Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Green Thumb vs Black Thumb

A friend of mine bought a house, just like me,  this past winter and has been equally possessed with the gardening bug.  There is nothing like a new house with a neglected yard/garden/patio to bring out the mad nursery maven in us all.   Her yard is huge (she doesn't live downtown),  and it is about 50% sun, 50% shade, just like mine.  Now, after several strong months of gardening time there is one major difference.   My garden is growing and her's isn't.  At all.  I don't know what she's doing over there, but I'm scared to bring her the huge pot of nasturtiums I grew for her that is now blooming.   
Nasturtiums on Death Row
Now, I am very very happy my garden is blooming but, same as her garden,  I don't know what I'm doing so right that every single thing has pretty much made it.  Even the seeds.  Okay, not the lily bulbs but truly, I had no control over that.  That was the 3:1 squirrel to plant ratio.

Maybe its that I grew up basically in a massive garden and know a lot about various plants from osmosis, and she grew up in the middle of Okinawa?

Maybe its that I don't travel for a job and have been here each and every day to make sure everybody out there is safe 'n sound?

Is it that I'm addicted to gardening magazines?  Reading gardening blogs?   Am I just lucking out? (please don't let it be this because massive die off when the luck runs out would be the end of me). Does she have some invincible invisible pest problem?   Its those Japanese seed packets right... they fail to grow on foreign soil?  But from what I can tell Japanese tomato seeds sure do look a lot like the ones here, they just have prettier calligraphied names.

Or are you really born with either black or green thumbs? And what does that mean exactly?  How does one help another one overcome blackthumbotosis? How do you keep from catching it?!


  1. Hi Jess, Nasturtiums are unkillable, right? Maybe with that success your friend will pick up the knack. So much of it is just paying attention to what's happening - she's lucky to have a concerned mentor to take her from black to green:) Cyndy

  2. Well, fortunately, I don't believe that blackthumbotosis is contagious. However, I DO believe that greenthumbotosis IS! There could be many problems at the root of the issue. It could be as simple as irrigation issues, or soil problems. Perhaps a soil test via her Agricultural Extension agent will shed some light? Is her house newly constructed per chance? Our last house was fresh out of the box, and the builders had left all sorts of cement byproducts and lime just under the surface of the soil. Piles of gravel, broken up concrete...you get the idea. It took a removing umpteen wheelbarrows of rubble, a hefty rototiller, 11 yards of compost, and good year before anything would grow. I suggest donning a Sherlock cap, grabbing a magnifying glass, and doing a little sleuthing! I'm sure you can help turn her black thumbs green :) As for the nasturtium, if it stays in the pot, I expect it will be fine...

  3. Hi, Jess ~ I was laughing at your photo ... death row. Cyndy and Curbstone Valley gave good advice! It is probably a combination of a lot of issues. Being aware and watchful of what is going on is a major role in gardening...:)

  4. I think Curbstone might be right. Another thing contractors do is strip the building area of any decent soil, sell it, and replace it with junk!

    Give her rhubarb. It's nearly unstoppable.

  5. You have some wise comments ahead of mine, Jess, but I'll add my voice of encouragement. I do believe we can all grow great gardens, but they don't happen overnight. Living near you will be good for your friend as a voice of encouragement. Hopefully she will get a soil test, and that will give some indication of what's going on. I suspect it's a bad case of soil infertility. Or who KNOWS what was put on the soil by previous owners/tenants. Maybe encourage her to focus on annuals for the time being until you get to the bottom of the mystery. I am sure it will be solved soon.

  6. I am sure you're a great gardener - no doubt! Not luck always - yes, it plays a considerable role in every gardener's life - even the experts!
    May be your friend should check the soil, look out for pests, or you might want to help her start? It'd be a fun project if you have the time.

  7. Dear Jess, Although your friend professes to be a gardener like you, I do wonder if she is really as dedicated and prepared to put in the time, thought, effort and hard work which you so obviously do. This is not meant at all to be disparaging of what she does, it is simply that we all see and do things very differently and to a greater or lesser degree.

    If she is in fact doing as much, and more, in her garden than you are doing, then probably she needs to take note of all the very wise and sensible suggestions made above.

  8. I have black thumbs; thousands of them.

    Tell her that's the way things are. Plants are vicious bastards and will take every opportunity to rob you of your dignity. Just tell her to get drunk and exact revenge on the dying plants.

  9. Now I'm concerned about what might happen to your friendship if you give her the nasturtium and she kills it. Maybe get her a bunch of flowers instead!

  10. Maybe she's what I used to be. The person that always messed with the young plants/seeds during germination to see what's going on, rather than being patient and just let them do what they are going to do. Just this weekend I caught my husband (also a relatively new gardener) trying to dig up our squash seeds so he could see if they germinated yet. I used to do that and guess what? I had horrible luck growing stuff. Or it could be things that Curbstone mentioned too.

  11. I think there is no such thing as a black thumb. Either you take the time to learn to garden or you don't. I think it's more of lazy thumb or not lazy thumb, in the garden.

  12. One of my friends recently went to the garden center I go to all the time, and promptly walked back out again without one single plant. She was so overwhelmed, and so unconfident about her plant-growing abilities, she just gave up. Her husband was with her when she told me this, and he turned to me and said "She kills everything." LOL Is your friend choosing things that aren't suited to the growing conditions of her yard? I think it's all about research and following directions. Sure, stuff will not work out sometimes, but mostly they will. Just like cooking. People tell me they can't cook, but then I see them not reading the recipe thoroughly. lol

  13. I think that there are a lot of non-obvious things about gardening that _become_ so obvious as the gardener gets some experience, that they don't always get passed on. It's sort of like a cookbook that tells the cook to dice an onion - what's the cook supposed to do if they don't know what dicing is?

    My favorite book for explaining these things in excruciating detail is Square Foot Gardening - even if a person doesn't like the square foot layout, and even if they're not growing vegetables, it tells you one method of doing things in very, very precise detail. You can always change the method, but it's nice to know all the details of a method that worked for somebody, as a starting point.

  14. Hey, Jess. I think the green thumb reflect your passion. Plants are like people and animals...they know if you really care or not. If you sort of care, they show it. If you care only to compete with the neighbors, they show it. If you love them sincerely, they show it. It's the nature of the beast. It can't be helped.

  15. GA - I'm thinking so. I'm hoping so. I just started another 2 pots as just in case nasturtiums.

    CSV, Jodi and Sylvana - You know, our Charleston plant show is coming up and I'm going to convince her to bring in her sample: they are doing them there on site. Now I'm the one with 50% concrete soil, and I have spent hundreds of hours amending it. Her house is a midcentury modern (very cool, with a spectacular back deck), so not new, but I'm wondering if still it might more hidden soil issues. And I know it doesn't drain like mine does.

    Amy - I'm hoping its something simple, like overwatering (I could see that from her) or planted in the wrong place. I'm going to see next week, when my garden warming gift will have to go with me. I've been explaining to them all day about accepting fate.

    Slyvana - good suggestion on the rhubarb. I'm thinking I'm going to bring her a small selection of plants that are unkillable so she doesn't give up!

  16. Hi Jess, I love Michael Pollan's analysis of the green thumb in Second Nature. Essentially, he says that a "green thumb" comes from having learned to think about the situation from the point of view of the plant and considering what the plant needs to thrive. Some people may have picked up some of this learning by osmosis in childhood, but the rest of us can learn it. When I think about some of my early garden efforts, which involved digging a hole in whatever dirt happened to be there and plopping a plant into it, I'm amazed that anything survived! -Jean

  17. Having a great garden takes patience, especially when you've got a large space and are starting from scratch. Hopefully, your friend will not become too overwhelmed by the challenges. You should advise her to focus on 1 area at a time, and to not bite off more than she can chew.

    Btw, I was born in Charleston because my dad was military, but they left when I was a baby. I really enjoyed spending Easter Weekend in Charleston, and the gardens were lovely.

  18. Gippy - Eh, we'll be fine. Fortunately the grow back quickly :) I am going to tell her to keep it out of the ground though!

    Chandramouli - I am tempted to go over there with a couple of bags of compost and see if I can 'fix it'. Which isn't exactly really going to help the problem!

    Kyna - I do think there is something to that - following directions is one thing I am really good at, almost to the point of overdoing it.

    Crystal - I have wondered that, if she's just got so much: I had to start small, because I have to end small. And even that said, I still have alot of empty dirty!

    Kimberly - I hope thats true! Thanks for the compliment!

    CF- I have heard of that book but I haven't looked through it yet. When I go over there next week, if I really suspect its methodological vs something like poison soil, I'll mention the book.

    Jean - I often wonder if I get lucky because somewhere in there, I sort of just know stuff, having just grown up that way. Its like reading music... I sometimes forget that some people can't read sheetmusic! I don't remember learning it, but I certainly can read it just fine!

    GG - We'll I'll just take that as a compliment! I have done a ton of work. I am almost addicted to 'working' in my garden.. like I can't just sit out there and enjoy it anymore. I have to go to someone elses garden for that!

    Rachel - lol. That wouldn't even occur to me that she would do that. Thats kinda funny.

    IG - are things improving over there? I think its just time with you, because you definitely seem dedicated to growing something!

    Edith - If that is the case I hope that she can figure this out and maybe scale things down a bit so she will be successful.

    Its crazy everyone, and truly its like art, there are so many components that make the whole its hard to explain exactly why it works or it doesn't.