Breaking Ground

Spreading the Word

by Derek Burch

It's not necessarily your fault when a plant dies. Well, perhaps you are the one who poured on the water every day because the leaves were drooping, but I can't help sharing the guilt, because no one reached you to explain that soil that is too wet may stop the roots picking up water just as effectively as having no water in the soil. Both can result in drooping leaves.

I am deeply enmeshed in a group called which has a website and a CD dealing with houseplants. More particularly, now that one round of editing for them is done, I find myself responding to queries posted on the bulletin board, mostly dealing with houseplants, but we hate to turn anyone away. The bulletin board of PlantCare (like forum on my site) is meant to be a sharing spot, rather than an ask Uncle, and there is a pleasing amount of help offered by some skilled gardeners.

There are lots of generalities and commentaries to draw from the experience of the past several months. The overriding one is that for all the teaching and books and now websites that have happened, we have failed to reach people with the simple basics of what plants do, what they can tolerate, and how to make a plant ecstatically happy!

I am glad that people are willing to ask questions (you will have heard the often-quoted saying that the only dumb question is one that is not asked, and I heartily concur). I ask myself only "how have we managed to fail to reach so many people?"

Now, I would not put this on the same level as "why can't Johnny read?", but after more than 40 years, for me, of gardening and teaching (and talking - boy, do I talk), I am starting to feel glad that I am not the other sort of doctor - my patients would have been dying like flies with all the good advice that I had failed to communicate adequately. Come to think of it, there have been brown patches in the gardens that I have visited to offer help. . .

More interesting than this cause for breast-beating, however, is to have experienced how much people care. And how much they blame themselves for their failures. "What am I doing wrong?" "What do I need to do to save my plant?" "Please help me to save my plant, it is important to me and I feel so bad."

There are times when it is quite depressing, when I want to ask in turn "Why did you repot?, Why did you fertilise?, Who managed to reach you with these devastatingly wrong ideas? Where did I fail in spreading the good stuff?"

I wish that I could teach confidence, but confidence based on a pretty good idea of how a healthy plant should look, and how to keep it that way. Perhaps the thing to do is to encourage everyone to start with one of the easy plants and work up from there. Not an original idea, but I have one new twist, and here is my plan. If you want to become confident, buy an orchid!

Dendrobiums are becoming available everywhere: they are exotic, and look challenging, but in fact, given a nice light place, they are almost foolproof. Foolproof, yes, but still exotic and quite beautiful, so that the satisfaction from growing one is pretty high. So then you go on to a bromeliad. Still exotic but even easier than orchids.

Now, you should be ready for a challenge. Don't take on a ficus - that will destroy all the progress towards confidence made so far, but look at aglaonemas or a cactus or crown of thorns for a bright windowsill. All right so far? Well, what you have been doing is all there is to it.

It all seems so easy to me, but then I think a little more, remembering the mechanics who could diagnose problems in my car's engine just from hearing me drive up - and I only went in for wiper blades.

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