Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Myth of the "Green Thumb"

I get so frustrated when I talk to people about plants and they tell me they "Can't grow anything", or they "Don't have a green thumb". No such thing as a 'green thumb', the best ones are permanently stained, rough and calloused. If I get a further chance to talk to those people, I tell them they they have to kill things to learn how to grow them - and believe me I have killed off just about every living plant variety I've ever grown in some way or another.

People expect plants to be at their best at all times - well, people aren't, so why should the plants be? Often in a commercial greenhouse you don't see the back room or the dump pile where all the sick and dead bodies go. Most commercial growers worth their salt will realize when a plant is 'beyond the pale' and give it the heave-ho. Most "gardeners" I know will nurse along sickly things in their garden, hoping for them to burst forth with life and bloom again. I remember Dad - the gardener I modeled myself on - would babysit small sticks of shrubs hoping for a renewal. Sometimes it worked, most of the time the shrubs would just peter out and die for one reason or another.

Sickly plants attract insects, in general, healthy plants don't. It just seems to be the way of nature to put the limping plants out of their misery. So the key to a green thumb is to get plants that are healthy and growing well in the first place, not the cast offs at the end of the season. Unless you have a specific reason for populating your yard with the cheap, cast-offs, I'd recommend getting the good stuff.

However to have a green thumb - one must know what the "good stuff" is. Sometimes commercial growers - I've found, especially of perennials - will 'push' plants real hard to put on lots of foliage and bloom. What you wind up with is a babied plant in a different mix from your soil that will go home with you, suffer less than consummate care from you and collapse in your garden. Good, green-thumbed gardeners know that one should buy perennials when they are green as they will multiply much more rapidly in the garden. When perennials are in bloom and bud, they are thinking about making flowers and seeds and not very interested in making a home anywhere other than the rich potting mix that they've been in.

Water can be the key to a green thumb. Figure out whether you are a generous waterer or a spare waterer before you invest in houseplants. You can select a peace lily if you tend to drown things or a mother in law's tongue if you forget for weeks. In turn, a greenthumber knows his or her soil type and knows if it is heavy and wet or dry and sandy and ideally selects plants that are adapted to that particular soil. I once offed an entire small orchard by planting trees low in a heavy clay soil. Every one of them sat too wet and died. Lost all my money - they wouldn't be replaced because I had made the mistake and they didn't die until a year later. I have planted many orchard trees since - some flourished, some didn't. Have one spot in my yard I tried for years to get a plum tree to take...never did, so I gave up on a plum for that area and cut the other pollinator plum down as it wasn't bearing any fruit. I also just sacrificed a pretty apricot that had been with me maybe 15 years - no fruit, it doesn't earn a space in my garden.

Right Plant, Right Place is often the key to a green-thumb. In the garden, select plants that are adapted there. Just because rhododrendrons are beautiful in New England, doesn't mean they'll grow well at your humble estate. Even if the climate seems right - we go back to soil - is it a high pH or a low pH? You really need to know this stuff to become a green-thumber.

There's lots you need to know to help plants grow and thrive. Much of it, I think, used to be intuitive and we learned it at our mother or father's knee. Now as people become so removed from the natural landscape, they frustrate so easily if they kill a couple of plants. Green-thumbers always learn from their mistakes. I killed an orchid so quickly in the house I am in right now, I am leery of growing orchids. My brother seems to have a natural affinity for the couple of orchids he cares for and, without much input from him, bloom readily year after year. His orchids could be cleaner, free of debris, and fertilized, but he waves me off as I tend to the other houseplants. He will pass by a drooped out peace lily without batting an eye or picking up a watering can - but he seems to have a knack for them and has learned about the few plants he does grow.

So the next time you see me and if you tell me you"don't have a green thumb"...I will tell you to go out and kill some plants, then learn from your mistakes. If you are too lazy to do that - well - that's just it isn't it?Some people have no interest in the critters that make it possible for humans to be on this planet. So for those of you in the various stages of a black or brown thumb - go pick up a new plant and observe it carefully, "google" it even, and you'll increase your knowledge and range of those plants you have a "green thumb" for.
 *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
Joining Tootsie Time for her "Fertilizer Friday" roundup - check out her group of garden bloggers from around the world.

1 comment:

  1. IMHO, Decorators buy plants in full bloom and bud. Gardeners buy little green things with potential.

    The brownest thumb may hit on something for which they have an affinity: my late sister-in-law could grow African Violets, nothing else.


Thank you for your comments. I always appreciate feedback from other gardeners and bloggers.