Thursday, January 4, 2001
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Posted on: Thursday, January 4, 2001

Growing plants that will not die

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Columnist

This year I’m going to do a better job of keeping my plants alive. In the past 12 months I’ve killed things as small as spice seedlings and as big as a full-grown tree. I’ve caused botanical trauma by overwatering and underwatering, by applying too much fertilizer and not enough. I’ve seen things wither on the vine, the branch, even the ground.

My wife is getting tired of coming home and finding all those shriveled, gnarly bits of former living matter all over the house and yard. The neighbors think I’m stockpiling deadwood for some sort of ritualistic bonfire on the first day of spring. I put so much green waste outside on recycling days that the garbage men left me a case of beer this past Christmas.

It’s not like I don’t try to keep things alive. I’ve got dozens of books: "Pruning for Dummies." "The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to Keeping Living Things Alive." "Bromeliads for Beginners." They don’t help; Nietzsche said: No one can draw more out of things, books included, than he already knows.

This is all I know: Things grow. Or they don’t. There’s really no way to predict which ones will survive. Or which ones won’t. You pay your money at Star Garden and you take your chances. Plant buyers really should need a license, like someone driving a car, or a waiting period, like someone buying a gun. Plants don’t kill plants; people kill plants.

This gives me no pleasure. I’m not a killer by nature. Just the opposite; I’m hooked on life. Why else do I keep buying all those lovely and expensive plants things if I don’t want them to live forever? Why would people keep giving me flowers if they didn’t think I was capable of nurturing them?

I try to take the subsequent dying philosophically. Death, I tell myself, is inevitable (especially when you’re left out in the tropical sun without food or water for weeks on end). Nothing lives forever, not even weeds.

Some plants thrive on neglect. The books say orchids, bromeliads and ferns all are good for beginners and those with brown thumbs. That’s a lie. Yes, plants do like Hawaii, but not as much as tropical bugs and botanical viruses do.

Finally, though, after 20 years of trying my hand at tropical gardening, I’ve learned something valuable. The secret to a beautiful Island garden is to plant things that are well adapted to the natural environment and can stand up to the forces of nature and neglect.

If you master this art, you, too, can have a beautiful lawn filled with happy and flourishing plants.

Think I’m kidding? Drop by my house any time and I’ll show you my wonderful collection of haole koa and nut grass.

Mike Leidemann’s columns appear Thursdays and Saturdays in the Advertiser. He can be reached by phone (525-5460) or e-mail (

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