A grisly scene

Things got pretty ugly in the end.

The terra cotta balcony farm is now officially a graveyard.

All through the spring and summer, I watered and pruned and picked. I fussed and fretted. Through tornadoes and hurricanes and thunderstorms, I guarded them anxiously. When nights got chilly, I dragged all seven pots in to my apartment and nestled them on a towel in front of an eastern window; so grateful, I imagined they were, to awaken to rays of sun instead of crystals of frost.

The day that we finally lost the tomato plant…that was a sad day. The last of the underdeveloped little fruits shriveled and dropped to the dirt, and the plant’s jaundiced leaves finally turned from sallow yellow to toasty brown. I yanked the plant out by its crusty stems and placed it, roots first, into my kitchen trash can.

With the tomatoes, I admit, I failed.

But the rest of the venture was relatively successful until about a month ago.

At some point, I suppose I just stopped caring. Diligent daily waterings became thrice – and then twice – weekly. Winds whipped around the building and I averted my eyes from the sliding glass door, choosing not to see the little peppers clinging desperately to their stems. Nighttime freezes came once again, but this time I tucked myself into my warm bed, leaving the tender basil leaves to face the frosty dawn on their own.

I know. I know. They’re just plants.

This isn’t nearly as bad as the time that I left my poor pet lizard for dead, banishing his tank to the basement as I traipsed off to college one sunny August – only to discover that he was still very much alive when my mom forced me to deal with what was supposed to be a postmortem cleanup of his terrarium when I returned for winter break. Kramer, his name was. God, I felt horrible.

(In my own defense, Kramer had an annoying habit of burying himself in the sand for days on end, and at the time of my departure I hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks and totally assumed he was dead. So my intentions, while highly immature, weren’t exactly murderous: I simply hoped that my mom would clean that shit up if I just left it there.)

(Yeah, I realize that doesn’t make it all that much better.)

Anyway. The balcony plants are done for, their demise accelerated by my purposeful neglect over the last few weeks. And I know they wouldn’t have made it much longer anyway, but I’m still plagued with a faint guilt that I didn’t try my very best to help them make it to their natural end.

But at least I learned a few things from the experience. Next year’s terra cotta balcony farm will be bigger and better. On the hollow stems of this year’s crop, I pledge to:

1) Choose smaller species and/or bigger containers. This was definitely my number one mistake in choosing and potting my plants. According to the guy at the nursery, a too-tiny pot was almost certainly responsible for the fall of the tomatoes: the pot didn’t have enough soil to hold an appropriate amount of water for the plant, and the thing literally died of thirst, even though I watered it constantly.

(Also, I probably shouldn’t have chosen big beefsteak tomatoes to grow in a tiny clay pot. Grape tomatoes or little romas would have been a better choice. In retrospect: DUH.)

2) Keep the bush trimmed nice and short. Many of my plants (particularly the basil and the oregano) got really “leggy” over the course of the season, probably from me trimming them infrequently and/or poorly. In the end, my basil plant actually looked like a little basil palm tree: its stems got really long and reedy and the leaves got smaller and smaller until they looked like little basil fronds atop these freakish stem-trunks:

Kinda neat looking, but not very good for seasoning my pasta sauce.

3) Be a little impractical. They may not be edible, but flowers are nice too. After the tomato plant bit the dust, I replaced it with this random pink and white flower plant that was on clearance at the nursery. It was lovely to look at, attracted pretty butterflies, didn’t need to be picked or trimmed and was seemingly ambivalent about its watering schedule. Win.

So thank you, plant class of 2011, for being my guinea pigs. I know it sounds ridiculous, but until this summer I had never successfully nurtured anything involving soil and water before, and I learned a lot from the experience. And even though the tomatoes were a bust, it was wonderful to have loads of fresh mint (for mojitos!) and fresh sage (for frying in butter!) any time I wanted.

And also, little plants: I’m sorry I’ve let your tawny corpses sit out on the balcony for nearly a month now, basking impotently in the late-autumn sunshine. One of these days, I’ll summon the energy to give you a proper burial.

(Or maybe I’ll just wait for my mom to come visit.)

22 responses to “A grisly scene

  1. haha. Totally I’ve been feeling guilty looking at my quickly dying pepper, tomato, and cucumber in my container. The pepper is surprisingly perky.

    Poor things.

    • The peppers were the last things to hang on in my garden, too. They seemed to have quite the will to live, in spite of my efforts to kill them.

  2. When I was little I used to catch all manner of critters and store them in old frosting containers (with slits cut in the lid so they could breathe, haha) on my windowsill, and every day after I went to school my mom would dutifully free the captives in the back yard knowing that I would have forgotten them by the time I got home.

  3. I can’t believe you made what could have been a rather dry topic (get it?) into something THAT riveting. Definately one of your best non-running posts!

  4. I was guilty of planticide earlier this summer when it got blazing hot outside and I let my poor basil out to fend for himself.
    And despite what you might think, sun-fried basil is not very appetizing.
    Also you’re hilarious.

  5. “Keep the bush trimmed nice and short.”
    This has always been my motto.

  6. I think your first season of gardening was a success! Maybe not perfect, but as you say, you can work on bigger and better next year. I, too, feel bad for leaving some of my plants to die in the frost. I took them inside in Sept, but once October hit I decided that the end had come.

    An aside, I’m surprised there’s already been so many days of frost in NC. Somehow it just seems warmer than that. Shows you how much I know!

    • We’re still in the 60s and 70s during the day, but there have definitely been a handful of nights when it’s dipped down in to the low 30s!

  7. Why oh why are we penalized for wanting tall basil?? What is so wrong, horticulturally speaking, about tall basil? (Yep, I do the same thing as you with the basil).

    And I can’t deal with my trail of plant corpses, either. It makes me much too sad, and then I feel like a failure of a plant haver. If it must be done, I call in the machete-happy husband to do the funeral rites. It’s a trade-off: I do the bugs, he does the plants.

  8. Hey friend,
    Love the post, very funny.
    But you know what, I believe the herbs, like mint and basil, are perennials–aren’t they? If so, wont they come back next year, like your zombie lizard? Especially, mint. Mint is like the most unstoppable plant ever. Get a little in your backyard, and it is harder to get ride of than the Terminator himself. I had to pull it up for like three seasons straight. I also believe you can keep your herb plants in doors, like near the kitchen window, thereby saving yourself some hassle of playing soccer mom to your plants, shuttling them around everywhere.

    • I am pasting you a link to a discussion board on herbs and perennials. But it looks like you got some hardy perennials in your collection, so they should return. If you live in a zone colder than the hardiness of your plants, you can just bring them in doors, and they will return. If you live within it’s hardiness range, you can actually just leave them outside, and they will come back. Incidentally, this forum I am linking you to is a great resource, full of very knowledgeable people.

    • Um….I had not even considered the possibility that they might come back. I guess that speaks to my level of knowledge here…

      …and now I kinda feel like my balcony is haunted by plant ghosts. But I’m glad I didn’t just chuck ’em! Thanks!

      • You can chop down any remaining plant or stem. Just don’t dig them up. That way you don’t have to see what looks like plant skeletons all winter. But the hardiness zone thing is important. If you live below their hardiness tolerance, they won’t come back.

  9. acck…you mean that actually HAPPENED with Kramer?? I thought it was just a bad dream I keep having over and over again……..

  10. I come from people who can work the land. My grandfather was a landscaper and still handles most of the landscaping at my parents’ house where they live. I even used to go with him on some jobs as a kid. Sadly, I didn’t get any of that knowledge and I’ve actually let a cactus die. Also, I didn’t get any of the seamstress skills my mother and both grandmother’s have.

  11. sometimes plants actually grow back the next year stronger and better than ever, just to spite your efforts to maim them, trick you trying to be all “underdoggish”. Then once you are appreciative and proud that you managed to suck another year outta them- they die. I’ve got no experience in planting anything. none at all…. :-/