The one-touch gardener: One touch and everthing dies

Kevin Cowherd

May 01, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

WITH THE SUN shining brightly and my wife asking pointedly how long I planned to remain on the couch, I took an inspection tour around our house the other day.

What I saw was disturbing indeed, as these hurried notes jotted on a paper napkin indicate:

Rhododendron near tool shed -- dead.

Azalea bush in side bed -- very dead.

Ornamental pear tree -- dead.

Holly bush in back yard -- dying.

Rose bush in back yard -- dead.

Perhaps you see the common theme running through a good deal of my landscaping, which is the unfortunate absence of life.

As you can imagine, it was many minutes after the tour before I could still the pounding in my head enough to lie on the couch again.

But it also confirmed what has long been suspected by family members and friends alike: No matter what I plant, it begins to wither and die within days.

In fact, there is strong evidence to support the theory that if I merely brush against a tree, plant or flower, it's doomed.

Oh, the tree, plant or flower may appear to thrive for a few weeks, but that is only nature's way of camouflaging massive internal damage and a root system that is reeling from shock.

Sure enough, before you know it, what was once a green, leafy, vibrant example of God's handiwork is now a yellow, dried-out husk to be tossed in the next day's trash with the coffee grinds.

This whole disheartening legacy of plant death dates back to the summer of my sophomore year in college, which I spent working in a nursery.

After answering a "Help Wanted" ad in the newspaper, I mentioned to the owner of the nursery that -- you talk about understatement -- I didn't have much of a green thumb.

"Nonsense," he said. " Anyone can get the hang of nursery work."

So the poor fool hired me on. Within weeks, of course, three-quarters of the nursery grounds had turned an alarming shade of brown, as one tree or plant after another dried up, keeled over and died.

The greenhouse was equally moribund. The orchids, gardenias, geraniums, etc. that I had lovingly tended (and no doubt under-fed and over-watered) were now sickly and drooping.

Finally the owner of the nursery came to his senses and summoned me to his office, asking that I not touch any plants on the way.

"I think it would be best if you leave," he said quietly. "You're ruining my business. And my life, for that matter."

"I understand," I said. "You've been very patient."

"I'm going to count to three," he said.

"Beg your pardon, Your Worship," I said. "But there's the matter of a paycheck."

"I'm calling the police," he said.

"Tell you what," I said, "that paycheck's a little gift from me to you."

The absence of a green thumb didn't hurt me in the years immediately after college, as I lived in a series of apartments surrounded by derelicts who would have used any plants (hanging or otherwise) for target practice with their .38s.

When your neighbor stumbles in at 4 a.m. shrieking about a bad acid trip and leeches sucking out his eyeballs, it's a safe bet he won't be up watering the marigolds at 9 the next morning.

It was only after I got married and bought a house that this planting impairment interfered with my life.

In those early years of our marriage, my wife would often grab the car keys and sing out: "Hey, let's go to the nursery and pick out a nice plant!"

"Sure, whatever," I'd say in a nonchalant voice.

Meanwhile, of course, my heart would be pounding and I'd white-knuckle my way to the nursery while saying a silent prayer: "Please, dear God. Don't let me kill again."

Of course, whatever we brought home and I planted died shortly thereafter. Arborvitae, plum trees, yews, gardenias, it didn't matter. The minute we loaded them into the car, they were all doomed.

Which is what will no doubt happen in this latest case. Sure, I could get off the couch and replace that dead rhododendron. And the dead azalea bush. And the dead ornamental pear tree and dying holly bush and the rest.

But what's the use? Why not just blacktop the whole thing, put up a basketball court and be done with it?

I suppose that would be too easy.

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