Heirloom Gardener Blogs > 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.