The Master Gardeners

Realities of the Myth of the Green Thumb

Bill Meredith

Spring came cautiously this year. After the worst winter in decades, you could hardly blame it for delaying as long as possible. The week of the equinox, when spring officially started, I played golf in shirtsleeve weather; four days later a heavy, wet snow was falling as I walked to the post office. Tulips were blooming, sticking up out of the snow with a bewildered "Why me?" expression on their faces as they pondered the likelihood that winter was coming back. Robins were equally perplexed; instead of singing to mark out their nesting territories, they seemed to be muttering about the advisability of going back south again.

It was mid-April before things got sorted out with any degree of certainty. The flowering trees in my yard were bare on Palm Sunday; two days later, they were in full bloom, ignoring the sequential pattern I had in mind when I planted them. The Bradford Pears along Main Street delighted the eye with clouds of white blossoms, which assaulted the nose with an odor reminiscent of week-old roadkill. The Icky Tree bloomed on schedule for Easter, but after that all of the signs indicated that spring would be abbreviated on the end as well as the beginning; temperatures climbed into the 80's for the first time, trees leafed out overnight, and we were headed directly for summer.

My wife was ready for it. She has been making gardening noises for several months now; she was urging me to get the plow going before the snow melted in February. Each year I explain to her that the main reason for plowing is to loosen the soil and create air spaces for the roots, and if it's wet when you plow the soil actually gets more compacted. I'm not sure whether this simply doesn't register, or she forgets, or perhaps she enjoys hearing the explanation repeatedů but whatever the reason, the topic seems to come up again every year. I did manage to convince her to wait until it was dry enough to plow this year, but the tradeoff was that I had to fill the herb garden with onion sets and radishes.

While I wait for the ground to dry out, I've been thinking about gardening. It is greatly misunderstood by the public; in fact, a multi-million dollar industry depends on the that lack of understanding. The advertising industry goes to great lengths each spring to convince the public that a certain few people have the Gift of the Green Thumb, a kind of mystical ability that enables them to make things grow... something like the ancient secrets of the Rosicrucians, or the power of the Maharishi. While things will grow like magic for those favored few, everyone else must buy Miracle Stuff Combined Organic Fertilizer and Bug Killer, or their gardens are foredoomed to failure. And of course you will need a special power applicator and hose for the Miracle Stuff, and it will work better if you also buy the latest model of the special self-mulching tiller with the weeding attachments. Being born without a green thumb gets expensive.

The truth is different; growing things is simple. You loosen the soil; whether you use a hand spade, a horse-drawn turnplow, a rototiller or a 200 horsepower John Deere diesel tractor makes little difference. You put some seeds in the ground; experience, trial and error, or reading the instructions on the package will inform you how deep and how far apart they should be. Then you wait.

A seed may look simple from the outside, but on the inside it is a truly marvelous construction. The critical part of it is the embryo, which is dormant at the time of planting. There is also a supply of food, usually in the form of starch, which will sustain the embryo from the time it begins to grow until it gets its first leaves and can make its own food. Finally, there is the seed coat, which protects the food and embryo from bacteria and fungi, and also secretes hormones that cause germination to begin. There are also several enzymes, which work in a sequence that physiologists call a cascade. The right combination of moisture, temperature and light cause the first enzyme in the sequence to be activated; that enzyme activates the second one, which in turn activates the third, and so on. The effect is like tipping over the first domino in a row. Suddenly the enzymes are all working, the food starts being digested, the embryo starts growing, and in a few days a new seedling pops out of the ground.

Of course there is a degree of environmental chance involved. It may rain too much or not enough; you will have to pull some weeds and fend off some bugs; you may have to put up a fence to keep out the rabbits or the neighbor's dog. But the responses required by each of these problems are pretty self-evident; anyone with the least bit of common sense can manage them. No mystical powers are involved. It doesn't really matter whether you understand how the phytochrome system releases the seeds from dormancy or how the gibberellin and cytokinin hormones initiate the growth of the embryo; it works just as well if you simply regard the whole process as a miracle. If you wait a while, the plants will grow.

The ability to wait is the essence of the green thumb; patience is the difference between those who can grow things and those who can't. There was a time when patience was a trait everyone learned in childhood; when the only way to get from Emmitsburg to Gettysburg was by walking or riding a horse, time had a different meaning. It is one of the tragedies in our recent history that the great innovations of the 20th century which we called "time savers" were really time destroyers. They gave us instant gratification at the expense of our sense of time.

Two years ago this spring, I found a Japanese maple seedling growing in a crack in the sidewalk at the college. Knowing it couldn't survive there, I pulled it up, brought it home, and stuck it in a flower pot. It survived the winter, and last spring I planted it in the corner of the yard. Its leaves shriveled up and dropped off in last summer's drought, but this week it is sporting a new set of red leaves and stands at least two inches higher than it was last year. In 20 years it will be 15 feet high and will dominate that area of the yard; it will be beautiful, whether I am here to see it or not. As I watched it that day, the idea occurred that all children should be required to plant a tree on their first day of kindergarten, and to observe its growth until they graduate from high school. Among the many things they would learn would be the quality of patience. There would be a lot more green thumbs in the world if we did that.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith