2009-05-21 / Sam Bari

The Society of the Brown Thumb

You can't beat a system you can't understand
By Sam Bari

I have long suspected that people fall into two categories: those who can make plants grow and those who cannot. Those who are successful gardeners, farmers, and the like, are known to have "green thumbs."

If ever there were such an organization as the "Society of the Brown Thumb," which would be formed for those who are plant growth challenged, I would certainly be a charter member. One would think that if I had any brains, I would just accept my limitations and mooch my veggies from my friends who are successful green thumbers, or, just go to the local grocer or farmer's market and buy what I need.

But no, my lack of ability to make things grow has bothered me for years, and I was determined to overcome this shortcoming. I was convinced that the green thumb people harbored secrets that they were hesitant to share, and if I could gain access to the closely guarded information, I, too, could partake in the joys of gardening.

My esteemed colleague and fellow columnist, Donna Drago, who has a very green thumb, recently wrote a column that confirmed my suspicions about the mysticism involved in successful gardening. She said that in some weird place in the U.K. farmers take off their pants and sit on the soil to determine whether the ground is warm enough to plant. If their bare bottoms are comfortable, then the barley should be comfortable, too. At least that's the theory.

I have no idea if that method works, but even if it does, I don't think barley will be my first growing experiment, if those are the requirements.

Donna also said that old English peasants believed that planting an elderberry in your garden and standing under it at midnight on Midsummer's Eve would allow you to see the King of the Elves and all his train go by. I think she forgot to add that drinking the fermented juice of said elderberry is required to experience the full effect of the myth.

I admit to seeing the King of the Elves on occasion, but I assure you, standing under an elderberry in a garden at midnight was not the reason for my vision. Nonetheless, I took Donna's information seriously and made a mental note to try some of the magical mystical methodology.

While making a pot of chili, I was thinking about planting something that did not require a great deal of skill, when it dawned on me that the seeds from the hot little habanero peppers I was chopping might be good for my first growing experiment.

Before doing anything, I decided to consult the Grand Poohbah, the agricultural guru himself, our esteemed gardening columnist, Roger Marshall, who has the greenest of green thumbs. Roger was helpful well beyond the call of duty and gave me step-by-step instructions on what to do to successfully grow my habaneros.

One of the things he said was to plant a number of seeds, because probably not all of them would grow. Taking his instructions to heart, I took the seeds from half a dozen peppers and planted them all, just in case.

I purchased good potting soil, added the recommended nutrients, positioned them so they would get a good dose of morning sun — the works! I waited for a few days and nothing seemed to be happening. "Patience," Roger said. "Habeneros are slow growers, they'll be here soon enough."

Patience is not one of my virtues, so I decided to do some research and found an interesting method that allegedly assists in plant growth. Apparently, plants respond to music. The article advised playing music in the room where the plants are and they will respond accordingly. The trick is to find the right music.

I thought about it, and it seemed logical to play some salsa music for hot habanero peppers. How could they resist? I tried it for a few days and nothing happened. Hmmm . . . maybe something more gentle and soothing will make the baby peppers sprout, I thought.

I tried playing a Mozart string quartet to see if that was more to their liking. And sure enough, two days later, little green sprouts started popping up. Within a week, a whole bunch of green sprouts filled the pots. It seems that all the seeds I planted, or at least a large majority, had sprouted. I had apparently taken Roger's advice a bit too seriously.

So I separated the little plants and transferred them to larger pots and to the garden, and I played Mozart for them every day. After a month or so, flowers bloomed and the bees did their trick, and little peppers soon started to form. At this point I thought a little change in the music might be beneficial, so I tried some ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin.

The plants started to wilt, so I thought it was the music and I changed back to Mozart. I also consulted Roger. He said I was watering them too much. Nonetheless, when I changed the music back to Mozart, they flourished.

At the height of the season, I had more than 200 ultra-hot habanero peppers. I knew that's all it took was to find the secret. The secret to successful gardening is the right music, and I found it. Mozart is the key. I couldn't wait to tell Donna and Roger. They just stared at me, speechless. I guess they were impressed with my success.

The only drawback is, now whenever I hear Mozart, I have a craving for Mexican food. Playing Mozart to make plants grow is just another part of living in a system we can't understand.

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