Green Thumb, Guaranteed:
Brilliant Gardening Advice From an Amateur

by Jeff Lewis

The advice in this article is very, very good. It is so good, in fact, that even if you only skim it, reading parts of only a few of the paragraphs, you will become a better gardener. This is the gardening equivalent to an email claiming that Bill Gates will give you a million dollars if you forward the chain letter to ten friends: there is no risk, but the rewards could astound. And unlike “Bill,” I plan to deliver the goods.

While I should be upfront and admit that I’m not a Master Gardener, my credentials are otherwise faultless. First off, I own over fifty gardening books including the complete Time Life Gardening Encyclopedia circa 1977, some of which I’ve read. (I hope some day to also own the California Master Gardener Handbook by the University of California Press, but because of an ill-advised purchase of the hyper-technical German Tennis Association’s Tennis Course Vol. 1: Techniques and Tactics, I need to first reestablish my reputation within the Lewis household as a competent book-buyer before I dare to purchase another dense instructional tome. When choosing this book, I became overly impressed by the many compound nouns and the line drawings of former Wimbledon champ Michael Stich; this is not the manual to buy your wife if she is a beginner. A sample passage: “Based on a biomechanical chain reaction (or a coordination of individual impulses), the last part of the stroke movement concentrates all the energy of the entire body’s movement in the forearm so that the energy can ultimately be released or discharged.”). Sorry, back to my credentials. Actually, that’s it, other than a garden full of plants that have survived trial and error, and the following profoundness.

1. Buy a $1 Plant. Dig a $20 Hole.

This is a bit of wisdom I’ve borrowed from The Dirt Gardener, Buzz Bertolero, although I’ve given it my own spin. The general idea is that the single most important factor in a plant’s success—discounting floods, drought, swarms of locusts, etc.—is the quality of the initial hole. Even if you buy a cheap plant, don’t spare any expense of time or resources when you put it in the ground. Treat it like a star, sans air kisses: dig a huge hole and amend the soil so it can shoot out roots quickly and deeply.

A great hole is the horticultural equivalent of being adopted by Philip Drummond. A plant jammed into a shallow, barren divot is more like the real-life Todd Bridges equivalent, unless you’ve planted something indestructible like blackberries or ivy. If that’s the case, you’ve just planted a weed in your yard and all future owners of your property will curse the day you were born. I suggest immediately covering your berry/ivy with cement, in order to salvage your property value.

There’s another layer of wisdom to be gleamed from this phrase, namely, it’s very difficult to dig adequate holes for large, expensive plants (not to mention the hassles of getting them out of their containers). On the other hand, pampering the younger, cheaper variety in smaller containers is easy. If you buy, for example, a large $30 camellia and plant it under your oaks, you’ll have difficulty digging an ample hole, which would need to be at least a couple of feet deeper and wider than the camellia’s container.

There will be a tangle of oak roots to contend with and chances are, the digging session will end with an exasperated, “This is good enough,” once the hole gets slightly larger than the pot. If you buy a wee $8 camellia, though, you’ll dig a satisfactory hole well before you reach your breaking point and within a year or so, the $8 plant will have surpassed its stunted $30 cousin.

Now that I’ve presented the overall theory, here are the details:

The Physical Hole

Buy Great Cheap Plants

I’ve already mentioned how an $8 plant can surpass a $30 plant in a relatively short time, but there’s another benefit to buying the cheaper plant: if it dies, you’re not out much money: you haven’t killed a plant, you’ve created a data point. Cheap plants facilitate experimentation. If you kill two camellias before you finally get it right, you’re still ahead of the game. By the way, a number of plants come in $2 or $3 sizes, especially sages, lavenders and rosemaries, which you usually can find in the herb section.

Above all, though, don’t buy the plants that look sad, like they stepped out of the pages of an Edward Gorey book.

2. Read the Planting Instructions

You need to find out three important facts about your new plant: eventual size, sun exposure needs and water/drainage requirements. Plant accordingly—don’t put huge trees or shrubs into tight places, water guzzlers next to cacti or sun bathers in the shade. Plants usually come with this info, but it can be incomplete or flat-out wrong. I often take a gardening book to the nursery as a reference, but when I forget, I search out the store’s reference copy. For those of you who aren’t afraid of salespeople, you can ask any employee wearing a dirty bib. Dirty bib = green thumb.

More Brilliant Advice

I own two versions of the Sunset Western Garden Book, my indoor copy and the water-logged, dirt-covered edition that I can refer to after I’ve pulled the plant out of its pot and have a brief crisis of confidence, needing to check the water requirements one more time. I don’t necessarily recommend purchasing two copies of every gardening book, but if you drop one in the mud and decide to buy a new one, use the despoiled one as your “yard copy.”

3. Don’t Plant Weeds

Never plant ivy, mint, blackberries, horsetails, ice plant, bamboo, ornamental strawberries or any other invasive plant directly in the ground. You will quickly consider these weeds, with the permanence of tattoos. Plant these only in containers and when you read the planting instructions, look carefully for the term INVASIVE. That is code for “ornamental weed.”

4. Better Living Through Chemicals … or Biology

Fertilizers perform wonders, whether they are chemical-based products that you mix with water or nasty concoctions of “tea” made from worm castings. Some experts say that non-organic solutions aren’t good for plants’ long-term health, but that’s like saying that steroids aren’t good for Jose Canseco’s long-term health. Not sure what my point is here.


Unless you plan to devote your life to the watering of your garden, if you live in an arid or semi-arid environment, you should set up an automatic drip irrigation system. You may get an unwieldy tangle of hoses all over the place, but you can cover them with mulch. Likely, they’ll eventually get covered with weeds, ornamental or otherwise.

5. Lick Your Plants

Talking to them is not enough. You need to get in their faces, not actually licking them, but getting close enough that you could. Periodically, check them for pests, preen them and look for diseases. If you find any problems, you have two options:

It doesn’t matter which you choose, just make sure you don’t let disease or damaged plant parts come in contact with other plants or sit around your yard. Treat each diseased leaf as if it was the horticultural equivalent of a dead bat. Do not lick.


Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Lewis