The Fool-Proof Guide to Failing with Flair

Everything you need to know about getting it wrong.

Barbie Black Thumb

I did not grow this.

I did not grow this.


No bacon or button pushers today! I woke up feeling fresh and ready to take on a new subject so I spun the wheel of failure and it landed on gardening. Vegetation beware!

You may have already heard that I have a black thumb. I am currently mourning the suicide of my basil plant, the only plant I’ve had in years. My tomatoes (store bought) and mozzarella are lonely now but neither are long for this world anyway. Soon they will join hearts and hands with a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil to become a tasty snack. They will all still be a little bereft without their basil brother but they will soldier on. Once they are gone I will mourn their loss as well but I will not live in fear or guilt over inviting more scrumptious tomatoes or creamy, fresh mozzarella into my home.

When I was growing up my mother kept a vegetable garden every summer. I loved to sneak out early in the morning and eat the baby carrots. They were not supposed to be baby carrots. They were supposed to grow up into mature, adult carrots with the help of my mother’s bright green thumb. I did not inherit my mother’s green thumb because I am adopted. At least that’s the excuse I’ve been using and I’m not going to abandon it now. My mother was an accomplished gardener. My father didn’t garden but when he got older he would refuse to mow whole sections of the lawn because that’s where the wildflowers grew. It was beautiful, if a little unkempt-looking, but he was beautiful and a bit unkempt himself so it suited him. I still can’t see wildflowers without thinking about him and his old-fashioned push-mower. I used to accuse him of using it to flatten the lawn rather than mow it. He only found that funny the first 300 times I said it . . .

Sorry. Off topic completely there for a minute. Back to my mother and my black thumb.

At some point my mother figured out that I was not going to follow in her gardening footsteps. She also figured out that any plant living in close proximity to my person had a tendency to die at a young age. When I got to college she would send me care packages with Big Red gum and real licorice. When she came to visit every Spring she would bring my roommates and friends pots of paperwhite flowers. You know. The kind of flower that can grow in a pile of stones or beach glass. She would bring me three-bean salad.

A few years ago some friends asked me if I would house and cat-sit while they went on vacation. I will call these friends J and D. J and D happen to have a whole house full of plants that they also expected me to water while I was there snuggling their three cats, scaring away would-be intruders, and scooping litter boxes endlessly. I told J she would have to call or text to remind me to water the plants. I also warned her that, even with reminders on her part and action on my part, I still feared for the survival of her poor houseplants while they were under my care. Despite my warnings and dire predictions of of death and destruction, J and D decided to leave the plants with me instead of bringing them to a local plant kennel (they have those, don’t they?). They also asked me to watch J’s prize-winning pumpkin plant. Which was growing outside. In the ground. I was beginning to question their sanity. Hadn’t I just told them they might return to find all their plants had been replaced with a hardier, Effie-proof, plastic variety? Who would put me in charge of anything green and growing, especially a prize-winning pumpkin plant?

OK, I’m exaggerating. Not about my plant-killing personality, but about the pumpkin plant. The seeds that J had planted came from a prize-winning pumpkin. A huge pumpkin. She wanted to grow her own giant pumpkins. There were a couple long, flowering stalks when J and D left on vacation and I vowed I would water them daily and send pictures of any progress the plants made. I didn’t say that I would conveniently forget to snap any photos if the plant suffered and died but I’m also not in the habit of photographing tragedy. [At the top of this post you will see a picture of the pumpkin plant in question. I think it was taken the second day I was there because it still looks healthy and pretty.]

J and D were gone for five weeks in the late summer and early fall that year. I was in charge of the house, cats, fish and plants the whole time they were gone. No one broke in. The house did not burn down. The cats were all fed and petted and snuggled. None were missing–though two were considerably fatter–when J and D got home. The fish were all still alive. The house plants, by some startling miracle, were also still all alive. The pumpkin plant? Not so much. The blossoms that were so pretty and plentiful when J and D had left, wilted and fell off after a few days. I thought that might be normal but there were no baby pumpkins to replace the blooms. Eventually the whole plant started to look sick. It knew I was there and had decided to try to give up the ghost. It didn’t manage to completely kick the bucket while I was there but not from lack of effort.

One night, shortly before J and D were scheduled to return home to their cats and dead pumpkin plant, I heard a noise outside. (Keep in mind here that I had been too much of a chicken to tell J and D that their pumpkin plant was a goner. I kept sending them pictures I had taken those first few days and wondering, with them, why there were no actual pumpkins. So sue me.) Anyway, back to the noise. I looked outside and our mutual friend, B, was out there with his van. He had backed it up to the pumpkin patch, unloaded a 300lb pumpkin, and nailed the nearly-dead pumpkin vine to the top of the pumpkin. WOW! I was saved! Of course now I would have to kill B, so he wouldn’t tell, and then explain to J and D that I had just wanted them to be surprised by my exceptional pumpkin-growing skills when they got home. I gave the plan some serious thought but eventually decided that it just wasn’t feasible. No one would ever believe I had grown a pumpkin that big.

I wish I had the whole goddess-of-the-earth thing going on but I don’t. I can’t even keep a basil plant alive on my kitchen windowsill. I’m not sure if I transmit some deadly plant virus, like the Typhoid Mary of green things but I have had to let go of the notion of moving to a remote location and living off the land. I cannot be responsible for a vegetable holocaust.

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