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  • Writer's pictureAnisha Ralhan

The Story of a Late-Blooming Gardener

We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of. Ratting out a lazy co-worker, throwing suspicious glances at spouse in a packed elevator post a silent fart, buying an overpriced serum on Instagram late-night, buying anything on Instagram late-night.

Me? I’m guilty of murdering plants. In broad daylight, multiple times a year, in several apartments.

My first victim was a bamboo bonsai. Barely 2 inch long. I bought it from a grocery store below my house. It sat politely on my coffee table as a non-pretentious centrepiece, occupying so little space that I forgot it existed. Bonsai requires ample of direct sunlight—a critical piece of information missing from my blank-paged plant directory back then. When I learnt about the cause of death, I conveniently put the blame on Mowgli, my Persian kitten. We never open the balcony door. There was no way BB would have survived in artificial light, I reasoned while promptly tossing lifeless, yellow shoots down the garbage chute.

The second was a succulent whose name I never bothered to find out. It was on sale. The store I bought it from was going to be shut until the end of the Chinese New Year holidays. After handing me the change, the cashier told me to water it once in four days. I never got the chance. When I returned home after dinner, I saw muddy paw-prints all over the opal white marble floor in the living room. The succulent lay wounded inside the porcelain pot—knocked over sideways. Its roots looked like uneven strands of hair. Mowgli, the wildling, had turned out to be the real culprit this time.

Then came the terrarium I had assembled during an office workshop, in a closed cookie jar, blissfully protected from my furry predator. I was determined to keep its resident, a thumb-sized cactus, alive. I cleaned his glass house, gave him an occasional sunbath, aired him every fortnight. But like every overbearing Asian parent, I stifled his growth with too much love. And too much water, to be precise.

After a few more uneventful murders, I accepted my plant-less existence the way one accepts one’s flat feet and freckles—without paying it any further attention whatsoever.

During the pandemic, I quickly scrolled over saturated shots of herbs that my digital acquaintances were cultivating. When a friend told me excitedly that she had bought plants but no furniture for the flat she was to move in the next week, I rolled my eyes. Each time, I read bios that had the words plant papa in it, my braincells shrivelled in horror.

I was convinced gardening is dumb, and boring—a hobby for people with no social life, so to speak.

Cut to March 2022. During my trip to Delhi, I casually told my mother-in-law that after trying every overpriced acne serum on Instagram, I trust nothing, but the good-old drugstore procured aloe vera gel. She looked at me as if I was speaking Dothraki.

Hours before catching a flight back to Singapore, she gave me a pink plastic bag filled with a fist-sized soil ball. What a strange parting gift, I mumbled.

“Aloe vera for your balcony,” she said as I ran my fingers over green fatty stalks with healthy webbed roots—newly plucked out of her well-pruned balcony garden.

“Plant them in a pot as soon as you reach.”

I wanted to come clean and confess my crimes. I wanted to tell her that she was out of her mind to trust me with anything that didn’t walk on fours. I wanted to warn her that aloe’s blood would be on her hands. Not mine.

Instead, I remained quiet, wondering where to fit soil and stalks in my suitcase. Clearly, the prospect of lather lathering fresh aloe vera on my troubled skin had turned me blind towards my bloodied past.

I told myself if Al survives an overnight plane ride, I’ll find it a decent pot.

Al shocked me with its resilience. It survived Singapore’s menacing sun with little to no water week after week. It survived in a less than ideal home (a ceramic pot without drainage holes—my first rookie mistake), it survived the haunting gaze of Mowgli. Al was the leafy equivalent of Mohamed Ali. Al was a shining example of grit and perseverance. Al showed me even murderers deserve a fresh start.

Shortly after Al turned one-month old, I tentatively introduced it to a new companion. A modest, five-inch-tall holy basil. The new plant was chosen purely for its medicinal value. I had just recovered from COVID. My mother told me I should drink Tulsi tea to get rid of my chest congestion.

Al and basil grew tall rather quickly, and with it grew my enthusiasm to start a tiny balcony garden. I began texting plant parents with my newly acquired green thumb. What soil do you use for repotting? Where to obtain perlite?

My Google search history showed all signs of me turning into a crazy plant lady. Day and night, I began watching lengthy videos of random strangers talking about the right ways to propagate and harvest. I began visiting nurseries on the pretext of picking up groceries.

Meanwhile, my nuclear plant family silently expanded to a total of nine leafy beauties. Like all family members, they have their own quirks. Jade and Kalanchoe are the mild-mannered, self-assured succulents. They don’t look me in the eye. Mexican Marigold, on the other hand, needs constant attention. If you don’t water her every second day, she literally frowns. She is also the pretty one.

Then there is, the effortlessly suave Clusia Rosea. I call this one, Sharukh Khan of the flora. The blooming Moth Orchid prefers her own company. Something tells me, she writes poetry at night. Aglaonema, her pink leafed cousin suffers from the Asian flush.

Basil looks over the family like a matriarch.

Al gave birth to Al junior. They’re both wise beyond their years.

These days, instead of scrolling through feeds upon waking up, I dash to the balcony to wish them good morning with a watering can and a trowel.

I could go on and on about the therapeutic effects of gardening, and the value of patience it quietly instils, or what an out-of-body experience it is to watch your buds gently bloom under the open sky.

Yes, I am turning into an old person with no social life. And I've accepted it like one accepts one's flat feet and freckles


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