Turning Black Thumbs Green
Many people have told me that they can’t grow plants, saying, “I have a black thumb.” These folks may think that the ability to grow plants is sort of like singing: you can either do it or not, but I don’t agree. I’ve always thought that the capacity to garden is rather like cooking. If you start simply, and pay attention, you may not become Julia Childs, but you can create tasty meals.
To test my theory, I decided to poll gardening experts from all over the country. My premise was that those who help others garden well, despite diverse challenges and a variety of growing conditions, are best able to pinpoint what can make a black thumb green.
One of the first to reply to my query on a garden writer’s listserv was Ellen Zachos, who blogs at www.gardenbytes.com. Ellen began by disputing that there are people who can’t garden. “There’s no such thing as a black thumb,” she said. “If you can bake a cake or assemble a bookcase, you can grow a plant.” Ellen, who gardens in New York City and Pennsylvania, says that she’s living proof of her statement. “I thought I had a black thumb till I was 30,” she admits, and yet now she not only grows a wide variety of plants, but has written several books on the subject.
Others who responded to my request wrote that people should start small. Choose one houseplant, for example, and start with something easy to grow such as a snake plant (Sanseveria trifasciata), spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), or dracaena (Dracaena marginata). These may not have showy flowers, but they are drought tolerant and will tolerate even a north-facing exposure.
Sandie Parrott, who can be found at www.SandieParrott.com, recommends beginning with a tiny area outdoors as well. “Start with a very small garden and located where the yard needs it most,” she writes. “Look around your neighborhood for plants that work and look good. Wait a year to see how this garden bed performs before going on to the next area. If the first bed doesn’t work out perfectly, and nothing in gardening is perfect, ask for suggestions from quality nurseries and change the plants that didn’t work.”
Other garden writers also wrote about taking it slowly. Duane Campbell, who gardens in Pennsylvania, said, “Start with small steps. Don’t put in a forty-foot border. Do a five-foot plot, do it right, and add on next year.”
New gardeners may not realize that a large garden isn’t just a matter of preparing the soil and putting the plants into the ground. Gardens have to be maintained on an ongoing basis, and here too is a place where black thumbs can go wrong. Many think that tasks such as weeding, pruning or transplanting have to be done all at once, and the enormity of the project is so overwhelming that they are likely to do nothing at all. Garden maintenance can be done a small bit at a time. “Don’t head out on Saturday morning to weed the whole garden,” Duane advises, “but do a few feet each evening instead.”
If an inexperienced gardener starts small, Betty Earl agrees, then keeping the garden up won’t be so daunting. “Cultivate only what you can comfortably handle,” this Illinois gardener wrote. “The
bloom comes off the rose when you’re married to maintenance!”
Even when a garden is kept to a manageable size, it’s important to use plants that will thrive in that location. Ellen Spector Platt, the author of Lavender: How to Grow & Use the Fragrant Herb, says that a green thumb largely depends on this simple rule. “Right plant for the right place is lesson one, two, three and four,” she says. “Plants that like sun are for a sunny spot, ones that like shade for a shady spot. Dry loving plants for dry spot and wet plants for wet spot.”
Ellen admits that she’s tried to flout the right-plant-for-the-right-place rule and learned the hard way that it doesn’t work. “I was stubborn enough to try and plant a Japanese painted fern that I needed flanking two sides of a driveway,” she confessed. “They flourished on the damp, shady side, of course died on the dry, sunny side. I actually replanted twice before the lesson sunk in through my dense skull.”
Several garden writers listed watering as the place where many black thumbs go wrong, and I tend to agree. Lorraine Ballato, author of Successful Self-Watering Containers: Converting Your Favorite Container to a Self-Waterer, puts it this way, “The one thing I think that most ‘black thumbs’ have in common is poor watering habits.” Some people who can’t grow plants water too much, and others too little.
In general, most plants need to go a bit dry and then get thoroughly watered. A deep soaking less often is better than a little every day. Carlo A. Balistrieri, a garden writer and Executive Director at The Gardens at Turtle Point, put it very succinctly. “Water only when your plants need it,” he stressed, “and do not overwater…that’s the surest way to kill a plant.”
Kathy Jantz, editor of Washington Gardener Magazine, gave a helpful tip for those who are unsure if their plants really need watering or not. “Pick up the plant to see if it needs watering,” she wrote. “If the pot is very heavy, leave it alone. If feeling light, it needs a good thorough drink. For outdoor plants, do this daily. For indoor plants, do this twice a week at least. Make it part of your routine.”
“My suggestion,” wrote Mary-Kate Mackey, “would be titled Thanks for Noticin’. Most black thumbs don’t notice the signs of plant stress until it’s too late.”
Mary-Kate, who writes for the Diggin’ it blog on the Christian Science Monitor website, suggests that people, “Become a ‘plant whisperer’ and learn the subtle signals of plant communication, from changes in the angle of leaves to foliage color shifts.”
Yvonne Cunnington, who writes at www.flower-gardening-made-easy.com, agrees that developing the habit of awareness is helpful. “I think the main reason people might feel they have black thumbs is that they don’t pay attention to what’s happening in their garden,” Yvonne says. “By paying attention weekly, you’ll discover problems before they get out of control and turn into overwhelming chores.”
Noticing that there are a few weeds, and removing them before they go to seed, can prevent the garden from being overrun with weeds later on, for example. And if you examine plants regularly you’ll see insect populations, or the beginnings of disease, and can treat these problems before they become full blown infestations.
Several of my listserv correspondents wanted me to remind people that even when your thumbs are green, plants will die. But Pat Muntz, a freelance writer, said it well in a very short email: “Don’t give up!”
Finally, Kate Bryant, who blogs at http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/blogs/plantwise, spoke about the rewards of going beyond the essential garden advice. “As with poetry and music,” Kate says, “gardening works best when you understand the basic principles. But the magic happens when you start playing around.”
An extended version of this article first appeared in Prime Time Magazine.