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Turning a 'Black Thumb' GREEN

Q. Dear Mike: I live in a beautiful area. Many of my neighbors are skilled gardeners or wealthy employers of good groundskeepers. I have (only recently) learned how to enjoy mowing our half-acre, but I hate gardening. Gardening makes me question the existence of a loving God. Weeds love my planters; and the weeds are stronger than I am. But I don't like being a person who hates gardening. I would rather change and learn to love it—but I have never had any encouraging success. Is there any help for me? Are there recovery guides for people who have grown to hate their gardens? "I hate gardening" support groups? Gardening 101? Remedial Gardening? Gardening for Dummies? Please point me somewhere; I feel ashamed of my alienation from nature and really DO want to change. Feeling desperately inadequate and not kidding.

    ---"J" in Oklahoma City
A. I first emailed a reply to "J" assuring him that no one HAS to garden, and that life is much too short for any of us to waste time doing something we don't enjoy. "Take good care of that lawn and see if any of those neighbors would like to play in your planters," I suggested.

But he emailed back to reinforce that he really did want to change. A quick scroll through my emails showed me that he was far from alone. Although few were as desperately eloquent, the message came through again and again:

  • "The only thing I can grow is weeds..."
  • "Goth teenagers admire the color of my thumb."
  • "I'm Rodney Dangerfield with a hoe in one hand and a dead marigold in the other..."
So let's see what advice we can advise.

I really like the "support group" idea; I often fantasize about one for recovering toxic gardeners; you know, where the new guy stands up and says: "Hi, my name is Sid and I haven't used Miracle-Gro or Roundup since last March."

"Hi, Sid!"

Contact the community gardens in your area and introduce yourself to a few people at one of their winter planning meetings. You will likely be offered help, advice and assistance on the spot. Even better, join one near where you live or work. Yes, I know you have a big landscape of your own; that's often the problem—as with writers, a big empty slate often looks more like blind panic and despair than opportunity. Rent a plot in that garden and you will be surrounded by helpful people who will give you excellent advice on things like planting, watering, and weed control every time you visit.

…And there won't be any upscale neighbors around to compare your first efforts to the cover of Martha Stewart's latest issue.

Here's a link to a previous question of the week that has lots of tips on locating community gardens near where you live and work: /article450&sid=140643

That first year, just plant potatoes. That's right—just potatoes. Order some really cool spuds from a garden catalog or over the Internet—naturally buttery Yukon Golds, those oh-so-pretty and extremely tasty red skinned potatoes, and some big Russets for baking. (You can skip the blues and purples if you're tight on space; I've never much cared for them outside of their novelty. Or go ahead and grow them if you have the room and want to have something really cool to show off.)

Loosen up the soil really good, amend it with lots of nice compost (which the garden may even have on hand), and bury your "seed potatoes" six inches deep. Wait till that distinctive lush green growth appears above ground and then spread a nice inch of shredded leaves as a weed suppressing mulch.

Apply a fresh inch of shredded leaves (NOT wood mulch!) every month to keep down weeds, shade the soil, and protect the spuds from sunlight (they should never peek through). You shouldn't experience any real problems; potatoes are pretty much trouble free, except for one pest. And if those nasty potato beetles attack, ask your fellow plotters for help. Or if you want to REALLY show off, order and the use one of those new Spinosad products or the all-natural type of Bt (BTT) that stops Colorado potato beetles in their tracks (organically of course!).

Visit your growing babies often and talk to everyone in the garden when you do. Offer to help them weed. Be like Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington when he first arrives in Christmas Town; keep asking: "What's this? What's this? Is it easy to grow? How do you use it?" Listening to your fellow gardeners will teach you more in one summer than I could in a decade.

At the end of the season, carefully dig up your spuds and see what success looks like. You will likely uncover LOTS of beautiful, FRESH potatoes—which are much sweeter and juicier than the store bought kind. Share them, cook them, treasure them. Wash the first one you pick and eat it raw, right there in the garden.


Want to do more? Conquer those containers at home. Empty them out and fill them with 2/3 of a high quality 'soil free' potting mix and 1/3 compost. Then pick up some really invulnerable plants, like a couple six packs of marigolds for containers in the sun; impatiens or begonias in the shade. Or plant those containers with small evergreens if you're a real coward. (Here's a link to a previous Question of the Week that has a lot of container gardening tips: '/product/no_plot_to_pea_in_grow_in_containers.)

Shred up and bag lots of leaves now so you can use those shredded leaves to cover any exposed soil in your containers an inch deep after you plant. 'Poof' go your weed woes.

If you see a neighbor out happily greening away, throw yourself on their mercy. We gardeners have lots of mercy, love to help others, and, OK, also enjoy feeling superior. (And you have NO idea how many plants we 'experts' have killed over the years!) Invite the gardeners at work over for a picnic or dinner in exchange for a little help and advice.

Do NOT look for that help or advice on the Internet. I'm sorry, but 90% of what I see people saying in garden chat rooms and the like is absolute rubbish. AND your situation in Oklahoma—crippling winds that desiccate plants, alkaline soil and water, severe weather swings—requires local advice.

Give your local County Extension office a call as well. They will have very helpful Bulletins about growing in your area and lists of 'bullet proof plants'. They may even steer you to some classes. But classes wouldn't be my first choice; the best way to learn how to garden is from a gardener.

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