Gardening without a Green Thumb

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As we drove off from my mother-in-law’s house, I remarked to my husband that his mom’s garden was lovely.  Of course, her gardening skills were top notch.

“I wish I had a green thumb”, I sighed, to which he replied, “Why don’t you just paint it green?”

As his guffaws filled the car, I distract myself with thoughts about how I can achieve a flourishing garden like hers.

Her planting area is small but it is a lush green spot lying right next to the concrete, noisy pedestrians, street traffic and blaring sirens.

 

Each plant or tree is spaced comfortably next to its neighbor and if they could talk, the chatter would be endless gossip laced with inside jokes.  They are well-cared for despite the constant threat of passersby reaching over the fence to swipe a hot pepper or green bean.

My mother-in-law, Rita, is in her early 70’s and probably healthier than I am.  Yet, every winter, she claims she has no energy to garden next year.  Then, as the warmer air moves in, she finds herself falling into old habits – setting seeds by her windowsill to sprout, weeding her soil beds, and prepping and mixing soils in anticipation of a summer of garden work.

It’s more than a hobby for her – it’s how she wants to live.  Gardening is her stress relief, exercise, source of pride and she enjoys sharing her harvest with family and friends.

Not all of us have the time, energy and knowledge to maintain a garden like hers.  She used to plant the garden for us in our backyard – all we had to do was remember to water it and pick the vegetables that grew.

Now, she has less time to visit so she gives me the young plants and her special soil mix, with very specific instructions and frequent phone reminders to plant, weed, water and prune.  As lazy as we are, she refuses to give up on us and her confidence in us (or our guilt) fuels our gardening afternoons in backyard.

Here’s yet another beautiful young tomato plant that she has prepared for me to add to my garden.

If you’re like me, you want someone to come over and plant everything for you so you can turn on the sprinklers and relax with a cool drink as you watch the plants stretch to the sky.

Here’s how you can get to those lazy afternoons faster with a few gardening tips from my mother-in-law:

GET INSPIRATION FROM YOUR OWN NEIGHBORHOOD

FLOWERS 

Start looking around your neighborhood and noting the flowers that pop.

  • Do you like contrasting colors or a harmonious scheme?
  • Do you want to have low-maintenance green shrubs or do you prefer flowers only?  Most people do a mixture of both. Also, some flowering plants have to be replanted each season (annuals) while others regrow from year to year, laying low in the winter and blooming in the summertime (perennials).  How much work do you want to do in your garden each year?
This was in the early days when Rita would design our garden for us.

 

Rita loves her flowers but her evergreen tree is a proud resident as well.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

Over the years, Rita has received a multitude of compliments about the diversity of fruit, vegetable and flowering plants that happily resided in her garden.  In addition to the summertime vegetables, she adventurously brought in fruit trees (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, fig, pear, apple, grape and even persimmon) for the enjoyment of her grandchildren.

“Most people do not know persimmon grows in NY.  They saw the fruit on the tree and expressed shock and surprise by ringing my doorbell and asking me where I bought the tree.  I myself found out by seeing a tree with fruit on it in someone’s yard while I was walking in the neighborhood and had the same response.  Sadly, the nursery where I bought it has just recently closed.”

One of a pair of cherries that have appeared on her tree.

 

A young apple arrives just before school is out for summer.

REPLANT FROM YOUR OWN GARDEN EACH YEAR

Rita is very cost-conscious about her gardening.  She rarely purchases new annuals each year because once the season is over, she looks for little plants that pop up where the previous year’s flowers drop seeds.

I was astounded that she could recognize what’s a good plant and what’s a weed when they’re little shoots springing out of the soil in May.  She gathers them up, transplants them into a large container with a mixture of equal amounts of potting soil and peat moss and a toss of organic manure.  One of her favorite containers is a 5-gallon paint bucket.  The little plants live outdoors in the container during the day and she brings them in at night.

The most popular plant she grows year after year is the Guyanese wiri wiri pepper.  A fully blooming plant is like a Christmas tree – the bright red and green fruit were a true beauty.  You can eat the milder green ones raw but the red, ripened peppers are best used for cooking or in pepper sauces.

  • After the season is over, Rita picks and freezes the peppers.
  • In October, she pulls some out, extracts the seeds and sets them in a large pot with her usual potting soil mixture.
  • These remain at her window, watered occasionally, for the remainder of the winter.
  • In May, she carefully replants them in 6 oz. plastic cups of soil with holes punctured at the bottom.
  • Then, she starts the rotation of indoors and outdoors.
  • Finally, she moves each plant out of the cups and into their own containers, usually a 5-gallon bucket.

GET ONLY THE GEAR YOU NEED

My mother-in-law is a minimalist gardener – all she needs is a pair of latex gloves, a small spade and a knife to do all her gardening.

I’ve often visited local nurseries and stocked up on anything that caught my eye.  Then, I realized I was only using the same things every year.  Here is my go-to list:

  • Garden kneeling pad
  • Bucket organizer (bucket sold separately)
  • 5 gallon paint buckets for storage and planting (drill drainage holes before adding soil)
  • Bypass pruning shears
  • Gardening gloves – I am not a fan of cotton fabric gloves as it’s difficult to keep those clean and dirt-free for future use. Also, it must be thick enough that you don’t prick your fingers on thorny bushes.
  • Hat for sun protection
  • Trowel and Rake – these best buddies are my favorite tools.
  • Regular shears for cutting open bags of soil, mulch etc.
  • Plastic watering can or nearby hose
  • Large garbage bags or a trash can for weeds
  • Tomato cages for branch support and a trellis for climbing assistance (for the plant, not you)

 

SURVEY YOUR YARD FOR BEST PLANTING SPOTS

CHOOSE A SPOT that is convenient for your garden and receives a decent amount of sunlight.

  • Take advantage of sweet spots: my in-ground sprinklers rain on a portion of my concrete patio so I keep potted plants in that section and they’re watered automatically. I did say we were lazy!
  • If you have a balcony or very little space to grow plants, a container garden or wooden plant bed can also be successful. My husband’s aunt filled up her entire brick patio with pots of flowers that she would use for her son’s wedding ceremony.  She saved tremendously on their floral budget and the plants were within easy reach when they needed them.
  • Why not get creative with up-cycled planting pots from everyday containers that you would normally throw away? (Just remember to perforate holes at the bottom for drainage.)

CLEAR THE AREA by removing weeds or unwanted plants by the root, reposition large rocks and toss any debris.

  • As you dig out weeds, gently cover any earthworms or other creatures with soil so they can continue to do their work.
  • Then, loosen the soil by raking it to set the stage for your fantastic new garden.

MAKE HOLES FOR PLANTS AHEAD OF TIME with your trowel and make sure you leave enough space for each plant to spread out. This is especially important if you’re planting perennials as these will grow larger year after year.

Don’t forget to recruit some help – my son loves to dig and plant!

USE A SOIL MIX TO GIVE YOUR PLANTS A BOOST

PREPARE A SOIL MIX of equal amounts of top soil, potting soil, garden soil and peat moss with a toss of organic manure and a pinch of gardening lime (1/4 cup per 5 gallon bucket of soil).

  • Line the bottom of the holes you dug with this nutrient-rich mixture.
  • Slowly remove the plant from its temporary container by grasping the stem and the pot at the same time, squeezing or shaking the container.
  • Place the plant with its attached soil and root system into the hole.
  • Surround the young plant with more of the special soil mix and give the soil around its stem a gentle push to stabilize it in its new home.
  • If you are planting seeds, make sure to cover the seeds so they are not visible to birds and insects.
  • Water all plants after they have been placed.

 When I was a teenager in the Bahamas, my parents and fellow gardener friends made a trip to a local farm with shovels and bags.  They told me they were going to collect fresh fertilizer.  By the time I realized what they meant, I was already in the car, my protests falling to deaf ears.  I watched from afar as my family scooped cow manure into sturdy bags and proceeded to place the filled bags in the trunk.  It was a long ride home. 

FOLLOW UP THROUGH THE SEASON

Like cooking, gardening requires your love and patience.  Be proactive but when you notice spots on leaves, pesky weeds or a bushy plant with no fruit, don’t sweat it.

MULCHING – Give the plants about a week or two to settle in, watering daily.  Then, layer your choice of mulch material on the soil to discourage weeds from growing.

PRUNING – It may seem unusual to the novice gardener to trim the plants as they grow.  However, this helps to prevent nutrients from going to excessive flowers/branches and resulting in smaller fruits.  Check out the other reasons in the link below:

http://lushecolawns.com/why-is-it-important-to-prune-your-plants/

TROUBLESHOOTING – Even if you give your young plants an excellent start, they may face challenges along the way.  Here are useful sites for figuring out common problems and how to remedy them:

https://harvesttotable.com/common_vegetable_garden_proble/

https://www.thisoldhouse.com/ideas/troubleshooting-your-vegetable-garden

AT THE ROOT OF IT ALL….

I may not ever have the energy to create a magical garden like my mother-in-law’s but I realize she has taught me quite a few things about gardening over the years.

One of them is that you should always check your plants for surprises.  One year, she gave me a zucchini plant.  I set it in the ground and forgot about it.  In the middle of the summer heat, she was digging around my garden and came across a humongous zucchini hidden under the vines.  The poor guy had been sitting there, waiting for someone to notice it.  What do you do with a giant zucchini?  You make your first zucchini bread!

Hey, maybe I do have a green thumb after all.  And I bet you do too!

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