Plants’ secret life is lost on black thumb
Monday, Nov. 25, 2013

Plants’ secret life is lost on black thumb

Erica’s son picked out this lovely plumbago for planting among those that decorate the area around the deck.

You’d think a Southern girl like me would have a green thumb.

But no. My parents grew tobacco, not tea roses.

Even if I had picked up some gardening skills from them, they wouldn’t have transferred. Our farm’s soil was sandy; in some places, I could literally sift it through my fingers like the stuff at the beach.

But now I live here, where lurking beneath the grass is our lovely red clay. I didn’t know Earth could be so hard this far from its core. No wonder there’s a significant pottery community here.

So the “soil,” if you can call it that, combined with my black thumb, has made it difficult for this Southern girl to cultivate the kind of landscapes you see in Southern Living.

My mom’s childhood neighbors had dirt yards, on purpose. They would pull up anything that tried to grow. Maybe they, like me, lacked the knowledge to keep up a lawn and its apposite landscaping. Or maybe they had better things to do than weed and feed.

My neighbors, on the other hand, have managed to grow beautiful plants. Not long after we moved in, they gave me a yellow bell. It died.

They gave me some bulbs. Nope.

Once we watched a fascinating documentary called “The Secret Life of Plants.” Researchers tested the reaction of plants to the destruction of other plants.

Basically, they hooked up polygraphs and observed what happened when someone chopped a salad in the same room. The plants went wild.

Sometimes I think the whole garden center at my local hardware store does a collective cringe when it sees me coming.

But I try. Our house didn’t have much landscaping when we moved in. So for the past eight years or so, Phil and I have worked on it.

We plant a small patch each year; it’s all we can afford, plus it’s all we can afford to dig without breaking our teeth.

One year Phil planted a row of crape myrtles along the fence. The next year, a shade garden with verbena and hostas.

My favorite has been what we planted around the deck: layers of iris, hydrangea and dwarf holly, plus a lovely plant our son picked out called plumbago.

Perhaps a bit out of the norm, I anchored this planting with two peach trees. As a farm girl at heart, I expect my plants to be useful. We’ll see how many peaches I get out of this clay.

I wanted to grow food, too, because as I age, I am taking better care of my health. Humans were made from clay, and to it we shall return. There’s no better reminder of your own mortality than climbing out of bed after a day of heavy gardening.

Growing plants is a visible reminder of how proper care and feeding can make such a difference. We’re always careful to amend the soil so that our plants can thrive. We water, we pull weeds, we feed. We pull weeds some more.

If I could achieve a global paradigm shift to where weeds are considered aesthetically pleasing, I’d have it made.

As for that documentary, I don’t know how credible the research was. The video was from the 1970s, and it included some production elements that can only be described as hippie-dippy.

Then again, I’m partial to things produced in the 1970s, being one of them.

I may be a Southern girl, but I’m no longer a girl. The only thing I’m successfully growing is older. That, and weeds.

Maybe by the time I’m really old, I’ll have a peach or two.

Erica Batten is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Erica? Email her at

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