Want to cultivate your green thumb? Think like a plant, says gardening expert

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TORONTO Whether pruning your azaleas comes second nature or youre a total gardening neophyte, Barbara Damrosch has some words of wisdom for those looking to further cultivate their green thumb or grow one: think like a plant.

TORONTO Whether pruning your azaleas comes second nature or youre a total gardening neophyte, Barbara Damrosch has some words of wisdom for those looking to further cultivate their green thumb or grow one: think like a plant.

Everybody has to start somewhere and I think you just have to get your mindset into the basic things that plants need, said Damrosch, author of The Garden Primer (Workman), a how-to gardening guide.

Choosing the right ones for your climate, the right amount of moisture for the right, particular plant, but most of all, good soil. Thats really the key to all of it.

And how can you tell whether your earth is good to go? Damrosch says its all about getting hands on.

If you look at your soil, smell your soil and feel your soil, you know you ask yourself, Can my fingers work down into that soil easily? she said, adding that youll want to pretend as youre digging that your hands are probing roots.

You want a soil that has the texture of chocolate cake, if you can possibly achieve it.

It can be hard to think of flowers in bloom when large pockets of the country continue to be pounded by forceful winter weather, but Damrosch says there can be an upside to the cold temperatures.

I think probably all that freezing and thawing and heavy snow is probably just working manure into the soil if youve added it in fall, she said.

Winter is actually good for the soil, and then when it all wakes up, I think that thats when you have to pay attention. I think the danger point is in spring if its very mucky and muddy. You really dont want to till the soil until its dried out a little bit.

Damroschs gardening know-how has evolved during her more than 30 years working professionally in the horticulture field.

She and her husband, Eliot Coleman operate the Four Season Farm, an experimental market garden in Maine where they produce vegetables year-round and which has become a recognized model of small-scale sustainable agriculture.

Damrosch writes, consults and lectures on gardening, farming and landscaping, including A Cooks Garden, a weekly column for The Washington Post.

The Garden Primer is a self-described gardeners bible revised for its 20th-anniversary edition with a focus on organics, stressing the value of avoiding chemical fertilizers, which Damrosch says arent nourishing for the soil, while also tackling the tasks of coping with wildlife and insects.

Damrosch paid a recent visit to Toronto where she gave a presentation at Canada Blooms, the countrys largest flower and garden festival.

As she walked around the cavernous Metro Toronto Convention Centre, a dizzying array and pungent aroma of flowers at every turn, she expressed her desire to help support gardening novices in their efforts to get started.

So many people who are beginners say, I cant garden. I have a black thumb. Im going to kill a plant, she said. You just have to give them a little bit of encouragement and say, You can do this. Plants really want to grow.

Damrosch recommends starting with something simple like bean seeds. Wait until the soil has warmed and youll soon see how quickly theyll come up and how vigorously they want to grow, she said.

Another key is to shop locally in nurseries, preferably ones that grow their own stock, who will best know what types of plants will thrive in your climate, she said.

For those looking to plant shrubs around the home, Damrosch said its important to be attuned to the size, height and width the plant will ultimately be.

People will bring home these cute little fuzzy bushes and plant them right near the house and before you know it you have Sleeping Beautys castle. They have to rip it all out and start all over again and theyre constantly having to hack them back and prune them several times a year.

Ultimately, when it comes to preserving plants, the best way is to create an environment that is healthy and unstressed for them to thrive.

I think its the same principles as human beings: If you eat well and exercise and get plenty of sleep, eat a balanced diet, youre going to be healthy and resist colds ... and its the same with plants, Damrosch said. If they have good nutrition, just the right amount of moisture for that kind of plant, they will resist pests and diseases for the most part.

Organizations: The Washington Post, Canada Blooms, Metro Toronto Convention Centre

Geographic location: TORONTO, Maine

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