A Houseplant Named Gary

What do a freezer full of food, a stack of dvds, comfy sweat pants, and a spider plant named Gary have in common? They’re all part of my Winter Survival Kit.

Winter Storm Ion, the ninth named winter storm to grip the nation this season, is making its presence known this weekend. With the wind chill predicted to be anywhere from 30F to 40F degrees below zero in my part of the country, going outside is a painful thing only done when necessary.

This spring, summer, and autumn I was out and about, taking advantage of the great outdoors as much as possible. I stock piled in my mind all the blue skies and fresh air I could, a little uncertain how I would feel spending my first long winter in my house all by myself.

Then one day I read a post called That Collective Of Dead Plants on Pancakes and French Fries, one of my favorite blogs I follow. The picture of her spider plant struck a chord.

My mom had a spider plant on her bedroom dresser in the 70s. A houseplant cleans the air, provides the green of nature when the world outside is winter brown and white, and is a living thing I can take care of without fear of it jumping on or biting me. (I’ve never been a pet person, even as a child unpredictable animals made me nervous.)

I would get a houseplant to keep me company this winter!

Keep in mind, I know NOTHING about plants. At all. My career houseplant stats are 0 and 2.

The aforementioned spider plant didn’t last long. The plant I do remember as the stalwart of my youth was the potted palm, affectionately known to my mom and me in its later years, as “The Stick”.

The Stick fought through adversity as long as it could. We never changed the dirt and we rarely watered it. Maybe once a month mom would hand me my favorite drinking glass, our 1970s Arby’s collectable Norman Rockwell “Knuckles Down” glass, full of tap water, and ask if I wanted to water the plant. I would gleefully pour the water into the dirt, watching it slowly absorb. It was fun. I’m surprised I didn’t ask to do it more often. I’m sure the palm would have appreciated that gesture. Eventually as the palm slowly succumbed to neglect and lost its leaves, my mom would hand me the glass and say, “Wanna water the stick?!?”.

My mom and I and the potted palm. I am about three years old in this picture, so the plant was in its full glory in 1979. Incidentally, that was my favorite shirt of my mom's. It had very groovy embroidered 1970s birds on the front. I thought she looked beautiful in it.
My mom and I and the potted palm. I am about three years old in this picture, so the plant was in its full glory in 1979. Incidentally, that was my favorite shirt of my mom’s. It had very groovy embroidered 1970s birds on the front. I thought she looked beautiful in it.
Me doing third grade homework at the kitchen table in front of the potted palm. Still valiantly hanging onto its leaves in 1984.
Me doing third grade homework at the kitchen table in front of the potted palm. Still valiantly hanging onto its leaves in 1984.

It was already late in the season when I began my houseplant hunt, so I didn’t have a lot of selection. I visited several stores, feeling no connection to any of the drooping, sad plants who had yet to find a home. Maybe this wasn’t meant to be after all.

Then I found him. MY houseplant. The minute I saw him I knew I was meant to bring him home.

Pic of a young Gary. A.K.A. Gary's humble beginnings.
Pic of a young Gary. A.K.A. Gary’s humble beginnings.

I don’t even know if this technically IS a spider plant. The teenage girl behind the flower counter at the grocery store was sweet, but didn’t know any more about plants than I did. But, it reminded me of my mom’s spider plant and I loved the red on the leaves.

I had trouble finding a pot I liked that late in the season, but I finally found one, and one day during halftime of a college football game on tv I moved Gary into his new ceramic home.

Moving day for Gary.
Moving day for Gary.

At the time I wasn’t yet calling him Gary. I was still calling him “plant”.

I consider myself a creative person, but naming things has never been a strong suit. When I received a new doll as a child my mom would ask what I wanted to call her. My answer was usually, Dolly. “Yes, but don’t you want to pick out a name to call her?”, my mom would ask hopefully. “Her name is DOLLY.”, I would invariably reply, with as much of a tinge of, “Duh, mommy” as a three year old can muster tacked on for emphasis. My mom liked telling that story.

It took me awhile to come up with a plant name I liked. Naming baby plants is different than naming baby pets or baby people. I have an entirely different set of names in my mind for potential children or pets. I’ll likely never get the chance to use either, but all the same, it’s a different pool of sacred names I’d rather not delve into for houseplants.

Finally it struck me. Gary.

After Gary Ewing, you ask? No. I’ve never even seen Dallas. Or Knots Landing.

The name just popped into my head, but the more I thought about it, the more it fit.

Gary Cooper. One of my favorite classic movie actors. Strong. Tall. A man of few words. Just like my plant. The name Gary also puts me in mind of the 1970s. Probably because it was the 9th most popular name given to boys in the year 1954, which means there were a lot of 20-year-old Garys running around in 1974. My new plant reminds me of my mom’s 1970s spider plant. Yep. It fits. Gary it is.

As with any firstborn, sometimes I’m a bit overly nervous.

When I decorated for Christmas I was briefly concerned about placing my strongly scented cinnamon pinecones on Gary’s plant stand. Are cinnamon pinecones toxic to a plant? Will I choke Gary’s leaves?

Gary’s tips look a little brown…is that normal?

Then I read on the internet I should be using distilled water because the flouride and chlorine in tap water can cause tip burn.

Oh great! I’ve been slowly poisoning Gary without my knowledge!!

I’M SORRY, GARY! I didn’t know!

Other than my occasional brown thumb moments, Gary and I have been getting along great this winter. I pull up the kitchen blinds to give him light and say, “Good Morning, Gary.” Most days when I get home from work I remember to check if he needs water.

Today I realized, though the configuration of my kitchen has changed, Gary now sits in the same spot the The Stick sat all those years. The legacy continues.

I had worried how I would fare this winter. It turns out I had nothing to worry about. I have been slowly turning my house into a home that I truly love and feels like a retreat for me.

I’ve surrounded myself with things that make me happy and calm and inspired and motivated. A place where I would choose to spend time over any other place in the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still looking forward to my next chance to take a walk in the park without ten layers of clothing between me and the sun and trips to the zoo and museums and all the places I love to go, but for now, while the cold winds of winter rattle my windows I am content in my home.

Absolutely content.

I hope Gary would agree.

8 thoughts on “A Houseplant Named Gary”

  1. It’s a lovely story, but Gary needs a friend — a succulent perhaps, or a bamboo. They are kill friendly, and love to be talked to gently in the early morning. I have many succulents, and several bamboos. They remain unnamed, and largely un watered. And brow, they remain brown.


    1. I agree, Roy. I worried Gary would be lonely, but the selection really wasn’t good the time of year I was looking. And if things ended badly, I thought it better to only accidentally kill one plant than three. My confidence boosted now, when my part of the country starts to green up I will find Gary a couple of friends.


  2. I know this is all about Gary, but: I love those typewriter prints in the first photo!

    I am a perennial buyer of houseplants. I have come to accept that almost all my new friends will die more quickly than I’d like. I’m just not very good at taking care of them, much as I try. But I love having living things inside, especially at this time of year.


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