Guest post by Andrew Keys

Dear Penthouse Letters:

I never thought it could happen to me. I mean, me? S&M? NO WAY. Then I realized… Gardening, for me, was masochism.

It’s true. For years, I was a virtual slave to plants I lusted after but couldn’t grow. How voluptuous were lilacs and peonies when I was but a lad gardening in the South? How I pined for palms after I grew up and moved to the Northeast! And haven’t we all tried roses?

I’d buy these problem plants however I could get my dirty little hands on them, and plant them anyway, knowing full well how painful the day would be when I’d have to put shovel to soil and dig them out of the garden again. Hardiness wasn’t my only problem—I loved the high-maintenance plants, the ones that needed constant attention. Pinching, pruning, spraying, staking… I did it all. I adored invasive plants, plants I was never surprised to catch brazenly growing in my neighbor’s yard, and my other neighbor’s yard, and the woods, and on the side of the road. I grew them still, insisting one day they’d change. Speaking of the neighbors, I tried to hide my proclivities from them by planting a lot of the same boring plants they grew too, but it didn’t work. Everyone knew. I did it anyway, and I didn’t care. Planting all these plants felt wrong—and I liked it.

Left, I love hardy ‘Red Dragon’ fleece flower more than all those tender cannas I forgot to dig up. Right, ‘Robin Hill’ shadblow blooms pink like your flowering crabapple, with a lot less mess.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve known gardeners who spend a lifetime insisting burning bush is well behaved, watering lawn in the rain with seeming glee, trying not to breathe in when they spray roses with chemicals, adhering to all manner of wasteful, painful, joyless regimen and denial to keep themselves and those sadistic plants happy. I wised up around the time my last “hardy palm” bit the dust. I realized these plants did not bring me joy, and I admitted to myself that my attachment to problem plants ran deeper than I’d realized. I set out to find plants that had all the good qualities of those problem plants and then some, plants with which I could build healthy relationships—for me, the plants, and the planet. I even wrote a book about it. It’s called Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants.

Blueberry beats the pants off burning bush.

I know some of these plants may come as a shock to your readers, but you know what? It turns out most problem plants aren’t sadistic. It’s us, the people who grow them, into codependent nightmares, in situations they aren’t meant for—we’re the real problem.

A tiny confession: there are a handful of “problem plants” in the book I haven’t kicked. I still grow yucca, even if it hangs out at the gas station up the road too, collecting cigarette butts. I swear it’s pretty in my garden. Hey, we all have our vices, right?

Andrew Keys

Author / Podcaster / Troublemaker


To win a copy of Andrew’s book Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? just leave a comment about your own issues with plants and a winner will be chosen at random.  Entries close midnight EST Friday, November 23.