ALTHOUGH I GREW UP in a family of farmers and plant lovers, it took about eight years before I would bring plants into my own apartment. How this was even possible, eight long years with no green here except for dried moss, I don’t know. But two Christmases ago we got a succulent as a present and it changed everything. Soon I was buying plants like a crazy person, pouring over gardening how-tos, making my own organic fertilizer and pesticides, and crying and rejoicing over plants in equal measure. I’ve learned so much in between. Here are my best lessons so far…
The green thumb is a myth
I’ve heard that title bestowed upon people for as long as I can remember. The seeming inherent and magical talents of chosen ones for whom and under whose care, plants will grow and thrive. The truth is, there are no green thumbs, and consequently, no black thumbs. I especially lament that people believe this misconception, because it’s probably discouraged many from pursuing gardening and all its rewards, because a couple of plants died on them. I’ve had over a hundred plants, maybe more, in my care since I started. Many have died, some quite catastrophically. But here I am with plants mostly thriving now. That doesn’t make me a green thumb, just one of those people who are passionate about gardening and plants, and who persevere in the face of its many challenges. You can be that person too.
Harvesting some rosemary for dinner from the baby plants propagated at home. In my tropical weather these plants are sometimes sensitive to heat but otherwise happy.
Don’t believe everything you read
When you’ve bought a plant for the first time, or at the first sign of trouble, it is very tempting to google the answer and think you’ve got it. But I’ve learned not to fall for every “How-to-with-pictures”. Of course the intention is good. But not every gardening resource applies to your plant species or your climate. And then again it could also be you’re asking the wrong questions. General care info is easier to find (if you know what your plant’s called). But problem-solving like pests or poor health is a bit trickier via the internet. When my plants started getting sick on me, at some point I got weary of being told it could be overwatering or under watering over and over again. Many times the opposite was true or it was something totally different, and in some cases the problem remained a mystery. Research a bit more, weigh all the info, and proceed with care.
LOVE YOUR OWN
So important! You will have more success trying to grow plants suited to your climate than forcing the issue and ignoring those Plant Hardiness Zone maps. I dreamed of growing spruce pines, peonies, and sage. But in a city like Manila? Like me, you will discover so many great local counterparts of herbs to grow, and beautiful plants that are indigenous to your area. Sure you might still have success growing plants not meant for your region. But wouldn’t you rather have a garden of happy local plants, instead of one filled with exotic dead ones?
One of two large pots of Portulaca “goes to sleep” once the sun starts to dip. Over here they root quickly from cuttings and thrive with little attention.
BUY LIKE A BOSS
Newly bitten by the plant bug, I bought plants everywhere, every chance I got. The nursery, garden store, the depot, garden shows, the grocery…the street. You know the feeling? High five! It’s like being a kid in the candy store and you want to buy all the candy except the candy is alive. You won’t have a plan, you’ll just be smitten. I once brought home what the garden store told me was a “pink mini”: a potted bush with this dainty pink roses. Completely ignoring that some of the leaves looked sick. Two days later I repotted it and found, embedded in its roots, the baby of the creature in Alien Resurrection (not Alien 1, 2 or 3, no…RESURRECTION). And sometimes, I still have to stop myself from buying on impulse. When I do though, I give the plant a thorough inspection and ask questions. Be smart about buying and you’ll save yourself some cash, time, and the inevitable heartache (or horror).
LOCATION, LOCATION, EXACT LOCATION
Are you starting a garden indoors? In the backyard, a patio, or a roof deck? Where you decide to start a garden brings in questions about sun exposure, humidity, wind, and other elements. Consider those carefully. Some plants just aren’t meant for inside the house, others are hardy enough for high winds, and there are the plants that will do best on the ground rather than confined to a pot. My roof deck is my designated garden, and big considerations include sun and heat, wind, and other things. Once you decide on the location, you can move on to the next steps
Air plants I inherited from a shoot. I give them a good spray of water from time to time and have soaked them, like you’re told to, only once in over a year. They stay in a shaded part of my deck that gets drenched when it rains.
Our lemons get a lot of morning light but shade from the harsher noon sun. We bought these from a street vendor and I didn’t know what to do with them until a cousin with a garden in Germany told me that she fertilized her lemons “weekly and weakly”. That did it.
PLAN YOUR PARADISE
Even if it’s just a couple of pots on the window sill, a small ecosystem of air plants on a log, or a larger space in your backyard with some trees, think ahead of what your end goal is for your garden. Gather photos of similar gardens that you like. Consider the arrangement or the layout, the kind of pots you’ll be using and for bigger gardens, how you intend to use the space once it’s established. Do some research and list down the kind of plants or seeds you want to get. Are you going to bring in some outdoor furniture? It’s not premature, it’s wise. It’s always nice to have some sort of theme, and you’ll want to work on that early, not backwards. Had I done that, I wouldn’t have this massive collection of pots that I now either have to paint or camouflage.
Succulents, aloe vera and small cacti are some of my favorite models in my photographs. They never complain, always look great, and they do it for free
SCHEDULE, WHAT SCHEDULE?
In the beginning I had the mindset that plants had to be watered based on a schedule. Admittedly that created a sort of system and made me more organized as a new gardener. Two years later I’ve learned that adhering strictly to a watering schedule for plants is not the way to go. Of course, you can have a general schedule, and water certain plants only weekly for instance. But I’ve found that my plants are happiest when I pay closer attention to their needs, and act accordingly instead. A little Fairy Castle cactus of mine used to look so pitiful when I started with a strict “every-tenth day only” watering. I ignored the unpredictable ultra-hot days or the fact that the soil was so well-draining. I started to water weekly instead and the plant began to thrive. Still, there are days it gets thoroughly wet from errant sideways rain from a storm, or when the soil stays moist because the weather is cooler, and I hold off watering a bit longer.
DON’T IGNORE THIS ONE GARDENING TOOL
Keeping a gardening journal, or at least a record of your plants is helpful for practical reasons. If your garden is large enough, or you’re caring for quite a few plants, you’ll want to keep tabs on things like general care, fertilizing schedules, or DIY recipes. Without some sort of journal it can get confusing and you’re bound to forget something. I’ve found that a journal is particularly handy for keeping tabs on weather patterns and how sunlight moves around my garden throughout the year. An important thing considering that certain members of my plant family are sensitive to these changes.
Balsam seedlings my 8-year old daughter Caroline helped me plant. Healthy and at peak bloom, they look like peonies. I’ve since moved them to a sunnier spot so they don’t lean like that. Keeping our fingers crossed!
SPEND YOUR MONEY ON DIRT
Because I have a container garden and no actual garden on the ground in my home, what I’ve found myself spending most on is quality soil. Despite having grown up in a family of gardeners it never really occurred to me to be very honest that I could not just pick up dirt from anywhere. Meaning, that I had TO BUY dirt. I learned quickly that it matters to consider not just the kind of soil to use for different plants, but also the quality of that soil. You’ll find many decent garden soil brands in the market these days, and thankfully many organic soils for use in vegetable gardening too. You can still save money by buying basic soil in bulk from nurseries you trust, and then going a step further and boosting the soil with things like worm castings, organic compost, and other organic matter. If you’re starting your garden on the ground, lucky you, perhaps have a seasoned gardener check out your soil before you start planting. Trust me, the last thing you want is to attempt to grow your plants in poor-draining, disease-ridden soil.
WAIT FOR IT
If you could only stare your plants to full-growth. About the same way you stare at a pastry you’re baking, waiting for it to rise in the oven. But plants take what feels like forever. Weeks, months, sometimes an entire year will pass before you see any signs of real growth. Those time lapse videos of seedlings growing are like a look into a future that you so want right now. I know how that feels, and yes, patience is hard. But it is a gift to gardeners in particular, and to plants. I’ve learned to have this deliberate yet casual attitude towards my plants. If they thrive quickly then great, if a plant takes a bit more time, then I’ll give them that. Rushing a plant with too much care and attention can actually kill it. Yes it’s true: Death by gardener is a real thing.
Basil, carrot and bell pepper seeds. It makes so much sense to grow the peppers myself especially. We love to eat those but over here at the market they can be ridiculously expensive.
Our first batch of lemons, some of which got too big. In the process I’ve learned that lemons can take a long time to ripen (or turn yellow), and many things can affect that.
GARDENING IS NO HOBBY
It was a scorching hot summer’s day when I found myself staring at my little roof deck garden after hours of watering, fertilizing, pruning and repotting, that I began to feel the onset of what would turn out to be three painful days in bed from simple exhaustion. I had this naive notion that gardening was akin to a weekend project. Gardening is messy, physically challenging, at times frustrating, time-consuming, and basically life-changing. It is not a hobby, it’s a way of life. But for all its challenges it is perhaps one of the most rewarding things you can do with your time. This might be a bit dramatic, but it changes how you see the world. You will never look at the sun the same way (Or birds, those little crazies). You’ll become more mindful of the Earth and of what you eat. You’ll see things around you that were never there before. And somehow each day, you’ll have a new sense of purpose where there wasn’t any.
Getting into our first batch of fully-ripe organic lemons. One of those moments.
Yes, gardening is a way of life. And after two years of gardening I finally feel like it’s become part of me. Yet, there is still so much to learn.
If you’re thinking about starting to garden or have a small operation going right now, I hope what I’ve learned so far helps to take you through those rough patches.
And thanks for reading!