Taking Root: Gardening, lockdown and me
I grew up in a jungle. Birds of Paradise bloomed and roses grew over my head. Forget-me-nots pooled around flower pots and crowds of butterflies flocked to buddleias. It was a mystical place where magical beings inhabited the far corners and strawberries turned into pumpkins (at least that’s what happens when you put seeds from your Halloween lantern into the compost which is then used to grow strawberries…). In the winter the flower pots would come inside. They’d line the windowsills and cover all available surfaces, meaning you had to duck under outstretched leafy fingers as you rounded the corner to go upstairs.
It’s still there today, waiting for me when I visit my parents. However, since I moved to the USA to continue my quest to be an eternal student I see it more in my video calls home than in person. I’d love to have my own garden out here but research and teaching have a knack of filling up most of my time. That was until the world slowed down and everything went online. I’m still busy but my commute is a lot shorter. Now I’m alone in a postage stamp of a studio apartment several floors up. From here I can see out across the suburbs where the houses are submerged in an ocean of trees.
I’ve been in my current apartment long enough to see the tides turn from green to red, followed slowly by a low tide of brown branches before the great green expanse rushes back to the shore. Nowadays I travel through this ocean in my daily hour of freedom. Past porches and driveways, lawns and immaculately curated flower beds. It is good to be out in the green.
Over my three years living here I have attempted to curate a small collection of houseplants. I’m not the most green-fingered person (or green-thumbed as they say out here), but I am patient. Thankfully my plants have stuck it out with me in their various forms. But just as I outgrew those summer shorts and t-shirts worn running around the garden, my plants have slowly been outgrowing their pots. So in the current lockdown I’m attempting to get back to my roots. How, you ask? Through plant-based care and endeavouring to create some kind of ‘garden’ several stories above the ground.
Now you’ve heard a lot about me, but you’re yet to meet my current cast of plants. Here, let me introduce you.
My oldest plant-based friend is my succulent terrarium. I was informed that these would be relatively easy to take care of as you mostly just let them do their own thing. This is not true. They are very particular and had to be revived over the summer by a kind plant-sitting friend whilst I was away doing research. Since then they have multiplied and have a habit of growing up instead of out. So the model dinosaurs in the terrarium are wandering through a towering prehistoric forest.
My kalanchoe was a birthday present. A sprawling plant that has the benefit of being incredibly hardy. A useful trait when stuck with a stressed-out student during finals week. Chloe the Kalanchoe is decked in bright yellow blooms when the mood takes her and is an expert in seeking out light. When you turn the pot by the window the speed at which the tendrils change direction is rather impressive!
The greenhouse in my university’s biology department sometimes has plant sales when they’ve created a surplus. An excellent opportunity to expand my collection. My current research focuses on the hand. So what’s the best plant for someone who studies the hand to get? A palm! Yes, I think I could hear you audibly groan at that. Lucy the little palm has been doing very well, she likes the big window in my apartment.
Finally, on one of my recent daily walks I was gifted two mint plants (from a socially responsible distance) by one of the people in the suburban houses. Thanks neighbour! Not only do they smell great but it’s a fun opportunity to add new flavours to my cooking.
Speaking of cooking, it‘s been keeping me sane during lockdown and provided a handy solution to my attempt at acquiring the appropriate amount of soil for my ‘garden’. Despite having spent the past three years in the USA the imperial measurement system is still a bit of a mystery to me. So that’s how I ended up with 16 quarts of potting soil (about 15 litres) to repot four plants. Was this too much?
Yes definitely, as I found out one sunny evening when I spent a couple of hours preparing and repotting on my small balcony (me, soil, and the inside carpet are not a good mix). The bigger pots suited my plants but what to do with this extra soil?
The answer lay in cooking. I was able to extract seeds from some of my cooking staples: tomatoes, bell peppers, and courgettes. Faced with the additional soil, newly emptied pots, and seeds from the vegetables in my fridge, I set out to explore this new opportunity. With soil covered hands the pots were filled and the seeds planted. It’s not quite warm enough to leave them outside overnight, so for now my ever growing plant collection keeps me company inside by my window.
Currently these seeds are like me. Curled up in their home, patiently waiting for the right conditions to return to the outside world. Eventually they will pop up and say hello. Then, if I’ve got the hang of this plant-parent thing, they might provide me with tasty additions to my kitchen. But for now, we wait and who knows what other opportunities may present themselves along the way.
Victoria grew up in the UK but is currently pursuing a PhD in Human Paleobiology in the USA. When she’s not working you can usually find her with her head in a book or in a museum somewhere. Lockdown finds her spending an unexpected summer in the USA, where she is attempting to expand her cooking repertoire and look after houseplants.