The Quite Contrary Gardener

Green Thumb

My mother has a green thumb. The greenest thumb I’ve ever seen, in fact. Others bring her dying—no, dead—plants, parched, brown and hopeless, and a week later the plants are green and blooming and have overtaken whatever patch of dirt or pot they have been allotted. In her kitchen windowsill above the farmhouse sink, overlooking the back porch and the peach and apple trees, my mother fills tiny glasses with water and sprigs of this or that, until the white roots stretch down through the water and they are ready to be planted. I need so much to grow anything, it seems: good dirt and sunshine and rain and quality seeds, and even then I feel the need to fuss over my plants to make sure they are not on the verge of death. My mom only needs a glass of water and a half-dead cutting to bring forth life.

Growing things comes easy to her. She doesn’t even think about it. My mother’s garden and houseplants are always in flux. There is no growing season and non-growing season; everything is always growing all the time. Seeds are constantly being started, seedlings are transplanted, cuttings are clipped, plants are repotted. And even when my mother accidentally grows things, they thrive. My aunt gave her a black daisy and when it died my mom took the seeds and planted them. What grew was not a black daisy, as it had been a hybrid, but a Black Pearl hot pepper plant. My mom tended the pepper plants just as faithfully as she would daisies, and soon the black leaves and red globes of the pepper plant had crept throughout the front flowerbed.

Growing up, I didn’t intentionally absorb much of my mom’s gardening knowledge, though now I would give anything to have inherited her green thumb. It is sometimes hard for people who intuitively know things to relay that knowledge to novices. Even if I had asked my mom how much you water this, or how you know when to transplant that, she probably would have just shrugged. She just knows how.

The first year I decided I was going to grow things on my own, really grow things, I came home arms overflowing with seed starting trays, peat moss, potting soil, and dozens of seed packets. My mom surveyed my spoils with eyes wide and lips pressed into a thin line.

“What’s that face for?” I asked.

She hesitated, then slowly replied, “I just don’t want you to…get in over your head.”

I assured her everything would be fine and proceeded to plant hundred of seeds including way too many varieties of every vegetable I thought I might ever want to eat. My mom helped me in her quiet, instinctive way. When the edges of my seed trays became too dry, she carefully watered the corner squares and avoided the wet, middle ones. When my seed trays became too moist and my seedlings started to mold, she took the plastic cover off and set the tray outside to dry out. When my tomato seedlings grew too big for their small squares of the seed tray, she transplanted them into small pots so they would have room to grow. She knew it was time to do these things and she knew how to do them before I even realized there were problems. She never told me what to do or when to do it. She just saw struggling plants and had to nurture them. It’s her nature.

I now live in Australia, on the other side of the world from my mother, and there are many days when I wish she could come over to my house and help me with my plants. I know even though I live on another continent, in a tropical climate so different from the Midwestern one I grew up in, caring for native plants that I’ve never even seen before, my mom would know what to do. For now though, I’m not doing too bad on my own. I’ve combatted cabbage worms on multiple continents. I’ve learned that, surprisingly, “organic” potting soil can mean completely different things in different countries. I’ve learned some things will grow here, some things won’t. And when the things that do grow here being to bloom, I send pictures to my mom. I may not ever possess a thumb as green as hers, but she instilled in me a love of gardening that keeps me trying to grow things even when it is difficult.

Don't You Have Any Red Ones?

Mary DollinsI first began heirloom gardening in the summer of 2015. Prior to then, I had grown a few succulents and flowers here and there, and helped my green-thumbed mother with her vegetable garden, but I had never planted my own garden start-to-finish, seed to vegetable. In February, while searching for organic, non-GMO seeds, I ordered myself a seed catalog from Baker Creek Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, just a few hours south of my home in Kansas City. It was in those pages that I discovered the joy of (planning) an heirloom garden. There were dozens of varieties of every fruit, vegetable, and flower—some cultivated for hundreds of years. I spent weeks narrowing down my selections with angst, wavering between seeds of veggies that looked familiar—red tomatoes and green peppers—and those that were purple, orange, striped and spotted.

Finally I placed my order of way too many seed packets for a beginning gardener, including four types of tomatoes: ‘Black Plum,’ ‘Tappy’s Heritage,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ and ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple.’ Baker Creek’s description for ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple’ was what sold me on the tomato from my home state: “Big, pink fruit are very rich-tasting, certainly a favorite pink tomato. This potato-leaved variety has a long history in the “Show Me” state. It was grown since the Civil War by the Barnes family, who grew it as an ornamental, believing (as many people did at the time) that tomatoes or ‘love apples’ were poisonous. We are grateful the Barnes family kept this variety going so we can enjoy the wonderful fruit today.”

Being a newbie gardener, I had a lot to learn about growing heirloom vegetables from seed. I never thought I had inherited my mom’s green thumb, so to prevent the inevitable germination failure, seedling death, or crop loss, I planted every single tomato seed I had in flats by my bedroom window. Much to my surprise, all the seeds grew and I had sixty baby tomato plants in my room. I kept twenty and sold the rest of the plants for a dollar a piece. My vegetable garden had already turned a profit before any plants were in the ground. 

tomato spread

The spring of 2015 was excessively rainy in my area and many others; it rained every day in May. My tomato patch survived the rain and began to thrive while many others’ gardens and farms were washed away. I considered myself very lucky, but I also thought maybe my plants’ survival had something to do with the fact that the seeds had come from plants that had been grown in Missouri for generations. Those seeds, like everyone from around here, knew that Missouri weather was unpredictable and extreme: freezing winters, hot and humid summers, too much rain and then not enough. And the seeds dealt with it like true Missourians.

After it stopped raining and turned to summer, my tomatoes soaked up the sun and the heat. My twenty plants supplied enough tomatoes for me, my entire family, all my friends, and I still had several hundred too many. I set up a sign in the yard advertising homegrown, heirloom tomatoes, and the neighbors came running. Every day I put up the sign, I sold out of my extra tomatoes. Several people told me they drove by my house repeatedly watching for my tomato sign. One woman told me that my tomatoes were the best she had ever eaten. I felt like I was doing my neighbors a favor by growing food for them, and they were doing me a favor by paying for the tomatoes I couldn’t eat. I felt a real sense of community with the people who ate what I grew.

In addition to learning how to be a gardener, I found myself becoming an educator. The number one question I received from people who approached my little farm stand was, “Don’t you have any red ones?” They would see the maroon of the ‘Black Plums,’ the green fading into violet of the ‘Cherokee Purples,’ and the rose color of the ‘Missouri Pink Love Apples’ and think something was wrong with my tomatoes. My neighbors, though they loved the taste of a homegrown tomato, were used to a world where tomatoes were big, red, and came from the supermarket. I spent many late summer afternoons explaining that my tomatoes are meant to be rainbow colored, and that red isn’t always best. My tomatoes are all different shapes and sizes because that’s how things grow when they aren’t bred to be packaged in crates and shipped from thousands of miles away to grocery stores in Missouri. Many times I gave away bags of tomatoes, knowing that if someone just tried one they would come back for more.

I think about the Barnes family, who grew the ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple’ tomato for generations, refusing to eat it because tomatoes were assumed poisonous. I wonder who was the brave Barnes to pick the bright pink fruit off the vine and take a bite out of the side, risking death. And that member of the Barnes family changed everything. Suddenly the whole family could enjoy eating the tomatoes they had grown so long for aesthetic purposes. I believe the present moment is akin to the first time someone ate a ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple’ and didn’t die. For your whole life, you may have been raised to think that a tomato will kill you, or that tomatoes should be red and perfectly round, but then you took a bite of a pink tomato, and it was wonderful. It’s not often easy to change a person’s opinion, especially about something so precious as food, but I have found it to be worth the effort.

tomatoes on table

Photo by Mary Dollins