At Large

Spring Offers Hope – Even for Those with the Black Thumb of Death

By Published On: May 1st, 2024

Ahh, spring. 

Every time I utter the word my body instinctively takes a profoundly deep breath. You know the kind I mean, the type of breath doctors instruct you to take while sitting on their exam table waiting for your annual physical. 

“Now inhale deeply,” my doc will say while placing an ice-cold stethoscope on my chest and back, checking that my lungs and heart are clear. I assume after repeating those words and motions so many millions of times they’re now rote, with my physician functioning on autopilot. That’s not to insinuate there’s a lack of caring or compassion, just an absolute automation of the process, which of course wraps up with directions to “slowly exhale.” 

It’s not as if I have much choice after gulping down so much oxygen it feels as if my chest will explode. Nonetheless, I’m happy to oblige, for I know my doctor has good intentions. I give a gentle nod and slowly let the air exit my lungs. As the carbon dioxide seeps from my lips, it makes a slight squeak. It sounds like helium escaping from an errant balloon.

Signs of spring

These thoughts fly through my brain in a flash. The instinctive inhalation I take each time the word spring leaps from my lips is just as quick. It’s not by design. Yet thinking about the season of renewal has a visceral effect on me. It conjures up vivid images, including of me in an ill-fitting robe with my doctor hovering above, stethoscope in hand, listening to my beating heart and pounding lungs.

The word spring also brings other images to mind. Memories flash before my eyes like a slide show of seasons past, and I’m reminded how glorious it is to witness barely green blades of grass break through those stubborn, lingering remnants of frozen, sooty snow. I marvel at the strength of grass, crocuses, daffodils, and other flora as they break through and shatter those random veneers of paper-thin ice – reminders of harsh winters nearing their end – still glossy from the mix of sun and wet dew. 

As the word lingers on my mind, my thoughts of spring become more focused. I think of the joy I feel when stumbling across young flowers in a field. Oftentimes, crocuses appear first. If I can catch sight of the first buds sprouting on a tree, that’s another lovely precursor to spring – and a sign of much pollen and many allergy attacks to follow. Of course, when juvenile wild animals start to appear, whether in the fields or in our gardens, that, too, is a sure sign spring is in the air. This applies to our feathered friends, our furry fellows, and everything in between.

Some chipper and chirpy tidbits about that fauna, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “the great horned owl is one of the earliest harbingers of spring,” while red-tailed hawks and  woodpeckers also fly about when things begin to thaw in the Northeast. Of course, other critters wait to make their springtime debuts, like the famed weather forecaster who boasts many monikers: the groundhog –also known as the woodchuck, Canada marmot, whistlepig, and by some less-patient people, as a mere garden pest.

While I hope those reading this will find all of the above both interesting and entertaining, it’s but a long introduction to what this piece is truly about: my lifelong record of massacring every houseplant, flower garden, vegetable garden, container garden, or any other garden I’ve ever attempted. Yet despite my tragic history, I remain optimistic, because springtime will forever represent the season of renewal and hope to me.  

To give up, or not to give up?

I know, with my track record of killing pretty much every living bit of vegetation that has ever come under my care, perhaps the wise thing would be for me to give up. Maybe I should just resign myself to the fact that I have what I’ve deemed “The Black Thumb of Death” when it comes to gardening. 

My immediate family was not blessed with a green thumb gene. It must have skipped a generation. My maternal and paternal grandfathers were brilliant gardeners, and my maternal grandmother was pretty great in the garden as well; I don’t have much information about my dad’s mom on that front. My immediate family never tinkered around in the garden much, though in high school my mom and I tried to plant some impatiens. I grew up in North Miami Beach, FL. It’s very, very hot – and the sun is very, very strong. Impatiens, if one knows what they’re doing (we didn’t), need shade to survive. Long story short, ours didn’t (survive, that is). 

A very pretty azalea bush we planted did manage to do so by some miracle, and lovely pink flowers bloomed annually. I think that was our one and only gardening success.

Valiant attempts

Throughout the years, I continued to make many attempts. During college, I lived in Boston’s Beacon Hill. I had a great, though tiny, apartment. A small fire escape outside my kitchen window was perfect for an herb garden, plus a few potted plants. I tried and tried to keep those plants alive. However, every few months everything died. I did my best: I watered them; I made sure they had sun or shade as needed; I even talked to them. I would “deadhead” dead flowers and leaves. It was all for naught, because no matter how hard I tried, none survived. It got kind of depressing after a while.

When I moved to New York’s Hudson Valley for my first job, I loved my new apartment. It reminded me of Mary’s apartment in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, but mine had a bonus balcony where I could place plants in renewed hopes of growing fresh herbs and fragrant, beautiful flowers. Well, suffice it to say those hopes were dashed as my plants all met the same fate as their predecessors. I figured there was a learning curve with taking care of plants, so I experimented. I gave more water, then I gave less water. I moved them to get more sunlight, then to get less sunlight. I would bring them inside, then outside. No matter how hard I tried, all greenery under my care eventually wound up dead. 

If I didn’t know any better and was of a suspicious mind, I might have asked myself if my cat could have poisoned those plants, just to amuse herself. She did love puzzles and might have chuckled watching me try to unravel exactly what was happening to my plants time and again. Hmm, now that I think about it, did Cleo have access to the cabinet where I stored my cleaning supplies?

A final attempt

Okay, no time for tangential pondering: the point is, I’m no gardener, as evidenced by my last attempt to garden at my former home in Wassaic. There I planted a proper garden in the ground, as the gods intended. Yes, I thought, this was finally my chance to get it right! I could dig in the dirt, put shovel to soil, remove old roots, and happily plant whatever I wanted: herbs, vegetables, flowers – my choices were limitless! I was thrilled at having a fresh start to plant an authentic garden – the right way. 

I went all out. I planted multiple mini-gardens throughout my property: some had tulips, some had wildflowers, some had roses, some had vegetables. I got compost, topsoil, mulch, I even fertilized the soil and put a banana peel under the rose bush (a trick I remembered from a home and garden show I had seen years earlier but never had the chance to try until then), and myriad other materials I no longer remember. I was extremely excited to see what the results would yield.  

And so I waited. And waited. And waited. Let’s just say the results were mixed. Of the dozens and dozens of tulips I planted, I believe maybe two or three grew. The rest, I surmised, became breakfast for some hungry deer. At least I hope so, because otherwise all those bulbs were a complete waste of money. The wildflowers were a mixed bag. My black-eyed Susans grew for a while but petered out after a couple of years; by the time I pulled out the garden three or so years later, my grape hyacinths had never materialized. However, about a decade later, they decided to sprout and would bloom randomly in the vicinity where they were planted in the very early weeks of each spring, right before it was time for the lawn to be mowed. I would be so thrilled to see those tiny purple flowers, I wouldn’t let the lawn be mowed for weeks each year until it became so shaggy it could be delayed no longer. 

The rose bushes I planted actually did well. One produced hundreds of fragrant flowers for about three to four years, until it didn’t and died; the other also had bountiful buds, but its thorny branches became so entwined with nearby plants that it had to be cut back. Afterwards it was never the same, and it shortly met its demise. 

The vegetable garden, I’m sorry to say, was not a success. I was able to grow one zucchini and about two ears of corn – with partial kernels. There were a few other veggies that gave me hope but never fully matured. I did not have success with any of my tomatoes, cucumbers, or pumpkins. Most of my herbs became diseased or were eaten by local wildlife. Let’s just say I still needed to shop at area farmers markets.

House plants?

Today I’m back to house plants. I’ve managed to keep a couple alive, but most are, uhm, not. A few of those are orchids, which are famously persnickety. I’m hoping their lack of leaves, flowers, and all signs of life are nothing more than the cyclical pattern they go through before bursting forth with vitality, new foliage and luscious blooms in a display of color and beauty. I’ve been waiting and watching closely for months now, so while it seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time, I remain hopeful. 

That’s one of the best parts of gardening – and of spring. Both rely on people keeping the faith and offering humanity an incredible amount of hope. Because no matter how terrible we may be at the task at hand, spring is a time when it somehow seems safe to believe in second chances, to believe in miracles. I mean, what word describes nature as perfectly as miraculous?

I am among those who believes in the impossible. Perhaps my orchids will bloom again. Perhaps my plants will survive. Perhaps I’ll finally learn to garden. Even if none of that happens, it’s okay, because through each iteration of gardening that I’ve attempted – and with each failure – I’ve learned, and that in itself has given me an amazing takeaway.