It’s often said that a green thumb is a dirty thumb. The best way to learn to garden is simply to start doing it, with a sharp eye out for the way plants grow successfully in the wild. Certain rules apply, and whether these are unchanging natural laws, and part of a grand plan, nobody knows. But there are enough observable patterns of cause and effect, that if you jump onto Nature’s merry-go-round at the right speed you are guaranteed a good ride.
That speed is slow. You are not hopping a fast freight. Think about how long it takes for a hillside to reforest itself after a landslide, or for fallen leaves in the woods to break down into rich organic soil. Yes, you can take poor land and improve it, but there are no short cuts. Compost, that magic concoction of decomposed organic matter that makes it all work, needs at least six months to break down, but a year is better, and only after five years or more of incorporating it into your garden will your soil really be “in good heart,” as the old-timers used to say. Running for a bag of synthetic fertilizer will only set you backward, since it does not sustain the life of the soil and does nothing to improve its structure. Keep the future in mind, more than the present.
Gardening is fun, but it’s not vacation. If you plant seedlings in dry weather and fail to water them, they will die. Even when you are too busy to work in the garden, set a time each day to give it a careful look — say, early morning with a cup of coffee, or sunset with a glass of wine. Not only will you notice things that need attention, you’ll also feel like a participant, a partner. Gardening is not like dealing with machinery that can be bent to your will. You can guide the growth of a tomato plant by staking and pruning it, but look for unexpected pleasures, as the pollinators that visit its flowers. Let the plant tell you, by the color of its leaves, its rate of growth and fruit production, whether it liked the place you put it, whether it was the best variety for your climate, and whether the soil you gave it was up to snuff.
Many of us grow up bewildered by, and even afraid of a natural world from which our culture alienates us. In the garden you’ll see this distance give way to curiosity, fascination. Experiment there, take chances, think for yourself. When told that a certain plant is too difficult to grow, give it a try.
Gardening is much like something most of us undertake with no preparation at all: parenthood. Just as we instinctively nurture our children, we instinctively nourish the plants that give us food. At some point in our prehistory, we humans stopped hunting and gathering where food was plentiful, and moving on when it was used up. We figured out that by tending plants, they fed us in return. Our thumbs have been grubby ever since.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”