Joan Leotta

One late spring afternoon, I walked out into my grandmother’s backyard with her. She was carrying a just plucked twig from the maple tree down the street. Her large expanse of green lawn in the backyard was a favorite place for all of the grandchildren to play. As she pushed the sample tick into the ground, she told me “I think you and the others need a shade tree, Joanie. A place where you can picnic even in the hottest sun.”

Forty years later my cousins and I were allowed to visit the house, long since sold out of the family, and there, in the yard, was the tree that had grown up from her stick. (see photo). We three grown women posed for a photo in its shade.

Grandma’s garden magic was not restricted to growing trees from sticks. Every herb she planted, every tomato plant, her small peach tree, and  even the mulberry tree (whose fruit she consigned to her friends  the birds)—all of these flourished as a testament to what others called her “green thumb.”  My mother, her  eldest daughter did not like “playing in the dirt”, but she was a fan of roses, and coaxed amazing blooms from her bushes, covering the cut-back branches with glass bottles to coddle the bushes through Pittsburgh’s long, harsh winters. She had to admit that she “had a way with roses.”

My father also had gardening success in his blood. His specialty was tomatoes.

 tomatoes that were sweeter and bigger than any I have ever tasted since he died. However, whatever I helped him with likely succeeded more from my father’s care, than my abilities.

Still, I allowed that shared success to nurture the belief that I had simply not yet grown into my green thumb, something that I was sure I must have inherited from my Grandma, along with her dark hair and love of travel.

As a young married woman in Virginia. I carefully staked out an area in out postage stamp townhouse yard for three beefsteak tomato plants. The hapless trio struggled through early summer, barely holding on until July when we took a two-week vacation. At that time, my neighbor, Gayle, took over the watering and care of these potential edibles.

When we returned, she presented us with a basket of fruit. Our plants were full of green balls promising more delicious specimens, which, of course, I shared with Gayle. My husband posited that perhaps the one with the green thumb was Gayle, not me.

I resisted that idea. At our new house the following year, a  beefsteak beauty under my  care , only my care, produced only one edible tomato (squirrels ate the other two that managed to pop out.) My husband proposed that I quit gardening. He told me, “Under your care, tomatoes cost us ten dollars each.”

I soon became a regular at the farmer’s market in Burke Virginia. One of my joys here, in Calabash, is the presence of multiple farm markets and an herb farm, where I can stock up on fresh tomatoes, herbs, and other veggies as I please without growing them myself.

Yes, I’ve finally come to terms with my lack of a green thumb.  My cousin Diane’s flowers and herbs attest to the fact that she did  inherit grandma’s skill with growing things.

So, you won’t see me with packets of seeds and tiny plants anytime soon, but I’m no longer blue over my lack of ability with plants. I patronize several nearby farmer markets on a regular basis. Neighbors offer me the largesse of their fig trees (in season) and herb gardens. My thumb might not be green, but my market basket is full. I’ve come to realize my ability to grow things is on paper only—I grow poems instead of plants. My thumb, stained with ink, is blue instead of green.


Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in many journals including HobocampFourth RiverThe Ekphrastic ReviewSilver Birch, and others. Her essays have been in Ovunque SiamoThe Italian-AmericanEastern Iowa Review, Sasee, and others. Her articles and short stories are also widely published. On stage she performs personal and folk tales (often Italian tales) of food , family, and strong women.