Yesterday I spent eleven hours helping my brother Jay become a container gardener. The original plan was to show up with a few supplies, have lunch, and spend two hours tops setting up. In and out. Back to work by 2pm.
It was just supposed to be two large containers. I didn’t want to overwhelm him. In fact I often warn new gardeners to start out slow — especially container gardeners since the demands are higher. So what I did was ignore my own advice and give over rational thinking to his enthusiasm and my own long-awaited dream of having a gardening sibling.
My brother has grown the odd houseplant in the past, many of which I have saved from a slow road to certain death. Like the wiry dracena he left for dead which I saved by cutting the top off and starting again. When he moved the last time he decided he wanted it back, a request I found interesting but didn’t really mind given that I had kept it more out of mercy than anything else. I find it difficult to turn my back on a plant in need, a personality quirk that at times makes me the crazy cat lady of the plant world. When I showed up to his apartment yesterday morning, that same dracena was sitting in an appropriately-sized pot with about an inch and a half of soil in the bottom. Not exactly a sight that says he is ready to take more on. In all fairness he also had a large palm that looked pretty good. But still.
During lunch we discussed what he might like to grow. I had brought along a determinate tomato, a large oregano, dill, and some mint from my own stash because he had expressed an interest in growing herbs. I knew he loved tomatoes and I thought he could handle ‘Czech’s Bush’ which is a really hardy little plant that produces medium-sized fruit. After lunch we stopped at a few local stands that carried plants picking up an assortment of herbs including: tarragon (I got one for myself too), sage (despite the fact that I grow enough to feed the millions), rosemary (yep I have a giant one of them, too), purple basil, garlic chives, and silver thyme. I could have supplied the last two from my own stash had I known. After dropping the plants off we headed into China Town where I knew we could get some small stakes for the tomato. I wanted to pick a few up for myself as well. He decided he wanted a hot pepper even though I grow far more hot peppers then Davin can eat (I can’t really eat hot peppers, I just like growing them). I usually give a bunch away at the end of the season.
Now, you’d think finding hot pepper plants would be an easy task in China Town. Like most parts of the city I am familiar with the little stands in the area and the plants they carry. We headed over to the section where all the plant stands are but the only pepper plants we found were aphid infested. Another on the way back also sold aphid infested plants. Eventually, we ended up purchasing a larger transplant of unknown variety from an elderly woman selling Thai chilies and shungiku from atop a stool set up on the corner. We paid too much for it, but at least it wasn’t aphid infested.
When we got back we got to the task of cleaning out the old pots that had been left there and planting everything up in fresh soil. I had brought the bag of soil from home. I could only carry one which proved to be an inadequate amount given that we now had enough plants for two more containers than previously calculated. My brother also wanted to re-pot his prized palm tree.
Quest for Soil
After picking up some caffeinated fuel we hoped on the streetcar headed to an area that seemed fail-proof. We could get there and back quickly, it was pretty direct and I knew there were at least three stores in the area selling potting soil. I like to ensure good odds. The first store with the best soil was sold out. They were also sold out of vermicompost and most soil amenders which I had been hoping to get for him. More items I could have brought from home had I had more help getting things from my place. Worse still, we added to the collection when my brother decided he wanted a beautiful ‘Chinese Five Color’ hot pepper and a Black Peppermint.
So to tally it up, we’ve now got more plants and no soil.
Next we tried to get him a watering can with no luck. The cans at the local hardware store were horrible and plastic. He decided to hold out for something nicer. Then we hit two more stores looking for soil, and while both stores had some in stock they were no good. I do not cheap out on potting soil. Over time I have developed a way of judging the quality of potting soil based on weight. I have used enough brands and picked up enough bags of soil in my gardening life to know what good potting soil weighs when it has the right ingredient proportions. If it weighs too much it has too much compost (sometimes fillers) and will compact in the pot. If it weighs too little it has no nutritional matter whatsoever and is what I call “popcorn soil.” Both brands weighed a ton in proportion to the size of their bags. They would not do.
And so we hopped on the subway, this time hoping to hit another store that I was only “pretty sure” carried a soil brand that I liked. We could have gone another route to a store I KNEW carried that brand but it was even further out of the way and we were now approaching 5pm. Once there we first went into the mall hoping to find a watering can. There were cans but they were either too expensive or had country-style heart motifs embossed into the metal — not exactly my brother’s style. I picked up a chocolate brown metal bin for myself that was later sacrificed to my brother (he’s paying me back for this one) when we discovered that we were far short on containers. We did find the soil, not exactly the one I wanted but good enough to meet my standards. Of course my brother found more plants he had to have. We picked up ‘Red Sails’ lettuce although they were a little withered looking, more basil (he HAD to have a green variety too) and a tuberous begonia.
A cab ride back with three more bags of soil that had to be carried up three flights of stairs, and a few hours of potting, cleaning, organizing and care instruction and we were finally done. As you can see from the photos some plants were left un-potted or inadequately potted because we ran out. My brother lives in an area where he should be able to score good junk finds to turn into containers and I impressed upon him the importance of putting that on project status if the basil is going to live past next Tuesday. Basil plants will not be as forgiving as the dracena.
Despite having blown an entire day and a fistful of dollars (did I mention I was treating and am now officially covered off for all birthdays and holidays until 2010) I am excited about the possibility of finally turning my brother over to the dark side. I told him I’m like one of those dealers they warn the kids about doling out free drugs until the freebies stop and the kids are hooked, possibly for life. Except the “drugs” are plants and the lifelong addiction is growing them.
I can only hope.