Bouncing into gardening

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.

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11 Responses

  1. Jeff

    Interesting article. I guess you can view the act of gardening as practice, however most would probably just say it’s a hobby for them. Like many things, including sports, there is a learning curve with gardening. There are a lot of factors and variables when it comes to gardening – trial and error. You don’t want your plants to die and you don’t want to spend all your time in caring for something and then have it die on you. Thanks to the internet though, there’s so much information out there to give you a base knowledge of whatever gardening you’re doing. I find that just going out and doing it is the best…even if you fail.

    Jeff | Keeping Plants Warm

  2. Sarah (@Soggous)

    This post has reminded me I have crocuses in pots from last year hidden behind the shed! I must retrieve them. They were a failed attempt at crocuses for Christmas (they flowered in February).

  3. Sue Beesley

    Six years ago I started the RHS Level 2 certificate along with some friends. We were all much of a muchness at the start in terms of knowledge and skill.

    Two years later as we all moved on the Advanced course, I had been running a plant nursery full time for one year while they remained keen hobby gardeners. The gap between my our knowledge levels became increasingly apparent as I racked up day after solid day of observation and practice in tandem with one day a week at college.

    I am entirely convinced that the combination of structured learning, immersion in the subject and daily extensive practice will make almost anyone highly skilled in almost anything.

  4. Alison

    A great article, thank you. I agree, it’s not about a mystical talent, it’s about knowledge and caring. I am only a hobby gardener and definitely no expert at all. I am learning all the time and funnily enough, stuff that I can’t do and get help on, once explained to me and techniques practised, I find I can do them. It’s about taking the trouble to learn and thinking that it matters.

  5. Sarah Hill

    I have in the past enjoyed gardening but have definitely felt that I’m not very good at it. Your post makes me feel like getting out there and having another go. Who know I might even venture out this weekend.

  6. Zia Mays

    All of the above, and motivation, of course. If you’re interested in the process of gardening (as opposed to wanting to have a lovely garden – not quite the same thing!), then reading up about it, and practising, and experimenting with planting, doesn’t feel like hard work, but fun.

  7. Maddalena

    what we ned to practice is to let unknown skills we have to come at the surface bypassing our rationality, waiting patiently to see what happens, it may take a season’s time, but we’ll never forget that lesson and the next step will be wiser

  8. john lord

    What is mostly needed is a heightened sense of observation for, in this case gardening. This can only be sustained if you are absolutely mad about it, which you either are or you’re not.

  9. Becky O'Malley

    Interesting article and observations… One thing I can’t seem to do is grow anything successfully from cuttings, whereas my grandmother could look at a plant and it seemed to multiply in front of her… she was clearly a wise lady, but I can’t help feeling she had a bit of a gift too! Her gift to me was my love of plants (despite my complete inability to take a decent cutting!)

  10. Katy Llewellyn

    I am OK with vegetables, but to indoor plants I am some sort of angel of death! I just can’t seem to get it right. Our neighbour gave us some geranium cuttings and no matter how much I experiment with the watering, wondering if I’m giving too little or too much, they are always wilted. We have inherited a large south-east facing flowerbed which really needs sorting out, so that will be interesting…


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