Black Thumb by
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Prompted By The Garden

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I have always loved gardens and flowers.  Looking at them, that is; I’m absolute rubbish at growing them, or just keeping them alive.  So not a green thumb, but a black thumb.  Hence the featured image.

In college, I was so bad about keeping plants alive (try as I might), my roommates presented me with a plastic philodendron in a pot, whom we named, of course, Phil. I proudly displayed Phil on my windowsill and my roomies were convinced that I would probably figure out some way to accidentally melt him down or at least tip him out the window. But, happily, Phil survived college and law school and, for a while, my various offices.

Sadly, I do not have a photo of Phil, but I did find that Wayfair is currently selling “faux” potted philodendron which (who?) closely resemble Phil:

In 1982, I took a new job and our offices were in a skyscraper on Park Avenue.  However, due to a space shortage at the time, I was temporarily assigned to an interior office — certainly not commensurate with my exalted status as a fairly senior attorney, harumph, harumph. So, in my passive-aggressive fashion, I took a photo from the window of an exterior office of one of my colleagues, complete with drapes and venetian blinds and with a view looking out towards the East River.  I then had the photo blown up to life size and mounted on poster board and I hung it behind me desk.  Then I placed a small table in front of it with Phil on it. In other words, I had a faux window letting in faux sunlight on my faux plant.  I felt pretty faux good!

Eventually, I got my exterior office and also, as I moved up the corporate food chain, had beautiful plants supplied to my office and tended to by actual plant specialists to ensure that the plants thrived or were quickly replaced if they didn’t.  So I finally retired Phil.

Knowing my shortcomings as a horticulturist, I have tried to limit my home gardening activities to watering.  One would think think that, given my anal tendencies, that would be a good thing; no plants would dry up on my watch.  But, as I have learned, too much of a good thing is a precept that applies to watering and that, too, can kill plants and flowers. So, again, even when limited to watering duty, I could be lethal.

In my prior life, I had — and my former wife still has — a lovely weekend/summer home in Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island.  (Right next to Teddy Roosevelt’s place, Sagamore Hill, if anyone cares to stalk.)  Surrounding the pool were planters made out of the bottom halves of old barrels filled with beautiful flowers (don’t even bother asking me the flowers’ names).  Here is another image courtesy of Wayfair to give you an idea:


Well, I watered  those flowers early and often, convinced that more was better, until they started to wither and die.  I was then basically made subject to a watering restraining order issued jointly by my wife and our landscape service so that the flowers could have a fighting chance. I just could never convince myself that they had had enough water, particularly during droughts.

Finally, at my wife’s urging, we had our lawn sprinkler service company modify the system so that all the flower barrels got sprayed by the sprinklers, rather than by moi, every other day for exactly forty five minutes, and that worked perfectly.  And, shortly after that, our marriage broke up.  I think I had been made redundant.  But I was at least relieved that, New York by then having become a no-fault divorce state, my overwatering activities did not have to be set forth as one of the complaining grounds in the court papers.

My current wife and I now live in a condominium complex, so there is virtually no need to test my watering skills, or restraints thereon, other than on the two planters on our front porch and a window box on our patio. As a recovering over-waterer, I think I am doing a good job, but every day it is a challenge not to just keep watering.  Here’s a picture of them still alive as of today (I haven’t watered them since, well, yesterday) :

However, temptation is still being thrown dangerously my way.  One of our neighbors has graciously set up a bench and two planters on the cul-de-sac that is closer to our place than hers.  In a pique of civic responsibility/insanity, I promised to water those as well and save her the trek.  So far, so good:


But I am acutely aware that over-watering on this community property could result in severe action against me by the condominium association, up to and including eviction.  So I am doing my best to exercise aquatic restraint.  And praying for an early frost.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    As a fellow black thumb and killer of house plants, I really enjoyed this, John. I too am an over-water, possibly because I forget to water and then overcompensate. In my house, it is survival of the fittest as far as plants go.

  2. Marian says:

    Count me in on the support group, John, as a black thumb all my life. I’ve managed to kill anything and everything. I guess we just don’t have that “feel” that all the green thumbs come by intuitively. Like you, I’d forget to water entirely and then overcompensate. We live in a separate house but our planned community takes care of our front and side space, thank goodness, so the trees and even flowers stay healthy. I enjoy looking at them from my living room window.

  3. Suzy says:

    I don’t think I’m a black thumb, I just don’t enjoy gardening. I was given an African violet by my first husband’s parents before we got married, and I tended it lovingly for years. I had a superstition that the marriage would last as long as the violet did. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because when the marriage was falling apart, I basically “forgot” to water it.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Add me to the Retro Black Thumb Club, John. I, too killed a philodendron in college (who knew we had so much in common), AND have been known to overwater my own house plants, which is why I switched to silk many years ago! For a while, we had our own service, even at home, but once she was cut, I killed them all (going away all summer didn’t help; my cleaning lady came every other week, so it was hopeless). We bought good-looking silk ones from the plant lady. No one knows but now I’ve shared my secret with you.

  5. I loved this, and every chuckle along the way…My grandmother had the most amazing green thumb, which definitely did not make its way to me via heredity. I love gardens, but they often suffer under my sporadic care. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. No green thumbs here either John, yet my house plants seem to survive from benign neglect.

    But on weekends in the country I battle weeds in a vegetable plot in our community garden. A fellow gardener put up a scorecard in his plot that read:
    MAN 0
    WEEDS 1,000

  7. Greetings from yet another relative on the Black Thumb family tree, John…who would have thought so many of us are related?!

  8. Wonderful story telling, John. I was on the edge of my seat, come divorce proceedings. Have you ever thought to seek help for this feti… ah, obsessi…for this inclination, John?

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