116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There is a myth that some people possess a green thumb and some people don’t. People with green thumbs apparently have special powers to toss seeds upon the ground and watch them magically sprout, can raise from the dead neglected houseplants, and every thing they touch grows, flowers, bears fruit and looks glorious all year-round.
The reality, of course, is very different. People who have success with plants usually possess just one key characteristic: They care. They like plants and enjoy them and are willing to put in a little time and energy to make sure their houseplants and their yards are well taken care of.
It’s sort of like people who are good cooks. They cook well not because they were blessed with a special talent at birth but because they care about food and are willing to hunt through recipes, make a grocery run, and then actually make the food.
That all said, if you look around and see wilting houseplants and a landscape filled with more weeds than flowers, here are some easy ways to assure success with plants. Friends and neighbors will be accusing you of having a green thumb in no time at all!
Learn the finger test
Most houseplants and smaller outdoor plants (vegetables, perennials, etc.) do best in lightly moist soil. They also need consistently moist soil — not bone dry one day and soggy the next. But the soil surface dries out far more than the soil deeper down, making it a little tricky to see what the overall soil moisture is.
A good trick to figure out if a plant needs to be watered is to wiggle your finger a half inch into the soil for houseplants and 1 inch for outdoor plants. That will give a good indication of what it’s like even farther down.
If the soil is too hard to insert a finger, take a stick or garden tool and loosen it a little, and then plunge your finger in there.
Look at your plants every day
You’ll never forget to water a plant that you look at — truly look at — every day. You’ll notice if it needs to be watered or some other basic care and catch small problems before they become big ones.
Indoors, that means putting your plants where you will see them every day, not in, say, an unused bedroom. It also means making a point of looking at each plant every day, touching the soil (see above) or pinching off a yellowing leaf or two or fertilizing as needed.
Outdoors, looking at your plants every day translates into having a pleasant routine, like taking a 5-minute walk with a cup of coffee each morning or a glass of wine in the evening through your yard, observing the weather and the day and how the various plants in your landscape are faring. The goal is not to immediately take care of the problems, unless there’s a plant that’s crying out for immediate water. Instead, the goal is to make a mental note of what needs to be done and figure out a time when you might be able to get to it.
Rely on science
Too often we fall for goofy gimmicks or smart advertising or our next door neighbor’s advice when what we really need to do is check the science. No, beer on your lawn will not kill grubs — and you can do a quick online search to confirm that. Do those wildflower mixes really turn your lawn into a meadow? Check online to see what other people’s experiences are.
Even online, you have to be careful, of course. University extension services continue to be the best, most reliable, least commercial source of gardening information. So be sure to include “university extension” or “extension” in your search keywords.
Let there be more light
It’s possible for certain shade-loving plants to get too much sun, but in a northern state like Iowa with lots of mature trees, we tend to position plants where they are not getting enough sunlight. This results in sulky plants that never really take off or don’t flower or die out after a year or two.
If an outdoor plant calls for full sun, that means at least six full hours of direct sunlight. Better yet, eight. And consider the season — that means six to eight hours of full sun all growing season long, early spring through late autumn. Take note of where the sun falls in your garden on those daily coffee or wine strolls.
One of the smartest things a gardener can do it to keep good records. It doesn’t have to be a traditional garden journal, but it should be something that works with the way your brain and life work. It might be a list on your phone of which vegetable varieties you want to plant next spring, or reminders about which spring-blooming bulbs to plant where in the fall. Or photos of the flower bed that you planted that doesn’t look quite right, so you can refer to it at the greenhouse next spring.
Pitch your plants
Yep, you read that right. When necessary, get rid of them. If a plant becomes diseased or damaged or has lost a lot of leaves, consider simply getting rid of the offending specimen. This may feel wasteful and wrong — like horticultural murder — but there is no virtue in hanging onto a plant that isn’t thriving.
Think about why you have that plant in the first place. Most of us have plants because they are productive or attractive. And if they are neither, you are probably wasting your time trying to bring them back from the brink of death.
My houseplants, for example, all look great and not because I have perfect growing conditions and provide perfect care. Instead, when a plant achieves what Iowa State University horticulturalist Jeff Ihles humorously terms “negative ornamental value” (aka ugly), it’s time to get rid of it.
So I do, and replace it with a healthier specimen. Then that plant usually will do well for a year or two, and then start to flag. Out it goes!
Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at www.theiowagardener.com.