The Law of the Fern Bar

We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to ourselves get back to the garden.

From Woodstock, by Joni Mitchell

There’s a reason God didn’t create “The Farm of Eden.” A person can walk in a garden naked with a lover, sharing fruit, caught up in the enchantment of nature. Gardens are about beauty and meditation. But farms? According to Genesis, farms are cursed ground. Farms are work. Farms are production, harvest, sales, shipping, payables, receivables, payroll and taxes.

When I worked on a farm in Santa Barbara, all my wages went to rent a run-down bungalow in town. My girl friend and I took turns mining the crack under the sofa cushions for stray coins. I got skinny because I couldn’t afford beer, and my pants hung baggy on my hips. My co-workers said I looked “muy cholo.” Since cholo is understood in North America to describe a dope-smoking, glue-sniffing, Mexican street rat with criminal proclivities, I might have taken offense had they’d said it in a bad way. Cholo or no, I was poorer than I wanted to be. So I quit.

Gazebo Accents, an interior plant and gardening service in Santa Barbara, was hiring. The company rented plants and charged their customers a monthly fee for watering and maintenance. Jim, the owner, didn’t like my looks, but he was short-handed. He gave me a polyester T shirt emblazoned with the Gazebo Accents logo and told his boyfriend, Merkl, to show me the ropes. For me, the job entailed driving to a series of commercial accounts, like restaurants, banks, and insurance companies, and caring for their interior plants. Jim’s residential customers were a discriminating clientele, and they were the responsibility of his trusted, long-time employees. Merkl loved plants, especially tropical plants like orchids, bromeliads, and palms. Merkl handled Jim’s most difficult and demanding customers, and he found joy and satisfaction in bringing ailing or damaged plants back from their near-death experiences they suffered at the various job sites.

When a particular plant would grow too old or large to be effectively carted from one job to another Merkl retired the honorable veteran to the garden he kept in Jim’s back yard. He kept a Staghorn fern there hanging from an oak tree that was as big as a Volkswagon bug. There were thickets of palms and ginger, and small forests of New Zealand tree ferns. A large pineapple plant grew out of the heap of kitchen compost in the corner of the garden where a discarded crown had taken root. Under Merkl’s care, and with the help of Santa Barbara’s mild climate, this pineapple plant even produced a pineapple. After my girlfriend and I broke up, I moved into the garden, and one day I ate that pineapple— but that was later.

In the beginning, I was primarily concerned to learn how to care for houseplants. I remember a favorite pothos that trailed down the ledge behind a banquet in the tiki-twilight of a Tahitian- themed cocktail lounge. One day the pothos drooped, and its leaves yellowed and fell to the carpet. Overnight, the plant was dead. The client wasn’t excited about paying Gazebo Accents a replacement fee.

“You’ve got a black thumb,” he said.

I love plants, and the strictly horticultural side of my new job was easy to master. The notion of a “green thumb” is misleading— people who can grow plants have a green mind. From intuition or through education, good gardeners know that plants want to grow, and the forms the plants take tell us how and where they want to grow. Successful cultivation is about observation and respect. The broadness of a fern’s leaf, for example, speaks of an adaptation to a low-light environment. The fern’s fronds capture the scant, dappled light of a forest floor. By contrast, the round form and spiny armament of a barrel cactus is an adaptation to a dry habitat with a searing sun. The spines of a cactus serve to both to prevent animals from getting at the plant’s juicy flesh where water is stored, and to catch the dew or fog and guide the droplets of water toward the plant’s root zone. Give ferns or cacti with the conditions they ask for, and they’ll grow.

In nature, the law of the jungle holds sway— only the strongest organisms survive. As nature is dynamic, over the long term supple adaptability in the face of changing circumstances is a more powerful attribute than brute strength. Obviously, what we think of now as “houseplants” didn’t evolve in houses. Interior decorators took the process of natural selection away from Mother Nature when they created trend-conscious ecologies inside buildings, but the best, most conscientious decorators never forget her. A bromeliad from Hawaii with a pink inflorescence, for example, may be a perfect choice of a plant to occupy a niche in a bathroom, not merely because it is lovely to look at and matches the coral color of the throw mat, but because the low light and high humidity typical of a modern master bathroom mimics the plant’s original jungle habitat. A fern’s broad leaves can capture all the stray photons in the dimly lit interior of a bar and thrive, as long as someone passes occasionally to spritz the dust off its leaves in imitation of jungle mists. Mastery of arcane biological details constitutes the craft of an interior gardener; the art comes in handling the customer. Sometimes, bad things happen to plants. But in the world of interior plant service the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong— that’s the difference between the “Law of the Jungle” and “The Law of the Fern Bar.”

I was sad over the dead pothos so I subjected its corpse to rigorous forensic analysis. First I pulled away the sphagnum moss that had been tucked around the base of the plant to hide the rim of the plastic pot. Then I plucked out all the cigarette butts, tiny cock-tail umbrellas, and wads of gum. Then I slipped the root ball out of the pot. The soil was adequately moist, not too wet nor too dry, but it reeked of rum. The plant had a drinking problem. “Death by acute alcohol toxemia,” I told the tiki bar owner. He sniffed. Then he signed an authorization slip for the purchase of a new pothos. Gazebo Interior Plant Service didn’t accept responsibility in the case of abuse on the part of the client or their customers.

Then there was Stanley and Livingston’s Bar and Grill. A fern in a pot that hung from the ceiling in the dining room began shedding leaflets. “Bugs!” the owner declared, pointing up.

“Let me check the situation out,” I said. “I used to work on organic farms. I’ve learned that often insect problems can be solved without chemicals if we look at the problems in a holistic context.”

“What am I paying you for if you won’t spray the bugs?” he asked.

I brought a ladder into the lounge and climbed up to the fern. The fronds were greasy from the smoke off the grill. The stomata on the surface of its leaves were clogged with atomized animal fats. The plant couldn’t transpire. Asphyxia! Few herbivorous insects could have survived the smoky, greasy environment, and I didn’t see any trying to. But if I told the fellow his cooking killed plants that had survived the dinosaurs he’d call my boss. I teetered on my ladder, wrestling with my conscience.

“You’re right,” I said. I’ll spray those god-damned bugs to death if it kills me.”

The bar owner looked suspicious at my sudden enthusiasm. I decided to blur the issue with details. “Some insecticides are so-called ‘contact insecticides,’” I said. “The toxins in a ‘contact insecticide’ are only effective if they touch or ‘contact’ the bug.”

“What does it cost” he asked.

“For example, a contact insecticide may a soap that acts by melting the waxy coating that some pest insects,” I said. “Mealy bugs, for example, exude a waxy powder, or farina.. When the “meal” that coats the bug is removed, the pest dies of exposure. Other contact pesticides work by clogging a bug’s breathing apparatus so that it chokes to death. With contact insecticides, we can spray a plant all day long, but if we don’t strike the bugs themselves, they won’t die. It’s hard to get all the bugs hidden in cracks or under the leaves.”

He was waiting.

“But,” I said,” there’s another class of insecticide— a much deadlier insecticide for humans and bugs alike, called systemic insecticide.”

“Yeah?”

“Systemic insecticides are absorbed by the plant they are applied to, so that when the targeted pest bites into the plant, it ingests the toxin, and dies. Systemic insecticides are effective because they even kill the bugs that can’t be seen or touched. Systemic insecticide is effective against the bugs that haven’t even showed up yet. Which kind of insecticide would you like me to use?”

He wanted systemic insecticide. He wanted to kill the unseen bugs.

So I removed the sick fern to the alleyway, and went to my van for a gas mask. “Don’t come back here while I’m doing this,” I told him. “I can’t have you inhaling the fumes. They are colorless, odorless, and deadly.” That wasn’t strictly true. Insecticides stink.

He nodded.

“I’m going to have to use your hose to mix up my chemicals,” I said.

He nodded. “Tell me when you’re done.”

So I gently hosed the fern down, washing away as much of the smoke and grease as I could. Then I reached for the registered spreader/sticker agent I carried in my insecticide kit.

Pesticides are expensive. To aid in effectively distributing the active ingredients of the pesticide in a thin film pesticide applicators often use what’s called a spreader/sticker agent. Put simply, a spreader sticker agent is a detergent which helps spread the chemical out in a film. As the spray dries, the gummy coating helps the active ingredients stick to the target plants. One of the most common brands of spreader/sticker agents is Safer soap, and it is indeed as safe as dish soap. Safer soap’s detergent qualities are strong enough to kill many soft bodied pests, like aphids, on contact. That day in the alley with the ailing fern, I was after bigger prey.

I pulled my gas mask on. I didn’t need the gas mask to mix up a spray tank full of Safer soap and tap water any more than you need one doing the dishes at the kitchen sink, but I wanted to give the bar owner the service he needed. Once the spray tank was full of frothy soapy water I adjusted the spray nozzle to fine mist, and gently sprayed the fern, parting its foliage with my rubber gloved hands, making sure that the soapy water made it to the core of the plant. Once I was done, I retired to the restaurant, leaving the fern in the alley, and took off my gas mask and rubber gloves.

“I’m just going to let the plant absorb the toxins for a moment,” I said, “and when the bugs are dead I’ll wash the chemical residue off the plant so that it’s safe to re-install.”

I rested at the bar and nursed a beer as long as the gravity of the situation demanded, then returned to the alley and rinsed off the fern. I could see the leaves glow greener as the grease flowed down the gutter. The fern lived that day, but the humid environment it lived in didn’t last for long.

During my tenure with Gazebo Accents, the world of interior plants underwent a profound climatic change— that is, the lush fern bar look of the late seventies became passé, and business after business opted for the new “Southwestern” look. Everything had to change with the weather, right down to the bric-a-brac on the walls and shelves. Brightly colored paper maché parrots were taken down from their dusty perches in wicker baskets and replaced with faux Navajo ceramic vases in soft pastels. Hanging baskets of grape ivy were traded out for potted “bunny ears” cacti.

Customers didn’t want to pay Gazebo Accents to water cacti, since they believed that cacti don’t need water. Jim responded to the cash flow drought by evolving his company to take on exterior gardening jobs. Gazebo’s career employees were tender as African violets under the hot Southern California sun, so I was selected to head up the new out door gardening division. I was perfect for the task, since I could already swear in Spanish. The problem was, I didn’t want to do “blow jobs.”

It worked like this. Two of us would go out on a job. Jose’s task was to mow the lawn, and rake the grass. My job was to use the leaf blower and huff and puff dried leaves or dust away from the pool side— that and give Jose orders in Spanish so the customers could feel they were receiving the services of a foreman they were being billed for.

Plants are easy, but people are a bitch. As Jose and I did the “mow and blow” under the hard eyes of the suburban matrons I began to long for the relative freedom of the row crop farms where I’d looked like a cholo. My polyester polo shirt emblazoned with the Gazebo Accents logo was beginning to shrink and I felt tight in the chest. I couldn’t take the heat! It was time to move on. Gardening is no Eden for the gardener.copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

the photo above is of a pink zinnia taken by Andy when visiting High Ground Organics. It’s a classic suburban garden flower and one that our parntner farm grows for our CSA customers. This article didn’t suggest any obvious photos! -julia

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