In the same way that many people say “I can’t draw”, many people say that they have a “black thumb”.
Saying that you have a black thumb is a perfectly acceptable excuse for not starting a gardening practice. But if you want to grow your own food, you have to put your ego aside and stop making judgements about your inherent ability to make things grow.
Gardening is a skill that you need to work on diligently to in order to get good at, just like anything else. It is well-known that the person who wants to learn how to draw will commit to going to life-drawing classes, instead of just complaining about their supposed lack of talent. Similarly, the person who truly wants to get good at gardening will try putting a few seeds in the ground, and then plant some more, creating a dedicated practice that eventually leads to the development of a skill.
But while practising is important, I have learned, after four years of art school, that something else is required in order to become “talented”. In a classroom full of dedicated drawing students, there are two differences between the people who are truly impressive drawers and those whose sketches fall flat.
Firstly, “talented” drawers are truly tapped in to their practice. They love what they do and are fully absorbed in it. They don’t judge or second-guess themselves as they draw. They work with their intuition and instinct, rather than with their minds.
Secondly, and most importantly, “talented” drawers see, and think, differently, from the “un-talented” ones. They don’t just draw the outlines of the life-model. They don’t impose their assumptions about what a human body should look like. Instead, they are able to observe the interplay of light and shadow with fresh eyes. Their ability to see translates directly into their ability to draw.
If you want to become “talented” at gardening, you need to learn how to observe your garden with fresh eyes. You need to see the interplay of different plants and microorganisms, of the sun and the soil.
This doesn’t require gaining a lot of book-learning about how to grow plants. Gardening books and websites can be great, but reading too many can just lead to confusion or make you feel overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that you supposedly have to learn.
Instead, just get down to the soil, take your time, and plant some seeds. See what happens. Don’t rush the process. In time, you will learn how to create the magic that’s required to make the seeds grow. It isn’t something that you need to have a green thumb to create. It’s a power that you will discover for yourself when you slow down and let the seeds grow.
In a garden, we are never given a blank canvas. No matter how perfect your garden site, it will have a character of its own — its particular microclimate, soil, slope, and a million other variables. Over time, we can affect many of these variables, but we are always working with the inspiration and restrictions of what is given to us. We are co-creators with our gardens.
In a similar way, a sculptor needs to work with the grain of his particular block of wood or stone. Reading the grain will give him both a set of restrictions as to where he can carve, and an inspiration for what subject matter to choose and where to start. If he imposes his vision without respecting the existing grain, the sculpture will crack.
Tending a garden can be one of the most creative things we do. There are thousands of plants to choose from and a million different ways to arrange those plants, giving us a colossal palette to work with.
This range of creative options can be intimidating to many gardeners. I have seen people get paralysed because they can’t figure out what to plant. I have also seen people set themselves up for disappointment by arbitrarily planting seeds without thinking.
Find a place to garden, even if it’s just a pot on your windowsill. Before you plant anything, take some time to get to know your site. How much light does it get? How much rain? What kind of soil does it have? How much time and money are you willing to put into it?
Like the grain in a sculptor’s block of stone, your observations and intuition will tell you what to do. Once you know what areas of your site have the most sun, and what areas have the most rain, it will be easy for you to decide what to plant where. It doesn’t require complicated planning, just courage.
One of the biggest mistakes that new gardeners can make is to expect that their garden will instantly and permanently be perfect, like a picture from a magazine. Instead, learn to see your entire garden as a process, as something that is continually moving through its cycles of life and death. Your garden this month won’t be anything like your garden next month. The most important thing to learn is to stay committed to your gardening practice, and to continually observe what’s going on — what’s healthy, what’s struggling, what new seeds need to be planted. By learning to see these relationships, you will become successful, just as the “talented” artist is able to always think and see with new eyes.
It’s a process that requires a lot of intelligence and creativity on your part.
A garden is alive, complex, and intelligent. It will continually change throughout the seasons. Your responsibility is to be a co-creator with your garden.