These Ink-Stained Thumbs

passing on the chocolate mint

by Christie Purifoy

I once read a book that turned my thumbs green.

It was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I’d never so much as planted a seed, but images of a walled garden, a swing draped in roses, and the buried treasure of flowering bulbs left me with green inky stains. I wanted a garden.

The heat, humidity, and mosquitos of my Texas childhood kept my interest in gardening almost completely book-bound. But I grew up. I moved north, and I began to dabble.

Potted herbs on the patio of our first home. I learned basil is never the same once it’s flowered.

Petunia-filled window boxes on the tiny porch of our Chicago condo. At dusk, petunias smell like paradise. Also, they wilt quickly beneath the soapy scum of a child’s enthusiastic bubble blowing.

Most ambitious of all, a community garden nestled between Lake Michigan and a water-treatment facility. With a small boy whose idea of gardening was toppling into the watering trough or bashing his head against the rocks lining a raised bed, it was always a fend-for-itself garden. I counted myself lucky if I could make pesto a few times over the summer.

I spent two years reading about gardens from a pool-side lounge chair after our move from Chicago to Florida. Actual gardening proved to be both overwhelming and disappointing (Florida weeds Never Stop Growing), but I would sit beneath my umbrella with one eye on my children and one on The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch.

I unpacked Big Garden Dreams along with the books about chickens, canning, and growing when we relocated to this old Pennsylvania farmhouse. But buried beneath the books and the packing paper was this fear: Was I a fraud? Could I call myself a gardener if most of my experience was gleaned between the covers of a book? Were my thumbs green, like I hoped, or merely ink-stained?

I think I’m not the only one to ask questions like these. We ask and we doubt, and then we leave the painting to the artists. The writing to the writers. The cooking to the chefs. We leave the gardening to the landscapers and the food-producing to the farmers (or, worse, the factories). Before we even understand what it is we have given away, we have handed all the healing to the doctors and every last line of poetry to the poets. We have given our lives away because we have a living to make.

But I want to live.

And living, I think, only happens when we are willing to fail. Willing to look foolish. Willing to do it all badly.

My Pennsylvania garden? It’s gorgeous and kind of a wreck. There’s a half-built fence, abundant weeds, and Swiss chard so overgrown it’s frightening. The climbing peas fought our silly string trellis and won, one pepper plant froze, but the kale looks and tastes like a state fair blue-ribbon-winner. We are eating heirloom lettuce salads for every lunch and every dinner, and I pulled my first golden beet the other day.

I will make no apologies for this garden. If I give you a tour, I won’t preface it by saying, “Well, I’m not a real gardener, you know …”

I’m grateful for the “real” gardeners. Grateful for the experts and their books (both for their knowledge and the vicarious experiences I craved when a real garden was beyond my reach). But expert perfection is not the only thing.

My garden is far from expert, far from perfect, but it is flourishing, which is a different unit of measurement entirely.

“Flourishing” is the best yardstick for a garden. It is also the right yardstick for a life.

Better than that, it is a blessing, and it is a prayer.

“The Lord remembers us and will bless us … small and great alike. May the Lord cause you to flourish, both you and your children. May you be blessed by the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to mankind.”

Psalm 115: 12-16

* Photo used with permission by Kelli Campbell, who can be found here:

Christie Purifoy is a wife and mother of four who lives in southeastern PA. A PhD in English lit., she recently traded the university classroom for an old farmhouse and a writing desk. She blogs



2 thoughts on “These Ink-Stained Thumbs

  1. i started my gardening endeavors by reading too. With a book on container gardening I bought at a yard sale because we lived in an apartment with a concrete yard as newlyweds. I evolved into giving my neighbors gardening advice. And I failed a lot in order to be able to give advice. And honestly, gardening helped me flourish during those exhausting toddler years. Nap time meant gardening for me. Love this. Enjoy the way you see life. I just watered the zinnias waiting to be put in the ground and then came in and immediately read this. Good timing.

  2. Oh, such good timing, Shelly! I just planted my zinnias yesterday. 🙂
    I think gardening will be my salvation this summer with all four kids at home.

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