Growing A Green Thumb: Part 1

Black thumbs don’t exist. Nor do green thumbs. Thumbs are generally pinkish coloured and everyones’ looks the same. This is a fact. The black thumb thing is a myth, and a silly one at that! Gardening doesn’t require coloured digits. It requires patience, tenacity, joy and a healthy dose of experimentation. Here is part one of The Planthunter guide to the very basics of gardening, for you and your generic pink thumbs.

You know how you sometimes go to the plant nursery and there is the most amazing something flowering away and you say, ‘Golly gee I just have to have that plant. Come home with me you amazing beauty!’? It’s a wonderful and very exciting feeling, this post-purchase high. 

You take your new friend home, give it lots of love and attention and then after about a month it starts dying. This becomes quite traumatic for you as you have lavished it with so much of your highly sought after love. It dies. You cry and then swear off plants. ‘I am a black thumb’ you say.

I say, ‘Oh for heavens sake stop being ridiculous. Firstly, plants are living things, they die. Secondly, do you really expect that the plant will live when you know nothing about it, its likes/dislikes, its origin, its heritage? Yes, you have given it love, but you have to give it the kind of love it needs, not the love you think it needs?’

Next time you plan on visiting the plant nursery please do the following: Stop, grab a pen and paper, sit down, and look properly at the space you are planning on greening. It doesn’t matter whether its indoors, on a balcony, a big rambling garden, or a small courtyard. You need to understand the space before you can even think about what you are going to grow there. Spend five minutes assessing the site. This is how you do it:

1. Site Assesment

Aspect: Is it sunny or shady? What direction is it facing?

Exposure: Do you live high up in an apartment block? Does your balcony get very windy? Or do you live by the sea –  Is your garden blasted by strong, salty winds?

Soil health (if you’re lucky enough to have soil!): Chances are that if you live in a rental home the soil will be shit. Don’t get rid of it but make sure you improve it before planting anything. Soil is a whole other (very important) story and will be covered in more detail in a future post. In the meantime, add lots of organic matter and/or cow poo to your garden beds and be patient.

Site opportunities/constraints: Do you want to screen neighbours, create a sense of privacy or cover an ugly wall? Do you have a great tree you can hang things from, or a great wall to paint a mural on?

Think about all this stuff before doing anything. PLEASE! It’s boring but kind of necessary. Its like googling someone before a first date – Be prepared!

2. Plant Selection

Here is a rule. Like all rules there are exceptions but lets not bother with them now. If you remember only one thing from this article, remember this. It will make you look smart. Your friends will be impressed. Without further ado, here is The Rule:

Plants with big, glossy, dark green leaves = shady, moist spots

Plants with small, grey, hairy leaves = full sun and less water


Plants that have evolved in dark, damp rainforests need bigger leaves to get enough sun to photosynthesise. They are also generally darker in colour as they don’t get as much sun. Often their leaves have a big drip tip at the end and are glossy and shiny. If you see a plant like this at the nursery you will know that it needs shade and more water than a cactus. Easy.

If you see a plant with small, grey and hairy leaves you will say ‘Aha – you are from a sunny, hot spot little plant!’. Plants that have evolved in open woodland, grassland, heathland – ie coastal headlands around Sydney all generally have small, thick, and either hairy or grey toned leaves. Because its bloody tough living in such spots. Lots of sun, not much rain and the soil is generally non-existent. Sound like your garden? You know what to do….

If you provide the right growing conditions ie. sun, soil, water etc. for a particular plant then it will grow well. If you don’t, it wont. So, all plants, given their favourite conditions will be hardy. But even the toughest cactus will die very quickly if grown indoors as its not the right spot. Get it?

3.Buying & Planting Plants

So, here you are. At the nursery with your site assessment scribbled on the back of an envelope and a vague idea of the type of plants that will suit your space. Here are some little tips to help you select the best stock for your garden:

If possible, examine the plants roots before purchasing. All this means is tapping on the pot to gently slide it off. If the roots are circling or very dense on the edges, don’t  buy it. This is a pot-bound plant and means that if you don’t give the roots a serious haircut they will continue wrapping around and around and around the base of the plant, eventually strangling itself. Not nice! You want to be able to see the plants roots in the potting mix not wrapping around the edge. If the root system is tiny, it probably means the plant has just been re-potted into a bigger pot so the nursery can charge more money for it.

Tease out the roots of a plant before planting to ensure the roots are heading outwards rather than staying in the same shape as the pot.

Keep as much potting mix around the roots as possible when re-planting. Plants don’t really like their entire root system exposed. But if it happens, it happens. Don’t freak out. Say sorry to your plant and hope for the best.

This little story is all about understanding. Understand your site so you can understand what plants will suit it best. Understand your plants so you can give them what they need to survive. Understand that plants can die for many, many, reasons. If your plants die, don’t fret. You are not a lost cause, you are on a path of exploration and understanding. You will (hopefully) have learnt something of the dead plant in question. Use this knowledge and keep gardening… And maybe, just maybe, one day you will be gardening like your grandma!