Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Hartford Courant, Conn., Peter Sleight column

Let us now, in the cold light of a leafless December, look at two gardening terms I've come to loathe.

"Green thumb" and "gardening tips."

Like so many convenient labels, "green thumb" is inaccurate and cynical, attributing success in the garden coming from hours of trial-and-error experimentation, hard labor and careful research to some sort of genetic engineering.

"Have you seen her garden?" the onlooker asks. "She has a green thumb, for sure."

In reality, anyone can have a green thumb, providing they put in enough work. The orchid-grower will spend hundreds of hours moving plants from window to window looking for ideal light conditions. He'll spend hundreds of hours more on pebble trays, humidifiers, misters and fertilizer. In the end, admirers gaze on the banks of arching phalaenopsis and oncidium and exclaim, "He has a green thumb, for sure."

The same for the gardener who's outside four hours every day, digging, weeding, mulching, dead-heading, pruning, moving plants around to suit her artistic vision -- hundreds of hours of labor -- "My, she sure has a green thumb, doesn't she?"

That's like saying Warren Buffett has a knack for numbers.

It seems, too, as if the same people who attribute gardening success to a "green thumb" are also the ones who are always asking for "gardening tips."

Why do people think years of work and study can be distilled into "tips," as if collecting a few will suddenly give rise to a "green thumb"?

You ask for a "tip" on a horse race thinking that the handicapper has an uncanny ability to name the winner (hours spent with the Daily Racing Form notwithstanding). Yet much of the time the horse doesn't win because variables -- the skill of the jockey, the condition of the track, the late start out of the box -- come into play.

The same's true in gardening.

"I'd like to plant a daphne," a friend says. You suggest partial sun, moist but well-drained soil, and a location out of the wind. Yet the daphne dies. An investigation shows that the partial sun consisted of four hours of direct afternoon glare, the soil was boggy, and while the location was sheltered, it faced directly north. Your "tips" were followed, but the variables intervened.

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