By JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ
For Montclair Local

If you are one those people who say, “Every plant I touch dies,” stop blaming yourself! Having a green thumb is often seen as having mystical powers when it comes to plant care. People blessed with green thumbs seem to have a magic wand that makes plants thrive.

The opposite of a green thumb is traditionally defined as a black thumb, but I prefer the term “numb thumb.” Those with numb thumbs are unable to get plants to grow, even if they really like plants. However, a numb thumb is not necessarily a permanent condition.

A  numb thumb  often results from the idea that plants are disposable items. You buy a plant, leave it on the table a few days and, when it starts looking bad, give up and toss it in the trash or put it outside hoping it will revive – with disastrous results. This behavior dooms both the plant and the aspirations of the owner to achieve green-thumb status.

Contrary to myth, green thumbs are not magic or luck. The one and only “magical” or lucky quality these people possess is knowledge and understanding of the conditions plants require. Such people also have the interest and capability to provide the basic survival conditions for plants: good soil, water and proper sunlight. 

So, what can you do to turn your numb thumb into a green one?

  • Read. There are loads of excellent gardening books for all levels and interests. Don’t feel like reading? Try watching gardening programs on the TV or YouTube.
  • Talk to someone who has a good working knowledge of plants, such as a friend or neighbor who gardens or a knowledgeable person at a local nursery. One common trait of gardeners is that they love to talk about gardening.

Making the right decision

What to buy? Annuals? Perennials? Native plants? Indoor plants? Tropical plants?

Annuals live for one growing season, so they need to be replanted every year. Perennials may take longer to develop than annuals, but once established they save you a lot of work and money by regrowing every spring. Annuals propagate from one generation to the next through seeds, but most of the time they die before seeding due to climate conditions.

Find out about the plant you are about to purchase.

It is important to know the provenance of the plant. Find out what sort of environment it came from originally. You are making an investment, and you want to preserve the plant for the long term. Learn about the conditions it needs to grow happily and healthily. These include:

  • How much sunlight it requires.
  • The amount and type of fertilizer required for optimum growth.
  • The types of pests and diseases it may be subject to.
  • How much water it needs.
  • For an indoor plant, the level of humidity it needs. Homes can be far too dry for many plants, so try not to place your plants near a fireplace or radiators.  Instead, try to raise the humidity around the plants.

Soil and growing mixes

You need to match your plant with the appropriate soil. Not all plants are created equal. Plants, like humans, have different needs, and they rely on different soil conditions to survive.

Most plants sold at nurseries are developed using a potting mix of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. Since this mix dries out fast and does not have organic materials essential for a healthy plant, you will need to amend or fertilize the soil.

Indoor plants

The approach for indoor plants is totally different from the approach for planting outside. For indoor plants, you should add a mix of compost and garden soil with your regular potting mix. This technique will create a balance that increases the moisture of the potting mix and adds needed organic material.

Outdoor planting

In our suburban environment, the “native soil” in your yard does not necessarily mean that your yard soil has been there forever, but it could be good enough for most plants to thrive. If your soil is lacking in organic materials, a layer of compost will amend the soil. 

Soil pH is the measure of soil acidity.  The pH scale goes from zero to 14, with pH 7 as the neutral point; the lower the number, the higher the acidity. A pH of 6.5 is just about right for most home gardens since most plants thrive in the 6.0 to 7.0 range. 

Knowing the pH of your soil is important. Some plants, such as blueberries, prefer higher acidity (lower pH), while others, such as peas, prefer a more alkaline (higher pH) soil. You can find online pH measurement devices under $20.

Sun exposure

It is not difficult to identify which spots in your yard receive direct or partial sun exposure (full sun, partial shade, shade). These combinations create microclimates, so you need to accommodate your planting to sun exposure. Fortunately, there is a plant for every level of light, short of total darkness.

In summary, having a green thumb implies knowledge about plants and nature based on the desire to grow plants and flowers or be surrounded by plants. A green thumb isn’t magic, after all!

Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident. He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.


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JOSE GERMAN
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Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident.

He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.