Thirty one percent of all U.S. households, an estimated 36 million, participated in food gardening in 2008. Twenty one percent of food gardening households in 2009 are new to gardening. But I can’t help wondering why these numbers aren’t even higher.
I was at the grocery store a few days ago when the woman at the checkout started asking me some questions about gardening. The woman behind me overheard the conversation and commented that while her sister was a great gardener, she herself had a brown thumb.
Another time, the woman who delivers my mail told me her husband won’t let her garden because she once pulled out a young clematis vine, thinking it was a weed. And these encounters got me thinking about how, for too many aspiring gardeners, life in the backyard can be a string of disappointments - where gardens are places where plants go to wither, and working with shovels and hoes is more like digging grave s than growing plants.
I started gardening in 1965 in the coal-mining region of Clay County in eastern Kentucky, in a small village called Goosecreek. Neighbors Chrit and Mallie Gamble came over to my cabin with a mule, a plow, and an apron full of seeds. They helped me till the soil and plant the seeds. I never saw anyone in this poor but soil-rich hollow - or holler as they called it - that couldn’t grow vegetables. They were dependent on growing food and putting it by.
For the last 23 years, I’ve gardened at the Tommy Thompson Community Garden in the Intervale in Burlington where I’ve occasionally met folks who unwisely allowed the weeds to get the better of them early in the growing season or left town in the middle of the summer for a vacation.
But I’ve found that most new gardeners eventually get the hang of it. Of course, it helps if new gardeners ask questions and learn from their neighbors on subjects like which varieties to plant when and not to be afraid to pull out those unwelcome weeds. I’m sure there’s a degree of frustration at first, but after all, gardening is America’s favorite hobby.
On the other hand - and there’s always another hand – maybe some people simply do in fact have brown thumbs. And if that’s the case, perhaps it would be smart to practice a different kind of cultivation, by carefully tending friendships with people whose thumbs are a more reliable shade of green.