What Plants Taught Me About My Marriage


Fostering a marriage is all about dealing with less than ideal conditions.

Last spring, I bought 18 beautiful specimens of sagina subulata (aka Irish Moss) for a plot in my small urban garden. Once in the ground, I spared them nothing; the richest compost, careful misting twice a day, scrupulous weeding and heaps of praise. Situated just outside the door where my son plays the piano, they were even given regular serenades.

At first, the small stumpy plugs took to their spot and grew beautifully. Within weeks, they had spread out. They filled the spaces inbetween and became the smooth expanse of soft fluffy green I had been dreaming of for years.

Then, after a month of luscious, show-offy perfection, they turned a hideous burnt brown and died off in great patches of matted yuck. I wondered what went wrong. The soil wasn't too wet, it wasn't too dry. The light conditions were ideal. This plant is hardy from zone 3 to zone 10 and we live in zone 6. WTF?

I asked gardening friends, landscaper contacts and my neighborhood plant whisperer. Each of whom came to take a look. They were all stumped.  Later that summer I ran into a research scientist from the famous Arnold Arboretum, who happens to spend his family vacations by the same lake we do. I doubt he likes getting horticulture questions on his week off, but it made a nice change of topic from my recent divorce.

"Irish moss is a scrappy plant," he said. "It's able to suck nutrients from the sandy, windswept coastal soil of Ireland. Okay, so my (pricey) little moss plants were supposed to be low maintenance. Here I was fussing over them like a hysterical stage mother. Still, I asked him, what plant is going to complain about conditions being too good?

The plant doctor explained to me a little about the physiology of flora. "When plants have ideal conditions they put all their energy into exuberant growth. Very little energy goes into building their defense system," he said. "On the other hand, in conditions that are less favorable, plants tend to grow slowly and put a large portion of their energy into building their defenses and increasing their hardiness."

Wait, were we still talking about plants here?

My marriage had been all too similar. Our friends saw us as exuberant and even enviable in our capacity to have fun, throw dinner parties, share vacations and tell jokes. My parents' early death left us with a financial cushion that meant we could take the jobs we wanted. Only, it seemed harder and harder for my husband to find a job he considered worthy of his talents.

And I let him slide. In fact, as even my own mother-in-law confessed, I spoiled him. I demanded little of his time or his effort with our kids. He seemed to feel his time was better spent rustling up the perfect job. And rather than fight to get his cooperation or demand that he contribute more time, effort and money to our family's needs, I floated along in my own happy haze of motherhood (and denial).

Our life, in many ways, was a big soft fluffy green bed. With an extremely fragile root system.

"I don't know much about divorce," said the plant doctor, while watching his grandson thrashing around in the lake shallows, "But with plants, it's important to strike the right balance between comfort and struggle."

How can this not be true for humans as well?

I'm not saying I'll never make mistakes again, but I will be doing my best not to repeat that one. When and if I have a next partner, I will be asking more of him.

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Yes, I want to be with someone who appreciates fun and has a sense of humor. But I need to be with someone who has grit and tolerance as well. After all, conditions only get tougher as we age. I'd like my next relationship to grow roots and survive. My ideal? A relationship as tough and scrappy as a plot of Irish moss.