In the early days of the pandemic, I tended to my new plot and houseplants as a way to mourn the loss of my beloved cat.
The author's community garden plot in Los Angeles.
Photography by Esther Tseng.
When the pandemic lockdown hit in March 2020, the sessions with my therapist moved to Zoom. During a virtual meeting with her over my laptop, Rufus, my 12-year-old Bengal cat, jumped into my lap, reaching for my chin with his paw and my attention with a loud, extended howl.
Leading up to this was a whole slew of in-person sessions where I laid bare the evidence of his uniqueness. Rufus was a vocal, striped beast who prolifically vocalized a vast vocabulary of yowls, chirps and croons to express his wants, needs and our bond. He was my first cat, and we were so connected, he’d respond to my glance with a meow that emitted no sound.
I had already decided that anyone in tune with animals could surely see how exceptional he was.
My therapist was not impressed. “OK, wow,” she breathed deeply. Then, she sat up. “You and your cat are codependent.”
There was a pause.
I wanted to protest, but I swallowed my bias and any illusion that it was especially tragic that mycat had just been diagnosed with mouth cancer—the most common and rapid kind found in cats.
Rufus. Photo by Esther Tseng.
When Rufus and I said good-bye, it was within the comforts of home as he laid on my chest. If we were codependent before, we were completely enmeshed by the end of his life. Palliative care of Rufus had essentially transformed the start of the pandemic into a bittersweet opportunity to spend as much time as I could with him. After he died, I had no idea what to do with my work-from-home time now that I wasn’t feeding him four times a day, taking him to the vet for his pain shot or cradling him in my arms.
So I focused on what I had been missing while he was here: plants. Gardening. Living things that grew in soil. In fact, Rufus’s chewing habit—driven by his jealousy of anything else that commanded my attention and ability—had banished even cut flowers from my living space for more than a decade.
Around the corner from my Los Angeles condo lay a community garden. Just a few months before the pandemic hit, I had signed up for a plot in the garden. After a childhood spent observing my mom’s seasonal gardening habit around our Midwestern house laid the foundation, I finally had a budding curiosity in horticulture. But laziness and complacency made me slow to fortify my plot’s nutrient-deficient, lifeless dirt. When I had told my mom that I was going to start gardening, she was skeptical. “Wow,” her reply text said. “I’m surprised you’d be interested in gardening!”
She wasn’t wrong. I had taken over the brand new plot the prior fall, starting by scouring the plot for rocks and weeds. Still, it took a couple warnings from the community garden chair that I needed to be turning over the soil and planting seeds or starts for me to get going. I did the absolute minimum, letting it languish as I struggled to grow my green thumb. A barista friend from my neighborhood coffee shop planted herbs such as oregano, thyme and cilantro along with some vegetables I ended up neglecting, failing to remember what they were. The herbs, curiously enough, continued to grow and sprawl in the plot.
Rufus in his houseplant-free domain. Photo by Esther Tseng.
After Rufus died, I reached for other living things I could successfully steward to fill that gaping hole. I drummed up a burgeoning motivation to learn how to care for things I didn’t already know how to tend to, humbling myself to the learning cycle of gardening trials and errors. I started visiting the community garden regularly, amending what started as lifeless dust with more compost and soil, planting kale and strawberry starts, blessed to be in USDA Hardiness Zone 10b. More experienced gardeners observed I wasn’t watering deep enough, and I also learned about watering more carefully and intentionally, close to the ground, so as not to kick fungus up from the soil and spread blight or leave plants moist at night, encouraging aphids to feast on them.
Soon, I felt the urge to fill the void in my own living space with greenery. I looked into houseplants, first ordering easy starter plants such as a ZZ and philodendron online, then a purple shamrock and bird’s nest fern from local sellers. I read up on proper drainage and the right pots to use, what the different levels of light really meant in my living space, how to water over the sink and keep planters’ pots elevated within their decorative ceramic pots. I bought a humidifier for each room, a soil moisture meter and bottles of fertilizer. Without Rufus to care for anymore, I poured that love and energy into my plants. Now, the fiddle leaf fig I was given less than a year ago by a good friend has tripled in size. I became a bona fide, pandemic plant enthusiast statistic.
Back at my plot, I’ve grown dozens of sweet, sugar snap peas on trellised vines and bulbous, blood-red beets rooted into the ground. I’ve pruned tomato vines to yield sun-burnt early girls and hearty dark, red-green kumatos. Last summer, I made a couple of batches of salsa verde thanks to my tomatillo and serrano pepper harvests. I’ve also cut a lone yellow watermelon too soon off the vine, my inexperience and impatience no match for the fruit. And there is the crab grass that’s perpetually creeping into my bed, getting the best of me. My gardening and houseplant journey continues.
A couple of months ago, more than a year after losing Rufus, I adopted another cat. Luckily, eight-month-old Chester does not chew my beloved new plants. Since my potted treasures have seniority over him, he’s quickly learned his place—with the aid of a few spritzes of a pet-repellent spray. (OK, maybe not completely, as I’ve had to transfer my purple shamrock rhizomes to my mom, but still.) That Chester can be entertained by things other than chewing greenery is a welcome trait in our adoptee, and I am so thankful for this new frontier in cohabitation.
On the two-minute walk home from the garden to my condo, sometimes I see a few of the stray cats that Rufus used to yowl at across the street from my balcony. One of them is striped just like Rufus was, and I look for him each time, as if to let him know that we, my plants and my cat, are all getting along now.
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