LEARNING TO GROW THINGS – Marilyn Armstrong

I started to grow plants because my friend Mary was a crazed grower of potted plants. She lived in Brooklyn. Park Slope at the time.

These years, she has a house out on Staten Island. We haven’t seen each other in a really long time. Not since right after I got back from Israel — which was August 1987.

She was the first person to encourage me to grow things. I’d really never tried. But she gave me some of the cuttings from her plants. Told me to put them in a sunny window and water them when they got dry. They did very well and soon, all I wanted to do was haunt nurseries.

She taught me how to examine a plant, make sure it didn’t have any diseases or insect invasions.

Somewhere in the course of my conversion from non-growing to a wild-eyed enthusiast, basically converted the first floor of a really big house into a giant nursery. No curtains. Plants hung from the ceiling, lived on glass shelving. I put metal trays with gravel and water in the trays so when the radiators came up, they created a nice mist for the plants to live in.

They thrived. I was also the editor of the Doubleday Garden Guild. Because I’m me, I read all of the books we published, so whatever I hadn’t gotten from Mary, I learned from reading hundreds of books about growing plants. Indoors and outside.

I never took to outdoor gardening the way I did to indoor pottery gardens. For one thing, even way back then I’d already had major surgery on my spine and although I was a lot more limber than I am now, a lot of bending more or less did me in, even then. I left the outdoor gardening to husband and son.

So when I tell you that all you need to grow plants indoors is decent light and go easy with the watering can, maybe I’m understating where I learned what I learned. Mostly, it came from Mary and other friends who grew plants. We traded cuttings, sometimes passed off our huge plants for smaller ones.

My ceilings were only 10 feet high on the ground floor and once a plant started trying to dig through to the upper story, it had to move on. Which is why, now, I have a small but a good-size Norfolk Island pine in exchange for a Dracaena Marginata I had been growing for almost 20 years. It got too tall. In the wild, a Norfolk Island pine will grow hundreds of feet tall, but in this house, 7 foot 6 inches is as tall as it can get before it moves to another house.

I don’t have the volume of plants I did. Having an entire house full of plants became a job — at least an hour or two every night going from plant to plant, pulling off dead leaves, turning plants so they would grow evenly. And how many times did I fill the watering can before I finished with all 6 ground floor rooms? It was a big house with tall windows.

Today we were passing a house on our way to River Bend and there was a little house that had the most lovely garden I’ve seen in years. All the white picket fences were lined with sunflowers and a rather wild, yet obviously well-tended crop of bright flowers surrounded the front of the house.

I took pictures. It was just the way I’d make my garden if my spine would let me.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Opinionated writer with hopes for a better future for all of us!

21 thoughts on “LEARNING TO GROW THINGS – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. I’m just back from abroad and THIS is my first crop of being at my place again…. what a tremendous joy and a beautiful tale told. I didn’t know you had THAT much knowledge but I can see clearly that you never did things halfway. I am a half-hearted gardener compared to you, although I have a son who chose landscape gardening over every other option for his working life. Sadly, he too, had to stop gardening, he sacrificed his health and parts of his body to his ‘métier’. He is now second in charge in the technical service of a large elderly people residence, and also is ‘chief’ to an outside gardeners’ contractor for the outside work. So, it truly IS hard work but oh, so rewarding.
    Thank you for sharing your newly found garden, I’m amazed that those heavyweight sunflowers are not flattened to the ground. They would never stay straight here where we have some strong winds.
    Have to go out now but will be back for more of you and your team of gifted writers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I figured I needed to explain that the information didn’t come from instinct alone, though many great gardeners do learn because the plants “teach’ them 😀 Welcome home. And yes, it really can be very hard work

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  2. I enjoyed reading about your journey into gardening, Marilyn! It can be a lovely addiction, as I also know from personal experience. Wonderful photos, as well. I never had the right spot for sunflowers, so I certainly admire anyone who grows them to look like these.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That is a wonderful story. I too used to grow plants indoors, but never on the scale that you did – amazing.

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  4. I used to grow all manner of plants and the Norfolk Pine was a favourite. We used to decorate it with popcorn strings at Christmas. I moved to a smaller place and all my plants had to go, didn’t have room for them. I’m hoping that one of these years, I’ll have one or two to tend and like you, they need to be up, not at ground level where I can’t get to them.

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      1. You and me too! Bending is an issue for me as well. I like those new raised flower beds they are making. I could handle that I think. My daughter made one in Hardy. It was higher than my waist and easy to maintain.

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  5. I disagree that growing plants only requires decent light and careful watering. It also takes a green thumb. I’ve tried indoor plants, and every one of them has died – even the hardy ones that everyone else manages to grow without any care at all. I tried a garden once, and it seemed to be doing ok – until the bunnies found it. Even fencing it in didn’t help, nor did any other make-the-bunnies-leave options I learned about. I gave up after that. If anyone is foolish enough to give me a plant as a gift, I pass it on to my daughter, who does have a green thumb. She can grow anything. I do put in a few flowers in front of the house every year, but my daughter plants them and then all I have to do is water them occasionally. They didn’t do all that well this year, though, because some small critter (or possibly even a deer) found them. Maybe I should just put in a rock garden instead.

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        1. We had tiny lizards. The cats ate them. They also ate a couple of rabbits.

          Not all pets are friendly to one another. It’s why I’ve avoided getting too complicated. It’s quite complicated enough already. And if the kids say THEY WILL TAKE CARE OF THEM, they are lying. Once you own them, they are YOURS.

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  6. I admire greatly the gardner – indoor or outdoor variety. I cannot grow things, it’s a crap shoot. Once someone gave me a big bunch of marigolds they were thinning in their own garden, and I planted them along the side of the apartment I was renting. They went wild, and I had this gorgeous bed of marigolds, but I don’t recall doing anything special to discourage or encourage them. In my first house, I inherited several old rose bushes and a huge bed of violets. I added some lily bulbs my mother had given me and I enjoyed the fragrance of those violets every spring for ten years, and then they started to die off – I have no idea why. The lilies went wild too, and I had them until I moved away. It was winter and nobody wanted the task of digging in frozen ground to get the bulbs. Up here I have a pot garden (outside) and it’s mostly meh. Indoor plants routinely die…sometimes they take years to do it, but they all eventually go. I guess I just don’t have a green thumb. Enjoy yours. It sounds like you earned it! 🙂

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    1. Well not every plant lives eternally. Some have a lifespan … and one occasionally needs to repot a plant, something I really hate doing, so when it gets really tight, I give the plant to a more vigorous gardener 😀 But they do die eventually. Unless you divide them, put them in bigger pots, feed them, etc. And even then, they have a lifespan.

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