Green thumbs are cultivated, not conferred

Gardeners look at things maybe morning AND  evening because that’s what gardeners do.

I’ve grown impatient with those people that tell me they just don’t have a green thumb. I lay a steely eye on them and tell them to admit that they just don’t care.

There is no magic dust sprinkled on a newborn babe that endows them with green thumbedness. It’s not a knack, it’s not talent, and it’s not in your genes. Plants thrive for people that take care of them. If you can’t grow a plant, any plant, then you should probably not be trusted with a puppy.

There’s a reason gardeners often have sore backs.

People “with green thumbs” learned the plant’s needs for soil, light and moisture, or lack of moisture. They might have started with researching this information, or they may have just paid attention. Plants tell people when they need things, and people who get that don’t try to make the plant fit into their schedule. I know a plant is likely doomed when a person asks “how often do I water it?” My standard reply, and yes, I know it is mean spirited, is “when it needs it”. I still worry about a high school greenhouse in Memphis after getting a phone call that went something like this.

“I’m the principal, and my horticulture teacher retired. Until we get another, it will be up to me to water the plants in the greenhouse, so I have set up an overhead irrigation system, and need to know how to set the timer for how long it needs to run it each day.”

Me: “By any chance, are all the plants the same kind and the same age, and in the same potting soil, and in identically sized pots, also are they getting exactly the same amount of sunlight across the entire house?

Principal (in an exasperated tone): “Heck no! There are a lot of different plants of different sizes, and I have no idea about the potting soil”.

Me: “Then you will kill many plants while keeping others alive. You should water by hand, checking daily with your finger and by weight, and watering only those that need it.”

Principal: “I don’t have time for that! Maybe I can get some help from the students, but that kind of advice is much too complicated for them. Just tell me how often to water!”

Me: “Sir, these are the students who signed up for the horticulture class? Then probably the most valuable thing they could learn is that plants have their own schedules, and are not required to fit into ours.”

That’s pretty much where it ended, and from the principal’s tone when we said goodbye, I’m pretty sure I didn’t win that one. Now and again, am image flickers in my mind’s eye of a stinking, soggy greenhouse ghosted with fungus gnats, with a few monstrous old fiddleleaf figs pushing at the roof, crying out for help. I should have used a more persuasive approach.

Container plants often can’t wait another day.

Those of us – and yes, I’ll claim one – with green thumbs don’t leave for work when the container plants are flagging, until those plants are watered. Yeah, sorry boss, I know the zoom meeting started twenty minutes ago, but my coleus were wilting, and the big potted begonia had to be moved from where it was getting too much sun, and the sedum was getting buried in oxalis. Sorry.

Maybe one day I will have a boss that appreciates that. Surely a smart boss would want a horticulturist with a green thumb.

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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”



  1. AMEN!

    My take is that there’s a significant number of people to whom plants are like wallpaper or other decor items — backdrops/scenery to prettify their lives. They don’t actually think of plants as living things, with the diverse needs and habits of living things. And often they’re not interested in changing their thinking.

    The other part of the population growing plants, consisting of the people who pay attention, has that elusive “green thumb” the first group can’t seem to find.

  2. I am so with you on this one. ‘Green thumb’ doesn’t exist- it’s just a gradual accumulation of knowledge, and paying attention to details. And caring. How many times have I heard people say “but it’s just a plant!” (they say that about my aquariums too: “but it’s just a fish!” however fish need particular care also) and then they wonder why it dies under their care. Because they didn’t care enough to pay attention to what they were doing for it.

  3. Well written! My usual retort to comments about a lack of green thumb is “if you keep putting your thumb in the soil it will eventually sprout and turn green.” Your tactic of asking them to admit they just don’t care is probably a more efficient way of getting to the same, unfortunate, end of the conversation…

  4. My people! Who is guilty of sharing water from your bottle with a plant? How many of us have gone to the cashier at the box store garden center and explained that the plants burning up in the sun should be moved to shade (or the reverse situation)? Ever pulled over and tried to tell someone out pruning their shrubs that you could show them a better way? Part of me wants to stop caring so much. but most of me continues to soldier on…

    • Oh yes. That’s me. I’m so offended when I go to buy plants and some were missed in the watering cycle. Or a big box store where they just don’t care and half the plants are wilted.

  5. On target. I walk by homes in my ‘hood and I want to say, “You need water your plants!” or “Please pull the mulch back from the base of that young tree.” Most of these plants were plopped in the ground this spring and are now long forgotten. Outdoor temps are in the high 90’s. However, I keep my mouth shut. A 4 month old dogwood down the street is dying because the business never watered it, and I almost watered their potted shrubs by the door the other day because they were so pitiful.

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