On Autistic Special Interests and My Love for Plants

water droplets on a leaf

Like the title says, I love Plants. What I mean is, what’s not to love?  They’re beautiful, they manufacture oxygen and clean pollution from the air, and they live off of waste products ranging from their own decomposition, animal waste, and even bug protein.

Plants also talk to bee’s… literally, like when the pollen is being replenished, they have a different electromagnetic wave for empty or full pollen.  How cool is that?! To learn more, you can check out Hive Alive on Netflix (S1E1).

Now, all that’s cool about plants, but what got me interested in them? I used to spend a lot of time with my great grandparents.  We lived with them until I was four, and when my sister was born four years later, I spent the weekends with them.

They lived through the Great Depression and grew up in an era where growing their own food meant survival.  Even after the Depression ended, their relationship with the land and nature continued to be a meaningful part of their lifestyle. 

So, all this time with such knowledgeable people, and I was bound to pick up on some skills! Great Grandma was a great cook, she raised her own vegetables, and that’s where it started. I thought it was so cool you could save money and time by growing your own meals.  It was so rewarding to be able to plant a garden with them and get to watch how much it grew every week.

Corn, tomatoes, green beans, beets, onions, and so on. I also liked to spend time in her flower beds, too. One was a 4 o’clock flower that only opened at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. That got my attention.

The double bloom tea roses made me forget about everything for as long as I could smell them. In California, you can plant roses by sticking cuttings in the ground so I did that for her one day not knowing that they wouldn’t get the amount of sun they needed under shade trees.

I learned that with some adaptive care, you could have your own vegetables from the garden and flowers all over the place, and I really liked that.  I love that we grew clover to feed the sheep that we raised for wool.  I was starting to see the importance of seeds and knowledge of how to grow them.

The next time I can remember showing an interest in plants was for a school science fair project. My project was a passive hydroponic seed starter. I flopped at it, but my home problems got in the way of developing my aspie skills based on my special interest. I didn’t know then how much this would mean to me later in life.

I felt at peace surrounded by green leafy things. It was serene, quiet, natural, and I loved it. I would hide in the fields of wild flowers looking up through their stems and petals to the cumulus clouds.  I never felt as much at peace than when I was alone, doing that.

Like the earth absorbing water, boy, oh boy did my aspie mind soak up the knowledge of horticulture.

I began to learn the science of horticulture. I can remember one time while riding my 4-wheeler through groves and looking at the ends of the pine branches.  The new growth looked like a separate tree. 

I thought, I wonder if I could cut this off and get it to root. It looks like it would grow a whole other tree.  Later, this curiosity would lead me to discover how to make cuttings from most plants and propagate clones.

I love everything related to helping plants thrive, like land management and clean water. With a resource as valuable as plants, whether it’s food, fuel, or medicine, you could take a seed and a growing medium and produce a commodity that is invaluable. 

I thought everybody should know how it’s done and couldn’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want to be as invested as I was.

I began to get interested in the science of nature and bringing nature indoors and controlling for the conditions of nature. For starters, if your soil isn’t absorbing water, you can take control of it by adding a gentle soap to the water.  The soap breaks the surface tension and allows for water to penetrate into the soil. Even better than that is when you don’t need soil to grow anymore.

Rocks are a problem in any outdoor garden, but if you take clay pellets and heat them up, they will expand like popcorn. Then, you can put those in a grow bag and put your seedlings in them in a hydroponic table and get plants to grow in rocks.

Or, you could also take certain types of stone, heat it up, and spin it into rockwool.  It’s a lot like making the cotton candy I loved as a child.  Rockwool is formed and cut into an easily-used, readily-absorbable planting medium which won’t retain nutrients that burn your plants. And in soil, gardening fertilizer binds to the soil and will burn your plants.

In hydroponics, which is growing plants in a nutrient-rich liquid instead of soil, nutrients don’t bind into the growing medium. When done properly, you can get you plants to grow much faster that way.  But, it takes skill and finesse to do that. 

If you don’t have the right conditions and ratios, you can kill a plant much faster using hydroponics. But the reward is great! You don’t even have to have seeds anymore to grow many plants. You can take cuttings of them and soak them in some B-complex vitamin-enriched water, dip them into a hormone gel, placing them in rockwool in a seedling dome greenhouse, and in a week have roots! That process gives you a carbon copy of the mother plant and allows for reproduction of the high-performing plants. That’s a time saver!

You can bypass the time it takes a plant to vegetate immature plants to maturity and arrive at an earlier harvest.  My cousin has a houseplant that was a cutting from a plant that was alive over 50 years ago!  I thought that was so cool, especially because it was from his grandma.

Most scholars characterize aspie enthusiasm for their special interests as being a pathology of having “limited interests;” however, the “experts” aren’t understanding the aspie identity or language.

My love of plants is not just a “limited interest.”  It is a reverence for the circle of life and the environmental conditions which foster growth, a complicated metaphor for my own experience. 

My great grandparents were the safe and fertile soil which cultivated the best parts of me.  Their reverence for the earth, their relentless hard work, their intrepid scientific approach that was intuited and forged through trial-and-error, their self-reliance in hard times, the social and communal aspects of working together to feed each other and nourish each other– both physically and emotionally– through gardening, their deep appreciation for the beauty and art in nature, their patience in loving a flower that bloomed on a schedule different from the others, the valuation of what most consider a weed to sustain the woolly animals that would provide our clothing, and the love they shared through dirt-stained and calloused hands laid the groundwork for the man I would become.

My love of plants is not a hollow fascination.  It translates to an avenue in which I can use my natural gifts, focus, ingenuity, and tenacity to better the human condition. It is a social venture that is connected to all aspects of life, and a love language I can speak to the world through my harvest. 

It’s a way that I can preserve the legacy of love my great grandparents shared with me.  It’s how I communicate my desire to ford a better world for future generations, by learning and experimenting with new techniques and methods. It’s a way that I can tie the future to the past.

I would challenge those who say that the autistic “special interest” is not socially-motivated or is “narrow” or “limited.” Those people have not yet asked the right questions or learned to make the right connections. 

My special interests aren’t about horticulture or hydroponics; they’re a metaphor of the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit, a creative and artistic endeavor to share with you my history, my heart, and my soul.

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