Root and Branch

Personal growth

Green fingers are not always innate, they can be acquired

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

No garden is looking its best at this time of year, but the other day, gazing out at a friend’s neglected backyard while sipping coffee in her kitchen, I couldn’t help myself. “You’ve got to do something about that!”

I wasn’t being as rude as it sounds. You see, my friend believes she’s a plant-slayer, a conviction that I’ve been trying to shake for as long as we’ve known one another — to no avail. She won’t even go near a pot plant, never mind a packet of seeds. “I just don’t have green fingers,” she’ll explain.

Despite its pagan ring, the expression “green-fingered” wasn’t coined until the twentieth century. While Chaucer’s miller had a “thombe of gold”, the earliest OED citation of fingers being green dates from Mary Stuart Boyd’s 1906 novel The Misses Make-Believe, which references “what old wives call ‘green fingers’: those magic digits that appear to ensure the growth of everything they plant.” It was popularised by Britain’s first celebrity gardener, C. H. Middleton, in his long-running 1930s radio show, In Your Garden, but its origins are less clear.

I’m convinced we can all acquire digits that are at least green tinged

Theories are plentiful. There’s a likely apocryphal tale about pea-loving King Edward I rewarding the servant who shelled the most, and therefore had the greenest fingers; there’s the fact that chlorophyll, the green pigment that plants contain, will stain your hands; there’s the notion that if you’re constantly picking up earthenware flower pots, the algae that grows on them will rub off on your hands. Regardless of the phrase’s provenance, there’s nothing quite like it for crushing green dreams.

My grandmother always seemed to be green-fingered, and my mother most certainly is, but me? Let’s just say it’s something I’m working towards, because while it’s indisputable that some people do have a magical-seeming aptitude when it comes to nurturing plants, I’m convinced we can all acquire digits that are at least green-tinged.

As Russell Page, the great twentieth-century British landscape gardener, wrote in The Education of a Gardener: “‘Green fingers’ are a fact, and a mystery only to the unpractised. But green fingers are the extensions of a verdant heart.”

Growing up around gardeners helps. There’s nothing like watching a parent or grandparent root around in the soil for demystifying the process, even as it sows seeds of wonderment. Most important of all, perhaps, is a willingness to keep ears and eyes open and to learn from experience — and that includes failure. Crooked parsnips? You need to lighten the soil. Tomatoes refusing to fruit? Feed them up with a fertiliser that’s high in potassium or potash.

None of us would expect to stroll on to a tennis court for the first time and hit the ball like a pro, yet when it comes to gardening, the idea of green-fingeredness — with its implication that some have heaven-gifted abilities to coax life, beauty and sustenance from bare earth — makes failure born of simple inexperience read like a neon sign to quit.

Don’t let being inexperienced put you off. Just remember, another word for that is green

Why do we persist in using it? After all, it downplays the hard work that goes into making any garden bloom. Maybe we feel we need to strengthen our hand when up against “acts of God” like late frosts, gales and droughts. Is there an element of obfuscation, too — a reluctance to share lessons learnt the hard way?

Or is it, on the contrary, a handy defence for those who are plain gardening-averse, afraid of rolling up their sleeves and digging into what Americans (who incidentally have not green fingers but green thumbs) persist in calling “dirt”?

It seems telling that the phrase only materialised in the twentieth century. Up until then, most countryfolk at least relied on home-grown fruit and veg to supplement meagre diets. Not being “green-fingered” was a luxury few could afford.

We’re nearing that time of year when, though the garden is still deep in slumber, we collectively yearn for fresh starts. If you’re thinking that your way of turning over a new leaf for 2022 might be to foster new shoots, whether on the windowsill (you can sow now for early crops like lettuce and cauliflowers) or in the garden (think of planting a fruit tree or shrub until the earth warms a little), don’t let being inexperienced put you off. Just remember, another word for that is green.

As for my friend, I’m going to post her a packet of cress seeds. Who among us didn’t successfully sow those in childhood, blissfully unaware of the phrase “green-fingered”?

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