Brown thumbs and stupid questions

My years of solving plant problems and hearing people’s tales of their personal garden challenges have taught me a couple of things. First, there are a lot of folks out there who claim they have brown thumbs; and second, plenty of perfectly legitimate questions begin with, ” I have a stupid question.” Sure, I’ve heard my share of questions that suggested a definite lack of common sense — but I wouldn’t call them stupid. What worries me a lot more is people who say they don’t have enough knowledge, time, money, creativity or physical ability to enjoy even the simple pleasure of potting and caring for a container of pansies — people who actually believe they’re incapable of gardening.

Maybe this is true. Or maybe things have just been made too complicated, giving people the feeling that they’re not allowed to make mistakes. Then again, maybe this culture is so focused on instant gratification that folks no longer have the patience for gardening. Perhaps these people secretly believe that the world of plants is a great mystery whose truths can be shared with only a select few.

But what if, instead, we embraced the idea that there are no safeguarded mysteries? That gardening fundamentals are readily accessible and freely shared? After talking to other gardeners and thinking about how to present these basics clearly and simply, it seems to me that there are three essentials: site, soil and species.

Start with the site, and let it guide you. Here in the mountains, garden sites vary widely with even the smallest change in elevation and/or exposure. Unless you’re on a barren, new-house site or already know the spot’s full history, it’s a good idea to live in a new home through at least one cycle of the seasons to help you get familiar with the conditions both inside and outside. Observe and get to know existing plants, sun and shade patterns, areas of water runoff, prevailing winds and views. This will help determine and guide many decisions you’ll make about your garden.

And when you begin asking neighbors and nursery staff about plants, they will undoubtedly ask you about these aspects of your garden site. In different spots in Western North Carolina, annual rainfall can be anywhere from 40-80 inches, and the date of the last spring frost can vary by as much as 20 days. These crucial factors make all the difference as to when tender annuals are planted or rosemary is grown without protection. My own garden sits on a north slope — a cool, shady environment that’s vastly different than the south-facing, thin-soiled slopes of neighboring plots. This guides me to grow more shade-tolerant plants and limits the sun-loving plants to the sunnier open spaces. They are trade-offs I accept.

Healthy soil makes healthy roots, which in turn make healthy plants. Take the time to get to know your soil, and prepare it according to the plants you will grow. Unless your site is blessed with woodland or bottomland soils, it will most likely be a heavy clay with a pH of 5 — preferred by rhododendron, blueberries and mountain laurel but not by turf grass, garden vegetables and many types of flowers. (Adding lime to the soil helps make these types of plants happy.) When in doubt, get a soil test — it’s still free in this state. Although clay soils are nutrient-rich, they can be heavy and problematic to dogwoods, azaleas and rhododendron, which have thin roots and cannot tolerate “wet feet” — they’ll simply rot and die. The solution is either to amend the soil or plant shallow. Use local amendments like composted leaves or pine bark to help improve the drainage. Add a phosphorus amendment at planting. Once plants are established, annual applications of compost are about all you’ll need to keep them thriving.

And finally, get to know the different species of plants the way you would a friend. Take time to learn about their growth habits, their likes and dislikes. Know how big they get, so they won’t grow too close and crowd each other or take over the whole garden space. Know how much sun or shade they need, so they’ll flower more and the foliage won’t sunburn. Know their water needs, so they won’t get too much or too little. Be sure about their cold-hardiness and heat tolerance, which is why gardens in this area aren’t full of Norfolk Island pines or gardenias — it’s just too cold for them. And why dwarf Alberta spruce and Fraser fir die a slow death here — it’s often too hot. The best rule of thumb is to grow plants you know will do well in this region. But at the same time, don’t resist the urge to buy a plant that really calls to you. Just remember that this newcomer has specific needs, and if you provide them, your garden may be its home for a lifetime.

Once you’ve come to grips with site, soil and species, it’s important to be patient and persistent and resist the urge to do it all at once. Don’t begin with a tree: Allow yourself to slowly learn and grow your gardening over time, like a seedling that one day becomes a tree. Set priorities, and start small — even modest successes will be more gratifying than unfinished projects that hang on and worry you in your dreams.

And know that whatever subtly holds you back from fully experiencing the wonders of gardening may be only a matter of reminding yourself from time to time about how to be with plants again, how to care for them. In doing these things, I think you’ll find a deep satisfaction and begin to agree that there are no stupid questions or brown thumbs.

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