I have often thought about what it is about some people that makes them good gardeners and what it is about others that makes them just the opposite. Like child prodigies, some individuals are just gifted with the talents required to allow them to excel at a certain skill, but for the rest of us “normal” people we have to spend a lifetime learning how to succeed. So, what is it that goes into making a gardener successful?
First of all, I think a person has to have an above normal interest, or dare I say passion, for gardening to be successful. We have to pay attention to our gardens and listen to our plants on a regular basis (something more than once a month) or they will struggle to thrive. It is no different than raising a child or caring for a pet. Pets and children need daily attention and fortunately for them, they can verbalize their needs. Plants on the other hand cannot verbalize but rather have other methods of communicating to us and the better we can recognize and understand their messages the more successful we can be.
There are three excellent resources that come to mind for gardeners who want to become green thumbs. WSU puts out a publication that is used in the Master Gardener program called the Sustainable Gardening Handbook, which is a practical reference for anyone with a passion to learn more about gardening. The Sunset Western Garden Book is also a top notch “garden bible” for dedicated gardeners. If you are mostly into edibles, the Northwest Maritime Garden Guide by Seattle Tilth is the ultimate reference for growing veggies in the northwest. All of these publications contain the basics for successful gardening and will go a long way to helping you become a green thumb.
At the root of all successful gardeners is the acknowledgement that a healthy soil will produce a healthy plant. Unfortunately, many of us in the northwest are forced to try to garden in undesirable soil conditions. The solution to this dilemma is an annual application of organic matter in the form of compost. Compost can either be worked into the soil with a spade or rototiller or placed on the surface as a mulch, either way, it needs to be replaced every year. Compost does amazing things to our soil on a biological, chemical, and physical level, but one of the biggest benefits to the gardener is that it acts as a buffer for our inattention by retaining moisture in sandy soils and improving drainage in heavy clay soils. In essence, soils that are fortified with compost will put up with more abuse and that can translate into success for you.
In addition to organic matter, successful gardens need food (not unlike kids and pets) on a regular basis to grow to their utmost potential. The best way to add this food is in a “slow release” or long lasting form, which can either be from an organic source, a synthetic source, or a blend of the two. “Cheap” fertilizers that give you a quick response will, in the long run, stress plants and ruin soil biology, eventually producing poor results. Long lasting, organic fertilizers will act as a buffer for our neglect and continue to feed our plants when we are not thinking about them.
Inconsistent watering is another critical chore that separates a green thumb from a brown thumb. Plants will usually tell us when they are thirsty and learning to recognize those signs is very important. Generally speaking, plants like an inch of water a week to be happy and they obviously get far more than that in the winter and far less in the summer, so it is our job to help moderate these extremes. Believe it or not, simply adding compost to our soils goes a long way in helping to maintain the proper level of moisture in the ground. The art of watering can be complicated and depends on many factors, such as the kind of soil, the kind of plants (shallow versus deep-rooted) and the application technique; later this spring I will spend more time on this very important aspect of successful gardening, be on the lookout for it.
There are of course other factors that contribute to being a green thumb gardener, such as knowing when to prune, how to control weeds, what to plant where and how to manage pests, but I think the most important things to focus on are soil management, proper fertility, and good watering skills. If you can do that, then you will become a green thumb gardener!