I never had a green thumb. In fact, I never had a garden. Just houseplants. And few of them, for that matter. The maximum number of plants I ever managed to keep alive for more than a face-saving period of time, until recently, was five: a banana tree, a schefflera, a basil plant, a ficus and an orange tree, god bless them. Until last year that was.
That’s when I noticed that the state of my plants tended to reflect my own mental state, oddly but truthfully. If I was happy and relaxed, energized and joyful – then they would be too, not literally of course, but healthy and striving, glowing and growing. If, by contrast, I felt sad, miserable, exhausted, or drained – they would look limp, foul, unhealthy, faltering and, oops, sometimes also stone dry.
It doesn’t take much imagination to figure that they were not just telepathically absorbing my vibration (though maybe they did that, too). I just simply did not take very good care of them. I did not water them enough, or overdid it when I remembered. I did not pay attention to their specific needs (soil, exposure to sun, temperature). I did not fertilize them. And I certainly did not speak to them, kindly, encouraging them to become the strongest and most beautiful version of themselves they could ever be. If anything, I would moan about their lamentable state and how they had given up on me, again.
However, last year I finally realized there was a system to it, a pretty obvious one, actually. I could have pretended not to notice but I’m a pretty analytical person (at my best) or obsessive thinker (at my worst), so looking the other way was not an option. At some point my plants would be in such a pitiful state that I could no longer ignore them anyhow. I would have to finally acknowledge that they were beyond saving and, weirdly, that hurt, not just them but me, too. I felt like a neglectful parent abandoning a sick child. And I wouldn’t do that, would I?
So last year I thought I’d better face the truth – and my responsibility. I vowed to give myself a fresh start and put a number of my favorite plants on my new terrace: bamboo, lavender, basil, mint, pampas grass, rosemary, and Japanese maple. My first real garden, so to say.
Except for the Japanese maple that did not fare too well due to heavy exposure to direct sun which I can’t avoid as my terrace is facing south (very nice, if it wasn’t for the poor maple which, as I have now learnt, prefers half-shade), all of them did really well throughout the entire summer. I watered them, I fertilized them, I weeded them. I even talked to them kindly and stroked them gently, and welcomed them into my life as reminders of, guess what, my own need for better self-care.
This is, of course, what this was all about. If the way I took care of my plants was a direct reflection of the way I took care of myself, then my plants would tell me if I got derailed, long before I noticed that about myself. They were my private and reliable self-care alarm units. A mirror of my inner garden.
And I have to say it worked. We were a good team, my plants and I. They flourished. I took care of myself. And the way they flourished added an extra layer to my self-care as my beautiful terrace became a heavenly refuge. A place where I loved to be.
Then winter came. Tough times for plants, in pots, on a terrace. And for humans. For the first time in my life I actually prepared for winter. I wrapped those plants that could weather a northern European winter in warm but transparent covers and tucked them in with coconut mats. And I placed those that were not made for the cold season in the hallway of my apartment block where they greeted me every time I came home.
I was fiercly determined to make them survive winter. The only plants I left to their own devices were my mint and my basil. For some reason I thought they would not be fit to manage either way. I was right about the basil. It’s a plant that only lives a year, I think. But my mint… what a surviver! It’s the first one that showed up in spring. Teeny, tiny leaves at first that I almost mistook for weed. Then more numerous, more powerful little plants pushing through. I had totally underestimated my mint. It’s a huge bush by now, stronger and healthier and more aromatic than ever before.
My bamboo also fared really well. When I finally lifted the covers it looked so healthy and vibrant as if I had just bought it (if you know what I mean; plants always look best when you get them and then suddenly it’s as if someone exchanged them for a more stunted version…). I was so proud of myself.
It was not a coincidence. Even though I had had a rough year, or rather because of it, I had made a conscious decision to take very good care of myself this winter, too. I got myself wonderful green tea, drank it from beautiful Japanese tea cups, invited friends around for nice home-cooked meals. I made a point of sleeping more, drinking less (alcohol, not water), jogging regularly, of being kind to myself, and listening in to myself.
What helped, of course, was that plants don’t need much water in winter, if anything at all. Until spring that is. One day I came home and suddenly realized that my rosemary and lavender had, like overnight, turned dry and crumply. This had, of course, not happened overnight but over the period of a few weeks. As it happens those were the exact few weeks in which I kind of got derailed due to some personal stuff that was quite disheartening.
Suffice to say that during that same time I had stopped jogging, started to sleep less, and to drink more again (I don’t mean huge quantities, just more regularly, more habitually, and preferring a stronger long-drink over a good glass of wine).
To make a long story short: the lavender didn’t make it. The rosemary, well, it kind of did. It doesn’t look like when I first bought it. In fact, it looks a bit twisted, not quite in proportion, and certainly not very young and fresh. It has, however, developed a new quality, one it did not have the year before. It looks mature. It’s got character. Like it has seen stuff. Like it knows what a hard winter can be like.
And weirdly, the longer I look at it, the more I start to like that kind of imperfect perfect – I’m almost tempted to say: wiser – kind of rosemary. It radiates a strange grown-up beauty, the same kind of beauty as laughter-line wrinkles around the eyes. You don’t get those if you don’t smile. And you are not born with them either. You get them by smiling even though life is not always funny, sometimes even tragic. And you have to grow older to have the privilege. You have to earn them.
So winter and my plants taught me a lesson way beyond self-care: sometimes, when you feel like you’re on the safe side and become complacent, you suddenly realize you are not safe (like my lavender). Sometimes, things look like they have died but they actually just took refuge in a long and deep winter sleep to save energy, and to spring back to life when conditions are right, stronger than ever before, you just gotta give it some time and trust in the flow of life (like my mint). And sometimes, there is a strange kind of beauty born out of going through rough times and almost not making it. Like my rosemary.
How is your inner garden?