My seeds are needy. And I guess like any parent of dependent plant life, I’m wondering how I let this happen, and trying to figure out a way to wean them from the comfort of the great indoors.
The reality is this is my fault. Starts do come with instructions. Sure, a happy outcome is never guaranteed, but I thought I had a handle on things: Sow them inside until the soil warms, schedule a few play dates in the sun, then off they go to make their way in the ground. But apparently there is more to it than that.
One evening last week D was reading at the kitchen table and I lifted his magazine so it didn’t crush a delicate green tendril curling his way. He didn’t even look up. To my left half a dozen cucumber plants appeared to be creeping across the counter in search of new space. The time had come.
A few days later it was in the mid-seventies and sunny—perfect—I thought —for taking the cucumber starts outside for the first time and begin preparing them for life outdoors. As I placed them on top of their garden bed I imagined they would stretch towards the sun and bask in the light. Besides, they can’t live in the kitchen forever.
An hour later, I checked on the plants to find some of their leaves shriveled and vines wilted. It turns out I was cooking them in their clay pots. I moved them into the shade and doused them with water, thinking they were being more than a little wussy. I knelt down and flattened a sun-crisped leaf between my fingers. It was completely singed. I apologized. I’m sorry little guy, we will try again tomorrow. I gathered the starts and put them back inside.
I consulted more experienced gardeners at work who told me my mistake: one needs to transition them slowly from their cushy tabletop lifestyle to the rugged outdoors where temperatures fluctuate, direct sun prevails, and bugs thrive. I have been babying my plants and they have adapted.
And just because I nurtured them into being from day one, I can’t expect them to start producing pickles at my command. They, too, need time to adjust to change. They, too, need time to mature. They just happen to do it much faster than us humans. And we forget that they can get sunburned as well.
It kind of makes me wonder who’s really in charge here. I need the plants in my garden to survive. I need them to become nourishing salads, fresh fried hash browns, and strawberry jam. I need them to help me live; they don’t. All they require is a little sunshine and water and a bee to brush up against them once in a while.
I’m learning that plants grown from seed outdoors are hardier than those grown with human supervision inside. They simply adapt to harsh conditions. Or they don’t. The indoor plants grow accustomed to their needy parents who must have sustained warmth and regular meals or they get cranky. They, meaning, she. (And she being me.)
Yesterday, after a second day of burning up even more of my starts—shade moves!— I got angry. Looking at their scorched leaves, some actually white from the heat, I exploded. What is wrong with you, I bellowed? This is life. Get used to it.
Then I felt bad. First because I was yelling at my plants. Then because I was yelling at my plants I expect so much from. I mean, they are doing the bulk of heavy lifting, converting the sun into food and all. I just show up with my watering can and act put out because it takes an extra ten minutes in the morning.
It’s probably a good thing my plants can’t talk to me. I sit in a climate controlled office all day – never getting too hot or too cold, where water flows freely and bugs only occasionally find their way through the heating vents. If something or someone is bothering me I just get up and walk away. And afterwards, I go home, mix a fantastic martini, and watch episodes of Stephen Colbert with my feet up. My life is hard.
As I took the plants out of the garage this morning and settled them in the backyard I examined their charred leaves. Some are barely holding on, some look like they are bouncing back from the trauma of change. Either way the plants are trying.