What Plant Technicians Could Learn from Sherlock Holmes

Known for his ability to draw conclusions from small clues, the famous fictional detective of the 19th century may very well be a useful model for plant technicians of the 21st.  Let’s see what we can learn from this iconic character, shall we?

Holmes was famous for his use of abductive reasoning. That is, he would start with an observation and from that develop a theory that would account for that observation. In other words, he made observation-based inferences. The first step, then, in implementing a Sherlock Holmes approach to plant care is to spot the clues. To do that, you need sharp eyes. You need to notice everything. Problems don’t always jump out at you – sometimes you have to actually look for them.

I like the analogy of the Canadian bush pilot searching for lost hikers. Flying over the miles of forest, the pilot develops the knack of looking past the treetops to the ground beneath for clues to the whereabouts of the missing people. In the same way, we don’t look at just a green plant’s outer shape and form. We take in the undersides of the leaves. We see the leaf axils. Our eyes run down the stems. We notice the soil surface, the container, the floor, and walls around the plant.

What are we looking for? Little white spots, always, but just as important are the subtle discolorations and deformations of the leaves. The shading, shape, and location of discolorations are important clues, just as are curling, drooping, and an asymmetrical shape.

Using your sense of touch can uncover important clues as well. Sometimes a little stickiness on the container is the first sign that of one of the Sternorrhyncha gang might be present. And don’t forget your sense of smell. Ever smell mealybugs on a plant?

Now that we’ve discussed how to start your investigation, let’s talk about what the famous detective does upon spotting a clue. He investigates it! Sherlock Holmes didn’t draw his conclusions out of thin air. He was one of the first people to use what is now called forensic science, along with environmental analysis and causal speculation.

After discovering stickiness on a plant container, the next thing we need to do is to look for the scales sticking to the bottoms of those ficus stems. When we see too many brown leaf tips, we should begin examining the soil moisture near the bottom of the soil mass. When we observe that a plant is failing, and we know we’ve been fertilizing it properly, we need to explore the possibility of an elevated saline level in the soil or other possibilities such as an environmental change which is affecting the light levels.

We, then, can use Sherlock Holmes’ method of observation and deduction to notice clues before they become problems, investigate the situation, and institute corrective actions.

What are some other similarities between Sherlock and any good plant technician? Well, his famous associate Dr. Watson, described him as having a “cat-like” love of cleanliness. We know that plant-care professionals need to be almost obsessive in keeping their plants and plant surroundings clean, if for no other reason than hating to get calls from unhappy clients. Holmes’ clients were most often high government officials, wealthy industrialists, aristocrats, and royalty. We also see many of the more prosperous elements of society in our professional capacities. Holmes, however, was known to take a case “pro-bono” now and then; alas, I don’t think this is an attribute we can share.

Another trait of the illustrious Sherlock was his propensity to starve himself in times of intense intellectual activity. I’ve known, and I’m sure you have too, techs who routinely go without lunch. When I started in the business, one of the selling points was the “tech diet.” Although I’m not sure about the “intellectual activity” part of it, I think skipping lunch was more about trying to get all the work done in a day that was never long enough.

Sherlock Holmes was not in it for the fame. He was quite content to let the police take all the credit for his insights. And who among us expects to get any praise from our clients? Heck, it’s always amazing to find that even knows we exist.

There is, however, one BIG difference between us and the great detective – whereas he expected law enforcement to make the arrests, cart the perps off to jail, and mete out judgement, we are the ones who step in to take care of the bugs, set to right the imbalances, and clean up any messes left behind.

Allow me to leave you with these words of wisdom from Mr. Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.” And I’m not going to include, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” because according to my sources, that phrase doesn’t appear in any of the original books or stories.

Sherlock Holmes
Featured image by Kaysse

Marlie Graves, known as The Ficus Wrangler, has been keeping plants beautiful, training techs and relating to clients at half a dozen companies for 30 years. She studied creative writing and psychology in college and went on to start an independent film company with her first husband. She decided to focus on plants full time after completing the NYBG Horticulture School interior landscaping course. Marlie is retired, operates "The Ficus Wrangler" YouTube channel, contributes regularly to several houseplant forums, and is working on a plantcare book based on professional methods.

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