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There’s No Such Thing as a Black Thumb

How many times have you heard someone say, “I have a ‘black thumb.’ Every plant I try to grow dies.” Here’s a News Flash: gardening prowess is not an innate gift. Thumbs are thumbs.

There are no Big Secrets to avoiding the proverbial “black thumb.” But there are a few commonsensical things to remember.

1. Constancy counts.
Frequent visitations are important. And no, it’s not about talking to your plants. It’s about getting to know them, noticing how their leaves look just as they start to wilt, observing when they’re in rapid-growth mode and when they’re sliding into dormancy, keeping tabs on close neighbors that are overstepping their bounds. As you visit, you will find yourself tidying up—pulling a weed here, pinching a coleus there, examining odd-looking leaves for insects. Carry a tool with you and loosen the soil around your plants a bit. The solution to inconstancy is simple:

2. Prompt action makes the difference.
Would you let your pet go hungry? Of course you wouldn’t! But plants are silent in their pleas, making it easy to just walk right by pathetically wilting foliage. “Oh, someone else will water it,” you might think. Or, “It can wait until I get home from work.” The truth is, it can’t wait. Wilting is the plant’s way of holding on to a very limited supply of water, and not letting it escape into the air. Yes, watering the wilted plant will help it recover, but not completely. There will always be some degree of reduced function. This is true with any insult a plant suffers, be it from weather, insects, or an overzealous weedwacker. The lesson here is:

3. Recognize stress signals.
Some signs of distress are easy to misconstrue. Wilting, for example, is the plant’s response to both overwatering and underwatering. This stress signal occurs when plants are not getting sufficient water, which is most often a consequence of dry weather. But it can also happen when plants get so much water that their roots rot and are unable to function properly. This can be a problem with containers, but there’s an easy solution:

4. Do your groundwork.
If you’ve heard it once you’ve heard it a hundred times, “Start with the soil.” But how do you know what good soil looks like? In general, the darker the soil is, the more organic matter it contains. And this is what you want. It should also be loose, not sticky, and dry enough that it can be easily worked. Pick up a ball of earth and drop it from a height of 3 feet. If it breaks apart, it’s good to go. Dig your soil to a depth of at least 8 inches before planting flowers and vegetables. And stick with organic fertilizers if your plants need a boost. They are comparatively low in nutrient content, and less likely to cause damage to groundwater or plants.
If you are unsure of the quality of the soil there are two things you should do. 1) Find a source of compost and incorporate a one-inch layer into your garden bed. 2) Get a soil test kit from your Cooperative Extension office and test your soil.

5. Competition undermines your efforts.
Weeds compete with your plants for nutrients and water, and they often grow bigger faster than your garden plants. The cycle goes something like this: in late spring, your garden takes its time getting established. The soil is cold, your plants are small, and growth proceeds at a maddeningly sluggish rate. But as the soil warms and roots become established, plants (especially weeds) are able to capture more of the sun’s energy and their rate of growth speeds up dramatically. Turn your back, and they’re out of control! Check your garden after a rain, or after you irrigate. This is the easiest time to pull weeds, and it’s also when weeds germinate. Mulch of any kind—wood chips, straw, grass clippings, or even shredded paper—will prevent weeds from sprouting. But understand the one thing that every experienced gardener realizes: the “maintenance-free garden” is a myth. With mulch and discipline, however, you can thwart the competition without devoting your entire life to it.

6. Good tools make all the difference.
A particular tool that works for one set of conditions may not be right for another. In general, however, sturdy, high quality garden tools will make your work easier. Start with a spade, a shovel, a garden fork and a few hand tools—pruners, a weeding tool, and a trowel. No need to get fancy, and that goes for gloves too. Inexpensive nitrile gloves last and last and they’re light on the hands. A good garden hat will extend your time in the sun.

 Home Garden Seed Association (HGSA) | P.O. Box 93, Maxwell, CA 95955 | Phone (530) 438-2126 | Email Us