Struggling with ‘brown thumbs’ in the garden

Lilies in the author’s garden that somehow lived while being in her care.

I think I’m a Magic 8 Ball gardener (and I’m going to use the word “gardener” really lightly here).

You’ll understand why soon here. And, to put it in plain terms (and after doing some researching on it), the best term to be used is probably “brown thumb” (the antonym to “green thumb”).

So, this column is a shoutout to the other “brown thumbs” out there, who are doing their best just to keep up at any pace.

If I asked the Magic 8 Ball at the beginning of the season what my summer of lawn/garden maintenance would look like, it would probably say, “ask again later.”

It’s typical at the beginning of the season to come home with a tray of perennials, my boys watching the initial frenzy of planting and anticipation of the possibility of having things grow and not die. I’ve always viewed success in my garden in the summer as “things not dying.”  Expectations have always been very low. 

In the space of time between the initial planting and the first blooms of some of the flowers, there is lots of ripping, snipping, cutting and constant weeding. With headphones on, dancing in the sun, sometimes cursing the ever-creeping-closer salmonberry bushes that need constant attention, I find a rhythm and escape that is unlike any activity I do the rest of the year. 

I know that my efforts may not yield anything, yet I still put in the energy. Over the following weeks, the thought processes slowly evolve into “oh wow, only a couple of the items I planted died.”

Again, I view success in the garden as an absence of death. I haven’t been able to move past this paradigm. 

This past week, after almost two months of pondering my inadequacy as a lawn care hobbyist, as nothing had bloomed, some things finally started to show their colors. The foxglove started to open up beautifully, and some lilies have rewarded me for not giving up on them. Some things had actually lived, and not died!

I’ve always enjoyed reading Marion Owen’s gardening columns because she makes it all seem so doable and approachable, and she has gardening tips galore. She makes one feel like they CAN do this! I admit, I did once kill a cactus that I was house sitting. Yes, that is the extent of the brown thumb that we are dealing with here, folks. 

In wrapping up, let’s explore the garden as a symbol — some say that the garden symbolizes consciousness because of its enclosed characteristics, as opposed to the forest.

What does that say about my consciousness, that I work hard within the more constricted confines and rigor needed to just maintain fewer weeds? I wish I could hear your likely humorous and diverse interpretations on this as readers. 

Maybe I need an attitude shift in my own abilities and expectations of what I pull off in the summer season in the yard. Let’s just ask the Magic 8 Ball to settle this:  Will I ever be a bit more positive sounding in my gardening goals and abilities? It just answered: “better not tell you now.” 


Ella Saltonstall, born and raised in Kodiak, works as a speech language pathologist and enjoys musing about parenting, communication, music and everything in between.

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