Webster defines "green thumb" as possessing superior plant-handling skills. That's a prosaic definition for a capability that can bring abundance from nothing, resurrect the dying, and achieve maximum results from the healthy. Still, even a dictionary has to start somewhere.
Both my grandmothers had green thumbs, albeit of a very different sort. Ethel's plants marched in precise rows, regimented as to species, size, and color alongside paths of the tiniest, neatly swept pea gravel in off-white. Maggie's, on the other hand, poured in wild profusion over stone walls, around trellises, and across rocks. In Ethel's garden, perennial never touched biennial, much less annual, while in Maggie's Peace roses intertwined comfortably with clematis and four o'clocks jostled with zinnias for prime space.
My mother's plant of choice was succulents, which grew for her like weeds on unlikely window shelves, while my father could grow anything. Give him a seed, a cutting, or a bare-roots plant, and he seemed to know exactly what to do without thinking. He'd grown up on or around farms and had always had a garden. By the time I came along, this was located in the extra lot attached to our house in the suburbs, and one of my earlier memories is watching him prepare and plant it each spring. I hung around, of course, because I was crazy about him and grabbed every opportunity to be part of whatever he was doing, but he must have assumed my persistent presence was proof of a wish to have a garden. This was perhaps why he also assumed that I, his eldest child, would be as natural a gardener as he was.
When I was eight, he decided I was old enough to start my own gardening tradition, which in a way I did. He dug and planted a roughly eight-by-ten plot that would allow me to harvest my own small crop of carrots, radishes, and potatoes. He showed me how to weed and water, and identified insects to watch out for. Then, a believer in allowing children to do things for themselves, he went back to his garden and left me to my own devices. I did exactly what he told me to do, but nothing seemed to thrive as expected. My potatoes were mottled with some sort of virus he said he'd never seen before. The radishes were just about nonexistent. As for the carrots, they were the size of the bright yellow pencils in my book bag − and just about as hard.
Daddy was almost as disappointed as I was, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt and the next spring set me up with another garden. The results were almost the same. The third year he moved the garden, thinking perhaps a different location would help. It didn't, and the year I was eleven, he decided that perhaps my talents lay in a different direction.
That has been pretty much the story of my gardening ever since. Some well-meaning friend or mentor has given me some plant that "anyone can grow" and I've promptly proven them wrong. What's so frustrating is that both my sisters have exhibited truly superior capabilities with both house plants and gardens, systematically producing specimens that could feature in any seed company's catalog. One even devised a complex scheme whereby various daylilies bloomed in her yard in continuous succession from April to October.
Some of my ongoing lack of success has been particularly unfortunate. A monastery east of Atlanta carefully nurtured bonsai trees which it sold to the public. I loved their elegance and the symbolism attached to so much thought and effort. Over a decade I was given, or bought, four different plants, each of which survived just long enough to make me think I'd broken the curse. The last one, which was rapidly transitioning from sickly to sick, I gave away in the nick of time to a friend whose thumb was practically chartreuse. That was two decades ago, and it's still thriving.
What prompts this rather masochistic survey is the fact that this year, for the first time in recent memory, I tried again and I think my luck may be turning. Wanting a type of giant coleus I'd had trouble finding at garden centers and commercial greenhouses, I bought a Gro-Light kit and ordered the precise seeds guaranteed to produce what I was looking for. The result was gratifying. The coleus responded in a predictable, trouble-free manner as I planted, watered, adjusted the lights, and then moved them into pots. They were, in fact, spectacular, exceeding even the showy images in the catalog. It's true that things didn't work out exactly as I'd hoped - plants that were supposed to be 36" high never made it past 28" - but this time I know why. I was late starting the seeds. In 2020 those seeds will be in the grow medium no later than mid-January and I'm anticipating maximum size as well as terrific appearance by mid-summer.
What I'm wondering now is if my thumbs are at last acquiring some of the familial green or if seeds have become so reliable that the color of one's thumbs doesn't matter any more. I'll take the result either way.