Tuesday, February 22, 2005

the banal eye, the dirty finger

I am unsure where the label green thumb comes from, the idea that some people have a special power to make any plant thrive and grow, while others are doomed to failure.

It's probably more associated with failures related to house plants, those plantings in an artificial environment. I am not a big fan of house plants because they require a particular focus, especially paying attention to and controlling all the details necessary for living plants, the light, water, and temperature, not to mention the dangers of bugs that aren't as threatening outside (like the white spider). Throw in particularly finicky plants that operate on different systems such as bromeliads or orchids, and yes, unless one is very careful, she or he is likely to be a failure as an inside gardener. If all gardening is artificial manipulation of nature, gardening inside is the ultimate in faking it. Those who do well at it, I salute.

Dirt gardening, outside, is much more forgiving. Light, water, temperature, soil are all important considerations. Failure comes from ignoring this, planting something that requires a moist, semi-shady location in a bright spot, planting something that will not grow well in the type of soil (most azaleas in alkaline soils, e.g.).

And yet, part of the fun of gardening is pushing the edges a bit. As long as the gardener understands the risks, or the logic of why something should be planted somewhere else -- I like to think of these as experiments instead of what they are, foolhardy self-deception or naive hope -- goes ahead and does it, then there may be rewards, there may be new self-knowledge about gardening, or there may be failure, which in itself is useful. You won't do that again.

The rewards? One may get an azalea to live, if probably not thrive, in Austin, Texas, or get a delphinium to live in the humid mid-Atlantic region.

Picking native plants, picking plants that thrive in the conditions of your garden's location, all help in making the gardener successful. It's not calculus. One can learn some basic rules about basic plants and do quite well.

What probably makes some gardeners more successful than others is their attention, not only to the plants, but to the outside. Talking about the weather, some intellectuals tell us, is the most banal of conversations.

But for some gardeners, it is the weather itself, the air, the light, the heat or cold, that tells us volumes about our garden work. How do we sense the weather? Probably through every sense (including taste -- think about the first red tomatoes in your garden). But if I were looking for a smarter metaphor than a green thumb, it would be having an eye for the weather.

Here's an example. If it does not rain for three weeks, particularly in a season that is hot, or in a season when it is usual for moisture, you may have problems in your garden. In the growing seasons of spring through fall, under these conditions, you will need to water. Some garden writers say we need at least an inch of rain a week, or its equivalent through watering. (Lots of exceptions to that -- e.g., native plants, well mulched soil can mitigate some heat and dry spells).

A digression: One of the exciting characteristics of permaculture gardening is its maximum ability to capture and create cycles of healthy plant growth that builds up the soil and uses the stuff of the place to make this happen. Most of us who live on city lots do not have the ability to create such a system approach to gardening.

Back to the weather. If the wind is blowing for a prolonged period, the earth will dry faster. And if rain is exceptionally heavy for the region, there may be another problem. Too much or too little. The weather modulates each.

If we see that the grass along the highway is turning brown, then we probably know that, yes, we're in a dry spell.

If the fall air is cool, we know that we can take advantage of the outdoor refrigeration to do most planting and transplanting.

With the watchful eye, one must have a dirty finger. Feeling the dirt around your plants, gives you an instant reading on the quality of your soil -- does it need amendments? -- as well as its dryness or its wetness.

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