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November 29, 2021 — 12:30 PM
Have you ever been told you had a green thumb (or a really not green thumb) and wondered what it actually meant? Here’s a peek into the origins of this phrase, its modern-day definition, and what plant experts want to clarify about it.
What it means to have a green thumb.
This phrase traces back at least a century, with one of the first written records of it coming from a 1907 article in the Leicester Chronicle newspaper in England.
“…My friend has what old country women call ‘a Green Thumb,’ that is to say, the gift of making anything and everything grow,” writes Ms. O’Conor Eccles. “Plants will endure liberties at her hands which a less affectionate, though more scientific gardener could not attempt.”
This early writing suggests that those with green thumbs have a special kinship or bond with their plants. They likely spend a lot of time with them, too.
More recently, plant experts like author and TV show host James Underwood Crockett have spoken of how long days pinching back leaves and stems and handling algae-ridden plant pots will leave gardeners with a green thumb in more ways than one.
It’s an affectionate term that has been used to celebrate gardeners through various points in history. For example, peep this midcentury poster of Mickey Mouse with a thumb stained chlorophyll green, encouraging people to start “victory gardens” and grow some of their own food to lighten demand during World War II.
Today, if someone calls you a green thumb, it probably means they think you have a knack for tending to your garden or houseplant collection (and might be a little jealous of it!).
While some people are certainly better at keeping plants alive than others, Debbie Neese, the horticulture expert at Lively Root, says nobody is born with a green thumb. Instead, it’s something you build over time. “I think it comes down to the right plant, right place, right tools, and instruction,” Neese says.
This means that even if you’re totally new to plant care, you can still develop a green thumb. These pro tips will help set you up for success, so your thumb can get a little greener by the day:
1. Choose greenery that fit your lifestyle.
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If you are someone who is super busy and travels often, Neese advises that you start with lower-maintenance plants. Finicky varieties that need more TLC will only discourage you from keeping plants altogether.
Some of the easiest houseplants to care for are the ZZ plant and the snake plant, while things like Maidenhair ferns and Calatheas will only give you grief. Outdoors, adaptable Cosmos, Celosias, and Marigolds are great flowers for busy beginners.
Even the greenest of thumbs won’t be able to keep plants alive in the wrong conditions. Outdoor gardeners should be familiar with their USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, while indoor plant parents should be familiar with their home’s lighting, humidity, and temperature.
“Do you have a brightly lit area that has indirect light or medium-light in a humid room? Is there any cold/hot air blowing on the area where the plant will go? These are all conditions to be aware of,” Neese says.
From there, you’ll be able to set yourself up for success by choosing the right plants for your space. Replicating a plant’s native environment as much as possible is the name of the game.
For example, high-humidity homes are best for moisture-loving jungle plants like Ficus Audrey and Golden pothos, while dry ones are better suited for desert plants like succulents. Bright rooms and gardens are a great spot for some cactuses, but they could burn the delicate leaves of shade-seeking hostas.
3. Check in with your plants often.
The more time you spend with your greenery, the better you’ll get at determining its needs. This means taking a few minutes every day or so to feel your plant’s soil, observe its leaves, take note of new growth, etc. Once you get to know each plant inside and out, it’ll become easier to spot issues like bugs or root rot.
4. Keep the right tools on hand.
Finally, Neese says that certain tools can help you fill any gaps in your plant knowledge. First and foremost, she recommends water meters that give you a read of your plant’s soil moisture levels and protect against overwatering and underwatering.
Chances are, you have a green thumb in your life—but they weren’t born with the skill! Armed with the right tips and tricks, anybody can develop a green thumb and successfully care for plants of all kinds with their own two hands.
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