Publications (Paul's Blog)

August 12, 2009

PRIMER FOR THE BROWN THUMB

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 6:27 pm

A person doesn’t have to be in the gardening business very long before they come to the realization that most people really don’t understand nature very well. Truth is that really good gardeners comprise but a small percentage of a growing population of folks who spend most of their time indoors where the climate is always comfortable and the real world is only encountered as they pass from buildings to vehicles. The weather is only considered to be pleasant on those rare perfect days and more likely a subject much complained. about. All insects are considered pests. Likewise any wild critter unfortunate enough to wander into the city limits. This type of attitude assumes that we should be able to control the outdoor environment just as handily as we control the indoors. No wonder the subject of gardening is so popular. Most people fail on their first attempt.

The brown thumb gardener desperately needs help as they face the bewildering challenges ahead of them. Plant choices, soil improvement, watering, insects, diseases, and so much advice and information on the subject that a person can’t even begin to assimilate it all. The task seems so awesome and confusing that many simply consign themselves to be a brown thumb for life.
Those of us who enjoy gardening have the duty of sharing our knowledge and experience. Most of us readily remember the friend or family member who helped us unlock the door to successful gardening. When our turn comes to be mentors ourselves we must remember to cover the basics. Here are a few reminders that are often taken for granted but need to be understood by beginners.

1. Nature is in control. The second you step out the door you must realize that nature is in control. Although we can do such things as soil improvement and supplemental irrigation to help out, the most critical factor concerning gardening is your local climate. The plants that are easily grown in Houston may not work in Amarillo (and vice versa). The most common failure among brown thumbs is they attempt to grow something “from back home” or because “it looks so beautiful” or “it smells so good” or “the tag said zone7,” ect. Unless plants are native or well adapted to the climate, sooner or later they will fail. Study your local environment and follow nature’s lead.

2.Success begins with soil. Often we see beginners who have chosen perfectly good plants for their climate but they die anyway because they paid no attention to the soil. Whatever topsoil may have existed before our houses get built is usually scraped away by graders and bulldozers. All that is left behind now is subsoil. Subsoil’s can grow plants but it can take many years for a nice layer of topsoil to redevelop. The first step is to assess the soil you have and take the necessary steps to improve it. Many homeowners get excited when they envision their new landscape and spend their allotted budget on plants and other accoutrements to visually enhance their home. Soil improvement comes as an afterthought. Why? It is an added expense that involves not only time and money, but also labor. Secondly it is simply not stressed enough in magazine articles, catalogues, TV commercials, gardening shows, plant tags, and most places that people receive information on gardening. When was the last time you actually saw a new homeowner spreading a thick layer of compost BEFORE they put in lawn grass or planted the first tree? A soil test is relatively inexpensive compared to replacing plants.
Soil is full of life that sustains itself by recycling dead plants and animal wastes which in turn feeds the living plants that feed everything else on the planet and that control erosion, give us shade, shelter, medicine, clean air, and beauty to boot. Healthy soil is essential to sustain life.

3.Compost is the miracle. Every advertisement concerning fertilizers or any product made to enhance plant growth should begin with “Afterflowerbed you’ve added generous amounts of compost you may want to try this product.” Unfortunately you almost never hear that, in fact, without this key ingredient all the other soil amendments and fertilizers don’t work so well. Here again, your brown thumb will plant in unimproved soil then fall victim to ads that promise “miracles” to revitalize the unhealthy plants. Sure you can grow a plant in nothing more that a pot full of gravel given enough water and fertilizer but how expensive and labor intensive is that? Compost is simply decayed (or decaying) organic matter. Compost contains all the essential elements from the once living materials that it is composed of. Therefore, compost contains ALL nutrients and minerals needed for plant growth. Soils rich in organic matter that are resupplied with fresh material each year should not require any other input. That’s right……no fertilizer……ever! Unless of course you just want to grow champion roses, huge tomatoes, or the greenest lawn imaginable.
Compost feeds all types of plants and improves all soils. Compost corrects everything from poor drainage to disease to toxic soils. Truly a miracle AND (this is the best part) it’s very inexpensive. Bagged compost usually sells for about half of what you will pay for a bag of fertilizer or peat moss. Compost can also be bought in bulk for even less or you can make it yourself for free.

4.Water as needed. This is one of the basics that is hardest to teach. What people want is a simple watering schedule. Actually there is no such thing. Water is necessary only when local rainfall is inadequate. Many of us have our first experience at growing plants with houseplants which do require routine watering because it (usually) does not rain inside the house. We tend to retain this knowledge and want to apply it to the outdoor realm when we buy our first home. It would be nice if one could say, “Water x times per week,” but alas, there are just too many variables. Soil types, temperature, humidity, wind speed, exposure, plant types, and recent rainfall all play a role. Here again you should select outdoor plants that are native or well adapted to your local area. These plants should be capable of surviving on your local rainfall and thriving with a little supplemental water during dry times. Using Amarillo and Houston as our example again it is easy to determine that a yearly rainfall total of 20″ would be considered a terrible drought in Houston but a good year for Amarillo. Plant accordingly.
Another common assumption made by the brown thumb is that plants grow faster if watered frequently. This is only true of certain plants that grow in and around water. For dry country or upland plants, too much water is certain death. The biggest difference between a brown thumb and a green thumb is simply the ability to be observant and use common sense. Plants will wilt, discolor, and/or show brown on the ends of leaves when they begin to dry out. They will show a diligent gardener when to water.

5.Beware of the “block expert” There’s one of these in every neighborhood. Bad advice, no matter how well intentioned it may be, is still bad advice. On the other hand, the “block expert” may be a valuable source of information and plant material. The best way to discern this is to consider the source. What kind of horticulture background does this person have? How does their landscape look? More importantly, are you willing to put in the same investment in time and money as they have to achieve that look?
One thing is certain, your local nursery professionals and your county extension agents will usually be better informed than the “block expert.” It is their job to stay on the cutting edge of the industry. So be sure to thank your friend or neighbor for being concerned with your landscape but check their advice with local professionals. It’s always wise to get a second opinion.

6.Death happens. For many of us, it was that houseplant given by that friend to cheer up our first apartment. Or perhaps, that worthy attempt at vegetable gardening planted too early (or too late). Or maybe is was that tiny cutting of your Grandma’s favorite plant she gave you to remind you of home. We got busy and forgot to water, we put it in a spot that had no light, we left it out in a freeze, and it died. Then we decide after having this experience that we are just no good with plants. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the basic nature of all gardeners to experiment with plants. This is part of the fun of gardening. Experiments often fail but through failure knowledge is gained that can eventually lead to success. The trick is in understanding this and not becoming discouraged. As stated in the beginning of this article, most first attempts do fail.

So don’t beat yourself up on account of a few dead plants. Learn from it and realize that even the best gardeners lose plants. They just have a better understanding of why they failed. Study nature and your climate. Sooner or later, your brown thumb will turn green and likely you will one day find yourself helping someone else discover the joy of gardening.

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