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09/21/2017 12:00 AM

The Black Thumb’s Guide to Growing Things

Green thumbs are the name given to those who seem to garden effortlessly, and create beautiful natural spaces for themselves and all who see them to enjoy. But what about those of us who tend to be more of a black thumb – eager to grow something beautiful, but never quite capable of keeping the plants alive?

It turns out that the trick to making that black thumb start turning green is to water properly, remember to fertilize, and do your research when choosing what to plant, whether it is indoors or outdoors.

"Start out small, start with one or two, baby them a bit, watch them grow, and make sure you feed them," says Cindy Golia of the North Haven Garden Club. "And make sure you use fertilizer – no food, no flowers."

Peace lilies, spider plants, and African violets are good indoor plants that make it easy for new gardeners to know when they are in need of water either by visibly wilting or by yellowing. If you are keeping plants in a room with indirect light, oxalis is another good option. It looks a little bit like clover and comes in a variety of shades.

For the outdoors, mums are a fall favorite and can either be annuals or perennials – but it is important to not buy them too early or when they are in full flower. Cornflowers, sedum, volcano plants, Rozanne geranium, succulents, sedums, grasses, asters, and Montauk daises are other easy-to-maintain choices that can be placed in outdoor planters, or planted directly in the ground.

"It's not a curse, it's just a lack of knowledge and time," says landscape designer Sandi Manna of M&M Gardens. "People should be realistic about the space they have, and the time they have. Don't get discouraged. Every time you fail it's an opportunity to learn a little bit more, but if they do a little research before planting, chances are they'll be successful."

"The biggest mistake I see is the wrong plant in the wrong place. Every plant comes with a little plant tag, and it gives you everything you need to know about the plant, how much sunlight it needs, how tall and wide it gets, what the watering requirements are – it's almost like a user's guide," says Manna.

Manna suggests looking at the space that will be used for the garden, how much sun is there, and how much they want to do to maintain it – and look for a plant that fits that spot. Soil can be modified, but the first step is figuring out the location's growing conditions. Once you have picked out your new plants, and figured out where they are going, it's important to water plants correctly.

"Watering is the number one killer of plants," says Rachel Blundon Klein of Madison Earth Care. "It's always either too much or not enough. It depends on the plant"

As a general rule of thumb, Blundon Klein suggests literally using your thumb. Stick it in the soil to check how moist it is. It should feel a little bit dry before watering again.

"People tend to think more is better – that's the opposite of what is true," says Dave Tresselt, the greenhouse grower at Riggio's Garden Center. "Plants need oxygen in their roots just as much as they need water, as well as a regular fertilizer routine and soil building. It's better to water in the morning; watering at night sets you up for disease. But if you need to water at night, water the soil; plants don't want the water on their leaves. Put the water on the ground where the roots are, and soak the ground.

When asked what other advice she'd give to a beginning gardener, Blundon Klein says, "Use your garden centers, they can really direct you to the right things for your situation and the right tools to be successful. Have fun with it – but don't put too much pressure on yourself. If it doesn't make it, you can always replace it."

"I want you to be happy, and to say, 'Oh my gosh, I can do this,'" adds Tresselt. "Start small; nothing inspires a new gardener more than being successful. If you start with a plant that is very easy to grow and satisfying – if it gives a lot of flowers or vegetables – after a while you try something more challenging, and the next thing you know, you're a gardener."