If plant care was a sport, its players would not be ranked by golden trophies or karate belt colors but by thumbs. Having a ‘green thumb’ is horticultural slang for having a talent for growing plants, whether it’s flexing your skills in outdoor gardening or cultivating every houseplant parent’s dream of an indoor plant sanctuary.
The Myth of the Green Thumb
The botanical idiom of being green thumbed (or being ‘green fingered’ as it’s referred to in the U.K.) can be traced back to the early 1900s, and is often misunderstood as an innate gift for making plants happy instead of an acquired skill honed through practice. Being green is otherwise culturally coded for lacking experience, but here, the association of greenness with wisdom sets a high bar for would-be plant lovers.
For as many green thumbs there are growing plant babies there are twice as many self-described brown thumbs, aka the Grim Reapers of plant care who, try as they may to sustain life, leave a trail of slumped stems, dried leaves, parched soil and premature plant death in their wake.
What is a brown thumb + tips to overcome it
For over a century, the brown/green thumb binary has caused too many potential plant parents to give up in a defeated shrug as they write off common trial-and-error issues in planting as an insurmountable failure. Having a green thumb is not a skill you are born with, it’s a mindset that you develop. The core tenets of plant care are about setting realistic expectations for your houseplants, giving them attention, planning their care, and prioritizing them in your weekly routine. With just a few changes, we think that anyone can discover the joy of houseplants regardless of the hue of their proverbial thumbs.
Get to Know Your Plant
Each plant has its own needs. Yes, certain varieties have their stereotypical behaviors (needy ferns, aloof succulents, plucky pothos, etc…) but in reality, it takes time getting acquainted with your individual plant to understand what it needs to become a flourishing member of your household.
Visit with your plants regularly, even if they don’t need to be watered. Check in on them at least once a week so that their presence becomes a part of your life. Reimagine your approach to houseplants like if you were meeting a new friend. Get to know their personality and preferences. How much sun do they need? How much do they like to drink? Are they happiest in a steamy sauna or an arid desert climate? In our new book Happy Plant: A Beginner's Guide to Cultivating Healthy Plant Care Habits, we have included a plant journal specifically for this purpose, so you can track your plant's needs and personality.
It’s hard to forget about the friends you love because you are in steady contact with them and when they are absent from your life, you miss them. This is how a healthy relationship with your plants can grow. Devoting time to them ensures that they are never out of sight or out of mind. If you regularly hang out with them, you will notice subtle changes in their appearance quickly and detect shifts in their environment as it happens in real time, not after the fact. When you notice their growth start to falter, you can take action before it’s too late.
Get Your Hands Dirty
The paradox of plant care is that by getting your literal thumbs brown with soil, you can metaphorically turn them green with wisdom. An important part of getting to know your plant is getting used to sticking your fingers into the soil, looking underneath their leaves for pests, and taking note of what each part of your plant’s anatomy looks like when it’s healthy.
In the same way that the interior conditions of your home affect your health, what’s going on in your plant’s container (their home) is a crucial part of their care that often gets overlooked by plant newbies. Plants don’t just need sunlight and water, they need routine soil check-ups.
Soil health isn’t static. It requires seasonal maintenance and annual repotting for most indoor plants. The nutrients in container soil get washed away bit by bit with each watering, which is why plants need to be repotted with fresh soil each year along with regular fertilizer feedings. Houseplant fertilizer is like a multivitamin for plants to ensure they have enough of their essential nutrients: potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus.
Remember: Plants Are Moody
Don’t take the death of a plant too personally. When a plant gives up the ghost, so to speak, it isn’t always a reflection of your caretaking skills.
Losing a plant isn’t a character flaw, it’s a learning process. As long as you seek to learn from planting mistakes, like identifying why the plant died, how to troubleshoot next time, and recognize sickly plant behavior sooner, you can avoid repeating the same patterns over and over.
Just like people, some plants are moodier than others. We wish there was an astrological compatibility chart for us and our houseplants, but until we can predict the success of Leos with Ficus Lyrata or Scorpios with Scindapsus, it’s safe to assume that some plants we interact with require more specific attention than others.
Best Plants for Beginners?
For beginner plant lovers, the best advice is also the hardest to take: Start small. Social media celebrates a roomful of diverse bushy leaves, but more isn’t always merrier. At least not when it comes to juggling the care of brand new green creatures with learning the basics of plant care.
Here are the 3 best plants for beginners:
Growing these will help you build confidence and grow at your own pace. After all, the marker of a green thumb is having curiosity to learn more about the world around you, and to extend patience in growth to you and your plants.
O’Conner, Patricia T. and Stewart Kellerman. “Green Thumbs and Green Fingers” Grammarphobia, 2017.
Dykstra, Thane. "A Rule of Thumb” Valparaiso University, 1984.