To say that my father had a green thumb would be an understatement. We had all of the vegetables in what was then a vast garden. In a good summer we had corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peas, peanuts. Growing food in your own little patch of dirt was a time honored tradition in Bluefield then. Nearly all of our neighbors kept vegetable gardens. And some kept chickens and pigs as well.
I have a picture I think my mother took where my brother Mikey is standing in the middle of Da’s garden, and right next to Da’s garden is Mrs. Maude and Mr. Junior’s vegetable garden so that it looks like nothing but a huge garden. You can’t see where Da’s garden ends and theirs begins.
Da wasn’t the only one with green thumbs. Ma kept up the gardening and landscaping side of things. She planted lantanas, four o’clock, amaryllis, elephant ears, roses. Our little patch of a quarter of an acre was always filled with beautiful things to look at and beautiful things to eat.
I give you this history to say this: I’ve only recently been able to keep a house plant alive. The legacy of the green thumb had skipped me. Or so I thought.
Late Spring/Early Summer
This summer I decided to be intentional about growing something. I still had my two house plants, but I wanted more. I wanted something I could grow and eat. It all started with my brother Jermaine giving me one of the amaryllis bulbs from in front of the porch in Bluefield.
Our mother had planted those amaryllises. And when she died, my father kept them up, then me, and finally my brothers. Maine brought me the amaryllis in a big black pot. “When it starts to dry out, make sure you water it,” he said. He told me to get some fertilizer spikes to feed it once a month. A few days later he called me and told me to bring the amaryllis in from our small back deck because frost was expected. Once the frost passed, I put it back out in the sun. Eventually I got it a beautiful pot of its own and the flowers appeared in a blaze of red glory. I started feeling confident.
While I was at the grocery store one day, I decided to buy a tomato plant. I asked Maine if I needed to buy a stick to prop up the tomatoes. He said I should be fine just leaning them on the deck. Where I live now, I don’t have a patch of dirt of my own, so I had to settle with transferring the tomato plant to a bigger pot.
My brother told me that with the summer being so hot, I would need to water the plant three times a day. And if I couldn’t do the midday watering to get a self-watering bulb (in picture below) to help.
As the tomatoes were growing, I was also growing some sunflowers. I received several sunflower seeds from my cousin’s bridal shower, which had sunflowers as the theme. Those, however, I had to put in the ground since they would grow bigger than any pot I could buy. So once I had the seeds started in the pot, I transferred them to the a spot I cleared off for them to grow.
Everything was going well. The tomato plant’s yellow flowers grew into tomatoes. I kept it watered and fed it plant food. I was so proud. Until two months later…I moved the plant from its spot near the deck. Two of the stems split spectacularly, laden with tomatoes as they were. I was mad. I called my brother, frantic. He didn’t pick up. I looked something up on YouTube, and attempted to save the plants by putting the broken stems into a bucket of water. They survived a few days, then I attempted to re-plant them with disastrous results. That’s when I decided to cut my losses and pick the tomatos that were still green, but big enough to maybe survive.
One thing I learned from watching my father all of those years was that you could take a tomato that wasn’t all the way ripe, put it in the windowsill, and watch it redden over the coming days. I figured that would work with my little satchel of tomatoes, and it did.
When I first started growing the tomatoes, I daydreamed about what I would do with the abundance: Give some to the neighbors, family, and friends (as my father did often), can some of them, and of course eat them. Eat them with grits or make a tomato sandwich or two. Or do a Bartell family classic of simply slicing the tomato, sprinkling it with salt and pepper, and leave it in the fridge to chill so that by the time dinner was ready, we would have the sliced tomatoes as a additional veggie to compliment our meal.
In reality, the only one I was able to do was the Bartell family classic, which I ended up eating with some grits for breakfast one morning.
Late Summer Lessons
I felt so defeated that I had to abandon my tomato plant so early. As a Bartell, I should have done better. But then I realized a few things: I could start over and buy a new tomato plant and apply the lessons I learned from the failed tomato experience. I decided against doing that, but next summer, I will grow tomatoes again. This time I will be smarter. I will get the stick. I will buy a bigger pot for them to grow in.
During this process, I thought much about fixed mindset vs. growth mindset (Check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset). Much of my life I had had a fixed mindset about gardening. I thought having a green thumb was something you were born with. This past summer, I adopted a growth mindset with gardening and decided to give it a try. I enlisted my brother as a mentor, I asked questions about his experiences with it, I consulted the internet, I developed a plan for watering and feeding the plants and stuck with it. I failed ultimately, but I know that failure is essential to the learning process. I’ll be better next time because of the failure.
I failed to protect the sunflower. Some bug feasted on it and it died earlier than it was supposed to. However, the amaryllis, who I have named Ms. Lucille, is still sticking around. Her flower is gone of course, but her green leaves remain. Soon those leaves will wither with the fall and fall off, it will be too cold to keep her outdoors and I will bring her in for the winter. Then next spring she will come back again with her blaze of glory.
And that’s the ultimate gift of the green thumb. The re-generation of the return. I think of how my father’s father kept a garden. I imagine that my grandfather’s father also kept a garden, and his father before him as well in a circle that goes back through slavery and to our ancestors in Africa, who I see keeping their own gardens as well. None of them were born with green thumbs, but they learned how to keep vegetable gardens, largely as a source of nourishment for survival. I am honored to follow in their sacred footsteps.