A Guest Rant by Heather Tuckman

Plantrum /ˈplan-trəm/: The act of impulsively destroying plants out of unrestrained frustration.

As a gardener, I have a problem; I am prone to temper tantrums. These tantrums aren’t related to what’s going on in my garden so much as what is happening in my own head. A recent health crisis prompted me to consider my behavior. Facing major surgery, I just wanted to be in my garden.

But I went in to rip out plants. Some of these plants were ready to go—squash that had gone over, tomatoes with late blight, and bean plants annihilated by bean beetle. But then, there was this bountiful volunteer tomato growing out of my compost pile.

All summer, I waited to see what would become of it. A towering self-starter, it scampered up the side of my shed and onto the greenhouse, sporting strong oxheart sprays. Still setting fruit into October, I looked at it and yanked the whole thing down. I cut it into pieces and heaped it back onto the compost pile to decay into itself. It felt powerful to destroy this plant that flourished without care. Ashes to ashes.

The day before surgery, my towering milk cactus decamped from its no longer secure pot, the rules of gravity taking over. I searched online for how to transplant it, finding several warnings about its toxicity to animals and humans. I was furious. I reasoned to myself that I could not have this plant in my house despite its uneventful residence over the past three years. What if my cat chewed on it? Out it went, chucked into the wheelbarrow.

These tantrums aren’t the first. During Covid, I became enraged with a lemon tree that my son and I had nurtured since he was a small child. After years of warfare with scale and mealybugs, I put it outside in freezing weather—vengefully—as if to impart the suffering it had caused me. I had fed it, repotted it, regularly showered it at the cost of my lumbar spine, and generally done everything I could to keep it alive. I had enough. I have felt guilty about it ever since.

What happens to me when I take my anger out on my plants? As an avid gardener, I scrounge plants from the trash and take cuttings to propagate all sorts of beauties. I am a nurturing person, and as a psychologist, I care for others for a living. But I’m not immune to challenging feelings, and rage is a blindness where logic knows no home.

I don’t want to be an angry gardener. I have long believed in the medicinal qualities of gardening before it became fashionable to talk about gardening for one’s mental health. But this isn’t mental health; this is the opposite. This plant rage needs to be better managed, if only for my fruit trees.

I previously believed these little tantrums were a harmless means of blowing off steam, but I now recognize that they are destructive to my own well-being. Acting on rage becomes avoidance, a failure to deal with the thoughts and feelings at hand. When I feel this urge to blow up my garden or throw all my plants away, it is a signal that I am not taking care of myself or attending to my own experience. These acts are inconsistent with why many of us come to gardening as a respite, where we can create and nurture, working through difficult moments with our eyes wide open and senses attuned.

Others may read this and think, what’s the big deal? Lest anyone be concerned that I am anthropomorphizing plants – please understand that the problem exists in the process, not in the outcome. If we really want to garden in a way that benefits our mental health, we must remain aware of our actions and open to difficult thoughts and feelings. Rageful, disinhibited actions are just that. Perhaps the consequences are much lower when we destroy a plant than when we go on a bender, but losing control can be a slippery slope toward bad behavior in other parts of our lives.

I’m learning to differentiate between plantrums versus simply culling poorly performing plants. It all comes back to being aware and fully present in my actions. I can make an intentional choice to remove a plant, trash it, or whatever I want to do if I do so purposefully—it takes too many resources, has overgrown its site, etc. What I don’t want to do is to act without forethought, to act on emotion disconnected from my values. All living things deserve better, but moreover, I want to garden in a way that enhances my well-being and brings me closer to the natural world. No more plantrums.

Heather Tuckman, who gardens in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is a clinical psychologist who strongly believes that gardening is good for coping with stress.