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Jungle Fever - How I Acquired My Addiction To Houseplants
This is a...
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?