Garden, gardening

The Black Thumb

The secret to having a green thumb is persistence. Yes, you’ll kill plants, but if you keep studying, and trying, eventually you’ll have something live. Oddly enough, what kills most houseplants? Overwatering. 

This is not to say I have a green thumb. I have not. In fact, this summer trying to garden in Texas was a humbling experience, and that I had any plants at all survive is a testament to the persistence of life. That’s the persistence I meant above. The poor gardener just keeps trying until they finally find a plant or plants that will keep growing in spite of it all. One thing I’ve learned for sure – I cannot container garden here. I just can’t keep enough water on the plants to help them survive, when we have three months straight of over 100 degree days, and the containers are on the edge of the big concrete pad for parking. Those poor little plants were doing their best to survive in God’s own EZ Bake oven. 

What did work, and I’ll be doing more of next year, were really big containers. I bought these non-woven bags, in 100 and 150 gallon sizes, and we set one up. My son did it without me, putting some branches down in the bottom, then a layer of straw, before finally putting in a soil mixed from peat moss bales and purchased topsoil. He didn’t do it the way I would have, but he got it done, which is more than I would have, given how busy I was at that time. I planted in herbs and a zucchini with handfuls of bone meal. Watering was done sporadically if at all for the next month or two (we started them in August) and… they are surviving and thriving! Noted, and next year I don’t think I’ll try small containers (3 gallon sized) at all. It may take me a few growing seasons to dial this in, but I’m persistent, too. 

My end of summer report on the garden is dismal. Not only did I get two tiny tomatoes and a handful of peppers as the sum total of our harvest, but I almost killed the one plant heirloom I have. My great-great-grandmother Clara’s Thanksgiving Cactus did not take well at all to being outside in the Texas heat and sun. It shed almost all of it’s leaves and I thought it was dead. Desperate, I brought it into the laundry room and hung it in front of sheltered windows (they open onto the neighbor’s garage and a row of trees less than six feet away) and watered it extensively, then weekly. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see the shiny nubs of new growth a few weeks later. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the last in the family with starts from any of the holiday cacti that once filled the conservatory on the front of my Great-Grandma Ella’s house.

African violet, rescued in fine fettle from the discard shelf because it was done blooming, and my little Cattleya orchid.

With the dining room and living room set up, and me realizing that I’m better at caring for plants I can easily reach during the day, I’ve decided that I may as well move aspects of the garden indoors. I’ll still kill plants. For one thing, being frugal (look, houseplants got very popular during the pandemic, which drove up prices, add in inflation and the cost of shipping and the state of the market is currently ridiculous) I’m shopping the clearance racks for plants. Which often means half-dead. As long as they are only mostly dead, I have a chance, right?

A lovely Golden Pothos, my son’s ‘tree’ of grass, and a maidenhair fern I am hopeful I can maintain. It’s badly sunburned from it’s sojourn on the discard shelf in Texas sun. Poor little thing. 

We shall see. Gardening, like writing and cooking, is one of those things I can’t not do. I am in particular fascinated with bonsai (never yet kept one alive) and orchids (I have a handful, managed to kill a couple during the move to TX by freezing them in the moving truck, poor defenseless lambs). I won’t turn the house into a jungle, but I absolutely will put herbs in the kitchen window, orchids in the office, and ponder how to keep plants in the bedroom windows while still maintaining privacy. 

Winter is coming. I am prepping by bringing the green in with me. I’ve planted an amaryllis bulb, and have pre-chilled paperwhite bulbs ready to go. I shall have flowers! and I will kill plants. Look, you know that black dyes are just really, really dark green, right?

In the window over my baking nook, another sunburned maidenhair fern. I have magical memories of seeing these in the wild in Oregon as a girl and have always wanted to grow them.

8 thoughts on “The Black Thumb

  1. Ah, houseplants! The boon and bane of my existence!

    Don’t feel bad. This was our first year with a garden here in our new place (no time to plant last year when we moved here.) Even with seed starting in the house, and a small greenhouse, we just didn’t start early enough, and just when things were really starting to grow for the outside plants (some tomatoes and squash) we had the deep freeze, so those are mostly dead now, been picking green tomatoes and have to figure out whether to see if they will ripen in the window, or not.

    I have a wire rack shelf above the sink in the kitchen in the window, that lets me keep my “sick” plants where I see them multiple times of day and can decide if they need more water, less water, fungus spray, etc. And just give them a little mental love and encouragement.

    I used to be amazing with plants, especially violets, Christmas cactus, Pothos, Wandering Jew, and just about anything else. Then I got really sick with last child and my abilities started going down hill. They really only started picking back up again about 10 years ago. And if I get really sick now, I will start killing plants.

    But there are a few plants that I have the worst time with. Teacup/mini roses or even outdoor roses. Kill them like crazy, the longest I have kept any alive is about 1 1/2 years. Ferns of any kind. They are so pretty! But I killl them. Succulents are a struggle, I have killed plenty, my biggest problem with them is some sort of fungus thingy. If I don’t catch it right away, it will spread to all of them very quickly. I use soap, water, lavender oil mixture to spray on them, it works great. Bonsai – let us not speak of these. I was very sad when I lost my 10 year old grapefruit “bonsai”, it was old enough it had actual bark, I had started it from a seed. And I’ve had avacado trees that lasted 3-5 years, but they would always eventually die. The store bought evergreens? Yeah, no. I kill them fairly fast.

    Violets which I used to have 10-15 varieties, took a hit and for a long time couldn’t keep them alive, but I have 1 violet now that is closing on a year old. It’s been a struggle, but it is still putting out a couple of blooms every couple of weeks. Not perfect, but better. I have been doing really good with orchids for a while, bringing them back from the nearly dead and getting blooms again. and some new keikis! Several other random plants are doing pretty well, vines and such (Oh, Ivy I kill…don’t know why and any of the pretty spotted/splash plants). I even have a “lucky bamboo” which probably needs to be pruned or repotted or something, but I’ve been happy it’s growing so left it alone. My Amaryllis gives good blooms every year, but probably needs a repotting, too. And the peace lily has been struggling, so definitely needs repotting (same pot for 6+ years now.), but even now has 3 flowers.

    The greenhouse we wrapped in plastic drop cloths. Black for the back side to soak up warmth, and clear for the front side (sides are 1/2 black 1/2 clear depending if on east (with huge tree cover/shadow) or West (which gets some afternoon/evening light). And the tomatoes and peppers and mint and onions in there are doing great. We put a little space heater in there, and it’s been keeping it warm enough. Don’t know about the Negative Zero temps later in the winter…but, we can extend it a little longer. And we know what we need to do for the outside beds next year.

    And I agree, overwatering/not good drainage is usually your number one issue with gardening/houseplants. And watch to see if when you are super stressed if the plants struggle. It may be nature’s way of telling you it’s time to slow down for a bit and “smell the roses”.

  2. I have a eucalyptus that’s somehow survived TWO Thanksgivings (longest time we’re away from home), and currently we have two brussels sprout plants that my daughter bought in May, which have at most doubled in size since then. I couldn’t bear to let them die to the frost…..

  3. Being where we live, lack of water is the outdoor killer, and often indoor, also.

    The carrots were great, the rest of the garden not worth mentioning.

    This year, though, it’s sudden cold and trees again. Lost half the sweet cherry to a bad freeze as the buds were swelling this spring, and what’s left still has green leaves as temp shifted from highs in the seventies to lows in the teens in the last week. We’ll find out come spring if there’s any left. Planted in early 90s, IIRC.

  4. We have a Flame Violet (Episcia cupreata) that was a gift. After nearly killing it twice, we finally figured out how to care for it (not very often). As a result, it’s healthier than any plant I’ve ever not killed. Blooms several times a year, including now. Gorgeous plant.

  5. My wife had the worst black thumb ever. I despaired of ever seeing her not kill one of my plants, but I travel so much that the living things I cultivate live under a death sentence. Surprisingly, orchids turned that around. They like being well-sited and rotated around the house, they are happy to be accidentally ignored for a week or two longer than they’re supposed to, and when the flowers do drop, they can be tied off to a palm tree outside and spend the off season in nature until they bloom again.
    One day I’ll try having a goldfish again, but I’m not ready for all the burials at sea, so to speak.

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