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Manual for Talking to Plants

I was slower on the hike without him, like his body had been pulling mine. At the peak, I sat on a rock and looked out past mountains to pools for purifying Tucson’s water. In the gravel were lithops, or living stones. I poured water onto their round, smooth heads so that in a few hours they could bloom. 

As a Master Gardener it’s my responsibility to educate people in unbiased horticulture. I teach them how to plant and garden in the Sonoran Desert. My advisor had required us to write a living document of our contributions to the program. The hike was meant to help find the closing words for mine, but it was Sonny in my thoughts. We’d taken this route hundreds, maybe thousands of times. I’d followed the wet stain in the center of his back and listened to the sound of his big straw hat. 

Looking around at all the plants I couldn’t name, I got the sense that my program was limited. When I joined the Master Gardeners, I was given a brochure saying I would improve my self-confidence and personal skills. I was part of a long lineage of disseminators of scientific knowledge dating back to Woodrow Wilson. Yet, I didn’t need to know everything. I would only need to be reliable, relevant, and reachable.

The program had eight people including me, aged twenty-five to seventy. I wondered what it meant that we’d chosen a gardening program in the desert. We all questioned this during our shifts running the MG hotline, a requirement for certification. We mostly received calls about vegetable gardens, and we consistently gave bad news. Tomatoes only set fruit between fifty-five and ninety degrees. The soil here has too much clay and gravel. One third of cacti die. Henry, a skinny man in his late forties, consoled us by telling stories of his first MG program in Nebraska, where every question was answered with the recommendation of chemical spraying. We were, at least, nontoxic. 

Within a few months, I’d gathered that I had joined an out-of-date and stodgy group. I’d eventually learn that we weren’t liked by horticulturists, who were bothered that our title wrongly signaled a higher degree of experience. I kept my conversations about the program to a minimum, avoiding horticulturists with anti-MG feelings. A nurseryman once told me that he thought all gardeners were bored housewives. I’m a retired housewife, or a widow. Whatever they called us was fine by me.