I didn’t want Valjean to die.
Not Jean Valjean, the character from Les Misérables, my favorite novel. I knew his fate. Rather, Valjean my potted plant. He was the lone survivor in a long line of indoor plants who had curled up their roots and done a swan dive into the dumpster.
And though he had long outlasted his predecessors, Valjean looked as if his days too were now numbered. The long, slender leaves were turning brown. The plant drooped as if under a heavy burden. Extra water and fertilizer only seemed to make things worse.
I know it sounds silly, but Valjean’s condition truly upset me. Only a month earlier, my father-in-law had passed away. Two weeks later, my own father passed away. In the midst of all that loss, my failing plant affected me more than it should have.
While staring glumly at Valjean, I had the thought that I should pray. I have to admit, the notion struck me as odd. Pray over a plant? After all, I could simply get another. I always had before. Yet the feeling persisted, and so I uttered a short prayer for my faltering vegetation. Immediately afterward, I had the distinct impression that a little bit of knowledge would go a long way. So I did some research.
My life has been a lot greener ever since. Along the way, I’ve learned plenty of spiritual parallels to plant care that help me in other areas of my life.
Plants clean the air, consume carbon dioxide, and provide oxygen. They brighten a room, provide inexpensive decorating options, and make all your least favorite chores take half as long to complete. (That last one hasn’t been proven quite yet.)
Amid the daunting uncertainties about carbon footprints, energy needs, pollution, and limited natural resources, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed or powerless. But there’s at least one small step just about anybody can take: caring for a houseplant. The world can always use one more plant.
Similarly, it can often be overwhelming to contemplate all the responsibilities of life. However, here too is something basic that everyone can try: in your daily prayers, ask God for help and guidance for that very day. Don’t try to solve your whole life’s journey in one go. Rather, pray for daily inspiration and guidance each morning.
Sister Sharon Eubank, First Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, uses this technique to great success.
She once shared: “Sometimes I’m so pressed with everything I have to do that I often don’t even know what the priority is. I have started asking the Lord every morning, ‘What is one thing you want me to do today?’ I’m a maximizer, and I tend to think if one thing is good then five are better and ten are best. Then I’m overwhelmed. So, I’ve calculated if I do one thing that comes through inspiration, 365 times per year for 50 years, that will be a total of 18,250 things that the Lord wanted done. He has counted on me 18,250 times, and I have tried to respond. That is no small thing!”1
I may not be able to solve all the ills of society, but I can always try to do one inspired thing each day.
Watering houseplants can be tricky. Underwatering will kill your plants. But so will overwatering. And, of course, some plants need much less water than others.
There’s another concern that’s less obvious. Many plants don’t respond well to chemicals often found in tap water (particularly chlorine). This is what was killing off Valjean one poisonous sip at a time. I learned in my research to allow tap water to sit for 24 hours before using it. This allows the chlorine to escape the water. That one trick—along with cutting back on the amount of water—turned Valjean’s health around.
The key is to give each plant precisely what it needs.
Similarly, and with much higher stakes than a houseplant, the people we want to help grow and thrive each have their individual needs. Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society General President, taught, “True ministering is accomplished one by one with love as the motivation.”2 Part of that “one by one” ministering involves learning the individual needs of each person so that you can better meet those needs.
Want a surefire way to kill a plant? Place it in a dark room. Photosynthesis, converting light to energy, is a plant’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And we’re all too often guilty of starving them. No other plant tip can overcome insufficient light.
Our spiritual selves have a lot in common with plants this way. Elder Mark A. Bragg of the Seventy taught: “We are children of God. Receiving light, continuing in God, and receiving more light are what we are created to do. … Seeking the light is in our spiritual DNA.”3 We need light!
This truth is also taught in the scriptures:
“For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
“And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:45–46).
When I prayed for help in saving Valjean the plant, I never guessed I would learn as much as I have about caring for plants. Since then, I’ve been able to keep a thriving variety of plants alive and healthy, as well as grow new plants from clippings to give to friends and family just for fun. It’s become a rewarding hobby.
And Valjean is still growing strong!
This experience helped me to learn even more deeply that God is involved in the details of our lives. For me, one main lesson I take away is this: I should always follow a prompting to pray, even if it seems too small a matter. You never know what might grow from it.