My Garden Origin Story

It started with…a tortoise?

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When I was six years old, I wanted a tortoise. I really, really wanted a tortoise. My whole life revolved around getting a tortoise. My parents, thinking that this was a childhood whim (“Next week he’ll want parakeets”), dismissed my pleas.

For years. Three years. I was now nine years old. I still didn’t have a tortoise. Begging, more begging, and still more begging hadn’t worked. It was time for me to make a more powerful statement. I came across the exploits of Gandhi, who had used starvation as a protest.

I decided to fast and to sleep outside in the backyard—every night until the situation was resolved. This was November, and the nights were getting cold. But I was determined.

When I was six years old, I wanted a tortoise. I really, really wanted a tortoise.

When I explained my intentions to my parents, they thought I was bluffing. That only strengthened my resolve. That night, I made my way outside and lay down on our patio. After an hour, my mom came outside and, without a word, tossed me a sleeping bag. I accepted it—without a word.

When I went back inside the next morning, I saw self-satisfied looks on my parents’ faces. Look at him, they were thinking, he’s given up.

But I hadn’t given up, and after a few more nights, the greatest moment in my personal history took place—the moment that, more than any other, has set the course for who I am today.

My mom took me to a pet store.

Only she didn’t take me to the reptile section—we headed straight to the aquarium department. I knew what was going on. I was being offered a fish in place of a tortoise.

I tried to look uninterested, but the truth was that I was exploding with curiosity. There were so many bright, beautiful fish. My mind was racing. If I asked for an aquarium, they might never get me a tortoise!

That’s when I saw it. At the end of the shelf of children’s aquarium kits was one lonely kit that was separate from the rest. It was a bit tattered, probably the sole survivor of a flash sale. Being isolated made it seem all the more special. I had to have it.

Next day I followed my mom around for three hours talking without pause—about fish. The day after that, we returned to the pet store and started my foray into aquatics.

(The next year, my parents did indeed get me a tortoise. He was evil and bit me many times. I finally found another home for the shelled devil.)

By the time I was 12, I had seven aquariums. Then I discovered Takashi Amano and his “nature aquariums.” I got high-end equipment, ditched my plastic plants, and bought live aquatic plants.

By now, schoolwork was taking more and more time out of my day. I had less time to maintain my fish tanks. I discovered the Walstad Method, in which plants consume the toxins released by fish, thereby making an aquarium semi-self-sufficient.

Slowly my interest shifted from the fish of the aquarium to the plants of the aquarium. I became interested in their beauty—and wanted to have flowers. Aquatic plants, though, are notoriously flower-shy. Most prefer to reproduce vegetatively. Fish-friendly plant fertilizers were expensive, too. All this effort and very little flowers? I decided I should just get a potted houseplant. They seem to practically give their flowers away!

Before long, I had a large collection of houseplants. Then I wanted a fruit tree. But it would have to survive indoors—and not take up much space!

I discovered bonsai and bought a ficus. I worked hard and was able to keep it alive indoors, but it wasn’t thriving. Fortunately, that Christmas my parents gave me a greenhouse. I now have dozens of bonsai trees in training.

Today, I’m 17 and have more varieties of plants than any nursery I’ve ever been to. One day I hope to move beyond potted plant culture. I want to see my plants in the ground. I want to have a career in botany.

And someday I want to retire out into the countryside and live out the rest of my days in a garden on an open piece of flat land, surrounded by trees as old as I am.

All because of a tortoise.


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