There’s No Such Thing as a Black Thumb

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.

Angelinas-Garden

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.

Forget-me-nots

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.

Tomato

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.

tomatoes, growing tomatoes, tomato plants

Gateway to Gardening: Which Plant Got You Started?

By Catherine Winter

We all had one. You know what I’m talking about.

That first little plant that sparked a love of things that grow, and set you on your path to being a gardener, farmer, and/or homesteader. It could have happened when you were a child, or when you moved into your first apartment with a partner, or perhaps even after you retired. Maybe you adopted an unloved seedling from a garden centre and nursed it to verdant health, or someone gave you a plant as a housewarming present and they sparked a green fever that just keeps getting stronger.

Cherry-tomato-plant

For a lot of people, the one that got their green thumbs twitching was a tomato plant. There aren’t too many folks out there who don’t love tomatoes, and they’re as easy to cultivate in a container garden as in a standard grow bed. Cherry tomatoes are ideal as starter plants because they combine the ease of growing with the early gratification of jewel-sized tomatoes that you can pop in your mouth at least a month before larger varieties even begin to ripen.

In my case, it was a bean.

Miss Emmanuel’s first grade class, 1982. We had all been given a couple of beans to poke into our paper Dixie cups full of soil, and we lined those little cups along the sunny window ledge and made sure to water them any time the soil seemed a bit dry. Within no time at all, there was a little green seedling popping up through the earth, and I watched as every day, it unfurled a bit more until it was a merry little plant in its own right.

Bean-sprouting

Naturally, I hounded my parents to let me have a garden space so I could plant more (MOAR!!!), but the apartment landlords said no. I had to make do with a few containers of plants on our patio, but I’d caught the bug. We lived in that place until I was seven years old, and as soon as we moved into a house of our own, I was allowed to cultivate a little patch of earth in one corner of the backyard. Now I have a massive berry patch, hugelkultur piles, a dozen grow beds, bean and pea tipis, and a couple of hazelnut bushes. It just goes to show that a love like this can sprout (hurr, hurr) from very humble beginnings.

Which plant got you started as a gardener?

seed-sharing, seeds, seed bank, community seed bank, sharing seeds

New Year, New Opportunity to Create a Community Seed Bank

By Catherine Winter

The holidays are coming to an end soon, and those of us in the northern hemisphere now have a solid chunk of winter to slog through. This is the most frustrating time of year for most gardeners, as unless one lives in one of the warmer patches of North America or Europe (I’m looking at you, Texans and Spaniards), winter consists of snow, sleet, biting winds, and grey skies.

One saving grace about the winter months is that being forced to cocoon indoors allows us the opportunity to make plans for the coming growing season. It’s also a perfect opportunity to reconnect with friends… and if you put those two together, the conditions are ideal for creating a truly spectacular community seed bank.

A benefit to creating a seed bank in your own neighbourhood is that it’s more than likely that conditions will be quite constant in  your area: those who live near you will be contending with the same growing zone, rainfall, and similar soil conditions, as opposed to trading seeds with friends who live across the continent. This makes comparing growing notes much easier, and gives everyone a solid idea about what will or will not thrive in your area.

organic-seeds

How to Build Your Seed Bank

If you haven’t done so yet, request seed catalogues from a few organic/heirloom seed companies. Few things can brighten up a dismal winter day like flipping through a colourful booklet full of photos of all the vegetables and herbs that you can grow in a few short months. It’s important to use only organic seeds, as the plants that grow from them will be much more nourishing than those that are conventionally grown (i.e. genetically modified and pumped full of insecticides.) Your plants will be healthier, you’ll be healthier, and you’ll be able to save viable seeds from them for next year’s garden… and to share with your friends.

A few great companies to order from are the following:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Heritage Harvest Seeds

High Mowing Seeds

Salt Spring Seeds

Sustainable Seed Company

Then, you just need to gather some friends together for coffee or dinner, and discuss options.

One of the goals of community seed bank creation is that people can split the cost of organic packets and share the seeds around, instead of each individual making a huge investment. A typical seed packet contains between 30 and 300 seeds, depending on the plant to be cultivated, so a small group of people can grow a huge variety of different foods at very low cost. Let’s take a look at this breakdown as an example:

  • Friend 1: Three types of lettuce, and cucumbers ($10)
  • Friend 2: Kale, cabbage, carrots, and beets ($10)
  • Friend 3: Three varieties of tomatoes, and basil ($10)
  • Friend 4: Squash, pole beans, bush beans, thyme ($10)
  • Friend 5: Carrots, beets, oregano, leeks ($10)
  • Friend 6: Chard, onions, spinach, dill ($10)
  • Friend 7: Mesclun greens, assorted sweet peppers, peas, radishes ($10)
  • Friend 8: Melon, broccoli rabe, jalapeños, celeriac ($10)

That’s just a $10 investment per person, and if all the orders go in together, there will be just one small shipping fee. In turn, every person gets 32 edible plant varieties to cultivate. Isn’t that a much better investment than for each friend to pay $80 for the same number of plants, especially if they’d only use a fraction of the seeds in each packet that season?

Even if your group decides that they really only like the types of vegetables that can easily be turned into salads, there are dozens of tomato, lettuce, cucumber, and leafy green species to explore. If your group consists of tomato lovers, each of you could have over 20 different varieties growing in your yard for just a few dollars!

Sharing resources like this just makes sense on so many levels.

Related Post: Greens to Grow Indoors This Winter

friends-talking

Gathering the Community

This is also a great chance to branch out from your immediate friend/family circle and engage others in your community. The average person doesn’t know too many people in their neighbourhood aside from their immediate next-door neighbours, so putting up a notice on public boards (like in local shops or religious institutions) or even popping printed flyers into mailboxes is a good way to connect. You can create a Facebook group page, arrange meetings at your community centre, and cultivate great new relationships alongside flourishing gardens.

Multicultural neighbourhoods are also ideal for branching outside of regular comfort zones in terms of the vegetables and herbs that you might not be familiar with. When I was still living in Toronto, the neighbours around me were Chinese, Tibetan, Jamaican, Nigerian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, and Bolivian. By chatting with them and sharing items from one another’s gardens, I had the opportunity to try callaloo (amaranth leaves), bitter melon, tatsoi, and a huge variety of herbs that I had never tried before.

Community seed banks really are ideal ways to cultivate biodiversity, and help groups of people get a head start on food security for a very small investment. You might also find that you develop some wonderful friendships along the way too.

Photos via World Bank Photo Collection and Wikimedia commons.