Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Rainbow of Thumbs

I actually get kinda angry with people when they compliment me on my 'green thumb.' I mean, I know they intend it well, and I get it, but it also irks me. It's taken a while to figure out exactly why that is.

It is entirely possible that this picture of a NOID Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cultivar is the best, most professional-looking photograph I will ever take in my entire life. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I also get peeved, more so in fact, when people tell me that they need me to suggest something really unkillable for them, because they have a black thumb, or brown thumb,1 or they're just hopeless with plants, they just look at them and the plant dies. I go ahead and do it: generally I suggest a Dracaena of some kind – I really like Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime,' as I believe I've mentioned over and over and over – or a Sansevieria trifasciata, Philodendron hederaceum, Haworthia attenuata, or Zamioculcas zamiifolia. These are all fairly uncomplicated and forgiving plants, which most people, under most circumstances, should be able to keep easily enough, and if the customer doesn't like those, well, there are plenty of others I can recommend.

But that's not the point. The point is that there are people out there who have the idea that they can't keep a plant happy in their homes. Possibly a lot of them don't care that much: I have a hard time relating to such people, but I know they're out there. But then there are the rest of them, who would really like to have a plant, and don't try because they think there's something about them personally, something intrinsic, that makes plants die.

Cineraria something. Pretty, and the colors are very close to being this intense, for real, but they last about five seconds, even in the greenhouse. I don't actually know why we bother to try, but I'll grant that they're stunning to look at.

And this bothers me not because it's wrong (though it is), but because it's lazy. These people are telling me, I don't know anything about plants, and I'm not interested in learning anything, either, so just give me something that will die slowly kthxbye.2 It's also a little insulting: my entire life for the last year or so has increasingly revolved around plants, so to be told that you're not willing to learn even the most basic stuff about them, that it's not worth your time somehow, even when I'm Right. There. To be asked, sometimes gets me a little wound up. Do I say this to the customers? No. Is it, probably, more my problem than theirs? Oh sure. But I have yet to find a productive way to deal with the emotions this stirs up.

Without the brown- and black-thumbed folks, I probably wouldn't have a job. So even if they're being completely ridiculous, I do still need them, so I can't get too upset. And it's not like I expect them to go to the lengths I have, or enroll in a community college, or something like that. But, you know. Library books. The internet. Asking people stuff. It's not like you have to go terribly out of your way to pick up the basics.

From http://icanhascheezburger.com/.

The people who compliment the green thumb are less obnoxious. I mean, I always know it was intended well. But this, also, manages to take a lot of hard work and time and wave it away as trivial. Nobody is born knowing how much water to give a Yucca guatemalensis, or what the difference is between a 20-20-20 fertilizer and an 18-6-12. These are things you have to go out of your way to learn, either the hard way (by getting it wrong and killing plants until you happen on a good combination) or the easy way (by looking it the hell up). I do, kinda, at least with tropical plants, have a pretty good success rate at getting plants to do what I want them to do, whether this be growing or rooting or jumping through flaming hoops or whatever, and by now I've developed some general rules that would be hard to explain to somebody, but which work out when I apply them. But it's not because I have some mystical connection with the plants --

Also from http://icanhascheezburger.com/.

it's because I've grown some. Anybody can do this. You just have to do it.

So don't tell me that there's anything innate about either of us that makes us able or unable to grow plants. That makes about as much sense as complimenting someone on being able to drive, answer a ringing telephone, or file things in alphabetical order. It's a skill. You practice it, it develops. It's not supernatural.

To sum up, then: if the greenhouse looks nice, just tell me the greenhouse looks nice: you don't have to tell me I'm magic. If you haven't grown a lot of plants before, just tell me you haven't grown a lot of plants before: you don't have to tell me you're the Botanical Grim Reaper. Skills can be learned, "green thumbs" are myths, and I will not sympathize with your plant troubles if you make it clear that you've never tried to learn how to grow them.



Photo credits: mine unless otherwise noted.

1 This does not apply to Mr. Brown Thumb, since his moniker is clearly ironic.
2 Net slang for "Okay, thanks, bye," but, like, even more curtly dismissive. Kids these days.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Subjunctive. This is Karen715 from the GardenWeb Houseplants Forum. I thought I'd take this opportunity to tell how much I've been enjoying your blog.

Anyway, I've never understood the 'black thumb' crowd either. Even on the other GW forums over the years, I've read posts saying "I just don't do well with houseplants" as if there is some mystical secret to caring for them. These posts have been from gardeners, people who grow things outside with ease. And if you try to give them some tips, they say they just can't do it.

mr_subjunctive said...

Hi Karen. Much appreciated.

That's an interesting point, actually: when I wrote this I was thinking more about people like my (13-year-old) sister, who Mom tells me claims to have a black thumb even though, as far as Mom or I am aware, she hasn't tried to grow any plants. But for an outdoor gardener to say it . . . that's just weird.

With my sister, I suspect that it's maybe more that she doesn't want to do it and isn't interested and that waving the black-thumb flag is just the most effective way she's found of getting out of the conversation. But too many people say this for that to be the only reason.

Mr. Green Genes said...

Hi Mr. Subjunctive,

I can imagine how much trouble and work it takes to keep a blog like yours- though on the other hand, if it were *that* bad you'd stop, wouldn't you?

Anyway, please continue- I look forward to reading your next installment every day, and I get disappointed if there's nothing new yet. (And no, I am not unemployed and living with my parents- I have plenty to do.)

It is hard to understand why you're so addictive, but honestly yours is the best indoor gardening blog around. So why?

One, you're funny. (I wonder whether your colleagues give you credit for this, or whether you keep all your dry humour for your blog.)

Two, you're instructive without being boring. (Ever tried your hand at teaching, anything? You look promising. If you haven't, think about it.)

Three, you're damn good at writing and I do not mean just the parodies like that of Calathea (wonderful, btw). Every installment is a mini-sitcom rolled into a semiserious musing on humanity (either ours as clients of garden centers and gardeners; or yours as sometimes hapless indoor gardener).

Natsume Soseki wrote "I am a cat"- I sometimes wonder whether you would not be able to write a "I am a XYZ" where XYZ stands for some plant. (A measure of how intriguing your blog is, is that while writing I am thinking about what kind of plant you would be, were you to choose one.)

Anyway, enough said, and please keep 'em coming 'em blog entries- a balm for the soul and a hearty dish for the mind. Thanks you!

waterroots said...

Loved this post! And I couldn't agree more... Aside from the effort required to learn about plants, there are those that have no interest in them. Sure they want a pretty plant to decorate a coffee table or a shelf, but they don't want the effort that goes with it. That's why many people buy plants, run them to the ground, and then just replace them with a new one. Plants are considered, by many growers, just disposable items. Pretty while they last...and when they're worn out, just get a new one...

Sheila said...

Unfortunately, there are people who treat not only plants this way, but also pets, spouses, and even kids!

Seriously, though, I loved this post. I get a lot of people who ask me how often they should water their plant, but when I try to help them, it's obvious they don't want to do any thinking. They just want me to say, "Give it 8 ounces once a fortnight" and be done with it.

I wonder if anyone knows what a fortnight is any more.

And yes, this is the best plant blog there is. Although I find that my writing style is starting to imitate yours more and more. (That's a good thing!)

mr_subjunctive said...

Well gosh. Thanks, everybody. It's always nice to be appreciated.

Should maybe clarify that I don't mind if people want to treat plants like disposable objects exactly: it's not like we're going to run out. What I have a problem with is the mindset where this is a permanent condition. If people have other things that are more important to them than their houseplants, you know, that's totally fine: it's the pretending like they just have no choice in the matter that gets to me.

Mr. Green Genes: I actually have given some thought to what kind of plant I would be, if I were going to be a houseplant. Thus far, nothing seems to be quite right: I think I may have to decide what conditions my plant self wants and then figure out what plants that would line up with. Roughly, this'd be: cool to average temperatures, no direct sun, let get pretty dry between waterings, moderately heavy feeder, mostly pest-resistant, not really propagatable, light to moderate grooming, indifferent to humidity levels. (I'd have a difficulty level around 3.9.) Don't know what that is, but it's close to Dracaena marginata or Cissus rhombifolia. Maybe Araucaria heterophylla.

sheila said...

This is fun. I'd never considered what plant I would be. Let's see. Warm temperatures, lots of direct sun, lots of water, moderately heavy feeder, slightly pest-resistant, mildly propagatable, minimal grooming, average humidity levels, semidormant in winter.

So what does that make me? Obviously a tropical - banana, elephant ears, and cannas come to mind, which actually are some of my favorite plants, although not much fun to try to grow indoors over the winter. Any other ideas for what I am?

Meenoo said...

I loved this post--it nails exactly what angers me whenever well-meaning people dismiss my love/skill of gardening by talking about how they seem to kill everything they breathe on. They make gardening and caring about plants sound like such an esoteric way to pass the time. Thank you for writing it!
I am really enjoying your blog, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Actually, most Dracaenas are sensitive to fluoride. They die a slow, painful death when watered with normal fluoridated household water. So my guess is that when you recommend this one, another plant slowly dies and the owner thinks it is his black thumb! Just too funny.

mr_subjunctive said...


Sensitive to fluoride yes, die a slow, painful death no. I have nineteen Dracaenas that I've been watering with fluoridated water for 3-8 years now, none of which look like they'd prefer to be dead. I've lost another ten or so over the years, usually to rot/overwatering (sometimes before I'd even bought it), failure of cuttings to root, or just being plants I'd gotten tired of.