Get Dirty: A Black Thumb's Guide to Gardening

Get Dirty: A Black Thumb's Guide to Gardening
Toad, of Frog and Toad, yelling at his seeds to grow.

It was one of my grandmother's favorite summer past times. She'd mix up a glass of Country Time lemonade for each of us, and then we'd walk the garden of her Oak Lawn bungalow. She'd tell me a little about each of the plants as if they were old friends - which ones were temperamental, which were hearty, which were easygoing. We'd admire the fragrant peonies, check on the delicate blooms of her bleeding heart bush, and comment at how quickly sedum and moss roses were taking over on the side of her house. Even into her late 80s, you'd catch her pruning plants and picking weeds in her backyard.

Unfortunately, her gardening genetics passed me by. While I certainly enjoy beautiful flowers and luscious foliage with the best of them, I seem to have a veritable black thumb. I've been fighting with my garden for years, growing a vegetable garden or creating potted plant masterpieces, only to have them shrivel up and die a week or two later. But, I'm determined to turn over a new leaf (no pun intended). As I've been out and about Chicagoland this spring admiring everyone else's gardens, I've picked up a few helpful hints to keep me from killing my foliage. These may seem as no-brainers to you veteran gardeners out there, but I've got to start somewhere, right?

1. Hydration in Moderation: I have been guilty of either flooding my plants with water, or leaving them starving for water in a bed of dry soil. Keeping a steady level of hydration is key, so the soil stays slightly moist and plants can thrive.

2. Know Your Sun Worshippers and Shady Characters: Certain plants thrive in the sun, while others prefer the shade. Plant tags come with most all plants, making it very easy to identify what likes full sun, part sun, or part shade. You can take it a step further by purchasing Sun Sticks, which can tell you how much sun different areas of your garden are getting. No more ferns baking in the hot sun.

3. Highs and Lows: The most attractive gardens are those that have plants and blooms at varying heights. Taller flowers along the back with lower plants and shrubs towards the front create visual interest. Also take into consideration when a particular plant blooms, so you have nice, steady blooms throughout the summer.

4. 50 Shades of Green: I refuse to jump on the "50 Shades of Grey" bandwagon, but when it comes to my garden, I'm all over shades of green. Caladium, dusty miller, and speckled or striped hostas can add a lot of dimension while all staying within the green color family.

5. Patience is a gardening virtue. My kids love Arnold Lobel's "Frog and Toad".  So much so that we attended Du Page County Christian Youth Theater's Performance of the musical last weekend. One of the acts, "The Garden", struck a chord with me. Toad is admiring Frog's garden and decides he'd like to grow his own. He plants some seeds in the ground, but is impatient when his seeds do not immediately start growing, eventually shouting at them. Frog points out that growing takes time and nurturing, and the waiting is the hardest part.  But, think of the pesto you'll make with fresh basil from your garden or the endless bouquets of fresh roses at your dinner table.

With thoughts of pesto with fresh basil and endless bouquets of garden roses dancing in my head, I'm motivated to put these tips into action. It's time to get dirty.

Have any gardening tips you want to share with us black thumbs out here? Leave a comment. Want to really be inspired? Attend one of Chicago Botanic Garden's many garden walks, exhibitions, or chef series.




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  • Hi there! Mind if I link this post? I blog about urban gardening here at ChicagoNow. You have some great tips for those who are scared to start!

  • In reply to marmar:

    Certainly! If it can help any of the newbies out there. I will need to check out your blog as well. While I am in a rural setting out in the 'burbs, I do have a small lot and am always interested in gardening ideas for small spaces (which I imagine is a common problem in the city).

  • You don't have to get a black thumb. I know from experience how annoying and unsalubrious these can be. I try to avoid them as much as possible these days by either wearing gloves: cloth or latex/vinyl.

    Good horticultural advice. Especially the patience part.
    BTW, 'speckled' hosta? I have a few variegated varieties, but not quite anything like a speckled one.

    Out here around Oak Lawn, we lost recently a great place to buy hostas: Syd's in Palos Heights.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    You know, variegated or streaked is a more appropriate word than speckled. I actually grew up in Palos Heights and am very familiar with Sid's. I'm sorry to hear that the greenhouse and garden center closed. They were a South Side staple!

  • My purple-blue irises are blooming and they begged me to come out this morning and weed around them. They are so lovely they deserve this recognition. More tomorrow after the rain.

  • In reply to banksjeri:

    Every year, your irises are gorgeous and vibrant - just like Van Gogh's irises. Stay cool out in this heat.

  • I love growing basil in the summer and making pesto and caprese salads. I can never keep the basil growing when I bring it indoors....great ideas. I am going to enlarge the garden this year!

  • In reply to Lisa Stiegman:

    Yum. I need to get some of your basil and plant it over here. You had tons last summer.

  • Things that flourish without any care, Ferns don't need any fussing with you can transplant they any where and they thrive, also hostas. I try to mix up colors to add variety to garden. Found a new annual its Persian Shield. Very hardy and plant in sun for beautiful purple color....gets quite full. But in future looking for more perennials.

  • Sounds encouraging. I'd like to try, although I could barely keep my "Topsy Turvy" alive!

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    Great well written article and a great website. I wish I would of found this website much sooner. I certainly will be bookmarking it and checking back in the near future for more articles.

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