Letting Go

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

A sad mess of dessicated branches soon to meet the compost bin is all that remains of my beloved ‘Chinese Ornamental’ hot pepper plant. I had grown fond of this little hot pepper plant and was sad to let it go.

I started the plant from seed two years and lovingly nurtured it through the dry, dark days of winter to bring it outdoors in the spring. The plant began as an experiment in how productive this variety could be in cramped quarters, but it’s resiliency and determination won my heart. My little plant turned out quite a harvest in its first year, despite life in a 5″ pot. Following its first winter indoors, the plant produced new growth, bloomed, and eventually turned out a fine second crop of teeny little hot peppers. Those hot peppers have since been harvested, dried, and divided up into little envelopes as gifts for gardening friends. The cycle is complete.

However, I didn’t intend to write a eulogy about my dead ‘Chinese Ornamental’ hot pepper. My real intention for this post is to talk about letting go of plants.

At the end of any gardening season, I dutifully bring all of my houseplants indoors for the winter, adding in a couple of tender herbs or hot peppers that I’d like to try my hand at keeping inside. Over the last decade I’ve gleaned a lot about strategies for keeping certain plants alive in a dry, sunless apartment and which varieties can tough it out better than others through these seasonal experiments. It’s also good fun and makes the long winter without a functioning outdoor growing space tolerable.

I’m going on a month-long trip very shortly and can’t expect the friends who will be taking care of my plants to put the same effort into dutifully watering and tending to the sixty odd plants that currently live here. Keeping track of the widely varying moisture needs of each plant will be torture for them, let alone the fear of killing any of my most beloved and needy babies. I can’t expect that a certain percentage of my plants will make it through this period alive. Short, week-long trips have always resulted in some inevitable loss. I’m afraid to imagine what kind of deaths an entire month away will bring.

One of my early strategies for dealing with this period away was to repeat the mantra, “No new houseplants!” throughout the growing season, the idea being that I would not bring any new plants into the fold and potentially reduce the number my friends would be left to care for during the month we’ll be away.

How successful do you think that strategy was?

At last count the total number of new houseplants brought home between the months of May and October 2009 total just under 20. In my defense, there seemed to be a lot of temptations out there this year and a particularly high number of friends getting rid of this and that. I wasn’t about to turn away gems like this and this. And this plus, you know, 16 others.

Before bringing the outdoor plants in, I always do a big shift around and cleanup of my indoor growing spaces to make room for the plants that are migrating back inside. Not surprisingly, this year’s clean up took nine hours from start to finish. Nine hours! I will admit that I put a bit more effort into carefully nurturing each plant this year as a strategy for counteracting the difficulty they will soon face. And it was quite therapeutic.

When it came time to decide which plants were going to make it back into the warm cocoon indoors, I had to be brutal and make up for the 20 new plants that had stealthily crept into my life. And so the little ‘Chinese Ornamental’ plant that could had to go as well as many other hot pepper plants and herbs. In a feat that goes completely against my nature to keep on trying with even the most hopeless plants, I managed to toss out a few succulents that had been clinging to life for far too long. It was easier than I imagined and I’ve already forgot which plants they were. Yet for some reason I can’t forget the spider plant I cruelly discarded ten year ago.

A pachypodium that I’ve been itching to see the back of for the last five years is on my currently hit list, if only I can absolve the feelings of ruthless abandonment in time for my impending departure. After all, one less plant for my friends to care for could result in one more, much-loved plant surviving my time away. You think?

Which plants did you let go of this year?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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16 thoughts on “Letting Go

  1. I let a Russian coriander go this year, or rather it went without me noticing because it was blown off a window ledge in a storm and I never noticed it had falled behind some larger plants.When I went to tidy up the garden a week or so ago, I found its remains. It was given a decent burial on the compost heap.

  2. I can’t help but remember the cruel spring flood that doomed my heirloom tomatoes to extinction. My boyfriend and I (he has acres of planting space at his disposal at his grandparent’s place) spent weeks preparing the land for a healthy crop. The weather killed everything and it’s been hard to even look at a garden since then. I’m still recovering, and now I only have a couple of eggplants, one tomatillo, marigolds, and a few varieties of herbs.

    Hopefully I’ll be recovered by seed starting season- your new book should reinvigorate the former passionate gardening spirit!

  3. Ciao Gayla-

    We have 2 very large things going against growing houseplants in this house. First, and foremost, is my houseplant-growing/nurturing/not killing brown thumb and second is our large pride of 4 kittens and a grumpy old man cat. I say goodbye to EVERYTHING at this time of year.

    It was harder for Duane this year because of his hugely successful pepper plantation. He had his plants in the garage after the first frost and just said goodbye to the last ones this past weekend. He’s pruned I think 5 of them down to root stock and will keep them dormant in the garage over the winter, but that’s kind of it.

    I entertained the idea of over-wintering some herbs one season and ended up with just a mess of aphid nonsense and there was the lemongrass plant I “rescued” from frost death only to succumb to Mario-chewing death later on.

    Bravo to any of you houseplant mavens out there. It’s not not something I’m good at, so I take a breath now that the canning is over and I can move onto threshing seeds and washing/disinfecting seed trays. We only have 2 months before Duane starts pepper seeds in January, so it’s really not that long of a break.

  4. I used to really hate “putting down” mostly dead plants – instead of slowly watching them come to a painful death, I would “accidently” put them out onto the deck in the winter and forget about them. I’ve since come to terms with dying houseplants and when I see that they really aren’t going to bounce back – into the compost they go!

    This year I’ve had to put down a dying Violet plant (who knew that it really didn’t like being near a cold drafty window) and a basil plant (I’m not exactly sure how I killed that thing – basil is quite possibly the easiest herb ever to grow inside in Calgary).

  5. Hi Sorellina! Can you give more info about saving dormant pepper rootstock? I have one plant that’s still hanging on, but is too big for my house, and I’m planning to move next spring anyway. If I can give that guy a shot at another summer, I think I may finally hit the pepper “big time”. Thanks!

  6. I actually have a very defined line between what is an outdoor plant & what is an indoor plant. None of my indoor plants ever make it out onto my deck – mostly for fear they would enjoy it too much & demand bigger pots. Most of them being succulents, they thrive on my neglect during the hot sunny summer days & are forgiving of the dark, dry indoor spots they live in for the winter.

    This year I’m having to learn the hard lesson of ‘letting go’ as I watch the month of November become one big rain drop after another. My front yard is flooded & I’ve lost all my naturalized crocus & daffodils & am more than likely going to loose all my daylilies & Oriental lilies due to the mini lake in the yard. I won’t know til I start digging for them in February when we remove a 20 foot lily bed to be replaced with 3 gunnera & hopefully some Siberian iris. 2 months is a long time to watch something drown…

  7. Ciao Rapunzel-

    I wish I could offer you a primer, but this is an experiment so the results will be almost 100% empirical. The good news is, he’s got backup seeds for these varieties if it doesn’t work out. The goal would be to get a jump on things and an increased harvest for year 2. There’s absolutely zero room downstairs in the grow-op for the big containers, so they’re going to have to die or thrive in the garage until Spring. He might wrap them in old linens to keep them warm, we’ll see.

  8. Oh, the agony of losing plants. I have a situation in which my cat eats everything green brought into the house. Plus, I have very low light despite skylights. I live in a heavily wooded area which is great – except for lack of light.

    So ALL of my houseplants that I keep on my porch in the summer come to live in my classroom. (I teach 1st grade). You can imagine how hard it is to accomodate these (I have about 60 myself!).

    So, I too, have had to come to some hard decisions when it comes to failing plants. It’s definitely getting easier but it’s still so hard when it comes to your favorites! Still, I love going to work and being with all my kids and plants :) They say it is like a jungle in my room. This year I even potted up baby spider plants to keep at each of my five tables for them to care for. I too cannot control my plant addiction, so my plants are actually slipping out into other rooms around the school. Anywhere I can find a large window!

  9. Neely: I love it! I’m not the only one pushing my plants into other areas beyond my home. I take up all of the windows in the hallway of my building every winter, but this winter I did not.

    I guarantee you some of those kids will remember your classroom full of plants and be inspired later in life. I never forgot my grade 2 teacher’s lecture on worms.

  10. Gayla: Your second grade teacher sounds awesome! I’ve been wanting to start a vermicomposter in my classroom for a long time now. Being a gardener I of course love worms! I share this with my students and reading about your experience reminded me of a day at recess just after a rain when there were at least 15 1st graders (from all of our classes, not just mine ) running around the paved part of the playground rescuing worms that had crawled out and placing them back in the grass. It was so sweet and cute!

  11. We made a rule four years ago: garden not house! We have no houseplants and so all our cultivation goes on outdoors – it’s not perfect but it does mean that I don’t have to worry about dogs and cats eating poisonous plants when they are bored (I have a dog who is stupid enough to do this) or destroying prized household greenery. It did mean getting rid of over 100 houseplants though … we sold the lot with a stall on the roadside and gave the money to charity

  12. I call that “Post-Growing Season Depression”. Easily cured by the arrival of the first seed catalogue. My ornamental pepper suffered a similar fate when the first hard frost reached it before I did.

  13. I have some succulents that have been with me for many years. This summer, I moved into a house instead of an apartment, and I had to re-pot them in containers I purchased (the containers they had grown in were the property of the apartment building). They survived the transplant only to sustain serious damage during an unexpected overnight frost. My paddle plant was completely destroyed, and one of my favorite aloe “cousins” was seriously damaged. I have cut both back to the soil in the pot in the hopes that the roots are ok and maybe I’ll see a re-growth come spring, but that was a painful, painful loss….

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