Helen Chappell - July 2008

The Black Thumb
Helen Chappell

   Like Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, I can kill at a touch. If Blind Pew tapped his way to my house, the paper he would leave with the Black Spot would be ripped from Gardener’s Digest rather than the Bible. If I were any worse with plants, I’d be turning every inch of my small world into a blasted heath.
    Other people have green thumbs. I have the black thumb. I can kill any plant that exists.
    This is quite a talent, since many plants do not surrender easily.
    Cactus, hostas, day lilies can all survive the worst conditions and prosper handily. Unless I turn my Medusa-like glance upon them, in which case they wither and die.
    I suppose my lack of gardening expertise is a talent that could be useful. Single-handedly, I could replace Agent Orange and Roundup as the plant killer of choice, except my curse works only on desirable plants. Weeds, Johnson grass, woodbine, creeper and English ivy all remain impervious to my deadly touch. Indeed, they seem to thrive on it, merrily choking out anything and everything that tries to grow for me.
    The horror of it is that I am surrounded by master gardeners who find it hard to believe I’m the Rappacini’s Daughter of the Eastern Shore. “It’s so simple,” they tell me. “You just plant it, mulch it, water and fertilize it and it grows like mad.”
    Not under my care it doesn’t. In my career, I have killed gardenias, two kinds of rosebushes, several varieties of ornamental grasses, three kinds of azaleas, and lord only knows how many flowering plants, vines, succulents and other victims of my misguided attempts to have at least container pots in the summer. I’ve withered daisies, potato vines and vinca. Geraniums and petunias cringe at my touch. I single-handedly murdered a ficus tree. I killed a lilac bush. I’m killing a jade plant even as I write this. I’ve mass-murdered aralias palms by the score. If it grows, I can slaughter it just by standing next to it.
    I don’t know why this is. I just know it is. I’ve given up any attempt to even pull a semblance of landscaping out of the yard.
    It just sits there, sullen and wilting, in spite of my ministrations, until everything turns wilted and then brown. It’s as if I have my own personal black spot and whitefly epidemic, just waiting to burst forth.
    For many years, I’ve tried to raise container plants on my south-facing porch. Everything starts out great, of course. I buy whole flats of sets and tenderly place them in their pots, feeding and watering them, fussing over them like baby chicks.
    At first everything is just fine. They bloom, they burst forth in riots of color and seem to be thriving. Pansies start the season, then when they begin to fade, they are replaced with petunias and coreopsis and vines, or hardy geraniums such as Nuclear Burst and Desert Bloom, which are guaranteed to last through a Death Valley summer, which is pretty much what my porch becomes around July and August.
    I nurse them, I pray over them like a heathen faith healer. I deadhead, I pinch, I turn the pots. I water. Oh, how I water.
    It doesn’t matter. By the time the summer sun gets finished beating down on the porch for a few weeks, it looks as if World War II had been fought out there and lost. Stubbly dry twigs gasp for life. Wilted flower heads hang exhausted from their stems, mocking me for even trying.
    Some people are blessed with an intrinsic talent for growing green and flowering things. I’m not one of them. Like the thirteenth fairy at Sleeping Beauty’s christening, the only gift I seem to bring is that of withering sarcasm.
    I always swear, this is it. This year I’m surrendering. I’m not going to stick anything out there on the porch, because I’ll just kill it anyway.
    I’m a serial killer, doomed to wander the earth without the consolation of botany or cultivars.
    But every year, I go to the gardening center and try again, perhaps because I’m stupid, or perhaps because hope springs eternal in even the blackest thumb.
    There has to be something out there that I can’t kill, something that will thrive in my care. Maybe I’ll try portulaca this year, or marigolds.
    How about big pots of ornamental crabgrass? At least it’s one thing I know I can grow!