True story: The fellow who invented Velcro got his idea from a cocklebur. No kidding!! From this simple observation came an idea that revolutionized the textile industry. Would that I had a nickel for every time I pulled a cocklebur from some unfortunate dog’s hair while the ungrateful beast whined and struggled against me. I never gave it a second thought but now I wonder what brilliant idea may come from observing a horse crippler, devil’s claw,……..perhaps tumbleweed?? Hmmmm…………
I have been known to say, “What separates the Green Thumb from the Brown Thumb is mainly observation.” The Green Thumb observes his plants and therefore learns to respond while the Brown Thumb seeks some one-size-fits-all set of easy instructions then accepts failure. Green Thumb people experience plant death all the time. Really!! Just ask any you know. Difference is, the Green Thumb will learn from his failure instead of consigning himself to living life among the Brown Thumbs.
Each year my wife Nila and I train new employees. One of the first things we show them is what a wilted plant looks like. Regardless of how bright these folks may be we have to make certain they know. Evergreens are a little trickier. Many will show just a slight discoloration or sometimes browning on the tips of needles or leaves. By the time these guys show obvious wilting it may already be too late. Using a finger as a “moisture meter” is also one of the first things we teach new employees. “When in doubt, water it,” is something we never say. When it gets down to it, no schedule or automatic system can beat a heads up employee with a set of eyeballs.
The observant gardener quickly finds that too much or too little water produces similar symptoms as does various attacks from certain insects and disease. If a plant wilts even though water has been given then the gardener is prompted to look deeper to discern the cause. Too much water can kill just as certainly as too little. Root rots are typically lethal, having no cure that we know of other than allowing the plant to dry and perhaps doing some judicious pruning. The lesson learned is one of prevention. Knowing what not to do has great value.
Gardeners are trained to react through well meaning books, magazine articles, seminars, TV programs, and radio shows. If we spot an insect, leaf spotting, or any foreign growth we are taught to run out to the garden center to find a cure. We also are taught to assume these things may cause our plants to die. In reality, the truly knowledgeable nursery professional will often as not recommend a change in watering habits or some other cultural technique rather than applying a spray or powder. Most of us have finally begun to understand disease or insect infestation as a symptom of poor health in general. Therefore we now seek to treat the cause rather than the symptoms. That cause comes of the general heading of stress. Stress can come from many variables including poor soil, but the weather you’ve had lately ranks high among the usual culprits. The observant gardener learns to be proactive rather than reactive as they learn to preempt seasonal changes with good cultural habits like applying compost followed by a nice layer of mulch before hot dry weather (or cold dry weather) sets in.
Sooner or later, the observant gardener will learn to simply let Nature run her course. Some of the most important lessons are learned by observing rather than reacting. Here is a personal example I like to relate. One spring many years ago I had stepped out the front door of the nursery to bask in the warm sun when I noticed our Red Cascade rose was heavily infested with aphids. The leaves were wet and shiny with aphid honeydew. My immediate thought was to go back inside and mix a soap spray or some other oily concoction to smother them. Then I thought about this being a perfect opportunity to observe. On the other hand, this rose is very visible to the general public and I certainly did not want it to look bad. That would set a poor example for sure. So even though I was apprehensive I held off with treatment. Sure enough, within a week I noticed a few adult ladybugs working the plant. They obviously laid eggs and soon their larvae were gobbling aphids by the thousands. Within two weeks the rose had recovered fully and it looked as if nothing had ever happened. What I learned was that if I could overcome my training to react and just observe, Mother Nature may show me a better way. Now I am appreciative of all the time and money I have saved over the years by not spraying.
Roses also taught me a valuable lesson concerning disease. That same Red Cascade and my other antique roses will show some black spot (diplocarpon rosea) during periods of high humidity. I have never treated for black spot because I had learned long ago that the disease will run its course when drier weather sets in. In my part of Texas, dry weather is usually not too far away, Houston is a different story. Furthermore I have observed that the plant will shed infected leaves whether they are treated or not. This holds true of al fungal leaf diseases. Once a leaf has been compromised, it will never become viable again. The plant simply sheds the damaged leaf and grows a new one.
A couple of years ago I had a situation where an overzealous employee sprayed our entire container grown roses because they had become infected with black spot. Despite the good intent of the employee, the spray (Neem oil, I believe) was mixed a bit too strong or was applied when the air temperature was too warm. As a result, the oil smothered all of the leaves causing complete defoliation of the roses. It took the better part of a month for them to regenerate new leaves and we lost sales. Here is a good example where the cure was actually worse than the disease.
An observant gardener can learn many lessons in Nature by making comparisons. Even though plants and people are vastly different in physiology we can draw some basic correlations. For instance, if we spend enough time outdoors we will be attacked by various insects. Although a source of discomfort, these are considered more a nuisance rather than life threatening. We also survive many episodes of disease in our lifetime. Once again, most are not life threatening and we generally get well without having to resort to any kind of treatment. From this one can easily surmise that the same must be true in the plant kingdom. Most insect and disease attacks are not fatal. Nature provides the means for plants to continue to thrive in spite of these setbacks. The reality of this should cause us all to be more concerned with healthy soil and healthy plants instead of seeking to treat disease or kill insects.
Any time we take a plant out of its natural habitat we are placing it in a stressful situation. Any time we attempt to grow a plant well beyond its normal range we can expect stress at times. Any time we breed a plant back into itself, for whatever reason, we run the risk of losing valuable genetic traits which, in turn, makes the plant more susceptible to stress.
It is no wonder that vegetable gardeners have to constantly battle the local climate, insects, and disease. All of the plants we are using are hybrids and none are actually native to our local environment. Only by using open pollinated varieties and saving seed year after year can we finally fine tune our vegetables to our particular soils and climate. Fact is, very few gardeners do this anymore but it is likely that your grandparents did.
The challenge for the gardener is to understand the needs of the plant then try to create the right environment for that plant. Nature created plants for all situations from cool and wet to hot and dry. Sure, those violets will suffer against a west wall in full sun, but they may thrive under that tree or around on the north side of the house. If you don’t have a clue and can’t find a good source of reference then plant some in different locations and observe for yourself.
If your thumb is not as green as you would like then perhaps you just need to spend more time in the garden. Most of us don’t spend enough time outdoors anyway. It has been proven time and again that gardening is a great stress reliever. Nature will reveal her many secrets to you in a personal way that will have much greater meaning than any information you may gather from other sources. All you must do is find the time, be observant, and Nature will show you the rest.