Get Rooted: Making a hobby of horticulture

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Words || Jarrad Noulton

If you’re a full-time Arts student with only six weekly contact hours, you’re going to need a hobby, fast. I heard TV shows were a fun way to pass the time, but my student budget says no to Netflix. I found myself in the predicament of trying to find a free hobby, and everything I thought of was far too expensive. It wasn’t long before my fear of never owning property rose to the surface – am I not frugal enough? Should I be able to get a mortgage on minimum wage? My bank did offer me a home loan the other day… Either my finances aren’t as bad as I think or they’ve got the wrong guy. Regardless, my stress helped me resolve a decision: I would discover a free hobby, and it would be a triumph for my entire generation and students everywhere!

In the end it wasn’t me who discovered the joys of horticulture, but my friend Max. The more I asked about his garden, the more I heard with incredulity the exploits of this avid gardener who finds ingenious ways to garden cheaply but effectively. Some ways come from living under the roof of your parents, who long ago gave up their gardening dreams but still hoard the gardening goods. Other ways include asking your friends for clippings, or better yet, robbing them from the luscious plants of cranky neighbours. Regardless of my strategy, Max made the life of a gardener seem much more exciting than I’d expected, so it was time for me to give it a go.

Step One: Getting Plants

In my initial research, I discovered that I wasn’t the only young person trying to add some greenery to their life. A Huffington Post article by Jess Melia details the satisfaction of having something to take care of – between her dog and her plants. For her, this satisfaction was a stop-gap measure trying to appease her nervousness about all the things she hasn’t achieved yet – a common millennial concern I could  sympathise with. So, I hoped that in my quest to pass the time I would gain some of that “rootedness” she found in caring for her plants.

Ultimately I decided that herbs would be most useful when fully-grown and, more importantly, easy to keep alive. My family has a terrible reputation for keeping plants alive – from over-watering to under-watering to walking away for a moment only to discover our plants have been ravaged by some vagrant bush turkey. I sent some feelers out through my ever-growing gardening networks, and quickly got word on the grapevine that herbs were available at Max’s house. His enthusiasm for greenery knows no bounds, so I suddenly found myself with strawberry, baby chili and aloe vera plants along with the lemongrass and chives I’d asked for.

Although happy with my haul, I went to the shops and added a small packet of sage for just $3, which I’d decided to try and propagate in water. This is a kind of magic where you don’t put the plant in any soil, but simply in a jar of water, serenade it with Toto’s ‘Africa’ once daily while standing on one leg, and there’s a one percent chance that it’ll grow roots. Then you can actually plant it. Suffice to say, I didn’t have much hope. But if it worked, it’d be a great way to expand my garden cheaply, and so I gave it a try.

Step Two: Check Before You Leap (Leap Anyway)

I took Max’s advice and tested the acidity of the soil in my backyard. He’d warned me that acidic or basic soil would probably kill my plants, and that I might have lead or something buried in my soil that would cause a slow death for my family and I a few decades after  
eating my hand-grown herbs. I was worried, for about a second, and then decided I’d just do it regardless. What kind of life can I live without risk?

I did do the test, though. The cheapest possible way to test acidity is to use vinegar, baking soda and tap-water – all paid for by Mum and Dad. I grabbed a handful of dirt (coincidentally, this is also Mum and Dad’s), split it into two bowls, and poured water in each. I measured out a teaspoon of vinegar and dashed it in the first bowl – no reaction. Apparently, that’s good. I wash the teaspoon – we don’t want cross-contamination, this is legit science – and drop a teaspoon of baking soda into the second bowl. A few tiny bubbles pop up. Since baking soda is basic, this means my soil is somewhat acidic. If I were to do this properly, I would go and buy some fertiliser designed to restore the balance of acidic soil – but this isn’t Better Homes & Gardens as much as it is Backyard Science, so the soil stays as is. Finally, it’s time to try my hand at horticulture.

Step Three: The Gardening Part

By now I’ve set up my sage on the kitchen windowsill. Rather than one, I’ve got three stems in a jar, and I’m hoping this will triple my chance of success. Now I’ve got to find a semi-permanent home for the five plants Max gave me, because they’re all in tiny pots with no opportunity for growth, like some kind of grass ceiling. My parents had an impressive stash of ancient pot plants – and even a bag of potting mix! I was planning to use some until my parents casually mentioned that you can contract Legionnaires disease from breathing in potting mix. Then, as a postscript, my mother said, “Yeah, we think that’s how your great uncle Bob got it.” In a sudden flashback, I recalled Max’s prophetic warning: “There are dangers in every hobby, including gardening.” First, lead poisoning, second, disease, third, my neighbour keeps threatening to assault me because I stole from his lemon tree.

I took my Dad’s advice and scooped up a bunch of soil from our yard instead. I carefully teased each plant out of their temporary homes, and even more cautiously pulled apart their roots from the soil before I relocated them to bigger pots. But – devastation! I’d accidentally snapped the sole root of my tiny Aloe vera plant. But despite my loss – even though I’m still blindly watering this half-dead Aloe anyway – I found I was really enjoying myself. Toiling away, my hands covered in dirt and soil stuck under my fingernails, I’ve discovered I love it. Broken roots or not, the sense of rootedness is thriving. And the best part? It only cost me three dollars!

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