Lift the curse of the black thumb

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April 19, 2004 // UPDATED 1:18 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Hayley Tsukayama
Hayley Tsukayama

Selecting and caring for truly low-maintenance plants

I have a confession: I killed the marigolds I grew for a seventh-grade science experiment. I didn't mean to, it just happened. One day they were sprouting as scheduled, and the next they were withered and brown.

My beautiful mother, on the other hand, is a natural. Houseplants love her. They flourish under her gentle touch -- we call the north side of our home "the jungle." Her green thumb was apparently not hereditary. I seem to be cursed with more of a black thumb; I love plants, but they never stick around for long. The only thing I've successful grown is mold. And that was by accident.

Undeterred by the dead plants in my wake, I decided to visit a plant expert to find out what, if anything, could survive my black thumb. Scott Endres of Tangletown Gardens, 5353 Nicollet Ave., took my tales in stride (apparently, this is a common affliction) and had no problem directing me to the plants that can take the most abuse.

Keeping them alive

Knowing which plants to buy is only half the battle. Keeping them alive is still difficult for the botanically challenged.

Endres said the most common mistakes are problems with light, water and soil. While these may seem overly simplified, improper handling of any of these elements cues the death knell for your plant.

The solution? Read the directions. Yet, if you're like me, the light and soil classifications on those little white plastic, stake-type cards seem like another language.

Luckily, Endres agreed to decode a few key terms: "Full light" means that the plant gets five to six hours of sunlight a day. "Partial light" indicates three to five hours, and "shade" means three hours or less.

For those trying to grow sunny plants in a shady spot, Endres advises you to "Give up now. There are definitely some nice other plants that will love the area."

Watering troubles also plague beginners. The symptoms for overwatering and underwatering are similar, so if you know your wilting plant is getting enough water; leave it alone for a day or so. Drain excess water if it seems necessary; letting plants sit in water often causes root rot. Also, water at the base of the plant, don't just mist the top leaves. Misting works to free your plant of dust, but doesn't quench its thirst at all.

Problems with soil are also common with beginning gardeners. Be sure to fertilize, but overfertilizing can be worse than underfertilizing. Once again, follow included directions, and don't over-compensate if you forgot to fertilize. Endres also suggested that houseplants need less fertilizer in winter; half-strength works during winter months, and then ease the plants to full-strength in spring.

The most important thing to remember is to only grow plants suited for your home environment and that you can really take care of. Many people feel the need to get one of everything, including sensitive plants that are simply out of their league. As Endres told me, "That's what the Arboretum is for."

For those of us who still can't seem to grow anything, Endres adds that there's no shame in fake plants.