A black thumb turns green

She took perverse pride in her ‘talent’ for killing plants – until she had a yard.

I kill plants. It's true. Whenever I've carried a potted plant into my house, it has shriveled up and died within a month. Friends have learned the hard way never to ask me to water their plants while they're on vacation. Feed the dog? Not a problem. But don't trust me with your houseplants or your lawn.

I've always been OK with that. In fact, throughout my life I've taken a perverse pride in knowing that there is no one in this world who is more inept with plants. Nobody is better at killing them than I am. It could almost be classified as a talent.

Perhaps the plants sensed my ignorance. I never even asked their names. Sure, I knew what a daisy was, and I could pick a rose out of a lineup. Beyond that, though, the plant kingdom flowed into this nebulous world where things were labeled either "trees" or "flowers."

Then, two summers ago, my husband and I bought a house. It had an unkempt little fenced-in yard out back and a small plot of overgrown weeds in the front. The yard cried out for attention. It was an ugly, empty space, ready to be created anew. But how?

I bought some magazines, hoping to pick up ideas for our little bit of landscape. It wasn't long before I started to realize just how little I knew.

I gathered my courage and headed to the local garden store, where I snagged a passing employee. She walked me through the nursery, talking about shade and light, shrubs and vines. I took copious notes. She seemed surprised to hear that I didn't know what a daylily was, and I hadn't heard of hostas.

I explained my problems with plants and told her how I somehow manage to kill even the hardiest ones. She helped me draw up a plan and sent me home with a few hard-to-kill plants.

I planted some hostas in the backyard (like shade, hard to kill). The clematis went into the front (needs sun, also hard to kill). I learned the Latin words for pansies, jasmine, and dogwood. Even the hard-to-pronounce rhododendron joined my vocabulary (but not my garden – according to my meticulous notes, a rhododendron wouldn't survive in my amateur hands).

I consulted an arborist about the trees surrounding my yard. It turns out that broad leafy one is a maple and the smaller one, which doesn't look so great, is a plum tree. Who knew you had to prune them? So I learned the words root ball, drip line, and pruning shears.

We passed through winter and came around to spring. The neighbors all had flowers sprouting up on the first day of spring (more new words: daffodil, tulip, bulb).

I found that I coveted those buttery daffodils. I'd never seen them before. I grew up in Los Angeles, so the very idea of spring was a novel one. In Los Angeles, we marked the seasons not by the earth, but by the sky: The summer sky had a hazy brownish tinge, while winter brought a clear blue expanse. The plants pretty much stayed the same year-round.

But I loved the mystery of those daffodils, sprouting up where the day before there had been only damp earth. It came to me in a rush of understanding. So this is spring: The earth wakes up, stretches, changes, bursts forth with newness. Everything is possible in the spring.

And just like that, I knew I would become a gardener. Not, perhaps, a good one. But suddenly I wanted those plants to live. I yearned to understand what they needed, to know when they were hungry or thirsty. I wanted to dig a hole in the clay in front of our house, to mix a portion of it with good soil, and place new life there in the ground. I wanted to watch the clematis climb vigorously up its trellis and to be able to say "I made that happen."

And now? Like my garden, I'm a work in progress.

We have some good days, when the weeds get pulled and the flowers dance under the weight of butterflies.

We have bad days, too, when the thyme turns brown with no explanation, and I'm left wondering if it was something I said.

But I look back on that first trip to the nursery, when I didn't even have the vocabulary to say what I wanted. Now I walk through my neighborhood and notice whose hostas need dividing, whose crape myrtle is flowering, and whose boxwood needs watering. And I laugh at myself, at my previous ignorance.

I look forward to winter, when the weeds won't call out and I'll have time to peruse a garden book or two, expanding my knowledge. I'm like a flower – no, I correct myself, I'm like a clematis – growing and stretching by leaps and bounds, learning more, seeing more, and trying to escape my own limits.

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