Gardening for Dummies

We have snow forecasted for this week. Every day we watch the snow march a little further down the mountain towards us. Tropical birds that we are, it is all an adventure for us. Axa and Dominique have been wearing their snowsuits for days in anticipation of the big event. They were thrilled the other day when our neighbor Beatrice invited them over to help her prepare her yard for the snow. They knocked down leaves, each got a ride in the wheelbarrow, and helped to wrap her twelve-foot banana tree in plastic. Yes, our province is statistically the coldest in Italy, yet in Beatrice’s yard live a banana tree and a palm tree, which have both obviously been flourishing for years. Beatrice has a serious green thumb. Yesterday we took her cookies and she invited us in. The dozens of flower pots that normally grace her front porch have been moved indoors. They are arranged in rows of two or three all the way up her granite staircase, and the plants are as happy and green as they looked in the summer sun. During the last couple of weeks she has also brought us several batches of different kinds of grapes, baked pears, and various other goodies from her garden. And it’s almost December.

My thumb, on the other hand, is more what I would call a brown or moldy grey thumb. The poor little cyclamen given to me by a friend from Church is barely holding on. It’s no longer blooming, and it’s much less glossy than it was when it arrived, but it isn’t dead. And that’s an accomplishment for me. After all, I’ve had it for two whole months already. It did get left on the windowsill of the window where the blinds were stuck shut, so for a week it lived in virtual darkness. And there was the other time when the radiator got turned on for the first time and the poor plant was still sitting on it and remained there overnight until I noticed that it was drooping from the heat. The cellophane wrapper is still around it, impeding proper drainage, but also preventing inadvertent flooding. And I never did get around to re-potting it out of the temporary pot it came in, as I was strictly enjoined to do immediately. So all in all, I’m pretty happy with the fact that my poor little plant is still alive.

When Tony and I got married, he had three large houseplants, including a palm tree that reached all the way past the ceiling. (How did it reach past the ceiling? He cut a hole in the ceiling. No, not really. It grew up to the ceiling, and then made a U-turn and began growing downward.) I have no memory of what happened to those plants. I hope that we gave them away before I somehow killed them. My dad spends all his extra time out in the garden, and my grandpa had a phD in plant genetics. I guess I just missed those genes. Whenever I visit my parents, I flip through my dad’s collection of seed catalogs. In my opinion, seed catalogs don’t really belong in the nonfiction section. Page after page of lush ground-cover, abundant tulips, and gigantic tomatoes seem like so many fanciful pipe-dreams to me.

I did try a garden once. We had just moved to San Diego, and had a nice sunny balcony. I got a little cherry tomato plant and carefully potted it in the spring time. I figured it was virtually impossible to kill plants in Southern California. I don’t know if it was lack of fertilizer or sporadic watering, or that the balcony was less sunny than I thought, but my poor little tomato plant grew only slowly, and turned into a sickly, spindly specimen. But one day I noticed that one of the fragile yellow flowers had actually turned into a tiny green tomato. I watched it every day, and I believe I must have therefore watered it with more regularity. Pretty soon, that tiny tomato was almost the size of a normal cherry tomato, and I knew it would start turning red soon. I was so excited I ran in to show Tony the fruits of my labor. Unfortunately, Tony decided it would be a good idea to show my precious tomato to little Axa, who was only a little over a year old at the time. He carefully pointed it out to her, emphasizing that she must never, ever touch it. Of course Axa, who would never have noticed it otherwise, was unable to resist the temptation. The next day she excitedly came inside to show me the sad little green tomato in her hand. I put it on the counter to ripen, and it eventually turned red. But by the time we got around to cutting it into three little pieces to try, it had no more taste than a December hot house tomato. So I was discouraged, and since then we’ve moved so much we’ve never gotten even an attempt at a garden in. Maybe when spring rolls around, I’ll try again. I do have my little cyclamen.