The Last Laugh: I Don't Have a Green Thumb

Some people have a green thumb and find comfort in gardening, while others have a pink thumb and find aggravation.

| December/January 1994

  • 147 have a green thumb
    Even people who have a green thumb probably couldn't get away with pouring boiling water on yellow jackets.
  • have a green thumb - william chapin
    For the author, gardens were fairly dangerous places.

  • 147 have a green thumb
  • have a green thumb - william chapin

I don't have a green thumb. My mother had a green thumb. My sister has one (an English variant, since she lives near the Forest of Dean) and my wife does too. I do not envy these dear people, nor do I denigrate them. They do their thing, I do mine. I have a pink thumb, now somewhat gnarled. When I was a kid, I used it for hitching rides and shooting Smokies. When I used it for gardening, it was usually under duress.

I was born in Vermont, but my first five years—1918 to 1923—were spent in a meager sugar plantation town called Reserve, on the east bank of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. My most vivid memories of Reserve are of snake-infested swamps and sugar fields and mud boards that were supposed to be sidewalks. My closest pal was a sturdy boy named Eldon Theard. He lived down the street—if you could call it a street. Almost every day he came over to my house and we played in the yard. The yard had a rather scruffy garden maintained by my mother, who majored in botany at the University of Vermont and tried to apply her vast knowledge to rural Louisiana. She was an intellectual green thumber.

In a far corner of the garden was a sandbox. Eldon and I messed around in that box for hours. Late one morning, we had a fierce fight. I can't recall why—maybe I threw more than the acceptable amount of sand in his face. At any rate, he chased me into the garden and bit me in the stomach. It requires firm resolve and agility for a four-year-old to bite another four-year-old in the stomach, but he managed. Drew blood. Then he chased me up to the house where I slammed the backdoor in his face. He was fast, too.

It was scary, believe me. Ever since, I have thought of gardens—those benign oases for most people—as fairly dangerous places. Places where you go to get bitten in the stomach.

When I was five, my father quit his job. My father never got fired; he just got fed up and quit. So we headed north in a Hupmobile, north to Bushwillie, Vermont, a lovely 200-acre farm six miles from Rutland. It was at Bushwillie that my thumb was truly tried and found wanting.

My mother had a sizable vegetable garden, which was across the road, not far from a big red barn. By the time I was eight, it was my job to weed it. Forced labor. I got paid five cents an hour, which was a good wage in those days. And there was plenty to weed: potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, string beans, peas, squash, the usual. My mother loved the corn, especially the golden bantam corn. In the summertime I made about 75 cents a week weeding those plants, and I know that I did not weed them well.

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