Friends often say to so-called expert gardeners, “You must have a green thumb; everything you touch just seems to grow”.
Not so, I suspect the truth is something quite different. Good gardeners kill plants too, lots of plants; probably more plants than novice gardeners. Partly that’s because they have more plants to kill. It’s also because they are more adventuresome with their plant inventories and take bigger risks in their plant choices.
But I’m also certain that experienced gardeners kill a lot more plants simply because they don’t invest as much time trying to resuscitate unhappy plants; not nearly as much time as novice gardeners, who are beset by the agonizing guilt of a plant’s failure.
Mistakes don’t stop good gardeners, they just make them smarter. They note the failure, remove the victim and move on, ready for the next challenge. A good gardener can sniff out another good gardener pretty quickly by taking a peek at their compost pile or rubbish bin. If there is a half decomposed campanula or a sad penstemon poking out, odds are they’re a pretty seasoned and experienced gardener.
Novice gardeners see a sickly plant as a personal failure, a failure of the gardener. Good gardeners don’t see it that way, they see the same sickly plant as an opportunity to learn something.
PHOTO: Plant number 1,883, a rare white flowered form of Ruellia malacosperma from a source in North Carolina. I’ve had it since October of 2001. C'est la vie!
Not only do good gardeners kill lots of plants, they do it more quickly than other gardeners. Beginning gardeners think that they can nurture a distressed plant back to life – even years later they’re still trying. They have lots of plants scattered around their landscape that “just aren’t doing very well”. These plants are in various stages of supposed recovery. But novices hold on to these sickly plants far too long. Suffering mercilessly, these “rescue” plants litter the gardens of the neophytes.
At the gardens of those more experienced, these same plants are long gone, put out of their misery at an early stage. Without much personal suffering or remorse these plants were judiciously culled out and disposed of. Where the novice will struggle with the pant all the way to the bitter end, good gardeners almost never wait that long and dispose of a sickly plant early on. In fact, good gardeners sort of unconsciously see a removed plant as an opportunity; they even rejoice in the chance to try something new.
There’s an old saying amongst seasoned gardeners that goes “You never really know a plant until you've killed it - at least three times”.
I must know a lot of plants.
Last week, my victims included a bush poppy, a dudleya, an arum, a leucadendron, two amorphophallus, two aloes, four aeoniums and several others with names too hard to pronounce.
When I recall how many plants I’ve disposed of over the years, it would frighten most people. Since I log all the plants in and out of my garden I can tell you my exact plant killing summary. In the past ten years: 1,882 individual plants and 1,369 species have succumbed, and these don’t include annuals and vegetables.
Am I appalled? Not a bit, I just chalk it up to the learning process. My mistakes don’t stop me from trying again with the same plant elsewhere in the garden or with a new plant altogether.
But what if I looked at each plant’s death as confirmation of an inability to garden?
We all know someone who enjoys other people’s gardens but talks critically about their own “black” thumb. “I kill everything,” they declare, believing they are unique. But the rest of us have a list of victims too: plants that succumbed to too much shade, too much sun, too much water, not enough water, too much cold, too much heat, insects, diseases, bad pruning, lack of nutrition, rabbits, dogs, deer, or soccer balls. The list goes on.
The fact is that anyone who loves plants will kill many of them in the process of gardening. It’s part of the learning curve.
A plant’s death doesn’t tell you anything about yourself as a gardener; but it tells you something about the plant. Now you know a little more about what that particular plant doesn’t like. This is knowledge learned of experience and can never be learned in a book or through instruction. It’s what makes a good gardener.
Those who throw up their hands and say they can’t garden are missing out on the joy of success that will surely come if they keep trying. My plant killings will continue; by the end of the year I may hit the 2,000 mark. Who says good gardeners don’t kill plants?
Questions from Readers June 19.
I read that corn plants need good pollination and that because of this I won’t be successful just growing a few plants. How many do I need?
Lauren, Huntington Beach
Corn is monoecious, meaning there are separate male and female flowers on each plant. The male flowers form a tassel at the top of the plant while the female flowers are located lower on the stem and consists of a collection of hairs (silks) enclosed in husks, which later become the ears. Wind-blown pollen from the male flowers falls on the silks below. Each silk leads to a kernel and pollen must land on all the silks for the ear to have a full set of kernels. For good pollination it is important to plant corn in blocks, not long rows, In a home garden, I find that a block should be at least five or six plants wide in both directions, but the more the better.