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Spring planting

(Provided photo — Melinda Walton)

A few weeks ago with our first warm spell, my mind turned to spring planting. Out the windows, snow still blanketed the ground. That first wave of sunshine with temperatures that prompt skipping hat and mittens — leaving coats unzipped as we venture outside, and rolling down the windows in the car — always gets me thinking of gardening.

Despite it being weeks and weeks away from our actual planting time, I optimistically picked out a few seed packets from the display at the grocery store, along with a hyacinth, to sate my desire for flowers. With the fragrant scent of hyacinth wafting through my home, I strategized my garden plans. I knew more cold, and probably more snow, was still likely to come.

It did. Mittens were traded for gloves, but defiantly I stopped wearing the winter hat anyway. Winter returned. March came in like a lion. My gardening would have to wait. Or would it? I began eying my houseplants. Several had outgrown their pots and needed attention. I wondered if I had any suitable pots in the basement and went to check. A couple, though the rest were not the right sizes. I did have a bag of organic manure compost. I wondered what my little aloe plants needed. They were looking a bit pale. I didn’t want them to die — my son and his girlfriend had given them to me.

Looking online I learned aloe plants like cactus potting soil. Since I didn’t have that, and didn’t feel like shoveling my car out to go see if the hardware store had any, I Googled “cactus potting soil recipe” … two parts sand, one part compost, one part mulch. This was going to happen! I had a couple of bags of sand in the basement that I used to keep in the back of my car for winter driving through the Keene Valley. I hadn’t put them in my car this winter as I wasn’t making weekly treks to Albany.

Mud season had not even begun, but I was going to be doing some gardening, indoors. It took a few days to find the right pots.

In my online wanderings, I happened across a story a woman had written about her houseplants. She, in pandemic loneliness, had named each of her plants after friends. Talking out loud to her plants, and calling them by her friends’ names as she watered or tended them, made her feel more connected. As one plant or another seemed wilty or was dropping leaves, she tended its needs, but also would phone that friend. Invariably she found the friend had a problem or just needed someone to talk to. Her story had made me smile, and now, as I was planning which plants to re-pot, I pondered naming them. While not actually gardening, thinking of friends and the naming idea was a way to be interacting with my plants.

Some plants needed splitting, so I’d have to come up with 11 names. The little aloes were easy; I could name them for who had given them to me. But the money tree, the now 25-year-old Christmas cactus, an anthurium, a peace lily, a tiny English ivy I’d gotten not that long ago from the grocery store … hmmm, which friend fit with which plant? I didn’t even know what a couple of my plants were. That required some online sleuthing. Croton, a plain name for a brightly colored tropical plant. Slightly high maintenance, and sun loving — I thought of a good friend in Florida. Gold dust plant, hardy and slow growing, made me think of another friend who loved wearing gold jewelry.

Interestingly, as I chose names and changed the groupings of my plants, I got a couple of phone calls from some of the friends. I told one the story and that I’d named a plant for her; she loved it. She especially liked that I’d put it in an orange pot, as that was her favorite color. When I told her the plant was tropical and colorful, but could be high maintenance, she laughed.

The Christmas cactus was one of the last to be named. Chris. I’d been friends with her since before I’d received the cactus from the wife of an old pilot friend who had died. Chris and I had both flown with Mr. Clouse in his tiny old Cessna 140 taildragger and had enjoyed his stories and life philosophies. He was a retired lieutenant colonel who had “landed on the beach in Normandy, the day after …” He didn’t finish that thought as we walked out to his plane; he just looked off into the distance.

I’d moved away and was with an airline when he died a couple of years later. I couldn’t make the funeral but had a layover in Austin not long after. I went with a friend to visit his wife. I was sorry I’d not met her sooner, she was very nice. We sat on their screened porch, having tea among dozens of plants, and chatted for a couple of hours. I complimented her on all her plants. When we left, she gave us each a Christmas cactus. She carefully put mine in a brown bag and a plastic grocery store bag to keep it safe ’til I got home. I secured that plant in the second jumpseat of each 737 I flew the rest of my four-day trip. I liked to think I shared the view from my cockpit with Mr. Clouse, just as he had shared so many flights with me in his pretty little silver bird. That cactus has made five moves with me. It still flowers every year: sometimes Thanksgiving, sometimes Christmas, once on Valentine’s Day.

Mud season is still not done. The ground of my outdoor garden has yet to thaw. But as I re-potted six of my houseplants, combining sand, compost, and mulch in a bucket on newspaper spread across my kitchen floor, thoughts of spring and gardens and friends were mixed in with each plant.

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