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Give Me All Your Cuttings

I may tell myself that I chat up my neighbors out of a post-quarantine craving for connection. I can pretend that I haul myself outside for a swift ten thousand steps because I’ve finally learned the value of tending myself, body and spirit. But the truth is that I have one motivation for every social interaction, city walk, or strenuous cycle ride: free stuff.

Free stuff is the zenith of the gardener’s life, the soil tender’s greatest thrill. For me, at least, buying plants comes with a sense of overwhelming indecision, guilt, regret. Could I really need another salvia? How many mints are too many? The doting pride I feel when growing plants from seed is dampened by the reality of my garden’s lack of space; every new seedling generates mild panic as I squish it into an overstuffed container. But adopting, or stealing, or being given plants is entirely different: an unalloyed joy.

Being a gardener has an odd way of attracting the kindness of strangers. When I moved into my new flat, tore out the ivy and brambles, and began to show off the garden to my friends, they’d look puzzled. Where were the plants? Rather than laughing, they rallied: a spare rosemary, an olive, a Carolina allspice. I loved them, because they were my friends’, but even more exciting was being given plants with pasts. A famous musician’s neighbor stole some of his escaped raspberry canes for me. A Twitter acquaintance had an excess of strawberry runners, moss-wrapped from the Scottish Highlands. Gradually, news of my passionate greed has spread. I’m the sucker who hears from the friend’s friend trying to rehome his etiolated Irish Gardener’s Delight tomato seedlings; from my sister, seeking a home for the avocado plant she grew by accident, during the first lockdown, under her desk at work; from my friend Shauneen, a pioneering human-rights lawyer, who bestows upon others the gift of justice and, on me, bin-bags full of rabbit poo for compost. I rarely catch a train without bearing donated succulent-babies before me, like a page. And, yes, I will joyfully accept your spare greengage saplings, all six, if you’re asking.

Whatever the reason a plant is being passed on—death, cats, indolence—I will clasp it to my bosom, often literally, while, like Mrs. Jellyby, ignoring those I have hand-reared. I have a home hospital, in which a dull-leafed orchid, a failing tradescantia, and the dry stem of a stephanotis receive daily visits. If you leave a triffid outside your house, I’m your woman. And why buy a healthy teen-age marjoram for three pounds per pound when you can have congested roots, free flowers, and the hope and heartbreak of tending life? It’s Russian roulette with extra compassion: plants too ugly or nameless to spend money on are welcomed into my family of rejects like prodigals. The bargain black currants at the supermarket, doubtlessly sterile and riddled with vine weevil, are calling my name. Just the other day, while accidentally visiting my local garden center, I found a wheelbarrow of desperate herbs, ready to be dumped: bronze fennel, oregano, and three—three!—kinds of basil. It’s all I can do to sit here typing while other plants may be out there in need.

I am not alone in my collector’s zeal. As my favorite garden writer, Karel Čapek, wrote of his fellow-obsessive, “You need only show him that your Campanula morettiana has taken root and he will come in the night to steal it, murdering and shooting because he can’t live any longer without it; if he is too much of a coward, or too fat, to steal it, he will cry and whine to you to give him a tiny cutting.” But free stuff goes both ways. Like many other gardeners, I enjoy giving away cuttings almost as much as receiving them. My hairdresser and chiropractor are rearing my grand-tomatoes. The editor of my novels has inherited the first rose geranium I ever grew. Only mention that you, too, garden and an excess Italian Tromboncino or my least favorite spider plant will be yours. Passing on a baby aloe or a fishbone cactus makes me swell with smugness. My orphans create dynasties, and I am their proud forebear.

Perhaps it’s the cyclical, evanescent nature of gardening that hooks me as much as the sense of growth and productivity? As Robert Service, the Scottish bank clerk who remade himself as a Canadian adventurer-poet, put it, “It isn’t the gold that I’m wanting / So much as just finding the gold.” Yes, this little plant may be shrubby, nameless, nibbled, but with a little T.L.C. it could be magnificent. And did you know it was free?


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