Jungle Fever - How I Acquired My Addiction To Houseplants

This is a...

Photo by kittykittycat on Flickr
Photo by kittykittycat on Flickr
 

In the early 1990's, New Hampshire was hit with rather rough economic times. Banks closed, jobs were hard to come by and after nine years at the local electric utility, the company filed chapter eleven, was acquired by an out of state interest and I was laid off. Although I had grown bored of my job as a fixed asset accountant (yawn), I have to admit that the salary had spoiled me. It was quite good...and so was the severance package they offered me upon termination. It came in handy as I discovered my knowledge and experience was worth only about $ 7.85/hour in the current market. Evidently, unemployed accountants were easy to come by.

One morning, as I reviewed the employment ads in the local newspaper for the fifth time, circling potential jobs, I stumbled upon one that intrigued me. "Wanted: Greenhouse/Production Assistant. Must love getting dirty." The pay wasn't that great and there were no benefits...but who cared. I still had a hefty amount of severance pay to pad my bank account and the idea of selling my experience for less than half of what I'd been previously making irked the hell out of me. Why not do something just for fun while I could afford to do so?

A typical dish garden

The job was in an old warehouse less than five minutes from my house. That was a big plus...no commuting. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't a typical greenhouse with glass ceilings and plenty of sunshine, but I soon grew accustomed to the rather cavernous cement vault with its row upon row of fluorescent lighting and the welcoming scent of potting soil mixed in with the heady, pungent bouquet of plant life.

My job was to build dish gardens. You've probably seen them in supermarkets and flower shops every day and not thought about who makes those...but it was me. The owner, Hans, taught me how to select the right plants for each project, pot them and add artistic touches such as stones and moss. These were then boxed up and shipped out to local stores on a daily basis.

It was rather tedious work at times, especially when speed was of the essence. I'm a perfectionist, so I sweated the details, wanting each one to be a work of art. Consequently, I wasn't the fastest builder in the house...but you could always tell which ones were mine. They were beautiful.

Our gardens came in many sizes and containers, from 7" clay to 24" baskets. The holidays were always especially fun as we ordered baskets and plants that were especially designed for Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day or Mother's Day. I remember one Easter, we couldn't think of anything original to do, so I took home a couple dozen flat river rocks, hand painted them and shellacked them before returning them for Hans to consider using. They were a hit! Many years later, I would be surprised to come across one of these in an overgrown dish garden at the house of an acquaintance. It made me smile.

A Banana-Leaf Ficus

When I wasn't building dish gardens, I would follow Hans around the greenhouse trying to absorb as much knowledge as I could about the many plants. Spathiphyllum, marble queen pothos, variegated ivy, kalenchoe, aralia....I knew every plant by name along with its likes and dislikes. One of my duties was to care for each of these plants, rotating them, watering them...making sure that they were happy. Often, Hans would come up behind me clucking his tongue, scolding me in his heavy German accent, "Laurie, you are watering them all wrong! Why are you drowning them?"

I respected Hans...even though our opinions on plant care differed greatly. How could I argue with his many years of experience? Still...I had my own green thumb and when he wasn't around, I secretly continued with my "drown and dry" method of plant watering.

Still, there were occasional casualties. With a sound of disgust, Hans would pick these up and toss them outside into the snow bank, which was of course a death sentence. There was one tree though that he tossed out...all that was left was a spindly trunk and bare limbs...that I simply couldn't leave to this fate. My father, a man that I respected for his plant wisdom even more than Hans, had once told me if a branch will bend without breaking...there is still life in it. Sadly, I considered the four foot banana ficus as it sat there forlornly in the snow. I reached out a gloved hand and flexed a branch. It didn't break.

"Hans," I asked, "would you mind terribly if I took this ficus home with me?"

"Bah! It's dead...what do I care?" he grumbled.

This was the beginning of a rather bad habit. Soon, other sickly plants began to make their way to my home. Before I knew it, the house I shared with my boyfriend began to resemble a tropical rainforest. I counted them one day and stopped when I reached thirty something. My boyfriend complained that there was barely any room to move anymore. He was right...and so I began to rotate the plants back to the greenhouse and make room for other plants that needed a vacation from the warehouse environment.

The winter passed and that spring I held a cookout in my back yard. I invited Hans. It was fun to watch him walk around the house, admiring the plants. "Laurie," he said, "that is truly a beautiful banana ficus you have in your living room! Where did you get it?"

"You gave it to me, Hans," I said with a smile. "Remember that tree you tossed out into the snow this past winter? All I had to do was drown it a few times and it came right back!"

Wolf Spider ...BLECH!!

After that, Hans wouldn't hear of me "wasting my time building dish gardens." He put me in charge of buying. Now THAT was fun! Armed with catalogs and price lists, I would get on the phone every morning and place orders with greenhouses in Florida for the most interesting and exotic plants I could find. Hans was leery at first. Would he be able to sell them...was there even a market for things like miniature fruit trees and scented geraniums? To his profound joy, we found out there was and as the buyer, I was able to take the pick of the litter home with me.

I loved delivery day. Tia, Han's girlfriend, and I would wait impatiently on the docks as the trucks off-loaded all of our new babies, carefully wrapped in protective brown paper. It always felt like Christmas, removing the wrapping, oohing and ahhhing over our newest acquisition. Even more fun than the plants were the hitchhikers that had travelled up from Florida with our plants. With a lot of squealing and running around, we would trap all of the anoles and add them to our fifty gallon terrarium built specifically for our new pets. The local pet shop did a heavy business in crickets with us in exchange for a couple of terrariums and several free lizards.

Only once did we find a hitchhiker that was unwelcome. It was hiding beneath the leaf of a fiddleleaf fig. I took one look at it and cringed. "Tia!" I yelled, "Tia! I need your help!" There was no way I was going anywhere near THAT thing.

Tia bent over and peered at the underside of the leaf and shuddered. It was a big, fat, hairy wolf spider. Carefully, Tia pinched off the leaf and walked slowly toward the door, down the steps and into our parking lot. Standing a foot or two away, I watched her fling the leaf onto the pavement and then we both ran in horror, screaming and laughing, as the spider began bouncing in a rather threatening manner. Tia walked to the side of the parking lot and picked up a rock that had to have weighed about twenty pounds...snuck up on the spider when it came to a rest and dropped it. SPLAT! When she rolled back the rock...there was nothing left but a giant wet spot on the pavement.

Nowadays, I try to confine my love of houseplants to a reasonable amount. Nine plants is a far cry from the jungle I used to have...but then again, that doesn't count all the cacti that I returned to their natural habitat outdoors upon moving to Arizona. They seem quite happy. After nearly twenty years, amazingly enough, I still have that banana ficus tree along with several other plants acquired during my years working at the plant warehouse. Still...I get a bit twitchy whenever I visit a greenhouse. One more plant...what harm could it do?

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Comments 25 comments

spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Dottie - :) After I'd seen it, I realized just how long those poor plants had been forced to share a container. Ever the charmer, I then said something like, "what...you don't know how to transplant your dish garden?" :) Thanks!


Dottie1 profile image

Dottie1 7 years ago from MA, USA

What a great story all the way through spryte. I can tell you took much pride in your work and I bet your dish gardens stood out from the rest. What a surprise it must have been to see your beautiful hand painted rocks show up at an aquaintance house many years later.


Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 7 years ago from California

I can't even tell you how many plants named "Vern" i've tried to grow lol. (Vern as in the guy that "Ernest" [Jim Varney] used to talk to ... "Hey, Vern, know what I mean?" ... that guy. For whatever reason, I kept naming plants Vern.

Unfortunately, my plague-thumb kills them all.


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Christoph - I know what you mean about wanting to just try something new and different. It's too bad the fun jobs don't always pay the best, hmm? I would have been quite contented playing in the dirt and learning all about plants for a long time. But that's a different story...

Shade: Me too!!! I had a Mr. Peabody...he was my first plant ever, a philodendron that my mother gave me when I was ten. I have one now that I simply call "The Octopus"...but that's a sort of name.

Anna - Ahhhh the infamous cuttings! I've taken a lot of those as well. I used to propogate the babies from a spider plant and then replant them all into one big container...or give them away to friends once they were planted. I don't have a spider at the moment :( The cats love to eat those ones in particular.


Anna Marie Bowman profile image

Anna Marie Bowman 7 years ago from Florida

I loved reading this!!! Great job!!! I too had a houseplant addiction for a while. It started when my old landlord gave me some cuttings from a couple of her houseplants. It was downhill after that!!


Shadesbreath profile image

Shadesbreath 7 years ago from California

I confess to having a very, very bad habit of anthropomorphizing plants. Frankly, I treat them like dogs and cats... I either allow them into my world (and thus subject myself to the consequences of attachment) or I let them remain outside of me. I hate having only an on or off switch when it comes to my affection. I name plants or I don't care what happens to them. I have no middle ground.

I was so with you rescuing that tree out of the snow.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis

Hi ya. Great article. I often though I would be happy working in a greenhouse (though I must admit I have always pictured it as a glass enclosed jobby too). I even though about going back to school to get a degree in Horticulture. I think it must be hard to go back to school though. The trick is, to never leave achool in the first place. I would have smashed the wolf spider too, the creepy little interloper. I mean, go back to Florida!

A piece told very well, and as usual, one that keeps the reader's attention and interest at its highest level. Thanks!


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

So very true and this proves life is very cruel!


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

One of life's ironies isn't it? Alcohol removes a woman's inhibition and the ability of the male.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

Yeah tell me about it, the sap simply won't flow after a few glasses of wine :)


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

*clamps my hand over my mouth...unable to stop the thought*

That problem wouldn't just belong to plants...


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

I reckon it would have trouble raising it's leaves as they may have problems rising to the occasion after a few drinks!!!!!


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Hahaha!! And if it did survive...was it hung over?


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

LOL, when I was about 15 I used to babysit for a local couple's young children regularly. They always used to leave me with the equivalent of a couple of glasses of red wine in a bottle. I was far too polite to tell them I really hated the wine, (it was French Wine), so once they had gone I started throwing it on the coal fire, problem being the fire would then explode up the chimney. To avoid this problem I started pouring it on their large houseplant instead. I often wonder if the plant survived being turned into an alcoholic :)


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Oh! And Gwendy...I've only had that happen once with a houseplant.  Nearly killed it!  Cat piss is rather lethal it seems...so I drowned the sucker in water over and over again (the plant...not the cat, although it was tempting) to wash as much of it as I could out.  It worked...and the cat luckily never tried it again.  Instead...I have this gigantic nephthitis plant that they like to sleep in and play jungle kitty.  *sigh*  It used to be a very beautiful potted plant...and it still is occasionally if I fluff it up a bit.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

Absolute heaven, and truly back to nature :)


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Absolutely misty - I agree 100%. I also just love the smell of freshly turned dirt and potting soil. Wandering around greenhouses is one of my favorite activities in the springtime. It's not quite the same here in Arizona..but in New Hampshire, after all that snow, it was always a sure sign of spring when you could finally smell the ground again.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 7 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

Brilliant Hub Spryte, I think the spider would have freaked me out too. It is so very relaxing working with plants isn't it? I still love gardening and plants and they always manage to destress me. :)


gwendymom profile image

gwendymom 7 years ago from Oklahoma

lol, cats have a way of doing that. They sometimes think it is their litterbox too. Darn cats!


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Hiya gwendy - Well it's a constant battle nowadays. Me against 5 cats who think the shrubbery is more their own personal in-house salad bar. I'm sure eventually the plants are thinking, "Please...just let me die!"


gwendymom profile image

gwendymom 7 years ago from Oklahoma

I admire your ability to bring plants back to life Spryte. I kill them all, not on purpose, just that if they aren't telling me or barking at me that they need fed, then they don't get fed or watered. I have a black thumb.


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

Patty - I'd like to hear you say that while a wolf spider is bouncing like a hairy piece of popcorn with the intention of landing on you...

:)


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 7 years ago from North America

I think the Wolf Spider is very attracand could be one of B.T. Evilpants' friends or cohorts. I like them all except for scorpions. Well, maybe they wore an awning over that stinger thatlooks out of place :)


spryte profile image

spryte 7 years ago from Arizona, USA Author

LOL! Now where would the fun be in that?? :)


rowanelayna profile image

rowanelayna 7 years ago from York, PA

DUUUUUUDE, you could have warned me about the spider picture!

ugh, now I'm all itchy....

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