Four years ago this March, I planted my first flower. I’ve planted others since — maybe three — but I will always remember my first because it turned out to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done in the dirt. I say that with certainty because my list of dirt-related experiences is not a long one. I’ve dug a few postholes in my time, and buried cats and fish and dogs, but working with this particular flower was and is the high point of my life as it relates to soil, loam, clay, or silt.
I call this thing I planted a flower; scientists might call it a plant. But then, postgraduate education is, for the most part, learning new ways to say things we already have names for. I look at the world in a simplified way: All nice suits are Italian, all good wine is French, all the best cars are German, and green things with pretty colors near the top of them are flowers. Further research (which I undertook just seconds ago) indicates that this thing that I planted — a hibiscus — is called a “flowering plant.” It appears we (the scientists and I) are both right. And me with just a B.A.
I bought two of them, each about 18 inches tall — preadolescents. I bought them because they were pretty and because the picture of their adult selves attached to the stem was magnificent. I didn’t have a chance in the world to grow something like that. Not one. But I had to try. I brought them home and dug a couple of holes in what looked like a sunny spot. This whole adventure was a surprise for my wife, Laura. Just the idea that I was outside — battling mosquitoes, fending off ticks — surprised and impressed her. But me, out in the garden, digging, actually planting something? She wondered what I did with her husband.
I read the directions, which said to put a little fertilizer in the hole before putting the hibiscus in there. The directions called for a teaspoon, but I figured that recommendation was for the people who don’t have much fertilizer, pauper gardeners. But I had enough fertilizer for a hundred hibiscus. So I put half a cup in there.
It took less than 24 hours for both plants to die. It was more than death, though, what happened to these plants. It was worse than dying; they looked like someone took a blowtorch to their leaves. The man at the garden shop where I bought them saw a sucker coming and sold me a couple of sick hibiscus. I went back and told the guy what happened, and he asked me how I planted them. When I told him about the fertilizer, his face turned grim, funereal even.
“You killed them,” he said. “You killed those plants with fertilizer.”
Plants, I discovered, are fragile. If you ignore them, they’ll die, but if you’re too affectionate, if you show them too much love, they’ll die just the same.
Because he could tell I knew no better, he gave me two new hibiscus.
I did well by these. That first summer, they produced two blossoms, and then three. And from there, things went exponential. This past summer, I couldn’t count the number of times they flowered. They grew tall, branches wide — they were the best flowering plants we had.
My flowers became too good, in fact, too tall and too wide. All of the other potentially lovely plants beneath them struggled to grow in the hibiscus’ shadow. It was time for the hibiscus to go. Where, I didn’t know yet — but they couldn’t stay there. My son was born in the spring 19 years ago, and he’s far away from home now, too. No roots are so deep they can’t be moved.
Daniel Wallace is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org for more drawing, writing, and news.