I am writing in September -- "National Addiction Recovery Month -- and I feel compelled to admit that I have a problem with compulsive gardening......
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 26, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
My name is Jeremy, and I'm a plantaholic.
(You may respond in unison, "Hi, Jeremy!")
I haven't always been addicted to plants and gardening. In fact, it's only been within the past six years that my hobby of occasionally growing a plant turned into an all-consuming preoccupation with things green and growing. I am now powerless over plants and my life has become unmanageable as a result of my obsession with gardening. Prior to purchasing my current home just six short years ago, it was possible for me to garden as an enjoyable way to pass a few hours. In the vigor of my twenties, I restored a turn-of-the-century garden behind the apartment in which I dwelled at 7 Morton Street in New York City. Later, I delved into vegetable gardening when I owned a house in a rural area after moving back to Jacksonville, Florida.
I have had a few gardening jobs in the past -- working for a nursery or two, tending the massive plant collection of a prominent artist in NYC, being available by the hour to help a landscaper friend with paid jobs, or assisting friends that wanted my gardening expertise.
These minor dabbles in gardening were just passing fancies. They were not the core of my being and the focus of all my attention. Gardening today requires nearly all my energy, and involves my complete mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual capacities.
It may be that some of us are genetically predisposed to gardening addiction by having parents or grandparents that were farmers or gardeners (in the same way that those with a history of alcoholism in their families are more likely to be problem drinkers). I was bred to be a farm hand. I was the youngest of six strapping lads born to parents that had grown up on adjacent farms in the back hills of Appalachia in West Virginia. My grandparents had worked the same land, as did their parents before them. My ancestors may have been farmers back through the eons to that time when neo-humans first plopped down, dropped some grain in the dirt, and gave up their hunting and gathering lifestyle to become agrarians. If I did inherit the gene for gardening addiction, it didn't fully express itself until I came to own the half-acre I currently plant and tend.
The addictive behavior started simply enough -- a pot of marigolds bought on a whim and casually situated by the front door stoop. And there was my decision to buy a root balled live Leyland Cypress (X cupressocyparis leylandii ) instead of a cut Christmas tree for my first holiday season in my new home. It wasn't long, however, before my addiction grabbed hold of me and any trip to a store that sold plants would result in a cart-bursting over-indulgence in potted greenery and garden supplies.
Over the past few years, I have become aware that I love to grow things, but hate to mow and rake. To enhance my bliss and avoid the unpleasant tasks, I decided to fill my entire property with flowerbeds with only narrow walkways between the plantings. I left a mere three-foot strip of existing grass along the front curb as my nod to the suburban obligation for a "lawn." I also found that I don't want an orderly, planned landscape. I prefer the relatively uncontrolled chaos of what I call a "sub-tropical cottage botanical garden." I must possess at least one of everything that can possibly grow in my climate. Accepting these choices as life goals may have been the beginning of my undoing -- the turning points where my dalliance with plants nose-dived to disaster and my addictive behavior began to soar at mach speed.
I don't recall how I discovered DavesGarden.com (DG). This website may have just fluttered, innocently enough, across my computer screen while I was seeking information on some particular plant. I do recall that I immediately felt right at home. At last! I could openly discuss my overt fascination with plants with other like-minded folks without being judged as a social pariah or fringe lunatic. No detail of plant trivia seems too insignificant on DG, and that suits me just fine.
I didn't jump right into the forums on DG. No, I lurked for a while, still in the horticultural closet, eagerly poring over posts by others, inhaling every scribble of garden discussion with drunken delight. I sotted my soul with solitary hours of online gardening depravity: measuring the merits of various manures, sounding the depths of how deeply to plant a daylily, or pursuing advice on the proper posture for the pruning of roses. I succumbed to an overwhelming urge to completely immerse myself in the virtues of bog plants. I was, eventually, totally hooked on the phonics of Latin nomenclature (the "jive-talk" ersatz street slang of plant addicts).
I became totally obsessed with how and when I could get my next plant. I became willing to do anything to get it.
My friends could only watch passively as I surrendered my will and my life to the demon daffodils (I managed to persuade a catalog company to send me an order of three hundred Tazetta Narcissus 'Ziva' bulbs at the wholesale price to satisfy my delusions of grandeur that my half-acre would someday rival the scene of horizon-to-horizon daffodils in "Dr. Zhivago".) My loved ones stood helplessly by as my unquenchable thirst for thistles and teasels and other thorny plants consummately consumed me and tore at my soul.
Unfettered and untreated, my plant addiction only got worse -- much worse. I happened to be in a big box store early one evening, ostensibly for some hardware needs. As usual, the irresistible motivation to tour through the garden center overtook me. I found myself reeling my lumber cart down the aisles of plants. Each of the flowers beckoned beguilingly to me. I was, in this era, already several years into my gardening habit. My declining finances (a situation due in large part to my unrestrained credit card purchases of plants and garden accoutrements) and constant craving for more and more plants necessitated that I resort to buying only the rot gut, cheapest bargain plants. That fateful night, I staggered to the dark recesses at the back of the store and stood longingly in front of the distressed plant rack. My eyes blurred and my tongue drooped as drool poured from the corners of my lips. I considered which half-priced pint I might be able to afford. An unusual tawny orange Asiatic Lily caught my eye, but I could not find the final markdown price on it. Reeking as I was, unwashed and filthy from the sweat of the fields, I grabbed the nearest sales associate, supporting my manure-steeped, sun-stressed frame upon him, and slurred out the question, "How much for this Lilium asiaticum 'Tiger Babies'?"
He looked stunned for a moment, perhaps mistaking the cultivar name for a come-on. "All the plants are marked. The discount plants are all on racks outside the front of the store," he said cautiously, with a hint of contempt and disdain. He attempted to cling to his professional demeanor as he wrenched himself free from the clutch of my eternally split and blackened fingernail nubs.
"I didn't see any discount racks. Show me!" I demanded.
He led me to the front of the garden center. Upon arrival there, he pointed to an eight foot tall by six foot wide by two-foot deep rack of plants (the racks that the plant nurseries use to deliver bulk plant shipments). The rack was completely stuffed with plants. Most of the plants were either totally dry or overly soggy and were clinging, as was I, to the last shreds of a stable life. The entire rack was sealed with plastic wrap, indicating it was to be sold as one lot. A computer-printed invoice on the wrap listed all the dozens of varieties of plants and how many of each plant were included within. The amount, "$10.00," was hand-written at the bottom of the long list of annuals and perennials.
I felt I was in some altered state of Gerbera Daisy induced dementia. Surely, the entire rack could not be offered for the one low price of $10. I hazarded a question to ascertain if this, indeed, was reality or if I had died and had been transmigrated to plant bargain heaven:
"How much are they? My breath was heavy. I exhaled with the unsubtle stench of half-rotting foliage that I was now eagerly swilling, savoring the musty and familiar flavor.
The sales associate stepped back from my swaying presence and ripe aroma to find a more pristine air. "They are $10.00," he said flatly.
"$10.00 for all of them? For the entire rack?" I was so overcome with joy from the prospect that I might get such a huge fix to sate my cravings for so little money that I could barely choke out those questions.
"Yes, $10.00 for the entire rack. We have eight racks here to sell as cell packs. You can take your pick." He started to walk away, content that he had managed to deal with my garden-clogged, disorderly presence with minimal show of condescension.
I swiftly surveyed the eight racks containing a multitude of plant species. The pots were shoved one atop the other, packed tightly as pickled herrings in a tin, onto the racks.
I heard the words come unconsciously, uncontrollably from my lips:
"I'll take them all!"
The sales associate stopped dead in his tracks and turned to look back at me. A look of astonishment played across his face, tinted with a twinge of fright as he saw the greed-induced glassy-eyed gaze of mind numbing plant bargain euphoria that was emanating from me.
"You want them ALL?" He asked, incredulously. "You want all eight?"
"YES!" I could barely contain the insane glee I felt, but I did manage not to dance a jig. Yes! Yes! I want them all! I want all eight!"
It took some time for the cashier and the garden manager to figure out how to input the cell pack purchases into the computer cash register. This was a new transaction for them. I began to fear that they would just give up and the deal would be off. After an hour or so, they finally did have me rung up.
Then the reality sat in. How was I going to load all these plants and get them home? I fortunately had my dilapidated, rusty 1978 Chevy van with twelve-foot cargo space that I had bought for $280 on a lark a few months prior to striking this plant bargain mother lode. It seemed to me that Providence had paved the way by making sure I would have the right vehicle when this unprophesized great fortune came my way. The store was headed toward closing time as I began to carefully pack the multitude of nursery flats into the van. In order to fit them in, I had to determine which plants could withstand the most crushing and how I could space the flats so that the least damage would occur to each precious plant. When finally I had the van stuffed floor-to-ceiling with as many plants as I could possibly cram into it, I realized I had only loaded four of the racks and had four more racks to transport. The store lights began to go out and the associates were locking the gates. I ran to the doors and beseeched them through the black metal bars; eyes wide with desperation, calling out with plaintive pleas that rivaled those of Susan Hayward in "I Want to Live!" --
"Please. I've loaded all I can. Let me leave four racks here. I'll be back for them later."
By this time, they had, I'm sure, determined rightly that I was a raving lunatic. With laughing disregard, I got the answer; "Sure. But you've got to have the plants out of the parking lot by morning."
"Oh, I will. Absolutely, I will!" I was dumbfounded that they could possibly think I would abandon the plants and not return for them. I drove out of the parking lot nervously, half expecting that the store security guards would apprehend me for what felt like a felonious theft of a hefty portion of the garden center inventory.
That night was a long one. It had taken about three hours to load all the plants, about forty-five minutes to travel the distance to my house, and another few hours to unload all the plants. Then I had to repeat the process for the remaining racks still at the store. But I did all the grueling work with maniacal delight, astounded by the more than $8,000 in plants that were mine for a mere $80.00!
The next day, I awoke with frenzied excitement after only a few hours sleep. I was eager to see all my new plant acquisitions by daylight. I found it took many hours of very determined care to triage the plants for their various ailments and general condition. I looked over the battalions of many thousands of incoming wounded. Each, I felt, deserved precise care and a thorough evaluation. Those that were beyond hope were given last rites and sent to the soil recycling bins. Those showing even the slightest glimmer of green were placed in a holding ward in my yard where they could receive appropriate attention to speed their recovery and rehabilitation. The plants were free of insect pests, fungi, bacteria or viral rot. Most were suffering from being over-watered or under-watered by store personnel that had minimal training (and less interest) in the moisture needs of so many different species. Through previous distressed plant purchases, I had gained experience in salvaging damaged plants. I knew most of them would benefit by a controlled reduction in water and being placed for a few days in filtered sunlight. I dubbed an area of my yard the "Betty Ford Clinic." There, the soggy bottomed plants had the chance to rest in the shade and dry out. I was surprised at how quickly the plants responded to the slightest palliative care. Within just a few days, I had dozens of flats brimming with beautiful flowering plants.
A normal person might have stopped there, satisfied with possessing far more plants than anyone could ever reasonably hope to tend and plant. But, I am an addict, and by all accounts, abnormal. I began to habituate the store that had provided me this surplus of blessings. Even though the store was far across town, I beleaguered the garden center managers and staff with nearly daily visits to determine if there were any more cell packs to be had. Whenever they said, "Yes," I would immediately snap up all the racks that were available. I would quickly shove the plants into my old van, sometimes securing hanging baskets to the window visors and ripping out the remnants of the ceiling of the van with my bare hands to expose metal ledges where I could attach more baskets. On many occasions, I had to be certain that I stayed in the far right lane for the entire trip home. A swaying forest of exasperated greenery occluded all the windows in the van. I could not use the side mirrors to determine if any traffic was approaching. Pots of plants were stuffed under the seats and lined up along the dashboard. As the months dragged on and the cell pack deals continued, I eventually created in the van some wedding cake tiered shelves. They consisted of plywood sheets and concrete blocks, precariously balanced at different heights so that I could sort the flats and potted plants and give them the best possible ride home.
I hounded the store staff for more cell packs so incessantly that they finally said, "Give us your phone number. We'll call you when we have something." That began a yearlong ritual of me waiting anxiously for the call to come, then heading out right away to go gather up the next horde of disenfranchised plants. The store garden center managers would call just about every week -- sometimes twice a week. They began to realize that I was doing them a service by hauling away the trash that they would otherwise need to drag to the dumpster and toss out.
I also began to sense that the garden center managers shared my sincere respect for the life of the plants. We all realized that, despite some inept care, the plants were, for the most part, completely recoverable and could go on to full, happy lives. With what would probably be diagnosed by my psychiatrist as a hero-ideation complex with more than a touch of megalomania, I justified my compulsion to haul off every available cell pack by believing myself the rescuer of these otherwise doomed plants in the way that Schindler had been the emancipator of Jews during the reign of the Nazis. It became my deific duty to take every available plant (though I must admit that just after December 31, I was less than thrilled to haul off about four hundred pitiful, purloined poinsettias). I was especially overjoyed when the time came each month for the out-of-flower orchid plants to be discarded as cells. The orchids seemed like a special reward for my devoted service. My heart would also leap at some of the exotic shrubs, plumerias and other tropicals, shelves of "Angel Brand" mini-plants, and cultivar roses that came my way. I processed thousands of perennials, tens of thousands of annuals, and filled my garden to overflowing whenever I had a moment to spare from the triaging and tending.
I was also able to act with great largesse, far more than my meager pension income would ever allow, providing plants to whoever wanted them. I had impromptu mini-round ups for DG friends. You can imagine the ecstasy that overcame these fellow plant fanatics when they were allowed, like children in a candy shop where all the candy is free, to load their vehicles to the strapped-down max at "all-you-can-haul-free-for-alls." We sometimes met, like furtive drug smugglers (only with completely legal plants), in dimly lit parking lots at various locations around the state to pass along plants. I was able to fulfill the gardening needs of local schools, nursing homes, senior centers, and other community groups that had no funds for plants. Word spread through the gardening community about the availability of the plants. I made many friends that stopped by often. Some people caught the fervor of the enterprise and would provide me some cash to keep the supply flowing.
But the plants eventually ruled my life, instead of me being in control of my desire to adopt and care for them. I would sometimes get the call to come pick up the plants late in the evening and would summon up whatever remnants of energy I might have to make the trip long after dark to load them. There would often be more plants than I could haul in one load and I had to resurrect my energy from the first haul to make two or more trips back and forth to the store to get all the plants. My half-acre yard became so full of plants in pots and flats that it was reduced to narrow single footfall paths surrounded by teeming oceans of pots. I began to worry that my neighbors might report me for being a public nuisance. (Is there an ordinance for "Excessive Plants?"). I felt somewhat secure, however, in the knowledge that, by now, after my neighbors had coexisted with the dump truck load of twenty-five cubic yards of horse manure that had been "curing" in my driveway for about eight months, and were tolerating my pesky Peking duck that chases the mail lady and other passersby, they may well have decided I was truly insane. It was in their best interests that they not do anything to upset me lest I go on an axe-wielding rampage -- an attitude I have carefully cultivated in all that know me to help ensure my complete personal freedom.
As the gardening addiction further gripped my soul, all my other activities and interests fell to the wayside. I stopped oil painting, let home remodeling projects go stale, and stopped going to the gym. My only activities became not much more than sleeping, eating, and tending to distressed plants. My relationship with my fiancee, Christina, began to suffer. She finally said the words I knew were coming, "You love the plants more than you love me!" I assured her that was not correct, but deep down, I knew it might be true.
About five months ago, I finally was forced to go "cold turkey" with withdrawal from distressed plant rescue. A new regional manager for the big box store came to town, full of innovative ideas. He eliminated the cell pack system. Instead of me paying the store to haul away the "garbage," all the plants that did not sell when marked down to 50% off were required by his new policy to go to the compactor. The store would then pay a hauler to load the compressed plant refuse and take it to the landfill, paying the dump fees while also unnecessarily using up landfill space. There was no logic I could see for the decision. There was also no mercy for me or for the plants.
Without my weekly methadone injection of a few thousand plants, I became severely depressed. I moped, dejected, irritable, and resentful for several weeks. It was months before I could return to the garden center, knowing that I would have to turn a deaf ear to all the plants screaming to me for salvation. They were irretrievably scheduled to be squashed due to corporate curmudgery. I especially wanted to weep when I would see the orchids languishing on the half-price shelf with spent flowers, still healthy, but neglected and no longer floridly festooned, waiting with little hope of reprieve for the day the callous executioner would arrive to crush the life out of them.
My saga of gardening addiction didn't end there. I continued to pursue every available means of satisfying my need for plants. I was accepted at our local Extension Office for Master Gardener training and met other gardening addicts there. My finances were grossly in the red from my garden addiction, so I looked for a part-time job to supplement my income. When I heard that our local zoo was planning a botanical garden, I leapt at the chance to volunteer to do whatever I could to assist in making my long-held dream of a botanical garden in Jacksonville come to fruition. Checking online, I found some part-time job offerings at the zoo: operator for the mini-railroad ride and zoo exhibit guides. Needing quick cash, I decided to apply. During the job interview, I couldn't stop myself, of course, from ranting and raving and rambling incessantly about plants and gardening. It was clear I was not sensible and sane enough to operate a train loaded with children, but the zoo Human Resources Director felt I would fit right in with the horticultural staff. Now, I spend my days gardening for a few dollars as a way to support my habit. The zoo plant collection has provided me a wonderful opportunity to propagate new and unusual plants to add to my home gardens, and there is the especially fine fringe benefit of fecund supplies of elephant manure. My coworkers seem to be politely bemused by my rummaging through the refuse pile for any scrap of viable vegetable matter that I can propagate so that I can have some temporary respite from my aching need for plants. I spend some weekends attending gardening workshops and training courses. When not at work, I am usually tending my gardens at home, still trying to find the right spot for some of the many hundreds of waifs remaining from the cell pack hauls. I spend countless hours on DG researching plants and increasing my information about gardening. I frequently attend DG round ups and come home with yet more plants to try to find space and time to plant. I spend hours in dedicated research to fulfill a commitment to write two gardening articles per month.
There is apparently no hope for my recovery. I have accepted that I will be a plantaholic for this lifetime.
And I am completely content with that diagnosis.
Ten Warning Signs You May Be A Gardening Addict:
1. You prune your plants more often and with more care than you trim your toenails. You hear yourself often saying, "There's no need for me to bathe. I'll only be dirty again in a few hours."
2. You hide empty plant pots where your friends and family won't see them so that they won't find out how much you are spending on plants and how often you are buying them. You garden alone and don't care what anyone things about your habit. You sneak outside and dig in the dirt every chance you get. You start gardening early in the day and continue gardening through every available hour. You think about quitting your job so that you can stay home and garden.
3. You can't restrain yourself from pulling a weed, no matter where it happens to be.
4. You show up at work or for an important appointment and realize you are wearing your garden clogs. Your knees are dirty from a morning garden task you just had to do before leaving home.
5. You avoid anyone that doesn't share your love of plants and gardening. You remain mostly silent and pout if a friendly discussion doesn't include talk about plants. You seek out other gardening addicts because they are the only people that seem to understand you.
6. You scour the nurseries for exotic plants just so you can brag about growing them, while also grabbing any plant that comes your way, even if you already have plenty of it. When you go to a garden center, you tell yourself that you will buy "just one plant," but then come out of a daze some time later, wondering how all the dozens of potted plants came home with you.
7. You justify pinching and pilfering cuttings from plants that don't belong to you by saying your propagation efforts are in the best interest of the plants.
8. You have masses of plants in nursery pots waiting to be planted, but still bring home more plants that you may not have room in your yard to plant.
9. You can't imagine going on any trip or vacation that doesn't include visiting some gardens. Your vehicle seems to involuntarily turn into the parking lot of plant nurseries and garden centers, regardless of how mightily you resist with white knuckles gripping the steering wheel.
10. When at a garden center with family, realizing there is not enough room in your vehicle for both your plant purchases and the other people or kids, you pat them on the head and tell them you will return for them (someday). You get so involved with tending to your new plants that you may forget to return for the abandoned family members. _______________________________________
You are welcome to share your comments, personal anecdotes, and your own gardening addiction sagas and confessions below.
About Jeremy Wayne Lucas
Jeremy (JaxFlaGardener) is a frequent contributor to the Florida Forum and other forums on Dave's Garden. In an ideal world, he would spend nearly every waking moment gardening, oil painting, and writing. Lacking such a Utopia, he currently works part-time in the Horticulture Department at the Jacksonville (Florida) Zoo and Gardens. His own half-acre garden is a hodgepodge of just about everything that will grow in Zone 8b/9a, with a homemade greenhouse for his orchids. He is a Master Gardener who esteems digging in the dirt more than book learning, but greatly enjoys research about plants and botanical nomenclature. He is pictured here with one of his large paintings, "The Healer's Leaves," based on a wonderful photo by DGer GardenWife of Ricinus communis (Castor Oil Plant) used by permission.