My brown thumb has followed me throughout my life, but it’s not for lack of trying to be green. I’ve tried and failed, tried and failed. Only recently have I realized that I actually have a plant history, although it’s not a pretty one. If you have a weak stomach for violent acts you may need to stop here, but for those of you who can withstand gory details, welcome to my story of plant annihilation.
It began in high school in the early ’70s. At that time I housed a few spider plants in macramé plant holders, braided rope configurations twisted around pots that hung from hooks on ceilings. It wasn’t long, however, that crinkly brown leaves assembled into an array of collages on my yellow shag carpet. In college, how else is one to keep the home fire burning than to strategically place an array of plants within the confines of a 12-by-12 dorm room? But alas the ferns and spider plants placed on top of tie-dyed bedspread covered desks lasted only until midterm. After college, as I tromped throughout the West, setting up camp in an egg-shaped trailer, a few one-room cabins, a basement apartment, and some fixer upper houses, I continued to accessorize with the leafy decorations. But, once again, between overwatering, underwatering, too much sun and not enough sun, I eventually killed them all. In my more ‘mature’ years here in Truckee my plan to create an all-native wildflower border around the perimeter of our lawn didn’t pan out so well either. My dream to duplicate the Pacific Crest Trail bursting with columbine and penstemon was completely laughable. When my mom visits each spring and summer, she always asks, ‘So, when do the wildflowers bloom?’ And I respond time and time again, ‘Oh, you just missed them.’ Basically, I kill plants.
Currently I own one cactus plant and one bamboo shoot, both given to me by friends. Certainly I know better than to buy the poor leafy accessories, realizing they would shortly terminate by way of their unfortunate adoption. The friend who gave me the cactus recently commented, ‘I see the cactus is still alive.’ Well, yes, it’s true, but I must confess I killed the first one he gave me. He keeps trying, bless his green soul.
At a nature writing workshop in Vermont this summer, I felt sheepishly alone as she-who-grows-nothing joined a group of accomplished gardeners. Often the discussion in our small group turned to prolific yards, mile high plants, and newly purchased heirloom seeds. I remember thinking, why all the fuss? I came to write about nature, not gardening.
Recently, the green movement is on the rise and that includes gardens. Local food is ‘in’ whether from farmers’ markets or from our own backyards. No excuses tolerated, even window sills with herbs and city decks with pots of tomatoes are encouraged to thrive. Pointing discriminating fingers at industrialized food, shaming it out of existence and praising sustainability, the slow food movement and localvorism seems to be the trend du jour. After reviewing ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ ‘In Defense of Food,’ and ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ in Moonshine Ink, I’m beginning to wonder if some sign has been sent from a disgusted gardening god. Get with it, it’s telling me.
As a resident of Truckee, I’ve always used the excuse of ‘high altitude’ for not planting vegetables in my yard. Freezing nights and mornings, Peter Rabbit munching on lettuce leaves, and anything else I can think of, have deterred any kind of gardening practice. Of course, those high altitude gardening classes that the Villager Nursery offers shame me, plus my friends with their planter boxes spilling over with voluptuous tomatoes and heaven-reaching peas. Okay. Okay.
So, this August my father-in-law, the best handyman I know, along with my husband, the second best handyman I know, built me a planter box. Complete with a sturdy frame made with two by eight boards and filled with organic compost soil, pin size seeds and leafy starter-plants, and covered by a white cloth to protect the plants from pesky munchers, my little nursery was ready to welcome its new rows of babes. When finished, I sat back proudly and wondered, ‘Could this small box actually produce food that would fill my salad bowl and stew pot?’ I was beginning to feel giddy.
It wasn’t even a week after spotty watering and sunny days that new sprouts rose to the surface. Birth. Life. Greenery! Plants of clover-like leaves lined up next to one another like families joining together in one community. Of course, there’s not enough leafy greens to sustain us, especially as I started late in the season, planting only lettuce, broccoli and chard.
But, hey, something actually grew and those growing things are actually green. Things are looking up! Plants! But to be honest, I can’t tell you the ending to this part of my plant history; after all, I have my infamous brown thumb and marred plant reputation. For now, however, I feel a change in the air, or at least in the soil. I’m optimistic and all of a sudden think of ‘Casablanca’ and the moment Humphrey Bogart turns to Claude Rains and says, ‘Louis, I think this is a start to a beautiful relationship.’ I turn to my planter box and think the same thing.