The Covid-19 pandemic has been good for business. When folks stay at home, many turn to gardening to stave off boredom and anxiety. Inevitably, they wonder about growing things from seed. My online Etsy store (formerly Milton’s Garden Menagerie) ended up being slammed with sales last spring due to folks staying more at home. After the parent site decided to advertise some of our shops on third-party sites for increased traffic, I ended up with 8x the usual amount of orders and actually had to shut the shop for 5 or 6 months. The experience was exhausting and I lost money due to the amount of customer service that was required.
My shop is not exactly a viable business. To be honest, I likely lose money selling the seeds that I do because so many are grown and/or harvested by me. Cleaning them is a messy nightmare, and storing them takes time and energy. Then I have to pack them. Over the years, my eyesight has worsened, so I need a magnifying glass light in addition to glasses, and we are on the brink of ordering a new bonus fridge for the household so that my seeds can all be moved back out to the Seed Studio aka detached garage. That’s not an easy problem to fix when you’re earning a dollar or two here and there.
My shop is a labor of love, but I very much enjoy doing it when the customers are excited plant lovers like me. The selection is a bit random. I’m focussed more on growing my own seeds, selling seeds collected here at home or in the gardens of friends, and from some wild collection too but only in places where it is legal and there is an abundance of seeds.
What I currently re-listed is the good stuff for 2021. I will continue to add to it too as the months go on, and I hope that I won’t have the experience that I had last year. I’ve been selling seeds on Etsy for over a decade now and my experiences have always been wonderful. I just hope to be able to offer some plants soon as well, but there will be more on that in the future.
If you’d like to see what I have in my shop, please feel free to look. It’s not a lot right now, but I will be back at it all over again in 2021 with more new items. If you have fresh seeds of some kind that you think I could sell, please let me know. I am always looking to add interesting things but cannot afford to pay you for your harvest—unless you live nearby in Portland and I can trade a houseplant. I have plenty of those. 🙂
This is a post I’ve been avoiding for months—maybe even for nearly 2 years now. It’s time for me to write about an important topic because it means a lot to me. When the Covid-19 pandemic is done, join a specialist plant group. Heck, before the pandemic is over, start to learn about them and decide to commit some time to one to help keep it operating. Plant societies need us, and to be perfectly honest, the Internet doesn’t—except for us to continue to educate, preserve, and share.
I’m currently the President of a local chapter of the Gesneriad Society, and have been for nearly 2 years now. It has been an absolute blessing and so much fun but even I need more help, and more members to become involved. It’s a challenge though when folks can sit in the comfort of their own homes and not have to commit. Instead, we can all share online, and we do. Sharing virtually has taught me so much and I have learned from people growing in different climates, living different lives. Over time, I’ve come to consider some of them very good friends.
Many plant societies need us, and they need more of us to become involved in new and engaging ways. In this post I want to write about some of the highlights of my involvement, why these groups matter, and the challenges I’ve faced.
Over the years I’ve been involved with, and have joined, many plant groups. There are a lot out there, and for the most part, they serve different purposes. Some are national, we have professional groups, some focus on conservation, some focus on a singular type of gardening, others are mostly social, or even based on travel, but my heart will always belong to the specialist plant societies. These will be the center of this discussion. These are often where some hardcore plant nerds flock to and I’m happy to contribute to several groups.
My experiences with all of these groups didn’t really begin until I owned a home. If I’d known before that many groups are great for folks in rentals or apartments, I likely would have signed up earlier. Like many in my generation though, I associated most plant groups and societies with some contempt and cynicism as a Gen Xer. I got over that though as I craved more and more information about specific plants. I didn’t have the energy to reinvent any more wheels, and from the outside some groups may seem elitist and/or classist, and maybe some are, but if you’re there for the plants, you’re there for the plants, and that’s what the best groups focus on.
Lots of folks think of most garden clubs or plant groups as an activity for retired folks. While this may seem like the case, it’s not always so in every group. Call me an idealist, but I think that if the group offers something to everyone, then everyone will want to be there. While many retired folks offer their time to these groups, they need help too in the form of our input, our cooperation, and groups are best supported when they can say that they have several generations working together to achieve the mission and goals of the group.
And that is how I came to join several different plant societies. Here is Portland we are VERY LUCKY to have lots of societies to choose from and I hope that remains so. Without continued involvement from plant lovers though, we’d lose this IRL community, and I hope that we don’t in the coming years.
I really dove into groups durning my 30s because I was essentially disabled and couldn’t work due to severe chronic health issues. During that time, it was a way to meet people, it cut costs on plant materials, and I joined groups in order to learn from folks who’d been growing plants for decades. They tended to be a lot more geeky in terms of plant information, and overall, their focus has always been on education, preservation, and sharing.
At that time I was angry about my diagnoses, and not being able to work to pay my bills off quickly, but learning about plants led to jobs eventually and many other opportunities as my health improved, so I entered into the clubs hoping that it would expand my growing experiences—and it did! (Bye bye chip on my shoulder! Hello plant therapy!)
While I’ve enjoyed learning about plants via the Internet since its creation, over the last few years I’ve become more and more disinterested in its content due to the same information repeated ad nauseam in different ways and by the fact that it’s mostly marketed material provided by influencers who are there to capitalize on the popularity of their repeated content.
I don’t like being used as a tool in the capitalist process, and it is sad watching the process evolve. Information literacy has become an issue in many parts of our daily lives and lately I’ve been cutting back on my online “consumption” of social media. I’m returning to adding content to the Internet in the hopes that it might reach someone else, but I’m 100% committed to being me, and not someone that others would prefer for me to be. (Personally, I think that’s why my blog aka site is still living on happily.)
Online plant groups are popular though and have become increasingly so with younger members of the plant hobbyist world. It is often a stark difference to the gardening lives of my older friends. During COVID19 we’ve all been using it more and then sometimes less or not at all. What I miss most about our group right now is actually meeting and talking to them in person. We range in age, gender, life experience, and career paths but we share a love of gesneriads and I think that’s fun.
One reason that plant societies are so important is because we basically share plants with one another. Historically, we host fundraisers and sell plants for lower prices because this is intended to share the love and the bounty of what we’re basically preserving and keeping in circulation. As my anonymous botanist friend said, “There is no scheme for conservation of cultivated varieties in the US, so continuing to cultivate plants that would not be commercially viable is vital.”
Additionally, plant societies are known for their seed or spore conservation, sharing a diversity of seeds, and as a teaching ground for plant breeding and growing. This is part of what leads us to supporting conservation efforts in the wild as well as scholarships for additional study to be done by academics.
Folks have discovered the Gold Rush of selling houseplants online and I’m sure that all I need to say is, “Have you seen the most recent price for a variegated Monstera?” (Should I even breathe the word Araceae?) Gesneriads are not popular though, and I’m ok with that since our plants can more easily be bought and sold thus making sharing of our materials easier. (I think Sinningia leucotricha is the most popular plant in our realm.)
Participating in the Gold Rush is off-putting to me. I’m a horticulturist and I work for two small nurseries and they work hard to stay viable. I see a market more and more turning away from small business ownership with customers underselling (or overselling) them. All I can hope for is that this will inspire many more to build great businesses that will compete with one another. I would love to see more plants in cultivation that are not, and for collectors to see plants more as vital living organisms that share the plant with us and less as investments.
I’m a naïve idealist though, and we have to wait this out to see if more specialist nurseries arise out of the current houseplant era. Will folks be inspired to learn more, and dedicate more of their time to small specialist plant societies? Again, we have to wait and see how this all shakes out and continue to educate, preserve, and share. In a time when people talk about building community, I’m doing it and am right where I want to be. Is this a dying activity though?
Plant societies are my ideal kind of plant community. This is why plant societies have always shared cuttings, held raffles, traded and sold inexpensive plants to one another. It’s what plants-people do and it’s key to helping us to better understand the growing conditions for different plants. Our practice with growing certain plants that are not widely available is what growers actually look to before releasing a plant through a nursery. Horticulture, and small growers like the ones that I work for, benefit from the preservation of varieties of plants that have come and gone from the market and sometimes need to be reintroduced. Plant societies are important. It’s where growers often go to find heirlooms to reintroduce. Sometimes too, they may find a new hybrid to try out on the market, but the societies need to be there in order for this process to work.
I just hope that more folks are inspired enough by their love of plants to help to continue these groups, and yes, discuss Colonization and all the other —isms that are part of the necessary conversation that we’re living through right now. I myself have issues with the racism, classism and Anglophilic center of gardening culture as we often see it in the US. But rather than bitch about it, I just made a vow to myself to be myself, dive into horticulture, speak up when it matters, and slowly make the change to create the plant world I want to live in.
While I do love to talk—and clearly write too much—action will always speak more to me than words. So sometimes when my blog has gone silent, I’ve been out in the field acting upon my conviction to be the change that I want to see.
I have hope and am looking forward to seeing the change that will likely come in the years ahead.
(Hush now you inner cynic, hush child.)
(Photo at the top of the post is of the table set-up outdoors at the nursery during the Covid-19 pandemic during the summer of 2020 for members of the Mt Hood Gesneriad Society to meet. Currently, we’re meeting via Zoom.)
Not long ago I realized that many online houseplant lovers count their plants. Honestly, I’d never thought to do so because it seemed like a lot of effort. Then I thought, what the heck? Well, after what felt like hours, I stopped counting at 500 houseplants. How did that happen lol? I have a lot of growing areas in my home, in the basement, and outdoors in the Seed Studio. I don’t have a light stand, I have multiple light stands. Additionally, I place plants all over the house during the cooler months—with many going out into the garden during the summer. Making some sense of them little by little will be fun as I post these lists once a month or so.
We’re going to begin in my bedroom. This is how it currently looks but in the coming weeks I intend to change the lights and make a few more improvements.
Houseplant #1: Unknown Cane Begonia, possibly Begonia ‘Flo Belle Mosley’
We begin this long journey with my favorite kind of plant. It’s one that I purchased at a Mt Hood Gesneriad plant sale years ago. It was an inexpensive start of a cane begonia and it was cheap since it was a NOID. Even wonder what the means? Have you heard it before? All is means when you see it on a tag is the it is No Identification, NOID.
The woman selling it assured me it was a beauty and I have to agree. It was worth the purchase and the wait.
Cane begonias are notoriously challenging at times. I learned this at one of my first gardening jobs where I was a garden assistant to private homeowners with a large houseplant collection. I have to admit, caring for their canes was no fun but I sure did learn a lot about them. For instance, I learned to lightly bottom water and to regularly feed them while they were putting on new growth. I also learned that you had to diligently check leaves for powdery mildew so as to not spread it in your collection. Letting them dry out between waterings is always a good idea too.
To grow cane begonias to their absolute best, they really do enjoy being able to summer outside. To my surprise, this one loves lots of light. They can take lower light indoors, but it is not sustainable year round.
Houseplant #2: Pregnant Onion, Albuca bracteata or Ornithogalum longibrachteatum
Once you have one of these plants, you’ll ALWAYS have a plant gift to share with others. Some may find this kind of an annoyance with it setting so many babies but I like this plant quite a bit. (See the little bulb above. These grow out of the mother bulb and are pushed up and out as the plant peels. This plant produces lots of these and hence it’s always pregnant.)
Not a true onion, this South African plant is actually in the Asparagus family. Mine first came from a fellow garden blogger at one of our plant swaps, although a friend later delivered it to me since I was unable to attend that day. Peter of The Outlaw Gardener http://outlawgarden.blogspot.com had been keeping the original mother plant in a hanging basket in his greenhouse and it had outgrown its container. I was able to break it up into many babies and this is one that’s left. (I sold and passed along the others.)
As for the care of this plant, it seems to take a lot of abuse. It can take sun, low water, lower light, no food, and yet it keeps going.
Houseplant #3: Chinese Money Plant, Pilea peperomioides
Yes, of course I have one of these. It would likely be a lot larger if I hadn’t propagated so many babies from it. Funny that it doesn’t like that. Come to think of it, it doesn’t like a lot of things. The light must be just right, the feeding must be just right, watering must be done properly.
This is a plant that will not reward you if you give it wet feet. It does not want to ever stand in water. If this happens, it gets ugly fast. I left this plant outside all summer and am just going to let it keep growing. As it is positioned in my room right now, it needs more light. For now though, it is doing well. The plant has actually never looked better.
My baby was purchased back when they were impossible to find. I purchased it from a fellow horticulturist who had a few but it wasn’t overly expensive. This was the first plant craze that really had me scratching my head. It was definitely a plant that went viral and it is cute—but not all that cute.
Houseplant #4: Begonia ‘Gene Daniels’
During the month of September in 2019 I took an extended road trip to California. In addition to attending the 2019 Begonia Society Convention in Sacramento, I visited many places and met folks I’d never met before. It was such an amazing experience and I came back home with a rental car full of plants and cuttings. This is one of those plants and I am so glad that it made it home with me.
One of the impromptu visits during that trip occurred because my friend Derick Pitman (aka Mr. Impatiens) and I ran into Landscape Designer David Feix while at Annie’s Annuals. A fan of his designs, it was an honor to have him ask me back to see some clients’ gardens after we toured his garden and plant collection in Berkeley. He also gave me some plants but we’ll get to them later. (If you’d like to see his garden, here’s a great post by my friend Gerhard: https://www.succulentsandmore.com/2019/09/david-feixs-tropical-jungle-in-berkeley.html )
After I saw the designs on Sunday (which were amazing and kind of unreal looking in the perfection in real life), David suggested that I visit the Dry Garden Nursery and then the garden of artist Marcia Donahue. Since she was open later that day for guests, I went for it.
While there she passed along a few pieces of plants to me. I had never met her and yet I felt like we’d known one another for years. (We have many mutual friends and one just so happens to be my employer and friend Sean at Cistus. She has known him much longer than I.)
This Begonia ‘Gene Daniels’ is one that I had seen at the nursery just before meeting her and I was so grateful she passed some of her plant of it on to me. It is a technically a shrub and will likely be a bit of a beast in no time but I can’t wait. It may grow up to 6′ x 6′ so that should get interesting. At that point it is more of a greenhouse plant, but I’ll do what I can for it.
Houseplant #5: Begonia ‘Angel Glow’
This rhizomatous hybrid begonia was developed in Australia and it was one of the plants that I picked up at the convention in Sacramento. It was offered by Kartuz Greenhouses and I couldn’t resist. I just love those leaves.
Rhizomatous begonias have been easy for me to grow. When they start to look “not so fresh” I’ve found that they just need to be divided or potted up. It works wonders. They just keep growing and making more of those lovely leaves. Just let the plants dry out. They really do benefit from not sitting in water. (Do you see a pattern here yet? Yes, do not overwater houseplants.)
Hope you enjoyed my little houseplant stories. Since cultural information is available all over online I didn’t go into detail about how to care for all of these plants. If you have any additional questions about them, please feel free to comment. I’m a horticulturist and can likely give you some pointers based on my professional experience.
This cocktail came about late one evening. I’d planned to chat with friends via Zoom and it was a “cocktail party” but I had nothing made to drink. Having had back pain all day (and back pain for about 2 months) I grabbed what I had on hand and it turned out to be quite a tasty drink!
I now make it with a smile whenever I’m experiencing severe pain. I’ve spent many months over the years curled up into a ball because of my back problems. It seemed like it was high time to make the most of slipped disks, spinal stenosis, and chronic neuropathy coupled with chronic sciatica.
Recipe: On Your Back
8-12 ounces hot Celestial Seasonings Lemon Zinger tea
1 shot limoncello
1 shot bourbon whisky
1 Tablespoon simple syrup
There are no fancy directions. Just mix all of the ingredients in a mug and enjoy. (I mean, your back hurts. I don’t want to prolong standing at the counter to make this. You need to lie down and rest a spell.)
Since I’m already prescribed over a dozen medications daily for chronic conditions, my primary physician, immunologist, and physical therapist have all agreed that one cocktail is healthier for me to use for severe pain than prescription pain pills which can lead to addiction and other undesirable side effects. So, when I have terrible pain, for the majority of the time I just live with it, but when it gets to be too much, I have a drink. They tend to change with the seasons though and this one is definitely my new favorite for fall.
And lastly, if you plan to make this, please drink responsibly.
It’s late on a Thursday night in the month of October in 2020. For the last few weeks I’ve been feeding myself a steady stream of fantasy and horror films as I recover from a physical meltdown of sorts that’s common for myself, and seemingly unfathomable at times for others. I made it through the season, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic and for those of us that work with plants, this has felt like a never-ending season of what’s referred to as being “slammed” in a kitchen. Imagine months of this, at two nurseries, but I thankfully work behind the scenes, and this does make it easier for me mentally and emotionally.
We’re still waiting for the results of a final x-ray, but it’s clear I’m exhausted and damaged. While one spine issue improved, another disk protruded. Instead of swelling up with one hereditary angioedema attack, I had two simultaneously. My complement, immune, and nervous systems are all tired. I’ve been on a steady diet of anabolic steroids for just over a week now.
Yes, that’s right folks, I’m a doper! These are not illegal drugs, I have a prescription for them, but it’s surreal at times to really sit back and think about how hard I work to work so hard. I guess I’m passionate about what I do though, and plants inspire me to keep doing what I do.
I think it’s safe to say I potted up thousands of plants in 2020. Flat after flat after flat left my workspaces and were carted off to the public realm or else back into a greenhouse until they’re ready for their closeup. There’s a rush you feel at that moment much like the excitement of cooking in restaurant kitchen and you’re part of a performance and as the plates disappear out of your sight you breathe a sigh of relief and you feel more and more like a badass as the night goes on and you near the finish line.
When it comes to plants though, it is a bit different. The adrenaline rush is not quite as dramatic. I just perform the initial part of a performance. My part is to make the starter and to get it stable enough so that you can take it home and complete your task. Sometimes, I may even have been the one who sparked the seed into life. Once in the hands of the gardener, with the plant being planted, it completes its lifecycle. I’ve helped to supply so many gardeners with the supplies necessary to make their artwork, or else to create their calm and happy space. With each flat I complete I toss out my hopes and wishes and I let go of my control of them a little bit. They all cannot live. Some of the duds must be plucked out so as to retain some integrity to the batch. Plants must be edited as they are presented. I’m probably better at that nowadays than I am at editing on the page but it’s so much clearer when you see a flat of plants. I’m not seeking out misspellings or grammatical changes, I just need for them to be uniform, a baker’s perfect dozen.
Once a flat is processed I turn my back and forget about them and move on to whichever plugs or plants need to be up-potted, re-examined, assessed, and often I help to make plants look a bit more appealing with snips here and there. There is never a dull moment in production and propagation. It’s a hamster wheel with a blur of plant life forever in our midst.
Nursery work is hard and complicated. Sometimes the monotony of it is a challenge but you look for differences and subtle small things in your crops as you go. I think of this as the ideal time to use the boring repetitive moments as a teaching tool of some kind. It’s a moving meditation. For my physical therapist, she’s used this aspect of my jobs to help me work harder on my PT. We must all make the most of our daily lives, and this helps to define us, and give us meaning.
There is an art though to the juggling and rhythm of growing crops. Nature truly is the choreographer that we work with as we do our many dances through the seasons. It is the rhythm that we live by in the plant world that I live in and I’m sure that’s something others around the world share with me.
Folks have asked me a lot if I’ve missed my dinners this year and that’s been a tough topic for me. During my dinners I rarely spent time at the table with the guests. I was in the kitchen working hard and I don’t want to do that again. Taking back the space in my back garden this summer really helped me to get through everything. I spent quality time in the space I created from scratch. This let me consider the development of my own recipe. My distaste for some of the ingredients I’d included there. I gardened in this space and breathed in it. I made plans for changes, and thought through my missteps. Clearly, gardening and cooking conflated and I realized just how much I love propagation, plant production and kitchen work. I reached a kind of self-actualization in my hammock in the back garden in late summer, hanging right over the spot where my table usually sits and it felt so good. Eureka!
Potting up thousands of plants still makes me feel like I’m cooking for all of you though, and there is yet that space between us both, and I’m hurriedly working behind the scenes, so that you can feel pleasure. Maybe I’m an enabler after all. But this relationship feels even more complex and poignant than ever, during a year when we’re all living through a pandemic. We must continue to make the most of it.