The lone voice of horticultural reason

The Myth Of The Green Thumb

8-12-1999 — Quite often I am asked for advice on gardening matters, typically from friends, neighbors, acquaintances, or utter strangers who walk past my front yard gardens while I’m puttering and muttering nearby. (If you have ever been one of the latter, please note: little pleases me more than talking about gardening to strangers who happen by.)

Sometimes, those who have questions born of frustration will either begin or end the conversation by ruefully admitting that they “just don’t have a green thumb.”

Nonsense. None of us do. When it comes to growing plants, there are no inherent talents, no divine gift, possessed by a single soul whose garden you have ever admired, either in the flesh or via pictures in a magazine. Balancing a checkbook-there’s a skill you’re born with. Grasping geometry in junior high, improvising blues on the harmonica, knowing how to properly load a dishwasher, these are talents you either got or you ain’t. But making plants grow? We all start off as equals.

Now I can already hear a few of you disagreeing with me, your case in point being your mother or neighbor or church friend who plops anything into the ground anywhere and it blooms, madly, straight through to Christmas. Sorry to blow their cover, but there are always a number of essential factors at work in these situations, none of which are even remotely related to the hue of their opposable digit. They either spent a lot of time creating good garden soil while you were on vacation, or, completely unbeknownst to them, purchased property old enough that the builder hadn’t scraped all the topsoil off and sold it to landscape supply yards before digging the first foundation. In the latter case, they were also lucky that the soil left in place was deep enough, rich enough and drained adequately enough to encourage vigorous plant growth. One of my pet peeves is that good gardening soil doesn’t add to a home’s resale value.

Additionally, all alleged “born” gardeners, myself included, possess little more than the ability to read a plastic plant tag and discern that the small full-circle embossed thereon means the plant needs full sun, and from there have guessed correctly that a little circle filled in half with black means the plant will take a bit of shade. Most certainly of all, anyone accused of having a green thumb has read a book or two on gardening, and a few articles in gardening magazines, though like all good gardeners, will never admit it.

Let’s take a look at how green my thumb has been of late. I finally got around to purchasing five big, robust Lamium galeobdolon ‘Hermann’s Pride’ this spring and have succeeded in killing three of them. I planted them at the front of a side bed in part shade, which is perfect, in my soil, which is perfect, and somewhere along the line got their cultural requirements confused with the Rodgersia henrici (Roger’s Flower) I had picked up on the same trip. Roger’s Flower likes soil kept evenly moist, like astilbe.

Hermann, apparently, does not. Between the rains of this summer and my zealous watering, they drowned. Initially uncertain as to the cause of their demise, I finally looked the plant up in one of my books and found it listed under “Good Perennials for Dry Shade.” (Note to self: buy these again … they were gorgeous, while they lasted … next time, don’t water so much.)

Next summer, I’ll grow them properly. Those who see my garden will point them out, since they are unusual, and ask, “Are those tough to grow?” To which I’ll reply, “Not at all, they need soil that drains well, will thank you for some shade in the afternoon, and you’d be wise to allow for a bit of a dry-down between waterings.”
Green thumb? Hardly.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener