Uprooting this houseplant gave it incentive to live

THE REAL DIRT

September 14, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Mom has a problem with a house guest. His name is Arnie, and she can't get rid of him.

Arnie just won't go.

Their 12-year relationship hit the skids this year, when Mom decided the house wasn't big enough for both of them. Arnie never worked a day in his life. All he did was sit in front of the TV in the living room, getting bigger and bigger until it became difficult just to walk around him. Arnie's pot was getting pretty big.

Mom finally called it quits last spring. She booted Arnie out of the house, dragged him out the back door and stood him in a corner on the patio.

It was an extraordinary effort. Arnie stands 6-feet-1. Mom is 5-feet-6.

He got the message, but Arnie refused to give up. In fact, he hasn't budged an inch since his eviction. He keeps waiting around, peering in the kitchen window as if expecting Mom to change her mind.

Sure enough, Mom is waffling. She is talking of taking Arnie back.

You really can't blame her. Arnie is a towering Norfolk Island pine. Mom put the plant outside, in direct sunlight, anticipating its demise. Instead, Arnie has thrived, adding 6 inches to his height this summer.

Who wouldn't admire a houseplant that survived on its own for 6 months?

"Arnie will not give in," says Mom. "You've got to be proud of a plant like that."

There are, I suspect, millions of Arnies out there: plants condemned for various reasons by their owners but which refuse to die. Old plants. Sick plants. Ugly plants. Plants like Arnie that no longer fit in.

Most gardeners are too softhearted to simply trash these unwanted specimens. It is hard to pull the plug on a live plant. So we push them aside and try to forget them. We deliberately ignore their basic needs. The wallflowers on our windowsills receive less food, water and light.

We treat these plants like dirt, which, quite frankly, is all we want to see in the pot the next time we look. The plant died? Too bad, but hey, I didn't really kill it.

Sometimes we haul the houseplants outside, hoping Mother Nature will finish off one of her own. And sometimes Mother Nature looks the other way.

Apparently, Arnie's time wasn't up. Horticulture heaven can wait.

Abandoning Arnie took its toll on Mom. She recalled the day she brought him home as a young seedling, potting him up and placing him on a plant stand. Arnie immediately leaned toward the light and took off.

As he grew, Arnie entwined himself around her heart and became a part of the family. Mom decorated him for the holidays, trimming his slender branches with tiny lights and Christmas balls.

Alas, Arnie never stopped growing. He had claimed a large chunk of the living room and was threatening the ceiling when Mom sent Arnie packing. I applauded her decision. Who hasn't seen the movie "Little Shop of Horrors"?

Before putting him out to pasture, however, she bought a smaller Norfolk Island pine to take Arnie's place. Mom fully expected Arnie to expire outdoors.

"I put him in the back yard to die," she says. "I figured the hot sun would kill him, or the bugs would get him, or I would forget to water him."

Nothing of the sort happened. Arnie basked in the sunlight, fended off insects and drank from the hose. Mom sneaked him a big gulp when she noticed his efforts.

"He seemed so full of spunk that I felt guilty not watering him," she says.

Now Mom is planning to drag Arnie back inside again. She reckons they can last one more winter together. On paper, it's possible: Arnie's head is still 8 inches shy of the ceiling.

And next year?

"I just don't know," says Mom. "I guess I would have to put a hole in the roof."

Tough hobby, gardening.

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