Greening my Thumb

I’ve murdered more plants than a serial killer. It’s not something I set out to do. I was raised in apartments and never really taught true cultivation. I learned a long time ago that house plants just can’t survive me.

Luckily over the years I have begun to find my way through backyard gardening. My planting is much more successful in the fresh air and sunshine. I let the clouds decide when to water the beds, and allow bugs and wildlife to much on what they please.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve watched plenty of leaves shrivel, petals wilt, and roots rot, but trial-and-error eventually teaches everyone something. At least, it’s taught me something.

When I bought my first house, I learned to love hostas. My cute little brick house faced north and was always shaded. Instead of getting to experiment with bright happy rows of colorful flora, I needed to accept not only my lack of experience, but the missing sunshine in the front yard.

Denial struck me for a time. I hastily planted tulips underneath the sad Japanese Magnolia that barely had enough nutrients to bloom.  What did bloom pushed out of the earth crooked and deformed.

“Something else has got to grow.” I glared at the hostas, annoyed by their leafy arrogance.

The next spring my mother brought me some hyacinths. “They’re early bloomers so they’ll come up in the shade, and they’re so fragrant.”

I doubted her at first. Like me, she had a history of ups and downs with plants, but I found that she had learned a few tricks I had yet to figure out. That afternoon I knelt before my longest flowerbed and held up a healthy bloomer, all pink and vibrant. “Please live. You’re so sweet and pretty. This house could use you.”

Talking to plants always felt natural and I had a good feeling. I transferred the rest of them, alternating the white and pink colors. Every morning I stepped outside expecting to see yellow and brown leaves surrounding dull dying petals, but instead they stood tall.

The hyacinths survived my planting and even came back the next year. Soon I was invited to join a new community garden and I had a different task set before me: Growing my own food.

The theory sounded great. My maternal grandfather came from a long line of farmers. One of my fondest memories was going to his brother’s farm when I was little and helping out. My mother’s Uncle Johnny proudly rewarded me with a big jar of coins and I treasured them all, but actually tending my own piece of land and growing my own food was not the same as growing a few hostas and hyacinths.

I quickly learned the meaning of pulling weeds. At home, the lack of sunlight kept the grasses thin and low. I mostly had to deal with moss and the soft shag never bothered me much.

I got down on my hands and knees and cleared my rows every week. One of the neighbors came out to ask if I needed to borrow her hoe, but I was determined to rip each invader out with my bare hands. It was personal. They needed to be shown who was boss.

My crops didn’t turn out so great with all my stubbornness. All I got was a bowl of tomatoes after tending the land until my Irish skin was pink.

The next year I learned to relax and use what tools I could. Hoeing and planting with the proper spacing and climbers produced more green beans than I could eat, countless tomatoes, one not so scrawny head of lettuce, and a baby watermelon. “It’s better than last year,” I told myself.

Eventually life led me to a sunnier house. I was ecstatic at the prospect of having more growing options. The 1/3 acre held plenty of land for a great backyard veggie garden and I was up for the task. “This will be nothing.” I got cocky at the flat field and sunny space. I bought up all the heirloom seeds I could—ready to pretend to be a “real” farmer.

I sewed my seeds in rows, shelling out every variety a person could imagine. Carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, peas, green beans, melons; it was empowering to think of all the foods I could cultivate myself.

Unfortunately, all it took was a single storm to flood my entire backyard. The area was a bit further northwest than where I had grown up. I couldn’t fathom how different the weather would be, but it was like the end of times. It was definitely the end of my garden. The basement flooded and the backyard took forever to drain, but eventually the sun came out and slurped everything back into the sky.

I gave all up for lost. Discouraged by my naivety, I refused to look at the backyard for a few days. When ready to face reality, I walked back with my dog and found a row of green beans growing happily. They were so lush and green they might as well have waved to me.

I couldn’t believe it. Everything else was wiped out, but just having that one success beat all else. I could have kissed the roots. Instead I plucked beans and may or may not have hugged the basket once everything was collected.

Each year has offered new lessons, new strategies. I learned a long time ago that the less I interfere once my plants start sprouting, the better they grow.

The more flowers and plants I place around the house, the less flooding occurs and the happier we all are. I’m grateful to the roots that soak up water. In return, they produce all sorts of colors for me to marvel at throughout the year.

In 2020 I planted some berry bushes along my back fence. I was told that “raspberries can grow anywhere, especially where it floods.” That may be true, but they apparently couldn’t survive my hungry dog, who dug each up by the roots and decided to play fetch with his food before making himself sick.

I couldn’t plant corn without standing watch because my hyper mutt thinks the ears are playthings. Thankfully, my cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes were all fine. I even got some baby pumpkins and watermelons to grow.

My flower beds became the hosts of blooming Rose of Sharon bushes, and seasonal beauties like hyacinths, petunias, tulips, gladiolas and mums. Everything is sleeping now, but I can’t wait to get back at it. I’ve even decided to add a few hostas around the front garden to offer some extra greenery. I resented the hearty growers when they were my only option, but now that the sun smiles on my flowers, they’re like old friends who remind me of how I found my way.

I’m finally reaching a point where I feel confident saying that I have a bit of a green thumb. I still can’t grow anything indoors to save my life, but all I need is a patch of land and I can make it smile with love.

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