When I was young, I worked for my brother-in-law one Summer digging ditches. Bill was a plumbing contractor and—like most, if not all, construction men I’ve met—Bill had a well-muscled physique to go along with his macho attitude. He could do one-armed push-ups and pull-ups easier than most of us can do with both arms—and with someone helping. I often wondered back then why nature gave some men an abundance of brawn but left the rest of us lacking. Of course. I know now that nature gives us little or nothing, and that such things as muscles, brains, a law degree, or a beautiful garden must be earned and not wished for.
I spent a week digging trenches at a new construction site and then helped Bill to lay some heavy pipe. Once that was done, we moved to another job. Several weeks later, we returned to the original site to finish, and there, standing out against the blue Pacific backdrop, was a two-story Victorian house under construction—not complete by any means—but with the framing almost done.
I approached one of the carpenters and commented, “Wow, how easy carpentry must be for you and your crew, to frame a two-story house so quickly—and to get paid so much, to boot.” The man’s eyes flashed with anger. He stood there, dirty and sweating, and glared at me. I knew I had said something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what. Then, seeing how young and naïve I was, the carpenter broke into a broad smile and laughed heartily.
“It’s because we have golden hammers,” he said. He reached into his tool belt, pulled out his hammer, and flipped it high into the air. I watched as it turned end-over-end. It wasn’t golden, but the way the early morning sun hit it, I thought that it might be. He caught the hammer deftly on its way down, twirled it, and stuck it back in his belt.
“What’s a golden hammer?”
“It’s something they give you when you first start working as a carpenter. You just put it in your hand, and it does all the work for you. You just have to hold it. There’s nothing to being a carpenter when you’ve got a golden hammer,” he said, patting his. Then he laughed some more and walked away.
The other construction men looked at me and grinned. Obviously I was the butt of some joke—but what? Years later, while working my way through college helping Bill, I discovered that carpenters, as well as other construction workers and tradesmen, put in lengthy apprenticeships. They work hard at their trades and put in many hours off the job studying to become journeymen.
Many of them never make the grade, for construction is grueling work. But most of them do, mastering their trade and, like carpenters who had earned their “Golden Hammer” status, make carpentry work seem easy.
Many years later, I look back on that episode and laugh at my naïve younger self. Many people view another person’s occupation with similar ignorance. “Boy, that guy’s job has got to be easier than the one I’ve got!” they think.
Indeed, for years now, it’s been happening to me! People—friends, family, neighbors, perfect strangers—stop by my house or my nursery and comment how nice it must be to have a “Green Thumb.” I obviously don’t have to put forth much effort to have such a well-manicured yard. How fun it must be to operate a nursery where I only have to water and everything grows so nice. I look at such people—and there are lots of them—and hold up my hand and wiggle my thumb in front of my face.
“Yeah,” I say, gazing at my thumb. “It seems I was born with it. It makes gardening so easy.” Then I’ll smile and walk away. Inside though—after all the years—any reference to such a mystical digit still raises the hair on the back of my neck, much as it must have done to that carpenter so many years ago. I want to scream, “There is no such thing as a Green Thumb! Any more than there is a Golden Hammer or a Silver Wrench—or a Magic Spoon that mixes your cake batter perfectly every time without any effort on your part. Wishful thinking hasn’t grown a prize rose yet, any more than it’s built a beautiful house.”
But for all of you who desire a beautiful yard or a great garden and have been afraid to attempt one—or have been unsuccessful in your efforts—there is hope. Unlike becoming a doctor or a carpenter or a lawyer, almost anyone can become a “journeyman gardener” without having to spend a lot of years in school or as an apprentice. All it takes is hard work and a willingness to learn about what you want.
In my opinion, a good gardener can be likened to being a good parent. Nobody is born knowing how to be a good parent. People learn to raise their children by seeking advice from friends and relatives, by reading books and newspapers, by watching videos and parenting shows, and by going to seminars, churches, and schools. Part of being a good parent also entails knowing when your child is seriously sick, and it’s time to go see a doctor.
To be a good gardener, you must do the same. Read books, watch shows, join a garden club, seek advice from your nursery professional or your local agriculturist, pathologist, or farm advisor, not to mention family and friends who are successful gardeners. Such people are usually more than happy to share their knowledge and experience with you, to help you with your gardening challenges and to help you earn your own Green Thumb.
I live in the Oregon foothills in the small town of Port Orford, about a half-mile inland from the Pacific Ocean. Here in Oregon, we have water problems to deal with. Most of the soil in our hills is rocky or sandy … or both. Then there’s all the critters: gophers, moles, deer, birds—even your neighbor’s stray cow—not to mention those voracious grasshoppers and beetles that seem to appear out of nowhere. It’s enough to make people want to cry. Still, there are beautiful yards and gardens here: it can be done.
There are plenty of solutions: drip systems, traps, baits and organic sprays, and soil amendments. What you have to do is take the time to learn how to deal with your plants’ needs and problems—and then put in the work necessary to help them.
Remember: every person with a green thumb used to have a regular flesh-colored one just like you. Until they worked—hard—to change it. ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #137.