My Mom's Green Thumb
I inherited, along with most of her plants.
My mother’s green thumb couldn’t be surpassed by many. Oh, I’m sure there are horticulturists and botanists that study this kind of thing, but to her it was as natural as breathing. Her yard was full of shade trees, fruit trees, plants of every kind from bromeliads to kalanchoe. She knew the best ways to keep the rabbits away from her blueberries. This solution was to sit outside at night and throw rocks at the rabbits when they come for her blueberries. A couple of nights of this, and there were no more bun-buns around.
As far back as I remember, we had giant trees they had planted. My parents hated the hustle of city life, and after living near NYC for many years, they wanted some peace and quiet. The two acres they purchased in a very rural county had 52 tangerine trees on it. A well-kept tangerine tree will produce two crops a year, and the blossoms’ smell is beautiful. My favorite was during fall; as soon as the weather turned chilly, the tangerines were ready to be picked. I’d pick them standing on a ladder and toss them into the giant bag I had across my body. When it got too heavy, I’d come back down and dump them into bushel baskets. My father would pay me $4 a bushel because that’s the price he’d get at the farmers’ market.
One thing you should remember about citrus trees; most are grafted, meaning a blossoming tree must be spliced into a plant started by seed. When you plant a tangerine, what grows is a spiky non-fruit-bearing demon plant. The grafted trees must be fertilized four times a year with something called 2-1-1 (a ratio of certain nutrients) and pruned only during certain times. All these processes were dutifully planned on the calendar and followed meticulously by my father. Those trees produced fruit for many years. It was so nice to walk by and rip a tangerine off the tree, spitting seeds onto the grass and enjoying its sweetness.
I don’t know if it’s a family thing, but it was common to take a seed from a relative’s yard and plant it, not grafting it. My grandfather’s grapefruit tree was edible, but not as sweet as the original fruit. My grandmother’s orange seed turned into sour oranges, again with those demon spikes. These fruit could not be eaten at all. However, sour orange is the main ingredient in a marinade called mojo. That’s what the Christmas pork was cooked with. When those oranges were ready, my mom would take the juice and put them in ice cube trays, saving them to use each December.
The fifty-two trees became fifty-one one night. A tree in the front yard developed a large wasps’ nest about a hundred feet at the edge of the driveway, and we couldn’t go outside through the front door. We had to drive around back to get in and out. My dad, a very practical man, didn’t need to call an exterminator. That’s what kerosene is for. Once night settled, complete darkness, the wasps won’t leave their nest. He poured kerosene all over the tree and from a distance lit it. POOF the whole tree was in flames in seconds, and the wasps never left their nest. Everything evaporated into ash and buried the next morning. That took care of that.
Florida’s first snow in 1977 didn’t kill off the trees. It was certainly unexpected, but that’s not what finally did the trees in. It was a long series of days with below-freezing weather a couple of years later. We didn’t have smudge pots or fire pits to warm the trees as traditional farmers did. The trunks of our trees froze, and they subsequently died. It would have been fitting for the setting of a post-apocalyptic movie, trees struggling to get their empty branches pointed toward the sky. Fifty-one dead trees on two acres of property had to be pulled out of the ground, leaving nothing but bare land.
My mom kept a shovel in the trunk of her car. Definitely something to be worried about. Actually, she would be driving around with either my dad or Aunt Cookie, and she’d spot a tree or plant on the side of the road. “Pull over!” my mom would yell. Trunk opened, she’d pull out the shovel, dig up said tree and put it in the trunk. Many trees around the house appeared in that fashion. I thought that was normal. The first time I did it, my husband was mortified that I even had a shovel in my trunk. Doesn’t everyone?
Places like Walmart and Home Depot have what I call the hopeless orphan section. It’s where the plants are super reduced because they’re practically dead. My mom would feel sorry for them and purchase them, bringing them back to life. She could take cuttings from other people’s plants (sometimes without their knowledge) and grow them by putting them over a vase of water. Many of our avocado trees started out that way. Toothpicks in either side, the slimy round avocado pit would sit partially in the water, and tendrils would begin growing out of the bottom. BOOM we now have an avocado tree. I learned to love avocados because they ripen fast before rotting.
Japanese plums (loquats) were another favorite of hers. Those trees are very easy to grow and don’t need grafting. You do need to keep the squirrels away because they like the fruit as well as the seeds. When they’re in season, the plums are plucked by the birds since they’re a favorite and can reach the top more easily. These plums tasted like a cross between a peach and an orange. I know of neighbors who cut their trees down because they didn’t know what it was.
Other fruit trees were harder to grow. There was an attempt with peach and pear trees. The peach tree had one season of small puny fruit and never had another. She cared for it according to the guides, but it was a fruitless effort. The pear tree she had did not bear the pears I’m familiar with, the ones from the grocery store. The nice, soft yellow-green ones. This was a type of oriental hybrid, and it was gritty and hard as a rock. She planted in front of the house where she could see cardinals land on it. Partridges I assume are too fat for the branches.
Pear trees produce a lot of fruit, and when they do, my mom didn’t waste anything. She attempted making pear pie, pear jam, and the worst – pear ice cream. “Try some,” she’d beg, “it’s good.” I am here to tell you, it was not. I ate some of it and could discern the weirdly textured pear flavor, but it was not something meant to be turned into ice cream. These fruit were meant for hurling at intruders. I’ll stick with the pears that Publix sells.
Pineapples are easy to grow. Cut off the top and plant it in the ground. She showed my son how to do it, and he scoffed thinking it can’t be that easy. It was. It took about three years, but there’d be edible fruit ready to be picked right off the top. He would then cut off the tops and plant his own. He learned a lot about growing things from her.
Looking at the back porch filled with plants, my mom would go around to each one and water them from one of the gallon jugs of water she had lined up on the table. She talked to each plant, asking them how they felt today, tsk-tsking if they were dry. But those plants thrived, so it must have been working. When her friend next door gave my mom a plant, she kept it by the slider and made sure it had everything it needed. As my mom aged and couldn’t keep up with the watering, she made sure I kept that plant alive because it was “Arlene’s plant.”
Chicks and hens are succulents that I find difficult to grow. Hers? Overflowing the pots and needing to be replanted. She’d then gift them to others because she had plenty. Aloe grew in giant pots; she’d used the aloe juice for burns. She knew which plants were dangerous to animals, to humans. She pointed out a stinging nettle to me, a valuable piece of knowledge since the seeds to this are in common wild birdseed bags.
She grew jade, bonsai, cacti, philodendrons, palms, Christmas cactus. Sometimes she’d find things growing in her yard that she didn’t plant, probably dropped by birds or squirrels. She’d replant it somewhere else and wait. Even her weeds were pretty. By the fence a passionfruit vine was growing. To my knowledge she’s never eaten one, and certainly wouldn’t have planted one that far away. It was purple and had what looked like purple and yellow hair around the center.
Her basic view was “stick it in dirt, and it will grow.” This is similar to how we as people grow; give us the basics, and with a little care, we thrive. Today my back porch is overflowing with many of the same plants she had, some from her cuttings. The peace lily was a gift to me when my father died, the bird-of-paradise broke off from the giant one we have in the front yard during Hurricane Irma; I stuck it in dirt, and it’s growing. I have another offshoot from that plant in another pot. My treasure is a magnolia tree from my mom’s yard. After she passed, we had to get the house ready for sale. There were six magnolias sprouting, and only one took. Magnolia seeds are hard to grow because they must go through something called a stratification process first. I have her Japanese plums, her chicks and hens, and a kalanchoe.
I thought all of this came naturally to people. I had a co-worker to whom I had given a peace lily. She seemed terrified at first. She told me, “I don’t know how to take care of these. What do I do?” I said it’d need some repotting, and she had no clue what to do. I bought her a bigger pot and topsoil and transplanted it there in her office. Then I told her to take it home to a shady place, water it when it looks a little droopy. My mom would have been proud that I carried her green thumb gene as my begonias bloom and my fragrant geranium is reaching toward the sun.