On green thumbs, luck, and magic in the garden

Woman peering into crystal ball

This young gardener scries to figure out why her plant died.

We all know somebody with a green thumb.

It’s a grandmother, an aunt, a grandfather, father, or sometimes it’s some young Johnny Appleseed who just has to look at a tree to make it grow.  We wish we had that green thumb, but we joke that ours is black, we’re cursed, or what have you.  It turns out that many of us actually believe it.

A recent survey by Today’s Garden Center shows that most gardeners “under 49 years old often think success in gardening is a result of luck.”  Many of the respondents viewed gardening as a risk — they had to weigh the potential gains against the potential financial loss when buying a plant.

I’m going to share a secret:  There is rarely luck; it’s mostly science.

It’s sometimes hard to figure out what plants need because plants can’t talk back and tell us when they need something, but the information is out there.  Mostly, it comes down to experience.  That’s probably why people aged fifty and over didn’t list luck as a major factor in gardening any more.

So how do people get that knowledge?  You could muddle your way through and learn by trial and error, but it’s an expensive route in terms of both time and money.  There are two easier ways to get there:

  • Read!  Follow blogs, read some books, search the Internet!  But be careful and make sure that your sources are good ones.  There’s a lot of misinformation out there.
  • Interact!  Join a gardening club or seed swap.  Join some online gardening groups like the ones at hort.net.  Talk with people and pick their brains.  Chances are you’re not alone in whatever you’re trying to do.

We’re going to help you here, too.  These winter doldrums are getting to us, so it’s time to start writing tips. Things like how to dig a hole (believe it or not, this isn’t as straightforward as you might think).  How to make your own soil mix.  Ways to propagate plants, install your own irrigation, battle deer, battle weeds, battle pests…  The list goes on and on.  But don’t let this daunt you — sure, there are a lot of possible topics.  But you don’t need to know them all to garden well.  Following these rules is almost always enough:

  1. Respect your plants’ needs!  Research their needs and try to grow them in a matching space.  Think about sun, water, drainage, and temperatures.
  2. Make sure your plants get water if they need it.  If a plant dries out too much, it suffers.
  3. Don’t overwater your plants!  This is probably the #1 cause of death in cultivated plants.  Make sure they get drainage if it’s needed.
  4. Fertilize your plants accordingly.  Plants usually do better with fertilizer.  Just make sure you use the right fertilizer for the right plant.
  5. Watch for diseases and pests.  If you see something that looks wrong with a plant, find out what it is and fix it, if possible.

Do you have any questions you’d like to have answered?  Let us know!

What exactly am I doing here?

Mallorn Computing mentioned in The Garden.

Judy White and Graham Rice’s 1999 article mentioning Mallorn Computing in The Garden magazine.

What exactly am I doing here?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start an existentialist discussion.  This is more likely to be a discussion about social media, pleasing the masses, and picking a direction and sticking with it.  Maybe not even a discussion.  We’ll call it a soul-searching rant (with just a hint of existentialism, a smattering of positivism, and a dash of rationalism).

hort.net has been around for eighteen years (sixteen if you don’t count the time it was hosted by Mallorn Computing, Inc.).  In internet years that’s as old as dirt.  Some of the same features that were started in 1995 are still active (which I’ll claim as a testament to my excellent coding skills and not some fluke or indication of laziness in updating things).  Other features are newer (like our sHORTurl service).  I’m trying to grow and accommodate the needs of Internet users, but lately it’s been like herding cats.  Or trying to find Thismia americana.

It seems that when I start working on a feature for hort.net the Internet landscape will change, and then I’ll have to switch gears to work on another feature.  Rinse, repeat.  I’m starting a lot of projects and finishing none of them.  For example, I was trying to make the image gallery into a canonical source of plant photographs for people.  But then Google essentially stole the content and people stopped visiting.  They could get the photos from Google without even being aware that hort.net existed.

So I started blogging and facebooking and tweeting to bring new visitors to hort.net, but it doesn’t feel quite right.  It might be because I’m rudderless.  I’m posting a scattered hodge-podge of miscellaneous gardening links with no real commonality.  A lot of people make a very successful living doing nothing and talking about it, but that doesn’t particularly interest me.  The whole social media thing is like a giant mutual appreciation society — I’ll follow you if you follow me.  And I have been — following right down the rabbit hole, wondering why my Klout score had dropped or I was unfollowed, and traffic to hort.net still wasn’t increasing.

I started hort.net to leverage technology for the green industry.  I have a BLA (Bachelor’s in Landscape Architecture) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a MS (Master of Science) in Horticulture from the same institution.  But as a kid I was a computer nerd and accomplished a great number of nerdly things.¹   In college most of my elective courses involved things like computer visualization, databases, and programming, and I took on special projects to tie it into my curricula.  This was cutting edge stuff in pre-internet days.  I saw (and still see) how little the green industry used technology, and I wanted to make a difference by melding the two.

I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished that…  yet.  I started down the right path, to the point that Mallorn Computing and hort.net were mentioned in magazines like RHS’s The Garden or Horticulture here in the states.  But I don’t have focus.

Instead, I think I need to pick one topic and run with it.  I have an idea, and I think that you’ll all like it when it’s announced.

Social media is great for getting the word out and has its place, but it’s not going to add content and features to the site.  It’s not going to make people want to stay and participate.  So for now I may tweet and post and blog and whatever, but my expectations and reasons will be different.  I’ll be sharing something because I think it’s interesting or needs to be said, but social media won’t be the focus.  I’m not doing it for the exposure, but instead for the ability to share with people.  I’ll tend to our gardens, both virtual and real, and let that feed my soul.  Hopefully I’ll make the world a better place in the process.

tl;dr²:  Now I’m hanging out with you because you’re interesting, not because I want something.  And hort.net is going to get cooler.

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¹ At twelve I wrote programs to manage my stamp collection and balance my mother’s checkbook; by the age of 17 I had written a basic window manager in Assembly that ran on MSDOS 3.3.  I told you — nerdly.
²tl;dr stands for ‘Too long; didn’t read’.  It provides a summary.

2013 fall plant orders, part 2

Hosta ‘Paradise Joyce’ in the garden. Who can deny the beauty of that foliage? Stuff like this made me order more.

When I first started gardening I didn’t care for Hosta much.  I wanted the flashy perennials that wowed you with colorful flowers, fruit, and foliage.  What I didn’t realize then is that those characteristics are often a flash in the pan; you’re later left with nothing but drab brown seed pods, wilting foliage, or worse — a carpet of solid green.

That doesn’t mean that Hosta are the ultimate answer.  But what they can do is provide a stable architectural foundation in your garden from spring to fall that you can utilize when designing the rest of your beds.  And they’re not ugly!  Some are fragrant, many are variegated in hues of white, cream, gold, steely blue, even picking up hints of orange and red now.  Their sizes vary, they’re tough and don’t need a ton of water or maintenance, and they all have different architectural qualities.  So when I was looking at all of the holes in my garden this summer I realized that I really needed more Hosta.

After looking around online I placed an order this fall from New Hampshire Hostas¹.  They had great prices and great stock, so I figured “Why not?”   Here’s what I ordered:

  • 1 Athyrium filix­-femina ‘Victoriae’
  • 3 Hosta ‘Blue Mouse Ears’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Coconut Custard’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Doubled Up’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Dream Queen’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Dress Blues’
  • 2 Hosta ‘Extasy’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Fantabulous’
  • 2 Hosta ‘Flemish Sky’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Frozen Margarita’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Gentle Giant’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Goodness Gracious’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Great Expectations’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Ice Prancer’
  • 2 Hosta ‘Kiwi Full Monty’
  • 2 Hosta ‘Orange Marmalade’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Prairie Sky’
  • 2 Hosta ‘Rainforest Sunrise’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Shimmy Shake’
  • 1 Hosta ‘Striptease’
  • 2 Hosta ‘Tiny Bubbles’

My big order of Hosta had arrived!

All of the Hosta laid out on the coffee table. Lula looks on approvingly.

The plants all arrived in great shape, and although some of the plants had lost their leaves because it was so late in the season I could tell that the crowns and roots were strong.

Of course, I’m faced with the same problem as last time. Where do I put them all? I have ideas, but time is running out as Old Man Winter approaches. I may plant them in a holding bed with a lot of mulch to prevent heaving, then get out there in the spring and move them to permanent homes.

It will be tough to wait. Some of these Hosta are really exciting to me — ’Gentle Giant’ can reach 6′ wide and 4′ tall; how’s that for a bold statement in the garden?  Maybe I’ll have to order more in the spring…

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¹ I have no business relationship with New Hampshire Hostas at the time of this writing.