Why do some people have ‘green fingers’ and not others? Have you ever asked a friend to look after your beloved pot plant, only for them to protest, ‘Don’t give that to me, I only have to look at a plant for it to keel over.’ What sets expert gardeners apart from the rest?
This month I have been spurred outside by a sports psychology book called Bounce, written by three-time Commonwealth table-tennis champion and award-winning sports journalist Matthew Syed. The author takes the reader on a fascinating journey through some of the less than obvious factors that contribute to excellence in sport, which can also be applied to any other complex activity. His main premise is to debunk the ‘god-given talent’ myth, instead proving again and again that hard work and purposeful training are what correlate most strongly to success.
He draws on Malcolm Gladwell’s work in Outliers, which identifies the ‘ten-thousand-hour’ rule: ten thousand hours worth of practice is a solid guideline of what is needed to become an expert in any given field. What sets apart child prodigies, such as Mozart, more often that not, is this dedication to practice:
‘It is only by starting at an unusually young age and by practising with such ferocious devotion that it is possible to accumulate ten thousand hours while still in adolescence. Far from being an exception to the ten-thousand-hour rule, Mozart is a shining testament to it.’
Gardening is not a sport; and it does not involve thousands of complex fine motor interactions, like tennis, diving or football. However, it involves a different kind of complexity, contained in the layers upon layers of plant names and cultivation techniques that make up gardening expertise. Does gardening skill come from natural, God-given ‘talent’ and instinct, or is it honed through hours of purposeful practice? To go back to your friend who can kill a plant with one look, I would say that it is lack of familiarity, lack of practice, not a lack of ‘green blood’ that leads to the death of our innocent hypothetical plant.
Some of you will be rolling your eyes at me gabbling on about something so esoteric. But to me, an alien in the garden and far more at home smacking tennis balls or pounding pavements, it gives me a familiar framework in which to learn. If I believe that success in the garden is essentially down to fixed talent, I will be less likely to push myself outside my gardening comfort zone, or even to get outside the door, too overwhelmed by how much I don’t understand. But if I believe that expertise in gardening can be grown, like the seeds I plant in the ground, with purposeful practice and accumulated hours of familiarity, then I will get out that door and get stuck in.
In this frame of mind, this month I have planted winter spinach in pots, dug over part of my border and planted alliums, crocuses and tulips, with hyacinths and daffodils still to do in pots. Last year in my beginner’s earnestness, I followed the packet instructions to the letter, leading to some bizarre, regimented rows of crocuses and tulips. This year I planted randomly and with complete abandon, which I hope will result in a fiesta of Spring colour. See? I’m growing already.