Many people desire to have plants in their life but do not have what some refer to as a “green thumb.” This “green thumb” for some, seems to come from their genetic code while others learn to be a plant whisperer through family, friends, and books. This skill may seem mystical by nature but it is really simple. Plants require sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and room to grow. If these basic needs are met, the plant will thrive but there does exist a fine line between meeting the need and going overboard.
Raising plants can be equated to raising children. Each has basic requirements but some require more than others. For the gardener, this means that different plants have different needs and these needs can be different according to the season. The need that causes many plants’ deaths from the human disorder called the “brown thumb” is water.
Regardless of the type of plant, the gardener should always check the soil moisture before watering. A high-tech way does exist for testing soil moisture and consists of an electronic probe that is pushed into the soil. This probe registers soil moisture, which can then be compared to that plant’s need but a simpler way does exist. The only tool required is the simple human finger. To test soil moisture this low-tech way, just push the finger about two inches down into the soil and pull up. If the finger comes out with damp soil on it, then the plant does not need to be watered. If the finger comes out dry, then water until moisture comes out of the bottom of the container.
As uncomplicated as this sounds, there does exist plants that can go without water for a long period of time and even do better if ignored. These plants are great for those who forget to water or are gone for long periods of time.
These plants come in a wide range of shapes and colors. Some, given the right conditions, will even bloom. The trick to raising cacti is the soil mixture. These plants like a well-drained soil that drains very quickly. To create this, basically mix one part all-purpose potting soil without fertilizer, two parts pumice or sand, and one part coir or shredded coconut husk. Once the soil is mixed, place in a decorative container with a drainage hole and plant your cactus.
While you should always test the soil first before watering, keep in mind that this type of plant can go months without water and should never be watered during the winter.
Cacti belong to a family of plants that store water in their leaves. This same family also includes succulents, but for this discussion a succulent is a plant with thick leaves that have a waxy coating. This includes such plants as aloe, hens and chickens, and the jade plant.
These plants thrive on neglect and can go months without water. They are easy to start and have very few disease or pest problems. Just remember though that when you water it needs to drain away as quickly as possible. So use a soil mixture designed for cacti and only use containers with a drainage hole.
This plant really is not a plant at all but instead the skeletal remains of a tiny sea animal called Sertulia. These skeletal remains are dredged up from estuaries and streams. It is then treated with chemicals and dyed green.
This “plant” requires no water and as a matter of fact if you water your air fern the dye will run off. It does not grow but adds that touch of nature that every “brown thumb” gardener is looking for.
The Chlorophytum or airplane plant is an easy plant to grow that does require watering. While it can thrive with some neglect, it cannot go months without water.
This plant can be found in solid green or variegated form. It likes to be well fed during the spring and summer months but unlike many plants, it thrives in a root-bound state. Spider plants can remain in the same container for years without any problems. The more compact the roots are the more plantlets form. This plant also blooms white flowers that appear during the summer months.
The spider plant’s growth habit is showcased in a hanging basket but can also be placed in decorative planter. To keep the plant healthy, do not allow it to be exposed to direct sunlight. This exposure will burn the leaves. Instead place it in a window that receives indirect sunlight.
This plant is known not only as the umbrella plant but also the umbrella palm and umbrella sedge. The Cyperus alternifolius is an excellent plant for the gardener that cannot resist watering. This plant loves to have “wet feet.” This term describes a plant that likes to have its roots wet all the time.
This can be accomplished by placing the container on a saucer. Water the soil often and keep water in the saucer at all times. This care will mimic the umbrella plant’s natural bog environment.
There are several different vegetable plants that even the gardener with a “brown thumb” can grow. These include kale, bibb lettuce, swiss chard, and spinach along with radishes. All these plants can be started from seed and only require an all-purpose potting soil or a well-drained soil.
When planting the seeds, simply sprinkle on top of the soil and lightly cover with less than ¼ inch of soil. Mist the soil with water and keep evenly moist. The easiest way to do this is to only mist the soil surface.
Seeds do not require sunlight to germinate but once green specks begin to appear, move to a sunny window.
If planning on planting outside, place seeds on prepared garden soil and water as above.
After green specks begin to appear, check soil moisture level before watering. These plants can be harvested in about 45 days, so the affects of over watering are limited.
Another easy vegetable that can be grown indoors or out is the green onion. The trick to this vegetable is not to plant seed but to instead plant bulbs. Also, plant the bulbs as deep as possible. The deeper the bulb, the more white the gardener will have to eat.
Basil and mint are two of the safest herbs to grow for those with brown thumbs. Basil can be purchased as a plant and transplanted or started from seed. If the basil is allowed to go to seed, it will reseed itself back into the garden space or container. The seed is planted and cared for just like the vegetables described above.
Mint is just as easy to grow and can be started from divisions and cuttings. This herb can find a home inside the kitchen and in the garden space. What makes this plant easy to grow is what also makes it a problem in the garden. Mint spreads by runners and if not confined, will grow anywhere. It can take a lot of abuse and neglect but it cannot go months without watering.
If planting mint in a container for indoor use, make sure the container has a drainage hole and is sturdy. Mint can split weak sided pots. If planting in the garden, restrict the mint with plastic landscape border.
There does exist perennial flowers that can survive a gardener with a brown thumb. These are the lilies of the valley and iris. Lilies of the valley can be planted in a shady flower garden, in a container and forced indoors. The trick to growing lilies of the valley is presoaking before planting. This is done by removing the pips or bulbous roots from their package and place in a bucket of lukewarm water. Allow them to soak for a couple of hours. After they have soaked, cut off the last inch of the roots and plant so that the tops of the pips barely poke above the soil. Water in and keep moist until you see growth. After growth appears, check the soil moisture before watering.
Irises are another perennial flower that is easy to grow and can even stand to be mowed over. Just remember that irises are started from rhizomes that need to be planted in a well-drained soil and three inches deep. Some individuals recommend that you plant them in a triangular shape so that there is room for growth and the rhizomes do not have to be divided as often.
Irises bloom from April to May and receive the moisture they need during this time. If you want to keep the lush green leaves alive, continue to water the plant until fall. If the flowers are your only concern, do not water in the summer. The leaves will dry up and wither away. This will not cause any ill effects for the plant next year.
Many plants have died at the hand of well meaning gardeners with brown thumbs. Those with this gardening ailment can still garden successfully by following this prescription. Grow plants that can take neglect while looking good and always check soil moisture before watering.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.