For the Queen Gardener, stumbling upon a thriving African Violet is a pulse-quickening experience, like the surprise of finding oneself in a room with a man so beautiful that one can only drool and covet. Like these too-beautiful men, African Violets usually pop up in the most unusual places and at the most unexpected times: in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, sparkling under the fluorescent lights at the local library, in your brown-thumbed mother’s living room, for Christ’s sake!
“Who is that,” you ask her with bated breath. It’s just a casual but insistent whisper of inquiry.
“My insurance agent,” she replies, adding sternly, “leave him alone.” She is quick to catch on, but you pay no mind. You are busy contemplating how many types of insurance you could possibly purchase and what you will name the inevitable wire-haired terrier after the oh-so-gay wedding. Err, I mean union.
May I suggest Violet, a lovely name for a dog that is guaranteed to be a dysfunctional child of divorce? No insurance against that. But I digress.
Be fooled not by these come-hither sightings of good cheer and visual distraction, for the African Violet is akin to that gorgeous hunk of man flesh in more ways than you might expect. Both are advertised as low-maintenance and carefree, but in reality they are fickle, demanding, and prone to pouting if they don’t get their way. But even worse, although both wither in the face of neglect, neither responds well to obsessive attention. They become downright ugly! A precarious balance is required to keep these ones happy.
I know that the persnickety African Violet and the unnaturally beautiful man are best idolized from afar. Leave them to their respective conservatories and greenhouses, to glossy spreads and sticky DVD’s, or to those random and senseless sightings in far-flung environs that seem engineered to upset one’s equilibrium. For it is far from the realm of possibility that we mere mortal gents can keep either an African Violet or a hunky boyfriend happy for any length of time.
Alas, although I know this intellectually, my heart and loins continue to betray me. I have been unable to resist. I want them; I deserve them. To this end I, and every other horny participant in the history of gay gardening and man-on-man love, undertake the valiant and all-consuming task of paying particular attention without seeming to be overbearing. We toe that thin line wavering between willful neglect and overzealous caretaking that is necessary to keep these charming specimens – the African Violet and the beautiful man – content.
They exhaust me, and I must give up on both. In my Garden of Good Sense, there can be no African Violet and there can be no man whose beauty overshadows his unworthiness.
But since this is a gardening how-to book, and I can sense your obsession from here, my advice on African Violets follows. You might try the same approach for the too-beautiful man, although I have to say I’ve had better luck with the Violets. I once kept one alive for six months, which is three months longer than I’ve ever been able to keep a too-beautiful man.
Keep your Violet pot-bound. Unlike most men, the Violet prefers to be contained. The Violet’s root system is shallow (as is the too-beautiful man’s), and you will want to keep the soil consistently moist but not soaked. Always water from the bottom (the same is true for some beautiful men, while others prefer being attended from the top. You’ll have to find out your too-beautiful man’s preference on your own. Oh, but what fun the discovery! Please send detailed notes. And photographs.)
Use a drainage tray beneath your violet that is a bit deeper than usual, and once a week (under normal household circumstances) pour ½ to 1 inch of room temperature water in the tray. Cold water will shock the roots and cause spots to form on the leaves. After ½ hour, drain any water that remains in the tray. Never – NEVER! – allow the pot to sit in the water for any longer. Never water from the top or otherwise get the crown (where the leaves come out of the soil) wet. If so, rest assured the entire plant will morph into mushy brown goo, from which there is no recovery.
Violets prefer filtered but bright east or west light, warm temperatures (71 – 85 °F), and high humidity. Fertilize with a weak solution every two weeks. Don’t over-fertilize or goo happens. Insufficient light will cause failure to flower, light too harsh will burn the leaves. Any variations from the norm can cause shock and death. To the violet, of course, not you, although in a drama queen moment following an angst-riddled too-beautiful man experience, I may have wished for death. But then that is a story best saved for another day.
My mandevilla vine (Mandevilla splendens) is stalking my peach tree. And like most stalkers, it will not be deterred. Every morning, I tenderly unravel the vines which overnight have magically traveled the distance to the lowest hanging peach branches and begun twisting their way upward. I push them back toward the trellis I have installed for their twining pleasure, but by first light of the next morning they have once again abandoned their intended perch and in darkness crept across the distance separating them from the peach tree (directly away from the trellis), to begin their skyward twirl. That plant has a mind and purpose which seems outside of my influence. It is a peach stalker.
I don’t quite understand stalking; I have never stalked anyone. Exacted revenge? Certainly. Once. And it came to no good end. I have nothing but regrets about that action. Regarding stalking, though, I am of the opinion that no matter the depth and strength of my obsession toward a love target, if he indicates that he is done with me then I choose to believe it is over. I so much prefer to withdraw and nurse my shattered self with some vodka (a bunch) and the sympathy of good friends. I can’t see myself violently pursuing a boy who doesn’t want me. That route is just too much of an embarrassment. But that’s just me.
Vines, however, stalk at will. They are headstrong, and one can never force them to do what one wants if what one wants is against their will. I’ve never been able to get a climbing rose (Rosa selections) to clamber, or ivy (Hedera selections) to cling to the wall I envision covered in soft green, or a clematis vine (Clematis selections), or mandevilla for that matter, to gather herself on a trellis and toss her flowered mantle to the breezes. I tried. I vainly tied, staked, nailed, stapled, wired. I employed the use of ladders, hammers, clippers, staplers, and a myriad of other equipment and supplies, but all to no avail. I was always left with a mandevilla twined in the peach tree or a clematis that had to be hacked back were I to enjoy my nightly TV “stories”, as it had weighed down the wire that brought the cable to the house (looking absolutely stunning the entire time) rather than embrace the hand-made trellis.
During some of my Denver years, I was a renter in a tidy little bungalow that included on the lovely grounds the single remnant of a long-ago disabled clothes line: one crucifix-like pipe stanchion, a six foot, rusted “T” at the far, sunny end of the side yard. I could have dug it out, but the whole thing was anchored in a huge mass of concrete. Had I chosen the digging-out route, I would have been left to deal with a massive rock attached to a metal cross, with no hope of the city accepting it at the municipal disposal facility. Best to just leave it be and adorn it as I could.
For the first few years I lived there, I dangled baskets of tuberous begonias off each end off the crossbar, to good effect. They were very pretty. But like all gardeners, if it isn’t permanent I get bored and start itching to try a new scheme. One early morning as I wandered home from some illicitness, taking the back alley route which led to the gate of my little back yard, I couldn’t help but notice a multitude of stunning blue morning glories (Ipomoea tric) covering the neighbor’s chain link fence to gorgeous effect. In the early morning sun, the vibrant yet soft blue was radiant and I knew I had to have some. That is when I came up with the brilliant idea of planting those same morning glories around the base of the upright pole and allowing the vines to grow along wires I affixed to the horizontal crossbar, extended downward at intervals to the base of the upright pole in a sort of inverted triangle. I envisioned a beautiful blue inverted triangle.
That is not what I got.
Those demented vines grew contrary to all rules, lateral and along the ground toward my own chain link fence, which by summer’s end they had covered with blue-hued glee. Those morning glories ignored my triangular plea and, instead, stalked the chain link fence. And there they flourished.
I have only been stalked once that I know of, during those same Denver years, when I was still too young to know better than to get myself entangled in a stalking situation. Oh, the whole affair of my stalking is such a torrid story – as embarrassing as being a stalker myself but perhaps evens a little more pathetic in that I was the victim, not the perpetrator.
Crazy Bill and I dated for five years, which for me in those days was an eternity. However, despite the relative endurance of that relationship, we never did cohabitate. The reason? He already cohabitated with another man (had for many years!); a wealthier and more established man who offered security but who, apparently, did not offer much in the line of sex.
Oh, dear reader, that is an area in which I had goods to offer.
In retrospect, I think I have misnamed my ex-boyfriend. Crazy Bill, hell; he should be called Lucky Bill, getting his bills paid and his (bleep) (bleeped) all at the same time. That was one scenario where being the man in the middle certainly paid off!
I am not proud of that period of my life, but I also don’t apologize. In today’s vernacular, it was what it was. I got what I needed at the time, Crazy Bill got what he needed, even Bill’s partner, I suppose, got what he needed in some way (perhaps just a boyfriend who no longer clamored for sex).
Eventually, though, I realized that there was no real long-term future for me with this married man. If I stayed, I was forever relegated to be the concubine, the “other”. So I broke it off, and that’s when all hell came undone.
Post-dumping, the first time I dragged a handsome and willing young man home from the dance club, Crazy Bill lurked not far behind, hiding in the night shadows of that same back alley as the morning glory fence, perhaps even hiding behind them. In the middle of my tryst with that boy, unable to inhibit his emotions, His Craziness slashed the tires on both of our cars.
That was an expensive piece of (bleep).
Later that week, Bill filled my mailbox with condoms – a lucky happenstance, I thought in my new singlehood, until a more rational friend pointed out that each of them might contain one single pinprick of revenge.
For the remaining two years I lived in Denver, until I got the wiser and moved in secret to Seattle, I got used to seeing him loitering in the background as I walked to work, as I enjoyed coffee with friends, as I basically did anything, anywhere. He was everywhere I was in Denver, until I chose not to be there any longer.
Vines are the Crazy Bills of the plant world. They decide where they will sneak and to what they will affix themselves, without permission or authority. And don’t think for a minute that you can just chop them back at will, for they come with indecipherable pruning rules.
Clematis, for example: according to the wisest and wittiest gardening book ever, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi, there are three groups of clematis. There are the Florida, blooming on old wood in the summer; the Patens, flowering on old wood in spring; and the Jackmanii, flowering on new wood in summer and autumn. And here is where we find the trouble. Have you ever seen a happy clematis vine? It is a jumble of stems, and there is nothing one would really even venture to call “wood”, a description that can be intelligently applied to trees or anything resembling them, but is unintelligible when applied to a tangle of wires twisting here and there and everywhere. Who could determine which is old and which is new? Like Eleanor, I don’t dare take my clippers to them, scraggly as they may become.
Should I cut back the peach-stalking mandevilla? How about the fig vine (Ficus pumila), bought on impulse back when I was obsessed with figs, which has attached itself to the south-facing brick wall of my balcony garden. It climbed the eight foot expanse and now threatens to crawl along the underside of the overhanging ceiling. That one affixes itself by virtue of holdfasts, one of the three methods that true vines use to climb. In this case, the fig vine uses tiny rootlets that penetrate the bricks and mortar to hoist its heart-shaped leaves skyward; other holdfast vines use adhesive discs, like some ivies. The other two methods that true vines use to affix themselves to whatever they choose as support are twining (like my mandevilla) either by main stem or leaf stems (like clematis), and tendrils, which are specialized stems that instinctively curl around whatever they contact (like grapes (Vitis specimens)). There are also plants we loosely refer to as vines that employ none of the above, rather, they lean against a support until the stem becomes sufficiently rigid to hold itself upright, such as tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and climbing roses.
Vines do not lend themselves to pruning. They are wild creatures who roam at will. There is really no controlling them and, honestly, why would one want to? These days, I tend just to leave them alone and hope beyond hope that they will cooperate with my plans. But I don’t force them; I am afraid they will become even more headstrong in their growth pattern and seek revenge.
I am not much in favor of revenge. Except in the one previously-mentioned instance. That time, after a reasonable period had elapsed following the tire-slashing incident, say, enough time for a certain Queen Gardener to know that sufficient water had flowed under the bridge for focus and suspicion to diminish, I accidentally found myself in the darkened alley behind Crazy Bill’s house.
Why must stalking and/or revenge always involve a dark alley?
Next thing I knew all of the air had been let out of all four tires of his car. But no slashing; Queen Gardener doesn’t stalk around alleys in the dark with a knife! Oh, and there also may have also been one long, nasty retribution scratch the length of the driver’s side door.
Damn that felt good.
But therein we discover the trouble with the dish called revenge: it is prone to an irreversible backfiring, even when it is served cold as I had heard was best. By the time of my dark-alley action, Crazy Bill had indeed changed anger focus and, instead of aiming his considerable fury at the true keying and air-letting culprit, he struck back at an innocent chap who he’d been fighting with about some entirely different topic at the time. His Supreme Insanity wreaked misdirected havoc on that poor bystander. He destroyed the guy’s garden (Round-up sprayed widely), house (furniture tipped and heirloom china shattered) and car (wood varnish poured externally and internally). He even girded a century old pine in the fellow’s front yard that he, the innocent one, was especially fond of.
Lesson learned for me: revenge is a dish that should not to be served at any temperature. I never confessed to my acts (until now), but I did pinky-swear with myself never to lower to that muckity level again. I cannot be responsible for that kind of destruction.
Vines, however, have no problem with destruction. Google “vines” and you will immediately be enlightened as to their demonic power. There is a substantial amount of cyberspace occupied by vivid descriptions of the widespread damage being caused by vines. But here is the thing: the destructive ones tend to be introduced by human hands only to become invasive. Kudzo vine (Pueraria lobata) from Japan was introduced as a quick growing ground stabilizer for new highway construction sites, and is now overtaking and burying the forests in the US Southeast. Mile-a-Minute vine (Persicaria perfoliata) was accidentally introduced in this country when its seeds were included with holly seeds sent from Eastern Asia to a Christmas tree farm in York, Pennsylvania. With its perfect triangular leaves and stabbing thorns, she is at war with the Asiatic Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), also from East Asia and introduced for the lofty purpose of floral arrangements, to see who can most quickly overtake vast swaths of Massachusett’s forests. Both will eventually threaten the entire East Coast and Southern states. Why, even the beloved English Ivy (Hedera helix) is bringing stately old trees to their knees left and right across this country.
Not all destructive vines were introduced, however; some destroy in their native habitat and in the exact manner for which they evolved. Remember that fig vine presently attaching itself to my patio’s brick wall? It is also called Strangler Fig in temperate climes and is known to overtake and kill the most vibrant of rainforest trees.
The vines kill trees in various ways: they gird by compression, or they overgrow and block from the canopy the necessary sunlight. Sometimes they overpower the tree and crash it to the ground by sheer mass. Here in DC, ancient maples, oaks and elms have all met this demise. Blame the English Ivy.
Other vines stab long, nutrient-stealing roots into the very heart of the tree and slowly starve it to death. Some vines even work contrary to nature: rather than light, they seek darkness. The have evolved to send their long runners toward the heart of that darkness, like a crazy man in a back alley with a knife, for they intuitively understand that there in the darkness they will find a tree trunk which they can climb to the sun and, in a perverted case of delayed stalker gratification, overtake and kill that host.
Such is the story of stalking.
But the vine’s destructive nature is not limited to the natural world. They damage man-made structures by sheer will as well, crawling under and prying off clapboards, poking their persistent noses through tiny cracks, into windows and under foundations to see what hell they can play, deteriorating brick and mortar with their rootlets and adhesive disks.
Like all dedicated stalkers, the vines refuse to be stopped by either nature or man.
Still, I love the vines. As destructive as they can be in the wild, especially when introduced to their ideal environment with nary a natural restriction or enemy, vines in a planned garden are pure beauty (whether or not they follow my directions; although most likely they won’t).
I like wrestling with the vines. Of all the plants, they are the most visibly alive and vigorous. There is something extremely beautiful about a vine stretching into the unknown, searching for an anchor. It reminds me of my own, random life.
And those vines of the garden variety, when they prosper, are show-offs. They demand the spotlight. My variegated sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), which got a slow start due to shade earlier in the year, now both dangles and climbs in tender green and delicate pink in a full ten-foot cascade along my balcony railing. It fairly commands that those at street level pay attention to my eighth-floor garden. “Look,” it seems to yell to those below, “Look only at me!” And we do look; we admire the vines’ acrobatic feats, their delicate arches, their wandering ways, and their independent natures.
Vines know one of the truths of life and relationships: you can’t make someone love you – you can only stalk them and hope for the best.
Once in a while, some odd turn of American life takes one over and one has no choice but to address it. Such was the case this week. As I wrote this chapter, an all-encompassing on-line and live action debate swirled over and divided our great nation. I could not ignore it. The impetus? Chick-fil-A. Go figure; there’s something odd for you.
In a nutshell, the owner/COO, Dan Cathy, has gone public with his right wing, anti-gay ideals. He doesn’t believe in gay marriage, doesn’t believe in the rights of anyone to be/act/live gay. He says accepting the gay lifestyle is “inviting God’s judgment” and that gay marriage is “twisted”.
Did you know that in the Brazilian Portuguese language, the word cu, pronounced “coo” (as in COO), means asshole? Interesting tidbit there.
Chatty Cathy bases his belief on the word of the Bible, apparently forgetting that the book is an antique text that also calls for the sale of daughters into slavery and proscribes that a childless widow marry and bear children with the dead husband’s brother. Cu Cathy is certain of his one-dimensional opinions, and extremely self-indulgent in his private interpretation of the scriptures. He is harmfully selective in which scriptures he chooses to enforce. Apparently, if he indeed lends this much credence to the word of Leviticus (the book most often cited as God’s admonition against homosexuality), then he also must avoid non-finned seafood.
Drop that shrimp, Dano!
He also mustn’t wear cotton/polyester blends, plant anything with anything else, or trim the hair on the sides of his head or in his beard.
Really, the way he has fertilized this sprouted national debate is ridiculous. Unfortunately, he backs up all of that ridiculousness with millions of Chick-fil-A(hole) dollars which he donates to agencies and organizations that have the sole intent of defeating the “gay agenda”.
I certainly wish someone would FedEx me a copy of this agenda. As far as I know, the only gay agenda is our desire to live and to love, freely and openly, enjoying all the basic rights granted to everyone else. Period. End of agenda.
In my big gay opinion, Dan Cathy is simply a self-indulgent blankety-blank. Because I don’t appreciate his stated cultural restrictions, I will spend my allotment of fat-loaded, fast-food money elsewhere. That COO-hole has activated my big red angry button and will never get another $6.95 from me. I leave those flat little Chicken sandwiches to those flat-minded little Christian sheep who blindly follow, voicing support for Cathy’s “freedom of speech” even though that speech directly opposes the freedom of an entire group of people.
Ain’t that kind of Christian love a wondrous thing?
I can’t help but think of the number of young and tender lives the recent “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” must have negatively and irreversibly impacted. It apparently wasn’t enough for Cu Cathy and his flock that a teen-aged gay boy already had to hide his God-given sexuality for fear of the bully down the block or the gym class teacher who doesn’t understand the spectrum of human sexuality. No, for Cathy and the flock it wasn’t damaging enough that the gay boy already felt alone, isolated and abnormal. Now, thanks to “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day”, that boy has had the ultimate pleasure of watching a huge, ignorant swath of our country show up to declare their distaste for his sexuality, their distaste for his culture, and their distaste for him.
The whole Chick-fil-A spectacle smacks of overindulgence, from the spewing of rhetoric to the lining up to buy low-quality fast food to the smirking photos posted on Facebook by unenlightened everyday citizens and pseudo-celebrities. Won’t they be embarrassed in thirty years when their smug photos are still circulating, but in those changed times being used to illustrate how backwards certain facets of our society used to be?
Reminds me of my poor, silly mother, who I am sure is watching from her heaven, horrified. She was never anyone’s sheep, and certainly never advocated denying anyone any rights that she herself enjoyed. My lovely mother would have detested Mr. Cathy and his hate-filled mission. She would have proudly joined my personal boycott of Chick-fil-A. But that’s not why this nation-wide chicken-sandwich-and-waffle-fry vs. basic-human-rights debate reminds me of her. It’s the general Dan Cu Cathy overindulgence factor that brings her to mind.
One Sunday many years ago I phoned her, as I did every Sunday while she was still with us. At that time I lived eight long, lonely highway hours and three mountain ranges distant, and the weekly call was our primary method of checking in, of maintaining the love connection. Queen Gardener is a mother’s boy, for certain, and proud of it. Almost as proud as I was of my sweet country mother who, even though as Christian as can be, understood that the Bible was written during a different time in history and addressed a different culture’s difficulties. Take note, Mr. Cathy: my mother realized that your God did not make garbage, and told me as much.
But I digress (as usual).
Most often during our weekly chat neither of us had much of importance to report. It wasn’t like we were living extreme lives, me working on my third draft of the gay agenda and she thumping the Bible and everyone who didn’t agree with every word in it. We were everyday people with everyday lives and still we managed to laugh and giggle and gossip a little about the week’s events and whatever misdemeanor antics she or I or my brothers or her grandchildren were up to. We were a basic, loving, mother and son.
But this particular Sunday, not so much. Right away I understood that something was amiss. Drastically amiss. Her usually cheerful speech was slurred and she spoke in a slow monotone. She seemed grouchy, and she forgot what we were talking about half-way through what I just knew was a scintillating topic.
She’s drunk, I imagined with a tiny bit of glee, until I remembered that she rarely drank. And quite honestly, I’d never seen her drunk.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
Obviously, she wasn’t. Oh, the scary things that flitted through my mind: stroke, Alzheimer’s (to follow in her mother’s footsteps), aneurism, alien possession (she did live out in the country). Still, none of them were nearly as entertaining as imagining that she’d simply had too much fun with her bottle of peach schnapps.
“I have a cold,” she explained. She sneezed, as if to emphasize the point. “I drank some liquid cold medication, but it wasn’t working. So I took some cold pills.”
Then I understood. The silly old goose had accidentally overdosed herself, not realizing that both forms of the cold medication contained the same active ingredients. I gently encouraged her to go back to bed and then immediately called my brother. I demanded that he drive the seven miles from his home to her farmhouse post-haste and watch over her for the next twelve hours. I advised that he force liquids – water with lemon, hot herbal tea, clear broth – to help cleanse her system.
The next day when I called her, she was still sniffling, but had returned to her alert self. “I guess more is not always better,” she admitted.
Oh, how I wish Dan Cathy could appreciate that sentiment. He is, of course, entitled to his personal opinion. We all are. But he goes far, far beyond having a personal opinion. Every year, millions of dollars from Chick-Fil-A’s corporate profits are donated to Chick-Fil-A’s wholly-owned non-profit “charity,” the Winshape Foundation. In turn, Winshape donates millions to anti-gay organizations that work toward defeating or repealing same-sex marriage, or attempting to convince people that it is possible to “pray away the gay”, or just generally spreading lies and inciting hatred toward the LGBT community. But it gets worse; these groups hope to not only make an impact here in the homeland, where the gays at least enjoy some of the basic civil rights extended to all citizens by our constitution, but elsewhere. These organizations extol their particular brand of come-uppance on an international platform. For instance, Winshape annually donates to Family Research Council. In 2010, the Family Research Council spent $25,000 lobbying Congress not to condemn Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill.
I am not Christian, but still I pray to some higher power, perhaps simply to the idea of karma, that someday, someone Chatty Cathy loves will end up coming out as one of the gays. In my fantasy, he is forced to deal with the fact that we are everywhere. We exist. We are part of every family – including his – and unlike his beliefs, we cannot be prayed away. Or bought off. We deserve to exist and we deserve to love.
Such is my fantasy.
Years before my dear, Christian mother’s cold medicine overindulgence incident I lived in Salt Lake City: a new gay in a new city (living the relatively urban life for the first time). There were so many things I was unaware of. So many things to learn, such as the fact that so many people hated me/were afraid of me simply because I represented something they did not understand.
At the time, I worked for a Salt Lake County-operated mental health inpatient hospital. We admitted the worst of the worse, including those who had been “de-institutionalized” in the early 1970’s without adequate planning concerning where they would go or who would take care of them once they were booted out of the institution. Especially when they stopped taking their medication, as they all eventually did. When that happened, they most often ended up living on the street, dirty and crazy and un-medicated.
I am certain that Mr. Cathy would have no room for them in his ark, either.
These revolving-door patients were brought back to the hospital as needed, as though for a tune-up. In reality, they mostly required re-medication. Time and time again we cleaned up and stabilized the chronically schizophrenic and then, per the guidelines established in the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, sent them back out into the world for another cycle.
We were a second home to the long-time anorexics who returned to us knocking on death’s door with the boniest knuckles ever. About twice a year we stabilized the gorgeous bi-polar model who started to shoplift the minute she stopped her Lithium. One of our other regulars was the sweet grandmotherly compulsive hand washer who had scrubbed away several layers of skin from her reddened palms. And my personal favorite: the nondescript Mormon housewife who one day reached the limit of her repression and beaned her misogynistic husband with a claw hammer. Then she pushed his head into the toilet. Personally, I thought perhaps he deserved it, but, again, I digress.
I worked at this facility with a wide variety of mental health professionals, and we became an adopted family unit of sorts. I was the Ward Clerk, and as such not directly in charge of patient care, but I was occasionally called upon to help wrestle down an out-of-control patient so that he or she could be shot up with a big hypodermic full of a powerful sedative. My childhood training of defending myself against five older brothers came in handy during this, my Nurse Ratched period.
One of the social workers, a handsome, wild-haired woman named Carole, discovered cocaine. As a result, since we shared intimacies as easily as we shared lunch, we all discovered it. But no one dived as dramatically as Carole. She had always been just a tiny bit insecure, timid in both her personal life and professional life, and the cocaine initially gave her a stage presence that everyone appreciated. We all loved the new, outgoing Carole. Even her clinical skills improved. I remember one patient in particular who benefited from the chemically re-engineered, gregarious and powerful Carole.
Louise was an agoraphobic. She had been re-hospitalized for nearly a year so far during this stint of her hospitalization merry-go-round, and hadn’t yet been able to venture out of her assigned bedroom. One day Carole, in a cocaine-fueled spate of brilliance, talked this woman not only into leaving her room, but exiting the ward and enjoying a walk around the grounds. It might have been that Louise was finally just worn down: the cocaine certainly gave Carole a motor-mouth that just wouldn’t idle. Regardless, we all celebrated Louise’s re-emergence. We celebrated, but none as much as Carole who spent the remainder of that afternoon trekking back and forth to the ladies’ room.
Reminds me of that fabulous old cocaine-era disco song by Klymaxx: “I’ve got a meeting in the ladies’ room, be back real soon . . .”
But Carole didn’t come back real soon. She never came back; the coke got the better of her. Eventually she lost her husband and her children, her private practice, her house and her car. She lost her job at the county mental health inpatient unit. When I last heard of Carole, she was in a low-rent, county-run rehab facility somewhere in Nevada, probably being wrestled down by some country-bumpkin Ward Clerk so that she could be sedated.
Unlike my mother, Carole failed to realize that more is not always better.
As an aside, I want to make clear that I am by no means anti-drug. I came of age in the seventies. I smoked pot long before I drank alcohol, and I am a firm believer in the restorative and creative powers of limited recreational drug use. I’ve tried most of them at least once. Why, give me a Bloody Mary and a fat joint on any given Sunday morning and by nightfall I will have cleaned the house (spotless), edged the lawn (precise), and written something strange (and beautiful).
What I am anti- is, overindulgence.
More is not always better.
I was watching the gardening segment on my favorite morning news program the other day as the very handsome garden expert talked about the main problems home gardeners face. Immediately my gaydar kicked in.
“Fellow Queen Gardener!” the damn thing fairly screamed.
For many reasons. It might have been his tight pink polo shirt or his sexy, collagen-enhanced smile. Or the way he spoke with a slight lisp. It might have been the hipster haircut and glasses, or the fact that he seemed just too well put together to be outside digging in the dirt. But none of that mattered: what mattered was that he was, indeed, a very handsome garden expert, and that meant he bore listening to.
Come to find out, at least according to Mr. Very Handsome, the two most common mistakes home gardeners make are: 1) over watering; and, 2) over fertilizing.
Grrrr. My infatuation was beginning to fade. I hate it when the cute ones hit just a little too close to home. Why couldn’t he just be way-too-handsome and leave it at that? Why did he have to be smart and correct as well?
I took what he was saying personally. I imagined that he was pointing his well-manicured finger directly at me and tsk-tsking about my own overindulgent nature. In fact, I had to hang my head in shame, for those two errors – over watering and over fertilizing – are, indeed, my most persistent gardening blunders. I’ve killed more plants with too much water or too much fertilizer, or both, than most other people on this green Earth have ever even tried to grow.
That’s a sad, sad statement. But like most sad, sad statements, it’s also a true, true statement.
Mr. Very Handsome was attemping to enlighten his viewers about the same basic tenant I have been drilling into you, my dear reader: more is not always better. Although he was talking about water and fertilizer, he could very well have been talking about life in general. He might as well have just mentioned the overindulgent Cathy Cu and his misdirected Chick-fil-A dollars.
“More is not always better” holds true in almost all cases. Whether we are talking fertilizer, water, crystal methamphetamine, cocaine, vodka, sleep, sex – anything that in moderation can be helpful or enjoyable, when overdone, simply morphs into too much ugly. Overindulgence begets a hot mess in a hand basket, if I may poetically mix my metaphors.
Over doing “it” is a universal American propensity. We are all drawn toward more, more, more, when in reality, the only thing that comes to my mind that more of is better, is money. And that’s not a problem I have yet had to deal with.
Oh, but were I to have more money than I knew what to do with. If I did, Mr. Chatty Cathy would have a run-for-the-money counter-protest for his dollar-fueled hate mongering. As is, all I can do is withhold my personal $6.95 per Chick-fil-A lunch and ask that those who love me, or love the concept of basic human rights for all, do the same.
Fertilizer, water, alcohol, sex, cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, marijuana, cigarettes, sleep … in one way or another the overindulgence in one or all of these has impacted my life. Not that I have personally been overindulgent in all of them – just one or two or most or all of them for brief or extended periods of my life. But only once. Or maybe twice.
But here’s the thing about overindulgence: it’s not just the overindulgent one who is negatively impacted. The overindulgent one also harms the world around him, including those who love him and even those who only deal with him on a casual basis. Or as is the case with Mr. Cathy and his misguided spiritual overindulgence, causing harm to millions of perfect strangers. And I do mean perfect: nothing about their sexuality or their relationships needs to be altered.
I know what I speak of when I talk about the impact of overindulgence. I am the son and brother of alcoholics, the BFF of a former meth-head, the ex-partner of smokers and coke addicts and sex addicts, the co-worker of speed freaks and the chronically lazy and the food-obsessed. Heck, I’ve probably dated every addiction you can imagine. Overindulgence of any sort attracts me and scares me and confuses me. Yet I am as susceptible to over doing it as anyone, including my tendency to over-fertilize.
Fortunately, I have completed a twelve-step over-fertilization rehabilitation program which has been working of late, and my garden is all the happier and healthier because of it. I’ll go in to the twelve steps of the rehabilitation program later, but first, a little background information, such as why fertilizing can be important.
Basically, throwing around a little fertilizer of whatever kind you choose ensures that all the nutrients a plant needs are available to it. Most of us are not fortunate enough to live where the soil contains everything a plant needs. Potted plants in particular are deprived. Plants need nitrogen, phosphorous and other key minerals to grow, or they suffer, stunt, and wither. Like those anti-humane “family values” organizations might quickly go under if I didn’t get my wish, if Dan Cathy and his ilk continue to throw all that sandwich and waffle fry money their way. Alas, he does continue to use his Christian chicken money for that very purpose, and those organizations continue to prosper, just like plants lucky enough to receive timely and moderate applications of an appropriate fertilizer will prosper.
There are many kinds of fertilizer. First, there are organic- or chemical-based compounds. I am a proponent of the organic variety, although it is important to note that all fertilizers, whether of chemical or organic origin, are basically providing “chemicals” to the plant. There are slow release fertilizers, rapid release, water soluble, pellets to be raked into the soil, fertilizers that are applied via foliage application, etc. You can also use manure (more on that in a minute) or fertilizers made from plant materials (such as compost – more on that shortly, too).
Are you getting a sense of the fertilizer confusion issue? Hell, I am the one writing this and now even I am confused! Which makes me crave vodka. But only one; more is not always better. OK, maybe two. Two is not really more, is it? And if I make them strong enough, I might be able to lose count. Winky face.
If I lived back on the farm, I would have access to plenty of animal and chicken manure which is, in reality, an ideal fertilizer – once it has cured in the weather for a season or two. One must never apply uncured or wet manure to your plantings as its acids and salts are just too concentrated. In the case of uncured manure, more is definitely not better. In fact, none is best. If you mistakenly apply uncured manure, it will immediately burn your green babies – in the same way that when a dog pees on the lawn, a round, yellow dead spot appears in the grass.
Back on the farm, though, manure was a treasure. Twice a year…spring and fall…we donned boots and gloves and surgical masks to shovel out the cow barn and the Chicken coop. We piled the smelly, raw manure and straw and other truly organic materials on a dry, rocky knob behind the barnyard, where it would cure. That, my friend, was exhausting work, but the results were gardening gold.
When it had cured for at least six months but preferably a year, we used a specific piece of farm equipment called, appropriately enough, a manure spreader to distribute that farming gold over the alfalfa fields, the pasture, and the two-acre garden plot.
Oh, man, what I wouldn’t do for some chicken shit these days. Just a touch would do me. However, as ideal as cured manure is as an organic and complete fertilizer, I am fairly certain that the upscale neighbors in my in-city condominium community would vociferously object to my spreading any feces, cured or uncured, on my balcony. I am as certain that I would be heavily fined and/or evicted. There you have the reason for my fertilizer of choice: organically-derived, water-soluble, and nasally-acceptable. And organically-certified. It is in granular form, tinted blue, but those little plant happy-drugs originated from 100% organic sources.
I would trade my left (insert body part here) for a compost pile or bin. Compost is the number one very best soil conditioner known to man. A healthy topping of compost can take the place of many, many fertilizer applications. But, again, it is a matter of space. Although, honestly, if you are lucky enough to have a tiny bit of leftover space, say a corner under a tree that doesn’t lend itself to garden plantings, a simple chicken wire and four-by-four compost cage can certainly go miles toward amending any soil issues you are dealing with. And provide somewhere to dispose of those pesky lawn clippings and fall leaves and all those other garden and vegetable kitchen wastes. Given a liberal application of compost every spring, most gardens require much less, if any, additional fertilizer. A compost cage is truly is a gardener’s luxury, but alas, one afforded only to those who have space. I live a cramped life, so I rely on other means.
Most water-soluble fertilizers like the one I use can be applied directly to the foliage, bypassing the root absorption process. This works very well on ground-planted gardens or herbaceous borders, and is much easier than applying the water-soluble fertilizer by hand one-by-one to the roots of each individual plant. One simply screws on a special garden hose attachment and then sprays everyone down with the fertilizer solution. However, because I grow my garden in various pots and containers, I can’t use this method. For potted plants, foliar application can significantly increase the likelihood of fungal, mold and mildew infections. There’s just something inherently different about plant life in a pot and plant life in the ground.
It is similar to the difference between Cu Cathy’s Christian outlook and my dear, sweet, forgiving mother’s Christian outlook. Go figure.
My advice to you is very straightforward: Step number one of my previously-mentioned twelve-step over-fertilization rehabilitation program is to follow to the letter the instructions that come printed on the container of whatever fertilizer you choose to use. T.O.-T.H.E.-L.E.T.T.E.R. Do not deviate. If the directions say stand on your head and clap the soles of your feet together to the tune of “We’ve Got the Beat” by that fantastic and inimitable group The Go-Go’s, while simultaneously spraying the fertilizer mix from your pursed lips in ten-second intervals, do it. Do not question. Do it. That is the rule number one.
While reading that label for those instructions (or, perhaps, some instructions that are a bit more simple), you will undoubtedly note that there is a series of three numbers. Something like 27-3-3, 6-12-0, 8-8-8, 4-3-3. These numbers mean something, and that something is important.
Those numbers are the product’s “grade”. They refer to the specific percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (potash) contained in that specific fertilizer product. For example, should your fertilizer label numbers be 8-8-8, that means that the fertilizer contains eight percent nitrogen (N), eight percent phosphorus (P), and eight percent potassium/potash(K). This is by weight. So, more simply, one hundred pounds of an 8-8-8 fertilizer contains eight pounds each of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium/potash.
You could research to find what fertilizer grade is recommended for each specific plant specimen you are growing. And then buy twelve or thirty different fertilizer grades. Or, you could do as I do and find a generally appropriate fertilizer and use it on all of your leafed babies. My preferred fertilizer is graded 24-8-16. For my potted plant garden, I apply via roots twice a month during the active growing season, exactly as the instructions indicate, and exactly at the strength the instructions indicate. Rule number one . . .
So far, so good; only eleven more rules to go.
Is it an American trait to want everything to be bigger, better, more perfect? More fertilized? We are, after all, a nation grounded in excess. We overindulge in everything. We are also a divided nation, and whichever self-indulgent side of the divide we stand on, we stick to our guns. Here in the good old USA, my side is the right side. Always. Just ask Mr. Chatty Cu Cathy.
In reality, there are other more moderate and humane options. John Lennon once said, “We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.”
John Lennon said a mouthful there.
You see, problems arise when one loses sight of when too much is simply too much. It’s very easy to think more is better. I’m certain that his holiness Dan Cathy believes he is nurturing the betterment of society when he indirectly advocates for the killing of the Ugandan gays. Like many individuals whose approach to right and wrong and nurturing have been perverted by rigorous and narrow-minded Christian training, Mr. Cathy has lost sight of the consequences of his actions. While entitled to his beliefs, he has forgotten that he has no right to inflict them on the rest of us. Or use them to cause harm.
I am here to argue: more is not always better, whether that be more hatred or more fertilizer. Or drugs. Or religion. Or guns. Or whatever else you may believe in. Here in America, we have never developed an understanding of moderation. And in my humble, personal opinion, moderation is nurturing. In this great country, we over fertilize, over advocate, over preach, and give too much money, always one-hundred-and-ten-percent convinced that our side of the argument is the right side and that what we are doing is the right thing. We fail to realize that a little of a personal opinion is fine and appropriate, but putting too much stock in it is, frankly, too damn much. Forcing your opinion can and will negatively impact others.
But, alas, back to the tangible issue of fertilizer application and what happens when, Cathy-like, you overindulge.
First, recant and apologize. Then . . .
An over-application of fertilizer kills plants by effectively “burning” them. Similar to the dog pee I mentioned previously, and similar to how the sensitive gay youth may feel burnt after having been subjected to the self-indulgent Facebook photos of the “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” participants.
The plant system absorbs an overabundance of soluble salts; the gay youth absorbs an overabundance of ill-will. The salts in the fertilizer cause the plant’s roots to shrivel and water absorption slows. The salt in the ill-will causes the gay youth to further withdraw. The plant’s roots eventually stop working; the plant dehydrates. The isolated child’s feelings of unworthiness skyrocket. Both burn. The plant dies, the gay youth kills himself.
It is important to note that when parents disapprove of a gay child’s sexual orientation, that youth is eight times more likely to kill himself than a non-gay youth. Think about that for one moment, and imagine what seeing his parents’ proud Facebook photo posting of their Chick-fil-A appreciation might instill in a gay child.
Some signs that you may have been over-fertilizing your plants are an excessive amount of leaves or foliage but few flowers, fruits, or other procreative materials. Leaves will begin to yellow around the tips and then look like they have, indeed, been burnt. Some plants more susceptible to chemical imbalance, such as basil or zinnias, may just wilt and wither and then frost over with fungus, appearing as though they have been overtaken by something akin to athlete’s foot.
Some signs that a young gay person may be over-demoralized are withdrawal, a sleep disturbance, lack of interest in activities that the youth was previously interested in, weight changes and eating disorders, demonstration of feelings of worthlessness and guilt such as cutting one’s self or belittling one’s self, crying, irritability. All are such pleasant symptoms, and end oh-so-horribly eight times more often than they do for just the average depressed teen-ager.
Back to gardening, with a confession: I have led you a tiny bit astray. I advertised a twelve-step over fertilization rehabilitation program. That was just to keep you reading. The truth of the matter is, my twelve-step over fertilization rehabilitation program can be reduced. Steps one through ten are: DO EXACTLY AS THE INSTRUCTIONS SPECIFY.
It’s that easy.
However, should you find that in a moment of vodka- or pot- or, what the hell, cocaine-inspired frivolity you have exhibited a blatant disregard for the instructions and over fertilized some poor little green friend, reducing her to a gelatinous mass of white-down-covered foliage, there is hope.
Over-fertilized, potted plants can be saved. You’ll basically have to force the extra fertilizer out by slowly flushing the soil with lots of water. Sort of like my dear, departed mother and her accidental overdose. Then you’ll need to cut off the burned or damaged leaves since they can’t be revived. Finally, you will replant the thing in a new pot with fresh soil and then, after she is established, begin fertilizing according to directions.
For a ground-planted specimen that has been over-fertilized, flush once with a heavy watering and then allow her soil to completely dry before watering again. Remove burned or damaged leaves and withhold fertilizer. Once the plant recovers, if she recovers, begin fertilizing according to directions.
ACCORDING TO DIRECTIONS.
Rule eleven of my twelve-step program concerns the love contained in the world: it is, indeed, like a delicate plant. You must nourish it, taking care to admire and appreciate everyone’s unique possibilities. You must not lose sight of yourself or of the consequences of your actions. You must not become over-arrogant in what you believe. Don’t over indulge. And if you should encounter a gay or lesbian youth who is destroyed by the messages he or she receives daily from people like Mr. Cu-hole Cathy and his ilk, hug that child, tell him that he is perfect as he is and that someday, not so far in the future, he will be in charge of his own destiny. Things will, indeed, get better. Nourish that child like you might nourish a seedling planted with love; give him hope and encouragement and the things he needs to grow.
And lesson twelve? Don’t eat at Chick-fil-A. Hate never made anything grow; repression never nourished a thing. Besides, I hear their chicken comes from an asshole.
No, my gardening friends of a certain age, I am not talking about putting on a tie-dyed tee shirt and following that group of lyrical geniuses about the country in an LSD-induced haze. In this context, deadheading refers to the removal of spent flowers from your annuals and perennials. I also include the removal of dead leaves and unattractive growth in my deadheading efforts. Think of it as good grooming, intended to keep your garden beautiful in the same way that proper hygiene keeps you beautiful. We all know the importance of looking our best!
Picture it: one of the former Mr. Perfects and I stroll along, perhaps on our way to a happy-hour cocktail. The heat of summer intoxicates and the gays feel wicked. The two of us notice a shirtless specimen walking toward us, say, one-and-one-half blocks ahead.
“Damn,” I say, “who dat? He is fi-i-i-ine.”
But as he approaches I realize that something is amiss. His golden locks, so loose and flowing from afar, are matted. They appear not to have been washed this week. They certainly haven’t been cut this year. And it worsens. His torso is covered with splotches of sprouting hair, indeterminate in length and color. And those muscle cuts so defined from way back there? They have become jiggling bulges and rolls.
It is essential for self-preservation at this point that I loudly declare “take backs”. I mustn’t linger, though. “Take backs” are overridden if that former Mr. Perfect were to notice the receding illusion of beauty before I do, and interject with “no take backs.” Then I am simply stuck with the horror and humiliation of bad grooming admiration. Dirty nails and all.
You don’t want that for your garden, do you? In much the same way that a haircut can put a whole new shine on your day, or turn that budding troll back into a baby doll, deadheading your garden will lift its sagging morale. Gardens need grooming, too.
Spent flowers and leaves are ugly. Period. But if that isn’t motivation enough for you, this detritus not only provides a cozy little habitat for insects, fungus, and other unhealthy organisms (think crab lice, yellow toenails, and scabies on the poorly-groomed man), but removal of the seed-producing part of the plant ensures that it will keep blooming. Just like the lesbian neighbor’s biological clock: as long as she doesn’t have that baby, that clock takes a licking and keeps right on ticking. But give her a baby and the urge diminishes. She is satisfied.
Your marigolds and petunias work in the same way. Let an annual set seed and she is soon done for the season. Her goal in life is continuation of the species and her own internal clock ticks steadily toward seed production. Allow that process to reach completion and she retreats. But remove the spent flowers and her hormones surge. She will produce new blooms.
Deadheading is not rocket science, and any twit with half a brain can ascertain what should go and what should stay. But my little twit, if you have forgotten your half-brain today, just look at your plants; note where the new growth emerges. Then be certain not to cut off that part. But don’t be too cautious, either. Just like grooming yourself, deadheading involves inspecting closely and harshly and then acting accordingly. Most importantly, grooming your garden is no time to coddle your sentimentality. If it’s yellow, dingy, faded, overgrown or leggy, spent, frayed, or spotted, get rid of it. You can pinch or you can carry garden scissors, whichever suits you. And don’t just remove dead and damaged leaves and petal-less flowers: reshape and prune overgrown plants and for goodness sake get rid of any plants that have died.
If you are less than a half-brained twit and really can’t figure out how to trim that plant, look it up on the internet (my apologies to all those who are less than half-brained twits; I mean no disrespect, but please refrain from deadheading anything. In fact, avoid sharp objects). Ask your local nurseryman. Ask a gardening friend. The information is out there.
There are some generalizations that you can safely follow. When clipping spent flowers, you are usually safe to make the cut just above the first true leaf on the main stem, which is where new growth and subsequent flower buds will originate. For roses, this traditionally means just above the first five-leaf set. For annuals, it generally means removal of the entire flower bud and stem at the point it branches from the main plant stem. If the blooms emerge from a central stem (think hollyhocks or gladiolas) then pluck each spent flower from the stalk and leave the unopened buds alone. Once the stalk has finished blooming cut it off just above the basal growth (the mound at ground level). If the plant is a bloom-covered heap (picture dianthus) wait until there are more seed pods than blooms or fresh buds, and then “mow” with shears. The plant may look straggly for a short time but it will recover and most likely bloom again. The ornamental grasses should not be deadheaded until early spring, at which point you may cut old growth to ground level in preparation for the new year’s growth.
One final note: when deadheading species that traditionally reseed themselves (bachelor’s buttons, hollyhocks, cosmos, etc.), it is important that you allow sufficient seeds to mature for the next year’s growth.
‘Nuff said. Now get to work. And wax that back while you’re at it.