Ron Krupp: Brown thumbs

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ron Krupp, who is the author of “The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening.” It originally aired on Vermont Public Radio.

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 graves 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.

I’ve found that most new gardeners eventually get the hang of it.


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 greenish hue.

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  • I have found a great way to garden. I start plants, from seed, inside. No weeding, on my worn out knees, involved. Transplanting the young plants can be done from a near-vertical position and weeding done with a long-handled hoe. I plant, mostly, vine-type vegetables: pumpkins, squash, zucchini (guess they are all squash, no?), which have broad-leafed vines that shade-out the weeds. I, actu’lly, make pies from the zucchini! Super!

  • Annette Smith

    And then there are the creatures that eat the garden, which can be discouraging. This year all my peas have vanished. Oh well, the brassicas are still there. I have learned to appreciate what grows and not dwell on the failures. This attitude is inspired by the book “The Natural Way of Farming” by Masanobu Fukuoka. What do you know, someone posted it online

    When I started my farm I took a whole lot of seeds of various types to see what would grow. Turnips. I improved the soil, but the garden has not been as good since the mule died. Cow and poultry manure do not make up for whatever magic is in horse/mule manure.

    • Strange critter abound. Had some bugs in my beets. The ate one row of tops and didn’t touch the other. Deer and tomatoes don’t mix. They will rip off a tomato, bite into it, and spit it out. In CA, we sold our chicken manure to the Salinas Valley lettuce growers. They drove a long way north to get it. I like rotted cow manure (for the garden, that is).