How to Turn Your Black Thumb Green


It's that time of year again. Spring is… springing. If you live in a place with four seasons, like me, then the trees are starting to bud, the tulips and daffodils are blooming, and you're starting to think about adding to the natural beauty in your little corner of the world by planting something.

And some of you are terrified.

I know that feeling. I am a reformed plant killer. For years, I would start plants every spring only to forget them, neglect them, or watch them die in spite of my best efforts. I had almost given up on being able to have a beautiful garden.

And then I started learning. Slowly but surely, by asking the right questions, I learned how to help my plants thrive and not die. Now, I am living proof that growing plants is a learned skill and that you can turn your black thumb green. (See also: 10 Easy Veggies to Plant This Spring)

General Principles

Before I get into specific things you can do to give your plants a better chance at survival, there are a few principles that you should apply whenever you want to grow something.


Before you plant anything, before you even go to the store and decide what plants you want, decide where you want to plant and observe that area. How much light does it get? How much water? Is it within reach of your sprinklers, or would you have to water it by hand? Are you willing or able to commit to that?

Giving yourself a couple of days to observe and think about where you want to plant will help you choose plants that are appropriate to the place and the amount of water the plant will get, which can make all the difference in the world.

Ask a Gardener

Do you know someone with a lovely garden? By all means, ask him or her for advice. But even if you don't know any experienced gardeners, ask someone at your local nursery.

Be as specific as possible when you ask for advice on what to plant. Say something like, "I want to plant in a container that will sit on my porch. It will have sun in the morning but not in the afternoon, and I will probably be able to water it 2-3 times per week."

When you do this, an experienced gardener can usually give you a pretty good idea of what will thrive in your space... and what will not. Many new gardeners fail because they plant the wrong plants in a space. If your plant needs shade and lots of water, it will die if you plant it where it will get sun all day.

In addition to some of this basic knowledge, many gardeners have location-specific knowledge about some plants. For instance, they may know that, while a particular plant usually needs a lot of sun, in your particular locale it should have shade in the afternoon because of excessive heat. This sort of knowledge can make or break your garden.

Accept Some Defeat

Everyone is going to kill some of their plants. Even experienced gardeners know that, sometimes, things just don't work. Maybe you got a damaged plant and didn't know it, or maybe another plant nearby simply takes over in early summer. Recognizing that there is a give and take in gardening can help you accept it when something doesn't work out the way you'd planned.

Tips and Tricks

While most plants just need to be planted in the right spot and then get the right amount of water and sun to thrive, there are some things you can do that might help your plants grow, or things you might want to do as a gardener that might seem trickier than they actually are. Here are some ideas for dealing with those things.

1. Water With Diet or Club Soda

Because of the nutrients in diet and/or club soda, both can help you have greener and healthier plants. While you don't want to substitute for water entirely, adding these to your watering regimen can be good for your plants. Just don't water with sugared soda, as this is not helpful for plant health and growth.

2. Learn How to Grow From Cuttings

Save money by propagating plants like rosemary and lavender from cuttings. This is cheaper than buying the plants from the store and can be easy if you follow all of the directions. Be sure to use rooting hormone, as it makes the process faster and more likely to produce the plant you want.

3. Add Tea and Coffee Grounds to Your Soil

Some plants, like blueberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons, love acidic soil (this is information you can get from your experienced gardener!). If you're planting some of these, add a sprinkling of ¼ inch of tea or coffee grounds to the soil each month, and its pH should stay on the acidic side.

4. Start Seedlings in Lemon Halves

If you live in a cooler climate, you may want to start some of your plants inside before it's warm enough to plant them outside. Halve a lemon, carve out the fruit, and poke a small hole in the bottom for drainage. Then, plant your seed in the half lemon. This adds to the nutrients your plant will get, and you can put the whole thing in the ground when you finally plant.

5. Use Some Plants to Shade Others

Growing vegetables can get tricky, because most vegetable gardens get more sun than some plants need. If you grow climbing plants on a trellis at an angle over some of these other plants, then you can achieve the part-shade necessary for optimal plant growth. You can put vegetables, like cucumbers, on the trellis, or you can grow something like morning glory to provide your shade.

6. Pluck the First Flowers

Plants need to devote themselves to growing solid roots before they focus on fruit. Thus, if you pluck the first flowers on your vegetable plants, they will have a better chance at getting the root system they need to support better fruit later on. This is particularly true for tomatoes, though it can be applied to any fruit-bearing plant.

7. Water in the Morning

Or at dusk. Just avoid watering in the heat of the day. This saves water, but it also protects your plants from burning and helps them avoid excessive water loss from evaporation.

8. Use Packing Peanuts to Improve Drainage

When you're planting in a pot, it's important to have good drainage in place. Alternate layers of packing peanuts with layers of soil to help achieve this goal. You can also use small rocks to achieve this, but packing peanuts have the added bonus of being light, making the pot easier to move.

9. Use Coffee Filters to Save Soil

You may have noticed that most pots for plants have small holes in the bottom. That's so any excess water can drain out. However, you can also lose soil this way. Line the bottom of your pots with coffee filters to avoid this problem.

10. Fertilize With Milk

Because of the amount of calcium it contains, as well as some other nutrients, milk is a great fertilizer for most plants. This is especially true if you're wanting to avoid commercial fertilizers. If you're concerned about antibiotics on your plants, be sure to buy organic milk!

11. Add Egg Shells

Adding egg shell halves around your plants can deter certain types of pests, and putting them in the bottom of a hole where you plant can help your plants get more calcium, which many plants need to grow and some need to help avoid certain types of rot. Experimenting with this can help you figure out which plants need extra help growing.

12. Make a Mini Greenhouse

Use half a soda bottle over a seedling to create the warmer environment your seed might need to sprout. This can help ensure that your summer garden is successful by giving your seeds a jump start at growth.

13. Regrow Green Onions

Even if you don't have time or space for a regular garden, or if you're still terrified of killing things, try putting the bottom parts of used green onions in water on your window sill. These tend to grow fast and can be planted outside, later, if you'd rather have them in dirt than water.

Happy gardening! If you have any tips or tricks to add to the list, let me know.

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Guest's picture

Rgarding the tip on milk--is this a good use for milk that is starting to sour?