Eastman: The Best Gardeners Kill the Most Plants

I have a confession to make. My name is Jesse and I kill plants. Lots of them. It’s kind of a guilty secret that I don’t really like talking about, but they say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. In the last year, within the four walls of my own home, I can remember twelve specific plants that I sent to the great compost heap in the sky, and these are only the ones that stand out in my memory, and are only my indoor houseplants.

This may sound strange coming from someone whose living is based on being overly handy with plants. The important piece of perspective here is in the ratio of dead plants to live ones. Despite having killed the twelve plants mentioned above, as well as many more I don’t care to recount, my house is something of a jungle. Between permanent indoor houseplants, citrus and hibiscus that only come inside during winter, and the many cuttings and seeds I start in preparation for spring, you’d barely notice a handful of plants dying. In actuality, I run a loss rate in my home equivalent to the industry standard for most commercial growing operations, so maybe I needn’t be ashamed.

The real silver lining is that every lost plant is an opportunity to learn. Do you remember your science projects from 5th grade? I remember mine: I tested two different types of seed – spinach and radish – to see how light levels impacted growth and health. In the batch under 24 hour-a-day grow lights, I grew some gorgeous, verdant, healthy plants, but they were very short – they didn’t need to grow tall to get light. In the batch covered by foil to block all light, I grew some plants that looked like they walked off the set of an alien horror movie, pale sickly, and absurdly tall as they stretched and reached for even one photon of light. Guess which ones lived longer?

The point is that I learned something about plant light needs and the impact light has on growth habits. The same could be said of my home gardening adventure. It’s one giant science experiment. I have learned that in my home, unless I want to support the electric company, I should avoid owning more than two or three tropical plants, as I do not have enough well-lit window space in my dark little home for more than that. I have learned that the deaths of many sun-loving plants in my backyard means I have the unique opportunity to grow a shade garden in sunny Colorado. A quote my father shared with me, and one you will probably hear me repeat at the Nursery, is “The best gardeners in the world have killed more plants than anyone else.” Every time a plant dies on us, we have an opportunity to learn. We can reflect on the conditions to which that plant was subjected, and more often than not, we discover something about our own yards, our own unique microclimates around our homes that will slowly but surely turn us into better gardeners.

Sure, I have killed lots of plants. I imagine Leonardo da Vinci painted a few eyesores before he tackled the Mona Lisa. I wasn’t there, but I’m fairly sure the Wright brothers hit the ground pretty hard a few times before they got off the ground. So don’t lose heart because you’ve sent a few (or more than a few) plants to an early repose. We’ve got all winter to reflect on our approach to plants, and with a little grace and a little luck, we will emerge next spring a little wiser and ready to try again.

– Jesse Eastman, General Manager

Originally published on December 2nd, 2010. Updated on April 26th, 2011.