What do you need to know to be a good gardener?

I've been mulling over this today.

There's a traditional horticulture approach that includes soil science, basic botany and entomology, fertilizers and composting, learning about ornamental, herbaceous, and woody plants, integrated pest management and pesticide safety.

In the U.S., many of our Master Gardener programs coordinated by land grant universities follow a curriculum based on this approach. Some states have diverged into sustainable gardening (Oregon, Illinois, Maine, and others) or EarthKind gardening at Texas A&M.

But as a passionate gardener, who was 'trained' as a plant ecologist, I'm not sure that this is exactly what you need to know to be a good gardener.

Do you really need to know about soil chemistry and cations, and how that works?

Of course, understanding your soil's characteristics, building soil food webs, increasing soil health, and adding organic matter is important to any garden. If you want to grow plants that require nutrient-rich soil (think vegetables, which are seasonally harvested), soil enrichment is incredibly important, whether it's from organic cover crops or fossil-fuel dependent 10-10-10. But adding mulch and compost, along with organic fertilizers, takes care of these needs without learning about cation balance.

So what about Basic Botany and Entomology?

Understanding how plants grow, reproduce, how they're related, how they spread -- these are all important topics within 'Basic Botany.' Ditto for 'Entomology' and insects of all sorts.

I DO wish I had taken an enlightened Entomology class somewhere along the way in my 'formal' training. But there's an awful lot of dull stuff that masquerades as Basic Botany out there; trust me, I've had to teach it. And Entomology is equally dreadful, if mishandled.

And not to mention plant pathology (all the things that can go wrong) and often do, if your garden isn't in balance or has had pests introduced (root-knot nematodes, in my case).

Uh, pesticide safety? Excellent idea, but I think I'll just say no. I'm frankly relying on pest control from my wildlife-friendly garden.

What do you think you need to know to be a good gardener? To grow vegetables, flowers, shrubs, trees, etc.?

Let me know.


  1. LKW- Interesting question. As a Master Gardener I know there are many areas of study that assist in becoming a better gardener. Another question you could pose is- "What Makes a Good Gardener". Results? Appearance? Harvest?
    However, to answer the question... One of the first things that comes to mind is "Right plant, right place". Rather simplistic, but it seems to encompass plant requirements. Another thought is to mimic Mother Nature. Encourage wildlife and practice sound horticultural practices. Those are my immediate thoughts on a great question.

  2. LKW-I am a rank amateur at gardening though I have had a garden in many states. A lot of what I know about gardening I learned from watching my grandparents. The think I have struggled with as I have moved from one end of the country to the other is the "local" knowledge, last frost dates, what is different about the soil, length of the growing season, etc. Let me tell you, Texas and Alaska definitely have different growing circumstances than South Carolina. As I noted in my newbie blog, Adventures in a Carolina Victory Garden, just yesterday, the master gardeners, their manuals when available and the cooperative extensions in each of those places have been my best resources.

    Whether these tools will make me a better gardener this year remains to be seen.

  3. Well, gee, good question. Being a humanist by temperament and training, I'm going to take a different approach than those who've already written in with the very good, practical observations. And despite having no talent at science, I am going to defend the knowledge of cations up front.

    I am a "master gardener" technically but I'm not sure I'm a "good" gardener, although I try to be. At the root(sorry!) of both, I think, should be a certain kind of attitude. I am pretty sure that "Master" gardeners should know about cations, soil chemistry, and pesticides (even if we don't use them and would advise others not to). I was nonplussed when I did the MG program to find people in the program who not only didn't know how to deadhead a pansy but also had no real interest-- no curiosity, no wonder-- about what goes on underneath the ground. (Not all, thank goodness, but far too many people do these programs with more passion for enhancing their property values than understanding the natural world and helping their neighbors). A Master gardener should know such things since a Master gardener is supposed to be a community leader and have a broad knowledge of things. And she should furthermore be able to extend that obtuse knowledge to practical situations. And have the good sense to know that one can learn in the reverse too. That's the problem with many MG programs (and many other educational programs of various sorts): There's a gap between the learning of fact and experience. It's not that the knowledge is irrelevant; it's that connections aren't taught (or, the teaching isn't through connection). I was asked exactly twice in the MG program I did to use what I was learning in a practical situation (or simulation). That's surely not enough for most learners in most situations much less those who are supposed to be in training to help and communicate things to others.

    But a "good" gardener? Well, I was fortunate in my MG training to encounter one-- the person with whom I did most of my volunteer hours. At almost 80 when I knew her, she'd been gardening since childhood and had pioneered an heirloom teaching garden long before"edible schoolyard" was chic. She knew things mostly because she learned by having done them. But she also had the curiosity about and reverence for nature and gardening that kept her "alive" as a gardener-- never stale, never "knowing-it-all" (although she pretty much did). She had a kind of relationship with land and plants that made her want to know more and more about these already intimate friends of hers. Maybe she didn't need to know much about cations but she would have wanted to anyway. She was a good gardener. She got results, she used sound, sustainable practices, and she knew her land. Her new best friend was the internet because she'd discovered just how much more she could learn about plants there; of course, she had the ability to wade through the nonsense because of her experience. But all this goodness and good result goes back to a kind of approach to knowing that was all about wonder. I think she felt it every time she looked at a earthworm or an ear of corn. It wasn't something she did or knew so much as it was who she was. She was really good and she was really a master-- but always humble about the possibility of being surprised in the garden. Sometimes when I'm trying to outsmart nature, I think about that.

  4. What excellent thoughts and comments!

    I think I actually needed to pose the question the opposite way -- what does a beginning gardener need to know?

    And when I think about it, I'm not sure that any gardener is going to say she or he is a 'good gardener' come to that. There's always something more to learn.

    Janet, you're so right that another good question is 'what makes a good gardener?' And, you're definitely on target (in my opinion) with 'right plant, right place'-- it's so succinct in encompassing an understanding of your garden site in addition to knowing about the plant you're wanting to plant there -- a nicely holistic approach!

    LHR, I'm so glad that you're finding the info contained in the SC MG manual helpful -- and quite a lot of it is extracted in the CU HGIC fact sheets for easy downloading. The Planning a Garden factsheet is one of my favorites for timing of planting vegetables, at least for most of the common ones.

    And, CEN, I love the description of your 'good gardener' friend. What a great experience to have had. It's that reality that makes me appreciate the Master Gardeners that I know (and work with).

    Gardeners are the best sort, and always willing to share their knowledge in a supportive way and in an excellent learning environment.

    I think much of my grumpiness about cations (quite useful, of course) is that I think traditional classes and courses focus too much on learning 'stuff' that someone thinks we need to know, not necessarily what is useful or engaging or thought-provoking.

    It IS really about curiosity, and a sense of wonder, and having fun learning more that is much of the joy of gardening (and the natural world) to me.



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