By Angelina Williamson
There’s no such thing as a black or green thumb. I’ve never met a gardener who said “I have a green thumb”, because they know that success in gardening isn’t some magical ability one is either born with or not. It’s something you learn as you go along, and never stop learning. People who claim to have a “black thumb” are people who gave up too fast to experience the success they were hoping for or they really never cared that much about growing plants to begin with. They think that because they killed a few plants they lack the talent for growing things.
I have killed off thousands of plants in the eighteen years I’ve been a serious gardener. Certainly I killed more plants as a beginner than I do now, and yet at this very moment my garden is host to: a half dead mimulus, the blackened skeleton of a tulsi plant, a crispy brown hollyhock, a sickly Abraham Darby rose, and the ghosts of fifty other plants that didn’t make it through the wet spring. Losing plants is a normal part of gardening, it’s not evidence of a black thumb.
Have you tried growing plants but concluded that you just can’t do it? If you got discouraged but still really want to garden, I promise that you can succeed at gardening. You may need to shift how you think about it and approach it, but anyone who truly wants to garden can do it. I want to tell you the truth about gardening. I want to tell you what I’ve learned about growing that may encourage you not to give up yet.
Plants Are Living Beings
To succeed at gardening the most important thing to understand is that plants are living beings. They aren’t inanimate objects. Whether you believe they’re sentient or not isn’t important but you need to know that they have vascular systems, they breathe, they drink, and they eat much like you do. They respond to care similarly too. The more you pay attention to your plants’ needs, the more they’ll thrive. Plants need to become part of your regular routine. You’ve got to notice them in order to keep them alive.
All Gardeners Kill Plants
No matter how experienced you are at gardening there’s a part of you that will always be a novice because everything you learn opens the door to new things to learn. Every garden you work in has different conditions, from broad obvious conditions like light levels to all the things you can’t see like microbes specific to that patch of earth. This means that an experienced gardener can move to a new garden and find that things they used to grow with ease now give them exquisite trouble. This is normal. Learn your garden. Understand that every plant you lose can teach you more about what works and doesn’t work in your peculiar spot of soil. It’s not a pass/fail test. It’s about having the tenacity to keep trying, keep experimenting, and discover what plants thrive where you are, and which ones you have an affinity for. Just remember that you’re going to lose a hell of a lot of plants on your gardening journey.
Plant-Based Bête Noires
For every gardener I’ve ever met there are plants that simply won’t do well for them, regardless of how much special care they give them or how many different gardens they’ve tried to grow them in. Sometimes these are plants that are considered universally easy to grow. So don’t get hung up on what people say “everyone” can grow. You may meet your plant-based bête noire early on in your efforts or after you become very experienced, but at some point you’ll meet a plant you can’t grow that the books tell you is easy. This is normal and I’m not even envious of the very rare gardener this has never happened to.
My plant-based bête noires are basil and asparagus. Note that basil is considered one of the easiest unfussy herbs for beginners to grow. It’s okay, I don’t take it personally. I suspect there’s some understanding I’ve failed to reach with them.
Sometimes There’s Nothing You Could Have Done
Sometimes plants you buy were destined to die young long before you brought them home. This is a true story. You need to know this because sometimes a plant’s failure to thrive is already written in its cells. Plants get diseases and fungal infections just like people do. For a beginner it feels like personal failure. No matter how much you care for a plant it suddenly blackens, wilts, and dies and there was nothing you could have done about it. Some ways you can reduce the risk of this is to only buy plants, seeds, and bulbs from companies that are scrupulous about keeping their plant stock virus-free.
Sometimes it isn’t about viruses but about individual unexpected plant traits. Plants, like people, even when grown in the best and most even growing conditions, are all individuals and can respond out of character to the rest of its family. You can grow one hundred of the same cultivar of tomato that’s known to be vigorous, bushy, prolific, and delicious and some of those plants are going to grow up a little straggly and pale, or perhaps have more bitter tasting fruit, or die of bacterial wilt. Sometimes a plant’s individual wild traits will turn out to be a happy discovery like an uncharacteristically vigorous and delicious tomato. This is all just part of the adventure.
Growing a garden is about developing a relationship with an environment and all the life living in it. The better you communicate with it, and the more you listen to it, the better your results will be.