#32 Who Says I Don't Have a Green Thumb (A memoir in three parts)

Who Says I Don’t Have a G.pdf


#32 Who Says I Don't Have a Green Thumb

(A memoir in three parts)


Jacob Schlitt


"My wife Fran takes great pride in her plant management."












# 32 Who Says I Don’t Have a Green Thumb
(A memoir in three parts)

1. My wife Fran takes great pride in her plant management. I like the image of "plant management." It sounds like she is in charge of a factory, and there are fewer and fewer factories left in America. But I am really talking about potted plants, and we have lots and lots of potted plants.

For the past three years we have been living at Brook House, a condominium in Brookline, and we have a porch. I sometimes call it a balcony, and sometimes a veranda. It overlooks Pond Avenue, and I fantasize standing at the edge of the porch (or balcony, or veranda) and haranguing the multitudes below, like Mussolini, or the Pope. It is unlikely that this will ever happen because Fran has been filling the porch (or balcony, or veranda) with plants and flowers. Fran buys them at Stop and Shop, but her favorite source is Allandale Farms, the last remaining farm in Brookline.

And after the plants are lovingly placed on the various stands on the porch, she then proceeds to take care of them. They receive plant food, are regularly examined for bugs and whatever diseases plants are heir to, and then what really drives me crazy: Fran takes each plant into the kitchen, places each plant in the sink, and waters each plant so that the excess water runs into the sink drain. And of course, when this is being done, the sink can not be used. But the plants have been properly watered. (My suggestion that she take a watering can and bring the water to the plants instead of the other way around, is studiously ignored.) Yet despite all this loving attention, some of the plants get sick, and when this happens, Fran says she is not running a hospital, and the poor plant is discarded. And I am shocked, because she not only throws out the plant, she throws out the earth and the pot the plant was in. Despite my past success with plants, I am neither involved nor consulted.

2. Which brings me to my childhood experience as an apartment gardener. It was the spring of 1938 and I was in fifth grade. Our teacher announced that a new, exciting program was being started: The New York City public schools were going to sell packets of flower and vegetable seeds to the students. They were being packaged and made available to the schools by the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. The cost of the packets of seeds was one and two cents. For less than a dime, I became a fire escape farmer.

I carefully read the handout about the seeds, and thought long and hard about the seeds I was about to buy. I bought marigolds and asters and morning glories. They would produce pretty yellow, orange and blue flowers. And I also bought kidney beans which were easy to grow, and amazingly, became string beans. Now that I had the seeds, I needed something to put them in. That something was a cheese box. Over a two or three week period, I would go to the two grocery stores in my neighborhood—Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Held—and ask them for the wooden cheese boxes which were about a foot long and about four or five inches wide and deep. Whenever I got a cheese box or two, I would go to the empty lots near the East River and fill the cheese boxes with soil, which we called dirt or earth. I also filled a shopping bag with additional earth. My mother let me use an old spoon to dig out the earth. I knew nothing about its quality, and certainly nothing about fertilizing and composting. But if grass and weeds and wildflowers could grow in it, my seeds should be able to grow in it too.

I read the directions on the packets: when to plant, how deep to plant the seeds, how far apart to place them. I watered them regularly and they got lots of sun on our fire escape. We lived on the sixth floor and had a southern exposure. When the morning glories began to appear, I strung cord from the box to the top railing of the fire escape, and the vines miraculously wrapped themselves around the cord. All summer long we were greeted with beautiful blue morning glories. It really was glorious. In fact, all the flowers I planted, bloomed, and we even harvested a handful of string beans which my mother cooked and which we ate with relish. And when the fall came and the flowers faded and died, I realized I had more marigold seeds than I knew what to do with.

The following spring, I bought different seeds, including zinnias, and planted them along with my marigold seeds. I now had my boxes and my soil, and was an old hand. My fire escape gardening continued through junior high school. I never had a bad crop.

3. During the summer of 1941, I moved into the "big time." Our junior high school had started a "Victory Garden" and on the strength of my success as a fire escape farmer, I felt confident enough to volunteer as a Victory Gardener when school ended. What we did was to plant and to tend a pretty big vegetable garden. My guess is that it was about 20 feet by 100 feet and it was surrounded by a locked fence. I remember lots of rows of vegetables. The one vegetable that stands out is one that I had never heard of: kol rabi. We also planted the usual root vegetables like carrots and beets, and salad stuff like lettuce and tomatoes and peppers.

It was a lot of work. First the planting, and then the weeding and watering. I remember a lot of raking and hoeing. And I remember that at the end of the summer, when we picked the vegetables, we divided them among ourselves. It didn't go to the soldiers in the army or to the wounded in the hospitals. We kept the food we grew, and my mother cooked the kol rabi which she had never seen before. A friend explained that the reason the government wanted people to grow their own food was because lots of farmers were being drafted into the army or were working in defense plants, so we were filling in for them.

At the end of the summer, there was a Victory Garden Fair somewhere in Manhattan, sponsored by the N.Y. Herald Tribune and the Board of Education. The teacher who was in charge of our garden, selected the best vegetables that we had grown and entered it. We didn't win any prizes but we all received certificates. The New York school system was great about awarding certificates. I must have received a half dozen at least: for service, for attendance, for penmanship and even for scholarship, and now, in 1941, I won one for patriotically working in the JHS 52 Victory Garden.

October 3, 2006

Original Format




Jacob Schlitt, “#32 Who Says I Don't Have a Green Thumb
(A memoir in three parts),” Autobiographical stories & other writing by Jacob Schlitt, accessed July 14, 2024, https://tsirlson.omeka.net/items/show/38.