Plants are some of the most wonderful living creatures in our planet. They provide us with nutrients and oxygen, taking the energy from the sun’s rays and transforming them into a wide variety of chemical nutrients that we – and almost all other animals – need for survival. Caring for plants and growing your own food has many benefits, both psychological and phisiological that range from an improved sense of responsibility and more patience to healthier pesticide-free fruits and vegetables to enjoy with your family.

However it is not uncommon to hear people saying that they have a “brown thumb” a term which refers to a lack of an “innate” ability to grow healthy plants. Often I have heard people saying “I have killed very plant I have grown” or “plants just die when I have them”, etc. As a matter of fact, the problem is not that there is a magical ability to grow plants but that people with “brown thumbs” lack an understanding of how plants grow and what plants need. In today’s article I want to write a little bit about how you too – even if you have a “brown thumb” – can grow extremely healthy and beautfiul plants that will yield fruit and vegetables you will enjoy.

The first thing you need to do is to truly understand what plants need and how you can fulfill their needs. Plants basically need four things in order to survive, needs that they share with other photosynthetic organisms such as algae and other phytoplankton. I will now try to describe these necesities and how you can help your plant achieve the equilibrium status it desperately seeks to achieve.

  1. Plants need water. I bet you knew this one ! Effectively, all plants need water in order to survive. However you have to take into account that plants need to have just the “right” amount of water. If you water a plant too much its roots will not be able to take enough oxygen and the plant will die, if you water them too little the roots will dry and no nutrients will be absorbed, the plant will also start to wilt and its life will also be ended. A good tip to know if the amount of water is alright is the surface of the plant’s soil. If the soil has puddles of water, then there is too much water, if the soil is dry, then it is time to water. Most plants will do just fine if you water them thoroughly and then add more water once the surface of the soil is completely dry (probably a day or two after watering).
  2. Plants need air. They need both carbon dioxide and oxygen in order to survive. The first molecule is used to build all the carbon containing structures of the plant while the second one is used to oxidize sugar, obtain ATP and carry out energy demanding processes. Things such as nutrient absorption and growth require oxygen while the production of the carbohydrates the plant burns requires carbon dioxide. The roots need to have periods in which oxygen can access them and the leaves need to have access to carbon dioxide. To sum it up, a well drained soil mixture and a well ventilated space will allow your plants to thrive and avoid problems related with lack of oxigen and carbon dioxide both around the roots and leaves.
  3. Plants need light. As photosynthetic organisms, plants definitely need light in order to survive.  Your plant needs to have enough light and don’t let your own eye sight confuse you. Humans have very poor perception of light intensity as our pupils adjust to changes in light. A room that may seem fully lit to you may be a dark alley for your plants. If your plant is growing with a pale green color and too much space between the leaves then it is time to place it where there is more light. Plants crave light and giving them a lot of light is ideal. Growing plants inside rooms or halls is never a good idea for this reason ! (unless of course you have bought plants specially adapted to shady areas)
  4. Plants need nutrients. In order to survive, your little green friends need more than air, light and water, they need nutrients ! Even though these nutrients make up less than 10% of your plant’s mass by weight they provide vital structural and functional roles within your plant’s biochemistry. Plants need nitrogen, potassium, chlorine, molybdenum, nitrogen, zinc, iron, boron, iron, copper, magensium, manganese, calcium and phosporous in order to survive. Of course, they don’t need the pure elemental forms but the ionic absorbable forms available within soil or provided with fertilizers. A good organic mulch will provide enough nutrients for any plant in a pot and a triple 15 fertilizer will provide a good reinforcement as time goes by. However you need to remember not to overdo nutrients as adding to much will cause your plants to wilt and die !

I would have to confess to you that I was once  a “brown thumb” but I changed to green after I went through my major in chemistry. After a lot of undestanding about the chemistry of plants and the way in which they grow (and a lot of poor plants I experimented with) I was able to understand what plants need and how to fulfill their necessities. Of course, you do not need to be a chemist to take care of your plants but you need to understand the above mentioned needs and address them each time their is a problem. When your plants start to die – unless its the end of their life cycle – they are suffering from a problem related with the above 4 needs. In time you will learn how to accurately pin-point the problems and provide your plants with a wonderful environment to grow.

As always it comes down to how much you want to care for your plants and how much you want to learn about them. Growing plants is a wonderful experience but it doesn’t come without some dedication and the constant reminder that there is a living being that will die unless you remember to care for it. I hope this guide helps you grow your plants and remember, there is a green thumb inside all of us ! 🙂