Post- Magazine

planted [feature]

how our dwellings shape us

“if someday you can’t find me you might

look into that tree or—of course

it’s possible—under it.”

  • from “Green, Green is My Sister’s House” by Mary Oliver


Green: the quiet lawn two stories down, the oak trees out the window, one chipped sage wall of the dorm room. It is my favorite color, the shade of forests and ferns and frogs, so I took it as a good omen when I walked into the dorm for my summer internship in Tulsa and saw so much of it in front of me. I put down my bags, pulled five small succulents from my backpack, then placed them on the sunny granite ledge by the window. They added their own special hue, a personal mark for the next 10 weeks we would spend in this room. Green on green on green. It was the perfect summer home. 


LowCas was the first to die. A symmetrical, dusty green plant in a taupe pot, I doted on him during the school year, moving him to the window in the morning and back to the cart beside my bed each night. I shared him with my roommate at Brown but won sole custody at the end of the year, so in late May I wrapped LowCas in tissue paper and carried him with the rest of my succulents to Oklahoma. 

To water LowCas, I quickly ran him under the sink every few weeks, but his flat leaves made a concentric pattern that just covered the edge of the cup, making it difficult to judge when his soil was still wet. One day that summer, after noticing an unusual amount of leaves falling off, I tugged him out of the pot and realized the soil was drenched and smelled of mildew. Root rot, a deadly mold infection, had set in. I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I could, pinching the soil off his roots and repotting him. But I failed to breathe him back to life, and was doomed to watch as the black stain of mold ate up his stem, exposing his pith to the air, until it finally reached his perfect teardrop-shaped leaves and shriveled them one by one.

I buried him in the bark underneath an oak tree outside my window. As I poured LowCas into the ground, I whispered my apologies. For not knowing him enough. For flooding his home. 


As the weeks crept on, the heat and humidity left me with an unquenchable longing. I missed my hometown in California, the cold fog from the bay rolling over the road in the early morning, the mountain punctuating the Western skyline, the sound my dog made as she jumped on my bed. I yearned for college—the old, creaking windows overlooking the green, the soft piano in the chapel on Friday evenings, my basement room where animals scampered outside my window. I entered the summer believing that Oklahoma would fill me with its newness and possibility for adventure, adding the final grown-up touches to my life. But despite the friends I made and restaurants I tried and churches I explored, the wide, unoccupied sidewalks and quiet dorm hallways and vastness of my room felt like a vacuum, constantly exposing all I had left behind.


“The first step toward the successful adoption of a houseplant is giving it a good container. The homely plastic pots that plants come in not only lack eye appeal, but also may be cramping their roots. By the time you've taken a fern or jasmine into your life, it's probably ready for new quarters.”


 - from Tovah Martin’s “Antidotes for the Blues of Winter


After LowCas’s death, I feared the same fate for my other plants. So, one Sunday in late June, I took a tiny bus to a home improvement store and searched for the right ingredients to make an adequate soil mixture, eventually settling on a bag of fast-draining soil and another of perlite, an aerating mineral.

Once I returned to my room, I dug out a plastic spoon and began to evaluate the repotting situation. Violet, with her sturdy stalk and thin leaves that had gone maroon with the intense Oklahoma sun, was the easiest. I kept her in her same white-and-blue-striped pot, once home to my first-ever college succulent. Violet’s soil tended to be dehydrated, but her pot had no drainage, so I added a good amount of new soil for nutrients and a scoop of perlite for aeration. In the fresh mixture, she continued to grow, but she remained parched, her leaves retaining their sunburnt blush.


At sunset, when the stifling heat dropped, I would sometimes walk to the center of campus and sit on the steps of the massive library. I would bring a journal and Mary Oliver’s Devotions to watch the sky change colors, smile at the dogs running across the green, and listen to the drone of the cicadas. Gazing at the sparrows settling in for the evening, I took off my shoes to soak in the warmth and soft grit of the sandstone. In those moments, I finally felt at peace.

One night, too dark to read but not wanting to go back to my room, I wandered the perimeter of the library. Reaching a patch of grass, I saw a flash of light, then another, then another. Fireflies, dancing through a grove of trees. I grinned. For a moment, it was the most beautiful sight of my life. I could stay there forever, listening to their faint electric buzz, watching them illuminate the dusk.


“A Ming Aralia, Uprooted

Q. My seven-year-old Ming aralia was doing fine until I moved to a new apartment. Then it started shedding more branches than usual. I always water once a week and have never used plant food. Please advise.

A. It’s an old story: a happy houseplant is moved and boom! unhappiness reigns. Differences in obvious factors like light levels and in subtle ones like tap-water temperature cause stress that often makes plants pare themselves down, and Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa) is particularly vulnerable to change.”


Repotting Klaus and Jerome was the most tedious process. Klaus, a dark green succulent with soft leaves down his stem, had begun to grow his roots through the drainage hole in his tiny pot and had also produced a second sprout in the dirt, no bigger than a fingernail. If I left him for much longer, his growth would be stunted, squeezed in by the terracotta vessel that I had painted with green hearts. So I mixed the perlite and soil in a white pot patterned with pink triangles, then wiggled Klaus out of his old pot, careful not to damage his roots or, worse, snap him entirely in half. I dumped the excess soil in the new pot, then placed him inside.

Jerome, my oldest plant, with long, dangling, spiked leaves, had been living in a disposable plastic container for the past month, as his pot had broken near the end of the school year and nothing I had on hand would properly fit his lanky proportions. After repotting Klaus, I made a similar mixture in his old pot, then replanted Jerome’s short, stocky roots into it, hoping they would branch down with time and patience. Maybe, one day, he could finally ground himself where he was planted.


I don’t remember when I first noticed that the room’s ceiling was growing mold, but it must have been around the time I began crying for everything and everyone that was out of my reach. I imagine that during those nights, the tears flew upwards, defied gravity’s sickening pull, and planted themselves in the ceiling tiles above the headboard. There, they stagnated and grew, blooming into mottled black and brown rising suns.

I submitted a maintenance request one day. It took a week for them to replace the tiles, and when I came home from work I found dust and small chunks of the white, fibrous material scattered across my floor and bedding. I washed it all immediately, hot water to scourge any remaining contagion that may have fallen. Maybe this time, I thought, it would be better.

The mold grew back. I continued to cry.


“There was someone I loved who grew old and ill

One by one I watched the fires go out.

There was nothing I could do

except to remember

that we receive

then we give back.”

  • from “At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver


When I removed Sunny, my smallest plant with tiny lime-green rosettes, from her plastic container, the square base of her soil seemed bone dry. But when I finally squeezed the roots to allow them to reshape, I realized that the middle was soggy and smelled like grass. She was molding.

I frantically tossed some extra perlite into the new mixture I had made in LowCas’s old pot, hoping root rot hadn’t set in yet. But about a week later, Sunny died, in the same way, and the same place as LowCas. But unlike LowCas, I didn’t bury her immediately. I left the crisp, dead leaves sitting in the pot for weeks on end, lacking any motivation to give her the rites she deserved. 

I didn’t want to take that death-laden pot home, so I gave it away at the end of my internship. I wish I had thrown it away though. I think that LowCas and Sunny both permeated the porous terracotta, despite my best efforts to wash it. I don’t think that anything but rot can survive there now.


Around the same time as I replanted the succulents, I met a woman with a pot-your-own-plant stand at a market. I chose a cactus, one near blooming, and a glass with images of roosters on the side. She walked me through the process of placing charcoal and river rocks on the bottom to help with drainage and prevent mold, scooping soil in the middle to feed the plant, and then carefully inserting the cactus with a pair of rubber tongs. I decorated the edge with dusty white rocks and little animal figurines, then placed a cowboy hat on top to complete the look. I named him Billy Joel. 

I was determined not to repeat my past mistakes, and the woman at the stand assured me that the less I watered Billy Joel, the better. But when I returned to California after my internship, I noticed that the circle of dirt at his base was rising out of the rest of the soil. I chalked it up to underwatering, but I knew the problem went beyond hydration. With the combination of soil and rocks and charcoal and little decorations, he didn’t have enough room to grow.

Or, maybe, he wanted to go back home. To Tulsa.


“ Joy is not made to be a crumb.”

 - from “Don’t Hesitate” by Mary Oliver


One Sunday in Tulsa, visiting a nearby church, I learned about the concept of “defiant joy.” It is the idea of finding happiness where you are and taking time to praise God, no matter how difficult the circumstances. That same day, Billy Joel flowered. A single bright magenta bloom. 


In late July, Violet, Klaus, Jerome, Billy Joel, and I made it to California. We stayed in my home for a month before school began, acclimating to the weaker light and less extreme temperatures. I showed the plants around the house, wondering if their perch on my bookshelf felt like just another layover, if it was nothing more than a guest room to them. And I suppose that in some ways, I felt the same. Despite calling California home, despite the memories in every corner of my house, I, too, was passing through.

At the beginning of September we all went back to Providence. My plants now live by the window of my new room, soaking in the sunshine and occasionally being misted by the rain. They seem content but with every move they have changed. Klaus and Violet have grown taller and tilt in their pots: Klaus, out of lazy contentment, and Violet, in her yearning for the sun. Jerome’s leaves have grown shorter and sturdier, refined with age. He frequently falls out of his pot, and every time, I place him back in, patting down the dirt around his still-short roots.

Billy Joel is dead. His arms began withering in California, and they finished the process once in Providence. It felt cruel to dump him in the trash or abandon him to the wind. So under a cloudy, moonlit sky, I walked outside with the rooster cup in my hands, its glass cool in the night air. I tried to dig in the dirt outside my window with a plastic spoon, but the earth refused to yield, so, as I had done before, I settled on the softer bark around a bush. I hope he has enough sun and space in his new home. It is not a final resting place—I believe that whatever is left of his spines and stalk and roots will nurture something new, and through him, I, too, will grow something. Pieces of ourselves, our joys, our pains live in everything we care about. No wonder loving is hard. No wonder leaving is harder. We place our hearts in things, walk away, and if we’re lucky, they’ll multiply again and again and again. 

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