted a handful of little tomato seeds, and about 10 came up, which was what the directions said I should expect. I was excited.
I tended to them with such TLC, and the tomato plants grew steadily. They had a ways to go, but I had every confidence that soon I’d see little tiny tomato flowers, and then little tiny tomatoes on them. All was fine.
For no reason. We hadn’t had a heatwave. I hadn’t forgotten to water them. They just got the memo that it was I who was trying to grow them, apparently, and decided to up and die on me, just like that. No explanation. No earthly reason other than pure impudence, I tell you! I tried watering them for a couple days after, but they refuse to move beyond this shriveled, zombified state.
There’s just one left, and it’s barely holding on, just to taunt me. It won’t grow. It won’t die. It’s like Detroit’s auto industry, only with more chlorophyll.
So…I get it. I FRELLING GET IT. I’m not meant to grow things. I’ve tried over and over and over again, against all reason and all hope. And if I’m counting on my own talents to keep us alive on our desert island, the lesson is clear: we are going to starve. Probably within weeks, unless one of us kills the other over our last linty Tic-Tac fished out of a forgotten pocket, in which case the other can hold out a bit longer.
Guess I’ll go to work today after all.