The Curse of the Black Thumb

Category: Daily Diary

Dear Diary,

I kill plants.

I don't mean to kill them.  You might say that I respect their independence a little too much.  And, due to my black thumb, I have sent many a plant to an early grave.

A friend of mine once said that, in order for a plant to survive in my living space, it would have to wrap its branches around my leg, slap me in the face with one of its leaves, and beg me to water it.

I fear that they were right.

I once killed a cactus that my gardener friend, Kurt, had given me.  A cactus.  Who KNEW a cactus needed water??!!  I mean, THEY LIVE IN THE DESERT!  Kurt was always hopeful.  Always ready to give me the benefit of the doubt.  The entire time he was dating my roommate, he always brought a new plant with him when he dropped by.

And I promptly killed it.  It was almost as if it became a ritual sacrifice of sorts.  A very bad sort.  He married my roommate because he told me he loved her.  I think he was also very worried about her since she was living with me, the woman who could actually kill a cactus.

So, with great fear and trepidation, I ventured out last week to a real live nursery here in Chicago to find something for the planters on our front steps.  I wanted a few things that would live well together, look pleasing and fit nicely into the planters.

The planters are on the east side of the house, so they get full sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon.  They are made of concrete and are somewhat shallow.  And I have vowed to reform my old habits and water them often.

Here is what I purchased, for better or worse:

I was really overwhelmed at the nursery.  It was a lovely day which meant EVERYONE was there shopping for plants and the staff was busy.  I was searching for container plants which looked good together AND which I thought I could keep alive AND which looked more like wildflowers than cultivated flowers AND which were appropriate for being in the sun/partial shade, etc. etc.

I brought them home and transplanted them. 


I was feeling rather proud of myself until I went to write up this blog entry and discovered that both Cosmos and Nierembergia prefer FULL SUN!  But in this environment, they will only get full sun in the morning hours.  And now I am full of stress and woe, sure that half of the plants here will die YET AGAIN!

Kurt, I don't want you to be disappointed with me.  I'm really, REALLY trying.  Honest.

Stay tuned.  Maybe I'll figure out how to keep these things alive yet.

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I am not very good at watering either - So when I did our front yard, I put in a watering system on a timer - they have miniscule hoses that you can run to water planters too! It might be worth a look. Now if I could only find an automatic weeder....

I'm not much of a plant killer, because I stick to pretty low care plants generally, but I will note that the only time I planted cosmos, it lasted less than a month for me, before I ripped it's brown stalks out and replaced them with wave petunias. That's a beautiful pot though and I wish you better success than I had with cosmos.

Try planting some herbs in with the flowers. Then you'll go out there to get basil or oregano (which you can't kill btw) and that will remind you to water -- at least that works for me.

dont worry about the cosmos, I planted some next to my house on the east side they got full morning sun and then shade from about 11:30 on. They were fine. Just remember on thing the plants need fertilizer so just put some plant food in the water every time you water.

You could get a time release granule-type flower fertilizer- that way you only have to apply it a few times during the season-rather than having to use Miracle Grow every week.

Cosmos re-seed themselves so maybe you'll get some next year but I would not expect the plants to come back if they are wintered outside in a container. The cold freezes plants in pots-just trying to alleviate any guilt.

If you bring pots inside many times they can survive winter but not always in my experience- plus you have to water them all winter!

I moved to Chicago five years ago (and I actually live near you I think!) and have had the worst time figuring out what kinds of plants survive in this region. Even the ever greens in my back yard died promptly when I moved in! I'm going to Gethsemane Nursery this weekend and when I saw what you bought, I promptly copied it into my shopping list thinking that I FINALLY had some plants that would survive the summer for me. It cracked me up to read about the full sun problem! If it's any comfort, you aren't the only one with a black thumb!

Outdoor containers in Chicago are going to be the most challenging thing to keep watered. The summer heat will bake them to dryness every few days -- so keep a close eye on them!

The plants you chose will definitely survive in partial shade (full sun is 6-8 hours of direct sunlight during peak hours), though they'll get a bit leggy and won't have as many flowers as those in full sun. So don't worry! The bacopa will love it there; it's a tough plant that does well in part shade and tolerates the stress of containers well. Likewise the verbena.

In the worst-case scenario, the more sun-loving plants will get too ugly by August. Then you do what all good gardeners do: take them out and replace them with something that will last through the fall. It's not a failing! Though it can be a bit difficult to find good plants in the fall.

The next time you plant the containers, I highly recommend an additive called SoilMoist. It's a polymer that swells to hold water, releasing it slowly into the soil. It's great for containers, but be sure to keep it well buried, or the cubes will swell out of the ground and look like lumps of gelatin. You could also try the version that's embedded in fabric. It looks a bit like a diaper, but it's shallow and thus good for shallow planters.


... And yet, you're named Violet!

If all else fails, you can always do the standard standby Impatiens for places like that. I've never actually seen anyone manage to kill an impatien as long as you remember to water it... just don't expect them to come back year after year.

If I remember correctly, there is a Chicagoland Gardening magazine that has specific articles about Things That Grow in Chicago. Of course, what would I know ... I now live in Texas...

There's also a great book called "Illinois Gardeners Guide". I think it's a great starter book for a new gardener and it has all the main good growers for our region.

What about a timer? Is there some sort of time you can purchase to remind you when to water. Otherwise, I agree with the herb planting idea. I prefer oregano myself.

here's a few pointers from the former ted bundy of the plant world---

1.purchase only from small, local nurseries. big chains put annuals outside too early in the season, which stunts their growth. they also sell plants that grab your attention but CAN'T GROW IN YOUR ZONE, which i think is downright diabolical, because you end up blaming yourself when they die within a month, when it was really the climate that killed them. home despot is notorious for this, but even larger local chains do it here in cincinnati.

2. do an internet search on needs and habits of a plant before purchasing. that way, you won't end up with a sun-lover next to a sun-hater. there's a recipe for plant disaster.

3. succulents rule! sedum, hens-and-chicks, burro's tails---if you have a sunny patch of yard, throw some rocks and succulent soil mix into a planter, and add some of these. if they are outside, they'll get enough rain to thrive. you will never have to water them. bring them into a cool basement or garage in the winter, and they'll go dormant till next summer. succulents restored my plant growing confidence, after years and years of killing everything i touched.

4. walk around the neighborhood and see what one or two plants are in everybody's yard. in our neighborhood, it's hostas and sedum (autumn joy, i think). 3 out of 4 yards within a 5 mile radius have hostas in the shade and sedum in the sun. so they must be really happy in our climate. so i plant them. they live and thrive with almost no maintenance. cool!


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