The Year My Thumb Went From Green to Black

20170225aAlmost 40 years ago, my wife and I had an extraordinary apartment… for plants at least. Wall-to-wall windows facing south-east, a similar bank of windows facing north-west and few obstacles between the two made for an apartment that was bathed in light almost all day. Even after I installed several levels of plant shelves in front of the windows, the apartment was still incredibly well lit.

My houseplants just loved this apartment! And more plants I grew, the more beautiful they became. Of course, that’s not surprising, because the more plants you grow, the higher the air humidity and most plants just love good humidity!

I put shelving in front of the windows so I’d have more room for plants.

My collection just kept growing and growing. After all, I kept adding new plants, yet the others never died.

I was still a fairly novice indoor gardener at the time and so thought all the success I was having was due to my personal prowess in growing plants. I thought I had just about the greenest thumb in town!

Like a House of Cards

With a first baby on the way, we went looking for larger yet inexpensive quarters and moved to a basement apartment. There was a decent-sized south-facing window at one end and several smaller east windows on the side. It looked fine to me, there was a bedroom for the baby, a much nicer kitchen, etc., so in we moved… with all 600 of my plants.

They weren’t long in reacting to the change.

Everything that could go wrong did: my plants were dying!

Some plants simply stopped growing at first, others began to send up pale etiolated growths, others dropped leaves. Spider mites, thrips and whiteflies, which had never been hard to control at the other apartment, began to appear everywhere. And rot showed up in so many of the plants. Then they started to die. First a few, then a lot. They literally died by the hundreds. Where had happened to my green thumb?

I thought I knew how to water, but if I watered normally, they rotted; if I cut back on watering, they keeled over. I tried fertilizing them massively, misting them over and over (I hadn’t yet learned that misting is strictly a waste of time), adding a humidifier, watering with rain water and melted snow, cleaning their leaves, pruning, repotting on a massive scale, but nothing worked. My green thumb had turned totally black!

No Light, No Plants

Basement windows just don’t let in much light.

It took me a long time to understand that the cause of the problem was lack of light. You see, the human eye is very good at adapting to low light: we’re almost catlike in our ability to see under dim conditions. To me, the apartment was fairly well it… but my plants were trying to tell me what my eyes could not: that the apartment was really very dark. The large window to the south was overhung by an even larger balcony that prevented any direct rays of sunlight from penetrating. And the side windows were always blocked by something: snow in the winter (we had over 5 feet/1.5 m of snow that year!) and parked cars all year, plus there was a another building cutting off any direct sun. From a plant’s point of view, the apartment was a disaster!

Lack of light in itself is already harmful to plants, but it also leads to other problems. Harmful insects thrive on stressed plants… and mine were very stressed. As for rot, a plant that lacks light is no longer able to properly absorb the water it receives, so sits in soil that remains soggy. As a result, decay sets in. And the worst thing you can do to a plant stressed by lack of light is to fertilize it… but no one had told me that.

Within 6 months, I lost two-thirds of my collection! Some 400 plants had died. I was in despair.

Artificial Light to the Rescue

I first learned about growing plants under artificial light by accident, in a magazine I saw in my dentist’s waiting room. According to the article, you could grow herbs indoors all year just as easily as outdoors under a simple shoplight fluorescent fixture.

Banks of fluorescent lights in my basement today: no natural light is needed.

That’s how I came to install a first plant light in the apartment’s kitchen. To be honest, the herbs I tried did not thrive (today I know that most are full-sun outdoor plants that are simply not well-adapted to indoor conditions), but the “true houseplants” that I placed under the lamp quickly started to grow again. I still recall one dying African violet, reduced to only a tiny rosette of still green leaves on top of a bare stem, that had regained most of its size and started to bloom within 2 months of my placing it under the lamp. For a plant, that’s a quick recovery!

It didn’t take me long to set things up more properly. I literally lined the apartment’s long hall with shoplights and plant shelves. It was so encouraging to see my plants start to come back to life. My green thumb was back!

Another Move

We stayed only two years in that basement apartment. It was just too depressing looking out the window only to see the rusty undersides of parked cars rather than sunlight.

You can be sure that we searched for and found a apartment with much better natural lighting: no more basements for us! As for my fluorescent lamps, they got a room of their own in the new place and I began using them mostly to grow cuttings and seedlings now that i had plenty of windows again.

Green Thumb = Good Growing Conditions

20170225fThat experience taught me many things, but especially that a green thumb is not something you magically develop, but is in fact more greatly influenced by growing conditions than the skill of the gardener. And I finally understood that it’s light that makes plants thrive, not fertilizer!

Long live big, unobstructed windows and east, south or west exposures! And when natural light is lacking, long live artificial light!20170225a

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

1 comment on “The Year My Thumb Went From Green to Black

  1. I’m still reeling over 600 plants. 🙂 I have six. That is my maximum because of windows, heating systems, etc.

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