When Life Gives You Succulents

I’ve neglected this blog as badly as I’ve neglected this strawberry pot of succulents — the one that’s now crowded with ferns and weeds. You would think a quarantined person would have time to keep up with a weed-filled strawberry pot and, of course, a blog.

Apparently, not always.


At the start of this quarantine, back in March, I remember having plans. I envisioned all of this free time to write posts about gardening, to maybe even work on another book, to tackle long overdue tasks in the garden.

While I had energy and enthusiasm at the start of the quarantine, I feel as if I’ve drifted — although I’ve been busy! My days have been full — at least that’s what I tell myself. I’m just not sure why I’ve ignored the pot and the blog — but I’m going to figure it all out as I set about cleaning up this mess.

Step 1: Saving the good stuff

Fortunately, I’m dealing with succulents — and they are as tough as nails. Easy to cut, easy to propagate. Just easy.

Life in recent months hasn’t been easy. It’s safe to say the closest life has come to succulents is the first syllable of that word. For the most part, though, I’ve tried to remain positive and focused. I’ve cherished regular routines, like making the bed or mowing the lawn.

There were, on the other hand, those days — the days that dragged longer than others.


My first long day was a few months ago, when NY was the epicenter. I was sweeping the living room floor and my Pandora station moved to the next song, “Go West,” by the Village People. It’s a happy, bouncy song, full of hope and energy — but I started to cry. It was like my tear ducts were more closely in tune with my emotions than my mind was. I just felt incredibly sad, worried, and frightened.

The garden was a huge help, especially as I puttered around, weeding, dividing bromeliads, digging up plants and moving them around into new positions in beds, propagating cuttings and seeds, and watching Atala butterfly caterpillars, a native-species, make chrysalises.

Step 2: Tossing out the bad stuff

The roots of the ferns and weeds had completely filled the soil, making a sort of burlap close to the sides of the pot. My good ol’ thrift store sifter came in handy, as I salvaged what soil I could.

I wish there was a tool large enough for me to sift out the bad stuff happening in my home state of Florida. When the country first locked down in March, Broward (where I live) and Miami-Dade (south of me) counties had the highest number of cases and deaths in Florida.

After a few weeks, other regions in Florida began to rebel against the lockdown because they weren’t experiencing what South Florida was experiencing. Jacksonville, for example, opened its beaches. At the same time, Broward and Miami residents who craved beach time drove across the Everglades to the Gulf Coast to use those beaches. Social distancing was rare. Masks became a flashpoint, as they have in other areas of the country.

By May, Governor Ron DeSantis was taking steps to re-open the state although the state had not achieved any of the necessary CDC benchmarks. When beaches and hotels opened again, Joe and I took a drive to the restaurant-heavy neighborhoods to see what was happening. While many had taken steps to maintain distance between tables and to have servers wear masks, we were horrified at the number of people on the sidewalks who were not wearing masks and failing to keep any sort of social distance. In one instance, we saw a mask-less jogger run through the cloud of droplets of a group of mask-less friends as he left his own droplet residue among them.

Joe and I returned home, knowing that things were only going to get worse — and they have. About two weeks after this drive, as if on cue, the surge began. By June, each day brought record-breaking numbers of new COVID cases. Approximately two weeks after this happened, the number of deaths moved upward.

Needless to say, Joe and I have not eaten out or ordered take out. We did, though, have our house tented. I don’t know what happens in other parts of the country, but quarantine time coincided beautifully with termite-swarming season. We had several swarms of dry wood termites in the house. The treatment was to move out for several days while the house was wrapped in tarps and a poison gas was released into the interior.  The odorless poison permeates walls and travels into attic spaces.


Part of the joy of this was prepping the yard. We had to trim back bushes and remove plants to allow workers easier access to the house. Any plants under the tarp would most likely die. We then packed up our quarantine supplies and the cat and moved into a furnished Airbnb on our street. A few days later, once the house had been unwrapped and aired out, we moved back in, cleaned everything, and resumed staying in place. I turned my attention to the garden but not the strawberry pot — returning dug-up plants to their previous locations and looking for damage. The only plant that suffered was a purple firespike. Half of it had turned black. I cut it back and it’s rebounding in the heat and rain.

Purple firespike.

Step 3: Renew and replant

I mixed some fresh potting soil with the old potting soil, adding extra perlite for drainage, and filled the pot. I then chose some harvested succulent cuttings for planting in the pot, as well as a cluster that reminded me of a clump of miniature trees for its own pot.

As our quarantine lingered into July, I admit that more and more of those days have happened. I want so badly to go to a nursery, but I don’t dare do that now. I really don’t know if I can trust myself to be quiet if I see a shopper without a mask, or to stop myself from intervening if a mask-less shopper is giving an employee a hard time. Instead, I’m making mental notes of projects that will need to be done when I feel it’s safe enough to venture out, while making use of what’s available in my yard.

I think one of the reasons I neglected the pot is that, other than the weed invasion, it was doing fine without me. The blog, though. Maybe it’s quarantine fatigue or an anxiety in which its easier to separate or just too many distractions in the world. It’s probably a little bit of all of the above.

In the midst of all this, I try to hold onto the good things:

Gloriosa Lily.

Our neighbors have been wonderful. Knowing that I have an underlying health condition, they always ask if we need anything as they venture out on their own shopping. We also rely on Instacart, and I’ve met some really amazing shoppers who take the time to find substitutions and to ask questions via texts and photos.

Joe and I are doing a lot of reading — or rather I am, while Joe listens. Because the library has been closed, we’re sharing my Kindle. We download books from Amazon or from the local library and I read them aloud. Here are some highlights: The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith, The Rocks by Peter Nichols, and The Ferrara Family Mystery Series by J.D. Griffo (kind of like “Murder She Wrote,” if Jessica Fletcher was an Italian grandmother).

Like you, I take regular walks around the garden and I’m always amazed at what it manages to offer. It’s a welcome relief to the news of the day.

Then, there is the biggest distraction: my roots.

Many, many decades ago, a distant and far-removed relative compiled a tremendous amount of research for an ancestry project. It was published and several years ago, I purchased my own copy. When it arrived, I immediately traced my own lineage — but during quarantine, I’ve wondered what other secrets could be hidden in the 800+ pages.

The quarantine and the arrival of a hotter than usual summer were the perfect excuses to translate the information from the book into a family tree on Ancestry. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’ve realized there is nothing new about the present day. It’s easy to lose sight that there have always been tough and scary times — from the upheaval of the American Revolution to the uncertainty of a nation ripped apart by slavery to World Wars to the Spanish Flu to Vietnam to personal stories of loss and triumph.

The first ancestor with my surname arrived in the New World in 1675. My family, through, all of its branches, have been a part of the American story from before the beginning of the story — and through it all, they’ve worked, fought, and sacrificed to make this grand experiment a successful reality for all people.

I’ve tried very hard over the years of this blog to not mix politics with gardening, but I have to put that policy aside now. This is, I think, the biggest thing that’s weighing on my mind. Public health issues should never be politicized. I’m old enough to have lived through the early days of AIDS, and how the politicization of that pandemic resulted in an explosion of infections and deaths across all communities.

As a member of a high-risk group, I do not want to become ill. I do not want to be hospitalized, isolated from Joe, and likely have to be put on a ventilator. I also don’t want that for any of you or for any of your loved ones. It doesn’t matter to me if COVID has a death rate of 90% or .005%. If my simple action of wearing a mask — far more comfortable than being intubated — can help someone, I’ll do it. If my wearing a mask can alleviate the crowding in an ICU, I’ll do it. If my wearing a mask can ease the stress on medical professionals and other essential workers, I’ll do it.

We are not being asked to ration gas or bread or to practice shelter drills. We are being asked to wear a mask, to be mindful of our distance, and to be considerate of others. In my mind, wearing a mask is the most patriotic — and globally wise — thing we can do.

I know this is a long post, and thank you for making it to the end — it’s just that there’s been a long time between posts and there were a lot of words in my head. I hope COVID has not touched you in any way, and that you and yours are healthy and safe.

As always, Happy Gardening!