I remember growing up hearing the term “green thumb”, usually in reference to my maternal grandmother or aunt, who took a keen liking to plants and who always had a nice garden. As a youngster, I thought that it must be something that you were born with and since I didn’t really take a keen interest in gardens it wasn’t a term I thought I would ever be attributed with.
According to one online dictionary source, a green thumb refers to “a knack for making plants grow well”. To me, it is more than just a natural skill. It’s something that is learned. For some people, they may have had the opportunity to learn about gardening at a very young age, but for others it is something that you can pick up later.
Many of my friends comment that they don’t have a green thumb. Well, the truth is that I didn’t either. I didn’t have much interest in the garden until my husband and I bought our first house, which has a reasonable garden. The rental property we were at previously was a small unit with a small front garden completely full of suckering Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca ericifolia) that also cast a continuous shadow on the front steps. The backyard was not really big enough for our dog, let alone for a garden of any type (even a collection of pot plants outside).
I had studied environmental science and took a keen interest in the local bushland, including the indigenous species, so the first garden bed I planted out at our new place only contained indigenous species. These were a great way to start as they are used to the conditions we have. Not long after, I gained a volunteer position taking tours of a garden that educates people about Australian native plants, so I had plenty to learn. I then started putting in plants that were native to other parts of Australia, rather than just my local area. I did this for several years and now I work at a nursery selling plants – a job I never would have dreamed of doing 6 years ago when I wasn’t that interested in gardening.
The truth is that I have worked hard to learn about gardening and I have had many failures along the way. Many green thumbs I speak to admit that they learn what works for them and then plant more of what is doing well in their garden. I still don’t really think of myself as a green thumb as there is always plenty more to learn, however, I know that many of my friends probably think I am.
Here are my tips for learning to acquire a green thumb:
- Read some books on basic gardening, watch YouTube videos or attend talks – whatever is the best way to learn for you. You will learn the basics to ensure your plants are happy and healthy.
- Observe your property’s attributes – Check out what type of soil you have, how much sun and shade different areas get, whether there are any areas that have poor drainage and whether there are any areas with brick walls that may radiate a lot of heat. Our property is very sandy with very good drainage so I have learned to plant species that are drought tolerant. This is easier than planting inappropriate plants and having to use a lot of water to keep the water up to them.
- Check out your neighbours’ gardens – If a plant is thriving in a neighbour’s garden then odds are that it will do well in yours. If your neighbour doesn’t know what it is, then take a photo of it in flower and take it to your local nursery to find out what it is.
- Learn from your failures and successes – I’ve learnt plenty from mine. For example, I have put in plants that did not get enough sun and so didn’t do well. I have now replaced these with shade-loving species. I have also planted more of some plants that have done well in our garden, as they seem to be well suited. I have learned to ensure new plants are given more water in their first year whilst they are still establishing their root system, that autumn is the best time to plant for most Australian native plants and that food gardens often need much more care and maintenance than the rest of our garden.
- Choose plants that are suitable for your space – Although it is tempting to buy plants on impulse, check first whether they are suitable for your space, how big they grow and whether they need a lot of maintenance. Putting a high-maintenance plant into a garden that you don’t want to spend too much time in is probably not the right plant for you.
- Don’t be hard on yourself if when a plant dies – You are going to lose a plant no matter how much of a green thumb you are. It may be that the plant you bought wasn’t a good specimen, that a dog had peed on it or that it is a short-lived species. Not all plants live a long time.